[Pro 3:13-17 NLT] 13 Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. 14 For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold. 15 Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 She offers you long life in her right hand, and riches and honor in her left. 17 She will guide you down delightful paths; all her ways are satisfying.
[Mat 13:10-16 NLT] 10 His disciples came and asked him, "Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?" 11 He replied, "You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. 12 To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. 13 That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don't really see. They hear, but they don't really listen or understand. 14 This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, 'When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. 15 For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes--so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.' 16 "But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
These are words spoken by Jesus to his disciples.
You have been given access to a secret. They have not. You know because it was told to you. You did not discover this secret. You did not figure it out. It is not a code that you deciphered. The knowledge was given to you. The secret was revealed to you.
So count yourself blessed. Privileged.
What is this secret that belongs to the disciples of Jesus? What is the secret of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Many of Jesus’ teachings are not unique.
“Tell the truth.” This is not an especially “Christian” idea. Buddhists, Muslims, many atheists, Hindus--people from all kinds of religious and philosophical backgrounds agree that we ought to tell the truth.
Jesus gave truth telling special prominence. He said we will be judged by every word that we speak. Words matter. Telling the truth matters. But even if Jesus hadn’t told us, we would still know that.
“Honor your parents.” Jesus highlighted the fact that this obligation takes precedence over religious acts. He pointedly challenged the hyper-religious people of his day: Don’t give money to the church if that money is needed to provide proper care for your parents. Still, it’s obvious that we don’t have to be Christian to know that we ought to care for our parents. Many cultures teach this. Many practice this.
What is the special Secret of the Kingdom? What is the insider knowledge that is available to the citizens of the kingdom of heaven? It’s important to note that this knowledge is not attained. It’s not acquired. Jesus told his disciples the Secret was given to them. It was a gift, not an accomplishment.
The secret is not a formula. It is not a theological treatise. Jesus told us the secret by telling stories.
The phrase the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven is found in Matthew chapter 13. but the collection of stories that I think best illustrates what the secret is is found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 15. A collection of three stories.
For some of us these stories are deeply familiar. we imagine everyone knows the stories like we do. but I know that some among us here today are not so familiar with those stories. So I'd like to tell them again. If you know the stories well join me in your hearts and let's rehearse them again. If you are not familiar with these stories please hear them is the very heart of the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven as the special Jewel the lies at the heart of the teachings of Jesus.
There was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. At evening when he penned them up for the night, one was missing. He secured the 99 in the pen then headed back out into the dark to hunt for the lost sheep. He refused to come home until he found his sheep. And when he found his sheep he did not throw a temper tantrum about the stupid sheep that kept him up half the night. No. He woke up his neighbors so they could celebrate with him. "I found my sheep!" he said.
God is that kind of shepherd.
Some of Jesus’ critics complained that he hung out with unsavory people. Jesus did not pretend the people he was hanging out with were “all right.” Of course, they were messed up. They were sick. Sick in their souls. Sick in their minds. Sick in their social habits. But then, Jesus said, I’m a doctor. And where do you expect to find the doctor . . . with sick people, obviously.
God is that kind of doctor.
Jesus saw his city, his people, headed toward ruin. He could see that the Jewish people were going to self-destruct. He did not whip up anger. He did not encourage disgust or resentment. Instead, he offered this lament:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have called. I long to gather you to myself like a mother hen summoning her chicks.
God is a mother hen.
The sun shines on good people and bad people.
That is God smiling on all God’s children.
Birds find their dinners and that is God feeding them. Flowers are exquisitely perfumed and extravagantly dressed and that is evidence of the generosity and care of God. This is the secret of the kingdom of heaven. God is generous.
The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who had ten coins--her entire wealth, her security. She lost one. When she didn't immediately find it she emptied her house and swept it until she found it. God is the woman and we are the coin. When we are lost God searches and God finds. He does not quit searching until he finds.
Note that the woman's well being was bound up with that coin. The queen was not dispensable. Her searching innocence was not voluntary. She had to have that coin. She could not let it go. So God is with us. We matter to God. God would be diminished to lose us. And to lose our neighbors. And to lose our enemies.
Refugees on our southern border are precious coins to God.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fleeing ethnic cleansing in Burma are coins to God.
The homeless people here in our midst who create such a mess and are such a problem, they, too, are coins. They are precious to God. And thus, because we are part of the family of God, they are precious to us . . . even if we scratch our heads wondering how to manage them.
This week we have seen pictures of the American president and the English queen. Lots of glitter. Lots of evident wealth and power. This is how the world works. Comfort and money flows to the top.
We imagine God is like that. But the secret of the kingdom of heaven is that God is like a mother whose heart is owned by her child--whether that child is an accomplished scientist or brilliant musician or is in and out of jail with the problems associated with mental illness. Every human is a precious coin. Our distress distresses God. Our needs haunt the heart of God. The important story is not the state dinner with its important personages and silver and china. The story that holds the attention of God is the plight of his lost coins.
The last story is the story of two sons and a father. The title of the story is The Prodigal Son. A man's younger son asked for his share of the father's inheritance, a shocking, disgraceful request. Astonishingly, the father says yes. He gives the younger son his inheritance in cash. The soon takes off for a far country to where he wastes his money on wine, women, and song. Of course, his money runs out. There is a recession and the son hires himself out to a farmer as a swineherd--a pig feeder. He is so hungry he's envious of the pigs for their food. Eventually, in his desperation, it occurs to him that the servants in his Father's house are much better off than he is. I will go home and apply for a job as a servant. As he approaches home his father races out the door to greet him, wraps him in a rich embrace, calls for a servant to bring a robe and a ring for his finger. He orders the preparation of feast to celebrate his son's return.
Meanwhile, his older brother has been out working on the farm. When he comes back to the house and finds party preparations underway he is outraged. This scoundrel who wasted your money and insulted you! You are throwing a party for him?
The father goes out to persuade the older son to come into the party.
He reassures his older son. Look the entire estate is yours. But my son was dead and now he is alive. How could I not throw a party?
What is God like? God loves even warring brothers. God loves the scoundrels. And God loves those who are annoyed by the scoundrels. God loves all his sons and all his daughters and the way a model parent does.
This is the secret of the Kingdom of heaven. You are precious. I am precious. And they are precious. Because we all are children of God.
This is the secret we have been given. Let's pass it on.
On the second day of our trip to the desert the air conditioning quit working. Karin said, “We cannot do this trip without air conditioning!”
It was Friday. We were in northern Utah driving south toward St.George where our tour started on Sunday. What to do?
While I drove, Karin called Gerry Bryant, Elyse Lambeth’s dad. He has lived in St. George for a long time. Could he recommend a mechanic that might be able to fix our air conditioning. Gerry gave us the number for Redlands Auto Repair.
Karin called the mechanic and explained our problem. I could manage the tour on Monday without the truck, was there a chance they could they could work us in?
When I dropped the truck off on Monday morning, and talked with the owner, Dan, I realized he was the same mechanic who had rescued me on a previous trip, in a different vehicle.
Sure enough, before lunch, he called and said the truck was ready go.
That’s what mechanics do. They save vacations. When you take very old vehicles on very long road trips, it is not uncommon to need some assistance. And over the years I’ve developed a profound appreciation for the skill and willingness of auto mechanics. I think of them as ministers and imagine wrenches as the symbol of their craft (though, in today’s world, a computer might be an even more relevant symbol).
In the Adventist Church we have long honored the work of teachers and health professionals as authentic ministry. The work of healing and teaching is no less “Christian,” no less an expression of the mission of Jesus and his church than is the ministry of preaching and praying.
One of our prophet’s books is titled, Ministry of Healing. I’d like to write a new book titled Ministry of Auto Repair or more simply Ministry of Wrenches.
On our Talking Rocks tour, we spent time considering the grand questions of theology--God, nature, prayer, spiritual life, cosmology, philosophy of science. It was church in the wilderness. But we needed our cars to get there. And people like Dan make cars work so we can venture out into the wild places and hold our deep conversations.
Over the years I've broken down on the road a number of times. I've been touched by the willingness of mechanics to set aside more routine work and deal with my emergency and get me back on the road. It's what they do. I honor them for it.
The ministry of wrenches.
Ordinary goodness. And a beautiful model of godliness.
Our Old Testament reading today gave us a list of rules for righteous living. Notice how earthy they are. The heart of our religion is not complicated, abstract theories about the nature of the universe and the hidden activity of God. The core of our faith is devotion to simple, concrete goodness.
You must not pass along false rumors. Facebook? Political accusations? Theological accusations? Just this week, a friend from a church far away from here emailed me about a problem in their church. The pastor had chosen a book for their small group discussion. Someone in the church “had heard” that the author of the book had some unacceptable ideas. On their face, the accusations were highly unlikely. When I asked about their source, it turns out the person spreading the accusations was a collector of heresy rumors. They did not bother to verify them. It was so satisfying to whisper the rumor. Do do that.
You must not cooperate with evil people by lying on the witness stand.
You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong.
When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.
Do not slant your testimony in favor of a person just because that person is poor.
Even if your motive is “good” don’t bend the truth. Facts matter.
If you come upon your enemy's ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner.
If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.
Do the right thing because it’s the right thing.
In a lawsuit, you must not deny justice to the poor.
Earlier, we were reminded to tell the truth. Don’t bend the facts out of “compassion.” On the other hand, beware of the power of wealth to skew public justice. Legal outcomes should be based on justice not how much money one has to employ legal counsel.
Be sure never to charge anyone falsely with evil. Never sentence an innocent or blameless person to death, for I never declare a guilty person to be innocent.
"You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it's like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
Nearly all of us have been in trouble sometime and needed help. Remember that when confronted with human need. We cannot meet every human need. But we can remember that neediness is part of the human condition--part of OUR human condition when we are responding to needy people. Like Seattle, Salt Lake City has a large population of street people. In the part of town where my daughter lives addicts are plainly visible. Desperate people are on the sidewalks. My first reaction was disgust. Come on, people, get your life together! Then I remembered my highway emergencies. The only way I could get my life together was with the very substantial help of skilled professionals. Maybe some of these street people fit in that same category.
Now I want to turn our attention to our New Testament text.
When you give to someone in need, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. When you pray, don't babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don't be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!
Matthew 6:ff NLT
After our tour we drove east to Kansas for our oldest daughter’s graduation. We had a grand time. Then we helped her with her house. She had just a couple of weeks earlier gotten some water in her basement for the first time in all the time she had lived there. So, I got busy addressing drainage issues on the property. Her kitchen cabinets badly needed attention, so Karin worked on restoring them. We spent several days working on the house--why? Because that’s what parents do.
We see needs in our kids lives and we take action.
Jesus used this kind of instinctive parental action as a picture of God. When we pray, we expect God to hear because that what a good father does. When we are in trouble we expect help from God because we’ve always counted on Mom.
What is God like? God is like a responsive, capable mother or father.
That is the consistent, explicit teaching of Jesus.
What does it mean to live godly lives? What does holiness and righteousness look like? Performing ordinary acts of goodness. Like the goodness described in our Old Testament passage. Like the goodness practice by auto mechanics who respond to travelers in trouble.
All of us have skills we can use to ease another person’s emergency.
Originally published July, 2003 in memory of Cindy. Republished Sabbath, 2/23/2019 in memory of Naomi Prasad.
I attended the memorial service on Sunday afternoon for Cindy. The church was packed. Cindy’s husband had written a eulogy which was read by his sister. It was the sweetest, most eloquent celebration of a wife that I have ever heard. As the reading went on, I kept thinking, every woman should have something like this written about her. I hoped that she heard many of those words in her life.
As the service continued, however, I was haunted by one glaring omission: No one ever mentioned the word suicide. No one ever hinted that Cindy's death was not an accident, not the result of a socially-acceptable illness like cancer or heart disease. No one spoke the hard truth: Cindy leaped from a bridge.
But that's what she did.
What can we say when we confront the heartbreaking reality of suicide? Cindy’s suicide was not a “cry for help.” She no longer believed help was possible. Her leap was a declaration that she could not bear the pain any longer, and she could not muster any hope that it would get ever better. Her leap from the bridge was an expression of utter helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain.
How do we, the living, keep hope alive in the face of such desperation and pain? What do we do with our own grief and bewilderment when confronting the reality that someone dear to us found life itself too much to bear?
Our faith does offer consolations. It does not answer our most urgent questions: Why? What did I miss? What could I have done? Faith does not fill the aching void. But the consolations, even if meager, are real.
The first consolation is expressed in Jesus’ words about Lazarus: He is sleeping.
Cindy no longer suffers under the crushing weight of hopeless, agonizing depression. Her mind no longer churns and writhes. The torment of the depression is over. She is at rest. Her rest comes at an enormous cost–to her husband and child. To her friends and church family. To the heart of God. To us. People who commit suicide cannot calculate the cost of their action to those who are left behind. The pain of their depression shrinks their universe until scarcely anything else exists outside their pain. They cannot comprehend, they cannot feel, the pain of others, the pain they will create. But we who carry the pain of their departure can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that they are finally at rest. After months of sleeplessness, months of anguish and tortured misery, Cindy no longer hurts, and we who love her find tiny comfort in knowing that truth. She sleeps. She is at rest. She does not hurt.
A second consolation is pictured in Jesus’ words: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Cindy’s leap was wrong, but God knows that in the fog of her pain and tortured mind she was unaware of the harm her action would cause to others. The very fact of her suicide is evidence that pain had overwhelmed her reasoning and judgment to the place that she could not know what she was doing. She could not know the impact of her act. She had no malevolent (evil) intentions. She was running from pain . . . which kind of makes sense. We all move away from pain when we can.
As I contemplate Cindy's dark act, I bring to mind also the radiant words of Jesus, "Father forgive her. She did not know what she was doing."
A third consolation I find in the Bible is the way God has dealt with others’ loss of faith.
When the prophet Elijah fell into depression and ran into the desert hoping to die, God twice sent an angel to feed him. God did not try to shake him out of his depression. God did not even argue with him. At least, not at first. God allowed him to cycle through the worst of the depression and then gave him another assignment, reinstating him as prophet.
Then there is the story of Samson. Samson’s life is a tale of repeated failing. He fails morally and strategically. His life is a mess. And then he commits suicide, the final failure. But God, instead of writing "failure" as his epitaph, uses his suicide as a masterstroke against the enemies of Israel. Later in the Bible, Samson is included in the list of faithful heroes in Hebrews 11. God somehow figured out a way to use Samson no matter how screwed up he became. Cindy’s loss of confidence that God could sustain her through the darkness of her depression will not keep God from blessing her years of faithful service in her church where she worked with children and young people. Our brokenness does not make God helpless. Cindy's lack of faith in the moment of suicide does not require God to remove her from his list of the faithful. And certainly we will not erase our own memories of her beauty, goodness, and service.
Beyond consolation there is also this lesson:
The church was packed for the memorial service. Hundreds of people heard the beautiful eulogy. Hundreds listened to the testimonies of friends whose lives had been touched in wonderful ways by Cindy. But Cindy heard none of it.
At funerals it is customary to work hard at remembering and speaking of the good things we saw or imagined in the lives of those who have died. Too often, when not attending memorial services, we work at remembering and speaking of people’s defects and failures. God calls us to make our conversation wholesome and helpful (Ephesians 4:29). Let’s learn to say good things, sweet things, encouraging things. And say them now.
Beyond suicide we can find comfort in God’s tenderness and the ease of torment for the one we loved. We find hope in God's forgiveness. We find purpose in God's call to serve in his place as lovers. We pledge ourselves to do good and to say sweet and good words . . . now.
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for December 22, 2018
Texts: Exodus 2:5-10, Luke 2:1-7
Years ago, before smartphones, we were headed over Blewett Pass. We had four horses in a 25-year old horse trailer. Our tow vehicle was a fourteen year old Ford van. We were almost to the summit when the motor quit. We managed to back down to broad shoulder area where we were off the highway.
What to do? It was late in the afternoon. Besides the four horses we had four kids and three dogs. We waited a while thinking maybe it was just overheated and would start after it cooled off. No luck. Karin did not want to be stuck up there on the pass in the wilderness, so she decided to go for help leaving me with the kids, horses and dogs. She flagged down a passing car--a Cadillac with two old people in it.
The angels in the Cadillac dropped her off at the first place with a phone, the Ingalls Creek Store, which had snacks and a couple of gas pumps. There was a pay phone outside. Karin went into the store to ask for a phone book. The people asked what she needed. She explained our van and horse trailer were broken down up at the pass. A man who was there in the store asked what was her plan for the horses.
She didn’t rightly know.
Dean Dewes said he lived across the street. He had a pasture where we could camp and care for our horses.
It was after dark when Karin and the tow trucks made it back to where we were stranded up at the pass. One truck hauled the van away to a garage in Leavenworth. The other tow truck hauled our horse trailer to Ed’s pasture.
We tied out our horses. (The pasture did not have a secure fence.) Set up our tents and about midnight settled down to sleep.
One last element in the story that connects our experience with Christmas night of long ago: Karin and the girls slept in the tent. Garrett and I spread our sleeping bags under the stars. We lay down and looked at the sky, and suddenly the sky began to dance with Northern Lights. Shimmering, waving, enchanting. A perfect ending to a difficult day.
Which reminds me of this morning’s New Testament reading.
At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. . . . 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David's ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2:1-7 NLT
We can picture Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and stopping at the first inn. There was no vacancy. But no worries. This is the Holy Family, so we know there will be room. They just need to go to the next inn. But there is no vacancy there, either. How can this be? They are the mother and father of God. Their baby, the Son of God is going to be born this evening. Obviously, there has to be a room. Surely God would not allow the Holy Family to arrive in Bethlehem only to discover there is no vacancy! But that is, in fact, what happened. There was no room in the inn.
Sometimes we “horriblize” this. How terrible! The innkeeper should have realized how special these people were. The innkeeper should have given up his own bed. Instead, he turned away the Lord of Glory.
I’ve read meditations this week that spiritualize this and urge us to be careful not to copy the innkeeper. Let’s not allow our lives to be so full that there is no room for the Christ Child.
But I think all this misses the point. The “no vacancy” was not some evil thing. It was certainly a difficult spot for Mary and Joseph. It was an emergency for them. But it was an ordinary emergency. Like a car breaking down on a lonely stretch of road. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time. And that is just the point. Joseph and Mary, the father and mother of God, had trouble like the rest of us. If we are alive, we will encounter difficulties.
Sometimes when trouble happens we try to think, What did I do wrong? Where did I miss God’s guidance? Often the answer is simply: I did nothing wrong. I did not miss God’s guidance. Life has problems. Evil people have trouble. Good people have trouble. Jerks run into difficulty. Saints run into difficulty. That’s life. It’s okay.
Trouble is ordinary. It’s normal.
And the innkeeper? He did not fail. He did not screw up. His beds were full. That was legit. It was not evil when he refused a bed to the Holy Family. There was no call for him to turn out a customer already inside so he could accommodate this late-arriving family.
But he did what he could.
The text does not say it was the innkeeper. But I like to imagine it was.
“Look, I’m sorry. Every bed in the place is occupied. In fact, there are two people in every bed. I have nothing to offer you. No. Wait. I’m embarrassed to offer it, but you could bed down in the barn. It would be a roof over your heads and walls to keep out the wind. And you’ll be off the street safe from prowlers. I’m sorry but it’s all I’ve got.”
All he had. The best he could offer. And it was enough.
So baby Jesus was born in a barn. Which was way better than being born outside the barn.
The innkeeper did what he could. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t dramatic. But it was helpful. He did what he could.
With this simple act, the innkeeper goes from villain to hero. He sheltered the Lord of glory. Not in a palace. But he didn’t have a palace to offer. Not in a motel room. Because he didn’t have a room to offer. He sheltered the Lord of Glory in a barn. Because that’s what he had. How terrible? No. How wonderful. He did what he could.
This story portrays essential Christianity. First, it acknowledges that in human stories that God writes--in the stories where people perfectly follow the guidance of God, trouble still comes. God is with us in the trouble. God does not always lead around the trouble.
Second, we become heroes in the stories God is writing by doing what we can. By acts of ordinary goodness.
I received a call just yesterday from someone who asked me about helping someone in the church. I was struck by his explanation: he wanted to do this because he had been in a similar difficult spot once and knew what it felt like. Metaphorically, he had tasted no vacancy, so he wanted to offer room in his barn.
I listened in on a conversation about someone connected with the church who is in difficulty and learned of this person and that couple and this other person who has reached out to help. In small ways. But real ways. Performing ordinary acts of goodness.
Christmas is the perfect season to remind ourselves that at the very heart of our faith is a tenderness toward people in trouble. They are our people.
Refugees on our southern border and starving children in Yemen. They are still part of us. They are our people. Even if we don’t have room in the inn, we can still offer them shelter in the barn--whatever that looks like. We can do what we can.
Closer to home:
Our children struggling with mental illness or addiction. Our friends who lose their jobs or lose their health or lose their minds. Our people.
Neighbors whose lives have been ripped apart by personal disasters. Church members whose lives have battered by all the various troubles that are available in this world. They, especially, are our people. Let’s do what we can. Their troubles are ordinary. Let’s make sure our goodness is also ordinary. Frequent. Generous. Like the innkeeper. Like God.
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for December , 2018
Texts: 1 Kings 10:1-7, 10, John 7:31-32, 45-51, and Matthew 2
Bill used to be a minister. He left the ministry and God, went into business, and was quite successful, amassing assets of hundreds of millions of dollars. In recent years Bill rediscovered faith and God and church. A family event brought him to Seattle and because he attended Green Lake Church 35 years ago we had coffee together. He talked of his personal journey and of his current work on mega-projects to help the disadvantaged.
A few days later I spent time with a Green Lake family facing a sudden, shocking diagnosis. We talked together of the terror of death and of a business dream that didn’t work out and the threat of bankruptcy. Being sick is expensive.
Two wildly different lives brought together here in this place.
I thought of these two stories as I meditated this week again on the story of the Wise Men from the East.
According to ancient legend there were three men living in Persia. Old men. Deeply religious and philosophical. They saw a vision of a star in the west. They understood the star to be the sign of the birth of the Jewish Messiah King.
Their convictions were so strong and their resources were so deep they organized a caravan to travel west to pay their respects to the newborn king.
The caravan headed west across the desert in Iraq then south through Syria and Lebanon to the city of Jerusalem. There, they inquired of the whereabouts of the new king. No one knew anything.
Finally, they get a hot tip. The baby was supposed to be born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. They rode the few miles to Bethlehem and found the child. They were ecstatic. They had traveled a thousand miles to find this baby. And here it was. The fulfillment of a lifetime of hoping. The satisfaction of months of seeking.
We looking through their eyes--we, too, delight in the Christ child. And influenced by the teachings of the adult Jesus and by 2000 years of Christian theology, when we think of baby Jesus, we are reminded that every child born to woman is also a child of God.
The Wise Men give us eyes to see the divine light that shines in the face of every baby.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you . . .
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God
. . .
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect lamb?
That sleeping child you're holding is the great I am
Mary did you know? Mary did you know? Mary did you know? . . .
One of the great traditions of Green Lake Church is baby showers. When a baby is born, we place a white rose on the communion table. And we hold a baby shower. Donna van Fossen knits (crochets?) a baby blanket. People buy gifts. People give money. Sometimes the mom and dad are well-known to us. Other times the connection is rather tenuous. But if the baby can be called a child of Green Lake, we hold a baby shower because every baby reminds us of Immanuel, God with us.
We looking through the eyes of the Wise Men see Christ in every baby. We see God among us.
Just yesterday I met one of our members here at the church. I asked about her new grandbaby. She eagerly pulled out her phone and showed me a picture of the most beautiful little girl in the whole world. If the picture didn’t tell you that, grandma would be happy to spell it out in so many words. The Wise Men on their camels had nothing on this grandmother in fiery passion.
Because it is Christmas time, we easily see God in the person of babies. Of course. Baby Jesus was the divine son of God. And every baby boy and girl is thus an invitation to see the face of God.
We pull out our cameras and take pictures of these beautiful exemplars of the glory of God. We look through the eyes of the Wise Men and see in the baby the face of God.
But what if we turned the camera around? What if we point the camera at the Wise Men? Where is God then?
Right in front of us.
Just as the Baby is Immanuel God with Us. So these Wise Men themselves are portraits of God. These rich Persians who have traveled a thousand miles in a camel caravan to see the baby, they, too, are exquisite pictures of God. Their adoration of the baby is the adoration of God.
And by extension, Grandma’s adoration of her grandbaby is a mirror of the adoration of God for every baby.
In the passage in Matthew that I quote probably more frequently than any other Jesus urges us to show indiscriminate kindness because doing so mirrors the habits of God who sends his rain on the just and unjust, his sun on the good and evil.
God gives out of his wealth, making every act of generosity by those who are wealthy, a mirror of God. God is the generous father, the loving mother. Every impulse of love that arises in our hearts toward the little ones is a mirror of the heart of God.
Baby Jesus is a picture of God. And so are those three Persians in the manger scenes, dressed in their luxurious robes and holding out their extravagant gifts.
And the reality is that the Wise Men and their wealth are an indispensable part of Jesus' story. Later, when Jesus' life and ministry was dependent on the action of a rich man. In John 7, we read that the Sanhedrin was moving to formally condemn Jesus, prematurely ending his ministry. Their efforts were thwarted by Nicodemus, a wealthy, powerful man.
At the beginning of my sermon, I mentioned Bill, a church member who is very wealthy. And I mentioned some other church members who are struggling financially and are now facing crisis. We are all part of one family. Church is a place that teaches us to hang onto one another.
It is Christmas season. Everywhere we can see creches, imaginary scenes of the birth of Jesus. Some purists might point out that the Wise Men and shepherds arrived at different points in the story. Yes, of course. But the creches capture the essential truth--adoring middle class parents, excited shepherds (who would have been at the bottom of the social ladder), and rich Persians--all crucial actors in the story that is our story.
Jesus brings together all in one story, one community, one family.
Just as the story of Jesus would not be complete without the dramatic wealth of the Wise Men, so church is not whole with some among us who possess extraordinary wealth. And just as the Wise Men found their highest purpose in life in using their wealth to connect with a peasant baby a thousand miles away, so we who have means find our highest purpose in using some of our wealth to touch the lives of people who appear to be insignificant. We are bound together in one family. We have one story together.
So let’s mount our camels and ride. Let’s find babies who need our help and deserve our admiration. And let’s lie back in the manger straw and know that we, too, are precious beyond words. All of us are indeed, Immanuel. God in the flesh.
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists For October 20, 2018
Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 3:3, 7-8, 10-14, 18-20
2000 years ago, before Jesus was “a thing,” there was a preacher named John the Baptist. His preaching created waves of excitement across Palestine--among both Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
His preaching was connected with widespread expectation of the appearance of the Messiah--the long promised, long-expected, super-hero of that lived at the heart of Jewish culture, religion, and theology.
The end was near. Or rather, a new beginning. God was going to break into this dismal world with something bright and new and powerful. The excitement spread. The crowds gathering around John the Baptist grew larger.
John’s preaching was framed in the classic denunciations of the ancient prophets. His words were sharp, definite, confrontational.
When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, "You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God's coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire."
This was hell fire-and-brimstone preaching. It was thunder and bombast.
Note John’s fierce rejection of self-congratulation based on ethnic/religious identity. You tell yourselves, “We are children of Abraham. We’re good.” “You better shut that nonsense up.” John said. “God doesn’t care who your daddy is. God doesn’t care about your DNA or passport or church membership. God is watching your way of life. Prove you’re a child of Abraham by living out Abraham’s highest ideals.” (Note: Even Abraham did not live up fully to his ideals. You’re going to have to do better than Abraham did if you expect God to be impressed by your doing.)
John was preaching for effect. He did not want the people to “like” his preaching. He wanted them to reshape their lives. Like any good coach he was aiming at improved performance. And fortunately, his students asked the right question.
The crowds asked, "What should we do?"
We imagine ourselves as the spiritual heirs of John the Baptist. We, too, are heralding the coming of the Messiah. We, too, proclaim the coming of a New Age, a New Era. We urge people to repent, to change the direction of their lives, to get ready for the return of Jesus. We are thrilled when people hear this message and ask the question:
“What should we do?” What’s the answer? What’s the special preparation we are to make for the dawning of the age the Messiah?
John replied, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry."
What is the proper lifestyle of those who are getting ready for the coming of Messiah? Generosity. Kindness. Compassion.
All of us have some measure of blessing in our lives. Health, smarts, beauty, a pension, an American passport, some investments, a graduate degree, friends. John told the crowd. “Consider the blessings in your lives and ask yourself how you might touch someone else’s life with that blessing. What sacrifice are we able to make to bless others?” This is the central characteristic of people living in the light of the Messiah.
I received an email this week from a woman named Emme. She had read an article in Adventist Today that described the best of our life together here at Green Lake Church. She had posted a link to the article on her Facebook page. After reading the article, a number of her friends commented, “I would love to go to a church like that.”
What did Emme and her friends find so attractive?
The article described acts of service performed by people in our congregation, acts of generosity to strangers, acts of enduring faithful service within the context of family. I wrote of the church celebrating the amazing accomplishments of our gifted kids. I also mentioned our regard and respect for the people among us who care for children who will not graduate or perform in recitals or win athletic awards. Here, in this community, all children are precious, not just the “above average” kids.
Here we devote a lot of attention to worship. We work to create worship services that feed our souls and give voice to our deepest values--loving God and loving people.
Of course, we aren’t flawless. But we do have high ambitions, holy aspirations. We want to be like God--practicing generosity, faithfulness, and integrity. We know that we are keeping company with God as we rear our children, help our neighbors, build airplanes, write code, heal the sick, drive buses, or sell cars. Every day, in everything we do, we aim to make the world a little bit better. This is how we live in the light of the Coming of Jesus.
When the crowd asked John the Baptist about what they should. John’s first response was generic, something that applied to everyone. Practice generosity. If we have two shirts, share one. If we have two sandwiches, share one.
Then there came a more specific question.
Tax collectors came to be baptized and asked what they should do. John replied, "Collect no more taxes than the government requires."
In that world, tax collectors were independent contractors. They were businessmen. With the advantage of having the powers of the state behind them.
John’s answer acknowledged the legitimacy of their work. Governments need taxes to provide service. And a business has to collect money if it is going to survive. According to John, It was okay to receive money. To take money. But there was also a moral limit.
It is not morally permissible to take everything I can get, if I’m in a position of power. The primary function of morality in the teachings of Jesus--and foreshadowed here in the words of John the Baptist--is to limit the power of the powerful. Christian morality is not about keeping little people in their places. It is about curtailing and directing the power of the powerful.
Collect taxes, but don’t overdo it. Charge enough to make the business viable, but don’t gouge your customers. Make a profit, but not a killing.
Then some soldiers spoke up. "What should we do?" they asked. John replied, "Don't extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay."
The soldiers were members of the Roman occupying force. They were essentially the police force. They had power. John directed them to use their power ethically and with restraint. In today’s world where there are heartbreaking stories of police misconduct, it is vital that we as a church celebrate and honor the work of the great majority of police officers who respect the law and the people they serve. It is also our responsibility to speak against police misconduct. Whatever the color of our skin personally, together as a church, we stand with our brothers and sisters, people of color, in their protests against police brutality.
With John the Baptists, we say to those charged with keeping the peace: Do justice. Do right.
Now we come to the most startling element of John the Baptist’s preaching.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother's wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. 20 So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others.
When public persons engage in egregious evil it is the obligation of the church to speak up. We must be clear about the difference between our values and the values on display in the world around us.
When the president of the United States mocks women, we say, No. That is evil speaking.
When the president of the United States celebrates violence against news reporters. We say, No! That is evil doing.
When a candidate for the Supreme Court lies about his high school drinking parties, we say, No! Lying is wrong. Even if lying will get you a highly coveted job, it is still evil. We are a community of truth.
When the president of our denomination uses innuendo and insinuation to defame congregations and cast suspicions on pastors, we stand up and say, “Stop it.” That is unworthy of any minister, much less the president of the church. Presidents and judges are rightly held to higher standards than ordinary people. Their words have consequences.
Our highest commitment is responding to the call of God. That begins in generosity and compassion. But it moves unavoidably into standing bold and unbending in the face of evil and oppression practiced by the powerful. We stand for truth. We stand against lies, the encouragement of violence, and the idolization of a mythical golden age in the past. Our eyes are on the coming Age of the Messiah, the better land is ahead and beckons us.
Here and now we pledge ourselves to the practice of the values of the kingdom of heaven--to generosity and compassion, to truth and justice, to nobility and dignity.
When these values appear beaten down in the world around us, we come here to church and reaffirm their reality, their beauty, and their ultimate triumph.
God will win.
Truth will win.
Love will win.
And we pledge ourselves to speak the truth and to practice love.
Sermon for the ordination service of Andreas Beccai at the Volunteer Park Adventist Church in Seattle. September 8, 2018
The movie opens with a panoramic shot of wilderness. It’s a wide valley, a sea of yellow and brown grass stretching up to where juniper trees begin dotting the hills on either side. Down through the center of the valley runs a thread of green, a desert river lined with trees and following the river, a road, a dirt track.
We see dust kicking up. Something moving on the road. As the camera zooms in we see two men, walking. Closer still we hear them talking.
One is Elijah, the most celebrated prophet in Jewish history. Elijah was so great, so famous, that he was seen as the symbolic predecessor of the Messiah. The other was Elisha, Elijah’s servant and heir apparent.
They’re chitchatting. Conversation wandering and easy. Then the old man stops. He turns and looks at Elisha.
“We know it’s coming.” he says. “God is going to take me away. So, what can I do for you before I’m taken away? What do you want from me before I go?”
Elisha does not hesitate. He has been thinking about this for months at least, maybe years. “I want a double portion of your spirit.”
You have been mighty for God. I want to be even mightier. You announced a nation-bending drought and it happened just as you said. You brought down fire from heaven. You pronounced curses that caused kings to grovel. You have been mighty for God. I want to be mightier.
The old man smiled. It is exactly what he would want to give this young man. It’s what he would pray for the person who was going to take his place.
Andreas, this old man takes great pleasure in seeing you exceed me. I watch you do things in ministry I have touched only in my dreams. Just this morning at Green Lake Church I sat and watched someone else preach. As Hanz was preaching, I was thinking this is how I preach . . . in my dreams. And I remembered when you were at Green Lake Church. And after just a few months, people were asking when you were going to preach next. If I had been younger I might have been touched with jealousy. As an old man I was filled with delight.
Elijah looked at Elisha on that desert road, and heard his request: I want to do what you have done--only better. I want to serve God like you--only better. Elijah heard and smiled. And when I hear your passion for ministry, I take great delight.
The camera zooms back out. We watch the men continue walking and talking. Then we see dark, roiling clouds sweep in from the west. Ominous walls of swirling cumulus clouds. Then out of the blackest cloud comes two horses, their manes are whipping curtains of fire. Their bodies gleam and sparkle and flash. Their exhalations are flame. They are pulling a chariot that appears to be on fire, a diaphanous vessel of light. Instead of wheels it rides on pillows of blazing glory. The chariot swoops down to the men, pauses, Elijah steps into the fire and it swoops up and away and disappears back into the clouds.
Elisha cries out, “My father, my father!!!! The chariot and horses of Israel.”
As he stands there looking after the chariot. Elijah’s robe floats down from the sky and plops on the ground beside him.
He walks back the way the men had come, reaches the place where they had crossed the river. He shouts to the sky, “Where is the God of Elijah?” and swats the water with the old man’s robe. The water parts and Elisha walks across the empty space opened before him.
That night he replays the days events and remembers what Elijah had told him about the grand showdown on Mt. Carmel. He remembered the stories that had been told around the dinner table in his parents’ home about those days.
The prophet had marched into the royal palace and announced, “No more rain until I say so. That’s what God has sent me to say. Shame on you for doing evil. Shame on you for failing to resist evil. Shame on you. Repent!” And with that he disappeared.
The drought lasted three years. It broke the nation.
Finally, Elijah confronted the king again. “Meet me on Mt. Carmel. Be there. And summon the the entire people to be there, too, including those phony prophets your wife is so enamored with. Be there!”
And the king, instead of arresting the prophet, obeys.
And there on Mt. Carmel Elijah summoned fire from heaven--fire so hot it burned up even the rocks of the altar.
How do you double that? He had asked for a double measure of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah said he would get it. What would it look like? How do you double fire from heaven that had the entire nation on its face in dumb-struck terror?
It began in the morning. While Elisha was eating breakfast, the elders of the town arrived. They had a problem. The water from their springs and from their wells was brackish. It was nasty to drink. Bad for irrigation.
Elisha healed their water.
A preacher's widow came to Elisha and told her story. Her husband had been one of the prophets, one of the seven thousand people who had remained faithful to Yahweh while Elijah was hiding up in the village of Zarephath.
Her was dead. Her two sons were going to be slaves soon. Payment for family debts. It was hard being a single mom in that world.
Elisha asked what she had in the house. All she had was a jar of oil. “Go borrow all the jars, jugs, and pots you can from your neighbors.” She and her sons borrowed and filled their house. She went back to Elisha. “I’ve filled my house with pots and jars and jugs. Now what?”
Use your little oil jar and fill all of the containers with oil. Then sell the oil and pay your debts.
The doubled spirit of Elijah did not produce a bigger bang, more spectacular drama. Instead it flowed it in sweeter service and wider healing. Elisha brought no fire from heaven but sweet water from a spring. Not a national drought, but a single mom’s oil jar turned into an oil well.
Andreas, there will be days when you will crave the power of Elijah. You will hunger to do something dramatic for God, to shut up evil doers and evil sayers. You will hunger for a display of God’s power. But it may be that God will call you instead to bring sweet water out of a brackish spring. God will call you to help a single mom turn her oil jar into an oil well.
There will be no fire. No hordes of thousands on their faces in terror at the mighty power of God. Instead, the ilttle of people of God will comfort and aid in your ministry. Instead of being whisked away by a fiery chariot into the clouds you will be called to ride among your people in a creaking oxcart. And God will ride with you. Be there.
Another Elisha story.
The kingdom of Damascus was constantly threatened Israel’s northern border. At one point the king of Damascus began sending raiding parties across the border to ambush caravans and carry off goods and people to sell in the markets of Damascus. It was a successful project for awhile, then suddenly his raiding parties started coming back empty.
Repeatedly, they’d set up on a road they knew was a popular route only to find themselves sitting there for several days staring at an empty road. Finally, the king in exasperation summoned his cabinet together.
“Someone here is a traitor,” he said. “One of you is giving the king of Israel our secrets. Who was it?”
Finally, with great trepidation, one of his courtiers spoke up. “It’s not us. It’s the great prophet, Elisha. He tells the king of Israel your pillow talk with your wife.”
“Go get him.” The king barked.
I imagine the army commanders groaning. They are not oblivious to the lunacy of the king’s order. They are supposed to organize a raiding party to go kidnap the guy who is telling the king of Israel the secrets of the raiding parties. But they were soldiers. They had their orders.
They heard the prophet was in the town of Dothan. So thinking, here goes nothing, they put together a special forces raid on the the town. And surprise, surprise, when they arrive, the prophet is still there. Apparently God had not bothered to tell Elishah about this raid.
In the morning, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, went up on the roof and saw the surrounding army. He raced back down in a panic. “Elisha! Elisha! We’re surrounded!
The prophet seemed curiously calm. “Come on, Gehazi, let’s go back upstairs.”
Sure enough, from the roof, they could see the raiding party surrounding the city. Chariots and horses covering every possible exit. “Count them.” Elisha orders. So Gehazi begins. One, two, three, . . .
Elisha interrupts him. “Not to worry, Gehazi. We have more on our side than they have on theirs.”
Gehazi stared at Elisha. Had he gone completely nuts?
Elisha prayed. God open his eyes. Suddenly Gehazi saw out beyond the invaders another army, chariots and horses riding in the sky, ten times the number of the invaders.
Andreas, it is one of our most constant duties to help our people see the invisible chariots of God. The chariots of evil are readily visible. It is easy for them to occupy our entire field of vision. Pray and preach that they may see the heavenly chariots.
It may happen in your own life that enemies will come for you, people who are annoyed by the work God has called you to do. Part of you will be terrified. Naturally. After the initial panic, call to mind the chariots of Dothan. There are more with you than there are with them. Take your time. Let God work.
Let’s follow this story. Elisha prays for God to smite the invaders blind. God does so. Elisha goes out and offers to lead them where they want to go--not exactly true. He leads them to the capital city of Israel and into the central square of the city. There surrounded by armed and ready Israelite soldiers Elisha prays for God to open their eyes.
The king asks the prophet, “What shall I do with the these soldiers? Shall I kill them?”
Andreas, it will happen that your enemies or the enemies of your people will fall into your hands. Your word will decide their fate. Remember the story of Elisha.
Elisha said to the king, “If you had captured these soldiers yourself, you would be obliged to treat them as prisoners of war. You would be obliged to feed them. So feed them and send them home to their master.”
The king of Israel did so and the Bible reports. War stopped.
Andreas. In dealing with enemies, remember your highest calling: To make peace.
Another story: Elisha and the ax head.
A group of students planned a trip to the woods along the Jordan River to get wood to build an extension on their school. At some point in the day, one of the young men is chopping away at a tree when the head of his ax comes off and sails out into the river. Oh no!!!! It was a borrowed ax and ax heads in that time were pricey items easily worth several years of disposable income for a poor student.
The student went and found Elisha. Elisha asked the student to show him where the ax head had fallen. The student pointed. Elisha tossed a stick into the water. The stick sank and the ax head floated. What a fantastic miracle!
But there is another lesson in this story. What was Elisha doing there in the woods with a bunch of young men who were cutting trees?
At the beginning of the story we read that when the students decided to go to the woods, they invited Elisha to go with them. Why? They were not expecting him to swing an ax. It was just that life was better when Elisha was around. Elisha was like God’s chariot. Not his war chariot, his everyday, go to market chariot. Elisha bore in himself the presence and favor of God. No matter what they were doing, the people wanted Elisha around.
A reflection of the ministry of Jesus.
Elijah was seen as the symbolic precursor of the Messiah. John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus, was seen by the New Testament believers as a metaphorical Elijah. And we Adventists imagine ourselves as a last day Elijah preparing people for the future coming of Jesus.
It would be better to be Elisha, to incarnate here and now the life of Jesus.
But there is a flip side to the glory of identification with God. One of the worst stories in the Old Testament occurred during Elisha’s time. There was a famine. Not a judgment from heaven. Nothing supernatural about it. It was one of those random things, something bad happening to good people. People were starving. In the capital city the people were reduced to cannibalism.
One day, a woman accosted the the king when he was out on his daily rounds. She begged him to help her. Her story?
She and a neighbor woman had agreed that the only way any of their family were going to survive was by eating their littlest children--kids who were going to die anyway because of the famine. So they killed her son and ate him. Then when it was time to eat her neighbor’s son, she hid him.
The king recoiled in horror. He decided to kill Elisha. The king couldn’t get his hands on God, so he would deal with God’s ambassador. God had allowed or sent this famine. God was responsible for mothers eating children. Something had to be done to express his horror at what God was doing (or not doing).
Andreas, Sometimes, if we do our job well, if we represent God faithfully, people will take out on us their anger at God. They would attack God if they could, but since God is not available, they take out their outrage, their desperate impatience with evil and heartbreak on God’s ambassador--and that’s what the church makes of us.
There are times when we must hold the reasonable anger of people toward the God we represent. Do not let it destroy you. But neither give in to resentment or self-pity. God does not manage the universe in ways that make sense to us sometimes. He does not explain to his ambassadors what he is doing.
Elisha lived long. During his ministry, he worked every miracle Jesus worked. He gave sight to the blind. He multiplied loaves of bread to feed a crowd. He raised the dead. He healed leprosy. Like Jesus after him, Elisha won the hearts of his people.
Elijah was the harbinger of the Messiah. Elisha was the Messiah.
Let’s replace our aspirations to be like Elijah, pulling fire from heaven and intimidating evil doers with a holy ambition to relive the ministry of Elisha. Let’s replace our arguments about the future return of Jesus with a demonstration of the living, present Jesus. Let us so live that when people go to cut trees they want us with them. When they get into debt they come crying to us. When the water in their lives turns brackish they imagine we might be able to help.
Elisha got old and feeble. It happens even to good people. (smiles) Other people had to feed him. He needed help to get up to the bathroom. The king came to see him. When the king saw Elisha lying there in bed, weak, breathing with difficulty, he wept. He exclaimed, “My father. My father. The chariot and horses of Israel.” The same words Elisha shouted when he saw Elijah disappear into heaven.
When the king saw the little old man lying in that bed, and contemplated life without him, he was filled with dread. Elisha’s departure felt like the departure of God.
Andreas, as you engage in the ministry God has called you to, I pray two things for you: First, I pray that you will be kept safe and holy by the heavenly chariots. May the heavenly armies attend you and keep you.
And two, I pray you will be filled with the spirit of Elisha--that you yourself will be transformed into the oxcart of God, prosaic, pedestrian, vessel conveying the presence and favor of God.
Sermon for Green Lake of Seventh-day Adventists for September 1, 2018
Texts: Ezekiel 34:1-6 and Matthew 9:35-38
Hymns: 001 – Praise to the Lord. 358 – Far and Near the Fields Are Teeming
[Eze 34:1-6 NLT] 1 Then this message came to me from the LORD: 2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn't shepherds feed their sheep? 3 You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. 4 You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. 5 So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. 6 They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.
[Mat 9:35-38 NLT] 35 Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 He said to his disciples, "The harvest is great, but the workers are few. 38 So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields."
The other day Karin told me she had seen Don Mehrer wandering the adjacent property with a five-gallon bucket in his hand. She couldn’t figure out what he was doing. It seemed kind of odd. A day or two later she saw Don again and asked about the bucket thing.
Don grimaced and complained. “It’s hard to be an owner.”
He was picking up trash that had been dropped, especially cigarette butts. Why do people just drop cigarette butts? Do they think they’ll just evaporate or something?
People drop cigarette butts. That’s kind of a mystery.
Don picks them up. That could be an even greater mystery. Why is Don wandering around next door picking up cigarette butts?
Because he’s the owner. It’s what you do when the place belongs to you.
I have my own cigarette butt story, proof of my ownership. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, every morning when I’m home I walk a few blocks up the hill from our house to Ella Bailey Park which has a grand view of downtown Seattle.
Like lots of other people I enjoy the park. I sit there in the mornings on my stool and wait for sunrise or put up with the rain. Then I do something else. Before I leave the overlook, I pick all the trash, which usually means picking up cigarette butts. I do it for two reasons. I want my meditation space to be clean. And I figure I own that park.
True, I share ownership with a million other Seattleites. But it’s my park. I own it. So I don’t hope someone else will pick up the litter. I do it.
Jesus saw his disciples as co-owners of the kingdom of heaven. We are not merely helpers.
To pick up the metaphor from today’s scripture readings: We are not sheep. We are shepherds, participants with Jesus in his mission of seeking lost sheep and feeding lambs. There is no shame in being sheep. There is a special glory in being shepherds.
Last spring, on our annual geology tour, our caravan of four vehicles was driving toward Grand Canyon. I was in the last car. We came on the scene of an accident. The first car, the one with Dr. Grellman in it, was pulled off on the shoulder. Of course. Dr. Grellman is an ER doc.
Two of the cars continued on so we could buy groceries for the weekend, leaving Dr. Grellman and the other two cars to meet up with us later.
Why did Dr. Grellman’s car stop? Because we were in the middle of nowhere. No ambulance had arrived. And he was an ER doc.
I would not have stopped. Other people were already there. I have no expertise in treating trauma. I have a hard time finding a pulse.
Another time, one of our tour members got something in her eye. It was becoming a serious problem. Others had tried to help her, but could not find and fix the problem. Dr. Grellman fixed it. Because he was a doctor. That’s what he does.
At times like that, I’m jealous of my physician friends. I wish I knew what they know. I wish I had the skills they have. It must be a pain sometimes. There’s an emergency and suddenly everyone is looking at you.
In our house, my wife is the medical expert--for people and for animals. When I get splinters in my feet, I ask Karin for help. When I notice something wrong with a horse, I don’t try to figure out what’s going on. I simply call Karin.
On the other hand, when there is a plumbing problem, I get the call. Karin and the kids count on me to fix everything from faucets to septic systems. Their life is better because Dad is a plumber. A couple of weeks ago, one of my daughters called me. Something was wrong with her kitchen faucet. She wanted to fix it. Could I walk her through the process on the phone?
When there’s a car question in our family, we all know who to call. We call Karin’s brother Carl. That’s Eric Lundstrom’s dad. What kind of tires do we need on the car? Don’t bother thinking. Just call Carl. He’ll tell you exactly what you need.
When I have trouble with my phone, I call my son.
When I need help understanding some piece of contemporary culture, I call my oldest daughter.
There is no shame in needing a doctor. There is glory in being a doctor.
There is no shame in having a plugged up toilet. There is glory in unplugging it.
There is no shame in being a sheep. There is glory in serving as a shepherd.
In today’s New Testament passage we heard reference to a classic metaphor, God as shepherd, people as sheep.
Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
One way to read this passage is to feel our own confusion and helplessness. We wish we had a shepherd. But that is not message the Gospel writer wants us to get. The writer wants us to stand with Jesus and look through Jesus’ eyes and see the helplessness and confusion of others and join Jesus in the work of being a shepherd.
To make his point Jesus messes with the metaphor. In fact, he completely switches the metaphor (which was common in the literature of that time.)
"Jesus said to his disciples, "The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields." [Matthew 9:35-38 NLT]
Jesus does not say, “All of you are sheep. I am the shepherd.” Jesus says, in effect, “I am a shepherd and I want you to be shepherds, too.” Or even more strongly, “I am a shepherd, and the work is too much for me. I need your help. There is more work than one person can do--even a miracle-working, God-man like Jesus Christ. There is more work than we--here Jesus would have motioned, indicating the twelve disciples--more work than we can do. So pray. Pray for more workers. Pray for more shepherds.”
Jesus--the Risen Christ, the Lord of Glory, the King of Kings and Lord of lords--Jesus cannot fix breakfast for a two-year-old. But we can. Jesus cannot run to the drugstore for a neighbor. But we can. Jesus cannot find the bug in the software, but some of you engineers can. And we need you.
In First Peter, we read that church people are to act as shepherds modeling their service on the service of Jesus, the “Chief Shepherd.” We do what Jesus did. We serve as Jesus served. That’s our calling. (1 Peter 5:1-4).
Being a shepherd is hard work. It will mess with our convenience. This spring, when I saw the car Dr. Grellman was riding in pulled over I immediately knew what was happening. And I knew we didn’t have a choice. We were in a bit of hurry to get to our campsite before it got too late. But we had a doctor among us. And a doctor was desperately, urgently needed. So we stopped so the shepherd could take care of the wounded sheep.
Sometimes being a shepherd is exhausting, draining work. Sometimes it takes us to the very edge of endurance. It is important that we not romanticize shepherding. We honor the work of shepherding. We cultivate an appreciation of its glory. But we are not blind to its cost.
Tuesday morning I was sitting in meditation in the park a few blocks up the hill from our house. I was writing a poem about a man whose life is made very difficult by mental illness. I noticed a message. I checked it. It was from a mother who was worried about her son whose life is shaped--or perhaps I should say is misshaped--by mental illness. There was a crisis. Would I please pray?
Of course, I prayed. That was the easy part. Then I spent some time contemplating the decades of shepherding practiced by this mother. She has intervened over and over and over again. Spending scarce money, consuming hours and days of her life in a never-ending struggle to keep her son alive.
He is a perennially lost sheep. Sheep is an always-on-duty shepherd. It is exhausting.
Just yesterday, I received a message from someone else I’m close to. Her husband spirals in and out of crisis. She wrote of the great weariness of coping with his mental illness, the exhaustion that comes from going to the rescue the umpteenth time. She is the shepherd. Her husband is the sheep. Being a shepherd is hard work.
On Tuesday’s I volunteer at Aurora Commons, a center that serves street people along Aurora Avenue. This last week the place was unusually crowded. People milling about. People slumped on couches, in a drug-induced haze. One of the regulars was on a manic phase. Spouting long lines of eloquent laments memorized from movies, restlessly pacing the place.
There were some tense moments when verbal altercations threatened to escalate. Only the skilled, practiced intervention by the chief shepherd of the place calmed things down.
I’m haunted by the people I see on Tuesdays. They are a drain on society. They take more than they give. For many of them, this will be true all of their lives. Providing even the barest minimum for their survival is draining. Still, they are sheep. They need shepherding. And we who are sane, we who are not addicted, we are called to be shepherds. We are called to tend the lost sheep.
Let’s be clear. It is more work to be a shepherd than to be a sheep. It’s easier to be a sheep. But I have never met someone who having tasted the glory of shepherding wished to become again, a sheep.
Taking care of a mentally ill person is exhausting and bewildering and perplexing. It is miserable, at times. But I have never met someone who would prefer to be the mentally ill person instead of being the caregiver.
There is deep satisfaction. There is very difficult and exhausting work. And there is glory.
Here among us there are some who carry a staggering weight of shepherding, of caregiving of various kinds. Let’s honor them. Let’s figure out what we can to help them, to ease a bit of the load they carry.
Jesus said to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into the field. Let’s pray that prayer. Then let’s open our hearts to the call of God and do what we can to be part of God’s answer to that prayer.
As Don said, “It’s hard to be an owner.”
And it’s hard to be a shepherd. That’s true. And there is glory, too.
Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 11, 2018.
Texts: Proverbs 17:17; 18:24; 27:6,:9, 10, 17. The language represents a melding of several translations.
2 Timothy 1:1-4
Tuesday evening I went for a run in our neighborhood. Many streets were blocked off-- with cones or trash cans. One street was closed off with two cars completely the street. What was going on? It was Magnolia’s night out. Neighbors came together to party, share food, play games in the street, connect with one another.
On one street there was a long table set up and people were sitting at the table eating, like it was a grand dining room. It looked like a lot of fun.
The idea behind this is that we will be better neighbors if we know each other. Which, of course, is true.
I like to think of church as a grand block party. It is a festival of the Holy City. And each congregation is a holy neighborhood. We come together each week to strengthen our connection with one another.
In the Gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” This morning I want to talk about church as a society of friends, to echo the language of the Quakers. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are the family of God. We are a holy priesthood. A holy people. We are a gathering of friends.
Some of you here this morning have been friends with each other for fifty or sixty years. Others are new friends. You’ve gotten together in the last year. For most of us, social connections are one of the primary blessing of being part of church.
When I was in college a popular singing group invited me and a couple of other young radicals to travel with them and speak during their concerts. One memorable trip, we headed east over the mountains to some place in North Carolina. We ran into snow. The heater quit working. We huddled together and prayed as the driver of our van navigated the slippery roads. The next afternoon, we presented our concert. The music group finished a song and I was on for a brief commentary. I do not remember what I had planned to say, but as I stood in front of this auditorium full of students I was ambushed by a sudden realization. The song we had just heard was false. And the little speech I had planned was going to be equally false.
The song was this:
If you know the Lord,
You need nobody else,
To see you through
the darkest night.
You can walk alone,
you only need the Lord
To keep you on the road
Take time to pray, every day;
And when you're heading home,
He'll show you the way.
If you know the Lord,
You need nobody else,
To see the Light,
God's wonderful Light.
We always need somebody else. That’s the way we are made. And we will have a happier, healthier spiritual life if we deliberately cultivate friendships.
Of course, those who sing this song, are singing its poetry. Its language is exaggerated to express how much we depend on God and how rich and constant God’s support is. Still, as a young radical committed to truth and careful definitions of theology, I knew the words of the song contradicted the actual life of the church.
The church exists in large part because faith grows most luxuriously in the garden of the holy community. Here at Green Lake Church, I’m constantly touched by the warmth and vigor of our faith. Not “my faith.” Rather, “our faith.” I hear you express solid confidence in God. You know for sure that goodness will blossom, that love will triumph, that God is at work even in the shadows to accomplish something glorious. And your faith gives strength to my own heart and in sermons I hope to reflect back to you that sweet faith which lives in this place.
On Facebook, I have 2000 friends. Most of them are people I don’t know which is to say, they are not friends. And even the people I do know are far too many for me to keep with. They are not my friends. Sure, if I had the opportunity to sit down and learn their story, I would greatly enjoy the experience. But I do not take time to learn their story. If they disappeared I would not even notice.
Here at Green Lake Church we have 500 plus members. I cannot keep track of 500 people. Again, I would enjoy getting acquainted with everyone on our church roster, but there is not enough space in my head for 500 people.
But 500 people can keep track of 500 people. And when one of you tells Hanz or me about a special need in someone’s life, we committed to acting on that information and responding. But let’s be clear: our response is on your behalf. We are actually carrying forward your caring intention, when we serve someone you have called us about.
Let’s take a few minutes to give close attention to the words of this morning’s Old Testament reading.
17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.18:24 A person with many acquaintances may still come to ruin,but there is a friend who sticks closer than a sibling.27:6; Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.27:9 Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and heartfelt counsel from a friend brings pleasantness to life. 27:10 Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you— better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.
I would like to add one more proverb, a truth that might get obscured in our world: Friendship takes time. And focus.
Attending church does not create friendships. It gives us opportunity to meet people, to begin acquaintances. But friendship requires time together outside Sabbath morning. Conversation and activity together. Shared life.
In the New Testament there are two very dramatic models for holy friendships.
Paul. Longed for Timothy to come. He remembered good times together. Paul did not merely “wish” for Timothy to come. He picked up the phone and called him, or I should say, he picked up the quill ad wrote him a letter. I miss you. Please come soon.
Jesus. Nearly the first thing Jesus did when he began public ministry was to collect an inner circle of friends. He had thousands of followers and tens of thousands of people who were fascinated and admiring. Out of that mass of people, he chose just twelve to be with him constantly. Then among the twelve he chose three-Peter, James, and John, to be his special inner circle. Jesus needed friends he depended on his friends.
On the last night in Gethsemane, he repeatedly called on his three closest disciples to keep him company. They failed him. But the story stands. The Son of Man, the King of Glory, needed friends.
And we who count ourselves Christian, we are not above our Master. We need friends.
Friends don’t just happen. They are cultivated.
Like physical prowess.
Let’s deliberately cultivate friendships. Look around the place where you are, here at Green Lake Church. Consider who you would like to be friends with.
Invite them for coffee.
Invite them for a Bible study.
Invite them for a hike, a trip to the zoo, to come serve with you feeding the homeless.
Make time together.
I sometimes hear people complain that when they absented themselves from church, no one called them. It would be nice if we were better at noticing absent people and quickly getting in touch with them. But the reality is if you disappear from church, you probably will not get a call. People will assume you are an adult and that the reason you are not here is because you have a another place you would rather be, a place that seemed better to you. So, being polite people, we are not likely to annoy you by asking, “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you in church?” You may wish we would do that, but the odds are, we won’t.
Instead, I ask, who have you become so close to, that if you go away, ore are kept away, you would unhesitatingly pick up the phone and call.
We cannot control what others will do in our absence. We can control what will be our reflexive instinct when bad stuff happens. Let’s build friendships that will sustain us through difficult times.
Build friendships so that when you need a word of encouragement, when you need some counsel, when you need some help, you will automatically pick up the phone and call.
If you are not here, I will assume you are some other place that is good and happy for you. Like Adrian who is attending the Everett Forest Park Church. Ellen, who is tending a romance in Spain. Rohan who runs sound occasionally a Volunteer Park.
If you have done your work of building friendships, when you need the church, you will call. You won’t call the office. You will call particular people who have become your friends through sharing life together.
I want to specifically celebrate people who are helping us to build friendships here at Green Lake.
Bryan Carli who has organized campouts.
Karen Baker who has organized a hike and pizza making party at her house.
The Mehrers and their ice cream party.
The Lacys who provide burgers and ice cream at the conclusion of a hike up north.
Ken Fairchild and Mark Haun who organize Sabbath afternoon hikes.
This work of helping people develop rich, deep friendships is as crucial to the life of the church as is music or preaching.
Jesus called his disciples friends. Let's engage in the necessary disciplines to cultivate and sustain our friendships here in the Christian society of friends.
Sermon for Green Lake Church for Sabbath, August 4, 2018
4a.m. Thursday morning a week ago, I was sitting in the cockpit of a 27-foot sailboat in open water off the British Columbia coast. The captain was below trying to get some sleep while I tended the helm.
Huge rolling swells came from behind. 6 feet? 8 feet? 10 feet? Other waves came at us from about 30 degrees off the stern shoving us sideways. The sailboat leaped and wallowed and porpoised. A nearly full moon stood in the sky, abeam, to the starboard, lighting the maelstrom. Sparkling in the spray that leaped from the crests of the waves.
It was magic.
I began reading sailing stories in the pages of National Geographic when I was in high school. I read Two Years Before the Mast and Dove. Later I read Cruising World and dreamed of epic voyages of my own.
It never happened. I did get to sail a twelve-foot dinghy on a lake at summer camp--Indian Creek Camp in Tennessee. That was pretty much it until July 23 when I left Ketchikan in the Wild Card, a Santa Cruz 27. The small blue sail boat that had been part of the R2AK, the Race to Alaska. Adam Clemons was bringing it back to Seattle and he invited me to come along as crew.
It was the chance of a lifetime.
When I signed on with Adam, I imagined long hours of sailing before the wind. I worried about getting bored. I took a thick book to read and made sure I had a couple more books on my phone. I took shorts for hot afternoons and a broad brimmed hat to protect my face from the sun.
The journey was other than I expected.
The first night out we sailed all night taking turns sleeping and manning the helm. Wind escalated. Waves got higher, ten to twelve feet. Fog closed in on us. I spent my hours on watch assiduously following the compass. And being mesmerized by the waves. It was all dark and mysterious and enchanting. And a little scary.
Most nights we anchored in quiet bays and coves and woke to perfect stillness, broken only by the call of gulls and crows. We had long downwind passages. For those of you who know the course, I will say that we did the entire Grenville Channel, 70 kilometers, under sail, at times reaching a speed of nine knots over land due to the combination of a twenty-knot following wind and a five knot following current.
But it was the night watches on open water that that were the most glorious. And Thursday morning was the best of those. Hours in the heart of the sea, surrounded by a universe of immense waves--at least they were immense to me, a novice sailor on my first voyage.
In those hours of moonlit and sometimes fog enshrouded sailing, I had plenty of time to think. And my thoughts often ran to the words of two Bible passages.
First, I recalled Psalm 46.
God is our refuge and strength,
An ever present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear
though the Earth shakes
and the mountains are heaved into the heart of the sea
Though the sea roars and foams
and the very mountains tremble with their heaving. Psalm 46
The sea was, indeed, roaring and foaming around me. The waves were like racing mountains around me. I sometimes needed to remind myself that I was safe, because it didn’t look like it. As I worked on my sermon another passage came to my attention. Psalm 93:3-4.
The seas have lifted up, O LORD,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the LORD on high is mighty!
Psalm 93:3, 4
Grand words. Grand truth.
Riding our tiny ship in the heart of the maelstrom, another set of words came to me even more frequently than the Psalms. They are the words of an old hymn based on today’s New Testament reading.
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
The Gospel story:
At the end of a long day of teaching and healing Jesus directed his disciples to get into a boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee. Other boats followed them. Once they were underway, out on the lake, away from the crowds, away from the pressure of listening and healing and teaching, Jesus was overcome with sleepiness. So he lay down on a seat at the rear of the boat and immediately drifted off into sweet sleep.
There is nothing like it.
On several afternoons, when I ended a shift at the tiller, I would settle myself on the port bench seat, cover my face with a tepee of seat cushions and drift off into sweet sleep. Why not? The captain was at the helm I had not a worry in the world. The rocking of the boat was perfect for sleeping.
Then a storm swept in. Wind howled. Waves built. The disciples feared the ship would swamp. At some point in their terror they woke Jesus. “Don't you care that we are going to sink? We're going to die!” they exclaimed.
Jesus sat up. Shook the sleep from his head, then spoke. “Peace. Be still.”
The waves and wind obeyed. The air and water calmed. The maelstrom was replaced by a great calm.
For two thousand years we who call ourselves Christian have gone back to this story as a metaphor for presence and action of God in our own personal storms. We are the disciples, naturally terrified the threatening chaos that engulfs us. Then we remind one another of this story, this picture of Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat. Asleep because he had no worries.
We assure ourselves that we, too, can sleep. We can rest because we are sailing with the Master. The storms are real. Yes. But the Master is capable. He and we will prevail. And we rehearse the words of the old hymn,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
Jesus is unsinkable, and since we are with him, so are we.
The song writer explicitly expanded his story-telling to include metaphorical storms:
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
If I had been out there on the water by myself, i would have been terrified. My only sailing experience was fifty years ago in a twelve foot dinghy that I got to sail on the lake occasionally while at summer camp. I did not know how to manage this sailboat we were in. I knew nothing about sailing in open water surrounded by waves higher than my head. I knew nothing about sailing in twenty-knot winds. I knew nothing about navigating rock- and island-strewn coastal waters.
So, if I had been out there by myself I would have been terrified. With good reason. But I was not out there by myself. So I was not terrified.
I figured if Adam Clemons, the captain, could sleep, we were okay. So instead of worries, I gloried in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I reveled in the power and grandeur of the waves. Especially at 4 in the morning when I was at the helm all by myself.
This is the first lesson I brought home.
The second lesson:
My job was to hold our course, consulting the compass every minute or so. I was also supposed to pay attention to the wind so I could alert the captain if it changed direction.
I did pretty well. I held our course true. Proof of this was the GPS track we recorded. I held course except for the one time I had to fiddle with one of our devices and was distracted for two or three minutes. More on that later. But for the most part I held our course, and I enjoyed the wild beauty of the night.
A little before dawn fog enveloped us, completely obliterating the moon. The compass remained my only fixed point of reference.
When we are in a storm, we cannot steer merely by fighting the waves. We steer by paying constant attention to the compass.
On both of my long night watches, we had moonlight for a while and I could take some sense of direction from the moon. But then fog closed in and the compass was the only reference point. On the Thursday night, we had our sail up but the wind had died. We were still being tossed and heaved by somewhat chaotic 8-foot seas. I had to do something with one of our steering devices. I could feel the waves shoving us around, so I frantically finished what I was doing and settled back on course--I thought. I double-checked the compass. In the minute or two I had been distracted we had turned exactly 180 degrees.
I managed to get us turned back around without getting a wave in over the side. And settled down again to keep our bow pointed due east at 90 degrees.
It is easy to become fully occupied by the waves and winds that threaten us. Beware. We cannot steer by fighting the waves. We cannot aim our lives wisely by fighting evil. We must steer by the two great commandments: Love God with our entire being, and love our neighbors as ourselves. This is our compass.
When news makes us angry or irritable, let’s give our attention to the commandment:
The only time I lost control of the boat, it was because I was trying to do something to counter the waves that were shouldering our boat sideways. I was fighting the waves. And in the process, I ended up headed the wrong direction.
So we can get so engaged with fighting evil that we lose sight of our course. Let’s bring our attention again and again to the compass direction give by Jesus.