Sermon manuscript for Sabbath, June 4, 2016
Delivered at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Deuteronomy 32:9-11, 13
“Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! Hear, O earth, the words that I say! I will proclaim the name of the LORD; how glorious is our God! He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is!
“But they have acted corruptly toward him; when they act so perversely, are they really his children? They are a deceitful and twisted generation. Remember the days of long ago; think about the generations past. Ask your father, and he will inform you. Inquire of your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High assigned lands to the nations, when he divided up the human race, he established the boundaries of the peoples according to the number in his heavenly court. For the people of Israel belong to the LORD; Jacob is his special possession.
He found them in a desert land, in an empty, howling wasteland. He surrounded them and watched over them; he guarded them as he would guard his own eyes. Like an eagle that rouses her chicks and hovers over her young, so he spread his wings to take them up and carried them safely on his pinions. He let them ride over the highlands and feast on the crops of the fields. He nourished them with honey from the rock and olive oil from the stony ground. He fed them yogurt from the herd and milk from the flock, together with the fat of lambs. He gave them choice rams from Bashan, and goats, together with the choicest wheat. You drank the finest wine, made from the juice of grapes. Then he will ask, ‘Where are their gods, the rocks they fled to for refuge? Where now are those gods, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their offerings? Let those gods arise and help you! Let them provide you with shelter! Look now; I myself am he! There is no other god but me! I am the one who kills and gives life; I am the one who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!
Moses added: “Take to heart all the words of warning I have given you today. Pass them on as a command to your children so they will obey every word of these instructions. These instructions are not empty words–they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River.”
“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!'”
How long will you wander, my wayward daughter? For the LORD will cause something new to happen–Israel will embrace her God.”
This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “When I bring them back from captivity, the people of Judah and its towns will again say, ‘The LORD bless you, O righteous home, O holy mountain!’ Townspeople and farmers and shepherds alike will live together in peace and happiness. For I have given rest to the weary and joy to the sorrowing.”
“Now I want to say something more about this city. You have been saying, ‘It will fall to the king of Babylon through war, famine, and disease.’ But this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says:
I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart and one purpose: to worship me forever, for their own good and for the good of all their descendants. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in this land.
On Monday, Karin and I were in our backyard working on a project when I noticed two barn swallows trying to snatch a piece of chicken down from the air. At first I thought they were mates. Closer observation suggested they were competing males, both aiming to score the premier nest furnishing—down! The down finally landed on the ground up against the barn next to the door. They still went at it, but were appropriately nervous. Three cats prowl the barn and all of them are skilled predators. I went and moved the down onto the grass some distance away from the barn.
When I looked later, it was gone, taken either by the wind or by a proud barn swallow dad.
Down is a highly coveted nesting material at our place. Barn swallows construct their nests of mud glued to rafters with saliva. Sparrows build their nests of grass and twigs in nooks and crannies. But when it comes to lining the inner cavity of their nests for the well-being of their babies, both sparrows and swallows understand the value of a down comforter. They secure the very best for their babies.
The Bible story begins with God fashioning a nest—the Garden of Eden—for his children. The awful tragedy is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the original nest. Later, in the story of the people of Israel, again we see God working to create a nest, a sanctuary, a nursery for his people. God promises Israel while they are slaves in Egypt, that he is going to take them to a land flowing with milk and honey. The land will be so luxurious the rocks will drip with honey and oil.
Even when God’s offspring soil the nest or flee the nest, God continues working to create a community, a culture, that fuels and catalyzes holiness.
This is most vividly demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry draws people. Jesus forms a community that is devoted to holiness, compassion, healing and truth. Perhaps the most crucial element in the teachings of Jesus is the way he links our human ambitions with the ambitions of God, our ideals with the ideals of God, human nature with the nature of God.
According to Jesus, the highest, noblest human impulses are mirrors of the character of God. God is a model parent, a healer, a forgiver, a lover, a seeker. We are to love our enemies, forgive those who harm us, seek for the lost, and heal the sick simply because that’s the way our Father is. These are the values of the family of God because they are the very essence of God’s character.
We are the community of Jesus, the community of God. So we build a nest to care for the little ones, the injured ones, the weak ones, the disabled ones. This is simply what we do. Because we are the community formed by Jesus, we respond to the human need that surrounds us. A primary way we do that is through creating and maintaining this nest—this building, this community.
One of our primary obligations is to provide a healthy, nourishing community for our children. Whether those children are our literal biological children, or are “our” children in the sense that they are children we have a connection with through friendship, or they are our “children” in the sense that they are people whose spiritual and social needs we can serve.
We have Sabbath School classes to pass on our values and ideas, and even more importantly, to honor the children among us by giving them deep abiding attention.
We provide Explorations in the summer.
We have an orchestra and a junior choir. The Green Lake Singers includes junior members.
As a congregation we reinforce the value each of our families places on musical excellence and academic achievement and physical prowess.
As a congregation we remind our children and ourselves over and over and over again that every advantage we have—brains, good looks, musical ability, a pleasing personality, an American passport, access to education—every advantage is, at least in part, a gift and carries with it an obligation to pay into the lives of others some of the blessing that has enriched our own life.
I guess you could say, one of the primary purposes of this “nest” is to shape people who will build other nests, people who will seek to extend to others the benefits that were experienced here. To say it boldly: the success of a nest is measured by how well it launches the nestlings into the world. (Usually we measure churches by how many of its offspring remain in the nest. I think we need to change our measuring stick. The measure of our success is what the nestlings do away from our nest.)
I was reminded of this on Wednesday night. Along with several others from this congregation, Karin and I attended the screening of “The Cameraperson”, a film by Kirsten Johnson. The film followed her work as a cinematographer, more specifically her work using film to work for social justice. Some of the footage was so emotionally charged I had to turn away. I was glad I was not the camera person, responsible for looking unflinchingly at the heartbreaking truth of the human condition.
Watching her film, I was reminded of the work of Sydney, another person who grew up in this church and has gone on to use her privilege as a platform from which to change the world, to make it better at great personal risk. I thought of Julie, a young person I met when I was pastor of the North Hill Church. She now lives and works in the heart of Seattle. She cares for the mentally ill. She cares for people whose lives are ugly and misshapen, people whose beauty it takes a special gift to see. Thank you, Julie. I like to think, I hope, that her commitment to service was encouraged by those around her in the nest of the church.
My question to us as a congregation and to the larger denomination is this: How do we build our nest, so that the young ones who grow up in this nest are most likely to leave the nest wiser, stronger, and more holy?
A week ago I performed a wedding on the other side of the mountains. I’ve known the groom since he was a teenager. Why was I asked to perform the ceremony? Because church had been good to the groom. He is no longer involved in church. In fact, he is an atheist. But he wanted the pastor from his church to do the wedding. Because the church had been a very good nest. At a difficult time in his life, church people were good to him. The nest had been a good one.
In the wedding sermon I recalled some of the habits he had learned in church and talked of how those applied to his current life. He and the bride laughingly acknowledged the value of these habits. The nest had done him good. Its values would do them good.
Green Lake Church has launched a capital campaign to fund a couple of different aspects of this holy nest: Housing and staffing. The details can get a bit complicated—like real life does. But in simple outline here is our challenge: We need larger physical facilities to do all the ministry we dream of doing. We need more “housing” for Sabbath School classes for both children and adults. We need to be able to provide emergency housing for people who come from the greater Pacific Northwest for medical care here in Seattle. Part of this dream includes purchasing the adjacent properties on this block when they become available for sale. A number of times in the past when these properties have been for sale, we have wished we had the money on hand so we could take action. This capital campaign is aimed at making sure that the next time these properties come on the market we are able to purchase them. In the mean time interest from some of this money will help with our emergency housing service.
The Adventist denomination has always relied heavily on volunteers. It always will. However, with the change in American culture, running effective church programming requires more paid staff than was necessary in the past. This part of our campaign will help to ensure we have adequate pastoral staffing for the programs and services we want to offer as a congregation.
The money that you contribute to this campaign will help ensure a sturdy, secure nest.
The other part of building and equipping the nest in which our children can be nourished and prepared for service in the world is the cultivation of the values of Jesus.
Let us as a congregation commit ourselves without reserve to the pursuit of truth and the practice of love.
I mentioned that when I saw the swallows chasing a bit of chicken down to line their nests Karin and I were busy with a project. We, too, were building a nest.
The night before, we were sitting on our front porch, enjoying a few quiet minutes before heading off to bed. I heard a duck making a racket. I ignored it at first. Ducks sometimes make a lot of noise, but the racket was quite insistent. Finally, I got up from my chair, went inside and got a flashlight and headed out to the garden to see what all the noise was about.
A female duck was outside the garden making all sorts of commotion toward the garden. I thought, oh no. I had not seen the duck for several weeks and I suspected she was off somewhere sitting on a clutch of eggs. We didn’t really want more ducks, but what could I do? I didn’t know where she was. Well, here she was, and I could hear peeping from the other side of the fence. Baby ducks. I shone my flashlight. There was a tiny duckling. No. Make that two.
I called Karin to come help. She grabbed a couple that got through the fence and I began collecting ducklings on my side. Turns out there were nine of them, trying to make their way across the garden to Mama Duck. What to do? Karin insisted we put them somewhere for safe keeping. Between the dogs, the cats, the crows, she figured the ducklings wouldn’t stand a chance. After a comic chase, we managed to capture Mama Duck and put her and the ducklings into a large dog crate for the night. Then spent Monday morning building a duck yard. That’s what we were doing when I noticed the barn swallows arguing over the chicken feather.
As I was talking about this with Karin yesterday, she wanted me to make it crystal clear that we did NOT WANT more ducks. We built the duck yard because there were baby ducks who needed a duck yard. And we cannot help ourselves, when animals show up at our house with urgent needs, it is our habit to respond. Sometimes with complaints and groans, sometimes with good humor. But just as I could not resist the clamor of the distressed Mama Duck’s calling, Karin could not resist coming to the aid of nine little ducklings. It’s what we do.
And this is what church does. Church—this building and this community—is a nest. Often those who most need the nest of the church are least able to provide it. Grandmas and grandpas are crucial for providing this nest. Why do we do it? Why do we provide this nest for the nourishment and protection of spiritual life? Because it is our nature to do so. And it is our nature because it is God’s nature.