I was sitting in the Top Pot donut shop in Ballard, writing. At a nearby table three people were busy in conversation. Apparently they were security supervisors for a large retail complex. The lead guy was mapping out strategy and procedures for the other two people.
They talked of helping people. I heard about some guy who got stuck in a bathroom and security came to the rescue. Some other people got stuck in an elevator. People needed help with this emergency or that. They talked of how to make sure everyone who needed help got it in a timely fashion.
Then there was the other part of their work. Checking every stairwell top to bottom every shift because people sometimes sneaked in and camped there. And they had to watch for bad guys. They had to be aware when someone was casing the place looking for an opportunity to steal.
Listening in on their conversation reminded me of my own work with security. For fifteen or sixteen years, I served as the head of the security department at our annual Western Washington Adventist convention called Camp meeting. We had thirty employees. When I got there, many of the guys imagined themselves as policemen. They were eager to find and bust the bad guys. Too eager, in my opinion. So I set about changing how we viewed ourselves. I told my employees that we were not a police department, we were the Happy Department. Our job was to make sure everyone on campus had a good time. Help little old ladies move into their accommodations. Help mothers find their lost kids. (We became really, really good at that.) Check bathrooms and make sure they were serviceable. And yes, in the evening, we had to enforce the curfew and chase teenagers back to their tents.
Thinking of ourselves as the Happy Department helped change the atmosphere of the campus, a little. We had less and less “enforcement” work to do over the years. There were fewer conflicts that we had to manage.
But for all my talk about being the Happy Department, sometimes we had to become enforcers. We had to stop the bad guys.
One old guy had been coming for years. He created minor headaches, and was surrounded by an aura of suspicion. We heard third and fourth hand reports of him flirting with young girls. Then he proposed marriage to a minor, a young woman who was willing to tell me her story. We banned him from campus. Forever. Judgment day. And after that the campus was a happier place.
Another man raised my suspicions but I knew of no definite offense. I had not even heard of any allegation of wrong-doing on his part. But I was worried. Then a kid I knew told me something specific. I called the police. There was an investigation and this man went to the big house. Day of judgment. And then the campus was safer. Tragically, the world was a better place because he was not in it. That is sad. It is also true.
Sometimes being the Happy Department required us to be tough with the bad guys.
I love the language of our Old Testament reading this morning from Psalm 96.
Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the fields and their crops dance in mirth.
Let the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD,
Just a couple of pages later, we find similar language in Psalm 98.
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
Let the earth and all living things join in.
Let the rivers clap their hands in glee!
Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the LORD.
Rivers clapping their hands. Trees singing. Fields dancing. Mountains rejoicing. A happy world.
Some of you spend time on the water. Sailing, cruising, kite-boarding, kayaking. Have you ever been out on the water on a sunny day? The sky is blue. Here and there pillows of cottony-white cumulus clouds are floating in the blue. A slight breeze ruffles the water and keeps you from getting hot. It’s late afternoon. The sun sprinkles sparkles across the tops of waves. At that moment the whole world seems just right. The whole world is happy.
That’s the picture these scriptures paint.
More relevant to the season. Imagine you are a skier—many of you don’t have to imagine. Imagine it’s a Tuesday after a big snow. You have the day off and head to the slopes. There’s twelve inches of powder. It’s 28 degrees and sunny. No wind. Because it’s a Tuesday, it’s not crowded. You own the slopes. You’re in the middle of a run and pause before resuming your flight. Sunlight is everywhere, a million diamonds sparkle in every direction. Overhead, an intense blue sky. It’s quiet. A couple of jays swoop across the slope and land in the tree beside you. Off in the distance you hear a couple of kids squealing and giggling as they dig themselves out after a fall.
This is the world imagined by the poet in this Psalm.
Mountains dancing. Trees singing. Rivers clapping their hands. Waves shouting hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skipping with delight.
How do we get there? What is the path from this place to that place?
Each of these Psalms follows the same line. Mountains dance. Trees sing. Rivers clap their hands. Waves shout hallelujah. The earth itself under our feet skips with delight. Why?
Oliver read the words for us:
because God is coming!
God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with justice.
Judgment day. We can hardly wait. Finally, everything will be set right. Hallelujah.
This is not the whole story. There is another picture of judgment. We heard it in our New Testament reading that Violet read for us.
Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. “Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father. Matthew 18:2-10 New Living Translation (Accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com.)
God is watching. God takes special delight in little ones. We are most in tune with God when we tend and care for the little ones.
God is watching. God takes special umbrage when little ones are harmed. You don’t want to have God walk around the corner just after you have called a child stupid. You don’t want to run into God as you walk away from a child in need. You touch a child—and it would be better for you to have been hauled out into Elliot Bay and dropped overboard with a pair of concrete boots on. God is watching. And the Bible declares over and over that God is watching with the intent of ultimately overruling the decisions of the powerful in favor of the powerless. God will reverse the advantages conferred by wealth and status and size and intelligence and beauty and nationality and ethnicity.
Those on the bottom will be lifted up. And those on top will find themselves on the bottom.
Nearly all of us here are among the privileged. Compared with other people in the world we are privileged beyond calculation. We were born in the right country to the right parents with sound minds and bodies and opportunities to turn work and study into financial security. We are blessed.
In the judgment, God will ask how we used those privileges. God will ask if we noticed those beneath us in the pecking order of the world.
Many of us read in the news this week of the horrific domestic abuse by David and Louise Turpin. These parents turned into monsters to their own children. The grandparents of the kids have reported that the children memorized long passages of the Bible, some memorizing the entire book. I’m afraid I know where this story is going to go. I’m afraid we will learn these parents thought they were doing right.
Echoing Jesus, I would say, it would have been better for David and Louise if they had died of snake bite out in western Texas. Or heat stroke.
Yesterday morning, Don and I were talking. He said, “Someone should have shot those people.” Then he challenged me: You think God would be okay with that?”
Inwardly, I laughed. Don had me. I’m a pacifist, all around nice guy. I think of the church as God’s Happy Department. We want to make the world better and save everyone in the process. We are called to serve the world. Mostly that means smiling service.
But sometimes, it means thundering opposition. Because we are the people of God, we strongly oppose every act of oppression. We denounce evil, especially the use of power to advantage the powerful, the use of wealth to advantage the wealthy, the use of law to advantage the mighty. Do not balance budgets on the backs of hungry children. Do not preserve our comfortable lives at the expense of our grandchildren. Do not harm children.
Instead, let us join with God in cherishing and nourishing every little one—both those who are literally little—children. And those with fewer advantages, smaller privileges than ours.
As we do this we will find ourselves cooperating with God. We are preparing the world for the glorious day of judgment when the earth and all that is in it will sing for joy. When the fields will dance, when the ocean will sing and all the trees will clap their hands.