Sunday, October 16, 2016

Assumptions--a sermon on Hannah and Eli (1 Samuel 1-2)

Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Samuel 1.9-20, 2.1-10
16 October 2016, NL3-6, H2-1 (God Provides)

After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.
It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2 can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’
 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
   my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
   because I rejoice in my victory.

‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
   no one besides you;
   there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
   let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
   and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
   but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
   but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
   but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
   he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
   he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
   and on them he has set the world.

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
   but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
   for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
   the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
   he will give strength to his king,
   and exalt the power of his anointed.’

how great is my hair?
if you're going to make assumptions about me
based on my hair,
I hope they're "she's obviously awesome"
and not "I can't take her seriously." 
Assumptions: we all make them, we all have them, and many of us chafe under them.
We all know what happens when we assume.
But it’s as if we can’t help ourselves, we do it anyway. It’s unconscious—we’ve just absorbed certain things, and we see them as if they are reality, never thinking to question them until something dramatic happens to tear the scales from our eyes and give us a little clearer vision.

Hannah was a woman about whom a lot of assumptions were made. Peninah, the other wife, and all the rest of society assumed Hannah was worthless, a barren woman who contributed nothing, not even fulfilling her most basic purpose. She was easy to look down on, because she was in fact beneath them. Her husband assumed she knew her own worth in his eyes. It’s likely that Hannah even assumed about herself that she didn’t matter, that something was wrong with her.

And then Eli, sitting on the Temple steps, watched her…a barren woman, talking to herself, crying. Perhaps she was what we used to derisively call “hysterical.” He assumed she was drunk. He assumed she was a sinner, a woman of no account, making a spectacle of herself, embarrassing herself and her family.

But Hannah shocked everyone—probably including herself—by standing up and challenging Eli’s assumptions. NO: She is not drunk. She is not a worthless woman. She is a person made in God’s image, whole and beloved. She matters.

Any number of things could happen at this point, when someone challenges our assumptions. This is the moment a lot of violence, especially domestic violence, happens—when one person asserts their worth, contradicting the one who assumed they were in control. So often we make assumptions about the people we see, or the people we hear about. Consciously or not, we have decided somewhere along the way that they matter less—because of their gender, or their skin color, or their weight, or their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their economic class. We would never put it like that, of course. We look back on those ancient times when women’s worth was measured by their ability to bear male children and we shake our heads, grateful that isn’t the scale anymore.

But if we’re honest, we have a scale. Some people are more worthy, more deserving, than others. Somewhere along the way, humans equated “having” with “deserving.” And when those who don’t have, and therefore don’t deserve, stand up and insist that they matter too, they are made in the image of God, they are beloved…we who live with a lot of advantages have a hard time with that. Perhaps we even fear that if they are loved and valued, then we won’t be anymore. So we lash out, with words or with guns. We put them back in their place, whether by wondering why they won’t just conform to our standards or by physically putting them where we think they belong—often in prison.

Thankfully for Hannah, when God provided her the courage to value herself and to challenge Eli’s assumptions, God also provided Eli the courage to hear her with an open mind and heart, and to drop his beliefs and treat her differently. Instead of chastising her further for her uppity response, or hitting her, or calling her husband to shame her in public, he gave her a blessing. He recognized there was more to this story than he originally perceived.

It is from this moment—not the moment she gets pregnant, or the moment she gives birth to a boy, or the moment she drops Samuel off at the Temple—this moment, when Hannah challenged the assumptions that had been made about her, that “her countenance was sad no longer.” The weight of other people’s projections and expectations was lifted, and she saw herself as she truly was. And not only that, but God provided her a witness, someone else who could see her as she really was, even if it took some fighting on her part to get there. Eli’s perception was changed as he allowed Hannah to be a person in her own right, not just a carrier of other people’s assumptions. And Hannah’s life was changed from the inside out when she knew herself both seen and valued.

It isn’t surprising that Hannah would burst into song—with a new understanding of herself, she sees God’s world more clearly. She sees that it is God who provides—from the foundations of the earth to the cares of the barren woman. And her whole song is about how God’s providence challenges the assumptions of the world—breaking the bows of the mighty, while strengthening the feeble, filling the hungry while the full seek nourishment, raising up the poor and the needy from the dust and seating them with princes. While the world is in the business of getting and keeping, and often does so by pushing some down, God is in the business of reversal.

This week there was a conversation in one of the narrative lectionary preaching groups about Hannah’s song, particularly the line “my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” Surely we don’t want to encourage people to gloat? After all, God calls us all to reconciliation and wholeness, not to celebrating at the expense of others. We talked about this for a long time, but ultimately I think this is another place where we are relying too heavily on our assumptions, and God may be providing us a new way of seeing.

Throughout her story, Hannah has been brutally honest about her distress and her need. She doesn’t mince words or pretend things are okay (but by the way, God, if you have a moment…) She has borne the abuse and scorn of society and even her own family, for years. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that she would then have a moment of triumph? It doesn’t last long—her song is about God and all the ways God works in the world to bring about justice. But for a moment, she gets to be angry at how she has been treated. She is allowed to feel that anger.

It’s that moment when we get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to be angry. And in some cases, if we were fully honest and allowed God to open our eyes like Eli’s, we don't even necessarily want people to credit God with the reversal. We want the credit for making change, creating space, helping the less fortunate. Acknowledging that it is God who provides—often through our abundance—means also acknowledging that those people matter to God just as much as we do. It means challenging our deep and sometimes subconscious assumptions that people of color are less capable, or people who are poor are lazy, or people who are Muslim are terrorists, or people with accents don’t belong here.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—the world, and those who live in it. Hannah acknowledges that God is, for lack of a better term, the “owner” of all things, and provides for us what we need. Sometimes what we need is a reality check, a glimpse of God’s kingdom truth. When we get it, God also provides us the courage to do something with that gift. Just as with every other gift God gives, it’s for a purpose. Hannah knew that the proper response to God’s providing was to give it back—she promised Samuel to God, to serve in the temple, and she took him there and left him to grow up to be the priest who changed the course of history. The same is true of less tangible gifts. God provides, and we are called to respond.

I hope that throughout this Harvest 2 season, as we consider the many different ways God provides, we will also consider what God calls us to do with what we are given. Whether that’s a gift of challenged assumptions, a gift of resources, a gift of talent or time—God’s purpose is the same: abundant life for all creation, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May we have the courage of Hannah and the openness of Eli, to participate in God’s great reversal until all know themselves beloved.


Sunday, October 09, 2016

God Can't? -- a sermon on the golden calf fiasco

Rev. Teri Peterson
God Can’t?
Exodus 32.1-14
9 October 2016, NL3-5, H1-5 (In God We Trust)

When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organize their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, and can be found on page 69 of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

“And the Lord changed his mind”—these are words we don’t hear often.
As we read the Bible in 90 Days this summer, it came up a few times, and each time it was a little bit of a shock to many. Before deciding the flood the earth, God regrets making humans on the earth…there are discussions between Abraham and God where God listens to Abraham and adjusts the course of action…and of course there’s the story of Jonah, where God reverses a decision and God’s ability to change makes Jonah angry. It makes us uncomfortable, to think of God changing God’s mind. Somewhere along the way, we decided that is impossible—God can’t do that.

As soon as we start uttering words like “God can’t do that” we should be getting nervous.

It’s one thing to say “the God we see in Jesus is like ____” or “in scripture we learn that God does ____.” It’s a whole other thing for us to claim what God can and cannot do.

One of the core tenets of the Reformed tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part, is the Sovereignty of God. We believe that God is free to order and rule creation according to God’s will, and we—who are not God—can’t restrict God. Which sounds so obvious when we say it out loud, and yet we are so uncomfortable with God’s ultimate and eternal freedom that we have placed all these bounds on how God should behave, when really the unchanging thing about God is Love—that is God’s nature, God’s essence. From that core reality, God is free to do whatever God will, including changing direction.

We are so used to metaphors like God is my rock and my fortress, the ground of being, the foundation, our refuge and strength…our hymns and our creeds describe God as eternal and unchanging…and we forget that is one side of a metaphor, one aspect that isn’t the whole story. We like our God to be stable and reliable, right there when we need someone to lean on, and not too demanding as we face a world that could never have been imagined by the writers of scripture.

Which is, in many ways, exactly what the newly freed Israelites wanted too. They had seen what God could do—witnessed plagues, crossed through the sea on dry ground, been fed by manna and quail, seen water gush from a rock, heard God’s voice rumble at the top of the mountain, and committed themselves to following God’s way. But now…Moses had been gone a long time, and they were getting antsy. This just wanted something more stable, more visible, more… unchanging.

It isn’t that they made themselves a new god, exactly. After all, they use the same liturgy—here is the god who brought you out of Egypt. It’s more that they made a static image to stand in for our dynamic God. Rather than give their offerings of gold and fine linen and precious jewels—as they had been called to—for a tent that would symbolize God living among them, they give them instead to capture what they want God to be, and hold on to that image they have built as if it is the real thing.

We often talk about how easy it is to find ourselves worshipping things that are not God—things like money, opportunity, power, fame, relationships, social status, nation, celebrity, sports, nostalgia. And that is true. We need to be aware of just what story our lives tell—where is our time and money and energy going, and how does that relate to following Jesus? But there’s another, far more insidious, form of idolatry that I think is shown by this story. It isn’t only about placing something other than God as the focus of our lives, it’s about solidifying what we think God should be and do into a statue we can carry around but will never change. We take the One true God, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer and sustainer, with all the complexity and possibility of love incarnate…and flatten it into something that works for us but bears little resemblance to the original. God cannot possibly be captured or contained in a stagnant medium, because God is the God of the living, always working for a new creation where everyone experiences abundant life, and because the promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” is always growing and flexing as the people’s lives change over time and travels.

That’s what Moses reminded God up on that mountain that day. “Remember the promise you made to Abraham and Sarah? Remember your relationship with Isaac and Rebekah? Remember the wrestling and blessing you did with Jacob, and the promise you made to all his sons and daughters? You are a God who keeps promises.” And God remembered…and changed God’s mind, choosing faithfulness over rejection, choosing mercy over judgment, choosing love. Because that is what God does…and what God is free to do, whatever we think of the choice.

This is good and beautiful news. It is also hard news, because it can be difficult to come to terms with the freedom and sovereignty of God when we are so bound to what we believe God is like and what Love means. When we have decided what God can and cannot do, who God can and cannot call, how God can and cannot love or save…we have made an idol—a false image that we have carefully shaped to be unchanging and predictable and reliable, something we think we can trust. Too often what is most reliable about this image is that it makes God out to value the same things we value, and to dislike the same things we dislike, and to love within the same boundaries we allow. But behind this image is a real, living God who won’t be trapped in our beliefs and words any more than God will be contained in a statue or a picture or a box or a tomb.

But it’s also hard because we do this same thing—flattening reality into ideologies we don’t question and refuse to believe can change—with other parts of life too.
We have hardened our conception of what it means to belong to a political party until we can’t see or accept when things have changed.
We have a pretty solidified image of our elected officials or candidates, insisting they are who we say they are, whatever evidence is available to the contrary.
We have turned sexuality and gender identity into a single image of predatory lust that makes it impossible to see multi-faceted human beings who long for love and acceptance.
We have dug in our heels and insisted racism and sexism are over and this is as far as we’re willing to go, and everything beyond this line is dismissed as “just being politically correct.”
We have claimed that there is just one meaning to the words “black lives matter” or “Muslim” or “refugee” or “Christian” or “pro-life” or “feminist” or “American” or “civil rights” or “freedom”…
the list goes on and on of ways our society, our churches, and each of us have solidified our limited understanding into a statue we can point to, insisting there’s no change to be had, that the bounds of our understanding of normal and good are also God’s. Our idols, just like the golden calf, provide a sense of comfort and stability, an illusion of control in a world where everything seems to be falling apart. And, like Jonah when God changed his mind about destroying Ninevah, we will have to come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t play by our rules, and that is actually good news—for us and for the whole world.

God is Love, and Love will not be bound by what we think God can and cannot do, and will not consent to live in the carefully constructed belief systems we have built. As 2 Timothy says, “the word of God is not chained.” Instead God asks us let go of our idols and join in the dance of doing a new thing. In God we trust, not because God can never change, but because our God is living and active, breathing life, creating community, feeding and healing, freely choosing to keep promises time and again, to be faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, both ever-changing and ever-the-same—no matter what we think about that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Five: bible faves

Today's Friday Five is about the Bible! You may play right here in the comments, or if you write a blog post, link it here.

Since we just finished reading the Bible in 90 Days, this is particularly current/relevant/awesome. :-)

1. What is your favorite Bible verse? Isaiah 55.8 "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord..."

2. What is your favorite book of the Bible? Isaiah for sure! If I had to pick from the NT I'd choose Mark, every time.

3. What is your favorite story from the Hebrew Scriptures? Today I think I'd go with Zelophehad's Daughters (from Numbers 27), or perhaps the widow who feeds Elijah and her jar of meal never runs out (1 Kings 17).

4. What is your favorite story from the Christian Scriptures? Mark 2, where the four people bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus and dig through the roof to get him in, and Jesus looks at them, sees their faith, and heals their friend.

5. What verse do you wish people would quote less often? John 3.16. Seriously? That's the best we can do? I might have to start sneaking in something like "1 John 3.16-17" just because it's so much better, and a subtle enough difference that people might not notice until later, and maybe they'll look it up. Or just noting lots of other 3.16s (both letters to Timothy have great chapter 3-verse-16, for instance...).

Bonus: What is your favorite obscure fact or verse or story or thing about the Bible? I don't know if this is my favorite or not, but I think it's my favorite thing I learned this summer when preaching through really strange things during the Bible in 90 Days...Jephthah says to his daughter that he has made a vow and he is therefore required to fulfill it. That's not true. I would never have noticed this if we hadn't just read the Torah a couple of days before, but: in the midst of all the lists of punishment for not fulfilling a solemn vow, there are provisions for what to do if a vow turns out to require something illegal (child sacrifice, for instance), and also monetary offerings that can be made if a sacrifice is impractical. So Jephthah's daughter was sacrificed to his ego and his just-enough-knowledge-to-be-dangerous, not to his vow. #thatllpreach

Thanks for playing!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Starry Night--a sermon on Abraham and God in Genesis 15

Rev. Teri Peterson
Starry Night
Genesis 15.1-6
18 September 2016, NL3-2, H1-2 (In God We Trust)

When God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home in Ur and go to a new land, they went without question, believing God’s promise of descendants as numerous as grains of sand, trusting that God would use them to bless the whole world. When the camp grew too large for the land to sustain all the herds and people, Abram’s nephew Lot took his part of the family and animals, and went to settle in another area. During a war between Canaanite tribes, Lot was kidnapped by raiders. Abram took his men and went to battle the hostile tribe, rescuing Lot and all his family and their possessions. Abram then refused to take any of the spoils of war, returning home having received only a blessing from the high priest of the area where Lot lived. We pick up the story from there, in Genesis 15, which can be found on page __ in your pew Bible if you’d like to follow along.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

They did all the right things.

They married and built a life—by most accounts a successful life with many animals and people, though no children, which meant Sarah was considered a failure.
They heard God’s call and followed—God said “go” and they went, without knowing where or why exactly.
They believed God’s promise—land, heirs too numerous to count, blessing for the world.
They looked out for their family, rescuing nephew Lot and the others who’d been captured in battle.
But still…a fairly major part of the picture was missing.

There were no children.

That part of the promise where God said Abram and Sarai would be a great nation, with so many descendants they would fill the whole earth…it was not only not fulfilled, it was impossible. They were in their 80s now, and their life and future were less secure than ever.

They probably thought about it every day. They’d done everything right, followed all the directions…perhaps they even went back over their memories, year by year, wondering where they’d gone wrong to end up in this situation. How did they get to this point, where all they’d worked for would be left to a slave because there were no children to inherit? They never thought this was how it would turn out.

And now here’s God, promising yet again “your reward shall be very great.” And I can practically hear Abraham’s sarcastic “thanks a lot, God”…because what good is a great reward if there’s no one to pass it on to? There’s no one to remember when he’s gone, no one to carry on the legacy of promise or even just of hard work. So there’s no point in collecting more stuff or more wealth, because soon it will all be over anyway. What can God possibly give that would matter to someone whose family has no future?

I suspect many of us have had some variation of this feeling—wondering if all the work we’ve put in might be for nothing. Maybe because life just hasn’t gone according to plan. Maybe because there’s no next generation to pick up the things that have been important to us. Maybe because we’re struggling in ourselves, wondering if God’s promise is really true, or if that really was God’s call we followed or some other voice.

One of my favorite things about this story is how blunt Abram is. He barely lets God get a word in edgewise as the accusing words tumble out—“what will you give me? You promised children, but there are none. I had to come up with someone to put in my will, because you didn’t.” He point blank says that God has fallen down on the job, has broken the promise, and that has real consequences. He doesn't mince words, or try to be nice, or flatter God…he just says what he’s feeling.

And God answers him. God doesn’t gloss over Abram’s worries or frustration or grief, and doesn’t just reiterate the previous promise as if Abram hadn’t heard the first time. There are no platitudes or clich├ęs here. God meets Abram right where he is—sad and angry and tired and confused.

And there, with Abram’s accusation hanging in the air between them, God ushers Abram out of the tent and points him to the starry night.
Van Gogh's vision of the starry night
After speaking specifically to the Eliezer question, God lifts Abram’s eyes out of the swirling vortex of despair he’d thought his way into, and told him to look at the swirling expanse of the universe instead. Abram looked up and saw light that came from thousands of years ago, shining in the sky. He saw the milky way, like a carpet runner across the sky. He saw millions and millions of stars…each placed there by the same God who was now speaking with him.

Think for a moment about the starry night sky. We can’t see it very well here, but even though we have obscured it with our own lights, it’s still there. Thousands of generations have passed since that light began to move toward us. And there is nothing we can do to stop it from twinkling for a thousand more generations after us.

Look into the sky, God says—try to count. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
That is what I have in mind for you.

God answers Abram, not with the pragmatic solution he’d hoped for, but with the gift of insight into God’s plan—which is far bigger than anything we can count or imagine. The practical part of the answer comes later, well after they try to take matters into their own hands and force God’s promise to their timetable. But along the way, every night, there’s the reminder: God’s intention is as long lasting as the stars, and as vast as the universe, and there is nothing we can do to stop it shining.

This answer seems to have worked for Abram, at least for the night. He cleared the air with God, and he caught a glimpse of God’s vision, and he trusted God’s word.

And then comes this little line: Abram trusted God, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. Remember that righteousness means to-be-in-right-relationship—so Abram trusted God, and God put Abram into right relationship with him.

But I learned this week that the Hebrew is actually kind of vague here. The translation we read today adds a word to clear it up, but in reality, it’s unclear. We read through the lens of the letter to the Hebrews, and assume it was the Lord who reckoned righteousness to Abram. On its own, the Hebrew simply says “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness”…and who is “he” and who is “him” is ambiguous. So there are some who say that it was Abram who reckoned God righteous—believing God was someone trustworthy and caring and real with whom he could be in right relationship.

Or perhaps it works both ways. God worked on Abram, and Abram worked on God, and between the two of them trust built up, and their relationship grew and matured. After all, a right-relationship will never be static, and it will certainly never be one-sided, or dishonest or inauthentic. Abram was painfully honest, and God listened and responded. Not the practical but shallow response Abram wanted right at that moment, but the response he needed to keep moving toward God’s goal. Together, Abram and God trusted each other.

And starry night after starry night, God’s promise is true, and God’s presence is real, and God’s compassion can never be extinguished…whether we worry about our future or our past, what we have done right and what we have done wrong, when we and God trust each other, it will be reckoned as righteousness. With God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

following the thread of grace

Over the summer, we read the Bible in 90 Days. It was awesome. During worship on the Sunday after we finished reading, we had a "Tour Through Scripture"--each of the following verses were written down on notecards (one book's quote per card), and then we read them aloud, with each person in the room reading a card. In order, obviously (the cards were numbered, too...). Then I encouraged people to take their notecard with them, to put it on the mirror or to carry it around and to use it to memorize the verse, and to use it as a lens through which to look at life for the rest of the year. Where does this snippet of scripture seem to shed light, or give a different perspective, or remind me, etc?

There really is evidence of God's grace, love, and forgiveness all throughout the Bible, in spite of the common misconception that the Old Testament is all wrath and judgment and the New is all love and light. There's plenty of all of those to go around in all 66 books. But this particular tour follows one of the many threads of grace, from "In the beginning..." to "Amen."

Tour Through Scripture: Tracing a Thread of Grace
(for the closing worship service after we finished the Bible in 90 Days, 2016)

Genesis 1.1-4
Exodus 3.14-15 (or 34.6)
Leviticus 19.9-10, 18
Numbers 6.22-27
Deuteronomy 16.16b-17 & 26.10b-11
Joshua 5.13-15 (or 24.13-14b)
Judges 2.18
Ruth 1.16-17
1 Samuel 3.8b-10 (or 7.10-12)
2 Samuel 24.24-25
1 Kings 8.15-21
2 Kings 4.42-44
1 Chronicles 16.8-15
2 Chronicles 34.28b-32
Ezra 7.27-28b
Nehemiah 9.5-8
Esther 9.20-22
Job 42.1-5
Psalm 73.24-26
Proverbs 3.13-15, 19-20
Ecclesiastes 3.10-11
Song of Songs 8.6-7a
Isaiah 25.6-9
Jeremiah 31.1-3
Lamentations 3.22-26
Ezekiel 37.26-27
Daniel 10.11-12, 18-19a
Hosea 11.3-4, 9
Joel 2.12-13
Amos 5.14-15
Obadiah 12, 20a, 21
Jonah 4.10-11
Micah 4.1-5 (or 7.18-20)
Nahum 1.15
Habakkuk 3.17-19
Zephaniah 3.9, 19-20a
Haggai 2.5-7
Zechariah 8.7-8
Malachi 3.6a, 17
Matthew 22.37-40
Mark 2.16-17 (or 4.21-23)
Luke 24.9-12
John 15.12-13, 16
Acts 10.28, 34, 36
Romans 5.1-2
1 Corinthians 1.27-30
2 Corinthians 4.15
Galatians 5.13-14
Ephesians 1.18-19a (or through 23)
Philippians 2.12-13
Colossians 2.2-3
1 Thessalonians 1.2-4
2 Thessalonians 1.11-12
1 Timothy 4.7b-8
2 Timothy 1.9-10
Titus 2.11-14
Hebrews 10.23-25 (or 4.12)
James 1.17-18
1 Peter 4.8-11 (or 1.20-21)
2 Peter 3.8-9
1 John 3.2
2 John 5-6
3 John 4-5
Jude 20-21
Revelation 22.1-6, 20-21

*note: many of the cards used the Common English Bible translation. Some used the NRSV. Very occasionally I might have used something else if I liked the way it flowed, from a memorization perspective, but the vast majority were CEB. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Grace Is Enough--a sermon on Galatians 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Grace Is Enough
Galatians 4.1-7, 21-5.1
21 August 2016, P2-6 (overflowing: trust)

Paul founded churches throughout the Roman province of Galatia—in modern day Turkey—during both his first and second missionary journeys. At some point after he moved on to other places, another group of missionaries arrived. These missionaries insisted that Gentiles who wished to follow Christ must also become Jews—they needed to be circumcised and to follow the Law of Moses. Paul had taught that this was unnecessary because salvation is about God’s action in Jesus Christ. The conflict within the church about this question was intense and volatile, Christians fighting with each other about the correct way to be a Christian or a church. The question of how to get into a right relationship with God was, and still is, an important question, and Paul addresses it by reminding the church of God’s promise and Christ’s work. The scripture reading from Galatians 4 can be found on an insert in your bulletin if you wish to follow along.

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
than the children of the one who is married.’
Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.


This is a pretty confusing passage of scripture. There’s a reason it’s never in the lectionary. I may have been over ambitious in choosing it, because frankly I just don’t like it very much. I wish Paul and chosen another way of making his point--one that wouldn’t be so easily misinterpreted. But he didn’t, so let’s refresh our memory of the story of Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael...

Sarah and Abraham had been promised a child, but they were very old and there was no sign of this promise being true, so Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham as a secondary wife, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Meanwhile, eventually Sarah did become pregnant and Isaac was born, just as God had promised. But Sarah’s jealousy got the better of her and she threw Hagar and Ishmael out, insisting they had no part in the inheritance that God was giving to Isaac. Out in the desert, God and Hagar had a conversation in which God promised Hagar that Ishmael would also father a great nation. In their later years, Ishmael and Isaac reunited at Abraham’s funeral.

It’s a story that hurts—God’s chosen people act in self interest and hate, excluding those they don’t like. In the end, God is good, but in the midst of the story that isn’t at all clear to Hagar, who is being abused by her mistress, seemingly with God’s consent. Why would Paul choose this story as a way to illustrate his teaching? The idea of “driving out the slave woman and her child” is, frankly, horrifying to our modern sensibilities. And even in the context of its original story, when Sarah kicked out Hagar and Ishmael, it was a selfish and fear-based action, not based in trusting God at all. And in using this allegory, Paul runs the risk of being misunderstood as saying that Jews are not God’s chosen people anymore, they should be driven out because they don’t have any share in the promise the way Christians do.

So, to be clear: he isn’t saying that. This is not a letter directed at a conflict between Christians and Jews, advocating that Christians are superior. This is a conflict between Christians and Christians, about what rules they have to follow in order to be saved.

The missionaries who had arrived sometime after Paul left Galatia were insistent that those who were not already Jews must become Jews in order to follow Jesus. They refused to allow uncircumcised people into the church’s worship or fellowship, saying they had to first commit to following the Law of Moses.

These are the people Paul compares to Hagar and Ishmael, who must be driven out. They are teaching that our actions are what influences God’s choice to love us. Hagar and Ishmael represent the part of the story where human beings take matters into their own hands, trying to force God’s promise to come true right now, rather than trusting God to follow through. To be circumcised and attempt to follow the law would be to declare that there is something human beings can or must do to be adopted into God’s family.

But, Paul says, the law cannot save…and indeed, the law cannot even truly be kept. It represents an attempt to earn God’s favor, which is impossible. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less. We are freed from trying to make our own way, and instead can live secure in the knowledge that through Christ, we are indeed beloved children of God. We can trust that we don’t have to be enough, because grace is enough.

It’s hard to imagine a church Paul started—founded on grace and inclusion, on the good news that when God looks at us, God sees us through the lens of Christ and his faithfulness—it’s hard to imagine them falling for this false teaching that they must do something to earn that grace. Paul made two trips to Galatia, teaching and modeling this new way of life and community that is possible because of what God has done. Why wouldn’t they trust the grace of God?

Though we might ask ourselves the same question. We are just as prone to falling into the trap of believing we have to do something to earn grace. It may not be circumcision anymore, but there are plenty of Christians who teach that we must all keep the laws of Moses…or at least, the ones they think are important. There are those who insist that we have to say the right words, or go to the right place, or have the right friends, or vote the right way, or exclude the right people, or else we aren’t really Christian. Even those of us who most firmly believe that grace is a gift and salvation is 100% God’s choice and God’s work still sometimes find ourselves thinking we have to be good in order for God to truly love us. It’s hard work to trust that grace is enough when everything else in life depends so much on our own choices and behavior, when our whole society is based around earning and deserving. It’s much easier to believe in ourselves, to trust that we are doing the right things, or at least that we’re sorry for doing the wrong things, than it is to trust the promise that Christ has set us free to be loved and to love. We want to do something, by which we mean we want to control something.

But Paul is emphatic on this point. “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Even the subconscious belief that we need to be good enough or that we need to do enough to be saved is slavery to the law, and we are people of grace. We are heirs of the promise, in the line of Isaac—the child born without any help from people, on God’s timeline and for God’s purpose. The promise is true, and we cannot change the reality that God’s love is for us, no matter what we have done.

For freedom Christ has set us free! Our lives are a reflection of our gratitude for all God has done for us, not an attempt to earn our way into heaven. “Freedom is a gift, not an achievement.”* And it is a gift that God has chosen to give us through Christ, from whom we have all received grace upon grace. Can we trust that grace is enough?

May it be so. Amen.

*New Interpreter's Bible, volume ___, page 310

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Shape of Life--a sermon on John 21

Rev. Teri Peterson
The Shape of Life
John 21.1-17, 25
14 August 2016, Pentecost 2-5 (overflowing: love)

The Gospel according to John is the last of the four gospels to be written—perhaps as much as 30 to 40 years after Mark wrote. John tells the story of Jesus from a cosmic perspective, looking at the big picture from before time until the end of time. It is a story primarily of God’s action—God’s word become flesh, God drawing people into relationship through Christ, God painting a picture of what life in the kingdom is like.
Today’s reading is from the very end of John, the epilogue in chapter 21. After Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning, he appeared three times to his other disciples, and this is the third of those encounters. It provides a nice bookend to Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, and it names disciples who were also named in the beginning, so the story ties the whole gospel together as one narrative. Just as the opening chapter of the gospel sets the stage, so the closing chapter reviews all the themes that John wants us to remember as we go to live as disciples. If you’d like to follow along, you can find the reading on an insert in your bulletin.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.


Over the course of my life so far, I estimate that I have had somewhere around 6,200 family dinners. Every night when I was growing up, each of us would take our seats—the same one every night—with my mom closest to the kitchen, of course. We would eat dinner and talk about stuff, and whenever one of us talked with our mouths full my parents would flick us on the cheek, or if we put our elbows on the table then we’d get a little flick of the elbow instead. My brother and I took turns being in charge of setting or clearing the table, helping with cooking and helping with clean up. And in addition to learning table manners, we heard and created family stories, absorbed values, and were shaped, night after night, into the people we have become.

At the time, it didn’t seem like anything special. It was just the way things were—every night, around the same time, we’d be at the table eating and talking and learning and sharing. And if someone else was at the house—friends or neighbors or family, whether just visiting for the afternoon or staying for the summer—they would have a place set for them too. Occasionally something would come up—baseball practice, orchestra rehearsal—and we would shift the time, but it was a rare thing to not eat together.

I couldn’t tell you now about the topics of conversation, or what we ate every day, or which tablecloth was out on any given night. All those nights, whether they involved chicken cordon bleu or hamburger helper, conversation about school or sports or hopes and dreams, run together into one picture of love and belonging and understanding what is expected of me as a part of the family. What seemed so ordinary has turned out, in retrospect, to be perhaps the most special and formative part of my growing up years.

I’ve been thinking about formative experiences because of something I read about this conversation between Jesus and Peter. Here they are, on the beach near the place where Jesus had previously fed a crowd of more than 5000 people with just a few loaves and fishes, and he has done it again, turning their scarcity into abundance and then feeding them with bread and fish baked over a campfire. Peter’s cloak was probably still damp from his excited hundred-yard-dash in the water from the boat to shore—so eager to see Jesus that he was caught in between his desire to be properly clothed to meet the rabbi and his desire to be there rightnow.

It had been at least a few weeks since that Easter morning encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and Jesus had since appeared to his disciples two other times. This third time held all the marks of being final—a completion of their time together. It was early in the morning, just like that first Easter, when Jesus found them in the midst of their emptiness. After a night of nothingness, there was suddenly an abundance of fish in the exact number that many people think was the number of known countries at the time, symbolizing the disciples fishing for people across the whole world. Jesus had fed them, just as he always did.

And then the after-breakfast conversation. Three times, Jesus asks Peter—do you love me more than the other disciples do? He calls Peter by name, and Peter recognizes the good shepherd’s voice and proclaims his love…but for Jesus, just saying “yes, I love you” isn’t quite enough. He wants to see love as alive as he is, so he gives Peter a task. And Peter, really, stands in for all of us as he hears Jesus’ command: to put our faith into practice. As one scholar said, “to love Jesus is to shape one’s life according to Jesus’ life.” [1]

If you love me, Jesus says, your life should look like mine. The shape of your days should match the shape of my love. Having been found and fed, now you follow.

How do we shape our lives to look like Jesus’ life?

The shape of Jesus’ life is the shape of the cross. Just as the cross reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also reminds us how he lived his life, and gives us a shape on which to model our lives. When Jesus said that we are to love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, he drew for us a cross of vertical relationship and horizontal relationship.

Throughout the gospels we see Jesus constantly connected to God the creator—he goes off by himself to pray, nurturing that connection. Throughout the book of John especially, Jesus repeatedly says that anything he does comes from the Father, and the people who come to him are called first by God. He shows us what it means to love God with every fiber of our being.

At the same time he also models how to love our neighbor. He reaches out and touches people who are sick or unclean. He gathers together the hungry and feeds them. He goes out to the edges of society, and beyond, showing people how much God cares for them.

And we, who love Jesus, are to do the same. To draw the shape of our lives—not just our thoughts or feelings, but the way we live and move through the world—in the same shape Jesus did: simultaneously vertical and horizontal.

At the center of this shape is Christ, standing on a hillside or on the beach or in a kitchen, handing us the bread of life, showing us what this relationship looks like. The meals Jesus shares with people are an expression of his relationship with them, and that is still true. When we share a meal with our neighbors, we also share it with Christ. Every table is a reminder of God’s grace and abundance, and an opportunity to be formed and re-formed until our lives look more like Jesus’.

So what are the formative experiences of our Christian life? How are we formed—shaped—to live a life that looks like Christ’s?

At the family dinner table. Here, where Christ is the host, over and over again we hear the stories, we absorb the ethos, we come to understand how much we are loved and how we belong. We practice including strangers, and stretching to have enough for everyone, and being amazed at how much is provided. Sometimes it’s a fancy and special holiday or occasion, and most of the time it’s just the regular 6000 nightly dinners whose specialness may only be seen when we look at them all together, seeing how that pattern of life shapes us into who we are—children of God, growing into life with Christ, reaching up and reaching out, overflowing with love.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] New Interpreter's Bible, volume __, p. 864