Friday, October 02, 2015

Friday Five: fall books!

I haven't played the FF in a long time, but today I can't help myself. I've been daydreaming about books, using my library card more than I have in a long time, and today is the kind of sunny breezy autumn day that makes me want to curl up under a blanket next to an open window (yes, I'm that girl) with a stack of books.

This desire is not mitigated by the fact that I really need to do some other things (some work, deal with the apples I picked last weekend, etc).

So I'll play the Friday Five instead, because it's about books! And then I can pretend that I did something, while thinking about reading. ;-)

Share with us some of your favorites:

A cookbook....well, I confess to rarely using recipes, because I find them kind of restrictive. lol. But I do have a couple of favorites that I go back to for different things. Of course there's the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, full of standards. And the Teen Vegetarian Cookbook, which has a chart of nutrients and three different columns of how to get them (i.e., "don't like this? try this. Don't like that either? try this.")

A novel...Just one favorite novel? oh my. Let's go with relatively recent reads...Most of a year later, I am still gushing about The Undertaken Trilogy, which may be the best fiction I've read since The Goldfinch (which was amazing). Don't be fooled by the young adult label, this is a book(series) for all ages.

A nonfiction book...I always have a hard time when asked about nonfiction. Once I responded to someone with "I don't really read nonfiction" and they stared incredulously at my office bookshelves. I had to say "oh, I mean...besides church books." I don't really read non-theology/churchy non-fiction.   If pressed I would probably say something like the Lonely Planet guide to whatever next place I'm going....or maybe the book I co-authored, since it needs some promotional love! :-)

A well-thumbed book to which you turn often, or with affection, used in your profession...besides the bible or hymnal? I just yesterday got out Christianity for the Rest of Us again, to use the hospitality chapter in the new member class. That book gets a workout for sure.

An author you recommend frequently to others... After myself (heh), probably Jane Austen. Because I come across a SHOCKING number of people who have not read Pride and Prejudice, and I just don't think that's okay.

Bonus: what are you reading now? ...Goodreads says I have 7 books going. haha. I am most invested in Original Blessing at the moment, plus We Make The Road By Walking for our current adult-ed class, and also Emotions and the Enneagram. I have plans to stock up on novels for an upcoming vacation though!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Talking to Strangers--a sermon on Genesis 18

Rev. Teri Peterson
Talking to Strangers
Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
20 September 2015, NL2-2, Harvest 1-2

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
 They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

One Sunday during my first Easter season as an ordained pastor, I was sitting on the floor of the sanctuary with a dozen or so children seated on the steps in front of me. We were talking about the story of Jesus’ disciples walking to Emmaus, and being met by Jesus along the way, though they did not recognize him. At some point, as I was talking, I realized that I had painted myself into a corner. Over the edge of the communion table, I saw the head of staff realize it at the same time, and his poker face was briefly interrupted by one slightly raised eyebrow. I kept talking, trying desperately to think of a way out, but there was nowhere else to go. The only thing I could say to these children, ranging in age from 3 to 9, was that they should talk to strangers because they might be Jesus.

I rushed the words out and tried to cover with something about how on the first day at a new school, everyone is a stranger, and then I ended as quickly as possible and hoped no one had noticed. Even 8 years and hundreds of children’s moments later, I still get nervous when stories like this one appear in the lectionary.

Because, unlike what we teach our children, scripture is full of stories that essentially say that you absolutely should talk to strangers.

These three strangers arrived at Abraham’s place at just about the most inconvenient time possible—the heat of the day. Midafternoon. The lull time, nap time. The only worse time would be the middle of the night. And yet Abraham runs out to greet them. He runs to Sarah and tells her to get baking—three measures of flour is about 22 pounds, so Abraham seems to expect a full complement of breads and cakes, not just a few finger sandwiches. Then he runs to the field and tells a servant to kill the fatted calf and fire up the grill.

What started as “let me bring you a little bread” has become a feast of epic proportions. Why would Abraham kill the fatted calf—the best and most celebratory meat—for strangers? Why bake so furiously? Why so much running during the hottest part of the day?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, reflecting on this story, says it gives a clear lesson: “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13.2)

This seems like an awful lot of hospitality, though. Surely just offering them water and whatever he had handy, easily accessible leftovers, would have done?

Granted, it turns out to be God visiting Abraham and Sarah’s tent. So maybe the welcome is just enough after all.

The text doesn’t say that they knew it was God. Sarah seems to realize, just at the end of the story, but by then they’ve been hanging out in the shade of the oak trees for hours. These were just three guys, dusty from travel. In some neighborhoods, they would be called a gang. In others, their sitting under the tree might be called loitering. Many of us would hesitate to open the door to three strange men who come up the front walk. Today we might wonder if all three of them would make it to the doorway alive, or if they’d become a statistic and a hashtag. But Abraham rolls out the red carpet and pulls out all the stops. He serves them a feast on the fine china—and he stands by, ready to refill their cups and offer them seconds, to attend to every need.

It seems ridiculous to us. We have become so used to not really looking at people. We are practiced at suspicion-at-first-sight. We like our personal space and the private enjoyment of our things. We’re perfectly willing to give what we have left after we’ve made sure we have enough for ourselves. But in scripture, especially in the desert but also in town, hospitality is the most important practice there is. Any traveler was to be welcomed and cared for, no matter who they were or where they came from.

Every traveler.

Some have entertained angels…or even the Lord himself.

More accurately, everyone who has shown hospitality to a stranger has been in the presence of God—Jesus says whenever we do it to the least of these, we do it to him. Every person is made in God’s image, every breath comes from the Spirit, so everyone, stranger or friend, is a chance to welcome God in our midst.

Part of what makes this difficult, for us and for Sarah and Abraham, is that an important element of hospitality is not just food and water and a place to rest, but also making room for the person and their words to enter our lives. You never know what the strangers might say or how they might touch your heart or change your life.

In this case, the strangers bring news that defies the limits of imagination. After all these years, following a promise and fearing she might never see it fulfilled, all these years waiting and hoping and being disappointed, Sarah will have a son. It is almost cruel, to tell a woman who has tried so hard that she needs to try again. I hear Sarah’s laugh in my mind as that nervous-and-incredulous laugh that is an attempt to defuse tension and mask pain. But the words of the stranger have entered the house, and there’s no shooing them out now. Just as Abraham made every effort to make them comfortable and welcome, now Sarah will have to make every effort to accommodate these words, ponder them in her heart, and make space for Abraham in her bed.

Sometimes the words of a stranger are as disruptive as their physical presence. They demand things of us—expanding and shifting our mental space the way we add leaves and more chairs to the dining room table.

No wonder we prefer to be afraid of strangers.

This week I heard the political leader of one of the European nations that is refusing to allow refugees say they could not take them because too many non-Christians would change the Christian character of the culture. The same was once said of the Irish Catholics coming to this country. It is true, when we welcome the stranger, we also make room for the ways they are different. When I think about how often our ancestors in the faith migrated for one reason or another—most notably to Egypt to escape famine, and out of Egypt to escape leaders who were needlessly afraid of them—and then I hear this story of Abraham’s family in the midst of migrating and still offering extravagant welcome, and think of the least of these Jesus talks about, and hear the strong words from Hebrews: “Do Not Neglect to show hospitality to strangers”…I can’t help but think that we are replaying this same story. Do we, with Abraham, see the image of God in the face of the stranger? Are we willing to offer our best in welcome? Will we go out of our way to bring them in? Or are we too unwilling to make both mental and physical space for people who are different?

Sarah and Abraham extended themselves, their resources, and their emotional lives to offer hospitality. And ultimately, that changed their lives. They had to then make even more room, this time for a baby…a baby named laughter, to remind them always of that day they talked to strangers, and saw the face of God.

May we follow their faithful example.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Putting a Name to a Face--a sermon on Genesis 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Putting a Name to a Face
Genesis 2.4b-25
13 September 2015, Harvest 1-1, NL2-1

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
   and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
   for out of Man this one was taken.’
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Here we are again—in the beginning. A couple of years ago, when we read the creation story in worship, we then created it—the mosaics that form the front of the balcony remind us of the great liturgy of In The Beginning: God speaks, and the world comes into being, day by day.

Today we begin with the second creation story—a separate account, giving us a different glimpse of how God works. In the first story, God says something, and it is so, and God says it is good. Repeat for each day, from light and dark, through water and land, sun and moon, plants, sea creatures, land animals, humanity, rest.

In this second version of the story, God is much more hands-on. The first story was the tell, and this is the show. God sits down in the dirt and builds things—a person, a garden, rivers, animals. God forms the dust, and with a breath makes it beautiful. This is up close, down-and-dirty creation. Right from the start, God is close enough for us to feel holy breath on our cheeks, molding and sculpting the stuff of life by hand.

It seems so different from the first story—so intimate where the other was so grand and philosophical.

It’s not too far into the story when something sounds familiar, though. God realizes that it is not good for the man to be alone. So God gets to work again, playing in the dirt and making all kinds of things, and bringing each one to the man “to see what he would call them.”

God hands over the power of creating with words to this brand new mud-man. And whatever he called an animal, that was its name.

I think too often we gloss over this part of the story, thinking it’s cute but not the point. We want to get to the part where the man and the woman mess up, because our culture has, for centuries, been built on the idea that we are flawed, and we want to get to the root of that.

But first, deeper in our history, planted deeply at the heart of humanity, is this: God entrusted us with the gift of words—words that, much like God’s, create reality. Just as in the first telling of the story, God creates with a word, so now we are offered the possibility of creating with a word. Or, as we know too well, the possibility of destroying with a word. But here, in this moment in the garden, God looks at Adam and trusts humanity enough to give us incredible power: to create alongside God. Where the first story simply says that God created humankind in God’s image, this story shows God bringing all the animals to see what Adam would call them, and that is what they were, because such is the power of words.

It took me a week to figure out the name of my cat. Can you imagine the responsibility of naming the cow, the platypus, the aardvark, the swan, the cricket? With a word, Adam made it so. And God saw that it was good. Each name made something new. Each name mattered. Each name was said out loud, and there is power in saying a name. We know it when we carefully choose names for children, for communities, even for pets. We know the power of a name when we remember our families, when we pray for friends, when we unroll the big family tree to tell their stories. To put a name to a face may have been Adam’s greatest task, and that power of words is still ours today. We so easily name things and they become reality: beautiful and ugly…safe and dangerous…high achieving and at-risk… We also so easily erase people and their stories by refusing to say their names, or to learn to say or spell them correctly. The words we use create our reality—and when we take names away rather than putting the name to the face, we use this power to tear down rather than to build up. This is why it matters so much that we say the names of those killed in the twin towers, or at Mother Emanuel church, or in the streets of our cities. This is why we encourage people to say the names of their children who die by suicide, or who never made it out of the womb. This is why the Vietnam Wall is one of the most powerful memorials in Washington DC. This is why names carry on through generations. Because God has trusted us with the power to create with a word—and when we put a name to a face, we make it real and give it meaning.

How we use that gift of power is, of course, up to us. Throughout history we have used our words wisely and poorly, to create and to destroy. We have torn down at least as much as we have built up. With this power comes responsibility—and it’s responsibility that God has shown us how to use.

Right here, in the beginning, God shows us what it means to be in this partnership: to care for the garden the same way God does, to tend and keep, stewarding the earth toward fruitfulness and beauty, ensuring justice and care. To keep our hands in the dirt, up close and personal with the creation God placed us in. To love each leaf, each whisker, each face, each body, the way God does.

God even gives us a physical lesson in what it means to be partners. When the animals have all been named, it is clear that they may be helpers, but they are not partners. There is an imbalance in the relationship. While we have often misused this story to suggest that Adam needed a subservient helper, the reality of the word ezer is that it is usually used to describe God: our helper. When we look at this kind of helping partnership, as it is described by the psalmist and the prophets, it becomes clear why it demanded so much of Adam. No true partner could be found among the creatures he had power over. Only when he gave something of himself, something real and costly and messy, could there be a partner. Real relationship requires something of us.

And isn’t this the whole story of scripture, really? Throughout the history of God’s people, God has trusted us to follow the example: to get down and dirty, to stay close, to share the holy breath of life, to use our words and our work to create alongside God. And throughout the story, God has given us God’s own self—offering us the very essence of partnership with the divine. Even when we have betrayed that trust and disregarded the gift, God has kept on offering, and trusting, and calling. Jesus gets God’s hands dirty again, touching the sick and reaching out to the outcast and mixing up mud that brings new life, breathing and teaching and walking and praying and giving…all the way to giving everything—even his own life—to bring us in as partners in this great cosmic and yet intimate enterprise of creating the world. It’s a messy thing, to grow a world. Even messier when you add the difficulties of real relationship and authentic community. But God stays with it, speaking and sculpting and trusting, all the way from in the beginning until the last breath. And we are made in God’s image, called to create and care, together.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Show Me -- a sermon on James 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Show Me
James 2.1-17
30 August 2015, Pentecost 2-7 (We Follow By Grace)

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


Last week we read from chapter 1 of James’ letter, which ended with him telling us to be doers of the word, not only hearers—and today we pick up where we left off, with James asking if we really believe what we say. Do we, with the ways we show favoritism and partiality, actually believe in the gospel? Do we believe what Jesus said and did?

All week, as I’ve been living in the very small space between these two chapters, I’ve been hearing a song in my head. Some of you may recognize it.

If you’re in love, show me.

This is James’ plea to us: if we love God, if we have known God’s love, then show me. All the words in the world cannot make up for even a single action. We can claim to be God’s chosen people, but if we then exclude others who are made in God’s image, what speaks louder? We can say that we have accepted Jesus’ love and forgiveness, but if we don’t forgive as we have been forgiven, do the words matter? We can believe all the right things and say all the right prayers and subscribe to all the right doctrine, but if we care more about some people than others, we have broken the central tenet of God’s law: to love others as we love ourselves.

We are people who have known amazing love, incredible grace. To count the ways God has blessed us would take all day and then some. When we consider what God has done in our lives, it’s almost as if we run out of words.

Which is okay, because James isn’t interested in our words. For a guy who is writing during a time when nailing down the doctrine, making sure people believed the right things and worshipped the right way, was of crucial importance, he is decidedly dismissive of the doctrine. While all around him raged debates about how to talk about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, debates about who is in and who is out, debates about how much of the Torah we have to keep, James says that the doctrine is not enough. Prayer is not enough. Attending a worship service is not enough. Keeping part of the law is not enough. While we bristle at the idea that God demands something of us, it is still true: God has given his all…and wants ours in return. God is love, and created us to be love too.

James is relentless in making his point—he tells a story that we shudder at, insisting we would never privilege the wealthy-looking person over the poor one. And that is probably true here—whether a person is in a three piece suit or sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt, they would be welcome in this room. What about when we aren’t in this room? When we’re at the office, at home, on the train, at a restaurant, at school, at the theater, watching the news—how do we react when someone of a different color, or different class, or different religious tradition appears? Do we love them the way we love ourselves? Or do we start to use loaded words like “thug” and “cheap” and “dangerous”, or to say words like “Muslim” and “poor” and “Mexican” with a tone that betrays our disdain and fear?

If you’ve been loved, show me.

James summarizes thousands of pages and thousands of years of scripture with one phrase: “God has chosen the poor.” While we are making judgments about who deserves what, God has opened the gates and offered space to all those the world has left out. Where we have spent hundreds of years constructing systems that make it difficult for people of color to thrive, and thousands of hours concocting requirements for getting help when the money runs short, and billions of dollars bombing homes and building fences, God has spent eternity loving every single being that has made its way into the universe, and preparing the kingdom to receive them.

When we are all tell and no show—or worse, when we tell one thing and show something different—we are as guilty as if we’d broken one of the Big Ten. For the whole law is summed up, according to Jesus, in two commandments: Love God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. And love is never just words.

If you’re in love, show me.

If we love our neighbors, we will work for their prosperity and safety alongside our own. If we love our neighbors, we cannot simply walk away shrugging our shoulders about generational poverty, gun violence, street gangs, language gaps, food deserts, rising sea levels, and drought or flood. If we love our neighbors, we will want them all to be housed and fed and educated and healthy. Otherwise, when we simply pray for peace and justice from our comfortable chairs, James says our faith is dead.

If you love God, show me, he says.

Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”

This is the Jesus truth: that love is stronger than anything else in the universe.

This is the Jesus way: to love God so much that he was obedient to God’s will all the way to death, loving God’s people even when they were torturing his body and spirit.

This is what James—or rather, Jesus—asks of us. To love as we have been loved—even when we don’t feel it, even when we would rather keep them over there, even when we’re not sure, even when they don’t deserve it.

Faith with works, together, is alive and vibrant. Our service is our worship. When we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way, we too will have the Jesus life. If you’re in love, show me.

May it be so.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

on the patio

Most weeks, I spend one day in "Coffice Hours"--working from the Starbucks, ideally the patio (though I'll go inside if I need an electrical outlet or to get warm!).

It's a good change of scenery and the people are interesting. Mostly I read and write and update the website and answer emails and talk to people. Though sometimes I don't talk to anyone at never know how the day's going to go.

A few weeks ago, it was a busy day on the Starbucks patio and every table was taken. A woman, casually but nicely dressed, medium build, walked through and stopped to talk to people, and when she got to my table I realized she didn't know everyone, she was looking for some help. She needed three more dollars to get a sandwich. Her sister had dropped her off downtown, with a borrowed cell phone, and gone to work. I didn't get to hear why she'd been dropped downtown--it seemed like perhaps she was going around putting in job applications, or maybe she was waiting for a train, I don't know.

In any case, a man, muscular and with a large number of tattoos, pierced ears, a muscle shirt and low-slung shorts handed her a cup of salted almonds and explained in patient patronizing tones how she needed to eat this protein and salt because it would be healthy for her and get the drugs out of her system, rather than asking for money for more drugs.

The woman protested that she didn't do drugs. The man asked why she had an iPhone if she couldn't afford a sandwich. Another man at a nearby table told the woman to go away or he would call the police.

One guess about the color of this woman's skin.


If I had gone to their table asking for $3, I suspect the assumption would have been that I left my wallet at home, or that my cash had blown out of my hand (it was a windy day), or that I'd just been caught short without my debit card.


I wanted SO MUCH to confront the man and ask why he assumed this woman was high, or dishonest, or deserved his patronizing scorn. I wanted very badly to speak up and defend her, and call out his racist assumptions and bad behavior.

But I didn't. And I am ashamed to say that. And I am further ashamed to say the reason:

Because he was a muscular man, with a lot of tattoos and piercings, wearing a muscle t and baggy shorts and half-tied shoes, and having shown himself to be a bit on the aggressive/belligerent side. It did not feel safe for me to confront him, any more than it felt safe for that woman.


He was white.


The woman left the patio. I don't know where she went, but I hope she came across someone who carried cash and compassion at the same time. I hope her sister had a good day at work, and was able to be supportive when she heard this story.

The man continued to talk, loudly, to his table mate and to the man at the next table, about her.

I continued to sit across the patio, simultaneously too angry and too worried about my own safety to do anything about it. Because assumptions play both ways.



Monday, August 24, 2015

Traditional--a sermon on James 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
James 1.17-27
23 August 2015, Pentecost 2-6

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

I frequently have conversations that involve the phrase “the traditional way.” Sometimes they are about communion—and how we should do it the traditional way. Sometimes they are about what time worship should be, or what style of music we should sing. Sometimes they are about what food shows up at a potluck—for instance, last week’s picnic lacked the traditional jello salads, much to at least one person’s surprise. Sometimes the traditions people have in mind are less benign—many believe that the traditional way excludes people from one thing or another. Still more believe that the main tradition of the church is asking for money.

Many of these conversations involve me asking the question “what do you mean by traditional?” Because for some people, passing trays of tiny cups of juice through the pews is the traditional way of serving communion, and for some people coming forward and being served by the pastor is traditional. For some people, traditional architecture is a cross-shaped sanctuary divided by columns and with very high stained glass windows, for others it is a whitewashed square room with clear windows. For some, traditional cookout food involves potato salad and watermelon, while for others it involves hot dogs and spaghetti.

Our traditional ways are, generally, the ways we remember doing things when we were younger. We apply our traditions to times past, forgetting that tradition morphs through the years, changing with the needs of the people who practice it. So traditional communion, for James, would have been a potluck where people brought food to the communion table and then shared a meal that included Jesus’s words about the bread of life and cup of salvation. Traditional music depends heavily on where we are—some might say that unaccompanied singing is the real tradition, others might say the pipe organ is truly traditional, while others use tambourines and percussion to make the traditional joyful noise.

Occasionally our traditions are more concerning. The tradition of the church grapevine, where gossip is recast as news and prayer. The tradition of the meeting after the meeting, where instead of talking to the person we have an issue with, we talk to everyone else. The tradition of arguing over the color of carpet or the location of pews. The tradition of cutting the mission budget first. The tradition of saying one thing on Sunday and doing another on Monday.

Before we all start protesting that we aren’t like that, we may want to take a moment to remember that, however awesome we are, we are not perfect. Those old stereotypes of church come from somewhere, and it’s likely we’ve played a part in them at some point or another.

And then we can look to James, and find the real issue laid out plainly in the first verse of today’s reading. While we cling to our traditions, both good and bad, we forget that they are just that—ours. And here James reminds us that all good gifts come from God, and our call is to be the first fruits of those kingdom seeds God has planted. James doesn’t give much thought to what we say we believe—he wants to see what we believe.

What happens to our traditions when we ask first what we have received from God? When we start from the list of blessings? What happens when we allow the word, planted in our souls, to take root and grow, and then we use that word as the starting point for our traditions?

After all, we would say that we believe all creation, all life, and all we have is a gift from God. How would someone see that belief in our action?

We would say that God is love and that Christ defeated death with grace. How would someone see that love and grace in our behavior?

We would say that every member of the body is equally important, equally created in God’s image, equally called to life with God, and equally equipped by the Spirit for their calling. If someone watched how we treat people with different skin color, different language, different religion, different abilities, would they see our faith?

Every family and community has traditions—some healthier than others, some more grounded in the Spirit than others, some reaching farther back than others. We might say things like “we are good Presbyterians, we do ___,” or “in this family, we always ______.” Because we belong to these communities, we do certain things. Today James has given us a glimpse of the traditions of the kingdom of God.

Because we are God’s people, living in God’s kingdom of grace, this is what we do:

*We give thanks. Everything is a gift, including our ability to earn, so we can never say we deserved something. Grace becomes gratitude.

*We are generous. Because we are grateful, because everything belongs to God, because we are called to be like Christ who gave everything for love of God’s world—gratitude becomes generosity.

*We listen more than we talk. Listen for the voice of God, listen for the voice of our neighbor, listen for the voice of the silenced, listen for the voice crying out for justice. We are the students of the greatest teacher, and so we listen.

*When we talk, it is with grace and humility. We share the love of God, and we speak up on behalf of those who cannot, but refuse to bully people into belief. The Spirit will give us the ability to speak.

*We practice healthy communication. We speak truth in love, directly to the person involved, never cloaking gossip in the self-righteous folds of “sharing concerns.” We are open and honest, so there is no dank corner where anger and hurt and disease can grow.

*We are tireless in caring for those who occupy the lowest rungs of society. We care for them directly and in big-picture ways, working for the day when the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, the addict, the black and brown, are not outcast but included, because we know their lives are just as important to the body as ours, and so should be treated with the same respect and care.

Imagine the world if this was what we meant when we talked about the traditional way: gratitude, generosity, listening, hopeful humility, honest sharing, including and caring for all.  This is true religion, this is who we are as members of God’s household, this is the kingdom way.

May we be doers of the word, not only hearers.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

__stand__ -- a sermon on Ephesians 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
__ stand __
Ephesians 6.10-20
16 August 2015, P2-5 (We Follow By Grace)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Stand firm. Take a stand. Stand up. Withstand.

I confess that I am usually one of those people firmly against using war metaphors for faith. Military clothing and tactics, battle imagery…it doesn’t seem to jive with following the Prince of Peace, the one who defeats death. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to pray for our enemies. The letters of Paul tell us to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness, to bear one another’s burdens, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, to work together the way a body works together, to turn swords into plows and rely on the power of love.

And yet in this stirring speech to end the letter, the writer of Ephesians—who, remember, is from the workshop of Paul—calls us to battle.

Or, more accurately, calls us to stand firm. To hold the line against those powers and principalities that would dearly love to claim every inch of culture and creation for their own purposes.

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the sword of God’s word…none of these are for attacking. None of them give us an ounce of power over another person on earth. And the battle is not against human beings anyway. There’s nothing here about fighting each other—it’s all about standing fast in the face of powers larger than any one of us.

Sometimes it seems that those who take a stand for truth and peace are indeed embattled in our world of spin and justification. Grace is often in short supply, and even two thousand years after Christ defeated death we still face death-dealing powers every day: powers of sexism and racism, of nationalism and greed, of fear and power-mongering and self-interest. These cosmic forces are so much bigger than any one of us, and even when we try individually not to give in to them, we can’t help it—it’s the water we swim in and the air we breathe.

These are not enemies of flesh and blood—there’s no one person or nation or religion or ethnicity we can fight. Nor should we—that is the opposite of our call.

Our call is to stand firm. To hold the line. To refuse to cede another inch to hate and fear, to violence and greed, to racism and sexism.

Easier said than done, I know. But here is some good news: this letter, remember, is addressed not to individuals, but to the whole community, the whole body of Christ—the church that is already doing this work and needs some encouragement to keep going. This is not about individuals tying each other up with the truth as we see it—it is about the whole body of Christ being held together by the truth of God’s love. It is about the whole body of Christ lacing up shoes that will carry us near and far with a message of peace. This is about the whole body of Christ wearing these gifts together, standing together.

The shield of faith is the perfect visual. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, everyone is shielded by the faith of others. And, as JOHN (not Paul) Bunyan noted in the Pilgrim’s Progress, there is no armor for the back or sides. There is no option to turn back, only to stand together. It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.

And stand we must. 
When the powers call for violence, we must stand together for peace. 
When the powers call for silence, we must stand together and speak. 
When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, we must stand firm for justice. 
When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, we must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.

The Body of Christ is clothed in the armor of God…in compassion and kindness, in willingness to bear one another’s burdens and to rejoice with those who rejoice, in the belief that every member of the body is equally important. 
Will we hold the line of justice when our brothers and sisters are killed in the streets, standing firm and speaking the truth that life, including black lives, matter to God and to us? 
Will we hold the line of hope when our culture is fractured into marketing segments, withstanding the onslaught of those who would divide and conquer with greed and self-interest, insisting on God’s desire for right relationship and wholeness? 
Will we plant our feet on peace when our leaders call for fear and violence as a means to achieve their ends, insisting that violence can never drive out violence—only love can do that?

It feels like an impossible task. And it is—but nothing is impossible for God. Remember when the Israelites left Egypt, and the Egyptian army pursued them to the banks of the sea—the people were terrified, and God spoke: “Stand firm, and see what the Lord will do.” We do not stand under our own power—we are gifted everything we need for this task. Now here, at the end of the letter, facing a world of uncertainty and persecution, comes the big speech. The one that the king gives as the army stands arrayed before him, to give them courage and hope as they make their stand.

In the classic allegory of the battle between good and evil, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series, the day comes when the men who stand for justice and peace are lined up outside the gates of Mordor, the land of shadows and terror and despair. They are surrounded and outnumbered by all the monsters of greed and hatred and violence and fear. And the king speaks to them before they hold the line to give Frodo a chance to accomplish the task of destroying death:

Hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
Today, we fight.
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!

Here in this place and time, in the bonds of fellowship and friendship, we make our stand, with prayer and action for God’s vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, truth, and grace.

May it be so. Amen.