Monday, February 08, 2016


Tonight I had dinner with a friend/colleague at an adorable little place on the adorable little square in Woodstock. It's a charming store front with careful architectural details dating back a century--a chocolatier (bean to bar) in front, and a bar/cafe at the back. Along the side are comfy chairs and a fake fireplace. At the back is an old-style bar, all shiny dark wood. They make delicious inventive cocktails and small plates combining flavors you would never expect (just like their chocolate does too).

It was a lovely dinner and great conversation ranging from sheep to church to travel to hobbies to luxurious experiences to books and back again.

And when we left, it was snowing onto the trees and brick streets and sidewalks lined with iron railings, with the old-school street lights giving off a warm glow, and the bank's readerboard said it was -76 degrees (hahahahah). As I brushed the snow off my car, classical music played over hidden speakers throughout the whole square. That's right--even at 8pm on a Monday night, when nearly no one is around, still they are playing Mozart in the town square.

As I drove home I thought about how very civilized the whole evening had been--from the music to the food and everything in between. It's the same feeling that makes me love The Thomas Jefferson Hour--because the theme music makes me feel so civilized and intellectual and normal. Which I realize could also be translated as "elite." But I think that's one of the things I like about both these experiences--that the civilized feel is accessible to everyone. The classical music is playing in the square. The podcast is free. The architecture is there for everyone to admire. The menu may not be accessible to many (it's one of those places where they make everything and use as much local stuff as possible, and that's not cheap but it is good for my neighbors and community and economy) but even just reading over the menu and its imaginative contents is an exercise in expanding the mind.

It so often feels like our culture is spinning out of control toward demagoguery and incivility. People are mean to each other on the internet and in person. It's almost impossible to be a woman online and not receive harassment or even death threats. Our politicians shout at each other and demean one another's person, not just disagree with their ideas. Our popular culture is full of violence. Our education system leans on tests rather than on education, cutting everything that can't be standardized.  (aside: watch this. Then do something to make sure every kid has a chance to connect their brains like this. it'll make the world a better place in so many different ways.)

And into the middle of that: Mozart was playing in the town square as snowflakes floated into the glowing light. Reminding me of who we really are, or at least who I want to be.

**yes, I realize that the way I'm using the word "civilized" is loaded with racial and cultural bias. I keep trying to find another word to encompass what I mean and I don't have one yet. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

lifesavers--a sermon for transfiguration sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Mark 8.27-9.8
7 February 2016, Transfiguration, NL2-22, Epiphany 6 (A-Ha Moments)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

This winter I have been reading a series of novels in which the main character is a scientist who travels the world studying dragons and getting into all kinds of scrapes and adventures along the way. She learns languages and makes friends in many cultures, she gets herself into and out of trouble, and she watches dragons underwater, on volcanoes, from ships, in trees, and flying through the air. She is working intensely to try to learn as much as possible about them, for a variety of reasons. After one particularly thrilling day of research, she has an incredible idea that seems to put all the pieces in place. She talks it over with a colleague, who agrees it is a real breakthrough deserving of more study…and so she writes an article and mails it off to a journal, from halfway around the world.

Within a few days of mailing the article, she sees something else, and her whole theory falls apart…but the mail is long gone and her own ship is far from port. By the end of the book, she is writing a new column retracting the previous one, and dealing with all the scrutiny and mockery that comes with her public confusion, even as she puts forth new and better research.

I couldn’t help but think of our Epiphany theme as I was reading about Lady Trent this weekend. The ups and downs of a-ha moments can be confusing! One minute, we see so clearly, and then when we have to integrate that new insight into our lives, everything seems so mixed up and muddy.

And so it is with Peter.

He has been watching Jesus, soaking up as much teaching as he can, seeing him heal bodies and communities against all odds. And in the middle of all the many temples to the god Pan that fill Caesarea Philippi, he sees so clearly, for just a moment, and in that moment Peter is the first to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah.

A few minutes later, he is plunged back into confusion as Jesus starts to talk about what this means. Peter understands all the words, but can’t make sense of them when they are put together. Surely Jesus can’t be serious.

So Peter, still giddy from his a-ha moment, knowing he got the right answer last time, decides to teach the teacher that this is no way to talk and really he should be careful not to mess up his Messiah-image.

He gets in front, and puts his idea of who Jesus is and what he should do ahead of what Jesus is actually saying. It’s like he published his essay when he only had half the information. He knew who Jesus was, but he hadn’t yet figured out what that meant.

Can you picture the scene? 11 disciples behind Jesus, following his steps and hanging on his every word. Peter in front of Jesus, telling him what to do.

And Jesus turns his body around and says “get behind me.”

Where disciples should be—right behind the rabbi, following his way.

Not in front, leading with their own agenda and ideas and preconceived notions. To be a follower of Jesus means following where he’s going, not leading him where we’re going. When Peter tried to be the leader rather than the follower, Jesus called him Satan—the adversary. Putting our own agenda, whether that is about what we want for ourselves or how we expect God to treat others or anything else, ahead of Christ’s agenda, means we are working against the kingdom, rather than for it. And Jesus reminds us of the difference between a disciple and an adversary: the disciple is behind Jesus, walking in his footsteps, not in front using our fear or our pride or our self-interest or our desire to block him from carrying out his mission. When we follow, we are never alone, and every place we go is a place Christ has been already.

So he calls the whole crowd—because Peter is all of us. To the whole crowd of people in this busy city—to all of us reading his words in the midst of our busy lives—Jesus explains what it means to be a follower of the Messiah.

They, and we, have seen what he does—his actions and his teaching, his priorities and consistency. The Messiah is the one who has been through every village in the country, touching unclean people, accepting foreigners, healing bodies that seemed irretrievably broken, putting communities back together in configurations no one knew they needed, teaching people a new way of living that isn’t defined by their status in the empire but by their status as people created in God’s image. The Messiah is the one who has fed every person and then some, who has inspired people to work together in ways they never imagined, and who has offered the same relationship and care to the poorest and the wealthiest, the Roman and the Jew, the religious leader and the bleeding woman.

This is the Messiah we follow. And in order to follow him, he says, we will have to lose our lives. If our priorities include strengthening our image, gaining wealth and power, saving our institution, or fretting about our security, we may hear those same words from Jesus: get behind me. You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Our human minds dwell on protecting our interests, climbing the ladder, assuaging our fear, getting what we want. But the divine mind seems to dwell on the people who are weak, unwanted, poor, rejected, despised. The divine mind seems to dwell on creating a world where no one goes hungry, no one is cast out, no one is judged even subconsciously by the color of their skin or the balance of their bank account or the size of their muscle or their accent or their win-loss record. It is this mind we are called to—the mind of Christ, who is the head of this body—and we are called to undertake his mission even at the risk of losing our life. Because when we try to save the way of life we like, we will lose the life that matters. Abundant life is possible, even now, but we will live into it only if we stop trying to win the good life we so often want instead.

Peter resumes his place behind Jesus. A week later, he and James and John hike up a mountain with Jesus and catch a glimpse of glory. They have a moment together, seeing just for an instant who Jesus is. And then Peter…god bless Peter…he gets out in front again, offering to build a village for them to live in together on top of the mountain, where people can take pilgrimages to see the holy men. And once again I can just picture Jesus’ face as he looks up to heaven in exasperation: seriously? This time God’s voice comes from the clouds: This is my Son—listen to him.

Listen to him.

Set aside what you think you know, and listen to him.
Let go of how he should work, and listen to him.
Take off the mask of “fine” and listen to him.
Lay down the burden of safety and self-interest, and listen to him.
Put away your shame and your pride, and listen to him.

Jesus said, those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Jesus said, love God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus said, give to God what is God’s.
Jesus said, bring them to me—outcast, disposable, useless, dirty, homeless, unlovable, children, women, foreigners. Faith has restored you to wholeness.
Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last will be first.
Jesus said, love your enemies.
Jesus said, I will be with you, I will go before you, do not be afraid.
Jesus said, you give them something to eat.
Jesus said, get behind and come, and follow me.

May we hear and obey. Amen.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Prayer for MLK interfaith breakfast

I had several people ask me to post this after I prayed it this morning, so here it is. Offered at the Faithbridge MLK interfaith prayer breakfast.
the whole crowd!

Holy God, 
we give you thanks for this day that you have made 
and for this community you have called together. 
As we come in out of the cold, 
we are mindful of those with nowhere else to go. 
As we join in conversation, 
we are mindful of those who are alone. 
As we enjoy a delicious meal, lovingly prepared, 
we give thanks for your bounty— 
of the earth producing food,  
of talented people using their gifts to help us taste and see that you are good— 
and also we are mindful of those who are hungry, 
those who are desperate for even a cup of clean water, 
those who make cookies from mud to feed their children, 
those who wonder how to make ends meet in the second half of the month. 
Put our wealth at the service of the poor, 
and our fullness at the service of the empty, 
for we know that you never intended your human family to live with this divide.  
You are a font of mercy and a source of hope— 
nourish us this morning not only with the fruit of your creation 
but also with  the fruit of the spirit. 
Feed our minds with wisdom and our hearts with understanding.  
Guard us from the temptation of repeating beautiful words with no intent to act on them, 
and from the temptation of whitewashing and sanitizing your prophets 
until they are comfortable for us. 
We come to remember, and to celebrate, and to be transformed. 
Give us ears to hear and then hands ready to work, 
for the good work you began in our brother Martin is not yet complete. 
Today, people will be executed without a trial in the streets of our cities. 
Today, our neighbors will feel the fear in the eyes of the privileged.  
Today, our children will be judged at first sight. 
Today, our leaders will pretend there is no problem. 
Today, casual conversation will betray our mistrust of the other. 
Even today, the day we set aside to celebrate and remember, 
is awash in the sins of racism and greed, sexism and self-centeredness. 
Use this time to strengthen us for the work ahead. 
We come seeking your beloved community— 
create it here once again. 
Use our uniqueness to bond us together in interdependence, 
and our differences to weave into a tapestry of new creation. 
And send us out with new friends,  
ready to see each person in your image, 
as a neighbor in this global community. 
Change the world through us, until all people and all creation know the abundance of enough. 
We thank you, Holy One, 
for we know that you will do this. 
several of the board of Faithbridge, with Dr. Larry Greenfield, keynote speaker (left)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Powerball--a sermon on the parables of the sower

Rev. Teri Peterson
Mark 4.1-34
17 January 2016, NL2-19 (Epiphany 3—aha moments)

Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
   and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’
 And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
 He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’
 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

This week, for the first time in my life, I bought a lottery ticket. In spite of the way I usually feel about the lottery, I joined the throngs of people in hoping against hope that a couple dollars would magically multiply into a billion.

It seems like human nature, almost, to want a big return on a small investment. To spend two dollars and end up with $450 million after taxes seems like a pretty good deal.

Except, of course, that the odds of winning are 1 in 292 million. And there were 371 million tickets sold for the big Wednesday Powerball drawing, with only three of those being jackpot winners. But none of that matters in the middle of the frivolous hope of winning. For just a moment, at 9:59pm, anything is possible.

What we would do with the money was a common topic of conversation all last week. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were discussing how they would spend such a massive amount of money.

I realize I move in unusual circles, but I was encouraged by how many people talked about how they would give the money away—people were discussing their favorite charities and causes dear to their hearts. I overheard conversations about malaria research, clean water, sustainable housing solutions, churches, supporting women’s education, and feeding hungry people. It was fascinating to listen to people daydream about how to be generous. It was as if, for just a moment, we imagined that we could truly be the farmer who scatters seeds far and wide, hoping that they would do some good even if we didn’t see it ourselves.

Of course, we can be that person anytime—scattering seeds of hope, love, grace, peace, and justice even if we can’t scatter checks with many zeroes. The farmer in the parable of the sower doesn’t stop to see if the ground is prepared, or worthy—he just spreads the seed everywhere and lets God, the creator and master gardener, handle the rest.

The second parable of the sower—the one where the person scatters seed and it grows while she sleeps—is only found in Mark. No one else tells this story where Jesus says that the kingdom grows automatically without our aid or intervention. Automatic is the word he uses, even—that the earth produces of itself, automatically. Because the seed was scattered, it will grow. It’s what God does—turns the scattered seeds of the word into fruit that can feed a multitude. Through the prophet Isaiah God says “my word will not return to me empty.” No matter where it falls, and whether we realize it or not, the word is at work. We may be simply going about our lives, while the seeds are deep in the damp darkness, breaking open and sending out shoots that reach down into the nutritious depths and up toward the light. It’s a mystery we cannot control, no matter how hard we try.

In fact, even the scattering of seed may have been unintentional in this second sower story. It does not seem that the person is a farmer, purposely planting a field. Instead it seems to be one of those things that happens in the course of life—a basket’s weave becomes loose, a pocket has a tiny hole, and seeds are scattered. It isn’t until they grow that we even realize they have been planted.

What if this is what the kingdom is like? Throughout our days, we are dropping seeds all over the place. Most of the time, they are unintentional. The way we treat the grocery store clerk. The expression we give the loud person on the train. The tone of voice we use with a coworker or a teacher or a student. The story about a neighbor we share over dinner. The way we respond to a racist joke or a sexist stereotype. The words we choose when we are frustrated. We know that children pick up the smallest things in the way we interact with each other. What if those same seeds are still planted throughout our lives? We never know who is observing us in the checkout line or on the train or at the library or in the parking lot. All along the way, every day, we are scattering seeds. And without our controlling them, they are growing—hopefully they are seeds of God’s love and grace and justice and peace; kingdom seeds. We won’t know until they start to bear fruit, but by then we may have moved on and never see the results…but others will. And every fruit bears more seeds, perpetuating the cycle.

Right before he tells this little story of the inadvertent sower, Jesus gives us the key to the parable: “the measure you give will be the measure you get. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” So often this feels so disturbing and wrong. If it’s about physical resources, it is horrifying—even what they have will be taken away. If it’s about faith, it’s still awful. If it’s about God’s blessing, it’s just about the worst thing ever, to think that those who have little would have even that little bit snatched away from them.

But when we read it together with the second sower parable, it becomes more clear: The seeds we sow are also the seeds we grow. When we sow seeds of grace, we also grow in grace. Not that we receive more because of the way we approach the world and interact with each other, but that our practice of graciousness increases our own sense of grace and gratitude. The more grace we give, the more we experience. The more justice we work for, the more justice becomes a part of us. The more peace we make, the more we have.

And if we are sowing seeds of fear, or miserliness, or discord, that is also what will increase in us. When we interact with the world from a place of unexamined privilege, or from a mindset of scarcity, then we end up perpetuating injustice, shutting people out when God is welcoming them in. And then our scarcity and our fear becomes our reality—because even what little graciousness we have withers up under the scorching heat of our self-focused desires.

This weekend we remember Martin Luther King Jr, and hopefully while we remember the big dreams and lofty goals, the massive marches and stirring speeches, we also remember that he never said only big things matter. Yes, we need to work for big things—for liberty and justice for all, for an end to a socio-political system that privileges some over others, for a change to a culture in which some people are automatically suspicious. We also need to remember that big changes sometimes come through small steps. Every time we refuse to be suspicious of a neighbor, we drop a seed. Every time we stand up for someone who has been excluded, we drop a seed. Every time we write a senator, speak to someone others ignore, buy something made locally, and choose not to use violent language, we drop seeds. And the way we judge each other, the way we treat each other, the posture from which we approach the world—it will grow in us, too. If we judge each other with grace, treat every person with respect, approach the world with peace, we will soon find grace and respect and peace welling up and bearing fruit in our own lives. It may be dangerous—the world is afraid of those whose lives are evidence of a still more excellent way, and fear takes over just as surely as love. But imagine if every one of us was scattering kingdom seeds, instead of fear and greed seeds. It would add up to an amazing harvest.

Pay attention, Jesus says. Pay attention to how you listen, how you hear, how you speak, how you act. Pay attention, because those seeds you scatter throughout your days will grow in your own life as well. Make sure they are kingdom seeds. But then stop trying to control how they grow. The thing about the kingdom of God is that it is not the kingdom of me, not the kingdom of the church…it is about God’s authority in our lives as individuals and a community, it is about God’s power in the world, and it is almost never going to accord with what I think is best for me. God has a bigger picture and a greater good in mind, and God’s word never returns empty.

Like powerball, these seeds are a tiny investment with a huge return. Unlike powerball, the odds are very good, and we have already been given all the riches we could ever need. So now that we are done daydreaming about how to give away millions of dollars we’ll never have, it’s time for us to actually live the same generosity we have already experienced, and practice planting kingdom seeds with every look, every word, every vote, every interaction, no matter how small. We can scatter grace far and wide, and we can trust that God will use every seed wisely, to its fullest potential—both where it lands, and in us—to produce a harvest that will be full of glory and praise.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Full to Bursting--a sermon on Mark 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Full to Bursting
Mark 2.1-22
10 January 2016, Epiphany 2 (A-ha! moments), NL2-18

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
 Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’

This past summer I spent a morning picking 17 pounds of strawberries at a farm out in Woodstock. A few days later, I spent an evening turning much of that into freezer jam.
I’d never made it by myself before, so naturally I called my grandma for help. She’s worked with the Extension office for more than 30 years, so talking people through their kitchen questions is kind of her deal. As we were talking and I was making jam, she reminded me repeatedly not to fill the jars too full.

Now, my grandma is already sort of prone to repeating things. But this time she was doing it on purpose, because she could picture my freezer if I filled them to the top and then packed them carefully in the drawer….only to be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of sadness coming from the kitchen.

It almost feels like Jesus is the extension office grandma at the end of today’s reading, repeating the wisdom of the ages: don’t sew new unwashed cloth as a patch on old clothes, because when it shrinks it’ll tear away and you’ll be sad you wasted all that work only to have a worse problem. Don’t put new wine into your old wineskins, because when it keeps fermenting it’ll expand and…well…it would be like jam and glass exploding all over the freezer. Use new wineskins for the new wine, that way they’ll have room to expand, and they’ll be full nearly to bursting, but they won’t break. They will be flexible enough to stretch and accommodate the yeast growing inside.

Everything seems full to bursting in Mark’s gospel. Every page is packed with action. In just two chapters we’ve already heard about him calling, teaching, healing, eating, praying, and getting into trouble. He has attracted attention and there are crowds of fans everywhere he goes, even at his own home.

Mark tells us that Jesus—having taking the disciples off to other towns at the end of chapter one—has come home, and people have heard about it. Soon the house is mobbed with people eager to hear, to be healed, and even some to spy. So many people wanted to see and hear Jesus that there was no room for even one more person, even in the doorways and out in the courtyard. But four guys are determined to bring their friend into the house, one way or another.

Notice that the paralyzed man never speaks. We have no idea if he wanted to come to Jesus, or if he could even imagine wanting. We don’t know what happened to him or if he wants to be healed. He lays there, unable to move, and his friends do all the work. And work it is—they climb up onto the roof, where there might be some space for sleeping out in the cool sea air, until they get their hands into the mud and thatch and start tearing it apart.

Surely the people in the house noticed. There had to be dust and pebbles and grass falling down from the ceiling, and strange noises coming from above. But like any good preacher, Jesus keeps going in spite of the distraction, until suddenly there’s a person being lowered in front of his eyes.

And when Jesus turns his eyes toward the hole in his roof, he doesn’t see the effort and cost to fix it. He doesn’t see vandals or thugs peering through. He looks up and he sees faith. Those four had the trust and perseverance to do whatever it took to bring their friend to Jesus. And Jesus, who doesn’t even know if the paralyzed man wanted to come or not, looks at the faith of his friends and then looks at him and assures him: your sins are forgiven. Jesus declares God’s forgiveness, which is already present and…well…that wasn’t a popular move.
It’s one thing when he’s a healer and teacher, and another thing when he’s acting like a priest, or even worse, like God. When Jesus sees the faith of the friends, and then sees into the hearts of the scribes, and tells the man to get up and walk…it’s too much. They can’t take all this new reality in at once, and some of them are amazed, and some glorify God, and some go out and plot.

I have a friend who says that the key to leadership is managing disappointment—leaders need to be careful to disappoint people at a pace they can handle. Change is hard, and none of us like it very much. There’s a reason we keep doing those comfortable things over and over again. Each new thing brings with it grief over the loss of the old, and leaders have to be careful to manage that grief, allow time and space to incorporate each new shift before moving on.

No one seems to have told Jesus about this key leadership principle.

He’s already expelled a demon in the synagogue, touched a leper, and abandoned his fans with no warning. People can see and feel and hear that he is different—that he brings authority and power and grace. He isn’t all that interested in accepting limits just because someone says they’re so.

Now he declares forgiveness without the man ever confessing anything, he calls a tax collector for a disciple, and then feasts with said tax collector and his friends.

The epiphanies are coming too fast for people to handle. Jesus is breaking all the rules, coloring outside the lines, and while some people can go along with some of this new way, it’s also clear that there are plenty who can’t get on board. He isn’t following the practices of other holy men and their disciples. He isn’t being careful about his religious cleanliness. He doesn’t seem to care who his dinner companions are.

Or rather, he does care who his dinner companions are—he just cares for the wrong people. He should be inviting over the other teachers and priests and holy people. Or at the very least other healers. But instead he’s dipping his hand into the same hummus dish with those people. You know the ones—the ones we try not to make eye contact with, the ones we pity and patronize, the ones we feel perfectly free to judge. Those people, with the wrong job, the wrong skin color, the wrong family configuration, the wrong accent, the wrong religion, the wrong budget priorities.

Those people.

They are the ones Jesus invites to his dinner table. They are the ones Jesus calls his friends.

And the upstanding citizens, the ones who go to church every week, who have the means of washing their clothes and educating their children…they’re standing paralyzed, looking in the window, assuming that Jesus got it wrong and they should be the ones sharing nice wine, passing a dish of figs, and telling stories around the table.

The irony here is that there’s plenty of room, if only we would be flexible like a new wine skin. Flexible enough to admit our need, and to see the image of God in those who are different, and to accommodate ideas that don’t fit our limited understanding of God. The kingdom of God is at hand, and like yeast it will grow within us and between us and among us…and when the kingdom grows, we need to be ready to stretch, fast. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to understand or to come to terms with his new way of doing things—he works faster than we want to deal with it, fast enough that things could get broken along the way if we don’t stretch ourselves and our world to the new shape he wants to make.

When we try to fit God’s new thing into the old wineskin, attempting to control God with our human ideas, we end up paralyzed, and we can’t see a way in to where Jesus is gathered with those people. Worse—we may not want to. And that’s where our friends come in—friends who aren’t afraid to just pick up and do it, to try something crazy and tear off the roof, to let the dust fall where it may. Those friends, those leaders, will pick up the paralyzed Christian and the paralyzed church and let us down through the roof into a new wineskin, which is full to bursting but still has plenty of stretch. There, at the feet of Jesus, he will call us back to ourselves, name us sons and daughters who are loved and forgiven, and we will take up our mat and walk right into the kingdom of God.

May it be so.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Trust--a sermon for Advent 4

Rev. Teri C Peterson
Luke 1.5-13, 18-22, 57-80
20 December 2015, Advent 4, NL 2-15

 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.
 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
   in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were getting on in years. They probably knew it was Zechariah’s last time in the rotation of priests called to offer sacrifices and prayer at the Temple. He would make this journey, and he would do his duty, serving God and people, and when he journeyed home he might still do a few things around the local synagogue now and then, but he wasn’t likely to have extensive work duties anymore.

I wonder what Elizabeth did while he was away, with her last chance for a little peace and quiet. I’m sure she knew that when her husband retired, nothing would be the same. Especially with no children or grandchildren around, the transition to just the two of them at home all the time…well, I suspect that it was as rocky then as it is now for many couples!

Imagine her surprise when he returned home and said nothing.

I suspect there are some couples who would find the unexpected silence a beautiful and joyous thing, especially in those early days of retirement.
And some might find it unnerving, at least at first.

We don’t know what Zechariah did to communicate with Elizabeth. Perhaps he wrote on tablets for her—though it’s unlikely that she could read. Maybe he was a very good mime. Or maybe she was so happy to have some time to think her own thoughts that it didn’t matter what he wanted to say. Either way, the silence was always there.

This Advent season we have been exploring different ways to give voice to God’s promise—we’ve heard about when the Israelites rediscovered God’s law and they spent time together listening to God’s word, we’ve pondered how to speak God’s unending faithfulness to a people who are fickle and shallow in comparison to God’s grace, we’ve persevered in following God’s call in the midst of opposition and heartache. In many ways, today’s story feels the most like the theme—because it ends with Zechariah literally giving voice to God’s promise. He sings this song that tells all that God has done and proclaims this great faith in what God will do. Our candlelighting liturgy says “God’s promise is the foundation of all life”—reminding us of true reality, and our job to find ways to make God’s love known and seen in the world. With his song, Zechariah is practically the poster child for Advent 2015: Giving Voice to God’s Promise. He lifts up his voice and lets the word be heard, echoing through him, his family, his town, and history.

But I think it’s possible that the real lesson in Zechariah’s story comes not from his amazing song, but from the silence which precedes it—a silence that probably lasted about a year.

Zechariah, as a priest, was probably used to knowing just what to say. But when Gabriel appeared in the inner sanctuary and gave him the news that he and Elizabeth would have a son after all these years…well, he did not say the right thing.

I am often asked why Zechariah’s question got him punished, while Mary’s question to Gabriel got her an answer. On the surface, it really does seem as if both of them, in their encounters with the angel, responded in the same way, but the angel Gabriel reacted very differently. Why?

Zechariah meets Gabriel in the inner sanctuary, next to the altar—a place where ordinarily no one was allowed, so he should have known something special was happening. When he hears Gabriel’s news of an impending son who will be a great prophet, he asks, “How will I know?” Or in the newest English translation, the Common English Bible, he says “How can I be sure?” Mary meets Gabriel in the midst of everyday life. Some traditions suggest he met her at the town well, others in her kitchen. In any case, he delivers the news that she will bear the Son of God, and Mary asks “How will this happen?”

Mary’s question seems to be one of mechanics—how will this thing be accomplished? To ask that question, she must have already known it could and would happen—she simply wanted to know what any young person might want to know. Would she have to break her engagement vows? Will it hurt?

Zechariah’s question is one of control—how will he know? How can he be sure this thing is really going to happen? It seems like he doesn’t want to get his hopes up again, after so many years of disappointment and grief, so he is looking for certainty for himself.

In other words: Zechariah’s question reveals his fear, while Mary’s reveals her trust. Mary’s question is a “yes, and…” response, while Zechariah offers Gabriel a “yes, but…” When we are acting out of fear, we often try to get concrete answers, to control outcomes, and to force certainty. Zechariah did not trust that God could or would do this thing—he needed personal certainty if he was going to walk home and face his wife with this news.

We usually read the silence as a punishment, but what if it was a gift? Without his voice, Zechariah has no choice but to trust. He cannot explain himself. He cannot explain things away. He cannot control situations with his intellect or his witty conversation. He cannot defend himself. He can’t force his way. All he can do is listen.

For many months, Zechariah listens. He can see God’s grace taking root in his own house, he can hear the buzz in the square. He must have become very attuned to the excitement and fear and wonder and joy all mingled together everywhere…and to the voices of the women like Elizabeth and Mary, who have space to speak boldly since Zechariah can’t. He, the man of the house, the priest who was chosen for the highest honor, the elder of the community, is silenced, and for perhaps the first time, he has to really pay attention to life, to people, and to God.

At last, John is born and named. Zechariah listens to the wonder and fear of his neighbors…and then finds his voice again. And his first words are a song of trust beyond imagining—he sings of all God’s promises to care for the people, to save them from oppression and fear, to deliver them into abundant life and light. And he sings of all those promises in the past tense. Not “God will do this” but “God has done this.” He sings of God’s goodness as a present reality, and God’s redeeming grace as something that has already been accomplished. Finally able to heed the angel’s instruction to not be afraid, he gives voice to God’s promises fulfilled.

This trust is born out of silence. To trust God at this level—the level where we can see, know, and freely proclaim God’s promises as true reality, and to act from that reality rather than from our fear—we need significant practice letting go of all our means of control and certainty, defense and manipulation. It takes work to move from saying to God “yes, but…” toward saying “yes, and…”, to accept the premise of God’s word and move forward with that into the new thing God is doing in our midst.

That is the practice of Advent—to be still and know God, to listen in the deepening darkness and watch what God can do in the world and people around us, and then to go where God is going. Advent preparation is not about busying ourselves so we can celebrate—it is about emptying ourselves so we can be filled. As the day of God’s birth draws near, let’s listen, and persevere, and trust—and then speak.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’”

May it be so.