Sunday, July 29, 2018

Going in circles: a sermon

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s 
Going in Circles
Matthew 11.28-30, Philippians 4.4-9
29 July 2018, O Sing To The Lord 9

129 The Lord is King
547 What a friend we have in Jesus
96 Psalm 139 You are before me
580 Abide with me
556 I need thee every hour
465 Be Thou my vision


‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’


Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

~~~~~

“Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul writes. It feels pretty close to impossible to follow this piece of advice in a world full of fake news designed to cause anxiety, and real news that is frightening enough as it is. Between social media, politicians, and advertising, plus actual world events and natural disasters, it’s hard to imagine saying “do not be anxious about anything.” 

Yet there it is, coming from an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, from a people terrorised in the name of enforcing a particular type of peace, exploited for the gain of the few...and within that, from a people whose new faith was persecuted and on the brink of being illegal, and from a letter writer who was in prison. I imagine that people receiving Paul’s letter for the first time probably also thought this was impossible advice. “Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul? It seems there is always plenty to be anxious about in this world.

We have heard about taking up the yoke of Jesus, joining him in the work he is doing, and learning from him how to walk his way. What I didn’t tell the children is what happens when the two animals yoked together don’t figure out how to work together. If the weaker or inexperienced member of the pair doesn’t follow the lead of the stronger one and begin to pull his weight, then they end up going in circles. 

Which sounds like a description of anxiety, doesn’t it? 

It seems quite the paradox, to say “take up my yoke and you will find rest.” Yokes are for working animals. And they work hard, plowing fields or pulling carts. Even when they work together, they still get tired. Is it easier to pull the plow or cart with two oxen rather than one? Yes, of course. They can certainly work for longer that way, and be more efficient. But it’s still work, not rest. 

It matters that we read carefully. It’s very easy to hear “I will give you rest” and assume that Jesus will just handle everything, and we can sit back and relax. Or worse, we can just do whatever we want, because God will work it all out in the end anyway. That’s how we end up exploiting creation, assuming God will take care of it so we don’t have to, and how we find ourselves in a world where people’s understanding of Christian faith is defined by abuse and narrow-mindedness because they’ve never heard the good news. Jesus didn’t say “I’ll do all the work and you can just rest.” Remember what happens when one member of the yoked team doesn’t pull their weight: we go in circles. We create our own anxiety.

No, Jesus said “I will give you rest for your souls.” Join him in the work, learn from him, move in the same direction, step at the same time, pull with the same effort, and we will go forward into God’s future, out of the circles of anxiety. There’s work to do, but we don’t have to try to do it alone: the Lord is near, and if we can just follow his lead, he’ll show us a more excellent way.

It sounds so simple, but we all know there’s more to it than just cliche platitudes that sound pious but don’t penetrate our minds and hearts. And I’m not talking here about clinical depression and anxiety, which are real medical issues that require medical care and have nothing to do with how faithful we are, and are also not well-served by admonishing one another to pray more or to stick close to Jesus, and then leaving it at that. In fact sometimes I think those who live with mental illness and yet keep even a thread of a spiritual connection to God are those with far deeper faith than anyone realises. 

What I’m talking about is all those times we have been in the midst of stress or anxiety or a difficult moment at work or in the world, and we have heard or said things like “let go and let God” or “just have faith” or “everything happens for a reason,” making it sound like it’s easy and simple, a matter of willpower, and we can just flip a switch and do it, and then everything will be alright. 

The reality is that the life of faith takes practice. Jesus said “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Every inexperienced ox in the yoke takes time to learn to get in sync with its experienced partner. That’s true for us too—when we take up Jesus’ yoke, it takes practice to learn to feel his presence beside us, to sense when he’s moving one way or another, to step in rhythm and breathe together, to pull at the same moment and relax at the same moment. That’s why Paul writes “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” When we think about these things, we are training ourselves to see God, and to follow Christ’s lead. 

Compared to this list, most of what I think about would constitute anxiety, I think. If I had a way of measuring percentages, I suspect I would find my brain does not spend a majority of its time on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. Even when I’m not feeling anxious, there is a lot more going in circles than this. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. 

It’s hard to imagine focusing on what is lovely and admirable and true and excellent when the world news is full of things that are quite the opposite. But perhaps that’s part of the issue—the powers and principalities of this world would prefer that we go in circles, and so we are easily manipulated into focusing on everything but God’s big picture. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the world, because of course we should. But when we lose sight of the goal of God’s justice and peace, of the commandment to love neighbour and enemy and self, and of Jesus’ method of hospitality and storytelling and grace, we go in circles of anxiety. Meanwhile the unscrupulous gather more power and wealth and the poor and the planet are both exploited for others’ gain. And we find ourselves thinking more and more about things that are not lovely or admirable or true or praiseworthy.

Yet even when we are going in circles of unfocused attention and un-peaceful activity, God is still speaking, and Jesus is still on the other side of the yoke trying to teach us the way. At no point are we left alone, abandoned to our own devices. At any moment we could tune in and find ourselves in step again. And the more we practice, the more often we will find ourselves in those moments of connection, and the better we will become at living from that spiritual reality. 

Today’s selection of people’s favourite hymns are all about this practice—trying to see God’s presence with us in the midst of the everyday, and allowing Christ to lead us. They are a reminder of Paul’s instruction to bring everything to God in prayer, rather than wandering in circles of our own anxious devising. And they give us a glimpse of the peace that is possible. The next three hymns in particular invite us to practice the presence of God. One of them, which we will sing during the offering, was actually written by a woman who one day felt a particularly strong sense of God’s presence during her daily household tasks, and so wrote these verses and gave them to her minister. Reading her story reminded me of the book by Brother Lawrence called “practicing the presence of God,” in which he teaches us to give each thing we do our full attention. When we are washing the dishes, be washing the dishes, and be alert to God’s presence in the task. If we are thinking about the cup of tea we’ll have when we finish, then we may miss the chance for wonder at the beauty of soap bubbles...and then when we drink our tea, we’ll be thinking about the next task, and we may miss the chance to be grateful for the warmth of holding the cup...and so on until we find that we come to the end of our lives without actually living a single moment of them. 

To truly be “in the moment” is a difficult thing, but worth the effort. Because this moment is all we have, and it is where we will find God whispering, and Jesus working beside us, and the Spirit breathing in our hearts. 

As we practice noticing God’s presence, I invite you this week to do what Paul instructs: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. And then take it one tiny step further: each day, tell someone something lovely that you have seen. Perhaps by writing a few things you are grateful for on your facebook page, or sharing a photo or a story of something that happened that day. Perhaps by phoning a friend and telling them about a moment of grace or beauty. You could draw a picture, send an email, leave a note in someone’s door...there are loads of ways to share. The main thing is this: when you see or think of something true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, share it. Because there is a lot of the opposite in the world, and we can all use the help in redirecting our attention and our thoughts. This way we can all practice together, and lift up those moments of grace, and so find ourselves moving together in sync with the Holy Spirit, walking not in circles, but in Jesus’ way.


May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Purpose, presence, and power—a sermon on exodus 3-4 & Luke 10

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s 
Purpose, Presence, and Power
Exodus 3.1-15, 4-1-17, Luke 10.1-11
24 June 2018, O Sing To The Lord 4

448 Shine, Jesus shine
189 Be still, for the presence of the Lord
557 O Love that wilt not let me go
153 Great is thy faithfulness
531 Shout to the Lord
Great Big God


Exodus 3.1-15, 4-1-17 (NIV)
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.’
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’
And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’
‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’
But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’
And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’
Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you.”’
God also said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.”
‘This is my name for ever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.
Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, “The Lord did not appear to you”?’
Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’
‘A staff,’ he replied.
The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’
Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.’ So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. ‘This,’ said the Lord, ‘is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has appeared to you.’
Then the Lord said, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous – it had become as white as snow.
‘Now put it back into your cloak,’ he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
Then the Lord said, ‘If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.’
Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’
The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’
But Moses said, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.’
Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand so that you can perform the signs with it.’

Luke 10.1-11 (Common English Bible)
After these things, the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go. He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way. Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’

~~~~~~~~~~

On the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, George Matheson, minister at Innellan, not far from here, returned home from his sister’s wedding, though the rest of his family stayed overnight in Glasgow. In the midst of the happiness of the occasion, he was also sad as he remembered the day twenty years earlier when he had told his fiancĂ©e about his rapidly advancing blindness, and she had declared she did not want to be married to a blind man and left. 

Later, reflecting on that evening, he wrote:

“My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time....
It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.
I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.”

A few months later, the poem was published in Life and Work. Two years after that, a committee wished to add it to the hymnal, but there were no tunes in that metre. The editor took the text with him when visiting a friend in the manse at Brodick, and after reading it a few times he wrote a tune so quickly that he later said “the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.”

It’s fascinating that both the words and the tune came so quickly, like a gift, and that both writers were open enough to receive that gift, so that 135 years later, we can continue to sing O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, and still find it both beautiful and meaningful.

I think it is a coincidence that both tune and text were composed in manses. There’s no special power in a manse, of course, much though I might wish otherwise. But it is interesting that both revelations were received at home, in the course of everyday life—visiting a friend, coming home from a family wedding. 

We rarely think of the burning bush story that way, but it too is a story of being open to God in the midst of everyday life. Moses was going about his business, being a shepherd. He took care of the flocks, moved them from place to place to ensure they had enough to eat and enough to drink, and protected them from predators in the wilderness. It was there, when he was at work, that something caught his eye and piqued his curiosity enough that he turned off the path to see, and found himself unexpectedly on holy ground.

Reading this story always makes me wonder: what else had God tried to get Moses’ attention, before setting a bush on fire? I often hear people say they wish they could have a burning-bush moment, where God’s presence and call would be so clear to them. But what if God is trying to get our attention all the time, and we haven’t seen, or been willing to turn aside from business as usual? 

When God appeared to Moses that day, the encounter didn’t go as smoothly as it did for the hymn writers we’ve been hearing about. Moses was receptive to the presence of God, and even to the power of God, but not so much to the purpose of God. Or, more specifically, to God’s purpose for him. He may have been fine with the idea of God freeing the Israelites from slavery...but did it have to be him? After all, he didn’t even know God’s name. And the people probably wouldn’t believe him anyway. And he stuttered. And, frankly, he didn’t want to go.

God has a patient answer for each of the excuses—from revealing God’s name, to giving Moses power to perform signs and miracles, to reminding Moses who it is who makes speech possible. But in the end, Moses has to be honest that these are just excuses. He has tried, and failed, to pretend, but God is never fooled by our pretence, and God’s purpose will not be thwarted.

That is also something I noticed in today’s gospel reading. When the disciples arrive in a place, Jesus tells them to join in the normal everyday life there—to eat and drink, to talk to people, to accept hospitality, and to visit the sick. It is there, in doing regular life together, that they will be able to point out the presence and power of God in their midst. Not in special places, or carefully designed moments, but over dinner and in the market and at the bedside. The task given to these followers of Jesus is to direct people’s attention to where God can be seen, to what God is doing. And if people won’t turn aside to see, if they are too set in their ways to receive the blessing, then leave them with this word: “even so, know this: the kingdom of God has come to you.” I have probably read this story a hundred times and never noticed that instruction, to leave them with good news: whether people will receive it or not, whether people will notice it or not, God is already present and God’s purpose will continue to work itself out.

When Moses directed his attention to that burning bush, God told him the divine name, which is often translated as “I am who I am.” It’s a tricky name, because it’s a form of the verb “To Be” which is the foundational verb of language—without it, we almost can’t speak at all. I have learned five languages in addition to my own, and every time To Be is the first verb we learn, because it has so many forms and appears in nearly every sentence. But the form that is God’s name, which isn’t used anywhere else, isn’t clear about tense. It could mean “I am who I am.” Or it could mean “I will be who I will be.” Or some scholars say it is best translated “I am who I will be” or “I will be who I am.” 

In other words, the name of God is simultaneously ephemeral and persistent... foundational yet always moving... it can’t be pinned down, but it also can’t be lived without. Ever present, and also elusive, a mystery that is both everyday and powerful.

The disciples are trying to direct attention to that reality: that God is doing something, right there, in the middle of their workaday lives, trying to open people’s curiosity to see the Spirit moving.

They may very well have plenty of excuses. Moses did. We still do. But God and Moses came to an understanding that day at the burning bush. And even the towns that wouldn’t or couldn’t join in God’s work still heard the good news that the kingdom of God is here. So what does that mean when it comes to us?

I think it means that now, just like in biblical times, God is here and trying to get our attention. Sometimes that might be in increasingly obvious ways. And God wants us to turn aside from the way we have always done things, to find ourselves on holy ground and engage in the purpose God has for us. 

What would that look like, for instance, in a Church of Scotland that can’t seem to turn aside from a story of decline? Sometimes I think we have resigned ourselves to that narrative, and it has blinded us to the presence and power of God, who is always doing a new thing. The emblem of the Church of Scotland is the burning bush...and yet we seem to stand there in front of it full of excuses. There is a world in need of liberation, in need of leadership, in need of hope and peace and grace and love and justice. There is a world that longs to be moved, to encounter the holy, to be embraced by true beloved community. That world is on our doorstep. I sometimes wonder if, like Moses, our story of why we can’t do those things—too many buildings, not enough people, not enough money, aging congregations, not enough ministers, people have other things on a Sunday—are just excuses to cover up the reality that, like Moses, we don’t want to let go of our favourite seat or the way we worship or our committees? 

Well...God isn’t having any of that from Moses. And Jesus isn’t having any of it from the towns and cities he sent the apostles to visit. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will let us wallow in excuses either. I think the Spirit is setting things alight all around us and within us, asking us to turn aside to see, to move from our set ways to new ways, to practice being open to God’s presence, being transformed by God’s power, and following God’s purpose.

We have already been practicing this month, rooting ourselves in God’s word through learning Psalm 1 and reading the gospel. If you didn’t have a chance to read a gospel last week, I hope you will take 10-15 minutes a day this week to read one. When we spend time with God’s word, it is much easier to see the Living Word at work around us. Think of the gospels almost as another version of God’s name, that elusive yet crucial form of To Be: central to who we are and how we communicate, yet also ever changing as we look at it from another angle, or with different life experience. Every time we come to scripture, the Spirit will show us something new, something deeper. And our familiarity with God’s story will open our eyes to see things in the world that we might not otherwise notice—like bushes, burning in the wilderness.

Two of our hymns today were born out of the authors’ familiarity with scripture, rather than any particular moment in their lives or a particular tenet of faith they wanted to convey. They use phrases and images from across the whole book, reflecting on the variety of ways God is revealed, trying to invite us to go deeper in our reading of both the Bible and the world. 

So this week, I invite you to take up that invitation. To keep your eyes open to see God’s faithfulness, morning by morning. To look for places where Christ’s love is shining. And to pray for the church—for the Church of Scotland, for the Body of Christ worldwide, and for our church here at St. John’s—pray for us to catch a glimpse of God in our midst, to have enough curiosity to turn aside from business as usual, to hear God’s call to us, and to be honest about our excuses. Listen for what God is calling us to do. Look for what God is already doing among us. Ask for God’s transforming power to take root and lead us, to give us strength for today and hope for tomorrow, so that we can take our place in the long line of God’s faithful people, who are blessed to be a blessing.


May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Recognition—a sermon on Luke 24

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Recognition
Luke 24.1-49
8 April 2018, Easter 2 (personal favourites week 1)

(NIV)
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognising him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Today is the second Sunday of the season of Easter—a season that lasts fifty days, including seven Sundays, beginning with Easter Day, and leading up to Pentecost. Easter is the longest feast season in the Christian calendar, and is also intentionally longer than any season of fasting, because it is the most important time, centring on the most important story of our faith. That means we get to sing Easter hymns for seven weeks, and the scripture readings are chosen to help us celebrate Christ’s victory over death and his continual presence with us here in the land of the living. 

This year during the season of Easter, I’ve chosen my own favourite stories from the Bible to preach on. I read the Bible for the first time when I was about 15 years old, and I sometimes say that I was “converted by scripture”—it was through reading the story that faith took root in my life. Never let anyone tell you that something is “just a story”—stories are powerful, they help us make meaning, organise our worldview, and shape how we live. One of my favourite quotes is from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said "I cannot answer the question "What ought I to do?" unless I first answer the question "Of which story am I a part?"" 

Immersing myself in the story of God and God’s people has helped me to see which story I belong in, and that in turn has helped me know what to do, in all kinds of situations. And so as we seek to encounter the living Christ this Easter season, I thought I would share with you some of the pieces of that story that have been most meaningful to me on my faith journey, why they are important, and how they keep shaping my life. As we travel this feast season together, I’d encourage you to also think about how you are part of this sacred story, and how it speaks to you, and what pieces of scripture are particularly meaningful to you, and how they help you as you seek to live faithfully in the world today.

And so this morning we heard this story from the end of the gospel according to Luke. Usually we hear one little segment of it at a time, which obscures one of the things I love about this chapter: that it all takes place on the same day. It’s the story of the first Easter morning, afternoon, and evening. And it has two of my most favourite things in the whole world: talking and eating. 



The women who encountered the angels at the tomb were apparently quick to believe—the angels say “remember how he told you?” And they remember! There seems to be a whole group of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and an unknown number of other women. These are women who have followed Jesus throughout his ministry, who used their resources to support him and their fellow disciples, and who must have been listening carefully and taking in all that he taught by both word and example. We don’t know much about them and they haven’t had their stories fully told, but that first Easter morning, they are the ones who become the Church, hearing the good news and believing it, and then running out to share it. 

The response of the male disciples is so rude that our English translations have sanitised it to “nonsense”. A better but still child-friendly word might be garbage or manure. The men are having none of it. Maybe they don’t remember what Jesus said? Maybe they choose not to believe women—they are not the first nor the last men to disbelieve the words of women. Maybe they can’t fathom the truth of anything they haven’t seen for themselves. 

Whatever the reason, they don’t recognise their friend and teacher and Lord in the story of that morning, and they begin to disperse...and two of them start their walk home, to Emmaus. Seven miles is a good two-plus hour walk. When a stranger joins them, they think nothing of telling their sad story, and even add that “some women of our group” told this tale of resurrection, but they obviously don’t believe it. And Jesus essentially says the same thing the angels had said to the women: remember what I told you? But they don’t remember, and he has to tell them again, for the whole of a two-hour walk. By the time they reach their destination, they still don’t understand, but they invite this stranger in. And only then, when he does the same action he has done with them hundreds of times before—takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them—only then are their eyes opened and they recognise him. And only then do they come to believe, which causes them to do the same thing the women did: to remember what Jesus told them, and then to run back—seven miles back!—to tell the others.

I think it’s so fascinating that the way Luke tells the Easter story, a crowd of women are first to hear and believe, and then two disciples we’ve never heard of before get to walk with Jesus for hours, and share a meal with him, and then they believe....and only then does Jesus appear to Simon Peter, and then the others. This is not a story centred on the 12 male disciples whose names we know so well. Ironically, they are the last to believe!

I imagine Cleopas and his companion running at top speed the seven miles back to Jerusalem, arriving out of breath, doubled over and gasping for air while they tell their incredible story...and hearing the excited chatter of their fellow disciples talking about what Peter experienced...and then Luke writes that while they were talking about this—so picture the clamour of at least a few dozen people, men and women, all talking about what happened at the tomb, on the road, at the table, in Peter’s living room—and while they are talking, Jesus appears among them. And even then, in the middle of talking about how he is alive and has appeared to some of them...even then, when they see him, they are afraid and think they are seeing a ghost!

I imagine Jesus must have been slightly incredulous at this point. He’s already shared the news, appeared to three of them, and now they are literally discussing his resurrection when he walks in, but they still think he’s a ghost and are terrified. And so he does what any ghost who wants to prove himself real would do: he asks for some food, and eats it in their presence, and they can’t see it going down his esophagus or anything, like you can in cartoons, so he must be real!

And even then, it says that while they were joyful, they were also disbelieving. Yet still Jesus tells them that they are to witness to the good news, to go out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, sharing what they have seen and heard. Even while they are still doubting, he commissions them to be the Church, to work for the kingdom, to preach and pray and heal, to remember what he said and to live as if it is true. 

There are so many things to love about this story, it’s hard to pick just one. 

Sometimes I think my favourite part is how Jesus is revealed more than once in the sharing of a meal—he promised that we would see him when we break bread together, and on that first Easter afternoon and evening he proved it was true, that every time we come to this table, we see him, and we learn to see him more clearly, until eventually we can recognise Jesus at every table. 

Sometimes I think my favourite part is how big the community of disciples is revealed to be—not just the twelve, but first a crowd of women, then two people we’ve never heard of until this chapter, who talk about a large group of Jesus’ followers, and finally the people we would have expected Jesus to appear to first. It’s a reminder that even those who seem to be closest are still just on the same journey all of us are—and we are all in it together, no one is better or worse, and it’s important to listen to the experiences of encountering God that other people have.

This week, though, I think my favourite part is how often the word “while” is used. While the women were wondering about the open, empty tomb, angels appeared. While two disciples were walking on the road, carrying their sadness and confusion, Jesus reminded them of the story they were all a part of. While they sat at table together, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened. While the whole crowd of disciples was talking about all these appearances, Jesus walked in. While they were joyful, they were disbelieving.

God doesn’t wait until we are ready, or until we understand and are prepared. The Holy Spirit doesn’t wait until we get to the right building or say the right prayer. Jesus doesn’t even wait until we recognise him...while we are walking along, talking to our friends, sitting at the dinner table...while we are sad, confused, joyful and disbelieving...while we are in church or at home or out and about...Jesus comes alongside us, opens our minds and hearts and eyes, because recognition is more than just seeing, more than just believing, it’s the work of eyes and ears and heart and mind and body together. While we sing and pray, or eat and drink, or cry and rage, or play and work...while we live our lives, that’s where Christ will be, calling us to witness to the good news, to build the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.


May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Everyday Resurrection—a sermon for Easter Day

Rev. Teri Peterson
St John’s
Everyday Resurrection
Mark 16.1-8, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31
1 April 2018, Easter Day 


1 Corinthians 1.18-31 (CEB)
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord!

Mark 16.1-8 (CEB)
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

~~~~~~~~


This week I noticed something I’d not really seen before in this gospel reading. The very first verse says “When the Sabbath was over, Mary, Mary, and Salome bought spices...” For some reason, in my mind, I had always read it as “brought” spices—as in they gathered them up from their own kitchens or stash of burial supplies, and got together and took them to the tomb. But of course they couldn’t do that, because they were in Jerusalem, not at home, and so they had to go and buy them...when the Sabbath was over, since there would be no commerce taking place during the Sabbath.

I now picture them looking for the first star after sundown, the mark that one day was ended and another begun, and as soon as it was dark enough to count, rushing out to the market stalls just as they were opening, carefully picking out what they would need from unfamiliar merchants still setting out their wares.

Once they had the supplies, though, they didn’t go straight to the tomb. It would, after all, be nighttime. And so, even now they were prepared for what they had to do, they still had to spend another night waiting, weeping, and wishing things were different. They had a whole night to re-live every moment, wondering where it all went wrong, to doze fitfully in between discussing their plans for the morning.

Early in the morning, they picked up their freshly-bought spices, and took their grief to the tomb. Only one detail remained: who would roll away the stone? These were strong, independent women—I know the type. We bristle a bit when people imply we aren’t muscular enough to move chairs and tables or to lift boxes and open doors. And yet, arms full of jars and sachets, eyes full of tears, they felt they would be too weak to open the tomb. Maybe too weak in muscle strength, or maybe too weak in spirit or stomach. They needed help, and they didn’t know where to ask for it.

And then they looked up.

It must have been quite a shock, to find the tomb already open. But that pales in comparison to what happened next. They entered the tomb and saw a messenger who uttered the most famous biblical advice no one ever heeds: do not be afraid! And then proceeded to tell them the impossible: “he is not here, he has been raised.”

He has been raised.

I imagine that once again, they looked up...only to see the roof of the tomb, a reminder that this could not be, that death encircles and engulfs and there’s nothing more to see. 

Then the messenger told them what may turn out to be the most difficult news of all: Go and tell the others, he is going ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there, just as he told you.

And Mark reports that the three women were overcome with terror and dread, and they fled from the tomb, and said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

And that’s it. That’s the end. Overcome with terror and dread, they ran away and kept the story to themselves. We don’t even know what happened to those spices they so carefully prepared just a few hours before.

What is it about this moment that was so terrifying? Why would they be overcome with dread? Why wouldn’t they tell anyone what had happened?

Obviously, at some point, they did tell someone, or else we would not be here today. But first there was fear, doubt, questioning.

The words from the messenger that seem to have been the last straw were these: “he is going ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there, just as he told you.”

Go home, the messenger says. Go back to the place you know best. Go back to your neighbours, your family, your familiar streets and schools and workplaces. Go to your own everyday life...you will see him there, just as he told you.

Not in the big city, not in the Temple, not in the graveyard, not in the instrument of torture, not in the special places and special foods and special buildings and special words...in your everyday life. Just as he told you.

That is where resurrection happens, and where it matters most: in the everyday. Not just the one day with the special brunch and the pretty dresses, not just in the sanctuary, but in the everyday.

This message should probably scare us too, if we’re being honest. If this thing Jesus said is true—he has been raised, he is not dead, but alive; the tomb cannot contain the grace and love and promise of God—if this is true, then all those other things he said are probably also true. And if we will see him back in our everyday lives, that means that his teachings apply to those everyday lives as well. All that talk about acceptance, love, justice, and peace...all that refusal to allow anyone to be an outcast...all that insistence on caring for each other, without regard to our own social status or savings account or religious rules...all those examples of feeding people, healing people, challenging the status quo, refusing violence, pushing the leaders to do the right thing, and loving our enemies...all the promises about never being alone, about there being enough for everyone, about being given the words we are to speak, about love being more powerful than fear or hate, about seeing the image of God in every face, and knowing Jesus’ presence best when we are serving the poor...

All of that. Back home, in everyday life. He is going ahead of us, and we will see him there, because he has been raised, and the world will never be the same.

Of course, the world looks the same. It still seems an awful lot like a Good-Friday-world, with violence and fear and misuse of power making most of the headlines. Our everyday experience, as individuals or as a church or as a nation or a global community, doesn’t seem to line up with resurrection. God’s wisdom and power seem an awful lot like foolish weakness to us. Even we who sing Alleluia will with our next breath use words like “impractical” and “naive” when the preacher tries to suggest we actually live this life of faith in tangible ways.

But it is true: resurrection changes things. At the very least, it changes the way we see. Remember the women going to the tomb: And then they looked up!

Resurrection is a lens for everything—from how we read scripture to how we think about politics to how we spend our money to how we talk to our neighbours to how we treat the earth to how we pray. As Frederick Buechner said, “resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Instead it means that God always has the last word, no matter how brutally we crucified him, and no matter how carefully we sealed the tomb. And this is what God says: “behold, I am doing a new thing, even now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

There is always a new thing. There is always life. There is always light shining in the darkness. Even the doubts and despairs, the fears and questions and griefs...even they can be opened, and known, and loved, and beautiful. 

The poet David Whyte wrote the perfect poem for this resurrection reality:

CLEAVE
To hold together and to split apart
at one and the same time,
like the shock of being born,
breathing in this world
while lamenting for the one we’ve left.*

This is what Easter does: it holds together and splits apart, and we are left breathing in a brand new world, even as we lament the one we’ve left, the one we thought we understood, the one where we were comfortable even though we could not grow and thrive in it. Easter morning is when we are delivered from darkness to light, from a story that ends in pain to a story that never ends, from a world that trusts in its own wisdom and power to a world grounded in God’s wisdom and power, however foolish and weak it may seem.

And we, like the women that first Easter morning, are right to be afraid...and also to get on with it anyway, to follow the messenger’s instructions, to heed Christ’s call: to go back to our ordinary lives and live this new truth, this new resurrection reality, because we will see him there. Our changed lives will be how people know the story, even when we don’t have words to tell it, though we—like they—will hopefully tell it anyway, even if our voices tremble, because this is the best news: He has been raised.

May it be so.

Amen.


* 1st stanza of CLEAVE from the upcoming book THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD
TO BE PUBLISHED APRIL 2OTH 2018 © DAVID WHYTE AND MANY RIVER PRESS 2018