Sunday, June 28, 2015

Broken Into One--a sermon on Ephesians 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Broken Into One
Ephesians 2.11-22
28 June 2015, Pentecost 1-6 (Moved by the Spirit)

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the keystone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

play David LaMotte’s song Hope

Since the last time we gathered in this sanctuary together, four buildings of black churches in three states have been intentionally set on fire, the KKK held a rally at the South Carolina capitol building, and funerals were held for four of the nine people killed at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.

In the 20 years since David LaMotte wrote that song, it seems not much has changed.

And yet this week the Supreme Court showed us just how much has changed at the same time.

It’s been a week of ups and downs, one moment seeing the dividing wall of hostility crumbling before our eyes, the next seeing it built back up brick by brick. One minute, we seem so close to touching the kingdom of God, and the next minute any glimpse of grace seems impossibly far away.

The Ephesians were a divided people too. Their division was based on the accident of birth, and to be called “the uncircumcision” was a derogatory slur used to keep Gentiles in their place. Those who used it said with just one word that a person was outside the realm of God, an alien among the people of Israel, completely without hope and alone in the world.

Our human talent for separating ourselves from those who are different has deep roots.

But now, this letter says: but now—right this minute, not later, not someday in heaven, now—you have been brought near in Christ. Now, Christ has made one body, one family, one commonwealth, one household, by breaking down all our walls and legalese and categories. In his own broken and glorified body, he has broken our fractured humanity into one.

And still churches burn, and children die, and families are separated at the most crucial moments of their lives.
And the dividing wall seems to fly high and run deep in so many places.
And we try to brush off history and shut out voices that disagree and then watch in horror as it happens again and again.

“How can we come any closer if I just shake my head where I stand? There can never be any handshakes until somebody puts out their hand.”

It seems naïve at best to stand here and say “Christ is our peace” and “you are no longer strangers or aliens or outcasts, all of us are part of the household of God.” They are beautiful words, and they are true words, and even the truest words are meaningless when our action and our inaction perpetuate sin rather than renewed relationship.

And yet I’ve got a lot of hope for the future, and dreams for a better world. Hopes and dreams are not the same as optimism or fantasy—our hope is rooted in God’s promise, and our dreams are the same ones God has been giving people since Genesis. Hope implies trust. Do we trust God’s promise enough to have hope? Enough to work to make it a reality, not just a nice but meaningless word? We have seen the work of hope triumph, and we have seen it fall under rubble…all in one week.

No one ever tells you that it’s hard work to be in a family. The household of God is just as complex as any of ours, with personality clashes, inside jokes, old photo albums, and deeply ingrained prejudice right alongside laughter and tears and board games and the dress-up box. We have awkward holiday dinners, joyous reunions, frustrating conversations, unimaginable support, and so much love we wouldn’t have it any other way. And like any other family, we don’t choose who is in the household of God. We don’t get to choose which branch of the family we’ll be born into, or who marries who, or where babies are born. The Lord builds the house, drawing humanity together into one family, one body, one household—a dwelling place for the spirit. Not just a gathering of individuals, not just a collection of special interest groups—a dwelling place for the Spirit.

I love the image the writer of Ephesians uses here. He says that the house of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets—those who spoke the word, even when no one was listening. And the whole structure holds together because Christ is the keystone. When that one stone at the top of an arch is taken out, the arch falls. But here’s the thing: it is hard work to remove a keystone. Once it is in its place at the peak, it’s really only mother nature that can get it out. But God is our solid rock, and the living Word of God can never be swept away by erosion. And though the earth should shake and mountains crumble, the living Word of God stands forever, holding the whole household of God together from the pinnacle. And we, the living stones built together for God’s glory, look around and find ourselves wedged in together with people we never expected to see—people of every color and nation, every language, every immigration status, every sexual orientation, every age, every part of God’s great and glorious family throughout all time and space.

Sometimes we get a glimpse of the glorious diversity of God’s household, and we rejoice to see God’s promise of love. Sometimes we shut the door and hope the Spirit won’t notice. Sometimes we pretend that the door is wide open…as long as you look and act and love right. Sometimes we try to remodel according to our own specifications, and sometimes we follow the plans of the master builder. Sometimes we do all those things in one week.

But no matter how many dividing walls we put up, the cross shatters everything we thought we knew and bridges the gap between people, drawing us all into Christ’s body.

So what would happen if we put out our empty hand, rather than adding planks to a crumbling security fence?

To put out an empty hand is to be vulnerable—which is to say, on equal footing rather than in a position of giving to the underprivileged.
To put out an empty hand is to make the first move to cross the divide, rather than wait for them to come to us.
To put out an empty hand is to look into the eyes of another child of God, bringing the only thing we have to offer: gratitude.
To put out an empty hand is to be ready to receive tools to use for the building of the kingdom, rather than clinging to the weapons used for the building of empire.

Or we could stand and shake our heads and look away, whether from fear or indifference or disgust or hate or helplessness or privilege…and when we look up we will find Christ, bruised and weeping, hungry and angry, pleading and reaching out to us. For as often as we have done it to the least of these who are members of his family, we have done it to him. Or, if we take seriously that we are the body of Christ, then we have done it to ourselves—for when one member suffers, all suffer together with it, and when one member rejoices, all rejoice together with it.

Christ is our peace—he has broken open his own flesh to make one humanity in place of the dozens we have created, he has broken down the door of the grave to bring the kingdom of heaven to all creation, he has broken down the dividing wall of our prejudice and privilege and built us into one house, one body, with one Spirit and of one mind with him. And he calls us to be a part of this work—dismantling the dividing walls one flag at a time, one stereotype, one joke, one gut reaction, one silence, one historical lie, one unloving thought at a time.

This week, the challenge for us is to go out from our comfortable place and reach out a hand across a wall—whether it’s a wall of class or race, gender or orientation, religion or language. Make the first move to participate in Christ’s work of breaking down walls, and see what happens when we view every single person as a member of our household, rather than someone else’s.

I’ve got a lot of hope for the future, and a lot of dreams…and a lot of work to do.

May we all reach out a hand and do the work.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Corinthian Dream--a sermon for June 21

Rev. Teri Peterson
The Corinthian Dream
1 Corinthians 1.10-31
21 June 2015, P1-5 (Moved by the Spirit)
four days after the terrorist shooting at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
   and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

This past Tuesday, I woke up and went strawberry picking, and thought about wisdom and foolishness and beauty.

And Thursday morning I woke up to terror in the news.

Nine bodies, each a reflection of God’s glory. Nine faces, each the image of God. Nine stories, immersed in God’s story. And one young man, also made in the image of God, a child of a mainline protestant church, also hearing God’s story, but his head filled instead with lies our culture has been telling for centuries—lies about what he deserves, lies about “them,” lies about crime.

I want to say this is unimaginable, that I can’t understand. But the thing is, I’m not sure it is so unimaginable. We have become used to this kind of violence—it is a tragedy now and in a couple of days we will have the privilege of forgetting about it until the next time it happens. We don’t want to talk about underlying issues, don’t want to name it for what it is, instead insisting that it was one guy, one mental illness, one person who never grasped the message that God is love, and that love is for all people. Over and over, several times a year, we make those same claims. Charleston is the next chapter in our repeat of our history, the logical next step in a past that we seem doomed to re-live because we refuse to look honestly at it and then decide to be different.

Which was, sadly, the exact situation in Corinth when Paul was writing to the church there.

Corinth was a Roman colony, and was populated by two classes of people—the newly wealthy, and the poor. The city was known to have lots of money but no class, heavy on ostentation and low on cultural depth. The city and its people lacked charm and grace, and they tried to make up for it with show and power. It was the Corinthian Dream, really, to move there and work up the ladder to get into that elite upper class.

Unfortunately, the way they did that was by openly stepping all over the poor. The Corinthians had no qualms about pushing other people down so they could climb up, no difficulty with ignoring the needs of their neighbors because they didn’t have the status or power to matter. It was a classic rich-get-richer-and-poor-get-poorer kind of situation. Some people were kept down, others were buoyed up, and there was very little social mobility…though that didn’t stop the dream.

We always hope the church will be different—it will be the place where divisions fall away and all that matters is that we are together worshipping God. But then as now, the church was not terribly different from the world. The rich came early and feasted before the poor could arrive for worship. The church was divided, with some following one preacher and some another. The people still seemed to seek the kind of philosophy that would help them reach their own goals, which had primarily to do with prosperity and security.

And this is not the first time they’ve corresponded with Paul. Though we call this letter 1st Corinthians, Paul references at least one prior exchange of letters. So the discussion is ongoing, and Paul is beginning to get exasperated.

Why are there divisions? He writes. Why do you seem to believe that one preacher or another is as good as Christ, or maybe better? Does the preacher die and rise for you? You can practically hear the other preachers thinking “I hope not!”

As if calling out their celebrity preacher crushes was not enough for the introduction of a letter, Paul turns immediately to the point: the Corinthians look for wisdom that will confirm what they think they know, that will support them in their division and their warped understanding of themselves and the world. They look for a philosophy that will make them look good, even if it has no depth…and bonus if it helps them socially or economically.

But we proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, the wisdom of God. And the idea that God’s wisdom could involve a cross is stupid, at best. That God’s wisdom would also involve peasants, subverting the economic and political system, and nonviolence is beyond the comprehension of philosophy or common sense.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised to bring to nothing the things that are revered.

Those are hard words for those of us who unwittingly occupy the cultural space of strength, wisdom, and power.

Can you imagine being the church in the year 53, hearing these words directed at you for the first time, as Paul’s voice calls out from the page, saying “you think you’re not a part of the problem, but you are—you have bought into the wisdom of your world, wisdom that says it is perfectly reasonable to keep going along with the invisible system that benefits you. But God chose what is foolish and weak and despised, and all that foolishness and weakness is stronger and wiser than anything you can dream up. Wake up and see…and when you see, you can be changed. It’s not too late to seek true wisdom rather than the culture’s wisdom.”

Of course, it is too late for Cynthia, and Clementa, and Sharonda, and Daniel, and Depayne, and Tywanza, and Myra, and Ethel, and Susie. It is too late for Dylann. It is too late for countless other people who have been sacrificed to our wisdom. They rest from their labors, and their works follow them.

Will ours?

Paul writes to remind the Corinthians, and us, that there is just the one way to life—and that way involves almost none of the things they pride themselves on. That way does not step on people. That way does not trample God’s creation. That way does not allow for some to be in and some to be left out—in just a few chapters he will tie us together as one body, insisting that those who seem to be weaker are to be more greatly honored. That way is not wide enough to accommodate all the things we want to bring with us, including our unexamined privilege. The way is wide enough for exactly one thing: a cross. The symbol of all that is despised and shameful, the instrument of torture, the method of erasing people. The cross, which so briefly held the body of our Lord but now stands empty to the sky, connecting the world God so loved to the kingdom of heaven.

It’s Foolishness, of course—let go of the assumptions that allow me to be comfortable in the world? let go of the behaviors that make me feel good about myself? let go of the things I love about my life and personality? Why would I do that?

Foolishness—love my neighbor? what can they do for me? love my enemy? that will just get me killed. lay aside weapons and resist with cunning and peace? sounds like a recipe for disaster. love God more than anything? does that include my security? my home? my great hair? Who is my neighbor? What does love mean anyway?

Foolishness—be in the same mind and the same purpose? But I was promised freedom. I was told I was responsible for myself, and only myself. I was told I could do whatever I wanted when I grow up. I was told that our founders intended for me to pursue my own happiness, not to be bogged down with other people, especially people who impede my happiness and constrain my freedom.

And the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. We who are continually shoring up this world’s system, we have no free hands with which to take up the cross, and we have too much stuff with us to walk through the narrow gate.

To those who are being saved, though—being saved, in the process of living into God’s call and promise—to we who are being saved, the cross is the wisdom and power of God. To we who are earnestly seeking God’s path, the cross offers a map and invitation—lay down your burden and come, follow. Lay down the burden of blinders that keep us from owning our history and moving forward in a new direction. Lay down the burden of self righteousness that shadows our good intentions. Lay down the burden of helplessness that paralyzes our faith. Then pick up the cross—knowing that it might hurt, and that it is the only way.

Richard Rohr wrote that “To pray and actually mean ‘thy Kingdom come,’ we must also be able to say ‘my kingdoms go.’”

This is a hard prayer—“my kingdoms go.” The wisdom of the world is something we can understand, hold on to, and point to when we want to insist that none of this is our problem and we had nothing to do with it. Regardless of what I think about it, the system of this culture works for me, as a white middle class woman with a world class education and a strong loving family.

And yet every day I pray “thy kingdom come.”

There is a comic strip that shows a man sitting on a park bench with Jesus. He asks Jesus “why do you allow so much suffering, hunger, violence, and hate in the world?” and Jesus answers “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

So why do we allow it? Do we truly believe we can’t change anything? Do we secretly believe everyone is on their own in the world and it isn’t our job or problem? Or do we not want to, because it might be uncomfortable or even dangerous? Are we worried about what happens when we lay down false wisdom and embrace God’s foolishness?

I am worried about what happens when we don’t. The members and pastors of Mother Emanuel church have paid the price already, alongside the four girls in their Sunday School class in 1963 and countless others over the years. 52 years ago, at the funeral for the girls killed by the bombing of their church, Martin Luther King Junior begged us all, of every skin color, to substitute courage for caution, and to be passionate in unmasking not only the murderer but the system, way of life, and philosophy that allowed him to be created in our midst. He pointed out that when we of the majority are silent, it is the same as consent and approval for these horrific acts and mindsets. How long will we believe that somehow they and we are not part of the same body of Christ? How long will we, subconsciously or blatantly, insist that we are different, separate, not responsible? How long will we renounce sin and evil with our words, while we continue to unconsciously benefit from the racist systems built by those who have gone before us? Or worse, to pretend we have no part in this sin of racism? For if we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves and there is no room for truth in us.

Friends, when even the church that has been the symbol of freedom for a people, a sanctuary, is a place of terror, then it is well past time for us to take up the cross that our sisters and brothers of color have been carrying for so long. Otherwise we run the risk of being salt that has lost its saltiness, and leaving the world to the kind of wisdom that reigned in Corinth and still reigns today.

It’s hard work. Uncomfortable work. Standing up and saying no more, refusing to stand by when stereotypes are perpetuated, standing beside people rather than over them—sounds suspiciously like Jesus. And as Baptist preacher Vance Havner wrote, “Salt seasons, purifies, preserves. But somebody ought to remind us that salt also irritates. Real living Christianity rubs this world the wrong way.”

And we are the body of Christ, and we have seen the still more excellent way—the question is whether we will walk it into abundant life for all, or choose the easier path that leads only to destruction.

So this week, pay attention to how this kingdom benefits you, and then pray “my kingdom go.” Find a way to stand up for justice, for equality, against racism and sexism, for nonviolence, for hope. Pray “my kingdom go, your kingdom come” over and over, and allow God to use your life as a candle that lights the darkness, a conduit for the Spirit to move the whole world, one step at a time.

May it be so. Amen.


related, but not used in worship, this: 

Thursday, June 18, 2015


(I write as a privileged, middle class, white female mainline protestant citizen of the USA....and, today, primarily to those people who occupy a similar space to mine.)

We use the word "our" to describe people all the time. They're our people--people with whom we share ideals. They're our kids--kids who live nearby, go to neighborhood schools, sit in the same pews we do. They're our troops--who put their lives on the line to "protect our freedom."

But for some reason we neglect to use the word our when we talk about children killed by police at the playground. We don't say that Trayvon or Tamir or Michael are our kids. We also neglect to use it when we talk about people who commit acts of violence. Dylann Roof isn't one of ours. 

If one member of the Body suffers, all suffer together with it.

How is it, again, that we, of all people, THE CHURCH, are capable of using the word "they"??

And if we want to leave aside the faith part and just think on a civitas/polis scale: how can we deny that Rev. Pinckney, Coach Coleman, Librarian Hurd, Sexton Ethel, new college graduate Sanders, Mrs. Thompson, Rev. Dr. Simmons, Freddie, Pearlie, May, Eric, Aura, Renisha, Lavall, Antonio, Nicholas, Oscar, Sean, Kevin, Akai, Walter, Jordan, Rekia, Aiyana, and countless more, are ours? How can we deny that Timothy, Dylann, and all the terrorists in between are ours?

They are us. And just as they are ours, we are theirs. That's what it means to be part of one nation under God, or the Body of Christ.

Think about what we mean when we talk about people as "ours." We mean that they are part of our family or community, that somehow we identify with them. We also often mean that they mean something to us, and that we have some part to play in their lives. We have a commitment to the kids of our church, the teachers at our neighborhood schools, our cousin's sister-in-law's brother, our local librarians and auto mechanics, our local graduates who join the military, etc. We think of ourselves as having something to do with them. Maybe even some small responsibility to hold them accountable, just as much as we love and care for them--even if we've never actually met them in person. When a kid from the cross country team was hit by a car in the neighborhood of the church, the news was about "our kids." (Interestingly, when an autistic 5 year old was hit by a car just a few blocks away..."you really have to watch.")

When it's our kids, our people, our troops, we care, and we see some level of responsibility, and we mobilize when things happen--good or bad.

What would happen if we thought of each one of those people at last night's Bible Study at Emanuel AME Church as "ours"? What would happen if we thought of Mike Brown as "ours"? What would happen if we thought of Tamir Rice as "ours"? What would happen if we thought of Eric Garner as "ours"?
And what would happen if we thought of Dylann Roof as "ours"? What would happen if we thought of the police officers of the McKinney TX police department as "ours"? What would happen if we thought of Adam Lanza as "ours"?

Because here's the thing: they are ours. These beloved children of God, made in God's image, simultaneously sinner and justified, are our kids, our neighbors, our troops, our brothers and sisters, our responsibility.

Which means that when one suffers, we all suffer. When one dies, we all die. When one hurts, we all hurt. When one does harm, we all bear some of that guilt and pain. When one celebrates, we all celebrate. After all, we celebrate when one of our kids graduates. We grieve when one of our neighbors dies. We groan alongside our friends who are ill. We would be outraged if one of our Bible Studies were the scene of terrorism. And we would wonder what happened and how we could have done something differently if the shooter were one of ours.

Time to celebrate, and grieve, and groan, and be outraged, and think about how we could have done something differently. We are just as much a part of creating and maintaining this culture as anyone else. How about we make it better for everyone, not just the people who look/think/act/speak like us?

There are many members but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Now y'all are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it. 

It's time to start acting like it.
Past time.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Grace Like Velcro--a sermon for Pentecost 2015

Rev. Teri Peterson
Grace Like Velcro
Romans 8.18-39, Acts 2
24 May 2015, NL1-38, Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (instead of reading this, we will sing the hymn “On Pentecost They Gathered” which tells the whole story of Acts 2.)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.



Sometimes it is a beautiful word: There’s nothing I have to do today. The test results came back—nothing. What can separate us from God’s love? Nothing.

Sometimes it’s a terrible word: what happens when black people are killed in the streets, their beds, their cars? nothing. What will be done about child abuse in a famous family? nothing. What will children eat tomorrow when there's no school and therefore no school lunch? nothing.

Sometimes it’s a helpless word, said with a shrug and a shake of the head: what can we do about the state of the world? often feels like nothing.

Sometimes it’s a word that simultaneously means “no thing” and also an absence. There is no thing—no object, no circumstance, no person—that can keep God’s love away from us. And also there is nothing—an emptiness, a lack of space—between God’s love and God’s creation. Nothing.

In case we wondered if Paul was serious about the word “nothing” he made us a list. He knows that we humans are prone to one of two responses to this kind of grace: either disbelief that it is true for us, and therefore we have to earn it…or disbelief it is true for “them” and therefore they have to work harder to be like us in order to earn it. So in his list Paul includes many of the things we spend a lot of energy avoiding: hardship and distress, hunger and nakedness, danger and violence, heights and depths, death…and also some things we may like too much: life, and the systems and powers of culture, and the way things are and the way things will be, and angels, and all creation.

Nothing. Not one thing—whether we protect ourselves from it or embrace it whole heartedly—nothing can keep God’s love away from us.

This is the verse that undergirds one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition. Our theological ancestors looked at Romans, especially at this chapter, and said that it was clear that grace is Irresistible. There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving, nothing that can stop grace from infusing everything. Grace is irresistible. The image I sometimes use in new member classes is Velcro—imagine that you are made of one side of Velcro, and grace is the other piece. God throws it, showers it, presses it in…and it sticks, whether you want it to or not. Every time. And you know how new Velcro is—you can’t peel it apart. God’s mercies are new every morning, sticking to us despite our best efforts. Irresistible grace.
this stuff can be intense!
Or, as Paul put it just a few verses earlier: since God is for us, who can be against us? There’s no room in between—nothing to get between God’s grace and God’s world and people. Even all those things we worry about—they can’t fit into that space between two pieces of Velcro. Even all the ways we devise to keep people in their place: no room. Even all the horrible things we allow to happen all around us, or that happen to us: no room. None of these things, nor anything else in all creation, can keep the love of God away from us.

I fully realize that it appears I am repeating myself, just like Paul does. And I am: because this may very well be the most important thing any of us can ever know about God: that we are never separate from God’s grace. Even in suffering, even in doubt, even in sin—God is always loving, and always moving us closer and closer to Christ’s new creation, closer and closer to the core of who we are: beloved, made to reflect God’s image into the world.

We should not, however, mistake love and grace for warm fuzzies and puffy hearts. Sometimes the Spirit moves us faster than we might like, or into places we’d prefer not to go, and sometimes the Spirit has methods we would consider unorthodox at best. Look what happened on that birthday of the church: The congregation was gathered together in a room, singing and telling stories of Jesus and praying. It was your average Sunday service, in other words. And the Spirit came rushing in like a violent wind, there were flames everywhere, and the people were thrown out. No more serene prayers and favorite hymns, no more reminiscing about how it was when they walked with Jesus in Galilee—the Spirit literally pushed them out into the street, which was crowded with people, and gave them words to start speaking. Or shouting, even. They raised a ruckus. Some might call it a riot. The spirit-wind was blowing, and polite church was no more. They were so loud and unruly in their telling of the good news that people thought they were a drunken mob. I’m sure the disciples were wishing they could resist just a little—so they could leave the house in an orderly fashion and speak decently to the people outside, sharing calmly that the Spirit of the Lord was in that place, which surely would have been just as compelling?

But God’s grace is irresistible. The Spirit will not be contained or controlled, and she was on fire. It was time. Maybe even past time. Keeping their faith to themselves and separating Jesus from the rest of their lives was no longer an option. The Velcro stuck…and on the other side was God, pulling and pushing and calling and insisting that we had work to do and we would never be alone in it. Even losing control of a worship service cannot keep us from the love of God. Even languages that are hard to wrap our tongues into cannot keep us from the love of God.

And God has plans and dreams for this world—dreams of people talking to each other and actually listening rather than shooting; dreams of an abundance of bread for everyone; plans for our welfare.

It’s interesting that Pentecost falls on Memorial Day weekend this year. Memorial Day is, by definition, a time of looking back, of remembering those who gave their lives for a vision of a better world, for ideals of hope, truth, freedom, life, happiness. Started after the Civil War by a few people from one side who created a memorial to people who had died for the other side, it has been a day for honoring people who saw what could be, though they did not live to see it happen. What I did not realize is that every year, going back at least to the 1940s, the President issues a new Memorial Day proclamation. And in that proclamation—every single one from Truman on to now—the President declares a day of “prayer for permanent peace.” Not a day of staring into the past, not a day of glorifying war and those who fight it—a day of prayer for permanent peace.

That means Memorial Day was actually designed to be one of looking forward—of honoring those who died by building what they dreamed of and fought for. To pray for permanent peace is to put violence in the past and turn our eyes and hearts and minds to another way. To pray for permanent peace is to refuse to allow anything, whether skin color or economic status or nationality, to come between us. To pray for permanent peace is to insist that there cannot be haves and have-nots. To pray for permanent peace is not only to sit in a room together politely saying the Lord’s Prayer, but also to be driven out of the sanctuary by the Spirit to actually do the will of God and help build the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven—in both immediate and systemic ways. It seems the disciples were gathered together remembering someone they loved who was no longer with them…and the Spirit said “time to get to work doing the things he lived and died for.” And their prayer for permanent peace didn’t look very peaceful at first—it was downright disruptive. Of course, real peace is disruptive in a culture that runs on conflict. And yet it is God’s plan—a peace that passes all understanding. We may not understand what the Spirit is doing with wind and flame, with words and welcome, with push and pull, but we know this: The Spirit is here, we are the Body she moves to do God’s work of grace in the world, and that grace is irresistible.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

history matters

The news about Palmyra is distressing. (though the latest news today, that ISIS have placed guards at the ancient site, is the tiniest of glimmers of hope for antiquity, it's still not good.) I have been there, and can picture the place and the people in my mind (and in my photo album). I remember standing on the stage of the theater in the Roman ruins and playing the recorder as a way of demonstrating the acoustics of the place. I remember my roommate and I being left behind (and retrieved later, thankfully)...a demonstration of the potential for failure in the buddy system. I remember walking around this place in the desert, climbing the tower and marveling at how these things still stand out in the middle of the desert. I remember meeting people whose connection to this desert oasis wends its way through millennia.

ISIS has been known to destroy historical sites and artifacts before, because anything non-muslim (including things that predate Islam by hundreds and thousands of years) is idolatrous. Unfortunately that also destroys both any potential future economy based on tourism as well as, more importantly, a whole people's connection to a long and glorious past. And even as those ancient walls come down, new ones are built, between neighbors, between families, between friends...because where once it was common for Christians and Muslims (both of various flavors) to coexist, work together, be friends, etc, now that is nearly impossible. Along with holy and archaeologically significant sites goes the kinship of the Syrian people, which goes back hundreds of generations.
(and I can't even get into the human toll of this "conflict" (so much more than a conflict) in the present--it is beyond imagining, the suffering and grief and fear.)

As ISIS continues to advance, taking control of more cities, oppressing more people, and destroying more history, I thought I'd share this piece I wrote for another publication that ended up not being published.

First, some more photos from the ancient city of Palmyra...
can you see me in the window up there?

I call this the "column graveyard"--the place where pieces are laid out together but there is not sufficient knowledge to put them back together and place them within the complex of buildings.

According to tradition, the Prophet Mohammed visited the monastery of St. Catherine’s at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the 7th century. He sought the wisdom of the monks there, and later wrote a letter of protection for the monastery, which was reaffirmed in the 16th century, declaring that these People of the Book were to be safe from harm and from attempts at conversion. A mosque and minaret were built inside the walls of the monastery, as a visual symbol of the protective relationship between these brother faiths.

Over the centuries, that friendship has deteriorated into a minimum of tolerance, and now the corruption of the faith traditions has brought outright hostility. Life was not easy for Christians in pre-Arab-Spring nations—building permits were routinely denied simply because they were filed by Christians, evangelism and conversion were illegal, and the entire governmental, legal, and judicial system gave preference to Islam. But now those things seem almost reasonable in comparison to the impossibility of life as a Christian or a Christian community in these days. The ranks of the martyrs grow daily, as do the ranks of the émigré. Of the many friends I made while living in Cairo, only a few remain; the rest have scattered to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and two to the USA. The cradle of civilization and of many of the world’s great faiths is being emptied of all of them—including Islam, in its truest sense.

In place of a beautiful tradition of peace and submission to God, there is now a premium priority on a cultural reality that is as foreign to many of us in the west as the ancient languages still spoken there.

The culture of much of the area we call “the Middle East” is based on a tribal honor-and-shame system, and this system requires a very strong leader who will maintain order and image. This leader ensures that there is nothing that would disturb the outside world’s perceptions of the quality, success, and peace of the tribe—and will often use any means to do so. While Americans look at leaders like Saddam or Mubarak and see dictators, people within those tribes see a strong leader who keeps them together and who keeps their family business within the family. While life was not easy for Christians under those dictators, it was still relatively calm and peaceful. Churches could gather for worship and study (though building a church was extremely difficult), Christians could (and did) engage in many charitable and developmental ministries, improving the lives of many who would otherwise be neglected. As long as they didn’t proselytize, the gospel could be lived out without words. And the family order was maintained, if only at the barest level of the Prophet’s command.

Other forms of leadership, based on other kinds of power, are weak in this kind of cultural reality, and make it difficult to shift toward a more open or democratic system. So we see it today: where strong leaders have been felled, thus bringing shame on the tribe, now others rise up to return the tribe to its former status and restore the peace. Many of them think the way to that restoration is by the same kind of violent power that worked in the past, and so we see the horrors perpetrated by both governments and groups like ISIS. All dissent must be crushed in order to bring back the calm and honor of the family—in this case, the family of a particular brand of militant “Islam”.

While the Prophet was friends with Christians and ordered their protection, groups like ISIS take another path, one that violates every sense of humanity and brings more dishonor on them than they can see. Their faith is corrupted, just as they believe their tribe has been corrupted. In many ways, it is a farce to call them ISIS, because there is nothing Islamic about them—they are so far from the tenets and roots of their faith as to be unrecognizable.

Our sisters and brothers in Christ bear the brunt of this form of “Islam,” unmoored from its story and its roots. We who live far removed from the daily reality of persecution and the very real threat of death for our faith have a hard time even contemplating these horrors, let alone understanding. As we pray for peace, as we lobby our government to find some way to protect people without causing more of a mess than we already have, and as we look for ways to ensure our dollars don’t inadvertently go to support the *ISIS cause, it is important also for us to realize how easy it is to become disconnected from our story, and then we become capable of great terror. History matters. Scripture matters. Our connection to the story God has been telling since the beginning matters. It is what makes us human, and capable of honoring the humanity of others. May those who twist their tradition to support their violent ideology be re-connected with the ground of their humanity and the source of their faith.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Growing Into It--a sermon on Romans 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Growing Into It
Romans 6.1-14
17 May 2015, Easter 7, NL1-37

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old humanity was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For the One who died has been freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be master over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
~~(NRSV, with translation corrections by JRD Kirk, Fuller Seminary professor)

For the past several weeks, it feels like everywhere I turn there is talk about a very small big thing. Well, not a thing, a very small big person.

The royal baby.

Two years ago we met His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge…and this spring everyone has been wondering about his new sibling. When she was born, the excitement about a princess was bubbling…and the speculation about her name was out of control. There were people placing bets, websites publicizing their guesses, and probably two tired parents wishing they could just call her Mary like all the women in the Bible and be done with it. But a few days later the world was introduced to Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge, to great applause and wonder at their savvy in choosing names that were both traditional and had a little family flair.

Can you imagine growing up with all those titles and names? It feels like the name is almost longer than the baby. But she will grow into it, of course. As Charlotte Elizabeth Diana grows up, she will do all the things children do—cry, eat, crawl, walk, run, pull the dog’s tail, learn to read, pass notes in class, argue with her parents. Her titles don’t change the fact that she’ll be a kid who pushes the boundaries like they all do. Her august names don’t mean that she will always be  a perfect angel. And at the same time, she will be learning about her namesakes, about her family history and the expectations for her future, about who she is and how that identity is reflected in her titles and names.

The whole thing—Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge—may feel unwieldy now. Heavy, even, if she knew what she was getting into. In some ways, she is not yet all that the name proclaims her to be…and yet in the most important ways, she is already everything her name proclaims her to be.

This is how Paul talks to us about baptism.

Because in our baptism we have died with Christ, Paul says, now we walk in newness of life. We are to present ourselves to God as those who are alive in Christ, as instruments of righteousness, as people under grace, not law. In baptism, we are given a new name, one that is a little too big, a bit unwieldy and maybe too heavy at first, but as we continue to live and practice Christ’s way, we grow into it. We become in life what we already are in Christ—alive, righteous, grace-filled.

Does the fact that we are already alive in Christ, who has claimed all of humanity out of the depths, mean that we will never do wrong, never make mistakes, never sin? No, of course not. Just as the royal Prince and Princess will still get into trouble like children do, we will also get into trouble as we grow into our identity. Sometimes we will work against God’s Spirit, sometimes we will hurt each other, sometimes we will harm God’s creation, sometimes we will sow discord rather than love. That does not change the fact that we are children of God, claimed by the Spirit, alive in Christ. In the words of our liturgy, “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.” We can keep on practicing the way of Christ, keep on growing into who we already are.

Paul anticipates the objections of those who cannot believe that God’s love is infinite, that forgiveness is as radical and all-encompassing as he is saying. The notion that God’s forgiveness and grace is all around us and within us, that we cannot earn it or lose it—even today they can be hard to swallow. So he asks: should we keep sinning in order to experience more grace? It seems the obvious answer—no need to even try to be Christlike. In fact, we should actually strive to be bad, because then there will be more evidence of forgiveness in our lives and in the world for people to see. Besides, if we can’t lose God’s grace by breaking the law, then why bother working so hard to keep it?

By no means!! Paul would probably have used all the exclamation points if he had them. How could we, who have experienced God’s unlimited grace, want to live as if it was not real? How could we, who have been buried with Christ and raised into new life, continue living the old life? It is incomprehensible. Those who have been given this new name will want to grow into it. Our life is our gratitude for all God has done. Because we are in Christ, sin has no power over us—which means that grace does. In Paul’s mind, these are the only two options. We are bound by and beholden to one or the other: sin, or grace. Since Christ has broken the power of sin, we can no longer be captive to it, which means we must instead be captive to grace.

It takes time to grow into this reality. The brokenness of humanity is sometimes more evident than God’s forgiveness. The temptation to work for our own gain at the expense of our neighbor is strong. The desire to ignore God and follow our own way sings in our ears. But we are not captive to sin. We will still be imperfect reflections of God’s image, because we are not God. But even a broken mirror reflects fragments of glory, and even we who are not God can act like who we are: beloved people of God, called to new life and righteousness and grace.

Sometimes it might feel like an act. We are to, in Paul’s words, “consider ourselves alive to Christ and dead to sin.” Sometimes it might take hard work to see ourselves and the world through Christ’s eyes. And while I don’t exactly want to buy into the old cliché of “fake it ‘til you make it”…there might be a little something to that. Because the more we act like disciples, the closer to Christ we walk. The more we seek God’s way, the more alive we become. The more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more gracious we will be. The more we live as if the good news is true, the more the world is transformed into the kingdom of God. Along the way, as we practice life with God, we will become who we already are, who we are called to be.

It can be dangerous, this practicing life. During the conference I went to a few weeks ago, the leader gave us a Pilgrim Prayer that included the phrase “change me, bend me, break me, if need be.” We talked about what scary words those are, and that we should not pray them if we don’t mean it. I was reminded of the hymn where we invite God to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us…words we shouldn’t sing if we aren’t willing to be melted and molded, words we shouldn’t pray if we aren’t willing to be changed or broken. And yet…that is how we grow into who God created us to be.

To practice resurrection is to consider ourselves alive to Christ and dead to sin. It is to know that in baptism we have not only been welcomed into a church family, not only marked with the seal of the Spirit, not only experienced the symbol of God’s amazing grace: we have joined the rest of humanity in being buried with Christ, the One who died for all…and then being raised with him, breaking the power of sin and death and proclaiming the good news that God is love, and God’s love is stronger than the worst we humans can do. This good news, this new name we are given, is so big that it will take some growing into. Sometimes we will stumble, or wander away, or forget who we are. To practice resurrection is to not only believe the good news, but to keep coming back to live it: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, loved, and free.

Thanks be to God.