Friday, September 15, 2017

What do you see?

This summer at church we began doing a new thing. It started because there's no junior church/Sunday school in the summer. It's continuing because it's awesome.

We invite the children to come to the front (that part isn't new), and talk with them about the background to one of the scripture readings. It might be setting the scene, or remembering things we know about it, or looking at pictures of where it took place.
Then we ask them to listen for something--what's the problem, and who solves it? What four things does Jesus do with the bread? What are the names of the people in the story?
Then the liturgist comes forward and reads the scripture while the children stay in their place at the front--ideally, the liturgist stands in front of the group of children and reads sort of like story time, but sometimes they read from the lectern because it's easier to manage the paper/book and microphone and everything.
After the reading, we turn back to the kids and ask if they heard what they were listening for, and we talk about the story a bit.
Then we have some music, during which they could choose to stay there right at the front, sit in a pew with someone, or go to the children-space at the side, where there would be colouring sheets and activities related to the reading, and an adult to help them join in when it was time for the Lord's Prayer or a hymn. (Now that junior church is back in session, they go out at this point, though staying in this space is always an option for them.)

This has been working really beautifully, and engaging our young people (and our less-young people!) in how to listen to scripture being read, and to participate in worship more fully. They don't always sit still or quietly, and sometimes people grumble about reading a translation of scripture that is more understandable (over the summer we read from the CEB), but overall, it's been pretty great.

On the last day of the "generation to generation" series where we had been trying this out, we decided that the sermon would be an all-age experience where we would encourage the whole church to join in.

The text was a bit of Peter's sermon in Acts 2--the part where he quotes the prophet Joel about "your young will see visions and your elders will dream dreams."

We printed this picture on the cover of the order of service, and after the scripture reading we asked everyone to look at it and say what they saw.

Kids were all over this, of course, and pretty soon the grown-ups were also calling out what they saw in the cloud.

Then we showed them a paint splotch made by squirting colours of paint on half a paper and folding it in half to make a symmetrical image...and asked the same thing. It was a pretty easy one, especially since the church uses the Butterfly as its image, the name of its cafe, and as inspiration for naming all the children's programming.

And then we got this one. We looked at it from multiple angles, and saw a variety of things. What do you see?

I finished up by talking about how that first Pentecost morning, some people could only see what they expected--chaos, irritation, drunkenness. But some could see a new thing, a vision, a dream...and we can practice opening our minds and hearts to see God's handiwork, too. We could see a cloud. Or we could see a puppy, or a grandma knitting in a rocking chair, or a teddy bear and a chicken. We could see a messy splotch of paint, or we could see a dragon, or an elephant / whale / seahorse, or a pregnant woman with her hair in a ponytail. We could see children behaving badly when they're whispering and wiggling and getting up to move around, or we could see children who want to know Jesus and can't see over the person in front of them, who want to know what we're singing, who have prayers they haven't yet learned how to pray...and we could see a church ready to allow their visions to join with our dreams, to be a family where each member is valued no matter their age or ability.

What do you see?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

It's a Mystery--a sermon on Ephesians 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
It's a Mystery
Luke 22.14-27
 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Ephesians 3.8-21
Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.
 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 


Many of you have already learned this about me, but just in case there is still any doubt: I like to know things. I read, I watch documentaries, I go to museums, I ask a lot of questions…when I go out for a run, I don’t listen to music, I listen to a history podcast. When I was a child, I read the dictionary for fun. I’m one of those people, politically unpopular these days, who really values experts and likes to learn from them and even change my mind and my behaviour based on new facts they present. I think it’s important to read the most accurate translations of scripture and to keep up on what scholars are learning about language and history so we can know God’s word as fully as possible. I try to work out how pieces fit together and how systems work. I have a friend whose favourite word to describe me is “insufferable” because…well…I like to know things.

When I was new to faith and church, reading everything I could lay my eyes on, my minister told me one day “when you think you’ve got God figured out, what you’ve figured out is not God.” No matter how much we learn, read, study, or pray, we will never understand all there is to know about God, because God is so much more expansive, so much broader and deeper and longer and higher than our limited human minds can ever manage. 

And yet that is exactly what the author of Ephesians prays for: that the church, the body of Christ, might come to know the height, breadth, length, and depth of Christ’s love—love that surpasses knowledge.

Unfortunately, we humans seem to have an intense desire to know this thing that surpasses knowledge. Or more specifically, we want desperately to know just what is the exact height, breadth, length, and depth—what are the measurements, the boundaries of love? How big is it? Who is included in it? Where are the edges, and what do we do if we think we, or someone else, doesn’t fit the dimensions so carefully measured out? It’s as if we think the old adage “measure twice, cut once” can be applied to people—if we can just get the measurements right, then we’ll know who to cut out of our community and out of God’s community too. And those measurements always seem to look an awful lot like us, without much room for people who look, speak, act, or worship differently, and even less room for people who are not economically or politically useful to us.

Even more unfortunate is that the Church has, historically, been the one defining what it means to measure up, claiming that there are some who fall outside the boundaries of this love that just a few sentences ago was called unfathomable. We cannot quite manage to wrap our minds around the fact that the betrayer was at the table with Jesus, breaking the same bread and drinking the same cup. And so was Peter, who just hours after that first communion would deny even knowing Jesus, let alone sharing his table. And all those other disciples passed around the bread and cup with their running shoes on. By almost any standard we have set, they don’t measure up. And yet there they were.

I think it’s so interesting that when the disciples were discussing who could possibly do something so awful as betray him, they turned quickly from the painful self-examination into a discussion of who is greatest. It’s like they couldn’t manage just “I would never betray him” without following on with “because I’m the best.” I’m not sure what criteria they were using to grade their performance as disciples, but it was obviously not the same as that Jesus uses, since he had to interrupt them to remind them that what they think they know, what they think they have figured out, is not God. Instead, Jesus hands them a mystery: we all know that the one seated at the table is greater than the one who serves them, and yet he, Immanuel, God-with-us, is among us as one who serves. If we want to live into his greatness, if we want to grow up as the Body of Christ, we will find ourselves bringing together the greatest and the youngest, the servant and the leader, the Gentile and the Jew, the outsider and the insider. Not measuring or drawing borders, but rather allowing the height, depth, length, and breadth of God’s love to be unfathomable, beyond comprehension, and yet tangible, real, taking up space in our lives, in this world. 

Philosopher and theologian Diogenes Allen wrote that “Mysteries, to be known, must be entered into. For we do not solve mysteries, we enter into them. When a problem is solved, it is over and done with. We go on to other problems…But a mystery once recognised is something we are never finished with. It is never exhausted. Instead, we return to it again and again and it unfolds new levels to us.”

It is easy, I think, to get so caught up in knowing the right things, or solving the problem of how we can be loveable (or how they can be loveable), that we forget to experience God’s love. I can listen to a podcast about how language, culture, and brain synapses work together to make a joke funny, but that’s not the same thing as laughing until I can’t breathe at something a friend says. I’ve seen every documentary there is about how our food system works, but that knowledge pales in comparison to what I learned growing up on a farm. 

And so it is with love. 

When it comes to learning the true dimensions of love, there is no substitute for encountering the living God. Which is why it’s important that we put ourselves in the places where Christ has promised to reveal himself: at the table, in the word shared in community, and among the least and outcast and lonely. It is in practice that we are able to live into the mystery, and to experience beyond knowledge. 

It’s a mystery, how at the Lord’s table a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine can feed our bodies and our souls, how we are lifted up and given a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly banquet, where even those we have marginalised are honoured guests. It’s a mystery how sharing this hour together can change the way we see and act during all the other hours of our lives. It’s a mystery how giving of ourselves and our resources can make us feel full. 

Ephesians says that when we have experienced this mystery, when we have come to know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge, we will be filled with all the fullness of God. This is addressed to plural you, to the whole Church, the Body of Christ. Together, when we allow ourselves to experience the love of God in all its glorious breadth, length, height, and depth, we will find that the Church on earth becomes ever more what the Church in heaven already is, the dwelling place of God—who, remember, came among us as one who serves.

There is a video that makes the rounds of social media every now and then called “Twinkies with God.” In it, a young white American boy packs up his rucksack with Twinkies and apple juice, tells his mom he’s going to look for God, and heads out the door. He rides the subway and walks through the neighbourhood until he comes to a park bench, occupied by a middle-aged African-American woman who is homeless. He opens up his pack and offers her a Twinkie, which she accepts and begins to eat with glee. The two sit together, talking and laughing, eating Twinkies and drinking apple juice together in the park. When the boy goes home, his mother asks “did you find him?” And the boy replies “MOOOM, God is a woman and she has the most beautiful smile.” Meanwhile, the woman walks away and joins a friend sitting on the pavement with her sign and cup for change, who asks “why are you in such a good mood?” The woman answers “I just had Twinkies with God! He’s much younger than I expected.”

When we think we have God figured out, what we’ve figured out is not God. So may we come to know beyond knowledge, to love beyond borders, and find ourselves filled to overflowing with all the fullness of God, whose abundant life is more than we can ever ask or even imagine.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

hearing the stories

I have had a number of conversations lately that really drive home how different the historical and cultural context in which I now life is from my previous life experience.

Today I visited a woman who talked for an hour about the 21 boys she used to play football (soccer) with as a child, and how many of them didn't come home...and about her husband and the nightmares he had...and about a cousin who was killed during an air raid on his training camp...and about the many American soldiers she met when her mother took them in during their leave. She spoke of how she was just a teenager then, only 13 when the war broke out, and she naively thought there could never be another one like it.

I have sat in the living rooms of women who were evacuated to the countryside when they were children, and one whose family took in child evacuees. And I have sat by the bedsides of women who never married because a generation of men was lost. And I have sat around the table with women whose husbands never spoke of what they'd seen, or who felt an immense sense of unearned luck because all their brothers came home when so many didn't.

A lot of my time these days is spent with women in their 80s and 90s. These are women who lived through World War II--who bore the brunt of the reality of war both in terms of the cost at home (family lost, rationing, women in the workforce in new ways, etc) and in terms of the long-term cost of lives forever changed.

The stories are incredible--of bombs bursting in the garden, of rationing that extended well after the war was over because of the immense national cost of rebuilding, of large gaps between siblings because one parent was away at war, of sweethearts lost and found, of letters exchanged and news reports anxiously read.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are people who feel abject horror at what happened in Charlottesville last weekend. They cannot fathom that Nazis marched through the streets, or that white supremacy is an acceptable ideology.

This is not to say there is no racism in Scotland, of course. But it is to say that people who lived through the Nazis the first time, who sacrificed far more than most of us who are from North America experienced (including those who gave significantly to the war effort, once we got over enough of our own white nationalism to enter the war), cannot understand how on earth it is possible that Nazism rises again, unchecked, or even encouraged by those in power.

Today's conversation included the casual observation that the woman's husband, at age 19, had been issued a revolver with only a couple rounds of ammunition. It's purpose was to use on himself, should his plane come down behind enemy lines.

Imagine being 19 years old and given those instructions, then put into a plane with rockets, a pop gun, and a map, and told to go up just 250 feet because any higher would make their bombs less accurate.

Now imagine being that person, or their family, and seeing the images from Charlottesville.

One of many things I am enjoying about living here is the sense of freedom to speak truth even when it might be politically unpopular. I don't know if that will always be the case, but in this moment at least, no one bats an eye when I say white supremacy and Nazism is antithetical to the gospel. I have been in churches where that would be a controversial statement...and that is, frankly, an abomination. There should be no room for Nazi sympathizing. If there are people who disagree, then what they need to hear is not something that they can construe to agree with them--they need to hear the hard good news that brings them to confession and repentance. Period.

If they won't listen to Jesus, maybe they'll listen to the stories of these amazing women I've sat with over the past several weeks, and be reminded that hate does not win. It cannot win. And it cannot be allowed to even try.

***Yes, I'm aware that there's plenty of racism and xenophobia to go around. See: colonialism, Brexit, Grenfell, etc. And yet many of these women have spoken to me about those things as well, fully aware and concerned that people don't remember what they fought for. And also, honestly, racism is different here. Not better or worse necessarily, just different. Because history is different. The context of the World Wars, and of slavery, is different across the ocean....

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Entrance Exam--a sermon on welcoming the kingdom like a child

Rev. Teri Peterson
Entrance Exam
Mark 10.13-16
13 August 2017

Psalm 100
Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Serve the Lord with celebration!
    Come before him with shouts of joy!
Know that the Lord is God—
    he made us; we belong to him.
    We are his people,
    the sheep of his own pasture.
Enter his gates with thanks;
    enter his courtyards with praise!
    Thank him! Bless his name!
Because the Lord is good,
    his loyal love lasts forever;
    his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.

Mark 10.13-16
People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever does not welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.


I wish I had a hard time imagining the disciples scolding parents who brought their children to Jesus. Unfortunately, I think it’s still quite common in many churches for parents and children to be met with judgmental looks and shushing, or with instructions on how to find the crèche or a crying room, or even with the clear statement that worship and study and prayer are for adults, and young people are meant to be somewhere else—somewhere soundproof. It seems that we have been attempting to control access to Jesus for thousands of years.

That’s what this is about, of course. The disciples in today’s gospel story believe that Jesus is too important to be bothered with mere children. They are not worth the time they take, nor the resources required to minister to them. Children in the ancient world were decidedly at the bottom rung of the social ladder. The first couple of boys born in a family would be a sign of God’s blessing, of course, but ultimately all children are something of a liability in the early years—they cost a lot, without producing much. They mattered a great deal as they grew older and could contribute to the household, but until then, they were simply property. They had no status, no value in themselves. They were definitely not worth Jesus’ time.

Or at least, that’s what the disciples thought. But that assumption made Jesus angry. The idea that there is anyone not worth his time, even the lowliest of children, is enough to warrant anger at his closest friends and followers. They wanted to control who had access to him, and instead he moved them aside and flung open the doors and invited everyone in, starting with those who had been shushed or told to come back when they were able to sit quietly and understand everything.

And then he said something astonishing: whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.

What does it mean to welcome the kingdom like a child?

It could be a statement about our mindset—children have curiosity, openness, and wonder. They often accept people for who they are and the barriers we build as adults seem meaningless to them. They aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they are perfectly willing to play with others who are different, at least until we teach them to be afraid or discriminating. And children don't care much about not having social status. They don’t spend their time and energy trying to improve their position or to look good on their CV. Those are adult concerns. Children are far more likely to do as the psalm says—to shout to the Lord, to give thanks, to celebrate, to feel they belong to God. The rest of us are more likely to tone it down a bit and to wonder if we’ve been good enough to be considered one of God’s people. 

So perhaps Jesus means we need to be less concerned about our own status, less worried about whether we are earning our way into heaven, and more accepting and curious and full of wonder and praise. To become like children—who believe themselves to be loved unconditionally, and in turn reach out and love others, without concern for worthiness or standards or reputation.

Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it, Jesus says. 
This could also be read as welcoming the kingdom of God like we welcome a child—in other words, about our practice of hospitality. After all, he was addressing the disciples who believed they could control and limit who had access to him, teaching them that all are welcome, not just those they want to welcome. Ultimately Jesus is the only one who gets to decide who is in and who is out, and over and over again he widens the circle. Foreigners, lepers, women, Gentiles, prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, and now children…it seems there is no one Jesus won’t let in. Perhaps he is saying that how we welcome the child is a reflection of how we welcome God’s kingdom. How we extend hospitality to those the world deems “least” or “lowly” or “outcast” is how we welcome God. 

Jesus says that when we close the circle of God’s love, we will find ourselves on the outside, not the inside where we intended. This is not to say that God won’t let us into the kingdom, but rather that when we shut people out, we will have also shut ourselves out of experiencing the reality of God’s infinite love and welcome, because our actions and words and lives are to be a reflection of the grace we have received…if we think some people are worthy of grace and others are not, or some are welcome in the church family and others are not, or if we are more excited about a new member with qualifications than about one who struggles with life, then that is a reflection of the idol we worship. And again and again Jesus shows us a God whose boundaries are much different than ours. As an ancient philosopher put it: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Whichever way we hear those words, it’s hard to imagine how they fit into the world we know today. A world where some nations’ leaders casually toss around the threat of nuclear war, and where white supremacist groups carry torches and weapons through the streets, and where people fleeing for their lives are turned back in the middle of the sea. These things feel far away, and yet they betray the same kind of thinking that led the disciples to turn away the children and scold the parents, and on a smaller scale we all do it. We have a mental checklist, which is often subconscious, or even unconscious, it's so ingrained. It tells us who is in and who is out, who we want in our community and who we don’t. 

Keeping the wrong sort of people away—whether they are the wrong sort because of their nationality or skin color or religious practice or language or job or family configuration or financial reality or age—is unequivocally against the gospel. If there’s one thing we can safely say of Jesus, it’s that he did not keep anyone away, and when his disciples did, he was angry about it and turned around and not just welcomed those who had been scolded by the disciples, but embraced them and blessed them.

The good news is that means we too are embraced, and blessed…because all those who are outside, including those who put themselves there, are welcomed in. The circle is always expanding, because, as the psalmist says, God made us, we belong to God, all of us. And we are called to enter God’s courts with praise and thanksgiving, with the joyful shouts of children who know themselves to be loved and accepted, with the open hands of mature faith that has learned to break down barriers, as reflections of the image of God whose faithfulness is from generation to generation.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Living Faith--a sermon on Timothy

Rev. Teri Peterson
Living Faith
2 Timothy 1.1-7
6 August 2017

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, to promote the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.
To Timothy, my dear child.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith also lives in you. Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.


On Friday afternoon I attended a performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir—they are on every day of the Festival at 2:40pm at the General Assembly Hall, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. They began their concert saying, “most of these are songs that were sung by our grandmothers, and that we grew up singing in our churches.” And then they launched into an hour of some of the most beautiful, intense, powerful music, with words in languages I didn’t understand but with harmony and rhythm that communicated perfectly clearly.

And I thought of Timothy, and his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois, and how they must have sung and prayed and served in ways that communicated their faith to the next generation. Paul is writing to Timothy to encourage him in his ministry, and the first thing he says is, essentially: remember who you are and where you came from. It’s like when we talk about someone coming from a long line of preachers, or bakers, or, in my case, a long line of stubbornly independent women. It’s a gift, handed on from generation to generation.

Each of us has a Lois and Eunice, ancestors in the faith. They may not be our blood relations, but that doesn’t matter. I’d like us to just take a moment to think about these people—who were the people who taught us about God, in one way or another? People who shared the love of Jesus with us, who guided us as we learned how to recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit around us? Bring their names and faces to mind, if you can. We come from a long line of faithful people, saints who have gone on before and showed us the way. Generation to generation, faith is passed down like something precious and beautiful.

Notice, though, that Paul says that this faith lived in Timothy’s grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice, and now lives in him. It was not an object they possessed, nor something they created or controlled. Faith lives in them.

What does living faith look like? Faith that is alive, dwelling in us without being owned by us? It has to be more than simply believing the right things. We have seen it, in our own cloud of witnesses. Living faith is active, visible, maybe even tangible. Paul writes that God gave us a spirit that is not timid or fearful, but powerful and loving. Not a faith that hangs back or hides out, but a faith that is forward and moving. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of light in the darkness, of resurrection life—like flames dancing, and wind blowing. And we are admonished to revive that gift, to rekindle the fire that we had covered over, or let die down to embers, because the world needs the light and the warmth. It is in us…but is it living? We have received the gift, and Paul wants us to know that now it’s up to us to let it live, and to pass it on. This is a gift that only grows when we give it away.

Living faith reaches out to people in need and asks how we can help, without judgment or patronizing. Living faith insists that all are welcome, and works to dismantle whatever barriers have been put up to keep people out. Living faith looks after the creation that has been placed in our care, and insists on stewardship rather than simply using it up. Living faith makes space for difference and keeps its eyes open for what God is doing between us. Living faith is rooted in prayer, and worship, and study, and service, and recognizes that all four of those are necessary. Living faith looks for the next generation and builds up the body through relationships of mutual love and respect and hope.

Living faith looks like seeing ourselves as Lois and Eunice, recipients of a gift we can’t help but pass on. After all, we come from a long line, but we don’t want to be the end of that line!

Several years ago I was at a conference where the preacher was Otis Moss III, minister at Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago, formerly President Obama’s church. He gave a sermon about Moses and Joshua that is still, eight years later, the most memorable sermon I have ever heard. Much like Paul and Timothy, Moses had trained Joshua and then left him to minister to the next generation. Reverend Moss talked about how the message of God’s love and justice and peace is always the same, but the method for sharing that message changes in each generation, and so Joshua was not simply a new Moses, he was a new leader for a new time. He spoke of the challenge of the church being that we sometimes want to keep using the Moses methodology, because it’s what we know and are comfortable with, and so we lose the Joshua generation. Rather than building on the foundation of those who came before, we are prone to trying to replicate the way things used to be and we miss the new thing that God’s spirit of resurrection life is doing in our midst.

Grace is the message, the gift, the fire that needs rekindling in each one of us, so it can shine out in a world desperate for good news. But that means we need to be willing to speak the good news in a language the world can hear. The message is the same, but the method may need to be adjusted if we are going to pass on the gift that was so generously handed down to us through the ages.

Some of you have noticed that this summer, as we have explored stories of God’s work through the generations, we have been reading from a new translation of scripture. The Common English Bible was just published a few years ago, translated from the original Hebrew and Greek texts by a number of scholars. They compared newly discovered ancient manuscripts to those that have been used for a long time, and worked with the most current information from archaeologists, linguists, historians, and theologians to ensure that the English was as faithful as possible to the sacred text and its meaning, while also making sense to a 21st century audience. All translation is interpretation, and these scholars were careful to be sure that their interpretive choices were in line with the context in which scripture was originally written, and also with the way the English language has evolved over the years. The hope was to both rekindle the gift in those of us who have perhaps missed some of the meaning as language has changed and scholarship has offered new insights, and also to make scripture accessible to a wider audience, to those who have not encountered the incredible gift that is the word of God for the people of God. It’s an attempt to pass on the gift we have received, and ensure the line doesn’t end with us, an attempt to reach the Joshua generation, or the Timothy generation, and allow faith to live once again, not only in the words on the page but in the church and the people.

No translation of scripture is perfect, just as none of our ancestors in the faith were perfect, and none of us are perfect. We come from a long line of imperfect saints with living faith—faith that built on the past without being bound by it, that grew as it was shared in new ways, through song and prayer and service. The message remains: that God is love, and that the spirit we have been given is not a spirit of fear, but of power and grace. That is the faith that lived in Lois and Eunice and all those who are part of our great cloud of witnesses, that now lives in us, and that we now pass on, generation to generation, like the precious gift that it is. 

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Advice--a sermon on Moses & Jethro (exodus 18)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Marchmont St. Giles
Exodus 18.1, 5-27
30 July 2017

Jethro, Midian’s priest and Moses’ father-in-law, heard about everything that God had done for Moses and for God’s people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife back to him in the desert where he had set up camp at God’s mountain. He sent word to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you along with your wife and her two sons.” Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him. They asked each other how they were doing, and then they went into the tent. Moses then told his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on Israel’s behalf, all the difficulty they had on their journey, and how the Lord had rescued them. Jethro was glad about all the good things that the Lord had done for Israel in saving them from the Egyptians’ power.
Jethro said, “Bless the Lord who rescued you from the Egyptians’ power and from Pharaoh’s power, who rescued the people from Egypt’s oppressive power. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, because of what happened when the Egyptians plotted against them.” Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought an entirely burned offering and sacrifices to God. Aaron came with all of Israel’s elders to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in God’s presence.
The next day Moses sat as a judge for the people, while the people stood around Moses from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?”
Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them. I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions.”
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing isn’t good. You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone. Now listen to me and let me give you some advice. And may God be with you! Your role should be to represent the people before God. You should bring their disputes before God yourself. Explain the regulations and instructions to them. Let them know the way they are supposed to go and the things they are supposed to do. But you should also look among all the people for capable persons who respect God. They should be trustworthy and not corrupt. Set these persons over the people as officers of groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times. They should bring every major dispute to you, but they should decide all of the minor cases themselves. This will be much easier for you, and they will share your load. If you do this and God directs you, then you will be able to endure. And all these people will be able to go back to their homes much happier.”
Moses listened to his father-in-law’s suggestions and did everything that he had said. Moses chose capable persons from all Israel and set them as leaders over the people, as officers over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They acted as judges for the people at all times. They would refer the hard cases to Moses, but all of the minor cases they decided themselves. Then Moses said good-bye to his father-in-law, and Jethro went back to his own country.

I have never experienced this myself, but I have a number of friends and family members whose voices are filled with dread when they utter the words “my in-laws are coming to visit.” For many people it seems that particular family relationship is one of the trickiest there is. Of course some people manage it beautifully, and then they talk about winning the in-law lottery, as if it’s a rare and beautiful thing to get along with the parents of one’s spouse.

When Moses received the letter saying his father-in-law was coming for a visit, we don’t know if he sighed and looked around at how much the tent needed tidying up, or wondered how quickly he could get rid of him, or if he smiled in anticipation and waited eagerly for his arrival. We know from their first encounter, several chapters ago, that Jethro was good at hospitality, that he was a successful farmer, that he loved his seven daughters, and that he was a priest of a people who shared a long-ago common ancestor and possibly a common god with the Israelites. But did Moses dread the arrival of the older man? Or look forward to it? Or just put it out of his mind because there was too much work to do?

When the two were finally together again, out there in the Sinai desert, surrounded by thousands of tents of people who were so newly free, they talked well into the night, marvelling at all the things God had done since they'd last seen each other. They worshipped together, and shared a meal with the elders in the makeshift traveling temple. And then the next day, Jethro stood off to the side and watched his son-in-law at work.

He observed carefully for the whole day, seeing how many people came seeking justice and instruction. He saw how they stood waiting, and how hard Moses was working to do the right thing for every person who sought him out. And at the end of the day, in private, he asked Moses to tell him about his work.

Only then, after watching the whole process and asking Moses directly about his job, did he utter the only words that may strike more fear than “in-laws coming to visit”—he said, “let me give you some advice.” And the combination of these two things—unsolicited advice from one’s in-laws—it’s a miracle families survive.

Yet Moses was able to receive this advice as the grace that it is. He knew that Jethro had been watching how things were going, and he’d had the chance to tell his father-in-law himself about the work he was doing… and also they were alone, not standing in front of the council or in the crowd of people clamouring for Moses’ attention. He didn’t get defensive, assuming that his father-in-law thought he was doing a bad job or believing he had to prove himself right. He didn’t accuse Jethro of meddling, nor turn to Zipporah and ask her to deal with her dad. He listened, and took the advice to heart.

For his part, Jethro gave his advice following the same spirit with which Paul would later instruct the church: “speak the truth in love.” He worried about Moses getting burned out, and about the inefficient system that was sure to result in people being unhappy or maybe even unruly. He reminded Moses that no one person can fulfil God’s kingdom vision alone. It is too big a job, and requires many people working together.

All the while, Jethro kept the conversation centred where it belonged: on God. This wasn’t about whether Moses was good or bad, or about what Jethro wanted or thought was best. It was about teaching people God’s ways, and communicating between God and the people, and leading the whole community in becoming the people God made them to be. If Moses was able to focus on teaching and big picture issues, then the people would be able to be faithful without having to always come to him with every question. He could, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, “equip the saints for ministry.” 

By centering his advice on God, rather than on himself, Jethro acted like a good spiritual director, a mentor who helped Moses see God’s way more clearly. He became a vehicle for grace, not just another unsolicited advice-giver. And Moses was able to hear his advice in the spirit in which it was given—literally, by the Spirit of God whose desire is not for one person to do all the work, seeking glory or power, but for the whole Body to function together in harmony so that all might have abundant life. 

In this exchange, we can find the roots of the way we still organise the church today. Some are called to lead and equip the saints for ministry, and some are called from among the congregation for all the day to day tasks that make up the church: teaching and caring and organising and reaching out and singing and praying and repairing and planning and serving.

All of that from one ancient visit from the in-laws.

There’s one last thing about Jethro’s advice to his son-in-law that I think is so interesting. In addition to his gift of observation, listening, discernment, and direction, he also stayed for just long enough. He didn’t give his advice and then get up from the table and say “well, good luck with that, I’ll be going now.” Nor did he move in permanently and micromanage Moses’ life and work. It appears that he stayed as a support through the tricky time of transition, as Moses sought the right people and equipped them, and as he taught the congregation this new way of living together. I imagine he was there at the end of the day when Moses wanted to talk, and he probably helped keep both Moses and the people focused on what God was doing rather than on their own desires for honour or accolades.

And then, when the system was up and running, he went home. He trusted that God was leading this people, and that Moses was perfectly capable of equipping the saints, and so he went on his way, back to his flocks and his people.

I think all of us need a Jethro—someone who can help us see how we might better live out our calling. And all of us need to be a Jethro, too—to guide and teach, in a spirit of love and compassion, without attaching ourselves too closely to the outcomes. That’s part of what it means to be the family of God: we are all always both learning and teaching, as we seek to be faithful together, generation to generation.

May it be so. Amen.