Sunday, March 19, 2017

Party Time--a sermon on things lost and found (Luke 15)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Party Time
Luke 15.1-32
19 March 2017, NL3-28, Lent 3 (are you all in?)

Today’s reading is from Luke chapter 15, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
Since we left off last week, Jesus has been at a dinner party, and teaching about hospitality and who is invited to feast in the kingdom of God. He reminded people that those who are lowly will be lifted up, and those who lift themselves up will be brought low. He taught that we are to invite people to share our bounty, especially if they cannot repay us or invite us in return—undoing the system of reciprocity and quid-pro-quo, insisting that hospitality is a blessing we are to share. He told a story about people invited to a large dinner, who made excuses when it was time to come to the table. In his parable, the host then had everyone in the city’s streets and alleys, including the poor and sick, brought in to share the feast. Jesus speaks of the cost and demands of being his disciples, and calls us to be fully committed to following him. That’s where we pick up the story today.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
 So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”

I Will Arise, verse 1 & 2

 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

I Will Arise, verse 3

            One:    For the word of God in Scripture;
                        for the word of God among us;
                        for the word of God within us,  
            All:     Thanks be to God.   

I Will Arise, verse 4

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Surely all of us would abandon the obedient sheep out in the wilderness—not in a pasture or fenced grazing area, the wilderness—in order to go after the one that didn’t want to conform. Who wouldn’t leave 99% of their property and wealth in danger, and then on returning with the one recalcitrant sheep, throw a party for all the neighbors, who likely think he’s irresponsible for risking the rest of the flock?

Or what woman, having ten days wages, if she loses one day’s paycheck, wouldn’t move all the furniture and sort through all the recycling until she found it…and then call together all the neighbors for a party, probably spending that money to celebrate finding what was lost?

Or what family, having said goodbye to the ne’er-do-well younger child, knowing they’re going to behave badly and lose everything but hoping they won’t get themselves hurt, wouldn’t watch out the window and wait for his return, and then run out to meet him and hand over all the best party clothes and fire up the grill and break out the best wine and call all the neighbors for a party when he finally returns penniless?
There seems to be a theme in Jesus’ parables today. Even a quick read through this chapter will make clear Jesus’ stories are about being lost and found—and that whether we are one of a hundred, one of ten, or one of two, God cares deeply about us, and we are all found by grace, again and again. Nothing, and no one, is lost to God.

But there’s another theme right alongside being found…the party. Every single one of these stories of being found ends with a party! Jesus is obviously into celebration. He, too, was clearly looking for reasons to have cake, no matter how tenuous the need for a party might be. One found sheep—cake! One found paycheck—cake! One found son—cake! You can see that I came by my love of church celebration cakes honestly. J

And it isn’t just about the party—in every story, there’s a growing hint that the celebration is extravagant, perhaps even unwise or unnecessary. No one wealthy enough to have a hundred sheep would leave 99 of them at risk to go search for the one…and no one poor enough to search so desperately for one day’s wages would spend it on inviting her neighbors over for a party because she found it. We see the rational, responsible, early free-market leanings in the elder brother in the third story. He worked hard, he followed the rules, and instead of being rewarded with advancement, he sees his shiftless moocher of a younger brother get celebrated for doing nothing other than losing everything with his wasteful and lazy ways. So he takes a stand for radical individualism and personal fiscal responsibility: he refuses to go in to the party.

Here is why it’s important that we read all three parables together, as the Narrative Lectionary places them, rather than one by one at different times like we might be more used to. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus asks “which of you…” and then at the end of the chapter we wonder: does the older brother go in? And we realize that the question has been building the whole time. He knows that we are often like the older brother, and wants to know: are we coming in to the party?

Through all three stories we see Jesus sketching out the character of God: it is the nature of God to seek, to find, to welcome. It is in God’s character to restore identity and relationship—the one sheep is reunited with the flock, the woman comes out of her individual consumer fear to join with her neighbors, the younger son “came to himself” and remembered who he is, the older son distances himself with words like “this son of yours” and the father responds with “this brother of yours”…and every single instance of being found by grace then leads to the whole community coming together in gratitude.

And so the question: will we go in to the party? The decorations are up, the grill is going, the cake is still warm, the sparkling cider is poured. Everything God has is already ours, now how will we experience it and use it in this life?

Going in to the party means letting go of a grudging spirit…Gratitude can’t be only for what God has done for us, but also what God has done for them. Even if they’re the ones who wandered off and got into trouble, or the ones who are using their found money in ways we wouldn’t… if we want to experience the fullness of mercy and grace ourselves, here and now, we’ll need to practice celebrating God’s grace given to others. We have been found by grace, again and again, for the Spirit is always calling, breathing life, creating community, bringing together all kinds of people.

Going in to the party means admitting that love doesn’t require confession…the younger son never even gets his whole confession out of his mouth before the father is dressing him and hugging him and cutting the cake. Love was there the whole time. Our repentance is just that—ours. It reminds us who we really are, puts our focus on our true identity, rather than all the other ways we have defined or hidden or created ourselves. It doesn’t earn us a place at the table, it simply prepares us to receive what God is already giving us. We are fed by grace at Christ’s table, where no reservations are necessary!

Most of all, going in to the party means accepting grace as the family rule. Being part of this family, God’s family, the Body of Christ, means everything we are, everything we say, everything we do, is about grace. Setting aside grudges and our understanding of who is good enough, allowing God’s love to be the foundation and the measure of life. It means admitting we’re just as lost, and just as found, as anyone else, no matter how much we think we have earned or they have not earned. And it means that even when we would prefer not to claim some of the family, they’re still ours to love, because in this family, we follow by grace, seeking to be living examples of Christ’s welcome.

No matter who you are, what you have done, or where you are on life’s journey…all are welcome, we mean it. And more importantly, God means it.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017

fox in the henhouse--a sermon on Luke 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
fox in the henhouse
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35
12 March 2017, NL3-27, Lent 2 (are you all in?)

This morning’s scripture reading is from Luke chapter 13, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and the crowds who follow them throughout the countryside and towns. He has taught them directly about prayer, and he has spoken in parables about many things. He told them to let their light shine, and to look carefully at the circumstances and times they are living in for evidence of God’s work. Remember that each gospel writer gives us a different perspective on Jesus’s life and teaching—Matthew looks at Jesus from behind, through the lens of the whole Old Testament; Mark looks at Jesus from right next to him, as if they are holding hands walking together; John looks at Jesus from above, with a cosmic perspective; and Luke looks at Jesus from just in front, looking back, almost like a movie maker looking through the camera, trying to capture faces and details along with the background and context. He wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so he has more information about what is to come in the future, and sometimes we see that in his wide-angle lens, as in today’s story.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Today Jesus jumps right in with the age-old question of why bad things happen…or, as the main character in the musical The Book of Mormon asks God, “more to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?” The assumption in the ancient world—and, if we’re honest, often today as well—is that tragedy is a result of sin. We intellectually understand and protest this view when it is given voice by people who, for instance, insist that Hurricane Katrina is punishment for allowing gay people to exist and live regular lives with the same rights as anybody else, or that the earthquake in Haiti is punishment for voodoo practiced during the centuries-old slave uprising that led to Haiti’s independence. We know those are ridiculous statements…and yet the same idea rears its head when we ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” Because underneath that question is some assumption that there are people who deserve bad things…we just don’t know any of them personally, of course, because “good people” usually means us and people we know and love.

In the case of today’s issue of the Jerusalem gossip chain, we have people who were going about everyday lives when a building collapsed—perhaps it was bad engineering, perhaps there was an earthquake, perhaps it was terrorism, perhaps it was just old and the infrastructure was compromised. Whatever the case, the tower fell and 18 people were killed. Were they worse offenders than everyone else living and doing business in Jerusalem? What did they do to deserve such tragedy striking?

Or the Galileans—of particular interest to Jesus and his disciples, as many of them are Galilean, and therefore often looked down upon as low-class, uneducated, uncouth—who had been on pilgrimage, went to the Temple to offer sacrifices, and were killed by the very government that was supposed to be keeping the peace… They were good, faithful people, going to church…were they particularly awful sinners, to be targeted by their own government?

When we put it so starkly, it seems ridiculous. And Jesus makes sure we are aware that the answer is always no: NO, there is no star chart of the worse and better sins, nothing that we can do that would cause God to rain punishment in the form of tornadoes or cancer or car accidents or gunshots. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory and call. Period. Every person, and every group or institution needs to repent—to turn around, away from sin and toward God’s way of love and justice. And God doesn’t use tragedy to try to force us to come back. Bad things happen, yes. We all sin, yes. Those are not related statements, though. Trying to figure out why God is punishing us with illness or heartbreak or disaster, or how we can guarantee our security against those things, will lead nowhere, because that’s not how God works.

Instead, Jesus tells us a story. A fig tree has been growing in the garden. It’s in the right place, it has the right name and qualifications, but it isn’t producing fruit. It is taking up space, using resources, claiming to be a fig tree…and it is in danger of being cut down. But the master gardener intervenes, promising to spend more time nurturing the tree. Digging around the roots, fertilizing, watering, pruning, caring for it, putting in the effort to help it grow into its purpose. During this year of the Lord’s favor, the year when God is making the kingdom come right here in the presence of Jesus, the fig tree gets a second chance.

This is how God works. Not by promising safety or security, but by investing time and energy, pushing us to look at our lives and the fruit we bear for the kingdom. We might get dirty, and sometimes the pruning is painful, and it might be harder work than we thought we signed up for, but ultimately the purpose of the tree in God’s garden is to bear fruit. Our purpose in God’s kingdom is to bear fruit…which will mean digging up the things we’ve long buried, getting our hands in the manure that is so gross and so life-giving when we use it for the right reasons, cutting off the branches that are siphoning away energy, turning our attention away from comparing ourselves to what other plants in the garden are doing and focusing on what the master gardener is doing, so turn from simply existing and trying to protect what little we have to bearing fruit that provides for all who encounter us.

It’s time-consuming work. Focusing on what God is doing, and doing what we are called to do, doesn’t leave any space or energy for figuring out how to best build a fence to keep everyone else off our little plot of land, or for passing judgment on people experiencing hardship, or for maintaining systems that ensure that water and nutrients only get into our roots and no one else’s. The spiritual work of looking honestly at ourselves and allowing God to dig and prune and feed is never about fixing other people, only about growing so that we can better serve other people. Bearing fruit doesn’t mean that the tree eats better—it means that the tree feeds better, and we don’t get to control who enjoys the fruit we bear in the kingdom of God. Our task is to figure out how to bear the fruit God calls us to give, and to learn to give it freely and generously, just as we have received freely and generously from others and from Christ the gardener who intercedes for us so faithfully.

It is in the midst of this that we jump to the end of the chapter and hear Jesus say of Herod, who wishes to see him, “Go tell that fox for me…I have work to do, and I’m doing it.” Herod has already killed John the Baptizer, and he’s been wanting to question Jesus and see if he is really the miracle-worker everyone says. But Jesus is busy with life-giving work, and has no time for death-dealing interviews. So he uses this beautiful, motherly, vulnerable metaphor: “long have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…but you were not willing.” Even the mother hen can’t force all the chicks to snuggle up together, to move as one in the direction she wants them to go. 

So he warns them instead: we have set a fox to guard the henhouse, and we shouldn’t be surprised when that starts to go terribly wrong. It seems confusing how we could get here, but if we just look back at the chapter, it’s all there. We’ve been duped into believing that some people deserve bad things, while others deserve good things, and we’re always in the latter category ourselves. We’ve blindly participated in systems that feed us while starving others, and we’ve cared more about protecting ourselves than about bearing fruit. We’ve learned to blame God and sin rather than to dig down and uncover our own complicity and rather than pruning off the branches that we hang on to even though they hinder our growth.

When our image of God is of someone whose favor you have to earn and whose wrath you have to avoid, whose circle is closed, and who only calls and uses and speaks through people who meet a human-made set of criteria, it’s a short leap to believing that we deserve what we have and therefore must protect it at all cost, especially from those who are different. It’s an even shorter leap to believing people who don’t-have must be undeserving, must have made bad choices or brought it on themselves or be dangerous. All of this sets the stage for the fox, who is cunning enough to manipulate our fear and our desire for self-advancement. He then takes advantage of us all running every which way except under the wings of the mother hen. The fox counts on us judging each other rather than having compassion, and the fox’s power depends on us turning a blind eye to our own fruitless trees so we can stay focused on what we’re missing rather than what we have and what responsibility we bear.

Jesus, in contrast, spreads wide his mother-hen wings, knowing they don’t offer the kind of protection that the fox claims to promise—he literally uses the chicken, image of weakness and cowardice, to face down the fox. He calls us to gather round, stick together, and move where he moves. He calls us to unpopular self-examination, knowing it is the foundation for bearing fruit…and that is the purpose of residents of God’s garden: to produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, goodness, and self-control…fruit that feeds others, changes the world, and lasts well beyond anything the fox can do.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

She Persisted--a sermon

Rev. Teri Peterson
She Persisted
Luke 7.36-50
19 February 2017, NL3-24, Epiphany 7 (Listen Up!)

Last week we heard about Jesus’ answer to those who wondered if he was the One they had been waiting for: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. He ended the conversation by reminding them that when John the Baptizer fasted and separated himself from society, they thought he was demon-possessed, and now Jesus feasts and they call him a glutton who socializes with sinners—their expectations obscured their ability to hear his message of grace. Today’s reading, in Luke chapter 7, beginning at verse 36, picks up at the end of that conversation. It can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Picture this scene…a house with big front windows, shutters open, and no glass in them of course. The front door stands open to a large courtyard, and the first doorway goes into a front room, with its wall of open windows and a long, low table surrounded by pillows and low benches. This is the room where it happens—where the powerful master of the house entertains his important guests, so everyone can see how well they live and how scrupulous they are about keeping the religious laws, and often even hear what they discuss.

The room was full that day—mainly men, important men. Pharisees and scribes, perhaps rabbis, or members of the royal household, or of the Sanhedrin, the council of elders. They reclined towards the table on the cushions, leaning on their left arms, with their feet out behind them, away from the table. There may have been women there—wives, perhaps, seated on stools or benches, or slaves coming and going with dishes and food and jugs of wine.

It is not a quiet dinner party as we think of them today, secluded and enclosed in flickering candlelight. There’s bustling in the room, and outside, as people walk by, or stand outside and talk about what they are seeing and hearing, or even talk through the windows at the people inside. There’s movement, and probably more color than we usually imagine in the ancient near east, and side conversations, and food coming and going.

Then a woman entered the house—it was easy to do—and stood behind Jesus as he reclined at the table. At first, probably no one gave her a much thought, as people came and went, except perhaps to avoid her touching them. But she stayed, rooted to her spot, weeping so much that she was able to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair—her unbound, uncovered, loose, long hair. Soon a different scent filled the air, overpowering the smell of roasted fish and fresh bread and new wine with its pungent sweetness, reminiscent both of love and of death.

By now she had everyone’s attention.

How could Jesus not know? What she was? In addition to everyone squirming away to be sure she didn’t accidentally touch them, they were squirming inside too, suspicious that this man was not who he claimed to be, since he seemed to not understand about this creature that was ruining everything, right there at the dinner table.

No one said a word but Jesus. His story was straightforward, and even those startled at having their inner thoughts addressed out loud could understand his point about those being forgiven much showing great love. But then he asked a question that likely made them all wonder again about his sanity, his intelligence, and his call as a prophet:

Do you see this woman?

She has spent many minutes creating a spectacle of herself, making a scene, making everyone uncomfortable…of course they see her.

Or do they?

Simon had said to himself that a real prophet would know what she was—a sinner.

Do you see this woman?
Or do you see a sinner?
a spectacle?
an intrusion?

Do you see this woman?
Or do you see “the homeless” and “the needy”?
an addict?
black, and dangerous?
Hispanic, and illegal?
Asian, and smart?
hijab and long sleeves?
loose hair and a low cut top?

Do you see this woman?
or do you see a teenage girl sold into sex slavery by her father, desperate for cash?
Estimates are that up to half of teen girls in Roman occupied Palestine had been sold by their families, and fathers got the best price if they allowed them to be used as prostitutes.
Do you see a young woman whose body is for the pleasure of the occupying army,
a young woman whose lifespan is likely less than five years?
do you see poverty, desperation, abandonment, betrayal, fear?
or an embodiment of her own bad choices and natural consequences?

Then, as now, she knew perfectly well that they did not see her. And yet, she persisted.

She knew the rules. She’d heard them talking about her. She knew what people said, and what they believed, and what they expected. She knew the life she was living, and its danger, and its harsh reality so easily hidden behind the label “sinner.”

And yet, she persisted.

And Jesus persisted, too. He began a litany with Simon:
*you gave me no water for my feet—you neglected basic hospitality, failing to keep the law to welcome the stranger.
but she has bathed my feet with her tears.
*you gave me no kiss—you held the peace of our house back from me, failing to love your neighbor as yourself.
but she has not stopped kissing my feet.
*you gave me no oil for my head—you judged with human eyes, failing to learn from the lessons of our ancestors the kings and the prophets.
but she has anointed my feet with her most precious possession.

Unrelentingly, Jesus held up a mirror to Simon, essentially asking him: do you see yourself? Is there anyone who is without sin? He knows the answer—Simon sees neither himself nor the woman clearly. He sees only through his lens of assumptions, that he is better, because of his position, his gender, his religion, his education, his family. He thinks “I wonder if Jesus knows what she is”… and the answer is that Jesus is the only one in the room who knows her, who sees her for who she is—and who knows and sees Simon for who he is, too. Jesus sees through the lens of God’s love, which gives him insight and clarity that reveals the image of God, and the grace of God, underneath all those layers we get hung up on.

Then Jesus speaks the reality that is behind all those masks and mirrors and labels…the reality that many do not wish to hear, even as we desire it with all our hearts:

She has been forgiven, and therefore she shows great love.

The grace of God has been at work in her, she has experienced God’s goodness, and it overflows in gratitude, in service, in the gift of her precious ointment, in her persistence in pursuing Jesus in the face of overwhelming odds.

At no point does Jesus tell her to repent, or to go and sin no more. He knows perfectly well that would be impossible, and also that the main sin in her life is not hers, but that of the men who sell and buy and use her. He simply states what is already true: grace is something God does, not something we earn or bestow. Grace is entirely God’s action, and we see its evidence in her response of generosity. She sought him out not because she needed to be forgiven, but because she was forgiven and needed to give thanks, to worship, to offer herself. She sought him out not to beg for mercy, but to pour out her own spirit at the feet of the One who could see her. She persisted, because her experience of grace meant she had no choice but to challenge the systems that kept her in her place.

Jesus’ question to Simon is the same he asks of us: Do we see this woman? And do we see ourselves? Will we persist as she did, pushing boundaries that obstruct justice and grace, or will we add more layers until we are trapped in our own echo chamber?

Jesus’ answer is also the same to us: I see you. God sees you, and has made you well. God’s grace is for you, and will never give up…now go, and in the same measure that you have been loved, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, February 06, 2017


A few weeks ago, I announced to my church that I am moving away this spring. My last day at church will be at the end of April, and then at the end of May I'm taking a one-way flight to Scotland! I'm transferring to the Church of Scotland, which of course could also be called The Original Presbyterians (tm).

from my first time living on Iona...almost half my life ago!
I've loved Scotland from the first minute I set foot there in June of 2000. This is not the first time I've nearly moved, nor the first time I've considered it. I have friends in Scotland who began asking me in 2012 if I was ever going to actually move, or just talk about wanting to. The timing has never been right before, but this time I think the Spirit has finally lined things up. :-)

I've had this porcelain doll probably 30 years
and I only just noticed that it's a little creepy.
I apologize to everyone who has slept under
its gaze in my guest room.
So...this weekend, I held a living estate sale, and sold a large chunk of my belongings. I still have a bunch left to sell, of course, because it turns out that living in the same place for 10 years means I have somehow managed to accumulate All The Things. I've dropped off a car load of clothes at the thrift shop that supports the women's shelter, and I'll drop off a carload of housewares tomorrow. My condo went on the market today. Things are in motion.

how many picture frames can one person accumulate? a lot. with no pictures in them, of course, because why would I do that?
Lots of people have asked how I decided to do this, and where I'll be going, and if I can take the kitties, and what my dad thinks of my moving so far away, etc. I'm planning to put up a page with answers to all this and more, I promise. Then it'll just be there, in a tab at the top of the page, so it's easy to find.

In the meantime:
*The process for transferring my credentials to the CoS is long, and I've been considering it for a while. I declined the first time I was invited to an interview weekend, but went last year. It feels right and I've loved Scotland and the model of the CoS (geographic parishes) for a long time.
*Yes, I'll take the kitties, and no, they don't have to be quarantined, as long as everything is in order before we go. It will be very expensive to take them, though, so I've set up a GoFundMe page because I'd prefer not to be anxious about going into debt to bring them. They pick up anxiety and I don't want them to be unhappy either!
*My dad seems excited for me, and I've lived at least 2000 miles away for my entire adult life (and some of those years were a lot more than 2000 miles) so I don't get the sense it's a big change, other than in the number of time zones.
*No, I'm not taking my car, because it'll be backwards. Yes, I am taking a few things from my house, but not many. I even managed to cull about half my library, which was like cutting off an arm. I definitely put more than half of my panda collection into the "keep" box though.

Now that the news is out, I'll hopefully be able to blog more. It's hard to write when there's something big brewing that isn't public knowledge yet, so my blog has been neglected. Sorry about that! More to come, I promise.

Healing Word--a sermon on Luke 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
healing word
Luke 7.1-17
5 February 2017, NL 3-22, Epiphany 5 (Listen Up!)

Today’s reading begins with a phrase that could be translated “After all Jesus’ words had filled the people’s ears…” Those words that Jesus had been speaking just before today’s reading were the sermon on the plain, or what in Matthew is called the sermon on the mount. Jesus said things like “blessed are the poor, hungry, and mourning”…and then he also said “woe to you who are rich, full, and laughing now.” He taught that we are to love our enemies, to avoid judging others by our own imperfect human standards, and to do the things he says, not only let them go in one ear and out the other. These are the things he had been talking about when we pick up the story in Luke, chapter 7, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

I have to confess that I have had some pretty serious problems with this scripture reading, all week long. A centurion, head of a battalion of the Roman army which is occupying and oppressing the Jewish people and many others all around the Mediterranean basin, owns another person. He probably owns several people, actually—slavery was common in the ancient world, as people either sold themselves or family members to pay a debt, or as people were captured during the Empire’s expansion. The person enslaved by this centurion is so sick he is near death...but his labor is valuable, so the centurion/slave owner asks for help. The local elders tell Jesus that the centurion/slave owner is worthy of having his enslaved worker restored to health, because he built the synagogue for them—in other words, they owe him a favor. The centurion/slave owner tells Jesus that he is used to being obeyed, so he expects Jesus is too, what with his even higher authority. Jesus pronounces this great faith, and the enslaved person is returned to good health (i.e., to productive worker status).

I think this is a troubling story in lots of ways. The implicit acceptance of slavery is the most obvious issue. Then there’s also the part where everyone from the elders to the friends to Jesus himself say that the centurion—the officer of the occupying army, the owner of slaves—is so good and generous and faithful that of course he deserves to have the slave healed so he can get back to unpaid work. And also the fact that the reasoning given by the Jewish elders for why Jesus should help a Roman centurion is because he gave the money to build the synagogue…they were in his debt, and he called that favor in when he was in danger of losing a slave in the most unprofitable of ways.

And Jesus went. And he said nothing about the enslaved person at all. The man was healed, of course, by Jesus’ word that is so powerful he can work miracles from afar. But he was still in slavery—he was healed, but not freed.

Then Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd continue on their journey, only to encounter a funeral procession. Where most of us might pull over out of respect, or lower our eyes until the people have passed, Jesus sees this widow whose son has died and he has compassion for her. Compassion isn’t just sympathy, or even empathy—it’s a stomach-twisting suffering with the other person that is incomplete without action…and Jesus acts when he sees this grieving woman. A widow was vulnerable, and a widow with no male children was even more so. She was dependent on either her father’s family or on the charity of her neighbors, and was often separated from society due to her lack of status and lack of resources. With a word, Jesus heals the man and returns him to his mother—and by extension returns her to stability and community.

One man was nearly dead, and the other was dead…and with a word, Jesus heals both of them. But he doesn’t only do it for them—he also heals them for the sake of others in their lives. For the sake of the mother. For the sake of the centurion. Or perhaps in both cases, for the sake of the whole community.

The centurion is a well-off man, in charge of a segment of the world’s most powerful army. He asks for a miracle, knowing he deserves one, either because of his station or because of what he has done for the town. The people around him believe the same—he has done good things, he has earned a healing or two. By all our worldly standards, he is a prime candidate for receiving good things from God: he has power, money and status, and the whole town owes him a favor.

The widow, meanwhile, is not just underprivileged or at-risk, she is worthless. She asks for nothing in the midst of her mourning. It’s not even clear whether or not she sees Jesus at all, or whether she is just walking beside her son’s body, weeping and wailing, immersed in her own world of pain. By all our worldly standards, she deserves nothing, because she is nothing.

We could hardly ask for a wider difference between two recipients of Jesus’ attention. There is a chasm between their circumstances and stations in life that seems impossible to cross. Yet his voice reaches each of them, exactly where they are. The living word speaks not only to those who ask, not only to those who are worthy, but also to those who are overlooked or even trampled down. And the whole community listens in.

What do they hear?

That God has compassion for the lowly.
That God cares about people in distress, especially those we might otherwise overlook.
That God does not work according to our human rules, customs, social groups, or religious traditions.
That God’s power is not defined or confined by what we consider to be “deserving.”

And when they had heard—when their ears were full of all the things Jesus said and did—the word about him spread throughout the country.

They kept the word—the powerful, compassionate, loving word that brings healing—moving and living throughout the land. They didn’t let the word stop with them. Jesus said the strong foundation for the life of faith requires putting his teaching into action, requires feeling the suffering and the joy of our neighbors and then doing something about it.

Both of these miracle stories offer us the opportunity to join that community that heard the voice that could raise the dead and the dying, and then shared the word. Because, you see, both miracles are unfinished. The enslaved man is healed, but not freed. The widow and her son are reunited, but the woman is not freed. The work of healing our community and culture is still ours to do. The bodies are restored, but the wholeness that comes with justice is still a ways off. As long as some are not free, none of us are free. When Paul wrote that we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, he wasn’t only giving instructions about empathy and prayer, he was reminding us that our wholeness is bound up in one another. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Each healing story gives us the first step, and calls us to join the transformation of the world into God’s kingdom where no one is left out, no one is just a prop in someone else’s story, no one has to worry about who will take care of them. Jesus showed us his way: no barriers, no hierarchy of deserving, no judgment of circumstance. He spoke the word…now comes the hard part where we try to live as if the word is true. When all of us who make up this community hear and obey Christ’s healing word, the truth will set us free—all of us, not just some.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Who Will Go? A sermon on Isaiah 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Who Will Go?
Isaiah 6.1-8
13 November 2016, NL3-10, H2-5 (God Provides)

The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE, when the Assyrian empire was expanding, conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and destroying much of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, the only city relatively unharmed in this war, and he spoke primarily to the kings, priests, and their wealthy advisors. Isaiah insisted that being God’s people involved not only worshipping the One God, but also behaving in ways consistent with God’s plans—and that God’s concern was primarily for those outside the halls of power, without wealth or connections. Much of the first section of Isaiah is about God’s vision of justice and righteousness, and how the leaders of the nation fall short of that vision, and therefore both oppress their people and lead them astray. In today’s reading, the king has died and the nation is in turmoil. We hear about Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne room of God, where heavenly beings worship and where Isaiah receives the difficult grace of confession and call. The reading from Isaiah chapter 6 can be found on page __ in your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’


In the year that King Uzziah died, he had been on the throne for 52 years. According to 2 Chronicles chapter 26, he became king at age 16, and he was faithful in seeking God with his tutor Zechariah for many of those years. He rebuilt cities, he went to battle with the Philistines, he built towers in the walls of Jerusalem, and neighboring tribes paid him tribute taxes. He became very wealthy and very powerful…and according to 2 Chronicles, when he became powerful he also became proud and arrogant. He stopped giving his attention to any but those who could advance his interests. He assumed he could do things on his own, so he left God out of it. He used people to build his projects and pay for shiny equipment for his massive army. And one day, he went into the Temple and tried to make an offering of incense inside the Holy of Holies, the room that only the high priest could enter, the room where God lived. Eighty priests followed him to try to convince him that what he was doing was wrong…and while inside, he broke out in an unclean skin disease and was banished from not only the Temple but also the palace and the town. He lived the remainder of his days in a camp, and his son reigned in his stead.

So in the year that he died, there was a complicated situation. He wasn’t allowed to be buried in the same place as those who were ritually clean. His son was already on the throne unofficially. And his arrogant ways had already affected how people lived and treated each other.

This is the moment—a very human moment in history—when Isaiah, who has already been a prophet for five chapters now, has a vision of the Temple filled with the hem of God’s robe and the heavenly host winging through the air singing. The Temple, where Uzziah had gotten into so much trouble at the pinnacle of his pride and power. The Temple, where Isaiah was not, apparently, among those who called the king out on his bad behavior. But now he stood there in this vision, practically touching the hem of God’s robe, and he realizes his need to confess: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”

Today we might say it like this: I have said things I should not have said, and I have kept silent when I should have spoken up.

When the man full of pride and power used and abused people, I was silent.
When the man who accumulated the wealth of surrounding nations turned his back on those who had built his cities, I was silent.
When the man who believed his position allowed him to do anything actually did unspeakable things, I was silent.
Instead I spoke in generalities, I spoke to others rather than to him, I spoke of happier topics, I made excuses, I spoke in cryptic metaphors meant only for the few who were already in the know.

I said things I should not have said, and kept silent when I ought to have spoken. I am a person of unclean lips, and I come from a whole people who have used and misused their voices and allowed this turmoil to happen. We have lost sight of God’s kingdom and turned to our own instead, leaving behind the vulnerable, the different, the outcast, the poor, the immigrant, the minority, the veterans.

And then one of the heavenly host came to Isaiah with a hot coal, and touched his lips, burning away the cowardly silence and the haughty words. That would be a painful cleansing, a lesson that hurt…the way we use our voices matters, and it isn’t easy to undo. But afterward, with his mouth freed to try again, Isaiah can now hear the voice of God, cutting through the din of his own self-centered cries, and God says:
who will go for us?

Who will go…to the edges of society, where people are hurting?
Who will go…to the slums and the refugee camps?
Who will go…to the hospitals and prisons?
Who will go…to the protests and the rallies?
Who will go…to the Congressman’s office and the mayor’s town hall?
Who will go…to the social media feeds where we can hide behind a screen?
Who will go…to the places that need good news?
Who will go…to insist that there is no place for hate or exclusion in the kingdom of God?
Who will go…to comfort and protect those who feel unsafe and unwanted?
Who will go…remembering that good news comforts the disturbed AND disturbs the comfortable?
Who will go…to try new things in hope of seeing God at work in unexpected places?
Who will go…carrying words and actions of hope and challenge, living the vision of a new kingdom, a new way of being?
Who will go…to stand up for those who we think don’t belong?
Who will go…to speak up even when it’s uncomfortable, protecting the people God loves even when we don’t?
Who will go…to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and house the homeless?
Who will go…to ask our leaders why there are people who are hungry, naked, sick, and homeless?
Who will go…when it is inconvenient or difficult or painful?

Isaiah doesn’t hesitate. He already knows the cost of staying silent, or beating around the bush with excuses. This is his second chance, his moment to be renewed and re-dedicated to his task, to his community, to his people. He hears “who will go?” and he says “Here I am, send me.”

742 BC and today, the same is true: we know the cost of silence, and of excuses. We know there are people who need our voices to speak on their behalf, and people who need us to be quiet so their stories can be heard. There are places that need good news, and leaders who need to be challenged, and neighbors who need care. God provides us with a second, and a third, and a sixtieth, chance to examine ourselves and admit our failings, and then to live up to the call…and God asks: who will go? whom shall I send?

We give our answer in word and song, in prayer and action, in giving of time and resources: here I am, send me. And here we are, the body of Christ on the corner of Palatine and Rohlwing…send us.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Opening to the Light: Advent Candle liturgies for 2016

2016 Advent/Christmas Theme: Opening To The Light
Narrative Lectionary Year 3: Daniel 6, Joel 2, Isaiah 61, Luke 1
Musical verse is from Light the Advent Candle by Ruth Elaine Schram

Lit candle is carried in as congregation sings (tune: Picardy, except last two lines):

As we light the Advent candle
with the light of hope burning bright,
faithfully we wait for his coming;
faithfully it shines through the night.
In our humble hearts a fire burns as well;
hear the prayer these flames would tell.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Candle-bearer: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

week 1 (Daniel 6.6-27):
Liturgist:  One candle shines as shadows lengthen and chaos roars—
the dawn of God’s kingdom in our midst.
All:  Courage awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

week 2 (Joel 2.12-13, 28-29):
Liturgist:  Two candles shine as light peeks through the cracks
and God’s dream overflows.
All:  Vision awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

week 3 (Isaiah 61.1-11):
Liturgist:  Three candles shine as God’s promise draws near,
beckoning us to be good news in body and spirit.
All:  Justice awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

week 4 (Luke 1.26-55):
Liturgist:  Four candles shine as God’s purpose is revealed
in word and flesh.
All:  Possibility awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

Liturgist:  Radiant flash and feeble flame break through;
a long time coming, yet unexpected.
Watching and waiting, we prepare him room.
All:  Christ is coming to make all things new,
and we are opening to the Light.

The middle section swaps out each week (not cumulative, as some previous years) so, for example, the bulletin for week 1 would look like this:

Lit candle is carried in as congregation sings
      As we light the Advent candle  
      with the light of hope burning bright,    
      faithfully we wait for his coming;
      faithfully it shines through the night.
      In our humble hearts a fire burns as well;
      hear the prayer these flames would tell.
                  O come, O come, Emmanuel,
                  and ransom captive Israel.

Candle-bearer: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Liturgist:   One candle shines as shadows lengthen and chaos roars—
      the dawn of God’s kingdom in our midst.
All:           Courage awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.
Liturgist:   Bright flash and feeble flame break through;
                  a long time coming, yet unexpected.
                  Watching and waiting, we prepare him room.
All:           Christ is coming to make all things new,
                 and we are opening to the Light.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Assumptions--a sermon on Hannah and Eli (1 Samuel 1-2)

Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Samuel 1.9-20, 2.1-10
16 October 2016, NL3-6, H2-1 (God Provides)

After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.
It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2 can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’
 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
   my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
   because I rejoice in my victory.

‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
   no one besides you;
   there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
   let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
   and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
   but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
   but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
   but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
   he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
   he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
   and on them he has set the world.

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
   but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
   for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
   the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
   he will give strength to his king,
   and exalt the power of his anointed.’

how great is my hair?
if you're going to make assumptions about me
based on my hair,
I hope they're "she's obviously awesome"
and not "I can't take her seriously." 
Assumptions: we all make them, we all have them, and many of us chafe under them.
We all know what happens when we assume.
But it’s as if we can’t help ourselves, we do it anyway. It’s unconscious—we’ve just absorbed certain things, and we see them as if they are reality, never thinking to question them until something dramatic happens to tear the scales from our eyes and give us a little clearer vision.

Hannah was a woman about whom a lot of assumptions were made. Peninah, the other wife, and all the rest of society assumed Hannah was worthless, a barren woman who contributed nothing, not even fulfilling her most basic purpose. She was easy to look down on, because she was in fact beneath them. Her husband assumed she knew her own worth in his eyes. It’s likely that Hannah even assumed about herself that she didn’t matter, that something was wrong with her.

And then Eli, sitting on the Temple steps, watched her…a barren woman, talking to herself, crying. Perhaps she was what we used to derisively call “hysterical.” He assumed she was drunk. He assumed she was a sinner, a woman of no account, making a spectacle of herself, embarrassing herself and her family.

But Hannah shocked everyone—probably including herself—by standing up and challenging Eli’s assumptions. NO: She is not drunk. She is not a worthless woman. She is a person made in God’s image, whole and beloved. She matters.

Any number of things could happen at this point, when someone challenges our assumptions. This is the moment a lot of violence, especially domestic violence, happens—when one person asserts their worth, contradicting the one who assumed they were in control. So often we make assumptions about the people we see, or the people we hear about. Consciously or not, we have decided somewhere along the way that they matter less—because of their gender, or their skin color, or their weight, or their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their economic class. We would never put it like that, of course. We look back on those ancient times when women’s worth was measured by their ability to bear male children and we shake our heads, grateful that isn’t the scale anymore.

But if we’re honest, we have a scale. Some people are more worthy, more deserving, than others. Somewhere along the way, humans equated “having” with “deserving.” And when those who don’t have, and therefore don’t deserve, stand up and insist that they matter too, they are made in the image of God, they are beloved…we who live with a lot of advantages have a hard time with that. Perhaps we even fear that if they are loved and valued, then we won’t be anymore. So we lash out, with words or with guns. We put them back in their place, whether by wondering why they won’t just conform to our standards or by physically putting them where we think they belong—often in prison.

Thankfully for Hannah, when God provided her the courage to value herself and to challenge Eli’s assumptions, God also provided Eli the courage to hear her with an open mind and heart, and to drop his beliefs and treat her differently. Instead of chastising her further for her uppity response, or hitting her, or calling her husband to shame her in public, he gave her a blessing. He recognized there was more to this story than he originally perceived.

It is from this moment—not the moment she gets pregnant, or the moment she gives birth to a boy, or the moment she drops Samuel off at the Temple—this moment, when Hannah challenged the assumptions that had been made about her, that “her countenance was sad no longer.” The weight of other people’s projections and expectations was lifted, and she saw herself as she truly was. And not only that, but God provided her a witness, someone else who could see her as she really was, even if it took some fighting on her part to get there. Eli’s perception was changed as he allowed Hannah to be a person in her own right, not just a carrier of other people’s assumptions. And Hannah’s life was changed from the inside out when she knew herself both seen and valued.

It isn’t surprising that Hannah would burst into song—with a new understanding of herself, she sees God’s world more clearly. She sees that it is God who provides—from the foundations of the earth to the cares of the barren woman. And her whole song is about how God’s providence challenges the assumptions of the world—breaking the bows of the mighty, while strengthening the feeble, filling the hungry while the full seek nourishment, raising up the poor and the needy from the dust and seating them with princes. While the world is in the business of getting and keeping, and often does so by pushing some down, God is in the business of reversal.

This week there was a conversation in one of the narrative lectionary preaching groups about Hannah’s song, particularly the line “my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” Surely we don’t want to encourage people to gloat? After all, God calls us all to reconciliation and wholeness, not to celebrating at the expense of others. We talked about this for a long time, but ultimately I think this is another place where we are relying too heavily on our assumptions, and God may be providing us a new way of seeing.

Throughout her story, Hannah has been brutally honest about her distress and her need. She doesn’t mince words or pretend things are okay (but by the way, God, if you have a moment…) She has borne the abuse and scorn of society and even her own family, for years. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that she would then have a moment of triumph? It doesn’t last long—her song is about God and all the ways God works in the world to bring about justice. But for a moment, she gets to be angry at how she has been treated. She is allowed to feel that anger.

It’s that moment when we get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to be angry. And in some cases, if we were fully honest and allowed God to open our eyes like Eli’s, we don't even necessarily want people to credit God with the reversal. We want the credit for making change, creating space, helping the less fortunate. Acknowledging that it is God who provides—often through our abundance—means also acknowledging that those people matter to God just as much as we do. It means challenging our deep and sometimes subconscious assumptions that people of color are less capable, or people who are poor are lazy, or people who are Muslim are terrorists, or people with accents don’t belong here.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—the world, and those who live in it. Hannah acknowledges that God is, for lack of a better term, the “owner” of all things, and provides for us what we need. Sometimes what we need is a reality check, a glimpse of God’s kingdom truth. When we get it, God also provides us the courage to do something with that gift. Just as with every other gift God gives, it’s for a purpose. Hannah knew that the proper response to God’s providing was to give it back—she promised Samuel to God, to serve in the temple, and she took him there and left him to grow up to be the priest who changed the course of history. The same is true of less tangible gifts. God provides, and we are called to respond.

I hope that throughout this Harvest 2 season, as we consider the many different ways God provides, we will also consider what God calls us to do with what we are given. Whether that’s a gift of challenged assumptions, a gift of resources, a gift of talent or time—God’s purpose is the same: abundant life for all creation, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May we have the courage of Hannah and the openness of Eli, to participate in God’s great reversal until all know themselves beloved.