Saturday, July 26, 2014

Many Other Things--a sermon for July 27

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Many Other Things
John 16.12-13, 20.30-31, 21.25
27 July 2014, Faith Questions 6

Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.




Many of you know that I did not grow up in the church. When I was 15, I had plans that involved studying both music and English Literature in college. I figured I could easily double major, because I liked and was good at both those things, and neither one would get me a job, so surely there must be time for both. I spent a lot of time reading and writing. But it wasn’t long into my journey with classic and important literature and music that I figured out that I was missing something. I was missing the undertones, the subtext, the metaphor, the language and background that authors and composers assumed people would have. So I decided that I was going to have to read the Bible. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time wondering what characters were talking about or why things were important. So I started reading. At the beginning. And at the rate of about 5 chapters per day, I read straight through this book from beginning to end.

It was a weird book. Repetitive in parts, confusing in parts, and downright disturbing sometimes. It had stories of lying, murder, seduction, despair, hope, coming-of-age, and traveling adventures. One day it was like Swiss Family Robinson, and the next day it was Agatha Christie, and the next day it was worse than trying to read the Waterloo section of Les Mis in French. Which, of course, is because the Bible isn’t just one book, it’s dozens—more like a library than a novel. The story arc weaves in and out throughout the history and mythology and weird social contracts to create something I’d never experienced before. What made it even stranger was that by the time I got near the end, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just a good story. There was something more to this God-story, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, besides to say that I thought it might just be True.

Now, I’m one of those people who gets sucked in to a good story. The worlds that authors create can be very compelling, and it’s difficult sometimes to remember that there really aren’t wizards and witches cloaking themselves from our eyes or Time Lords winging their way through the universe…probably. So it wasn’t surprising to me when I first felt that the story of God’s people was maybe more than just a good story. What was surprising was that the feeling held on, even as I turned to other books with other worlds and their stories. There was something about this library that held this particular story of this particular people. It wasn’t just another novel. When I eventually went to church, I used to say that I was Presbyterian in part because I was converted by the scriptures—reading the Bible was the beginning of my journey with God.

For the first 300 years of the church, there was disagreement about what should be in the library—there are still a few books that various denominations disagree about! And then until the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, it was unheard of for regular people to read anything, especially the Bible, for themselves. We lowly ones can’t be trusted with the sacred words—they’re holy and full of God’s own writing! But then along come Gutenberg and Luther and Calvin and Knox, and suddenly we can read the word of God, and learn it, and encounter the Living Word in it, ourselves. It’s out in the open, like any other book…but it isn’t just like any other book. When Paul writes to Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and useful,” which scripture is he talking about? Is he just talking about the Hebrew Bible, which was pretty well agreed upon by then? Is he thinking that the letter he’s writing might one day be considered Inspired—literally breathed by God? Does he know about how confusing it will be for one page to commend the women preachers and another to command women to be silent? If all scripture is the very breath of God, the word of God, then what about the books and letters that got left out? What about the stories that reveal just as much about the time and culture and people as they do about God? How can it be the breathy word of God if it reads more like it’s written by a bunch of guys perfecting their family’s campfire stories than like lightning bolts streaming from God’s fingertips?

Well, in short, because it can be both of those things at the same time.

The Bible is the story of God and God’s people—through good and bad times, through untimely relocations and strange family trees and sibling feuds and inside jokes, through flood and drought and good ideas and bad ideas, through times of widening the gap between humans and God and times of God closing the gap sometimes slower than a snail and sometimes faster than the sun can rise. Those stories are the stuff of every family reunion, and this library is our set of family stories—it tells us who we are, and who God is, and how our family has worked out a life with God and with each other in all kinds of situations and circumstances. It’s written by people, like any family story, but the breath of God flows through the words and makes them come alive in ways that open up Truth and Love and Real Life that novelists can’t even imagine. So it is all useful for learning how to be in right relationship and for correcting our course, because each story points the way—there’s nothing in there that is an end in itself. The written word points us to the Living Word, about whom the world could not contain all the books that could be written, and who came that all—whether we are in this sheepfold or another—may have abundant life. Instead of more books to fill the shelves, that Living Word gave the world something else—something living and breathing and moving…the Spirit, who continually whispers God’s word to us, offering guidance and comfort and challenge.

In scripture, God is telling a story of love speaking and acting, calling together flawed people to create something beautiful, a story of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world, little by little. It is a story that reveals God’s purpose and calls us to trust God enough to participate in that mission. Everything we need in order to see God in Christ is there. Scripture is a complete picture. And yet God’s story is not finished—it is still being told in every breath, every act of love, every word of kindness, every hand reaching out, every voice lifted in song, every prayer said and every loaf of bread broken. It is still being told every time we open the book that is our foundation, and every time we build on that foundation. Just as Jesus did and said many other things, so the Spirit is still busy sharing the many other things God has to say through us. For the word of God is for every time and every place—and sometimes we hear it through words on a page, and sometimes we hear it through the voice of a child, and sometimes we hear it through the scraping of plates, and sometimes we hear it in the silence of a sanctuary.

Every week we use that response after the scripture reading—for the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us. Every week we affirm that we can hear the voice of God through stories told long ago and through listening carefully in our own lives and relationships. Our God is one who speaks—not just in the past, but in the present.

Or, as the United Church of Christ advertising campaign says, “God is still speaking.”

As people of the Reformed Christian tradition, we say it like this: “reformed and always being reformed by the word of God.”

It’s amazing to think that every time we come to scripture, God gives us something new, even thousands of years after the words were first spoken or written. God reveals the truth to us, little by little, every time we come to the word—maybe partly as an incentive to keep reading and listening! In prayer, in reading, in seeking together in community, we can hear God’s voice again and again, in our own heart’s language. Not just words on a page, not just long ago in a place far away, but even right now, God is still speaking. Or, as Jesus put it, The Spirit is still whispering through these ancient words, in our ears and in our hearts, telling us God’s good news and God’s plans.

May we listen, hear, and obey.
Amen.




Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Five: Background Music!

It's been a zillion years since I played the Friday Five. As I sit here (in silence, incidentally), it seemed like a fun way to end my Friday afternoon.

Over at RGBP, Deb invites us to talk background music this week for our Friday Five.

1. At the office: If you have a choice, do you turn it up, turn it off, or drown it out with headphones? 
turn it off! I'm not good at having background music--I mostly find it distracting. I prefer to work in quiet and/or to eavesdrop on other people around. :-)
I will, however, admit that occasionally when I'm stuck on a sermon, I make a playlist of the songs we're singing on Sunday morning and play that for a while until I come up with something to say that ties it all together.

2. At the grocery store or mall: What song (or genre of music) makes you want to hurl? Or throw something? 
"christian" muzak makes my soul hurt. Please, businesses--just say no to the canned Kenny-G-sounding instrumental versions of "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" and "Shine Jesus Shine."
(please note: there's nothing wrong with those songs, until they are played by someone attempting to be Kenny G, then turned into muzak.)

3. If you were going to create a “perfect playlist”, who are the artists (or songs/pieces) that you would include? 
It would be full of the Indigo Girls, Carrie Newcomer, and David Lamotte, with a smattering of Gungor, Mozart, and the BareNaked Ladies. 

4. Have you ever tried using recorded music in worship? If so, what was your plan, and how did it go over? 
I think there was one instance when we were using a piece that actually faded from recording to live...I would call that a disaster. Most of the times we've used recorded music has been for VBS songs (so, once a year, basically). I'm not opposed to it if there is a good reason for wanting to use music that can't be made live.

 5. When is the earliest you’ve heard Christmas music in the grocery store or mall? 
I'm sure I've complained about it and then blocked it from my memory, because I really can't recall. Probably in October, at least...

BONUS: “Weird Al Yankovich” has been releasing a stream of his parody music videos lately. Among my favorites: “Because I’m Tacky” :) If Weird Al was going to do a music video of your life, or a recent experience, what song/hymn/musical would the parody be based on?
Some days I think that song Ariel sings (in the Little Mermaid) about "I wanna be where the people are..." pretty much sums up my suburban-single experience. It would make a hilarious parody that might make me feel better about that situation, actually...


Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Particular Way--a sermon on John 14

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
A Particular Way
John 14.1-7
20 July 2014, Faith Questions 5

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’


A few years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA put out a survey. It was mostly your run-of-the-mill questions about age, ethnicity, length of time in a particular congregation, mission involvement. It also had some theology questions, and among those was a question that asked about level of agreement with the statement “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” The options were Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree.

On the surface, the answer to this question is obvious. Of course we Christians would all strongly agree that God saves those who follow Christ.

But theology is never just on the surface. As people who believe God created the world with a word, every word matters. So the word “only” became problematic for many people taking the survey. Are we really willing to say that our friends and family members who don’t go to church aren’t saved? What about the classic conundrum of people who never hear about Jesus? What about people who lived before Jesus? What about people who faithfully follow another religion? What about people like Gandhi?

These are all good and important questions, and they bring up the question of what it means to follow Christ, and who gets to decide what constitutes being a good enough Christian.

But there is another word in the question that is even more difficult. It comes at the end of the statement—only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.

Nearly half the people taking the survey said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. This pesky word can is at the root of many of those answers. Because in the Reformed theological tradition, we affirm first and foremost that God is sovereign, and we are not. God is the one who creates, redeems, and sustains. God is the one who calls even those who are not good enough. God is the one who rescues people from Egypt long before giving them the 10 commandments. God is the one who leads, and who even uses those who are not part of the “chosen people” to fulfill God’s purpose. We say that the good news is that while we were yet sinners, Christ lived and died and rose for us. We baptize infants as a sign that God loves us before we can respond. For us to say what God can and cannot do is to claim sovereignty ourselves, to usurp the position of God and make an idol of our human understanding and judgment. As we heard last week in the Ephesians reading, our salvation is a gift from God, not the result of works. There is nothing we can do to control God’s saving grace, no words we can say or actions we can perform in order to earn salvation—for ourselves or for others.

And yet we have stories like the one we just heard, where Jesus says to Thomas “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Doesn’t that seem to imply that the statement is right after all? That it’s a requirement that we affirm belief in Jesus in order to get to the Father? The verse has certainly been read that way in many other traditions, for many years. It has been used to say that non-Christians are going to hell, or even that some flavors of Christians are not good enough. How do we reconcile the idea that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation with the idea that we have to believe certain things about Jesus in order to be saved?

It’s always a good idea to pull back a bit and look at the whole story any biblical writer is telling, especially since chapter and verse numbers were added later, so it helps to have the full context. The original hearers of John’s gospel were Jews who followed Jesus, and their community was being kicked out of the synagogue because they proclaimed Christ’s resurrection, and because they were a community that believed they could experience oneness with God through Christ. John starts his story of Jesus with “in the beginning was the word…and all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Right from chapter one, he sets up Christ as the conduit for God’s power of love and creativity. In chapter 6, Jesus talks about how God gives manna from heaven, bread that sustains all life, and then he says “I am the bread of life.” He tells us that “no one comes to me unless drawn by the Father” and that he will not lose any of those whom God has given to him. In chapter 10, Jesus says he is the good shepherd, and he has sheep in many folds, and he came that all may have abundant life. In chapter 13, at the last supper, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, then over dinner told them he was going away to a place they could not come. And now here, in chapter 14, after dinner, they are anxious and afraid. So Jesus tells them not to fear, for God’s house contains many mansions. The kingdom of God is more than an apartment block, it’s bigger and has more room than we can imagine. But still Thomas and the other disciples are worried. Jesus called them to follow him, but now he’s saying that he’s going somewhere without them. What are they supposed to do? How will they know what to do and where to go?

And so Jesus reiterates to Thomas: do not worry. You know the way, because I am the way.

So these are words for the disciples—who became known as “Followers of The Way.” They are words for Christians worried about how to follow when they do not think they understand enough, words for Followers of the Way whose lives are being turned upside down because they are walking this path. They are words meant to reassure that those whom God has called do not need to panic about being alone or lost. We know the way. Do not worry: there is room in the kingdom of God, where God is sovereign and grace abounds.

Jesus speaks these words to a community of his followers, not to tell them who is in and who is out, but to tell them their particular path. To follow Jesus is a particular way. The Jesus Way involves indifference to everything but God’s will. It involves a different understanding of economy and community. It involves aligning ourselves with the outcast and the sinner, the broken and the hopeless. It involves breaking ourselves open for the life of the world. It involves welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry, and also working for a system where no one is hungry or outcast or alone. It is a different way from the world’s way. That is not to say that God is not at work in other ways, because we believe that God is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, and that God can work through all things. It is to say that the Jesus way is a particular way—one that, as we heard last week, God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

What if Jesus’ statement that no one comes to the Father except through him is directed straight to those people who already follow him, and are worried that they don’t know the next step? Those disciples who got it wrong so often, and weren’t sure what to do? What if these words are spoken to tell followers of Christ how to experience God and obey our calling right now, here on earth? Remember that John’s community was seeking oneness with the divine through their relationship with Christ. Imagine all those nights spent praying for God to reveal the path, and hearing Jesus say “you have seen it—because I am the way. All things came into being through me, and you find the with-God life through me.” Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased it, “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”

This particular way will go against most things we have been taught by the world. We have been taught to look down on those who are different, secure our borders, and to grasp for power. We have been taught to defend ourselves, to climb the ladder, and to put our best foot forward. We have been taught that the ends justify the means, that some people are worth more than others, and that violence is the way to create peace. Yet Jesus said “turn the other cheek” and “you give them something to eat,” and “blessed are the meek.” He walked across borders and welcomed foreigners and praised the faith of those the community labeled sinners. Jesus touched people with all kinds of illnesses, ate dinner with people who broke the law, and undercut the economic system at every turn. He insisted that we see his image in every face, and that we love our neighbors and our enemies the same way we love ourselves. Jesus insisted that we put down our swords, and he called the little children to come to him, and he told stories of equal pay for unequal work. He taught that we cannot separate the weeds from the wheat, because that is God’s job. Jesus willingly submitted to the worst torture and shame people could think of, and forgave them with his last breath. This is The Way.

And he said that people would know we were his followers by how we love.

So when it comes to the survey question: I, as a pastor in the Reformed Christian tradition, am not willing to say what God can and cannot do with our eternal salvation. That kind of human meddling in God’s power has gotten people in trouble ever since the garden of Eden. But I am willing to say that when it comes to knowing God, experiencing God, and living in God’s kingdom right here in this life, there is one particular way, and it is the Jesus way. If you want to be in relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then walking the way of Christ is how to get there. But it won’t be easy—because while grace is free it is also costly. So costly that we can never do it on our own—it is only by the Spirit’s power that we receive courage to trust and obey, to seek God’s will and to be transformed, in order that the kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.

May it be so.

Amen.

Friday, July 18, 2014

boundary training

it's not about right, not about wrong...it's about power.

All the boundary training pastors have to go through could probably be summed up with this great Buffy quote. It doesn't matter much whether "it was consensual" or "I was right" or whatever...anytime there is a power differential (and when there is an authority figure involved--whether pastor, professor, boss, doctor, etc--there is always a power differential) then it doesn't matter what we perceive to be "right" or "wrong" because the situation is really about power.

Many pastors like to pretend that we don't really have the power, that this idea is a holdover from the days when pastors were respected authority figures in the culture--days that are long gone.

And of course, boundary training rarely takes into account the reality that female pastors (professors/doctors/bosses) often do not have the power in situations with male parishioners. Or the reality that young pastors rarely have the power that older clergy do.

But even so: it's still about power. And with power comes responsibility.

It is always--ALWAYS--the responsibility of the person with the power to set the boundary.

Extrapolating to other situations--for instance those of racial or gender or sexual privilege--it is always the responsibility of the person with the power to show restraint and to seek wholeness and peace for all people.

And extrapolating to international relations, it is always the responsibility of the nation with the power to show restraint and to seek peace. "But they started it" isn't a valid excuse for fighting between children, or for abuse in a relationship, or for clergy misconduct. It shouldn't be an excuse for war either.

Maybe we should send Israel, and the US, to boundary training.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

the life of a lamp

The other day, Andrew was particularly clumsy*. He knocked over a number of things, from my water bottle to a stack of books...and also a lamp. This particular lamp has been sitting on the same table in the same place for nearly 8 years, and this was the first time either of the cats had ever knocked it over, despite plenty of behind-the-couch escapades.

The lamp is special for two main reasons. One: it's made out of my first clarinet. Two: my mother made it for me.

This Artley brand clarinet (made of resin) belonged to one of my grandma's friend's daughters before it became mine, for a mere $60, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. It served me well and faithfully until my senior year of high school, when someone stepped on it during a basketball game at which the pep band was playing. The plastic broke just below the middle joint.

Luckily I already had my professional (wood) clarinets by then, and I was able to get by until the end of the spring marching season with some other instrument. In the meantime, the broken Artley sat in the case.

In a pawn shop, I'd seen an all-metal clarinet, and the shop owner had (jokingly?) mentioned that they're really only suitable for lamps.

And in my mom's mind, the clarinet lamp was born.

I'm not sure how much other family members had to do with this, but...the broken piece was glued, a base was constructed, a cord threaded, a lightbulb attached, a lampshade purchased. It's basically the perfect lamp--tall and thin, classy and bright, all at the same time.

Plus, it's mine.

And Andrew knocked it over, and that old break re-broke.

The clarinet lamp sat on my couch, in two pieces, along with my heart.

And then I went to the store, picked up some Krazy Glue (did you know you need to show ID proving you are over 18 in order to buy Krazy Glue?), and came home to put the lamp and my mom-memories back together.

It was a relatively easy fix, unlike so many other parts of life. And now the clarinet stands again, lighting the living room with memories of love.



If only the washing machine could be fixed/replaced so easily.


*no matter how much he may have deserved it, no cats were harmed, other than by my very loud and anguished yelling.*

Monday, June 30, 2014

yoked--a reflection for July 6

(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)


Matthew 11.25-30

Few of us use yokes anymore—we often have to explain that a yoke is equipment used to hitch animals together and to something else, such as a plow. Machines do so much of our farming, and so few people work the land, that a yoke is an antique, a museum piece, not an everyday item.

However, for Jesus and the people in his community, the yoke was both everyday and held double meaning. The most obvious is the agricultural, but there was also the example of Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?” (v. 6, NRSV) A yoke is a system, often a system of bondage—whether that system is economic, political, or intellectual. Sometimes people are put under the yoke by an oppressive power, as the Israelites had been by the Babylonians, or as they were under the Romans. Sometimes the yoke is a choice—by choosing to follow a particular teacher, one took his yoke upon oneself. The yoke was the system of teachings, the teacher’s philosophy. And sometimes a system that should be life-giving—like the Torah—is turned into an oppression, as we see with the wise and intelligent—the Pharisees and the scribes—who have made the good law of God into a religious and political system that oppresses people and needs to be broken.

So Jesus calls all of us who are caught in those systems, especially those weary of following all 613 laws to the letter and still wondering about the grace of God, especially those who believe God’s love has to be earned, to come to him and trade that yoke for another.

I always thought the point of breaking the oppressive yoke was to be free. But we all know that isn’t exactly true—as Bob Dylan said, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” The question is: will we be yoked to the letter of the law? To the economic and political system? Yoked to our possessions? Social status? Desires? Yoked to our limited understanding of God, or to what we think the good life looks like? Or will we slip into the empty side of Jesus’ yoke and partner with him in the work God has in mind for the world?

When a farmer has a new animal to train, the new animal is yoked together with an experienced one. That way the new animal learns the way while the experienced one carries most of the burden. Eventually the new animal becomes so experienced that it follows the way willingly, and finds the work easy, the burden light.

Are we willing to take Jesus’ yoke upon us? Are we willing to submit, knowing it means we cannot continue to pull our other burdens (however much they may look like blessings), to walk with Jesus until we are so trained that our lives won’t go any other way?

Monday, June 16, 2014

a well of laughter--a reflection for June 22

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Genesis 21.8-21

Isaac received his name because he caused laughter in his parents’ lives. It seems that laughter is restricted, though, since when Ishmael laughs, it causes not happiness but rage. Sarah sees Ishmael and Hagar laughing and feasting as they celebrate Isaac’s weaning, and it is too much to bear. Though Ishmael exists only because Sarah gave her slave Hagar as a concubine for Abraham, and though his status as second-wife’s-son is below Isaac’s, he is still the firstborn, and his laughter cuts into Sarah’s heart.

So out they must go, out into the desert with only a little food and a day’s water. If Hagar had doubts about this God of Abraham’s, they have been confirmed now—this is a God who cares only for his own kind, not for outsiders or those who are mistreated. She will have no part in the covenant God is making with his people—she is literally and figuratively cast out. Her last meeting with God had resulted in instructions to put up with Sarah’s abuse (Gen. 16), and now she must know for certain that this is a God who not only allows but encourages pain, grief, and heartache. It seems unlikely she (or anyone else who feels outside of grace) would be interested in adding this kind of God to her already heavy desert burden.

Finally God takes notice…of Ishmael’s cries. Never mind that Hagar has been lifting her voice in grief and despair too, God has heard the cries of her son and remembered that promise to make him a great nation as well, to pay heed to his status as Abraham’s son even if no one else will. That paternity is what will save Hagar as well as Ishmael. By this point Hagar must be wondering if she matters at all—a foreigner with dark skin and different language, a slave turned concubine, an outcast. God’s messenger has even had the audacity to ask “what’s wrong?” What isn’t wrong? God is making covenant partners and has left her out, casting her aside into the desert. Is there any good news to be had?

There is a well. And actually, the presence of shrubs under which to place a child also means the presence of water. The haze of grief and despair can sometimes cloud our vision, but even so God offers what we need. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees her well of salvation right in front of her, and she is strengthened to go on, to find a way forward as a part of God’s great story, rather than as a footnote. How often do we resign ourselves to the bit part, eyes closed to the possibility of good news or clouded by resentment and despair of injustice ever being overcome? There is a well, even in the desert, for those whose eyes are open to see, and perhaps there will be laughter too.