Saturday, January 09, 2021

"healing" America -- a guest post by Laurene Lafontaine

A couple of weeks after the US election, a number of US citizens working in the Church of Scotland were asked to contribute an essay to the Church of Scotland magazine called Life and Work. The topic was about "healing America" after such a divisive election.

The essays ended up having to be significantly edited for length, but we were told we could publish full original essays here if we wished. The magazine was published this week...and after the events of this week in Washington DC and a number of US state houses, it seems like time. 

This guest post is by the Rev. Laurene Lafontaine, a minister in Aberdeen.


Growing up in a family which was neither religious nor political, I was a bit of an outlier with my overwhelming interest in both religion and politics.  There are  memorable moments in my journey of faith, and I can clearly remember various political moments as if they were yesterday.  For example, at a 1984 rally, I met Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman Vice-President nominee of an American major party; shaking hands with both Bill and Hillary Clinton after getting up at 4:45 am on election day 3 November 1992 for their 6:00 am last campaign stop in Denver; the resounding roar of 80,000 people when Illinois Senator Barack Obama accepted the nomination for Democratic nomination for President in Denver, Colorado 2008; meeting Vice President Joe Biden in 2012; and the haunting election night of 8 November 2016. 

In 2016, as voting results were reported along the political prognosticators’ acknowledgement they had got it wrong, a growing angst and dread overtook the anticipation and excitement many Americans felt earlier in the day. Around 1:30 am(CST)/6:30 am GMT, after it was clear a win was unattainable, I went to bed. I was feeling utterly devastated along with at least 63 million other Americans and countless across the globe. Hillary Clinton would not be the 45th President of the United States, and our worst nightmare had begun. 

This nightmare has included children being taken from their parents at the Mexican border, a Muslim travel ban executive order, impeachment, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and an America First agenda. Unimaginable damage to American democratic fabric has occurred. Trump has been the catalyst which not only brought the pervasive structural racism and white supremacy in American society to the forefront, but also legitimised outright brutality and violence perpetrated upon people who were African Americans, immigrants, children, Muslims, LGBTQ, Asians, reporters, to name a few. 

The unmitigated racism, on which America was founded and built, has flourished under this administration. The horror of watching African Americans literally being murdered, lynched, before our very eyes by those called to protect or armed young men … there are no polite words for this utter depravity.  Instead of bringing people together, he has spent four years golfing, tweeting, and sowing hate and discord in a divided country.  

His intentional dismantling of the American governmental social and educational programs and structures is deeply concerning as the impact will be felt for generations. As a child born into poverty, such programs provided early education opportunities, essential food support, medical care and financial assistance to families like mine. In 1965, I was a member of the first Head Start class held in my hometown. Head Start provided a safe environment where a curious 5-year-old could begin to thrive intellectually. Education is the golden ticket, in conjunction with social support, they are crucial to the development of a just and peaceful society. 

America is at a critical stage of societal development.  America is like an unruly 244-year-old adolescent, relatively speaking, nation struggling to develop a healthy identity, post-Cold War. Addressing the brutal history of genocide and slavery will be crucial in efforts to shift from a racially bias culture to a bias free society. 

After four years of divisive political leadership, President Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris are faced with a monumental task particularly as the catastrophic Covid crisis rages out of control.  Their challenge is to develop a new inclusive leadership approach beyond typical party politics. It is encouraging that a core value of their transition team is a diversity of ideology.

I am cautiously optimistic.  Joe Biden is the right person for this challenge.  He is centre-left with considerable experience and a rich history of bringing diverse perspectives together. He is a team player who surrounds himself with bright people who are often much smarter than he is. His selection of Kamala Harris was wise and bold. Joe Biden is a good man guided by a strong faith, an openness to learning, and an inclusive understanding of justice. Two of my friends worked on his staff whilst he was Vice President, so their experiences have also informed my perspective.  

Returning to religion and politics, often a hesitancy exists regarding a religious voice in the public forum because it’s perceived as political. Had several religious leaders spoke out when Trump belittled or said awful things about a person, ethnic groups etc, would it have made a difference? I hope so. At least, those people might have felt like they mattered. What are the social justice issues in the UK? As Christian leaders, we can share the Gospel message by addressing social justice issues in the public forum and advocating for those affected by those issues. If we don’t, who will? 

"healing America" -- a guest post by Julia Cato

 A couple of weeks after the US election, a number of US citizens working in the Church of Scotland were asked to contribute an essay to the Church of Scotland magazine called Life and Work. The topic was about "healing America" after such a divisive election.

The essays ended up having to be significantly edited for length, but we were told we could publish full original essays here if we wished. The magazine was published this week...and after the events of this week in Washington DC and a number of US state houses, it seems like time. 

This guest post is by Julia Cato, who is a graduate probationer, seeking a call to ordained ministry in the CofS.


“How do you think it will go?” a friend asked a week before the 2020 U.S. General Elections. “I have no idea” was my honest reply.  I sighed with what I realised was almost defeat.  I already had the sense that no matter how the elections would go, no one would come away a winner.  There was too much divisiveness and too much harm done. Now, a few weeks on, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s win feels more like a reprieve than a victory.   

I attended a DoDDS (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) primary school on a U.S. Air Force Base in Germany.  I remember every morning we would stand to sing either “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful”.  Then, with our hands on our hearts, we would recite in unison, “The Pledge of Allegiance” to the U.S. flag hanging in the corner of the classroom.  Every single day of every school year. 

I remember my German mother’s quiet discomfort with this morning ritual of school children pledging their allegiance to a flag.  It would be years before I would learn how a flag can mean different things to different people.  And even more time would pass before I would begin to understand how national histories haunt us until we make reparations for our sins. 

I can still recite “The Pledge of Allegiance” by heart. Not only did we pledge allegiance to the flag, but also “to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all (emphasis mine).”  The Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas writes, “On the one hand is the democratic vision that America is founded upon, with freedom and justice for all. On the other is the actual foundation of America, with its embedded ideology and practice of white supremacy. These two sides are at war with one another.”

The 2020 US General Elections are about more than just Biden versus Trump, they are about who we are as Americans and who we want to be.  Come 20 January 2021, the 46th President of the United States will have to lead a country greatly divided.  While many will be celebrating the new administration with its first woman of colour vice-president, millions will not.  If there is to be true and lasting change, the new President and his administration will have to push forward in new ways, not falling back on institutionalised patterns. 

“Liberty and justice for all” must embrace God’s justice moving us toward a freedom and wholeness in which we all can see one another as equals.  As Christians, we must articulate and model God’s justice from our pulpits, from within our prayer groups and bible studies, from within our homes, and from within ourselves.  There cannot be unity among the people of the United States of America where there is not justice for all.

A deeper understanding of reconciliation and healing is necessary, and this will require a reckoning with the injustices committed, not just over the last four years, but throughout our nation’s entire history.  My hope for the next four years is that we Americans will take advantage of this reprieve and begin a healing which can only unfold by effectively rooting out white supremacy embedded in our systems and structures, and perhaps most significantly for white Americans, within ourselves.  

- Graduate Probationer, Julia A. Cato

"healing" post-election USA

 A couple of weeks after the US election, I was asked to contribute an essay to the Church of Scotland magazine called Life and Work. The topic was about "healing America" after such a divisive election, and they were asking a number of American citizens living and working in the Church of Scotland to reflect. I said that I was feeling a bit cynical about calls for "healing" and that these were likely the most dangerous two months in post-Civil-War US history, but I would try.

The essays ended up having to be significantly edited for length, but I was told I could publish my full original essay here. The magazine was published this week...and after the events of this week in Washington DC and a number of US state houses, I thought it was time.


It feels difficult to write about healing a post-election USA when the election is, in many ways, still ongoing. It may or may not be too strong to say that I’m writing while we are witnessing an attempted coup, but however it turns out, I think it’s safe to say that the divisions in the United States are deep and present-tense, and will not be easily plastered over.

Indeed, it actually feels a little bit trite to talk about “healing” when that carries some implications of restoration to a previous health that I’m not sure has ever truly existed. From the inception of the nation, it has carried an illness (white supremacy and a sense of exceptionalism) that has inexorably led to this brokenness. Should that brokenness be healed if it means simply returning to the way things used to be? If that’s the road taken, then we will surely find ourselves at this same place again, and again, and again.

I want to be hopeful that the moment we are witnessing now is indeed a moment of transformation. Once upon a time, the racism in the country was institutionalised as a system of enslavement and of colonial expansion. Then it was institutionalised as a system of segregation. Then there was a period when racists hid behind hoods and under cover of darkness. Today it’s again out in the open, and that feels, paradoxically, like a move toward health. After all, we cannot transform what we do not name. Pretending the problem of white supremacy and nationalism does not exist will only allow it to grow (as has happened for the past 50 years when many thought we had made great strides). Now that we can see plainly that much of that progress was an illusion, there is hope for real change. Much like South Africa needed Truth in order to have Reconciliation, the same is true in the USA. And there has not been very much truth-telling there.

For centuries it has been the American way to present an image, to paper over differences (or to melt them together, we might say), and to act as if everything is fine — as long as you’re white, you’re one of us. But underneath, the sense that people of colour might not be “real” Americans, that they were inferior in some way, has persisted, both subconsciously in people (and consciously in plenty of people) and systemically in the way society and economy and culture are structured. Honesty about that could pave the way forward.

Perhaps the fact that so much division is now visible to the white gaze, where it used to be hidden (but still present, and has always been visible to non-white people!), is actually a good thing. It allows us to honestly see how much work we have to do, and to do it for real this time rather than just with a few words that are nothing more than a cheap plaster that does nothing for true healing. This will be heartbreaking work, but also heart-healing work — if we are willing to engage with it at every level, not just as individuals but also in the way the economy works and doesn’t work, in the ways cultural institutions (music, dance, theatre, art, literature) are valued, in government, in systems of power in communities, and within churches. It will mean wrestling with theological language that equates “dark” with “bad,” it will mean changing the way resources are used, it will mean adjustments in who is at the table when decisions are taken, it will mean listening and believing the stories people tell, it will mean stepping aside to allow new leadership, and — perhaps most difficult of all for a nation built on rugged individualism — it will mean actually caring about and for our neighbours in tangible ways and in policy ways.

The current situation feels so destabilising, but maybe that’s exactly what the USA needs if it is to truly achieve a society of “liberty and justice for all” and not just some. So I hope President Biden won’t rush to “healing” but will first encourage some soul-searching and truth-telling, so that the healing that eventually comes will be on a cellular level and not just skin-deep.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Mary Sings -- a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Mary Sings

Luke 1.46-56 NRSV

20 December 2020, NL3-16b, Advent 4 (blessings of an impossible Christmas)

Today we pick up right where we left off last week, with Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth. They're both pregnant and Elizabeth has blessed Mary for her trust in God's word to her. I'm reading from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 1, beginning at verse 46, from the New Revised Standard Version.

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 

  and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

   and holy is his name. 

His mercy is for those who fear him

   from generation to generation. 

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly; 

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy, 

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

This week I read a startling news article. Did you know that 2020 is the year that human-made things literally outweighed nature? This is the year that all the stuff we have created — our built environment of concrete and metal and glass, machinery, waste, everything we own — all of that now weighs more than all the entire biomass of the earth. Plastic alone weighs more than all the animals on land and sea! And the vast majority of that mass has been created since the second World War.

Reading about this definitely gave me pause when I was shopping for Christmas gifts. How can we celebrate the Christ who turns everything upside down and at the same time not add to this heavy footprint on God’s beloved creation?

I also had Mary’s song at the front of my mind as I was reading about the study titled “poverty linked to higher risk of Covid death” showing that those living in poorer health board areas of Scotland were more likely to have severe cases of Covid requiring intensive care, and because fewer critical care beds were available in those areas, people in economically deprived areas are more likely to die. We’ve seen the effects of that in Inverclyde through this pandemic, and the statistics nationwide bear out that more poor and disadvantaged people are dying—both from Covid and from other things going untreated as the health service tries to cope.

And again, the news this week is full of the epidemic of drug misuse in Scotland, and here in Inverclyde a rising rate of drug use and deaths. Of course we know that drugs and deprivation go hand in hand, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to us. 

Into the middle of this reality, where hope seems impossible, Mary sings.

Like all of us, she begins from her own personal experience. Though she was not a person of power or status or wealth, just a poor teenager in an out-of-the-way town in an occupied land, God noticed her. God loved her. God called her. And she sang of her gratitude, her awe and wonder, her praise. This thing that God had done — called her to be a prophet and the mother of the Messiah — would not be easy, yet she said that God had done great things for her! She may have been scared, as anyone in her position would be, but her confidence in God’s goodness was enough to raise her voice.

And then, halfway through, Mary recognises that her own personal experience, her own little life that has been unremarkable, is also part of something bigger. Something that God has been doing for a long time, and will continue to do through her and her son, and on into the future: upend the systems of this world and make them look more like the kingdom of God.

From generation to generation, God works with power and mercy, through the lowliest and the marginalised, to fulfil the promise that changes everything: scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and sends the rich away empty, while lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. 

This is the Word that becomes flesh in Jesus. This is the promise that Mary is bearing in her body, the fruit of her faithfulness. This is who God is and what God does — from the earliest days of scripture to the very end of the book and beyond.

I wonder how many of us would join Mary in praising God for these things … given that we are far more likely to be the proud, powerful, and rich in this scenario? We are, globally speaking, at the top of this system that God is turning upside down. We are the ones whose lifestyles have created a situation where our stuff weighs down God’s creation. We are the ones who stand at arms length from the realities of deprivation and wring our hands and make a donation here and there and pray for something to change.

We should be careful what we pray for, because the song Mary sings is definitely about change. It’s about an upending of a system that is, frankly, immoral and against the values of God’s kingdom. Which is not to say that those of us who benefit from the system are bad, but rather that the entire system is. We can't even claim that it’s broken, because the reality is that it’s working exactly as it’s been designed — to privilege the few at the expense of the many, to lift up some on the backs of others. And that system is exactly what God in the flesh will challenge, insisting on valuing every person as a beloved child of God, deserving of enough to eat and inclusion in the community and compassionate care…and that challenge is what will get him killed by the powers that do not want to be scattered or sent away empty. But the Mighty One who looks with favour on Mary will not be thwarted. Not this time, not ever. This is a promise that cannot be broken, and God will find a way to fulfil it, even if it means breaking the power of death to do it.

If this is what God is doing in Christ, then we who are called the Body of Christ had better be ready to be a part of it. If we celebrate Christmas and then nothing is different afterwards, we haven’t celebrated the Messiah that Mary is singing about today. Her words echo through the generations calling us to the kind of impossible Christmas that changes the world. What does the Word of God Incarnate have to say to those who live in such dire poverty that drugs seem the only comfort? Or to those who get richer while the poor get poorer? What does the community of those who love Mary’s son have to say to those who care more about their ability to shelter money in tax havens than about the lack of critical care beds in our hospital? How does the magnificat sound to the earth that groans under the weight of our economy’s need for constant consumption?

I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing Christmas was just about celebrating a birth and then getting back to normal life, just like any other birthday party. But what God is doing in Christ is saving the earth and all that is in it, even if that means saving us from ourselves. This is an act of love so monumental that it turns everything upside down. Who are we to wish that God would…what, love us a little less so we could go on as before? It’s impossible for God to do anything but love, and to fulfil promises, and this is the promise that makes Mary rejoice and that hopefully brings us the same kind of joyful commitment to God’s call that we, too, will be willing to bear God’s word in our bodies—and into the world that is desperate for the good news to be more than just pretty words or songs or cards or presents.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Three Wise Women -- a sermon for Advent 3

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Three Wise Women

Luke 1.26-45

13 December 2020, Advent 3 (Blessings of an impossible Christmas)

(NL3-16, first half)

Today we transition from a season of reading from the Old Testament to the New, beginning the gospel according to Luke, which we will read from now until Easter.

The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are like an overture, setting the scene for the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Luke’s primary themes are all present in the overture, so we have a hint of what is to come.

Luke begins with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are elderly and childless. Zechariah is a priest who receives a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling him that Elizabeth will bear a son and they are to name him John. Zechariah is doubtful, and Gabriel takes away his ability to speak until John is born. Today’s reading from Luke chapter 1 begins at verse 26, six months after Elizabeth became pregnant. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. 

 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ 

Every single time I read this story, I think about how much Gabriel sounds like an alien when he greets Mary. Instead of “hello” he says “greetings favoured one” — and she was much perplexed. Of course she was perplexed — who talks like that? Even in ancient Palestine, I’m fairly certain people did not go around saying “greetings favoured one” to each other.

Aside from the strange stilted alien phrase, though, there’s more to be perplexed about. Why does the angel address her as “favoured”? She must have wondered what he was talking about, or if he had picked the wrong girl. After all, she was betrothed but not yet married, likely a young teenager. In Nazareth the tradition says that Gabriel met Mary at the well — a tradition which connects Mary to a long line of women in the Old Testament whose marriages were made at the well, including Rebekah who became the wife of Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, and Moses’ wife Zipporah. While Mary would know those stories, she would never have expected to be part of one! She was a poor teenager from a nondescript family in a town far from the centres of power, in an occupied land. For an angel to address her as “favoured” would be confusing indeed — favoured by whom? In what sense? Not in any of the usual ways. 

While she was still pondering this strange word, Gabriel explained that actually, he meant favoured by God. He doesn’t say why, though. What was it about Mary that drew God’s attention? She wasn’t anybody important, just a girl at the well. But she barely had time to think that thought before Gabriel said she was going to be a mother!

So often our pictures of Mary are of a quiet, shy girl who keeps her eyes down and submits to whatever she’s told. But Mary’s first out-loud question proves her to be a bit more practical than we usually give her credit for. She wants to know how this is going to work — the mechanics of the situation. She doesn’t yet live with her husband-to-be, so…what’s the next step? 

Gabriel’s answer that she’s going to be filled with the cloud of God’s presence, like the cloud that filled the Temple when it was built, or like the cloud that covered Mount Sinai, may or may not have been very comforting. But as Gabriel insisted that nothing is impossible with God, Mary spoke up again: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.

A lot of prophets have answered God with this same phrase — in Hebrew it’s “hineini”. Here am I. Moses says it, and Samuel, and Isaiah — and all of them said it before God actually told them what he was calling them to do. This is the answer of someone who trusts their relationship with God enough to say yes, even though the fullness of the task is not yet clear to them. 

Mary is the first woman to ever be recorded saying “hineini” in response to God’s call. She agrees to carry God’s Son, without yet knowing the full picture of what that will mean — including the risks to her own physical health, to her safety in her family and community, or the challenges of parenting, let alone parenting the son of God! Like the prophets before her, she trusts God, and that will have to be enough even though she doesn’t have a map.

Gabriel did give her a hint, though, when he mentioned Elizabeth. Mary headed straight there, apparently by herself, to get some advice from her older relative. It was a fair distance from Nazareth into the hill country, which is the area that includes Jerusalem and Bethlehem and other surrounding villages. When she arrived, Elizabeth too joined the ranks of the prophets, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking truths neither she nor Mary understand yet. Over the next three months they will have many such conversations, passing knowledge from generation to generation, sharing the experience of growing a world-changing child in their bodies, blessing each other with the companionship of women while the men of the story are silent on the sidelines. 

I originally titled this sermon “Three Wise Women” as a balance to the wise men of Epiphany. Those travellers came from afar and symbolise the whole world recognising the Messiah who has been born…but before those wise men can set out on their journey, before the star shines in the sky, before any of the Christmas story can take place, we need the three wise women of this story first! And I can hear you wondering, because there are only two women named in the story. Of course Mary was wise enough to trust God’s impossible word. And Elizabeth wise enough to recognise God at work in and through Mary’s life. And the third….is the Holy Spirit! In the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Aramaic which Mary and Elizabeth spoke, the word for Spirit is a feminine noun, ruach, so would usually use the pronoun “she” or “her”—and even better, in the Old Testament the Spirit is sometimes personified as God’s wisdom, and so the third wise one appears in the story! God’s Spirit fills Elizabeth and she speaks God’s wisdom.

I particularly love Elizabeth’s last Spirit-filled line: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

How often we need this encouragement! From one generation to another, to be reminded of the blessing that is born of trust, even in something that seems impossible. It’s a blessing that only asks we take the next step, even if we aren’t sure what the one after will be. Mary says “here I am” and then visits Elizabeth, and slowly the path begins to unfold before her, one step at a time. And it turns out that what seemed impossible before isn’t really, because with God, nothing is impossible.

Perhaps in this season where so much normality feels out of reach, we too can trust God enough to take just the next step and see what God unfolds after that. Or perhaps this is a season when we are the ones who are called to speak with the Spirit’s voice and encourage those who are struggling with what the next step might be. Whether that’s across the generations or across other divides, can we reach out to one another and find the blessing together?

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Yet Even Now -- a sermon on Joel, for Advent

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Yet Even Now

Joel 2.12-16, 26-29

29 November 2020, Advent 1 (blessings of an impossible Christmas)

(Text: Advent 2, NL3-13)

The prophet Joel was a learned interpreter of sacred text—he quotes the Torah and other prophets many times in his short book. He spoke to people in Jerusalem, warning them of the consequences of not following God’s way, and painting beautiful word pictures of God’s promise and faithfulness. Today’s reading from chapter 2 begins with the words “Yet even now” which signal a big change, a complete turnaround, that needs immediate attention. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

Yet even now, says the Lord,

   return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 

   rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,

   for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

   and relents from punishing. 

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

   sanctify a fast;

call a solemn assembly; 

gather the people.

Sanctify the congregation;

   assemble the aged;

gather the children,

   even infants at the breast.

Let the bridegroom leave his room,

   and the bride her canopy. 

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

   and praise the name of the Lord your God,

   who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,

   and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.

And my people shall never again

   be put to shame. 

Then afterwards

   I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

   your old men shall dream dreams,

   and your young men shall see visions. 

Even on the male and female slaves,

   in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

This may seem like a strange reading to start the season of Advent. We don’t read from Joel very often, though bits and pieces might sound familiar from other times of year — sometimes at the beginning of Lent we hear the call to “rend your hearts and not your clothing” and of course Peter’s sermon on the first Pentecost quoted this bit about “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Maybe Advent was feeling left out, and didn’t want to be the only season with nothing from the prophet Joel! 

The first chapter of the book of Joel describes a nation losing hope — he talks about a plague of locusts, which could be about ecological destruction or a metaphor for an invading army, which brings its own kind of environmental damage. The first chapter of Joel is all about a land that has been ravaged and has nothing left to offer, and a people who don’t see their own part in bringing the story to this point or how they can play a role in the unfolding of God’s future story either. The world was turned upside down and everything was uncertain.

And that is when Joel says: Yet even now.

Even now, when you’re anxious and worried.

Even now, when it feels like you have nothing to offer.

Even now, as you try to figure out how to manage everything going on.

Even now, with this situation and these rules and restrictions and under these circumstances.

Even now, when it feels impossible.

Yet even now, says the Lord…return to me with all your heart.

Your heart that has been broken again and again in this season — as we have had loss upon loss, of life, of livelihood, of relationship, of security, of celebrations, of hope, of time. Bring it all.

And then…though it feels like our hearts can’t take anymore, God invites us to be broken open one more time. But this time it’s just that, a breaking open— a chance for all that is in us to be revealed, and for all that God offers us to be received. 

In that open space, God will leave a blessing, even if we aren’t sure what that means just yet. 

But isn’t that just what Advent is about? An opening, a making space, a preparation for God to come into the world and do a new thing. An impossible new thing, the divine becoming human, taking on flesh and living among us…even now.

The prophet called the people to come and worship, in the midst of all the devastations of the year — and remember, worship involved bringing offerings of the land to the Temple. But there was nothing to offer, the land was ruined, the crops and animals gone. They were empty-handed. They could not worship the way they were used to…but still all of them, even the people usually left out, were to bring what they had: their hearts, their minds, their strength, all broken open. God would take care of the rest, though maybe not in quite the way they expected.

Perhaps this is not such a strange reading for Advent after all. 

This year when so much we are used to feels impossible, God is still calling us to break open and make space…to turn to God with all our heart, and find that there is a blessing we never expected, poured out. 

Into all those open hearts, God was pouring out the Spirit — not just on church people, not just on leaders, not just men, not just adults, not just on those who were ready or worthy — on all flesh. God coming to earth wasn’t just for some, but for all. We might hear the word from strangers or outsiders, we might hear it coming from our own mouths, we might hear God speaking through the people on the lowest rung of society, in a different accent or a completely different way of communicating. Joel calls us to be ready, to open our hearts to receive the truth that God is in our midst — even if God comes in a peasant baby born to an unwed teenage mother in a borrowed stable in an occupied foreign territory. 

This Advent season, can we stand to break open our hearts one more time? To listen for the voice of the Spirit coming from unexpected quarters, in the midst of a devastated land? 

Perhaps we might listen for the Spirit speaking through those who show us our complicity in that devastation — something the people of Joel’s time couldn’t see, and something we too often turn away from. When we recognise our part in the destruction of the land we can also recognise our part in its healing — the visions poured out on the young and the old can show us a way forward for living in harmony with creation. 

Perhaps we might listen for the Spirit speaking through those who are imagining a way of worship that meets the challenges of a new day and a new generation — in Joel’s time they were forced to change because they physically could not do what they use to do. How familiar that feels today! Will the visions and prophesies poured out on young and old show us a path toward encountering God anew?

Yet even now, says the Lord: return to me with all your heart. 

Yet even now, says the Lord: you shall know that I am in your midst.

Yet even now, says the Lord: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.

This may be an Advent and Christmas like no other…but in the most important way, it’s the same as ever: in the disruption, in the darkness, in the wondering and the waiting, Emmanuel, God is with us.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Blessings of an (im)possible Christmas -- Advent Candle Liturgies for 2020

This year I am adapting the Narrative Lectionary slightly for Advent, so the readings/themes are:

29 November, Advent 1: Mercy & Gift (Joel 2.12-29)

6 December, Advent 2: Living Hope (Isaiah 61)

13 December, Advent 3: Possible (Luke 1.26-45)

20 December, Advent 4: Promise Fulfilled (Luke 1.46-56)

You are welcome to use the candle liturgy, or to adapt it if you need to! I have made it sort of minimally-responsive...for pre-recorded worship, it will be read by one voice of course. For in-person worship, it will include some actions (covering eyes, reaching out hands, and a posture of blessing).

The numbered section is the bit that changes each week, the rest will remain the same.

In the darkest times we cannot see to make our way…

our eyes adjust, but still everything is shadowed and grey.

We reach out, desperate  

for comfort

for balance

for the familiar

for hope

In the darkest times,

even a faltering light can be just enough:

the flame flickers, twinkles, dances—and it is dazzling!

For in its light, we see light: God in our midst.

~Candle is lit~

1. However impossible it seems, 

God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting,

and blessed is the one gifted with God’s vision.

Come, O come, Emmanuel, God with us, and we will rejoice.

2. However impossible it seems, 

hope is alive, even in the midst of this world,

and blessed is the one whose living hope reveals God’s good news.

3. However impossible it seems,

here we are, the servants of the Lord, both perplexed and joyful —

and blessed is the one who trusts that with God all things are possible.

4. However impossible it seems,

God’s promise will be fulfilled —

and blessed is the one who sees the truth of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Monday, November 16, 2020

a new call for a new time -- a sermon on Isaiah 6

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

A new call for a new time

Isaiah 6.1-8 (NRSV)

15 November 2020, NL3-10, Becoming God’s People 9

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 from Isaiah chapter 6, 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. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

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. 2Seraphs 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. 3And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 

4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And 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. 7The 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.’ 8Then 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!’

I love the prophet Isaiah. It’s my favourite book in the entire Bible, in part because of the beautiful language. Isaiah paints pictures with words. He’s the one who gives us the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the calf and the lion, the little child shall lead them. He shows us God’s vision of the mountain where all people from every nation come and feast together and hear God’s word throughout the world, where swords will turn into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Isaiah writes about every valley lifted up and mountain brought low, about the desert springing into life, and about God’s justice breaking yokes of oppression. And even when he is writing about the consequences of the people’s sinfulness, he does so with such lovely poetic language!

Today we get one of his famously beautiful word-paintings about an encounter with God in the Temple. He saw, with his own eyes, a God so overwhelming that only the skirts of his robe filled the whole temple, and the heavenly worship literally rocked the house. In a flash, Isaiah realised he was in over his head — and he said so. He didn’t pretend that he was worthy, or that he understood, or that he was certain he was in the right place. He didn’t assume that he was seeing this vision because of his great faithfulness or as a sign of favour. Just as we offer a prayer of confession near the beginning of a worship service, the first thing Isaiah did on entering this heavenly worship experience was admit his failings. He knew that a face to face encounter between humans and God could be dangerous, because close proximity to such holiness burns — as it did for Moses, and as it did for the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and for many others throughout scripture and history. 

I love that the response of the seraphim, the heavenly attendants who are flying about and singing, is to say “we can solve this problem.” God doesn’t kick Isaiah out, instead they reach out and make Isaiah ready. A burning coal to the lips sounds like a nightmare to me, but remember that fire cleanses but also heals. It can be used to purify…and it can be used to cauterise and close up a wound. Isaiah is strangely made whole, made clean, made ready to stand in God’s presence, and he lives to tell the tale. 

This encounter with God was both an experience of overwhelming majesty — of smoke and singing and painful beauty — and also an intimate experience, being noticed, and touched, and spoken to. It’s that experience that was still tingling in Isaiah’s mind and heart when he heard God ask the heavenly court “who will go” and it’s that burning desire to serve this overwhelming God that caused Isaiah to speak up and say “here I am, send me” even though he had no idea what he was saying yes to. God didn’t say “I need someone to go to this place, do this thing, and say these words” — Isaiah answered a call based only on his relationship with God, not based on whether he thought he could do the task. He had already experienced God making him ready to stand in the holy presence, so surely God would also be able to equip him for the work ahead.

At this point, I think we need to know that Isaiah began his life as a prophet in the last year or so of King Uzziah’s 40 years on the throne. Even though things around the kingdom were changing and disintegrating and while other empires were rising and encroaching, this had been a long period of relative political stability with the same leader…but now it was over, and it wasn’t really clear who would succeed Uzziah or what sort of king they would be. The world must have felt upended and uncertain, as many periods of political transition feel. The people he would speak to were not following God’s ways, the society was unjust and people were suffering. A prophet’s job is to tell the king things he often doesn’t want to hear, so Isaiah must have wondered what sort of relationship he might have with the next ruler, and whether he would be more or less receptive to seeing things God’s way. 

I love that we get this story of Isaiah’s encounter with God a few chapters in to his book. Usually call stories are right at the beginning, but the way this book is written, it feels as if the prophet was already following, already faithful, already working, and in the midst of that life and work came this moment of awe and wonder and confession and compassion and a renewed sense of purpose.

I wonder if we who are in the middle of our own faith journeys, who are experienced Christians and church-goers, still expect to encounter God when we come to worship, the way those who are new to the faith do? And if we did, would we be focused on explaining the ways we think we’ve gotten it right, or on admitting we need God’s help to make us holy, or just soaking up the beauty and wonder? Are we open to a mid-life correction, to a new call from God that might take us in a different direction than we’d been going before…and that might burn a little bit? And would we answer that call before we even knew for sure what it would entail?

So often I think we are prone to simply doing what we’ve always done, believing what we’ve always believed, praying how we’ve always prayed. We forget to notice beautiful things, and even when we do, we don’t let them soak in and transform us, which makes it harder then to put that beauty back out into the world. We think that if it hurts to let go of something, that must be a sign that we’re supposed to hold onto it — forgetting that sometimes the old has to be burned away. We forget that learning and growing and changing is a part of life, and we chastise politicians who change their positions over time, or mock people who adjust their behaviours as they learn new information. But from the simple things, like how we have learned the value of face coverings over the past eight months when initially they weren’t thought to be important, to big things like shifting our views and actions of colonialism or white supremacy or sexism, we all learn and grow and change. 

How much more, then when it comes to God? We know that the love of God is never changing, but we also know that God’s call to us is for particular times and places…and that can change as the context we live in changes, even if that means we need a burning coal to the lips to make us ready for the new thing. 

In Isaiah’s time, the political leader was changing, the world stage was in some disarray and it wasn’t clear how it would shake out, and the prophet needed to both be reminded of God’s unchanging power and majesty and also hear a new call for a new time. 

Honestly, that sounds a bit like it could have been written today, doesn’t it?

So perhaps we ought to be ready for an encounter with the Holy…to soak up God’s glory and to listen carefully for what new thing God might be calling us to do in this new time. Like Isaiah, we may be overwhelmed by God’s greatness in the face of all the uncertainty around us, or we may cry out when we realise we can’t keep going on the same path. But also like Isaiah, we can trust that God will equip us with whatever we need for the days ahead, and our relationship with God will carry us, even into the unknown — and so we say, Here I am, send me.

May it be so. Amen.