Sunday, March 06, 2016

Actions Speak Louder--a sermon for Lent 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Actions Speak Louder
Mark 12.28-44
6 March 2016, Lent 4, NL2-26

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
   until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

I’m sure most of us know that due to a combination of factors, thousands of people in Flint, Michigan have been drinking water contaminated with high levels of lead, and there appears to be no timeline for when the water can be made safe again. In the meantime, churches and schools and clubs and individuals across the state and the country have been donating bottled water and filters, trying to help, because many of the residents of Flint have no extra money to spend on those things.

About an hour and a half west of Flint is a prison. And last month, during a class at that prison, a man stood up in front of 250 of his fellow prisoners and gave an impassioned plea: would they give some money to help the people in Flint? Some of them come from that city, or from cities like it. Some have family and friends there, or can imagine something similar happening to their families. Would they help?

Most of the inmates earn about $10 a month at their prison jobs, which they use to buy toiletries, phone cards, and supplies at the prison commissary. Every single one of the 250 men at that meeting pledged to give at least $3/month—30% of their income—to send water and filters to the people affected by this crisis.[1]

At a prison in Indiana, the men asked the chaplain if they could designate a Sunday offering for the people of Flint, and at that service these people who earn $1.25 per day doing laundry, working in the cafeteria, and producing materials for the state, gave $2,000.[2] Previously, they have given that amount also to dig a well in Mozambique, and to help people in Haiti.

I couldn’t help but think of today’s scripture reading, which takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ last day out teaching in public in the city. Not only because of the striking parallels with the ways we usually understand the story of the widow who makes her tiny yet enormous offering, but also because these stories feel like a picture of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, from an unlikely—we might say upside down—perspective.

When the scribe asks Jesus his question, it seems sincere. There’s no hint here of a trick question or an attempt to trap Jesus—there’s a man genuinely interested in the answer. Which commandment, of the 613 in the Torah, is most important? And Jesus answers without missing a beat, quoting Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 together, and telling us that these two commands, to love God and love our neighbor, are the lens through which we should interpret all the other commandments and stories. If we are reading scripture or our traditions in a way that do not lead us to increased love of God and love of our neighbor, then we are not reading correctly—because it is on these two commandments that all the others depend. Therefore it is not optional for us to practice loving God and loving our neighbors—or even loving God by loving our neighbors.

As if to illustrate his point, a widow enters the Temple courts. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the society—in a time when women had no legal standing, a woman with no husband to take care of her, protect her, or look out for her interests was dependent on the kindness and care of others. Scripture is bursting with commandments, exhortation, and admonishments to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. The three are almost always grouped together as a kind of shorthand for “those on the margins, those easily taken advantage of, those in need.”

And into the Temple courts comes a widow who has only 2 small coins. Those two coins were worth about a sixtieth of a laborer’s daily wage, and they are all she has.

How does this happen?

In a society where caring for widows is a crucial part of the religious and cultural fabric, how does the widow become so impoverished?

The scribes, the legal experts, who could read and write, were charged with handling contracts and financial matters. They may have been dishonest in their dealings, especially with those who wouldn’t have anyone else to advocate for them. Jesus accuses them of devouring widows houses…perhaps they used their position to line their own pockets and improve their own position at the expense of others.

But there’s a lot of money going into that treasury. People put in large sums, and still had plenty left. Where was that money going? It certainly wasn’t going to support the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. In fact, the one who should be cared for by this system still had to give to it, even though it was apparently unjust.

We usually think of the widow as a model for generosity—though it is the kind of generosity we rarely aspire to, since most of us have no plans to give everything we have. But what if instead the widow is an indictment of the whole social, cultural, and religious system? The scribe asked an earnest question and received an honest answer. The exchange between Jesus and the scribe is theological education at its best.

But if our theology ends when the question is answered, we have a serious problem.

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—with every fiber of your being, with everything you are and everything you have and everything you know. Not just feel love, but love, the verb, the action.

We know that we love because God first loved us—breathing us into being, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, knitting us together and calling us into community, healing us and sustaining us. We have experienced God’s love, so we can love God.

The neighbor is trickier. Our neighbor may not love us first, or in return, or ever. Our neighbor may be difficult, or annoying, or dangerous, or different. And yet—because God loved us first, we love our neighbor as we do ourselves. We don’t have to feel love for them, but we do have to love them—to act in loving ways towards others, to desire the best for them, to work together for their good as much as for our own.

Notice Jesus didn’t put any qualifiers on neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself, period. Not “love your neighbor unless they’re muslim, or gay, or black, or poor, or a prisoner.” Just love your neighbor as yourself. And not “love your neighbor in your heart but feel free to mock them, call them names, push them around, use derogatory language about them, and hurt them with your words and your actions.” Love your neighbor as yourself. If the way we are treating people in our world right now is a reflection of how we love ourselves, we have a big problem. If it isn’t, but we still do it to others, we have a bigger problem.

Our theology is no good if it ends with the words. Love is more than that. All the “I love yous” in the world are meaningless if our actions say something else. All our long prayers praising God go unheard as long as the poor widow is in our midst putting in all she has while we look on in admiration but with no intention of alleviating her poverty. All the best seats in the house will show us nothing if our love stays locked away in our feelings and never makes an appearance in our public discourse, our relationships, our spending habits, our giving, our approach to solving problems. Actions speak louder.

I certainly hope God’s love goes beyond warm fuzzy feelings and pretty words—which means that if we are to love as we have been loved, ours must go beyond as well, until we see the poor widow as our neighbor, the people of Flint as our neighbors, the prisoners as our neighbors, the people on the other side of the partisan spectrum as our neighbors…and then we act like it. When we start treating each other with love, we will turn the world upside down.

May it be so.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Real Live Camels--a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

Rev. Teri Peterson
Real Live Camels
Mark 10.17-31
14 February 2016, Lent 1, NL2-23

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

I remember distinctly the very first time I heard this story. I was in high school, and it was my first time in a church service. I was a hired musician for the day at a Presbyterian church across town from my house, in West Valley which was everything you imagine when you hear those words.

This story was read and I thought “dang, this guy doesn’t mess around.”

The pastor stood up and I will never forget his first words: “Jesus doesn’t mean you have to sell all your stuff and give away all your money.”

I have no idea what the rest of the sermon was about, because in one sentence he proved to me every stereotype of religion was true. Not only did they not really believe this Jesus guy, but they were going to find a way to twist his words to justify their big houses, nice cars, and sparkly jewelry while over in my neighborhood my family was helping out a woman who couldn’t afford olives to make Thanksgiving dinner special for her kids.

In one sentence, he told me, on my first visit to a church, that going to church wasn’t about being like Jesus.

There were two services that day. I stayed through the special music at the second and then, when I was finished playing, I left, in the middle of the service. I had no need or interest to hear the sermon a second time—I’d heard plenty. I didn’t go into church for several years after that, though I certainly talked about that one time.

The way that pastor probably interpreted the story is a common one—that Jesus was speaking only to this man, or that he was saying that the things that get in the way of our relationship with God need to go (but that might not be possessions and money for all of us). He probably perpetuated the myth that there was a small gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle”—a myth created in the middle ages by a preacher who wanted to soften the blow of Jesus’ words for his patron. Or maybe he used the one about the word “camel” and the word “rope” being very similar.

Here’s the thing about those interpretations: they sound an awful lot like a way to justify our comfortable lifestyles and very little like Jesus. And when I hear it, I wonder what else we’re willing to justify, regardless of what Jesus says? We already talk our way around “love your enemies” and around “put away your sword” and “blessed are the peacemakers.” When someone listens to us talk about these things Jesus said, do they assume the same thing I did that day 20 years ago—that we have no intention of even trying to be Christlike?

Jesus is pretty blunt in this story. We are always listening to parables and wondering why Jesus can’t give a straight answer…well, here’s a straight answer, but we may not like it, because it feels so very extreme.

The man seems earnest in his seeking. He wants to know how to be faithful and to experience God’s loving presence. Jesus tells him to keep commandments 5-10, the ones about not harming your neighbor—don’t murder, steal, or commit adultery, honor your father and mother. And the man says he has obeyed them all.

So Jesus looks at the man—really looks at him, sees him to his core. And Jesus loved him—loved him enough to tell him the truth: that now it was time to keep the first half of the commandments too, the ones about love rather than just not-harm. Sell everything and give the money away, and come, follow me. Jesus loved this man enough to look him in the eye and say: the idols of your life have to go—and not just your stuff, but the security it represents for you and the indifference it shows to others. Redistribute your wealth as a sign that you love God and your neighbor, and come walk this road with me.

It’s pretty extreme. Sell everything. Give it all away. The disciples protest and Jesus both commends them and reiterates: leave it all—family and property, everything that tells us who we are. He uses an example: a camel, the largest animal any of them would know, and the eye of a needle, the smallest opening any of them would regularly encounter. That’s how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom. And in case we missed the extremes at play, he finishes with “the first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We want desperately to ease our discomfort and find a way to make Jesus a proponent of moderation in all things. But there’s nothing moderate here—it’s all or nothing. Moderation was what the man wanted to hear too—he has led a good life, followed the commandments. But Jesus loved him enough to say the hard thing: that the path to abundant life is not wide enough for all that he carried.

this is me, riding a camel in September 2005.
Riding a camel is not that comfortable.
And the man was shocked and went away grieving. We look at him with sadness, wishing he’d had the guts to follow Jesus, when really, first of all, we don’t know if he did or not. Jesus said Go and the man went…his grief doesn’t mean he didn’t then do what Jesus said. After all, if we followed those instructions, I suspect we would grieve along the way too. We don’t know the rest of his story, or what he did with those words straight from the mouth of God.

And secondly, most of us have no intention of following Jesus this way either. Now, maybe some of us are already sacrificial givers, tithing and giving an offering that represents our gratitude for what God has done. I don’t know about you but I'm uncomfortable with Jesus’ words here. I’m no biblical literalist, but I have to wonder: what if he meant it? Finding out that the whole gate thing and the camel-rope mix-up thing were both made up by preachers as uncomfortable as I am, and that Jesus is almost certainly talking about a real live camel and an actual tiny needle as a representation of how hard it will be for me—because even though I am not wealthy here, I am on a global scale—to enter the kingdom of God…well, let’s just say that shocked and grieving are polite descriptions of how I feel about it.

If we want him to be talking about something else, I think we need to be honest about that—that we would rather Jess be talking to us about something else that gets in the way of our ability to follow him. And then whatever that thing is, we need to see if we’re willing to be just as extreme. Are we willing to give up every little bit of our partisan rancor and bickering, and actually work for the common good? Are we willing to give up every aspect of our love of violence—in our language, in our posturing, in our search for security—and instead learn to love our enemy? Are we willing to give up our nationalism and seek peace for all of God’s world? Are we willing to completely wipe out our indifference to the way other people are affected by our economic and social and political choices? Are we willing to give up any sense that we can secure our own safety or construct our own identity, and place our trust entirely in God? Or are we looking for ways we can make Jesus a moderate?

Lent is a season when we often disrupt our routine—maybe we fast from something, or maybe we take on something new. It’s a season when we examine our interior lives and look for ways to get rid of those things that hinder our discipleship, those things that we have decided—whether consciously or unconsciously—are more important than God’s call.

Jesus looks at us and loves us—not like hallmark cards and pink hearts love, but like giving everything including himself to us love. This isn’t a candy-hearts crush, it’s the kind of love that speaks truth and calls us into real life. To follow him will ask much of us. To follow him will turn everything we know upside down. To follow him will change us, and change the world. For with God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, February 08, 2016


Tonight I had dinner with a friend/colleague at an adorable little place on the adorable little square in Woodstock. It's a charming store front with careful architectural details dating back a century--a chocolatier (bean to bar) in front, and a bar/cafe at the back. Along the side are comfy chairs and a fake fireplace. At the back is an old-style bar, all shiny dark wood. They make delicious inventive cocktails and small plates combining flavors you would never expect (just like their chocolate does too).

It was a lovely dinner and great conversation ranging from sheep to church to travel to hobbies to luxurious experiences to books and back again.

And when we left, it was snowing onto the trees and brick streets and sidewalks lined with iron railings, with the old-school street lights giving off a warm glow, and the bank's readerboard said it was -76 degrees (hahahahah). As I brushed the snow off my car, classical music played over hidden speakers throughout the whole square. That's right--even at 8pm on a Monday night, when nearly no one is around, still they are playing Mozart in the town square.

As I drove home I thought about how very civilized the whole evening had been--from the music to the food and everything in between. It's the same feeling that makes me love The Thomas Jefferson Hour--because the theme music makes me feel so civilized and intellectual and normal. Which I realize could also be translated as "elite." But I think that's one of the things I like about both these experiences--that the civilized feel is accessible to everyone. The classical music is playing in the square. The podcast is free. The architecture is there for everyone to admire. The menu may not be accessible to many (it's one of those places where they make everything and use as much local stuff as possible, and that's not cheap but it is good for my neighbors and community and economy) but even just reading over the menu and its imaginative contents is an exercise in expanding the mind.

It so often feels like our culture is spinning out of control toward demagoguery and incivility. People are mean to each other on the internet and in person. It's almost impossible to be a woman online and not receive harassment or even death threats. Our politicians shout at each other and demean one another's person, not just disagree with their ideas. Our popular culture is full of violence. Our education system leans on tests rather than on education, cutting everything that can't be standardized.  (aside: watch this. Then do something to make sure every kid has a chance to connect their brains like this. it'll make the world a better place in so many different ways.)

And into the middle of that: Mozart was playing in the town square as snowflakes floated into the glowing light. Reminding me of who we really are, or at least who I want to be.

**yes, I realize that the way I'm using the word "civilized" is loaded with racial and cultural bias. I keep trying to find another word to encompass what I mean and I don't have one yet. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

lifesavers--a sermon for transfiguration sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Mark 8.27-9.8
7 February 2016, Transfiguration, NL2-22, Epiphany 6 (A-Ha Moments)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

This winter I have been reading a series of novels in which the main character is a scientist who travels the world studying dragons and getting into all kinds of scrapes and adventures along the way. She learns languages and makes friends in many cultures, she gets herself into and out of trouble, and she watches dragons underwater, on volcanoes, from ships, in trees, and flying through the air. She is working intensely to try to learn as much as possible about them, for a variety of reasons. After one particularly thrilling day of research, she has an incredible idea that seems to put all the pieces in place. She talks it over with a colleague, who agrees it is a real breakthrough deserving of more study…and so she writes an article and mails it off to a journal, from halfway around the world.

Within a few days of mailing the article, she sees something else, and her whole theory falls apart…but the mail is long gone and her own ship is far from port. By the end of the book, she is writing a new column retracting the previous one, and dealing with all the scrutiny and mockery that comes with her public confusion, even as she puts forth new and better research.

I couldn’t help but think of our Epiphany theme as I was reading about Lady Trent this weekend. The ups and downs of a-ha moments can be confusing! One minute, we see so clearly, and then when we have to integrate that new insight into our lives, everything seems so mixed up and muddy.

And so it is with Peter.

He has been watching Jesus, soaking up as much teaching as he can, seeing him heal bodies and communities against all odds. And in the middle of all the many temples to the god Pan that fill Caesarea Philippi, he sees so clearly, for just a moment, and in that moment Peter is the first to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah.

A few minutes later, he is plunged back into confusion as Jesus starts to talk about what this means. Peter understands all the words, but can’t make sense of them when they are put together. Surely Jesus can’t be serious.

So Peter, still giddy from his a-ha moment, knowing he got the right answer last time, decides to teach the teacher that this is no way to talk and really he should be careful not to mess up his Messiah-image.

He gets in front, and puts his idea of who Jesus is and what he should do ahead of what Jesus is actually saying. It’s like he published his essay when he only had half the information. He knew who Jesus was, but he hadn’t yet figured out what that meant.

Can you picture the scene? 11 disciples behind Jesus, following his steps and hanging on his every word. Peter in front of Jesus, telling him what to do.

And Jesus turns his body around and says “get behind me.”

Where disciples should be—right behind the rabbi, following his way.

Not in front, leading with their own agenda and ideas and preconceived notions. To be a follower of Jesus means following where he’s going, not leading him where we’re going. When Peter tried to be the leader rather than the follower, Jesus called him Satan—the adversary. Putting our own agenda, whether that is about what we want for ourselves or how we expect God to treat others or anything else, ahead of Christ’s agenda, means we are working against the kingdom, rather than for it. And Jesus reminds us of the difference between a disciple and an adversary: the disciple is behind Jesus, walking in his footsteps, not in front using our fear or our pride or our self-interest or our desire to block him from carrying out his mission. When we follow, we are never alone, and every place we go is a place Christ has been already.

So he calls the whole crowd—because Peter is all of us. To the whole crowd of people in this busy city—to all of us reading his words in the midst of our busy lives—Jesus explains what it means to be a follower of the Messiah.

They, and we, have seen what he does—his actions and his teaching, his priorities and consistency. The Messiah is the one who has been through every village in the country, touching unclean people, accepting foreigners, healing bodies that seemed irretrievably broken, putting communities back together in configurations no one knew they needed, teaching people a new way of living that isn’t defined by their status in the empire but by their status as people created in God’s image. The Messiah is the one who has fed every person and then some, who has inspired people to work together in ways they never imagined, and who has offered the same relationship and care to the poorest and the wealthiest, the Roman and the Jew, the religious leader and the bleeding woman.

This is the Messiah we follow. And in order to follow him, he says, we will have to lose our lives. If our priorities include strengthening our image, gaining wealth and power, saving our institution, or fretting about our security, we may hear those same words from Jesus: get behind me. You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Our human minds dwell on protecting our interests, climbing the ladder, assuaging our fear, getting what we want. But the divine mind seems to dwell on the people who are weak, unwanted, poor, rejected, despised. The divine mind seems to dwell on creating a world where no one goes hungry, no one is cast out, no one is judged even subconsciously by the color of their skin or the balance of their bank account or the size of their muscle or their accent or their win-loss record. It is this mind we are called to—the mind of Christ, who is the head of this body—and we are called to undertake his mission even at the risk of losing our life. Because when we try to save the way of life we like, we will lose the life that matters. Abundant life is possible, even now, but we will live into it only if we stop trying to win the good life we so often want instead.

Peter resumes his place behind Jesus. A week later, he and James and John hike up a mountain with Jesus and catch a glimpse of glory. They have a moment together, seeing just for an instant who Jesus is. And then Peter…god bless Peter…he gets out in front again, offering to build a village for them to live in together on top of the mountain, where people can take pilgrimages to see the holy men. And once again I can just picture Jesus’ face as he looks up to heaven in exasperation: seriously? This time God’s voice comes from the clouds: This is my Son—listen to him.

Listen to him.

Set aside what you think you know, and listen to him.
Let go of how he should work, and listen to him.
Take off the mask of “fine” and listen to him.
Lay down the burden of safety and self-interest, and listen to him.
Put away your shame and your pride, and listen to him.

Jesus said, those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Jesus said, love God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus said, give to God what is God’s.
Jesus said, bring them to me—outcast, disposable, useless, dirty, homeless, unlovable, children, women, foreigners. Faith has restored you to wholeness.
Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last will be first.
Jesus said, love your enemies.
Jesus said, I will be with you, I will go before you, do not be afraid.
Jesus said, you give them something to eat.
Jesus said, get behind and come, and follow me.

May we hear and obey. Amen.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Prayer for MLK interfaith breakfast

I had several people ask me to post this after I prayed it this morning, so here it is. Offered at the Faithbridge MLK interfaith prayer breakfast.
the whole crowd!

Holy God, 
we give you thanks for this day that you have made 
and for this community you have called together. 
As we come in out of the cold, 
we are mindful of those with nowhere else to go. 
As we join in conversation, 
we are mindful of those who are alone. 
As we enjoy a delicious meal, lovingly prepared, 
we give thanks for your bounty— 
of the earth producing food,  
of talented people using their gifts to help us taste and see that you are good— 
and also we are mindful of those who are hungry, 
those who are desperate for even a cup of clean water, 
those who make cookies from mud to feed their children, 
those who wonder how to make ends meet in the second half of the month. 
Put our wealth at the service of the poor, 
and our fullness at the service of the empty, 
for we know that you never intended your human family to live with this divide.  
You are a font of mercy and a source of hope— 
nourish us this morning not only with the fruit of your creation 
but also with  the fruit of the spirit. 
Feed our minds with wisdom and our hearts with understanding.  
Guard us from the temptation of repeating beautiful words with no intent to act on them, 
and from the temptation of whitewashing and sanitizing your prophets 
until they are comfortable for us. 
We come to remember, and to celebrate, and to be transformed. 
Give us ears to hear and then hands ready to work, 
for the good work you began in our brother Martin is not yet complete. 
Today, people will be executed without a trial in the streets of our cities. 
Today, our neighbors will feel the fear in the eyes of the privileged.  
Today, our children will be judged at first sight. 
Today, our leaders will pretend there is no problem. 
Today, casual conversation will betray our mistrust of the other. 
Even today, the day we set aside to celebrate and remember, 
is awash in the sins of racism and greed, sexism and self-centeredness. 
Use this time to strengthen us for the work ahead. 
We come seeking your beloved community— 
create it here once again. 
Use our uniqueness to bond us together in interdependence, 
and our differences to weave into a tapestry of new creation. 
And send us out with new friends,  
ready to see each person in your image, 
as a neighbor in this global community. 
Change the world through us, until all people and all creation know the abundance of enough. 
We thank you, Holy One, 
for we know that you will do this. 
several of the board of Faithbridge, with Dr. Larry Greenfield, keynote speaker (left)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Powerball--a sermon on the parables of the sower

Rev. Teri Peterson
Mark 4.1-34
17 January 2016, NL2-19 (Epiphany 3—aha moments)

Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
   and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’
 And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
 He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’
 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

This week, for the first time in my life, I bought a lottery ticket. In spite of the way I usually feel about the lottery, I joined the throngs of people in hoping against hope that a couple dollars would magically multiply into a billion.

It seems like human nature, almost, to want a big return on a small investment. To spend two dollars and end up with $450 million after taxes seems like a pretty good deal.

Except, of course, that the odds of winning are 1 in 292 million. And there were 371 million tickets sold for the big Wednesday Powerball drawing, with only three of those being jackpot winners. But none of that matters in the middle of the frivolous hope of winning. For just a moment, at 9:59pm, anything is possible.

What we would do with the money was a common topic of conversation all last week. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were discussing how they would spend such a massive amount of money.

I realize I move in unusual circles, but I was encouraged by how many people talked about how they would give the money away—people were discussing their favorite charities and causes dear to their hearts. I overheard conversations about malaria research, clean water, sustainable housing solutions, churches, supporting women’s education, and feeding hungry people. It was fascinating to listen to people daydream about how to be generous. It was as if, for just a moment, we imagined that we could truly be the farmer who scatters seeds far and wide, hoping that they would do some good even if we didn’t see it ourselves.

Of course, we can be that person anytime—scattering seeds of hope, love, grace, peace, and justice even if we can’t scatter checks with many zeroes. The farmer in the parable of the sower doesn’t stop to see if the ground is prepared, or worthy—he just spreads the seed everywhere and lets God, the creator and master gardener, handle the rest.

The second parable of the sower—the one where the person scatters seed and it grows while she sleeps—is only found in Mark. No one else tells this story where Jesus says that the kingdom grows automatically without our aid or intervention. Automatic is the word he uses, even—that the earth produces of itself, automatically. Because the seed was scattered, it will grow. It’s what God does—turns the scattered seeds of the word into fruit that can feed a multitude. Through the prophet Isaiah God says “my word will not return to me empty.” No matter where it falls, and whether we realize it or not, the word is at work. We may be simply going about our lives, while the seeds are deep in the damp darkness, breaking open and sending out shoots that reach down into the nutritious depths and up toward the light. It’s a mystery we cannot control, no matter how hard we try.

In fact, even the scattering of seed may have been unintentional in this second sower story. It does not seem that the person is a farmer, purposely planting a field. Instead it seems to be one of those things that happens in the course of life—a basket’s weave becomes loose, a pocket has a tiny hole, and seeds are scattered. It isn’t until they grow that we even realize they have been planted.

What if this is what the kingdom is like? Throughout our days, we are dropping seeds all over the place. Most of the time, they are unintentional. The way we treat the grocery store clerk. The expression we give the loud person on the train. The tone of voice we use with a coworker or a teacher or a student. The story about a neighbor we share over dinner. The way we respond to a racist joke or a sexist stereotype. The words we choose when we are frustrated. We know that children pick up the smallest things in the way we interact with each other. What if those same seeds are still planted throughout our lives? We never know who is observing us in the checkout line or on the train or at the library or in the parking lot. All along the way, every day, we are scattering seeds. And without our controlling them, they are growing—hopefully they are seeds of God’s love and grace and justice and peace; kingdom seeds. We won’t know until they start to bear fruit, but by then we may have moved on and never see the results…but others will. And every fruit bears more seeds, perpetuating the cycle.

Right before he tells this little story of the inadvertent sower, Jesus gives us the key to the parable: “the measure you give will be the measure you get. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” So often this feels so disturbing and wrong. If it’s about physical resources, it is horrifying—even what they have will be taken away. If it’s about faith, it’s still awful. If it’s about God’s blessing, it’s just about the worst thing ever, to think that those who have little would have even that little bit snatched away from them.

But when we read it together with the second sower parable, it becomes more clear: The seeds we sow are also the seeds we grow. When we sow seeds of grace, we also grow in grace. Not that we receive more because of the way we approach the world and interact with each other, but that our practice of graciousness increases our own sense of grace and gratitude. The more grace we give, the more we experience. The more justice we work for, the more justice becomes a part of us. The more peace we make, the more we have.

And if we are sowing seeds of fear, or miserliness, or discord, that is also what will increase in us. When we interact with the world from a place of unexamined privilege, or from a mindset of scarcity, then we end up perpetuating injustice, shutting people out when God is welcoming them in. And then our scarcity and our fear becomes our reality—because even what little graciousness we have withers up under the scorching heat of our self-focused desires.

This weekend we remember Martin Luther King Jr, and hopefully while we remember the big dreams and lofty goals, the massive marches and stirring speeches, we also remember that he never said only big things matter. Yes, we need to work for big things—for liberty and justice for all, for an end to a socio-political system that privileges some over others, for a change to a culture in which some people are automatically suspicious. We also need to remember that big changes sometimes come through small steps. Every time we refuse to be suspicious of a neighbor, we drop a seed. Every time we stand up for someone who has been excluded, we drop a seed. Every time we write a senator, speak to someone others ignore, buy something made locally, and choose not to use violent language, we drop seeds. And the way we judge each other, the way we treat each other, the posture from which we approach the world—it will grow in us, too. If we judge each other with grace, treat every person with respect, approach the world with peace, we will soon find grace and respect and peace welling up and bearing fruit in our own lives. It may be dangerous—the world is afraid of those whose lives are evidence of a still more excellent way, and fear takes over just as surely as love. But imagine if every one of us was scattering kingdom seeds, instead of fear and greed seeds. It would add up to an amazing harvest.

Pay attention, Jesus says. Pay attention to how you listen, how you hear, how you speak, how you act. Pay attention, because those seeds you scatter throughout your days will grow in your own life as well. Make sure they are kingdom seeds. But then stop trying to control how they grow. The thing about the kingdom of God is that it is not the kingdom of me, not the kingdom of the church…it is about God’s authority in our lives as individuals and a community, it is about God’s power in the world, and it is almost never going to accord with what I think is best for me. God has a bigger picture and a greater good in mind, and God’s word never returns empty.

Like powerball, these seeds are a tiny investment with a huge return. Unlike powerball, the odds are very good, and we have already been given all the riches we could ever need. So now that we are done daydreaming about how to give away millions of dollars we’ll never have, it’s time for us to actually live the same generosity we have already experienced, and practice planting kingdom seeds with every look, every word, every vote, every interaction, no matter how small. We can scatter grace far and wide, and we can trust that God will use every seed wisely, to its fullest potential—both where it lands, and in us—to produce a harvest that will be full of glory and praise.

May it be so. Amen.