Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Fool's Errand--a sermon on the 10 bridesmaids

Rev. Teri Peterson
A Fool’s Errand
Matthew 25.1-13
15 March 2015, Lent 4, NL1-28

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
— “But if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
— In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” –
At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
Then all the bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”
 “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you.”
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you —
“Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”
– Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” –
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.
– In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light.—
The bridesmaids who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.
– But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. –
And the door was shut.
– “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. –
Later the others also came. “Lord! Lord!” they said. “Open the door for us!”
But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
      If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. —
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It’s amazing how Jesus’ words can shed light on his other words, isn’t it? Usually this parable sounds like a license to think only of ourselves and to pat ourselves on the back for earning our way into heaven by being prepared. Thousands of sermons have been preached on how we have to fill our lamps with prayer and good deeds, or else we might find ourselves locked out when the bridegroom comes. Thousands more have added that if you haven’t prayed enough, no one else can fill that spiritual lamp for you—you’re on your own unless you’ve done it yourself. I know at least one will be preached today that contends that the ones who have oil are wise for not sharing because sharing just enables the lazy behavior of others, and it’s about time we stopped being so co-dependent.

I’ve been having some trouble with the story this week, because it just sounds so much like Jesus is a 21st century American. Everything about this story screams radical individualism and hyperindependence and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. And really, this is very nearly the only place in scripture that sounds like that. This parable seems to contradict the thousand other pages in the book at every turn.

So when I came across this interrupted version, in which the story is interrupted by other words of Jesus, I realized: I’d been reading the story as if it were separate from the rest of scripture. What would happen if I allowed Jesus to talk to himself—would it make more sense?

In the rest of scripture, what the world sees as foolish is where God plants wisdom, and what the world sees as weakness is God’s strength. The wise know to stay away from the cross, because it only brings death and shame and pain. The wise know that death is the end. The wise understand that money can buy power. And yet Christ, who is the very wisdom of God, seems to not know any of that. Instead he walks straight toward the cross. He calls poor fishermen, sinners, tax collectors, outcasts, children, women, and peasants together, teaches and heals them, and gives them the power to do amazing things that change the world. And he won’t stay dead.

We don't even have to go far into the rest of scripture to get this upside down wisdom—next week we’ll hear the second half of this chapter, where Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we care for him, and when we send them away to fend for themselves, we have sent him away. Or last week, we read the key to all the law and the prophets: to love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Where is the love in this story?

The five foolish bridesmaids, ashamed of their sputtering torches and chastised by their sisters, leave for the marketplace. Though it is midnight, of course, so they will not find what they seek in the economic realm. They are on a fool’s errand, hoping desperately to save face and not let the bridegroom see that they were sleeping.

The five wise bridesmaids, smug and self-sufficient, watch them go. They too had been sleeping, but the groom may never find out the truth.

Jesus ends the story with two words: Keep Awake.

Notice the story does not end with “keep plenty of oil on hand.”

What if the bridesmaids had all stayed awake? They may have noticed the oil situation earlier in the evening, at a time when it was more easily remedied. Or perhaps they would have had time to remind each other of the stories of their faith…stories like that of the Maccabees and the miracle that became the core of Hanukkah: when the oil was only enough for one night, and yet the light shone for eight nights. That was relatively recent history for them, after all.
And maybe all that storytelling would have helped them see the truth: there is no need to hide in shame, to seek salvation in the marketplace, nor to send our sisters and brothers away on a fool’s errand. The bridegroom will care far more that we showed up and waited for him—that we were there –than he will about our human standards of preparedness. The bridegroom is looking for followers who will be ready when he comes, and readiness means showing our face, even if we think we’re not worthy. It means overcoming our own wisdom and allowing God’s foolish word to shout into our hearts “I am coming—follow me!” After all, he is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

It takes only a little light to scatter the darkness. It takes only a little of God’s wisdom to show the folly of our human ways. We think it’s about the oil, but it isn’t. We cannot share the oil, but we can share the light.

May it be so.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

cooking by the box

Recently, a friend gifted me a free week of Blue Apron. It's a service where they deliver a box containing recipes and all the ingredients--exactly the right amount--for three meals (each with two servings). It seems like a great idea! I already love Door To Door Organics, which delivers me a box of organic veggies and fruits every Thursday. So what's not to love about trying a new recipe without committing to buying a pound of something when I only need a tablespoon? Seems promising.

I got my box last week, and I confess that I haven't had time to cook much. I didn't anticipate my schedule correctly. In any case, here's what's in the box:
*Beet Apple and Goat Cheese Sliders, with potato-frisee salad
*Chole (a chickpea stew with vaguely indian/middle eastern spices) served with naan
*butternut squash canneloni

I plan to make the last two tomorrow (so I'll have leftovers ready for the busy weekend!). I made the first last night--the beet sliders. (no pics, sorry...I didn't know I'd be blogging about it.)

First order of business: everyone in the world has heard me announce that I hate beets. I think they taste like dirt.
Second order of business: I am a firm believer that anything is better with cheese. Goat cheese is even better still.
Third order of business: I try so hard not to waste food.

So here we went, into beet-land, last night.
The recipe page has pictures all over it--pictures of the ingredients both whole and prepared, pictures of the cooking process, pictures of the finished product. It has step-by-step instructions that any middle schooler could probably follow. It was well-organized, telling me to do some things while other things were cooking. The stuff in the box was all clearly labeled with what it is, which recipe it is for, and storage instructions (i.e. "keep refrigerated").

And the end result was surprisingly delicious, I have to admit. I wouldn't choose to make the sliders again, because honestly I would have been perfectly happy to have apple-goat cheese sandwiches and skip the beets. But I did eat 1.33 servings of them, and not only because I was thinking about how I should try to eat more things like beets because they are good for me. It genuinely tasted good. I think the combo of goat cheese and mint (??!?!?!?!) was amazing. I was a little sad not to have thought ahead to the fact that assembling the sliders as directed would mean that they would not be suitable for leftovers. Since I am one person and the recipe makes two servings, I should have found a way to hold on to the prepped innards of the sliders and just toasted the buns when I would want them. I ended up needing to either eat more or waste some, because they couldn't be re-heated.

and the salad? OMG. I was so happy to eat it again for lunch today (with an avocado added because otherwise the avocados on the counter will turn mushy!).

The actual process of cooking?
Maybe tomorrow's experience will be better, because I see that they lay out the steps in a certain order on purpose.

for those who missed the subtext on that: I didn't exactly follow the directions the way they were written.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to those who know me in person that I have a hard time with recipes. I love to cook, and I own a number of cookbooks, most of which sit unopened on a shelf just waiting for the day I finally run out of experimentory steam. I am the kind of home cook who looks in the fridge and pantry and says "I can totally make something out of kidney beans, soy curls, spinach, barley, eggs, nutritional yeast, an avocado, and almonds." (actual contents of my pantry right now.)

I am less the kind of cook that follows directions.

I think Blue Apron is a great concept. I suspect it puts good cooking within reach of many many people who would otherwise eat cereal or fast food. I will probably get another box sometime in the future. But I am not the target audience for this service. I think the recipes look great, and the one I've tried so far tasted good despite by skepticism and inability to just follow the directions.

I just like to have a little more wiggle room, a little more creative space, when it comes to my kitchen adventures.
In short, I want it to be an adventure. And I have yet to have an adventure when the guidebook is still open in my hand.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Whatever Is Right--a sermon on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard

Rev. Teri Peterson
Whatever is Right
Matthew 20.1-16
1 March 2015, Lent 2, NL1-26

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Several years ago, I was at a church picnic when I heard an announcement that there’d be a game of kickball starting soon. I swear my stomach physically flipped over and my heart fell out of my body, as I was instantly plunged back to elementary school. Two popular kids were always team captains, and the entire class would line up and wait to be chosen by one of the captains. It was a predictable routine—first the kid who played on a soccer team, then the one who always won the playground races, then the one whose tetherball wins suggested some level of coordination, then the kid whose mom was the teacher down the hall, and so on until the last few of us were practically fought over to not be on anyone’s team.

I was pretty sure this was going to play out in adult fashion at the church picnic too—there’d be the guy who used to organize the church softball team, then the marathon runner, and so on until there were a few people left that no one wanted and someone finally took pity on us and said “the rest of you just choose which team you want, and let’s go!”

Thankfully that’s not how it ended up happening—we played under 18s v. over 18s instead, so no awkward choosing of any kind. But I was reminded of those experiences when I was reading today’s parable. It almost feels like it could read, “and Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a team captain who chose his first players, and then in the middle of the game he went back to the group on the sidelines and picked a few more, and then a few more, until finally in the 9th inning he said ‘all right, the rest of you come along on my team too.’ And at the end of the game, the captain lined up the team according to when they’d joined, and gave everyone a high five and a snack. The people who played the longest and scored the most points were upset that even the terrible playing last picks, who didn’t even get an at-bat, still got the same thing they did. The team captain said: ‘they’re just as much members on my team as you are—remember, it’s my team and I make the calls.’”

Of course it’s not quite the same, but you get the idea. We howl at the unfairness of it all. The people who work only a few hours should of course only get paid a fraction of the amount paid to those who work the whole day. If they worked only 10% of the day, they should get paid only 10% of the daily wage. And the kickball players who just stood in the outfield for one inning, without even stepping up to the plate once clearly don’t need a snack, and giving them a high five is just another way of saying everyone gets a prize even when they didn’t do anything, which devalues our obviously exceptional first-chosen kids. When the owner or captain says he will do what is right, we expect him to do what we think is fair.

Jesus’ story ends with “or are you resentful because I am generous?” And the answer to this is, I suspect, a resounding yes. Of course we are. Because we nearly always see ourselves as the workers who spent 12 hours in the vineyard, and those people are getting what we deserve, and they haven’t even earned it.

The landowner sees something different, though. He sees people who are so desperate for even a fraction of the daily wage that they will wait, through the heat of the day, in hope that they might get even one hour’s work. He sees people with families to feed, and with so few resources they don’t even have a garden or animals they could be tending on the days when they don’t get hired. He sees people who have the same needs as the people he hired at the beginning of the day.

In short, he sees people.

Often we see the work first. Our identities are wrapped up in the jobs we hold and the ways we earn money. Our status is determined by our place in the office hierarchy. We see work as the thing that gives us purpose and meaning, that gives us value. We are tied to fairness, which comes from a mindset of winning and losing, while God is tied to generosity, which comes from a mindset of plenty and of grace.

The landowner is not looking at the value of the work, he is looking at the value of the worker as a human being. And in the eyes of God, there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, 6am hire and 5pm hire. No matter how much work we do, we can never earn more grace. It is always a gift given by the most generous of landowners, and he can do what he wants with what is his. The psalmist reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it—the world and those who live in it. The landowner says to everyone hired after the first round: “I will pay you what is right” and then he does just that, according to his own value system. The fact that the early morning workers disagree with his assessment of what is right doesn’t seem to make much difference to this lord who sees people, not just product. When we think we can dictate what God can do with the creation God made, or with the love that is God’s very essence, we are on shaky ground. With this story, Jesus makes clear what God’s priorities are—the last shall be first—and that will often make us stomp our feet and insist it isn’t fair. Like the first workers, we say “you have made them equal to us!”

We may not say it out loud because it’s not PC, but it’s there. In our speech patterns, in our politics, in our movies and music and tv shows, in our workplaces, and our church expectations. It’s not fair, God—they should be grateful and then they should do what we have done in order to get what we have. But you have made them equal to us, who have given years of our lives to these programs, this company, this country, this town, this church.

To which God replies: yes, I have. Long before you came on the scene, I made all of you equal, in my image. I knit you together even as I was calling the whole creation good, and I poured my grace out on the whole earth and all those who live in it. I didn’t make a them and an us, I made people. No matter what you think of each other, know this: I do what I choose with what is mine, and I choose to love all of you, I choose to gift grace to all of you, I choose to remind you that my grace is sufficient no matter what you think you deserve, I choose to do what is right. Whether you see yourself as the first worker or the last, whether you have single-handedly kept the church open for years or whether you walked in today for the first time, the truth is the same: I have chosen you. Respond to that reality rather than the one you think is so unfair.

I often try to see Jesus’ parables from different perspectives in the story. I get the sense that we usually read ourselves as the first workers in this story. What is different if we see ourselves as the workers hired for only the last hour, yet given the same dignity and grace as the others? Rather than a posture of defensiveness, I find myself in awe that anyone could be so generous. It feels different—not just intellectually, but in my body, I can feel that rush, that slightly breathless excitement and unstoppable grin that comes with the realization that I’ve been given a gift—not just the gift of being treated equally, not just the gift of one more day of daily bread, but the gift of being seen as a person who matters for more than just the things I can do. Rather than having to earn my humanity, reading the story this way feels like someone sees me for me. We don’t feel that very often in our world these days—to be loved and valued for who we are rather than what we do is rare. It is a gift—it is grace, and it is amazing.

So then I wonder—what if we read the story as if we are the landowner? What would it be like for us to continue to go out and bring people in, and to treat everyone equally generously…to see people for who they are—beloved children of God—rather than for what they can do for us? If we have received such grace, we can also offer it to others. And Jesus said: the kingdom of heaven is like this.

May it be so. Amen. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Before and After--a sermon for Lent 1 / NL1-25

Rev. Teri Peterson
Before and After
Matthew 18.15-35
22 February 2015, Lent 1, NL1-25

 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

There’s nothing quite like beginning the season of Lent with what feels like Extreme Forgiveness Makeover. We began just a few days ago with Ash Wednesday, confessing the many ways we have fallen short and missed the mark, and hearing yet again that we are finite beings in the midst of God’s infinite love. And now today we have this: a completely outrageous story in answer to what seems like a perfectly good question.

In Jesus story, the slave owes a massive debt to the king. And I mean massive. When Jesus said “ten thousand talents” it’s likely the disciples gasped in disbelief, because that is roughly equivalent to a gazillion dollars. One Talent was about 16 years wages, so Ten Thousand Talents is the income from 160,000 years of ten hour work days, six days a week—before spending anything on housing, food, clothes, or taxes.

Or, in other words, a gazillion dollars.

Jesus knew this number was ridiculous. It is so much money, no one could possibly have any hope of paying it. Many of us know the hopelessness that comes with a pile of debt, and the frustration that accompanies the monthly statement on the student loan or mortgage that never seems to get any smaller. More and more people in our nation, especially young people, are trapped in a cycle that seems impossible to get out of—the education required to get a job that pays the bills creates unsustainable bills itself. And many nations are similarly trapped, with the costs of building an infrastructure or managing poverty and disease leaving them beholden to wealthier countries at rates that boggle the mind. Debt is a fact of life for many of us, or at least something we are used to hearing about in very large numbers. It is so common that we forget there is a measure of injustice in allowing or perpetuating a system in which some people can become so indebted that it becomes a prison or even torture.

And this debt that the slave owes is well beyond even the most unjust student loans or even the amount owed to the World Bank. This is something that can’t even be imagined.

And that is how much the king forgives.

If the disciples gasped in disbelief on hearing the amount of money at first, by now they’ve passed out in shock. To be forgiven in such a way was unbelievable.

And this, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like. More than we can ask, more than we can imagine, more than we can ever expect or deserve—God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting. 160,000 years of work, and more, all the way from In The Beginning to Amen.

I am not sure if it’s possible to convey the enormity of what has happened in Jesus’ parable—it is so big, so ridiculous, so life changing, so…I don’t even have enough superlatives.

But that’s okay, because it’s that last one that matters. Before, the man was carrying a heavy load. At any moment, judgment could come and payment could be demanded. He had to work constantly to try to catch up, and he probably didn’t treat himself or others well. Before, he was on his own, looking out for himself, even while being little more than a cog in the empire’s machine. Before, his life was dominated by money and by how people and situations could benefit him. Then he encounters the king and his gracious mercy, and…what happens after?

This is the question. When we have encountered the king and his gracious mercy, when we have experienced the steadfast love of the Lord, then what? What happens after?

The slave goes out from the king’s office and, whistling his jaunty tune, continues the same story he’d been living before. His experience of grace does not translate into gratitude. He is not able to turn the mercy he has received into mercy he can share—he continues instead to work only for himself, to hoard what he has, and to insist others pay up too, no free lunches here. If the forgiveness is in his heart, it doesn’t show in his actions. Nothing has changed.

What about us? We receive incredible forgiveness, we sing about the love of God, we hear God’s word, we pray and we listen…and when we go out, has anything changed? Does it show? Are we transformed by the gift of grace, or are we still imprisoned even though the debt is forgiven?

Just as unpayable debt is no longer shocking to us, I wonder if grace is also no longer amazing to us. Perhaps we are indeed imprisoned, by our own familiarity. We have become so comfortable with bending things to fit our economic story that we cannot see how God’s generosity requires turning over a whole new chapter. 
The servant’s punishment was, in many ways, of his own making. He left an encounter with divine grace and continued to walk the same old path, and that is a torturous prison. What difference does grace make in our lives? How can people tell we have experienced this extravagant mercy? Even though the king has offered us a new page, a fresh start, it is difficult to imagine a new story.

We could be forgiven for not loving the outline Jesus gives of this new way of life. He says that we, who have experienced the generosity of God’s mercy, are to make different decisions, treat people differently, change the script and keep loving beyond reasonable limits. If we’re keeping score, we’re not offering the kind of forgiveness we have experienced.

Please note that forgiveness does not mean accepting bad behavior. While we are not to hold on to our resentment, nowhere does Jesus tell us to be nice at all costs, to be careful not to make anyone upset, or to insist on surface calm and uniformity. Instead he shows us how conflict can be an opportunity to grow in grace. Speak directly to one another, not about one another. If the person is still crossing boundaries, stirring the pot, hurting others, or refusing to even listen to other perspectives, then Jesus says we are to treat them like a Gentile or tax collector. Before we jump to the horror of excommunicating people, remember who Jesus hung out with and loved: tax collectors, sinners, and Gentiles. It is okay for us to trust Jesus’ love for those people whose behavior says that they have chosen not to live within the covenant community, for us to care for them as people made in God’s image—and yet not continue to treat them as if they are still committed to our communal life, with all the vulnerability, trust, and power that entails. To do so is unfair to the person and hurtful to the community.

This is a hard thing for those of us who want everyone to be happy, and yet it is the new story we are offered by God’s grace. This new story is not bound by the scarcity and fear that comes with poor boundaries and brushed-aside disagreement, but is instead a story of practice, of care, of hospitality, and of abundance. Because we have received so much, we are able to work toward a community where all can experience this mercy and love. Because we have been found and fed, we are able to follow even when the path seems hard. When we come face to face with all God has done for us, we can go out like the unforgiving servant, unable to integrate this new reality into our everyday lives, or we can go out the way Jesus teaches, changed by his love and ready to do the hard work of creating a community that shows the world what the kingdom of God looks like.

The season of Lent is often described as a season of repentance. To repent means to turn around and go a different way—to encounter grace beyond belief and let it change the course of our lives. This is an ongoing process not confined to these 40 days, of course. But this is a season when we walk this journey together with more attention than we might otherwise. This is a season when we encourage one another and hold one another accountable to the new path Christ has laid before us. This is a season when we don’t just encounter God’s amazing grace, but we anticipate it—we prepare, we look forward, we share, and most importantly, we stand out in front, transformed by the love we have known, ready to offer it to others, to pay it forward, to live in gratitude.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Blessed Salt--a sermon on Matthew 5

Rev. Teri Peterson
Blessed Salt
Matthew 5.1-20
1 February 2015, Epiphany 5, NL1-21

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 
 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For the past few weeks, I have watched as my pastor friends and study groups talked about the beatitudes all over the internet. There were conversations about translation, and whether the word “blessed” means today what it would have meant when Jesus said it. Some translations say “happy are those…” while other scholars suggest it should say “honored” or even “lucky.” Many people are uncomfortable at the thought of Jesus saying “Happy are those who mourn,” so we quickly dismiss that translation. 

And yet, isn’t there something to that? We are taught that these would be shocking words to those who first heard them, and we who know them so well are no longer even slightly moved at “blessed are those who mourn.” But Happy? It seems there might be a little bit of the “are you kidding me?” factor in that word.

Even as that discussion was happening, there were also people suggesting that the beatitudes are Jesus’ 10 commandments. Aside from the fact that there are nine beatitudes, of course. But the comparison was essentially that the 10 commandments were when God taught the Israelites how to be the chosen people, and the beatitudes are when Jesus teaches his followers how to be disciples.

I admit that I had a moment when I thought this comparison was intriguing. But after a day or two, I realized something:
The ten commandments prescribe action. We will worship the Lord our God and serve only him. We will honor the Sabbath, and our parents. We will not steal, lie, cheat, kill.
But the beatitudes seem to describe a reality beneath what we can see or do. Blessed Are the meek, grieving, hungry, poor, pure, peacemakers.

That’s when I had a realization: I think we have actually turned the beatitudes into commandments, or even a contest. Be meek, and inherit the earth. Be a peacemaker, and be called a child of God. Be pure in heart, and see God. Be poor, hungry, thirsty, and you will be filled. 

But that’s not what Jesus says. He doesn’t say “run out and be more poor, more meek, more pure, so you can be blessed.” He says “Blessed Are.”

This is one of those times that I think the traditional lectionary has gotten us in trouble. We have heard the beatitudes so often, but without the rest of the chapter. We have missed what Jesus said next, and so I wonder if we have also missed the explanation of these shocking words.

Just at the end of today’s reading, we hear Jesus say that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, or we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And because we have read scripture as if it is one set of commandments after another, we have believed the word “righteousness” to mean correctness, or purity, or even self-righteous. But the word righteousness is a relationship word, not a legal word. To be righteous is to be in right relationship with God. So Jesus says that we must have a relationship with God that exceeds that of the Pharisees, if we are to experience God’s kingdom.

The way Matthew tells it, the Pharisees have a relationship with the law, not with God. They have a relationship with the institution of which they are a part, not with God. They have a relationship with their standing in the community and the ways they can maintain it, not a relationship with God.

If we read with a relationship lens, what happens to the rest of today’s reading?

When we have a deep and good relationship with God, we will be blessed even as we recognize our poverty of spirit. Our relationship with God will sustain us in days of mourning, and will remind us that this life is not the end. A carefully cultivated relationship with God may very well cause us to grieve for the injustice of the world more than we already do, in fact, and those tears are God’s own. When we are in close relationship with God, we will know the extent of Christ’s mercy, and we will be merciful. And on and on—what if the beatitudes are a description of a life lived in close friendship with God? Just as later Paul will write that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control…nine fruits, incidentally…maybe the beatitudes are another way of describing the fruit of a with-God life?

Or perhaps the beatitudes are the salt of a with-God life. What happens if we read Jesus’ saying that we salt of the earth and light of the world through a relationship lens, rather than a rules lens? We know that salt and light exist not for themselves but to highlight other things—a little salt in a dish can make other flavors pop, and a little light in a dark room isn’t made to be looked at but rather to allow us to see other things. But what if these, too, are descriptions of the blessings of a with-God life? 

These are just as shocking, in their way, because our human nature, bolstered by our culture, tells us to get noticed. But to be light is to allow others to see the glory of God—not the glory of ourselves. To be salt is to allow others to taste Christ’s goodness, not our own usefulness or worthiness.

And more importantly, salt does something to people. Salt makes us thirsty. After a salty snack, we reach for the water.

did you catch that? 
You are the salt of the earth. 

We are the salt of the earth, the thing in this world that makes people thirst for living water.

Or are we?

When people encounter us outside this building, do they see the blessedness of a relationship with God? Do they get a taste of kingdom life from us and then long to come to the waters? Does our relationship with God make us salty enough that other people become thirsty? When we are the salt of the earth, we will be blessed in ways we could never imagine—though perhaps in ways we don’t want, if the beatitudes are any indication.

Or has our life with God become so habitual that we relegate it to the background, bringing it out only when we’re in crisis or in the sanctuary or when we’re doing the things we’ve always done? Have we lost the earth-shaking experience of God, just as we have lost the meaning of the word blessed?

How can our saltiness be restored?

Well, I suspect that depends on whether we want a relationship like that of the Pharisees—a relationship to the things that serve us—or a relationship like the one Jesus offers—a relationship with the living God who is here and now, active and moving, calling and feeding and seducing us every step of the journey.

A few weeks ago I invited all of us to jump-start our relationship with God by memorizing a bit of the word. Let the word dwell in you richly, Paul wrote to the Colossians—and to us. This is where a deep, fruitful, blessed, salty relationship with God begins. Not with keeping the rules perfectly, but with loving God enough to want to know the word and allow it to bear fruit in our lives. 

May that fruit be a blessed salt that makes the world thirsty for living water.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

By Heart--a sermon on Matthew 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
By Heart
Matthew 4.1-17
18 January 2015, Epiphany 3, NL1-20

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

When I was 17, I moved to Chicago for college. A few months after my 18th birthday, some friends invited me to a concert at their church, and then when I went to that, they invited me to a service as well. I went with them, then again by myself, and then found myself at a new members’ class, all before I really understood what had drawn me there. I had read the Bible from a literature perspective, but had never been to church before, except once in high school to play the clarinet with a handbell choir.

When I met with the pastor about joining and discovered I’d have to be baptized, I nearly backed out. I asked if I could do it, but tell my parents later. I hesitated. Obviously I did tell parents—and that went fine, much to my surprise. And one April morning I found myself in a navy blue dress and white cardigan, kneeling on the cold marble steps of a neoGothic cathedral. That day my pastor gave me a new Bible. It has continued to be my favorite even though I have probably a dozen more between my home and office—some more compact, some more grown-up looking, some with better footnotes, some in different translations. But this Bible has been the one that has seen me through my entire Christian life so far.

Almost immediately I began a practice that I continue even now. As I am reading, if I come across something I want to remember, I write it on a purple index card, and I stick the card in the spot, almost like a bookmark. Every now and then I take several cards out and carry them around for a while, almost like flashcards. Then occasionally I put those back and take others out. It’s one of the ways I try to implant the word of God in my psyche.

You probably have other ways. Some of you may have gone to Sunday School during a time when memorization was a key teaching strategy. Others of you may have accidentally memorized things simply by virtue of reading them so many times, or hearing them in church so frequently. Maybe some of you have photographic memories and you can’t help but remember what you read. Maybe some of you don’t have anything memorized, and yet I know you have a sense of some of the important things in God’s word.

The prophet Jeremiah said that God would write the word on our hearts. What does it look like to know God’s word by heart? Not by rote, but by heart?

I think it might look like our reading today. Now, I don’t want to compare myself or anyone else to Jesus when it comes to having the word of God by heart, but since we are all on a path to becoming more Christlike, it seems we should take this seriously.

While he was still dripping from the river, the Spirit descended on Jesus and God’s voice proclaimed that Jesus is God’s beloved son. Then that same Spirit led Jesus away from the river and the gaping crowds and John’s questions, into the wilderness. There, in the desert, he will meet his adversary.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the tempter’s first words, after Jesus has fasted for forty days in the desert, are about food. After all, when I haven’t eaten for four hours the tempter is right at my shoulder.
“Since you are God’s son…turn this stone into a loaf of bread.”

The temptation to self-sufficiency is great. I am sure I’m not the only one who falls into the trap of thinking I can do it myself.

But Jesus has the word of God by heart. He has a relationship with God that can be relied upon—after all, he’s already trusted God to bring him through 40 days without food in the desert. From his heart, he is able to say “I am not actually self-sufficient. I stand on God’s promise, not on my own power. I am dependent on God, and to say I could depend only on myself is folly. Man does not live by bread alone.”

So the tempter tries a different tack. “Since you are God’s son, throw yourself off the Temple, for the scriptures say that angels will bear you up and God will not let you dash your foot against a stone.”

In the midst of difficulty, it’s easy to make bargains with God. To think “If God really loved me, then he would __fill in the blank__.”  Especially for someone who has so recently felt the Spirit on his shoulder and heard the voice of God declaring him beloved…what would be the harm in showing that off just a little? Doesn’t he deserve a little acclaim after this suffering in the wilderness? What if everyone has forgotten his baptism by the time he leaves the desert? This is a great chance to prove that what they heard was true. I mean, it would be good for both God and Jesus in the end, right? It’s a great bargain.

But Jesus knows that even if everyone else forgets his baptism, he remembers. He does not need to bargain with God, because the word is already written on his heart. He does not need to give in to the tempter’s misuse of scripture, because he can see the difference between letting the word dwell in you richly and using the word for your own purposes. So he says simply that scripture tells us not to put the Lord our God to the test…and to twist scripture to test God is a misuse, not a faithful use.

Seeing that the temptation to self-sufficiency and the temptation to bargain and cement his fame have failed, the tempter goes for the big grand finale. “All the kingdoms of the world” he promises Jesus, if only you will worship me.

Not just fame and fortune, but power as well. To possess all the kingdoms of the world…but in so doing, lose the kingdom of heaven. Jesus knows, better than we do, that his calling is to embody God’s kingdom and to cause it to come here on earth. Is he willing to trade that work—the teaching, the healing, the slow-to-understand disciples, the arguments with Pharisees and Sadducees, the crown of thorns and the cross?

The shortcut often looks pretty attractive. I mean, maybe if he took the offer, he could then be a sort of double agent, bringing all those kingdoms into God’s realm without having to first win them over. Plus he’d be very powerful along the way.

But Jesus knows that good intentions are no substitute for faithful following of God’s good call. From the depths of his heart, he can feel God’s word growing and growing, calling him to take up his cross, because that is the way to win kingdoms. The power of God is not like the power of the world, and every time we fall into the trap of worldly power, we need to know that we may very well be trading away kingdom power.

Jesus resists yet again the option of doing it his own way, and reminds his adversary that he worships and serves God alone. No matter how tempting it is to create his own light, he knows his job is to shine the light of God.

How does he know? It’s easy to say “well, he’s Jesus, so he already knows how this is all going to go, and what he’s supposed to do, and he is the word of God, and he is God, so of course he has scripture by heart.” I’ve said those things…and I also think they are the tempter speaking to and through us, trying to convince us that because we are not Jesus, we don’t need to be so scrupulous in our relationship with God. It’s okay to trust ourselves or worldly power or a bargain sometimes, because we can’t possibly be as good at resisting temptation as Jesus…

But we can. It won’t be easy, of course, but then neither was fasting in the desert for forty days. Neither was dealing with the disciples as well as the Pharisees. The path of transformation into more and more Christlikeness will not be simple or painless. Neither was carrying the cross. Jesus never said the way would be easy. But he did say that he would be with us, that when we are carrying his burden we will find it light, that the Spirit will be our Advocate when we are faced with the Adversary.

This is the relationship we want to nurture. To learn to trust God, not only believe in God, is a lifelong process. It begins with having the word by heart, not only because then it’s always ready when you need it, but also because to truly know God’s word is a sign of how important it is to us. We know by heart all kinds of things that matter—our address and phone number and social security number and email address and passwords, birthdays and anniversaries. We also know by heart all kinds of things that don’t matter much—song lyrics and movie quotes and jokes we first heard 20 years ago. What would it take to add some scripture to our hearts? And more importantly, why do we resist the idea?

What would happen if we really made an effort to know some of God’s word by heart? Not just to have it in our minds, not just to be able to google it, but to know it—even just a few verses—so well that they live in us, become a part of us.

Besides deepening our relationship with God, and giving us something to rely on in the midst of life, it might also be like a compass, telling us when we are about to give in to the tempter and his offers of self-sufficiency, of ego, of worldly power and wealth. The adversary threw his most impressive pitches at Jesus—the very things we humans all struggle with, like independence rather than interdependence, proving ourselves to others rather than remembering who we are and who God is, and the dream of an easy path to millions rather than the harder struggle to the kingdom of God, where our true treasure lies.

So this is the challenge: this week, choose a bit of God’s word. It might be just a couple of verses that you have read recently, or that you turn to again and again, or that you discover as you search for something that speaks to you in this moment of your life. It should be something you haven’t already memorized, that’s cheating! If you would like recommendations, or help finding something you are thinking of, I’m happy to help. And then do whatever it takes—write it over and over by hand, read it silently and out loud many times a day, draw a picture, post it on every surface in your house, car, and office, cross-stitch it for a sampler or pillow, set a reminder to pop up the verses on your phone, quiz each other at home, set it to music, or whatever way you learn best. Learn part of God’s word by heart. Let the word dwell in you richly, and see what fruit you might bear for God’s kingdom because of it. Rather than creating the light, be a bearer of Christ’s light. And know that when we stand on God’s word, the tempter will never prevail.

May it be so. Amen.