Saturday, December 20, 2014

Emmanuel--a sermon for Advent 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Matthew 1.18-25
21 December 2014, Advent 4, NL1-16

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

On Monday this week, the world watched as a fundamentalist terrorist took people hostage inside a café in Sydney, Australia for a harrowing 16 hours. In the middle of that 16 hours, a woman named Rachel Jacobs used Facebook and Twitter to tell how she saw a Muslim woman on the train remove her headscarf, presumably afraid to be in public as a Muslim woman while a man misusing her religion was all over the news.
From that tweet, a movement was born. The hashtag #Illridewithyou took off, as people used it to offer to accompany Muslims who were afraid that they would be targets because of this one deranged person’s actions. Throughout the week, people sat next to strangers on busses and in taxis, offered rides, and walked to places they did not need to go.

As this all happened, I was reminded of the revolution in Egypt in 2011, and in particular of how when the call to prayer sounded in the streets of Cairo, the crowds of protestors would divide into rows of Muslim men praying, encircled by Christian and non-religious people facing outward, holding hands, protecting them.

And then I thought about the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Colombia accompaniment program. You may know that Colombia has been torn apart by war. Fighting between various factions of rebels and government-supported guerilla groups, including kidnappings, murders, and mass displacements of people from their lands has been going on for more than a decade. Ten years ago, the Presbyterian Church in Colombia asked us for help, because people advocating for the displaced people and working for an end to the drug trade that funds the fighting were being targeted. Since 2004, Presbyterians from the US have been spending a month at a time in Colombia, going everywhere with church and community leaders, just being present. It is tangible solidarity, as well as providing a measure of safety. It’s a gift of hope and help in the midst of the hard and grief-filled work.

And I thought of the two pastors serving the church I was attending at the time my mother died. The night I found out, one of them called and spoke to me about her parents for a few minutes. The other showed up in my living room with cookies and tissues, and sat with me in my shock, and then with my housemates as they tried to figure out how to help me.

I only have fond memories of one of those pastors.

To be present is a powerful thing. We often underestimate the importance of just showing up, thinking we have to know the right thing to say. Or thinking we have to know everything that is going on before we can pick up the phone or show up at the door. We forget that presence is a real gift, and we end up keeping it to ourselves instead of sharing.

Meanwhile, today’s scripture reading contains something else we often gloss over or forget. We have been so trained to not notice, that even I didn’t realize just how powerful a statement Matthew was making until someone asked me a question earlier this week.

The angel appears to Joseph and tells him to stick with Mary, even though that is against every possibly cultural rule. Joseph was already being overly nice by not having her stoned in the street, and now he was being asked to make a life with her….to ride with her, to protect her, to accompany her, to show up and be there. In the midst of the instructions, the angel tells Joseph “and you shall name the child Jesus, for he will save his people.” It’s not just their baby to ooh and ah over, to teach to walk and read and laugh and cry, to dress in special holiday outfits and to introduce to the grandparents, but a baby born for a whole people. Already, Joseph and Mary have to share, and the baby isn’t even born yet. And the name Jesus—Yesu—means “God saves.”

Then in the next sentence, Matthew explains why this is important, by quoting the prophet Isaiah regarding a child that shall be born, and he shall be named Emmanuel, which means God is With Us.

The question I was asked this week was: why does the angel say to name him Jesus, but the prophet says his name will be Emmanuel?

We are so used to singing the carols and using a variety of titles for Jesus that most of us don’t even think about this, but for those who haven’t been immersed in the story before, it does seem odd. Two sentences, two names, two reasons, no explanation. Thanks a lot, Matthew.

If we back up to the first half of chapter 1, good old Matt does actually set the scene, but in a way that few of us can pronounce, so again we gloss right over. For 17 verses, Matthew gives a detailed genealogy so full of people that if we were to read it this morning, Kathy would be giving me the side-eye while the rest of you glazed over.

I confess I have always loved the genealogies, though I’m not sure I could put my finger on why. I think it has something to do with being connected to these ancestors in the faith—knowing that I am not the first nor the last to walk this path with God, but rather part of a long line of God’s people. Then I read a story that brought me up short. I hardly ever tell other people’s stories in my sermons, but this one bears telling in its entirety. It is “about a missionary who worked some years ago among a very primitive group of people in Papua New Guinea. The missionary worked as a translator of the Bible. His world and the world of those for whom he translated the scriptures were very different. To help bridge these worlds the missionary translator always worked with a language helper. First the missionary would make his translation. Next he would share his translation with his helper. If the language helper thought the translation was adequate he would in turn read it to his people to get their reactions to the material.

“One day the missionary showed some photographs of places in the Holy Land to the people in order to help them understand. The people were surprised that the events of Jesus' life took place here on earth. They had thought the stories about Jesus were stories about the spirit world. Then an even more astonishing event took place. The missionary was translating one of the four gospels. The genealogy, the long list of Jesus’ family tree, given in the gospel seemed to the
missionary to be quite irrelevant and beside the point. But he translated it any way. Next he read his translation of the genealogy to his language helper expecting him to be bored to death with the long list of the names of Jesus’ ancestors.

“The helper, however, was not bored at all. Instead, he promptly announced to the missionary that a very important meeting should be held that night so that the missionary might read today's translation to as many people as possible. When evening came the house was full. The missionary had never seen so many people attend a Bible reading before. The language helper asked the missionary to read his translation for the day. The missionary began to read name after name after name. "Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar..."

“As he read he realized that something strange was happening. The crowd was crisply attentive. They closed in upon him as he read. He was actually afraid they might crush him. He was afraid that what he was reading must have offended some ritual taboo about which he knew nothing. Perhaps they were angry with him. And he had no way to escape. He forced himself to keep on reading the names.

“When he had finished reading one of the men said to him: "Why didn't you tell us all this before? No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings. It is only real people who keep track of their genealogy." "Jesus must be a real person!" another voice cried in astonishment. "His genealogy is longer than ours!", cried out another. Still another said, "Jesus must have been a real man on this earth. He's not just white man's magic!" “ [1]

Jesus Emmanuel—God saves, by being with us. God entered the human story, has a genealogy, sits beside us on the bus,. Not just another story, not just in some heaven light years away, but here, in this place, now, in this life, with this body, in the flesh: we are saved by presence. This is not two different names Matthew gives us, nor even a name and a title—it is a description of exactly the kind of gift God gives: the gift of presence, and presence saves.

And we are made in the image of God, called to become more Christ-like…what if we too gave the gift of presence? What if we embodied God-With-Us, allowing the Spirit to use our bodies to be good news for those who are lonely, those who are afraid, those who are sick, those who are grieving, those who are imprisoned, those who are oppressed?

Yesu Emmanuel—God saves, by being with us. May we, like Joseph and Mary, participate in God’s work. Amen.

[1] Tales for the Pulpit, C, Richard Jensen

Monday, December 08, 2014

subversive joy--a reflection for December 14 (Advent 3)

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Luke 1.47-55

I wonder how much Christmas Cheer Mary and Joseph had that first Advent. Mary, an unmarried teenager suddenly pregnant; Joseph a man who’ll be supporting a family before he even pays for a wedding, both of them in a small village where everyone will know their scandal before lunch, in a culture where Mary’s choice to say “Yes” to God could easily have gotten her killed. Yet in the midst of that, she sings! “My spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has done great things for me. He has fed the hungry and lifted up the lowly, and holy is his name.”

Or the prophet Isaiah, looking around at the ruined city his people were hoping to rebuild, trying to preach to people of fair-weather-faith, proclaiming that God has promised to plant them in fertile ground so they can grow into oaks of righteousness that glorify the Lord, offering a vision of justice and joy.

If anyone had reason to mask their fear with cheerfulness, it was these three, yet they sing joyfully instead! As Dr. Margaret Aymer, Old Testament Professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center, said, “Joy is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to be scared and sad” (twitter conversation 12/10/11). I would add that it’s an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us to hide our true selves behind the shallow sad-mad-glad. Joy is well beyond anything our culture, our possessions, our country, our media, or even our relationships can give us. Joy comes from one place: seeking God. And, in Isaiah it seems that God has even shown us the way to joy: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to release the captives…to comfort the mourning…to rebuild, restore, renew…I the Lord love justice…”

Could it be that the way to know the joyful fruit of the Spirit is to practice? Not to gaze heavenward, anticipating something better; not to turn away from suffering because it’s depressing and ugly; but instead to get more grounded, reach to our roots, push down into the earth and let God grow in us like a seed…to live fully into our calling as anointed ones, the body of Christ, made to bring grace to a world in need, to shine light into a world of darkness.

Is it possible that the way to joy—to real Christmas Spirit—is through being more fully who God has called us to be, in the place God has called us? Is it possible that Christmas Joy comes from being the site of God’s incarnation? Maybe when we bear Christ into the world, the way Mary bore Christ in her body, when we don’t just speak good news but ARE good news, when we are creators of justice, then we will also find joy—joy beyond mere cheer, joy that is grounded and growing, joy that is subversive and holy.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

the best laid plans...

...sometimes have to be sacrificed for sleep.

I had a super profound blog post for today, I swear. But it will have to wait, because I've been fighting to stay awake for an hour already, so I'm about to take my super lame old-lady self to bed before 9...and before I fall asleep on the couch and wake up with a stiff neck and all the lights still on.

If I manage to keep blogging into December, then you can look for the post I think was going to be so profound. I'll mix it in with some kitty news and food pictures, so you can find it easily. ha.

happy last day of we slide headlong into winter, may your holiday season (whichever holiday you may celebrate) be bright. Especially since it's so dark outside.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Vision--a sermon for Advent 1, on Habakkuk

Rev. Teri Peterson
Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.2-4, 3.17-19
30 November 2014, NL1-13
Advent 1

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

How long, O Lord?

Sometimes I have said it as a joke—waiting for the end of winter even though it’s only November, watching the cookies that never seem to turn golden brown, listening to the cat sneezing and coughing in the middle of the night.

How long, O Lord?

The psalmist says “how long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?”

But the prophet wants to know “how long, O Lord, will I cry for help and you will not listen?”

It hurts—to feel forgotten, to feel ignored.

It hurts—to walk through life wondering if anything really matters.

Sometimes I have prayed “how long, O Lord?” in deadly seriousness—as people I loved suffered from cancer, as the shadow of death lengthened, as violence seemed unending. How long, O Lord? Will grief go on forever? Will your people ever find peace?

The prophet has watched the destruction of the northern kingdom, and he sees the armies coming for Jerusalem. He sees that if God doesn’t do something, then God’s people are going to be carried away, God’s temple reduced to rubble, and God’s promises left unfulfilled.

And so he prays: How long, O Lord? Everything is coming out wrong. The systems that are supposed to protect people are hurting them, the ways of justice are creating injustice, and nothing seems to be turning out right.

Sometimes, scripture hits a little too close to home, doesn’t it?

We too live in a world that seems wrong. Systems that are supposed to protect are hurting, and justice has been lost in the shuffle. The idea of God’s kingdom where every single life is equally valuable seems more like a pipe dream than a promise. Instead of abundant life, we have people afraid to leave their homes. Instead of justice, we have pre-judging and stereotyping on every side. Instead of peace, we have fear and anger.

How long, O Lord? Why do we see so much violence, so much wrongdoing? Why do some of us matter more than others? When will your kingdom come? Why won’t you come and save us?

The answer Habakkuk gets, and the answer we get, has nothing to do with plucking us out of this world and making us comfortable in heaven. We don’t get a promise of ease and wealth, a promise of effortless and meaningless peace. Instead God gives instructions—we are going to have to be partners in creating a new reality. We cannot sit by while our children are killed in the streets, while all officers are painted with the same brush, while dark skin equals dangerous and power is separated from responsibility. As we cry out How Long O Lord, God cries back—how long, my people? How long, O Body of Christ? How long will you insist on your ways, close your eyes to my vision, close your ears to my call? How long will you put up with children dying? How long will you explain away inequity? How long will you determine someone’s worth by their gender, their religion, their skin color, their sexual orientation, their wealth, their accent, their address? How long will you turn my words to your advantage? How long will you seek first for your self, rather than first the kingdom of God?

This is the call from God, issued in answer to the prophet and to us:

Write the vision. Make it plain, like a billboard, so even in passing it can be seen. If the vision seems far off and unattainable, keep working while you wait. The kingdom will come, and your work will be part of it.

If we are going to display God’s vision so that all can see, then first we need to be clear about what God’s vision is. So what is it? What is God’s vision for the kingdom that comes here on earth as it is in heaven?

(conversation in the pews)

This vision, you’ll notice, is not primarily about what we think. It’s about what we do. Faith is not an answer, it is an action—and our faithful action is like a billboard flashing God’s vision for the world. How we live matters. What we say matters. What we eat matters. How we respond to the news matters. How we treat our neighbors, whether they live next door or hundreds of miles away, matters. If we are not displaying the vision, who is?

Or more to the point—if we are not displaying God’s vision, then what vision are we displaying? Because our lives are our message. What story are we telling—a story of God’s love, a story of a creation God called good and people made in God’s image, a story of grace and hope and peace, a story of justice that seeks the greater good? Do we tell a story of being found and fed, and then paying forward that grace? Or some other story that we have created to serve our own interests instead?

This is not an easy calling. The prophet knows that to live by God’s vision will be hard work, and it will be unpopular. And yet he rejoices, even in the midst of the difficulty, because he knows that when we pursue God’s vision, we are not alone and we do not do it under our own power. When we fill our eyes with what God sees, then our clumsy feet become like the feet of deer—sure and light at the same time, able to find a foothold even in uncertain terrain, even on the sides of mountains and across pock-marked valleys. We can cross any obstacle as long as we keep our eyes fixed on God’s way. Write the vision, make it plain, so everyone can see it, and rejoice in God’s faithfulness.

May be it be so. Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2014

all the things

I have officially eaten all the things, both at my own house (deviled eggs, tofurkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, crescent rolls) and at a friend's house (cheesy potatoes, cheesy green bean casserole, veggie stuffing, cheesecake brûlée). I have also played games, petted both cats and dogs, laughed uproariously, and had serious conversations about politics, race, the meaning of justice, scripture, and the history of cuckoo clocks.

I have struggled with what to say about the justice situation in this country. I am distressed by how easily we dismiss the suffering of others. I am angry about how little we value life in all its fullness. I am saddened by the divide that seems more cavernous than ever. Part of me hesitates to write what I think, because I recognize that I have the privilege of not engaging. And another part of me wants desperately to cry out alongside my fellow human beings, insisting that our voices be heard. I am not certain of the best way to say what, honestly, so many people are saying without anyone paying attention. I am not certain of how to use my privilege in this conversation and movement.

But here is what I know:
We are created in the image of God. Not just some of us, all of us. To throw even one life away is a tragedy. To put that dead life on trial without the benefit of openness, defense, cross-examination, or discussion of what evidence might mean is a perversion of humanity, as well as a gross misuse of our American justice system. To stereotype everyone in a profession, or a neighborhood, or a skin color because of one person is short-sighted and ridiculous.

Every act of violence hurts more than just the person who is injured or killed. Not only is life lost, but  the soul of the perpetrator is also damaged. A family is torn apart. A community grieves.

Every time.

Every Michael Brown, every Darren Wilson--one lost his life, the other his humanity. And we who look on with indifference: we lose our humanity too.

How long will we put up with this? How long will we stand by as people are killed for the slightest things? (no matter what you think of Michael Brown, tell me how you justify the 12 year old boy with a toy gun being shot on sight. tell me how you justify the kid on the playground. tell me how you justify the kid in the stairs of his apartment building. tell me how you justify the guy being choked to death on the street. and the hundreds of others happening every day.)

How long will we allow death to take hold, both physically and spiritually? How long will we avert our eyes from grieving mothers, traumatized siblings, friends and classmates who see no other way out than to fight back?

We who have the privilege of ignoring the situation have created the situation. When will we be part of the solution rather than perpetuating the problem? When will we stop insisting that life is a zero sum game, and instead learn that we're in it together--and that when one part of the body suffers, all suffer together with it?

Today, as I am stuffed with potatoes, I am also hungry--with those who are starving and with those who hunger for justice. Today, as I snuggle into my warm bed, I am also cold and alone--with those who are on the streets, forgotten and overlooked. Today, as I laugh with friends, I am also grieving--with those who see no light shining in the darkness. I hope you are too.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

oops...missed a day!

Yesterday I wasn't quite ready to write a sermon, so I spent the day reading novels.

Yes, novelS, plural. I read two whole books yesterday. Both historical fiction about more a romance novel and the other a well researched imaginative retelling about Napoleon's American sister-in-law whom he refused to recognize.

I also took a nap.

Between these three things, I didn't go to bed until about 1am...and because I was busy reading, I forgot to blog!

So November will go down as ALMOST NaBloPoMo. Hopefully I can manage to get something up the next few days, and there will be just the one lost day.

I have to say--if I'm going to miss a day, I'm glad to have missed it for a day spent in my pajamas, petting cats and reading novels. I am grateful for the leisure to take a whole day without any productivity, for a home that holds heat well, for blankets and more clothes than I need, for cats who snuggle and purr, for plenty of food.

Today: a sermon. I swear. And also Tofurkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, garlic butter crescent rolls... (and who knows, maybe some kind of actual vegetable will happen too.)

There may also be deviled eggs. Because yum.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Getting Ready

it's almost Advent--the season of getting ready.

but before that, there's other stuff to get ready for.


I am in possession of potatoes. and butter. and milk.

I also have french cut green beans, campbell's cream of mushroom, and french's french fried onions.

I have a library book.

I have blankets.

I have cookies.

I have cinnamon rolls.

I'm ready.

Good thing, because let me just tell you, everyone in Crystal Lake was at Jewel today at 5:30pm. The entire parking lot was full and every aisle of the store was packed. I can't even imagine what it'll be like tomorrow.

Sadly, Jewel was all out of sermons on Habakkuk.
(guess what I'll be doing while everyone else is last-minute shopping, making pies, and frantically cleaning their houses for family visits?)