Sunday, June 21, 2020

Pull up the stakes -- a sermon on Genesis 12

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Pull up the stakes
Genesis 12.1-9 (NRSV)
21 June 2020, Postcards of Faith 1

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This summer we are going on a church family holiday — though we can’t physically go away this year, we can still travel spiritually! And we can still tend our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing along the way. Members of the church have been walking, running, cycling, praying, reading scripture, and serving others to move us along this journey. Adding up every kilometre we’ve moved our bodies, and every ten minutes we’ve spent nurturing our relationship with God and God’s people, we’ve already managed to get ourselves to the border between Hungary and Romania! 

I don’t know about you, but whenever I plan to travel to a new place, I like to look things up to see what to expect. So I spent a few minutes looking into what sorts of food we might eat in Romania — cabbage rolls are apparently very popular. I looked at the satellite images and saw a lot of farm fields. I looked at pictures of the architecture of the villages near the border and saw beautiful, colourful, old churches and homes. I looked at photos of the national park that we would be passing through right now if we were walking the journey in person, and marvelled at how much it looked like the Cairngorms. I’ve never been to Romania before, and everything I knew about it really came from watching gymnastics competitions, so it was an interesting place to learn a little bit about! 

When God spoke to Abram and Sarai and told them to go on this journey, leaving their country, their birthplace, their family home in order to be a blessing to those they meet, to the community, to the whole world…they didn’t get a chance to google first. They didn’t ask for more information, or for photos of where they were going, they just packed up everything and went.

And we do mean they packed up everything! Clothes, bedding, cooking utensils, work tools, animals, people, and even their tents. They left behind the place they had known their whole lives, and their parents and siblings and cousins, taking only their nephew whose father had died tragically young. Off they went, not really knowing where they were going, or how long it would take, or what it would be like when they arrived. 

In every place they went, they would rebuild their home: pitch tents, lay out bedding, set up a kitchen, pasture the animals, and build an altar. And when it was time to move on, they packed it all up again. This week, I learned that the original Hebrew doesn’t say “moved on” but rather literally “pulled up stakes.” They pulled up stakes and went to the next place. It’s a reminder of just how much work we’re talking about for this journey into the unknown: they have to physically and emotionally uproot their home in order to follow where God is leading them. Each time, perhaps they wonder if this is it…they pound the stakes into the ground…and then after a while, pull them up again. That’s what it means to journey on by stages, to put the stakes in, and then take them out. To build a village of tents, and then fold all that canvas again and tie it to a donkey or a camel. To unpack jars and pots, and then carefully roll them in blankets and pack them up so they won’t break along the way. To set up a spinning wheel and loom and make new clothes and bedding and tents, and then put them away again. To set up an altar and meet God there…and then to leave the altar behind as a witness to the encounter between human and divine.

You would definitely learn to live with only the essentials!

I wonder if there is something for us to learn, though many of us have lived in the same place, or even the same house, for years. Not necessarily about our material things, though that always bears thinking about. But today I’m wondering more about our metaphorical journey through this time. We’ve been called out from our comfortable place, and we don’t really know where we are going. We packed up everything and moved into the unknown world of online worship, virtual afternoon tea, and connecting without seeing each other. The “new normal” is still ahead of us and we aren’t sure what it will be like…all we can do is trust that God will show us, just as God promised to show Abram and Sarai their new homeland.

I wonder, though, if when they pulled up the stakes, were they tempted to go back? Were they tempted to go back to where they knew the lay of the land, and the people, and they could re-build their village and resume their old habits and not have to worry about moving on to the next thing?

I know we certainly are tempted that way!

But instead it says they journeyed on, in stages. Pulling up stakes, and pounding them in. Without even the benefit of google to show them what the landscape looked like or what sorts of foods they should try. Every time they set up camp it would have been slightly different than the one before — different landscape means different organisation of tents and pastures and workspaces, perhaps different arrangements inside their sleeping spaces to take advantage of different light or wind. And I suspect every time they pulled up stakes, they decided on something else that didn’t need to make the next stage of the journey — something whose value wasn’t worth the weight or space or effort of bringing it along. Putting down stakes, and pulling them up…on, and on, because God called them forward into something new, and promised that in them and through them, the entire world would be blessed. 

In these days when we have left behind the comfortable ways of being church, the familiar routines and rituals, we have had to learn to build altars wherever we are — to encounter God in our homes, or out on a walk, or in phone conversations, or even over the internet. As we journey on by stages, each time we pull up stakes there’ll be temptation to go back, to settle into old familiar ways. But God is showing us something else…if we are traveling light enough to see it and follow. What things are necessary to take with us? What things are weighing us down and making it harder to move? What markers can we leave behind as a witness to the encounter between human and divine?

Abram and Sarai clearly expected to meet God everywhere they went — otherwise, why build an altar in every camp? And they expected God to lead them onward, stage by stage. Otherwise, why pull up the stakes?

If we, too, expect to meet God everywhere we go, and if we expect God to lead us onward, stage by stage, or phase by phase, we might even say, then perhaps we, too, can be confident enough to pull up the stakes. To leave behind some of the things that have served us well in the past but are not necessary to this part of the journey, and find new ways of living and worshipping and witnessing and serving. We don’t know exactly where we’re going, or how long the journey will be. We do know that the reason behind the journey is to become a blessing to others, perhaps even those we will never meet, and we do know that we are not alone. So we must go forward, step by step.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

a legacy of love -- a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
A Legacy of Love
1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13 (NRSV)
24 May 2020, NL2-37 text, Easter 7 (easter theme: witness apprenticeship programme)


But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
~~~~~~~~~

Throughout the Easter season we have been learning alongside the apostles about how to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Our apprenticeship programme has included lessons in making eye contact and really seeing people, in having an abundance mindset, in being a praying community, and in having a teachable spirit. Now here we are in the last week of the season, the final lesson before we are sent out from our apprenticeships to put all our new skills into practice in the world.

What better lesson to end with than this? Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Love is like the foundation of our pyramid. Picture something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with food, water, shelter, and safety at the base — they have to be in place before a person can give their energy to things farther up, like relationships or education or self confidence. In this case, it’s Love that is the base of this hierarchy. Without the base, nothing else is possible. Any efforts at using gifts of knowledge or prophecy or even faith will fall flat if we haven’t built on a foundation of love.

And God is Love, according to 1 John chapter 4, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. So if we are not building on a foundation of Love, we have actually built a foundation on something other than God — a foundation that will wash away when the storms come.

These are words that are often read at weddings, to mark the beginning of a new phase of commitment in a relationship. But they were actually written to a community that was well on in their life together, and it was falling apart. The church in Corinth was conflicted, divided, and frustrated. There were divisions over socio-economic status, background, worship style preferences, and theology. And there was conflict over who was most gifted, or who had better gifts and talents than others. They had trouble even sitting at the same table for the Lord’s Supper. It was a church family pulling apart at the seams.

That’s the community to whom Paul writes that there is a still more excellent way, and this is that way: Love.

Not love the warm fuzzy feeling, not the kind of love that’s printed on a greeting card or expressed in a box of chocolates. This is love that is active and hard working — it is actively patient, making room for the different experiences of others; it is actively kind, doing for others as we would have done for us. This is love that refuses to keep a mental catalogue of past grievances, that never seeks our own advancement at the expense of others, that does not make sport of differences or even jokingly rejoice in an enemy’s bad fortune. This is love that carries the weight of relationship, refusing to lay it aside only for convenience or personal preference, that looks forward and insists on faithfulness.

And God is Love.

What incredible news, that God is like this! How different from the way so many people think of God. But this is indeed the God who looked at the creation and called it good, who led the people out of slavery and into freedom, who guided the Israelites through the wilderness even when they moaned every day of those 40 years, who insists on justice for the poor, the immigrant, and the marginalised, who took on flesh in Jesus and lived among us, gathering all sorts of people from all sorts of places, touching lepers and blessing children and feeding the hungry and forgiving the people who crucified him and commissioning women to tell the good news of the empty tomb. God is love: actively patient and kind, making room for all kinds of experiences, carrying the weight of relationship, refusing to keep a note of past infractions, being faithful.

And we are made in the image of God.

As people we spend a lot of time crafting our image, deciding what is important and building a life. 
All those other things the Corinthians valued…all those other things we value…all those things we think define us, that we use to craft that image and build that life…knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, communication skills, awards, talents, work…all those things will come to an end. They are all temporary, however much we might like to think they’re permanent. But love never ends. Love lives on long after we do. Love comes from God, and calls us to God and each other, and existed before creation and will exist long after. And after all, what’s left after we are gone? People may remember our achievements, our skills and talents, for a time. But our most enduring legacy is love — or lack of it. The mark we leave on the world begins and ends with love. 

That’s true for individuals and for communities — Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by how we love. That should be the marker of the Church here and now, and that will be our legacy.

And if we have not love, we are nothing.

Without love, we are nothing, have nothing, do nothing.

Indeed, without love, Paul says, we are a distraction. A noisy gong, a clanging cymbal — something that could be part of the ensemble, making music together, calling people to attention, but instead just pointlessly rattles about, drawing people away from the truth rather than toward it.

Sometimes I think we have built on some other foundation, not love. Sometimes a foundation of preferences, of traditions, of fiscal realities, of rules and regulations, of cultural baggage…there are many possible foundations, but they aren’t the base of the hierarchy of needs for the Body of Christ. And so we have distracted people from the good news of God’s grace and power, from Jesus’ saving work, from the Spirit’s continual call, because without love all our words are just noise. 

How will people see our faith? How will they know the God we proclaim? How will they know the love and the call from Jesus? 

By our love.

Patient and kind, making room for people to come with all their quirks and foibles, different experiences and needs.
Not arrogant or rude, not insisting on our own way.
Not keeping track of the things of the past.
Bearing burdens together, not leaving some to carry them for our desires to be easily and cheaply met.
Enduring together, not abandoning some as if they are disposable.
Holding faith and hope together, not resigning ourselves to injustice because it’s too difficult to tackle.

We don’t understand everything — we see as if through a mirror or a dark glass. But that is no excuse for withholding love. We do not have to know fully in order to love! Indeed, we might even say that as we continue to build on love, we will see ever more…without it, we will always have only the tiniest sliver of understanding. It’s only by loving that we learn to love more, just as we learn any other skill by practicing it. That’s how we grow up and mature in faith, by ensuring a strong base and then practicing love, not just in the easy moments but in the difficult ones as well.

So as our apprenticeship comes to an end, the work of witnessing begins…and though we may not feel as prepared as we would like, neither did the disciples who stood on that mountaintop hearing Jesus commission them. But we don’t have to know everything in order to build from a foundation of love, to act in love, to speak in love, to live in love, to leave a legacy of love. All those other lessons matter, but this one matters most, and without love all the others fade away. 

Now faith, hope, and love abide….and the greatest of these, the largest, the chief, the base of the hierarchy of needs, the foundation without which nothing else can be…is love.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, May 18, 2020

A Teachable Spirit -- a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter 2020

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
A Teachable Spirit
Acts 17.1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10 (NRSV)
17 May 2020, Easter 6 (NL2-35) — Easter theme: Witness Apprenticeship Programme

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

Did you catch what happened there? It’s something that’s actually still happening a lot these days, but it’s sometimes difficult to recognise it when we’re in the middle of everything.

The people who gathered the mob and set the city in an uproar accused the people they were attacking of turning the world upside down. And the ones who were accused, who were not the ones in the mob but rather the ones dragged out of their own house by the mob, ended up in jail and having to pay bail to get out, while the ones who started the riot went away with no consequences.

How often do we see these situations where some people are accusing others of the very thing they are actually the ones doing? 

It’s an interesting accusation: these people have been turning the world upside down. They say there is another king besides the emperor. 

On the one hand, that’s true! The followers of Jesus do proclaim another king, and following him does require changes to our relationship with the political system of the world. And the followers of the empire recognise the danger, because if too many people start following Jesus instead, then a whole host of things would change…things that currently benefit a few at the expense of the many. Imagine the Roman industrial complex if people loved their neighbour….and also loved their enemy? Imagine the imperial economy if people shared their food and their possessions so that no one went without. Imagine the class structure if landowners paid workers according to their value as people, rather than according to how much wealth they produced for him. Imagine partisan politicking if leaders cared as much about the one lost sheep as the 99 who were safely grazing within sight. Imagine the society pages if children, outcasts, homeless people, widows, the sick, the poor, and the marginalised were all invited to the feast. It would indeed turn the world upside down, and the imperial system couldn’t survive it.

So in a way, the people who started the riot were right. They recognised the truth of what God was doing in Jesus and his followers….the trouble is, they didn’t want any part of it!

If we back up a little bit in the story we just heard, we can see something of how this hard-heartedness happens. Paul and Silas did the thing they had done for their whole lives — they went to synagogue on the Sabbath day. There they worshipped with the community of their fellow Jews, and they preached and taught just as guests were often invited to do. It was during that preaching and teaching that Paul started to turn things upside down.

It says that he spent his sermons “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead.” That was pretty much the opposite of what Jews had said and taught about their own scriptures for many hundreds of years. He was offering the congregation a brand new interpretation of scripture, changing their traditions, and reshaping everything they thought they knew. Only once their understanding of what the Messiah was had shifted would they be able to see Jesus as the Messiah God had promised. Only once they had let go of their old ways would they be able to enter into this new way God had revealed in Christ.

Some people were open to re-thinking, and they received this teaching and joined in following Jesus. And others could not stretch their imaginations to see how Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s promises.

It’s the ones whose hearts and minds could not stretch and shift, like a new wineskin stretching to accommodate the fermentation of wine, that tried to use other means to hold their rigid position. They could not imagine something new, so they fought instead. They accused, and rioted, and gossiped, and ran the people who were trying to change the tradition out of town. 

But just as Christ could not be contained by a tomb, and just as the Holy Spirit cannot be contained in one language or one upper room, the good news of God’s love and promise fulfilled in Jesus cannot be stopped by closed minds and hearts. 

So it is true that Paul and Silas and those who joined in the way of Christ with them were turning the world upside down. And it is true that they were disturbing the peace — the Pax Romana, which was only good for some — by proclaiming the far deeper justice of the peace of Christ instead. And the grace of God continued to be alive in that place, even after Paul and Silas moved on, leaving this fledgling community to try to be faithful in the face of opposition, from both the religious authorities who would not countenance the idea of changes to tradition, and the political authorities who understood that their power and socio-economic system were threatened by this new Way.

A bit later, Paul wrote back to the community in Thessalonica to encourage them. In the very beginning of that letter, he wrote:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace. 

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

How did this community formed in the midst of a riot end up being an example of faith so great that everyone knew about them, even many miles away? All across the Roman Empire, people had heard about this church and their faithfulness to the Way of Christ. They continued to turn the world upside down, changing not just their minds but their hearts and their way of life — their faith was public.

And all of that because they were open to a new interpretation of their traditions.

So Paul writes to them to remember those early days — the way the Spirit worked in them, the joy of experiencing the truth of God’s amazing grace, the love and faith and courage that sustained them through the difficulties. Remember the feeling of the Spirit opening your heart and mind. Remember the exuberance of fresh, new understanding. Remember how that newfound faith changed everything about your outlook on life. Recapture that excitement, that joy, that hope. Not only has it been an inspiration to others in ways you don’t even know, it will also sustain you in the days to come.

In these days when everything is changing, when we are just beginning to realise that there is no going “back” to the way things were, only forward into a new way, and when we are considering how to prepare to be witnesses for Christ in this changed world, perhaps there is a lesson here. Remember when we were excited about our faith, about trying our best to live a Christian life, about learning more about God’s word and faithfulness and love. Remember…Not so that we can go back to that time, but so that we can recapture that teachable spirit that first allowed grace to transform us. 

I think a “teachable spirit” sums up the ethos of that Thessalonian congregation. They had to be willing to shift and change, to re-shape their understanding and their tradition, in order to incorporate the new thing God was doing into their faith and life together. They didn’t rigidly insist that the way they’d always done it, or the way they’d always understood, was the only way. Instead, they were open to the Holy Spirit moving them in a new direction, and that journey of faith changed not just them, but the world around them. It was dangerous to the empire, threatening to the people who used the tradition as a way to hold onto their own power…threatening enough to be worth rioting about!…but it was also a source of hope and courage and peace for those who were ready to experience the goodness of God in a new way. Their witness opened the path to faith for countless others.

What might God do with us, when we decide to have a teachable spirit? When we remember the joy of our early faith, and pray for the gift of openness and flexibility, of readiness to follow where Christ leads…even if that means we have to be willing to re-think the things we thought we already had figured out. 

We will need to learn how to be Christ’s body, the Church, in new ways for a new world, making space for new interpretations of the living word, speaking a fresh message…and that might mean re-shaping tradition. We can’t go back, only forward. This may just be the moment when allowing the Spirit to teach and transform us again could lead to a renewal of faith, hope, and love in the whole community, church, nation, and world….and also a moment when having a teachable spirit is itself a witness, showing the world that Christ and his church are not only for the past, and not only for a far-off future, but also for right now: bringing life out of death and light out of the shadows, hope out of despair and joy out of fear…grace, for all.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

A Praying Community -- a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter 2020

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
A Praying Community
Acts 12.1-13.3 (NRSV)
10 May 2020, Easter 5 (off Lectionary, Easter theme: Witness Apprenticeship Programme)

The book of Acts is volume 2 of Luke’s work — the first, the gospel, tells us about Jesus, and the second, Acts, tells us about the Body of Christ in its earliest days, as they figure out what it means to be the Church. It’s a story of the disciples being led by the Holy Spirit, the community growing and spreading, and in the most difficult of circumstances. We know that it was written probably in the 80s, about 50 years after Jesus lived, died, and was raised. We don’t know for sure when exactly the events that Luke writes about took place, but a good guess is that it’s probably around the 40s and 50s. In that time, the disciples have been preaching and healing, the church has been traveling on those fancy Roman roads, and the Roman Empire has been expanding its reach and also its cruelty. 
Today’s story begins with the third King Herod to rule in Judea as a client king, perhaps better called a puppet of the emperor. The first, who was king when Jesus was born, was known for his cruelty, which we can see in the way he handles the news that the Messiah has been born. The second, the one whom Joseph feared and so he took his family to Nazareth in Galilee rather than back to Bethlehem, which was just a few miles from Jerusalem, was the one who beheaded John the Baptist on the whim of a party oath. And this third Herod, called Herod Agrippa, was no better. We hear about him in Acts chapter 12, beginning at verse 1.


About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, Get up quickly.And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.He did so. Then he said to him, Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.Peter went out and followed him; he did not realise that what was happening with the angels help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.
As soon as he realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognising Peters voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, You are out of your mind!But she insisted that it was so. They said, It is his angel.Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, Tell this to James and to the believers.Then he left and went to another place.

It was the most hopeless of situations. James, the brother of John—one of the first disciples to be called, leaving his nets and hired men and father and following Jesus….one of Jesus’ inner circle, along with his brother and Peter, violently lost at the hands of a jealous mad king. During Passover, no less. And then, when the king realised he could perhaps score some points with the religious leaders he was always at odds with, he arrested Peter too. Peter was, of course, the leader of the Jerusalem church, just as Jesus had said he would be. 

Now, after all these years, the very thing the disciples had feared, the reason they hid in the upper room, both before and after the resurrection, because they were afraid that the authorities would come for them next, happened. On the last night of Passover, Peter was in prison, chained to two soldiers, with more soldiers outside the locked door, inside a locked prison, outside the locked city gates, knowing that the next day was his last. And the church, grieving the loss of James, fearful for Peter, prayed.

It was an impossible situation. There was literally no way out. 

Of course, God specialises in impossible situations. 

Peter was no stranger to dreams and visions. He had many, some of which changed the course of the church forever. So when he dreamt of an angel and a light, he must have assumed it was happening again. He followed the angel out of the cell, out of the prison, into the city, and it was only when he was standing in the dark streets alone, after curfew, that he woke and realised that his sleepwalking was more than a dream, it was a divine intervention! He ran to the house where the church was praying—a house owned by a wealthy independent woman, no less. And then one of my favourite moments in all of scripture happens: Rhoda, the servant, comes to the gate and when she sees Peter, she leaves him standing there while she runs back in to tell the others! And, just like on Easter morning, they don’t believe her — literally tell her she has lost her mind. But Peter is still at the gate, perhaps beginning to get nervous in case he is spotted, making a racket knocking on the door! Finally they let him in, he tells his story, and then….he goes away. 

Perhaps he left because he knew it would be safer for everyone if he wasn’t found among them the next day. Perhaps he went into hiding somewhere else. Tradition says he traveled to Rome and preached the gospel there until he was later crucified himself, upside down. Whatever the case, he recognised that his calling was no longer with this community, but elsewhere. The role of the Jerusalem church had changed, and they needed new leadership. It was time to pass the baton to James, the brother of Jesus, and let him grow into his role as leader of the Church in Jerusalem. So as hard as it is to know when it is time to let go of authority and pass it to the next generation, Peter discerned that both their calling and his were now different, so away he went.

Continuing now at verse 18…

When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the kings chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the kings country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Herod had already revealed himself to be cruel, to care more for how he was perceived than for the well-being of others, and to be prone to acting on whims. When Peter could not be located, Herod simply took his anger out on the most convenient underlings available…though the guards, of course, had nothing to do with Peter’s escape. They were sacrificed to his ego, and when that was done he went away to his better palace, in the Roman capital of the territory. 

There, surrounded by all the trappings of power and glory, people came asking for help because they were starving. They have to literally beg and grovel, praising Herod with all their might, in order to get a morsel of food. He set himself up as if it was a religious festival, appointing a day for them to come and sing his praises before he would allow them to receive necessary supplies. It was the opposite of how the church operated — remember that throughout Acts we have heard “there was not a needy person among them” because everyone shared their resources so that they could all have enough. Not so with the king. But…in what might be another of my favourite lines of scripture, we hear that the angel, perhaps the one who had brought Peter out from certain death to life, does the opposite for Herod. His insistence that people glorify him in order to have what they need just to survive ends with him being struck down, “and he was eaten by worms and died.” Notice the order of the words there! It makes me laugh every time. Which is good, because when we live under startlingly similar circumstances, we need a bit of a laugh now and then.

I could go on for some time about this particular style of quid pro quo from a political leader, but I think it might be better if we focus on the importance of giving glory where glory is due…and that is always to God. 

And, of course, the story continues! At verse 24, and going into chapter 13:

But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark. 
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

In contrast to Herod’s ways of self-glorification and making people grovel for their survival, the church, the community of sharing and compassion and abundant life, continued to grow. When a community knows who they are and then lives out that mission with clarity and grace, people are attracted to that! People want to be a part of something that feels real and hopeful, and that makes a difference in the world, and the church certainly has that. 

You may recall that Barnabas and Saul had been sent from Antioch to take the offerings that would help the Judean church survive the coming famine. When they returned after finishing that mission, they brought John Mark, whose mother Mary was the leader of the house church where Peter had told his prison break story. When they returned, they took their place in the leadership of the Antioch church, which may have been the most diverse church leadership team ever: there was Barnabas, who was an immigrant who had moved from Cyprus to Jerusalem and then been sent to Antioch; Simeon, who was black; Lucius, an immigrant from North Africa, Manaen who was one of  the second Herod’s childhood friends and converted from within his court; and Saul who had formerly been a Pharisee!

This incredibly diverse leadership team guided the whole church in Antioch as they studied God’s word, did their best to live according to Jesus’ way, and listened for the Holy Spirit. This community spent their time in spiritual practices, fasting and praying and singing and sharing in the work of the community. And there, in that community, in the midst of those practices that helped them draw closer to God, the Spirit spoke. 

“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 

And so the first missionaries were ordained, set apart for the work given to them. They didn’t just go off on their own, they were equipped and sent by a community that knew and loved them. And that community discerned this calling through the spiritual practices they did together.

As we too prepare to be sent out as witnesses, I wonder if we can learn here about the importance of a praying community. Both in Jerusalem and in Antioch, we see the community gathered together, praying and listening for the Spirit. And each time, their prayers lead to a new phase of the Church’s life, first as Peter hands over authority to James, and then as Saul and Barnabas head out on their missionary journeys.

Who knows what God might do with a whole church praying and listening for the Spirit today! It might feel like we are in the midst of an impossible situation, things can feel a bit hopeless as we continue behind our locked doors for a while longer, frightened and worried. But God specialises in impossible situations. And though the world outside might feel indifferent to the gospel at best, the reality is that the Spirit is still calling and equipping and sending us to share the good news that there is another way, we don’t have to live by the Herod way or the Empire’s way. Abundant life for all creation is possible, in Christ. 

So…what if we decided to be a church that prays together? Yes, for all the usual things we pray for—safety and health and comfort in the midst of grief. And also explicitly for the Spirit to reveal what God’s vision for us is, what our calling is in the next phase of our life together, and for the people and the resources and the gifts to fulfil that calling. As we prepare to be witnesses, let’s pray.

Amen.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Abundance Mindset -- a sermon on Acts 11

Rev. Teri C Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Abundance Mindset
Acts 11.19-30 (Common English Bible)
3 May 2020, Easter 4 (Easter theme: witness apprenticeship programme)


Now those who were scattered as a result of the trouble that occurred because of Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. They proclaimed the word only to Jews. Among them were some people from Cyprus and Cyrene. They entered Antioch and began to proclaim the good news about the Lord Jesus also to Gentiles. The Lord’s power was with them, and a large number came to believe and turned to the Lord.
When the church in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw evidence of God’s grace, he was overjoyed and encouraged everyone to remain fully committed to the Lord. Barnabas responded in this way because he was a good man, whom the Holy Spirit had endowed with exceptional faith. A considerable number of people were added to the Lord. Barnabas went to Tarsus in search of Saul. When he found him, he brought him to Antioch. They were there for a whole year, meeting with the church and teaching large numbers of people. It was in Antioch where the disciples were first labeled “Christians.”
About that time, some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, Agabus, stood up and, inspired by the Spirit, predicted that a severe famine would overtake the entire Roman world. (This occurred during Claudius’ rule.) The disciples decided they would send support to the brothers and sisters in Judea, with everyone contributing to this ministry according to each person’s abundance. They sent Barnabas and Saul to take this gift to the elders.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

This week I read an article that was not meant to be a commentary on this story from Acts, but it was anyway. In the course of the article, the writer mentioned that the early church was able to spread so far and wide and so rapidly because they took advantage of the new technology of the time: Roman roads! This led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, researching where and when and how the Romans built their famous network of amazingly straight and durable roads. But after I’d finished learning about how they built over mountains and how they surveyed to ensure they were building in a perfectly straight line even over hundreds of miles…I came back to this point: that the roads in the area that we would now call Israel, Palestine, and Syria were likely built about two decades before the birth of Jesus. These roads enabled people and goods to move much farther, and much faster, than before. And they had appeared during the lifetime of, say, Mary and Joseph, or their parents. The disciples may have grown up with their parents and grandparents talking about the time before roads, reminiscing about traveling on rough paths that meandered with flocks of sheep or that sometimes led off somewhere you weren’t expecting to go. 

Those who were scattered because of the persecution that began with the stoning of Stephen and continued when Saul rampaged through the community used these straight, well-maintained roads to travel all over their known world. Some of those people were already immigrants to Jerusalem to begin with — they had come from all over and were living in the holy city, and now they were being forced to flee, pushed out, or perhaps sent out, to new places.

And wherever they went, they shared the good news of Jesus Christ. First they did as they had been taught by the leaders of the community in Jerusalem and focused on fellow Jews, but soon they began to see that God was at work elsewhere as well. Perhaps they heard about Peter’s experience with the sheet and the animals, and his revelation that no person is unclean, all are made in God’s image (see Acts 10 for the story). Those people from Cyprus and Cyrene, the people who had been immigrants and converts to this new way of life, started speaking to non-Jews in Antioch, and the result was so astonishing that the news traveled nearly 500 miles and reached the remnant in Jerusalem.

That remnant was basically just the council, the power structure that made decisions about things like whether or not Peter had done the right thing by baptising a Gentile family after his vision that no one is unclean. They were the keepers of the theology and order. So when they heard about what was happening in Antioch, they sent Barnabas — the disciple from Cyprus — to go and check on what the other people from Cyprus were doing and teaching in this new community that was springing up.

When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, it says “he saw evidence of God’s grace.” He didn’t bring grace with him from the powers that be in Jerusalem, he saw it already present where the people were, overflowing in good works and building up the kingdom of God. 

Then Barnabas did something that may have made people nervous. He went to find Saul — the very man whose persecution had caused the disciples to flee Jerusalem and end up in Antioch in the first place. We don’t know if they knew about his conversion, about meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. When Saul arrived, I imagine some of them were distrustful at first, but like others Saul had encountered after literally seeing the light of Christ, they soon heard that his teaching was as Spirit-filled as any other. 

Between Saul and Barnabas, they taught more and more people the stories of God’s faithfulness, of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the Holy Spirit’s call to new life. And over the course of the year they stayed in Antioch, people started to call the disciples Christians — the ones who belong to Christ. It was a word used by those who were outside the church, to describe those who followed Jesus as opposed to any of the other gods of the day. Somehow, in the process of learning and seeking and worshipping together, their lives began to reflect their faith in ways that everyone could see. 

When prophets traveled through, and one of them said that a famine was coming, the whole church decided that they would help. 

Despite all the other things I love about this story, this is where I think it gets really interesting! Not only because of the assumption that prophets were, and are, still speaking. Not only because of the historical note that Luke includes so we know that the prophecy was true. But because of this sentence: “everyone contributed to this ministry according to each person’s abundance.”

This church, where God’s grace was visibly evident to anyone who would look, where they had an abundance of people, an abundance of the Spirit, an abundance of encouragement and faith….they heard about a situation of scarcity, and their first reaction was to share their abundance. 

Now, Antioch was a city like many others, with wide disparity in wealth and privilege. The church was no different, they were a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, language groups, and incomes — a mixed community in every way. 

They were far from Jerusalem — nearly 500 miles. 

And the prophecy said famine was coming to the whole Roman world — which included Antioch. They would need to think about their own needs and future.

And still, with all these factors, they gave out of their abundance.

Perhaps because Barnabas had been the first in the Jerusalem church to sell property and give the proceeds to the church to help those in need, he had shared this spiritual gift of generosity with them.

Or perhaps because the disciples who started this church came from all over, including Jerusalem, north Africa, and Cyprus, they had nurtured a sense of connection to the wider church and all God was doing to build the kingdom around the world.

Or…perhaps the church in Antioch had cultivated a mindset of abundance, rather than a mindset of scarcity. 

Often we focus on what we still need, what we wish we had, what we used to have…and that can blind us to what God has already given. 

Jesus said that he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10), and that abundant life was certainly a hallmark of the Antioch Christians. Anyone who saw them could see God’s grace. They were growing in faith and in number. And now they were demonstrating that abundance is for sharing…not just from what they have left over, not just according to what they thought they could afford, but out of their abundance, they contributed. 

Obviously some of them had more, and some less. They didn’t all give the same amount. But it’s the mindset here that matters. When we talk about giving according to each one’s means, it becomes a calculation about budgets and deserving and excess….a mindset of scarcity, where there may not be enough. When we talk about giving according to our abundance, we think differently about what we have to offer, and we give it in a different spirit.

During the Easter season we have been thinking about how we prepare to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Today I think the most important thing to cultivate in ourselves as we learn to be witnesses is an abundance mindset. Especially in these times when it’s so easy to focus on what we’re missing, on what we don’t have, on what we wish we could do, on the places where we lack something, on the things we are worried about — these times when a scarcity mindset is even more prevalent than it normally is in our culture and economy, and when some truly are lacking in basic necessities, while others of us are still more than comfortable.

What if we, like Barnabas, could see evidence of God’s grace wherever we looked, wherever we went, wherever we are?

What if we, like the church in Antioch, spent time learning together, delving deep into God’s word and coming to know God’s faithfulness by heart?

What if we, like the disciples who fled Jerusalem using those shiny new Roman roads, and found themselves in Antioch, took the risk of sharing the good news with unexpected people, using the new technological tools available to us…even if we remember the days before those tools existed?

What if we thought of giving from our abundance, not only from what we have left, even if that means we’re giving only a few pounds, or a smile, or a prayer, or a note, or a trip to the chemist or picking up the paper?

An abundance mindset would change how we see ourselves, and the world. 

We would see irresistible, uncontainable grace… everywhere.

And that might just change how we live, so that people see that grace in us, too. 

May it be so. Amen.