Friday, July 08, 2016

psalms--prayers for everything

We are reading the Bible in 90 Days at church this summer. Yesterday's assignment was Psalms 46-69...and about halfway through I realized that I was feeling like these psalms are not mine to pray.

I always tell people--and I told people in class just a couple of days ago--that the psalms give us language for anything. We find praise and lament, anger and sadness and fear and joy, all directed toward God in prayer and song. We ought to read them as if we are praying them ourselves, and see how it feels to talk to God in all these different moods.

In that class, we also talked about "enemies"--because so few of us (in our mostly white, mostly middle class, suburban church) have "enemies" in the traditional sense, we talked about how we are often our own worst enemy, and that enemies don't always look like someone chasing us with weapons or plotting our downfall and destruction.

And then I was reading Psalm 54: "the proud have come up against me, violent people want me dead."
And Psalm 55: "My heart pounds in my chest because death's terrors have reached me. Fear and trembling have come upon me; I'm shaking all over. I say to myself, I wish I had wings like a dove! I'd fly away and rest."
Psalm 56: "You yourself have kept track of my misery. Put my tears into your bottle--aren't they on your scroll already?"
57: "My life is in the middle of a pack of lions. I lie down among those who devour humans. Their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues are sharpened swords."
59: "Powerful people are attacking me, Lord, but not because of any error or sin of mine. They run and take their stand--but not because of any fault of mine. ... they come back every evening... don't kill them, or my people might forget... for the sin of their mouths, the words they speak, let them be captured in their pride."

These are not my words to pray. Not today. Maybe not ever, really, but particularly not today. These words belong to Diamond Reynolds. They belong to Alton Sterling's mother. They belong to the families of responsible and good police officers in Dallas. They belong to the families of Trayvon and Michael and Freddie and Eric and Sandra and Clementa and hundreds more. They belong to the parents who are teaching their children how to survive by speaking softly and deferentially, never running, always having their hands visible, double checking their cars and their clothes before leaving the house to be sure nothing could be misconstrued....and then who quake with fear until they come home again.

Too many people in our nation are LIVING these prayers. This is their reality. They are surrounded, and there is no escape. Words are used to dehumanize before the body is done bleeding out on the ground. The error they committed was being born with the wrong color skin. Fear is a daily experience. If only they could do what so many of us do--turn it off for a little while, choose not to think about it, get some rest from the weary days of defending their existence.

I cannot pray these prayers today. What I can do, though, is hear the anguish of my fellow human beings as they cry out. Through these ancient words, their voices ring with pain and fear and anger. I can read these psalms, and know that my neighbors are praying them fervently, with far more urgency than I will ever know.

And then I can listen when God calls me to be an answer to prayer. I can remember, and speak their names, I can stand up and speak out when I see and hear injustice, I can be a voice of grace, I can create space for truth and refuse to repeat rumor, I can put aside my own pride and my own need to be right in order to honor the experience of others, I can be a peacemaker and not only a peacelover. I can be part of the solution, so that one day my neighbors don't need these prayers anymore, except to combat their own internal enemies.

May it be so, Lord...may it be so.

pulled over

A couple of months ago, I went to the Seder for the first night of Passover at the home of my friend the rabbi. It was a wonderful evening filled with laughter, food, ritual, and telling the story of liberation yet again. We dripped wine on our plates to remember plagues. We dipped herbs in salt water to taste the tears of suffering. We opened the door for Elijah and poured a cup for Miriam. We prayed for an end to slavery. We were reminded that injustice anywhere is a threat to all of us everywhere, and that injustice has disproportionately fallen on minorities who are easily scapegoated.  We ate...and ate...and ate.

At the end of the evening (very late!) I got in my car to go home through the thoroughly deserted streets. About a mile into that journey, I saw the flashing red and blue lights behind me.

The lights on my license plate, and two tail lights on one side, were burned out.
(I didn't even know there *were* lights on my license plate.)

The officer said through my window (which I rolled all the way down, not even thinking about it): "I wanted to let you know--just a warning--because I know we can't see the backs of our own cars."

I reached across to the passenger seat and into my purse and grabbed my phone to show my insurance card and to make a note to get the lights fixed.

He ran my license, of course, and looked at my insurance card, and printed out a warning, and I was on my way.

Why isn't that how traffic stops go for people whose skin is a different color than mine?

Tonight, as I was that night, I am an outsider--not one of the people directly suffering, but one of those longing to make a difference, to bear witness and then to work for change. I have not lived my life in the shadow of my people's persecution. I have not needed to fear the police. I have the privilege of usually being in the majority/blending in, and usually knowing my life is important and my voice is valued.

Tonight I remember, again--the tears of suffering, the waiting for Elijah, the story of liberation, the fact that injustice everywhere is a threat to all of us everywhere.


*If you read that as "black lives matter more" or "only black lives matter" then may I suggest you check your own psyche before commenting. Because that says more about you and your own fear of losing a position of privilege than it does about the hashtag or the movement or the reality it represents. Let's not pretend all lives matter if we can't say that black lives matter. Suggestions to the contrary will be deleted because there's no "balance" in giving even more voice to the historically majority view. Perfect love casts out fear. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Word Of Whose Lord? A sermon on Jephthah's Daughter

Rev. Teri Peterson
The Word of Whose Lord?
Judges 11.29-40
12 June 2016, P1-5 (gifted for god’s purpose), Bible in 90 Days 19

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

This is one of those stories that makes me hesitant to say “the word of the lord, thanks be to god.” When things like this—and there’s plenty more, and worse, in the rest of Judges—appear in the middle of our holy scripture, I have to wonder how they could possibly be part of our story of good news. How is a story of domestic violence, of child abuse, a part of our story of God’s desire for all creation to know peace and wholeness?

Over the centuries, people feeling this discomfort have tried to solve the story, to make it okay. They have suggested that she wasn’t really killed, in spite of the fact that it says her father “did with her according to the vow he had made” and that vow involved the word that describes offerings that are entirely burned, with no part leftover. They have used her as an example of faithfulness and appropriate womanly submission. They have looked at the ritual of girls going out to lament every year and said the story creates a rite of passage for young women to die to girlhood and emerge as women ready to be married. They have tried to explain away the suffering and terror of this text and its implications.

But it can’t really be explained away. Even God is silent.

What happened here? How did we get from the Torah’s constant refrain about caring for women and children to the place where a father sacrifices his child and no one stops him? In a society that measures its faithfulness by how it treats the marginalized, how could this happen? In a religious community that cares so much about family, inheritance, and living in the land, how is it possible for a man to murder not only his daughter but his family name and inheritance?

As is often the case, it begins with a desire to be powerful and the instinct to take matters into our own hands.

This man had been cast out by his half brothers, looked down upon as inferior, and made to be an outsider. When they needed his strength and his fighting men, they came crawling back with promises to make him their leader. He agreed, if God would give the enemy into his hand…and the spirit of the Lord came upon him, which is the code in Judges for “God guaranteed the victory.”

But the spirit of the Lord wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to hedge his bets, make absolutely certain that things would go his way, so he made a promise. This is the kind of promise I mean when I say that we should never bargain with God, because if we had to keep our end of whatever deal we struck, we would be in trouble. He tries to bribe God: if you let me win this battle, I’ll make a burnt offering of whatever I see first when I get home.

Remember: there’s no need for this bargain, and God cannot be bribed. God didn’t ask for anything in return for the gift of the Spirit. The vow tells us the man doesn’t trust the spirit of the Lord to be enough.

He wins a victory like no one has ever seen…and he believe that his initiative in making a deal with God has bought him the victory…and now believes he has to keep his end of the deal.

In those days it was common for livestock to live in the ground floor and courtyards of homes, so maybe he thought he’d see an animal first. But then again, he would have also known that ever since the exodus, when Miriam led the women in dancing and singing after the Egyptian army was drowned, the women of the Israelites have come out to meet returning victors with tambourines and dancing. It was a custom meant to honor the warriors and the God who gave them victory.

There’s no honor to be had this time, though. After he takes the traditional abuser’s route of blaming her for what he has to do to her, he says “I cannot take back my vow.” And she agrees, her own trust highlighting his lack of faith.

Here’s where we get into trouble, isn’t it?

I cannot take back my vow.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
The scripture is clear.

We think it’s a sign of faithfulness. We admire ourselves and each other for standing up for what we believe in. And we sacrifice God’s children to our self-serving limited human understanding.

We want to think this is no longer happening. It’s easier to look back on stories like this with horror, and much harder to look at them as a mirror, showing us the ways we still insist that what we think we know is definitely God’s command and reflecting back to us the uncomfortable truth that our pride will not let us see the alternatives to some vows we have made in our past.

There were alternatives, of course. I’m not sure they would be immediately obvious if we weren’t reading straight through the Bible in such a short period of time, but they jumped out at me this week: Leviticus 5 has a provision for what to do if you make a careless or rash vow that then you cannot keep. And Leviticus 27 tells what to do if the sacrifice you vowed to make is something that cannot be sacrificed. Both offer options ranging from giving a monetary offering to a clean and appropriate animal in place of the illegal one. And child sacrifice—and all human sacrifice—is decidedly and repeatedly forbidden, so this definitely counts as a vow that cannot be kept.

In other words, “I cannot take back my vow” is simply not true. It is, instead, a half-truth. Or a limited understanding of the law. And like abuse still is today, it is based in human pride, in human desire for power, and human unfaithful action. It is a man reading his own words as the word of the Lord, and sacrificing a woman to his own ego. And it is a community saying nothing, because in a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes, what is there to say to someone who thinks they are doing the right thing, even when it is so obviously the wrong thing?

And so we allow our LGBT children to be sacrificed to our limited human understanding. We allow our children of color to be sacrificed to our comfortable whitewashing of history and our insistence on following rules that were set up to benefit some at the expense of others. We allow thousands of people to be sacrificed to our contemporary understanding of a few sentences in documents hundreds of years old. We allow the vulnerable and marginalized people of the world to be sacrificed to maintain our own supposedly blessed position. We allow 1 in 4 women to be victimized and we, like the man in this story, blame it on her. We pretend that none of these things are related. And when we see it happening to our neighbors, we say nothing, because everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

The story of this lost daughter is like the canary in the coal mine—it shows just how much the society had unraveled, how far they had strayed from their identity and purpose as God’s people. The man receives God’s gift of love and power, but he cannot trust God’s word, and so his life reflects only his own brokenness. He takes God’s good gifts of skill and camaraderie and the spirit’s presence, and he twists them for his own purpose, using those gifts to serve his desire for revenge against his half brothers, his desire for power and status in a community that once cast him aside…and it is his daughter, and their family’s future, that pays the price.

There is no happy ending to this story. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, God doesn’t step in to provide a ram and stop the father’s hand. And the people of God don’t step in to remind him that there are other ways to understand and follow God’s law. The basic flaw in the assumption that we can be faithful on our own, without a community to support and challenge us, is made abundantly clear, as there is no recourse and no accountability, only one man’s inflexible view of his own understanding of God’s law and gift—a view that is the opposite of God’s will for the world.

The only glimmers of light come from the women. The daughter is the only one to utter words of compassion or faith. Her friends are the ones who model what God’s community is supposed to be like, lamenting and supporting each other. The generations of Israelite women who carry on the tradition are the ones who rescue the daughter from the unthinkable fate of being forgotten by her people and left out of God’s promise.

These women have no names in the story—perhaps because they were not considered important enough to remember. Or perhaps because without names, we have no way to narrow their story and insist this is one isolated instance of violence. Since we do not know her name, we can see our daughters in her story, and we can take care that no one is sacrificed to our arrogance or apathy. Since we do not know the names of her friends or the names of the women who carried on her memory, we can see our neighbors and ourselves, and we can practice saying the names of those who have been lost, supporting each other in solidarity and lament, keeping memory alive when our culture would rather we forget and move on.

And perhaps more importantly, we can join the voices of the prophets, the rabbis, the sages, and even the authors of Judges who insist God had nothing to do with this, and condemn the ways we sacrifice each other. We can insist that it is not a man’s right to do with a woman whatever he pleases. We can insist that it is not a parent’s right to do with their children whatever they please. We can commit ourselves to stand up and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. We can be a part of changing a culture that marginalizes some at the expense of others. We can be the village that helps raise the children, so no one is at the mercy of one person’s understanding of the world. We can offer the alternative, expansive, inclusive vision of God’s way. We can work for a world where no one feels the need to use force to prove themselves, or buy God’s favor, or secure their own social position. We can listen to those who lament, and we can join the lament without explaining it away. We can hold each other accountable when our lives reflect anything other than the goodness of God. We can say, and say again, and live as if it is true, that violence is not God’s will for women, or children, or any part of creation.

Then we will be listening to the word of the Lord, and using our gifts for God’s purpose. May it be so. Amen. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

Expanded Inheritance--a sermon the daughters of Zelophehad

Rev. Teri Peterson
Expanded Inheritance
Numbers 27.1-11
5 June 2016, Pentecost 1-4 (gifted for god’s purpose)

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 2They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, 3‘Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. 4Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.’
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 7The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.’

How is it going with reading the Bible in 90 days? Today is day 12…and tomorrow is a catch-up day, so if you’re behind, this is your moment! I confess that while I was on vacation I was so disconnected from the actual date that I forgot to start reading on time…and I didn’t notice until one day there was a facebook conversation about being on day 8. I kept trying to catch up by reading at cafes and pubs, but what actually happened was that I talked with friends and got all wrapped up in the delicious food instead. So I am here as living evidence that it is possible to catch up tomorrow, because I read all of days 1 through 12 yesterday.

Granted, I didn’t do anything else, except cook dinner. But still. If you haven’t started yet, this is your chance to get caught up!

Reading through the first four books of the Bible in one day made one thing far more clear than it had ever been before, even the last time I did the Bible in 90 Days. In the midst of all the minute details of what color the curtain in the holy tent of meeting should be, and how many silver bowls each tribe contributed to offerings, and the list of each place the Israelites camped during their 40 years in the wilderness…the story is full of people’s names. I know we know that, because we often think of them as impossible to pronounce, the kind of things we gloss over because they slow us down while we try to figure them out. But really, these first four books are bursting with names. Most of the names are men, of course. They are listed according to their family and clan and tribe, generation after generation.

I often tell people we shouldn’t skip over the genealogies that tell us of Jesus’ family tree, as told in Matthew and Luke, because that is also our family tree—these are our ancestors, and when we remember them we also find our place in the family story. But those are much shorter than some of these whole chapters of nothing but the names of men and their sons and grandsons and nephews and cousins. I really believe all these names are important, but it was only when I started thinking about asking my rabbi friend what she preaches on when these long sections of nothing but names and offerings are read in a worship service—every year!—that I understood more of what’s going on here:

This is a story of belonging.

Each and every one of those people—all 603,000 men, plus women and children—is known and belongs. Their story matters, even if we can’t pronounce their names. They are part of something God is doing. They may have been whiny and annoying, they may have been complainers, they may have been people who worked hard and didn’t make waves. They may have been great craftsmen, or gifted at animal husbandry, or a good teacher, or strong enough to carry the altar and all its furnishings from camp to camp. And their names, no matter which tribe they were from or which jobs they did, were worth taking the time and resources to write down and to pass on through the generations. Their presence in the community mattered.

So when we get to this story of Zelophehad’s daughters, we can see why their request was so important.

In order to get to this point, they would already have been through the system that Moses, at his father-in-law’s urging, set up for people to bring their grievances and questions to a local judge. Those local judges passed the hard cases up to Moses for a decision. These women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, knew the rules and regulations of their people. They understood that they were at the mercy of the men in their lives, and without any men they were in danger. But they also understood there was a larger problem going on, a problem of belonging. Their lack of both brother and father meant that they no longer belonged, and their whole family would be forgotten. And in the midst of a story that is all about remembering who we are and to whom we belong, that is a tragedy.

They were surely not the first women to be in this predicament. But just before they come forward, in chapter 26, we read about how the promised land was to be divided among tribes and clans and families, each plot assigned according to the number of people. The problem of belonging nowhere was about to be magnified by the problem of having no place in the promise that God had made to their ancestors. And so Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah work their way up through the system until they are standing in front of Moses at the tent of meeting. And they brazenly ask for exactly what they want: to inherit their father’s place in the community of God’s people.

Over the centuries of God’s story to this point, the people had become more patriarchal than the earliest stories suggest. The rules had built up, and now there was a careful system in place. According to those rules and that system, the answer should have been no. Based on the previous three books of law, these women should have been sent to marry and find their place that way. But that’s not what happens. Instead, each judge at each level of the system has taken them seriously. They are all aware of the seriousness of the problem, of a family of faithful Israelites being forgotten and left out of the promise. And so Moses goes into the tent and asks God face to face.

It was a risk, for the women to place so direct a challenge to the way we always do things. They were asking for the community to do something that had never been tried before. And God’s answer was: “the daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying.”

In essence, God said to Moses: we have been too restrictive and closed and it is hurting my people. I don’t want anyone left behind, because each of them matters. Later, through the prophets, we will learn that God has all our names written on the palm of God’s hands—even the women who don’t have brothers or fathers. Even the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. Even the people who, according to our rules, don’t belong.

The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying. They shall receive the inheritance of their father.

In one little story—so easy to gloss over because the names are hard and it’s in the middle of a book that seems to be a never ending list of identical offerings from every tribe—everything changed. The inheritance of God’s people expanded. The meaning of belonging expanded. The understanding of God’s gift expanded. Because five women were willing to come forward and claim that they too are God’s chosen and beloved, to insist that they belong to God’s promise, the whole system was changed to recognize women as people who could inherit and own property, who could advocate for themselves and know that they mattered.

Ten chapters from now, the book of Numbers will end with a recap of these women, and a rule made that they may only marry within their tribe, so that the inheritance may not end up passed to another tribe. On the surface it feels like a re-assertion of male dominance and women as property, but looking deeper we can see how consistent it is: because what the women asked for was to belong, to have a recognized place among their people. So they remain within their people, and their inheritance does as well—because yes, it is about land, but it is also about identity. It is about carrying the name, and having their presence and contribution matter to the ongoing story God is telling through this particular people.

So when we read these stories—whether you start today and catch up on four books at a time, or whether you’ve been reading all along—pay attention to the names. Not only are they our ancestors in the faith, they are people God loved, people whose names and lives are worth remembering. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, and all the rest, remind us of the good news: that we belong to God, and each and every one of us matters.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Actions Speak Louder--a sermon for Lent 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Amen.