Sunday, August 21, 2016

Grace Is Enough--a sermon on Galatians 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Grace Is Enough
Galatians 4.1-7, 21-5.1
21 August 2016, P2-6 (overflowing: trust)

Paul founded churches throughout the Roman province of Galatia—in modern day Turkey—during both his first and second missionary journeys. At some point after he moved on to other places, another group of missionaries arrived. These missionaries insisted that Gentiles who wished to follow Christ must also become Jews—they needed to be circumcised and to follow the Law of Moses. Paul had taught that this was unnecessary because salvation is about God’s action in Jesus Christ. The conflict within the church about this question was intense and volatile, Christians fighting with each other about the correct way to be a Christian or a church. The question of how to get into a right relationship with God was, and still is, an important question, and Paul addresses it by reminding the church of God’s promise and Christ’s work. The scripture reading from Galatians 4 can be found on an insert in your bulletin if you wish to follow along.

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
than the children of the one who is married.’
Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.


This is a pretty confusing passage of scripture. There’s a reason it’s never in the lectionary. I may have been over ambitious in choosing it, because frankly I just don’t like it very much. I wish Paul and chosen another way of making his point--one that wouldn’t be so easily misinterpreted. But he didn’t, so let’s refresh our memory of the story of Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael...

Sarah and Abraham had been promised a child, but they were very old and there was no sign of this promise being true, so Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham as a secondary wife, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Meanwhile, eventually Sarah did become pregnant and Isaac was born, just as God had promised. But Sarah’s jealousy got the better of her and she threw Hagar and Ishmael out, insisting they had no part in the inheritance that God was giving to Isaac. Out in the desert, God and Hagar had a conversation in which God promised Hagar that Ishmael would also father a great nation. In their later years, Ishmael and Isaac reunited at Abraham’s funeral.

It’s a story that hurts—God’s chosen people act in self interest and hate, excluding those they don’t like. In the end, God is good, but in the midst of the story that isn’t at all clear to Hagar, who is being abused by her mistress, seemingly with God’s consent. Why would Paul choose this story as a way to illustrate his teaching? The idea of “driving out the slave woman and her child” is, frankly, horrifying to our modern sensibilities. And even in the context of its original story, when Sarah kicked out Hagar and Ishmael, it was a selfish and fear-based action, not based in trusting God at all. And in using this allegory, Paul runs the risk of being misunderstood as saying that Jews are not God’s chosen people anymore, they should be driven out because they don’t have any share in the promise the way Christians do.

So, to be clear: he isn’t saying that. This is not a letter directed at a conflict between Christians and Jews, advocating that Christians are superior. This is a conflict between Christians and Christians, about what rules they have to follow in order to be saved.

The missionaries who had arrived sometime after Paul left Galatia were insistent that those who were not already Jews must become Jews in order to follow Jesus. They refused to allow uncircumcised people into the church’s worship or fellowship, saying they had to first commit to following the Law of Moses.

These are the people Paul compares to Hagar and Ishmael, who must be driven out. They are teaching that our actions are what influences God’s choice to love us. Hagar and Ishmael represent the part of the story where human beings take matters into their own hands, trying to force God’s promise to come true right now, rather than trusting God to follow through. To be circumcised and attempt to follow the law would be to declare that there is something human beings can or must do to be adopted into God’s family.

But, Paul says, the law cannot save…and indeed, the law cannot even truly be kept. It represents an attempt to earn God’s favor, which is impossible. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or less. We are freed from trying to make our own way, and instead can live secure in the knowledge that through Christ, we are indeed beloved children of God. We can trust that we don’t have to be enough, because grace is enough.

It’s hard to imagine a church Paul started—founded on grace and inclusion, on the good news that when God looks at us, God sees us through the lens of Christ and his faithfulness—it’s hard to imagine them falling for this false teaching that they must do something to earn that grace. Paul made two trips to Galatia, teaching and modeling this new way of life and community that is possible because of what God has done. Why wouldn’t they trust the grace of God?

Though we might ask ourselves the same question. We are just as prone to falling into the trap of believing we have to do something to earn grace. It may not be circumcision anymore, but there are plenty of Christians who teach that we must all keep the laws of Moses…or at least, the ones they think are important. There are those who insist that we have to say the right words, or go to the right place, or have the right friends, or vote the right way, or exclude the right people, or else we aren’t really Christian. Even those of us who most firmly believe that grace is a gift and salvation is 100% God’s choice and God’s work still sometimes find ourselves thinking we have to be good in order for God to truly love us. It’s hard work to trust that grace is enough when everything else in life depends so much on our own choices and behavior, when our whole society is based around earning and deserving. It’s much easier to believe in ourselves, to trust that we are doing the right things, or at least that we’re sorry for doing the wrong things, than it is to trust the promise that Christ has set us free to be loved and to love. We want to do something, by which we mean we want to control something.

But Paul is emphatic on this point. “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Even the subconscious belief that we need to be good enough or that we need to do enough to be saved is slavery to the law, and we are people of grace. We are heirs of the promise, in the line of Isaac—the child born without any help from people, on God’s timeline and for God’s purpose. The promise is true, and we cannot change the reality that God’s love is for us, no matter what we have done.

For freedom Christ has set us free! Our lives are a reflection of our gratitude for all God has done for us, not an attempt to earn our way into heaven. “Freedom is a gift, not an achievement.”* And it is a gift that God has chosen to give us through Christ, from whom we have all received grace upon grace. Can we trust that grace is enough?

May it be so. Amen.

*New Interpreter's Bible, volume ___, page 310

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Shape of Life--a sermon on John 21

Rev. Teri Peterson
The Shape of Life
John 21.1-17, 25
14 August 2016, Pentecost 2-5 (overflowing: love)

The Gospel according to John is the last of the four gospels to be written—perhaps as much as 30 to 40 years after Mark wrote. John tells the story of Jesus from a cosmic perspective, looking at the big picture from before time until the end of time. It is a story primarily of God’s action—God’s word become flesh, God drawing people into relationship through Christ, God painting a picture of what life in the kingdom is like.
Today’s reading is from the very end of John, the epilogue in chapter 21. After Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning, he appeared three times to his other disciples, and this is the third of those encounters. It provides a nice bookend to Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, and it names disciples who were also named in the beginning, so the story ties the whole gospel together as one narrative. Just as the opening chapter of the gospel sets the stage, so the closing chapter reviews all the themes that John wants us to remember as we go to live as disciples. If you’d like to follow along, you can find the reading on an insert in your bulletin.

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’
But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.


Over the course of my life so far, I estimate that I have had somewhere around 6,200 family dinners. Every night when I was growing up, each of us would take our seats—the same one every night—with my mom closest to the kitchen, of course. We would eat dinner and talk about stuff, and whenever one of us talked with our mouths full my parents would flick us on the cheek, or if we put our elbows on the table then we’d get a little flick of the elbow instead. My brother and I took turns being in charge of setting or clearing the table, helping with cooking and helping with clean up. And in addition to learning table manners, we heard and created family stories, absorbed values, and were shaped, night after night, into the people we have become.

At the time, it didn’t seem like anything special. It was just the way things were—every night, around the same time, we’d be at the table eating and talking and learning and sharing. And if someone else was at the house—friends or neighbors or family, whether just visiting for the afternoon or staying for the summer—they would have a place set for them too. Occasionally something would come up—baseball practice, orchestra rehearsal—and we would shift the time, but it was a rare thing to not eat together.

I couldn’t tell you now about the topics of conversation, or what we ate every day, or which tablecloth was out on any given night. All those nights, whether they involved chicken cordon bleu or hamburger helper, conversation about school or sports or hopes and dreams, run together into one picture of love and belonging and understanding what is expected of me as a part of the family. What seemed so ordinary has turned out, in retrospect, to be perhaps the most special and formative part of my growing up years.

I’ve been thinking about formative experiences because of something I read about this conversation between Jesus and Peter. Here they are, on the beach near the place where Jesus had previously fed a crowd of more than 5000 people with just a few loaves and fishes, and he has done it again, turning their scarcity into abundance and then feeding them with bread and fish baked over a campfire. Peter’s cloak was probably still damp from his excited hundred-yard-dash in the water from the boat to shore—so eager to see Jesus that he was caught in between his desire to be properly clothed to meet the rabbi and his desire to be there rightnow.

It had been at least a few weeks since that Easter morning encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, and Jesus had since appeared to his disciples two other times. This third time held all the marks of being final—a completion of their time together. It was early in the morning, just like that first Easter, when Jesus found them in the midst of their emptiness. After a night of nothingness, there was suddenly an abundance of fish in the exact number that many people think was the number of known countries at the time, symbolizing the disciples fishing for people across the whole world. Jesus had fed them, just as he always did.

And then the after-breakfast conversation. Three times, Jesus asks Peter—do you love me more than the other disciples do? He calls Peter by name, and Peter recognizes the good shepherd’s voice and proclaims his love…but for Jesus, just saying “yes, I love you” isn’t quite enough. He wants to see love as alive as he is, so he gives Peter a task. And Peter, really, stands in for all of us as he hears Jesus’ command: to put our faith into practice. As one scholar said, “to love Jesus is to shape one’s life according to Jesus’ life.” [1]

If you love me, Jesus says, your life should look like mine. The shape of your days should match the shape of my love. Having been found and fed, now you follow.

How do we shape our lives to look like Jesus’ life?

The shape of Jesus’ life is the shape of the cross. Just as the cross reminds us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also reminds us how he lived his life, and gives us a shape on which to model our lives. When Jesus said that we are to love God with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, he drew for us a cross of vertical relationship and horizontal relationship.

Throughout the gospels we see Jesus constantly connected to God the creator—he goes off by himself to pray, nurturing that connection. Throughout the book of John especially, Jesus repeatedly says that anything he does comes from the Father, and the people who come to him are called first by God. He shows us what it means to love God with every fiber of our being.

At the same time he also models how to love our neighbor. He reaches out and touches people who are sick or unclean. He gathers together the hungry and feeds them. He goes out to the edges of society, and beyond, showing people how much God cares for them.

And we, who love Jesus, are to do the same. To draw the shape of our lives—not just our thoughts or feelings, but the way we live and move through the world—in the same shape Jesus did: simultaneously vertical and horizontal.

At the center of this shape is Christ, standing on a hillside or on the beach or in a kitchen, handing us the bread of life, showing us what this relationship looks like. The meals Jesus shares with people are an expression of his relationship with them, and that is still true. When we share a meal with our neighbors, we also share it with Christ. Every table is a reminder of God’s grace and abundance, and an opportunity to be formed and re-formed until our lives look more like Jesus’.

So what are the formative experiences of our Christian life? How are we formed—shaped—to live a life that looks like Christ’s?

At the family dinner table. Here, where Christ is the host, over and over again we hear the stories, we absorb the ethos, we come to understand how much we are loved and how we belong. We practice including strangers, and stretching to have enough for everyone, and being amazed at how much is provided. Sometimes it’s a fancy and special holiday or occasion, and most of the time it’s just the regular 6000 nightly dinners whose specialness may only be seen when we look at them all together, seeing how that pattern of life shapes us into who we are—children of God, growing into life with Christ, reaching up and reaching out, overflowing with love.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] New Interpreter's Bible, volume __, p. 864

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lovable--a sermon on Hosea 14

Rev. Teri Peterson
Hosea 14.1-9
31 July 2016, P2-3 (overflowing: healing)

The prophet Hosea lived in the mid-700s BC, and most of his words were directed toward the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the years leading up to being conquered by the Assyrian Empire. His poetry is full of metaphors, puns, and plays-on-words that aren’t always obvious to us in English. Most of Hosea’s book uses the metaphor of family to talk about God and God’s people. The covenant relationship between God and humans is like a marriage, or like a parent and child. It hurts when family members turn away, or when they behave in ways so contrary to the values we hold dear. That’s true for God too—God’s heart is grieved by the way God’s family has behaved. But because this family is formed by God’s covenant love, even after all Hosea’s message of condemnation, every poem ends with healing and hope. Today we are reading the last chapter of the book, Hosea 14 verses 1 through 9.

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take words with you
and return to the Lord;
say to him,
‘Take away all guilt;
accept that which is good,
and we will offer
the fruit of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us;
we will not ride upon horses;
we will say no more, “Our God”,
to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.’

I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree,
and his fragrance like that of Lebanon.
They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden;
they shall blossom like the vine,
their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols?
It is I who answer and look after you.
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness comes from me.

Those who are wise understand these things;
those who are discerning know them.
For the ways of the Lord are right,
and the upright walk in them,
but transgressors stumble in them.


Many of us are so accustomed to thinking of the Old Testament as being all anger and destruction, or boring repetition of names we can’t pronounce, that we forget that the same God we know in Christ is also God in the Old Testament. This summer as we have been reading, we’ve had lots of weeks where it felt like the body count was the most abundant thing about the people’s experience of God, or where we couldn’t see our way to grace through the litany of the different imaginative ways people have found to worship other gods.

But then we stumble on passages like this one. There are more of them than we think—it may be a sentence here and there, or a poem or paragraph in the midst of a frighteningly long recital of battles, but they’re there. Throughout scripture—from beginning to end—the beauty of God’s unending love is woven in.

Today, at the end of the book of the prophet Hosea, we get this beautiful image—God’s healing love will flow so freely that the people will blossom, their roots will grow deep, they will be fruitful and flourishing like olive trees and grape vines. God will be the dew refreshing the plants each morning, the shade under which they will dwell secure. Here, in the very last verses of a prophet who spoke such hard words just a few chapters ago, is the unconditional love, healing, and restoration that we know God to be.

And these images—blossom like the lily, beauty like the olive tree, roots like the forests of Lebanon, flourishing like a garden—are traditional images. They come from stories like the blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob and from poetry like the Song of Songs. Hosea isn’t the first to relay this promise from God—his words echo the same story God has been telling through Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi and Esther and Job and Josiah and Jeremiah and thousands of others, from the beginning.

In fact, the way God speaks in the middle of today’s reading: “I will heal…I will love…I will be like the dew…”—all those “I will”s are the same word as the word God takes as a name when speaking to Moses at the burning bush. “I am who I am”…or “I will be who I will be.” Here we see who God will be: healer, lover, provider. There in God’s name, revealed in Exodus chapter 3, is the reality that Hosea now reveals to the people, and to us: that through all the things we might do, God will be who God will be—and God chooses to be faithful to the covenant, even when God’s covenant partners aren’t. God chooses to forgive, even before we come forward with our confession. God chooses to seek us out, over and over, never giving up on compassion and love.

And eventually, we are found by grace…again and again. As the people are called to confess at the beginning of the chapter—when we look to human powers and systems to save us, God will find us with grace. When we build up military might and rely on it for our strength, God will find us with grace. When we turn to the idols we have made, whether in the form of statues or systems, money or ideals, God will find us with grace, and will breathe new life into us, giving us what we need to walk in the ways of the Lord.

God knows that we will stumble, and that we will need finding again. We sometimes forget that reality, and we think we can be righteous and faithful on our own. We rely on our willpower, and we castigate ourselves and each other for not living up to the rules. We create systems that tell us if we are being good enough or not, and rewards and punishments that we draw out of context from scripture and apply to the afterlife, or to the prosperity or hardship we experience in this one. But God tells us the truth in verse 8: “your faithfulness comes from me.”

If we are able to be faithful, it is because God is faithful.

We love because God first loved us.

Or, as Desmond Tutu said at the top of the bulletin today: God says “you are lovable because I love you.”

Not because we made ourselves lovable. Not because we said the right words or did the right things. We are lovable because God loves us. Because God is love.

Yes, God is angry in some of these stories we have read this summer. But as many of us know, anger is rarely the primary emotion—it’s the symptom of something else. The book of Hosea offers us a possibility: that anger is part of God’s grief. God longs for the kind of relationship with the creation that is founded on mutual care, on justice and peace, on love. That’s the basis of the covenant—God has demonstrated love and care for us, has enacted justice and offered peace…and our side is supposed to be to do the same. Because we have been loved, we are to love others. Because we have been cared for, we are to care for others. Because we have experienced justice and peace, we are to create it for others. God is longing for a world where what God offers to us then overflows through us into the whole world.

When that doesn’t happen, God grieves. And sometimes that looks like anger—calling us to account for the ways we have held up the streams of living water, hoarding them for ourselves or diverting them for other uses, and for the times when we have attributed God’s blessings to ourselves or to other gods of our own design and so have failed to be grateful and to pass them on. But through the angry moments, there is a deeper truth: God has no intention of giving up on God’s people. God is faithful, and it is from God that we learn to be faithful too.

God’s promise is true: God’s care for us extends from roots to blossoms, cultivating us in faith, hope, and love until we flourish like the garden of Eden. We are found by grace, healing overflows, forgiveness is already real, and we are constantly being restored as partners in God’s covenant. We are lovable, because we are loved.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

things I didn't want to learn...

Today I learned what a stress fracture looks like on an x-ray.*

I could have done without this knowledge, especially when looking at an x-ray of my own leg.

It appears that my usual approach of "walk it off" was never going to now I will spend the next eight weeks sitting even more than I have been the past eight weeks. grr.

That means I won't be able to run the fall half marathon. And it means I'm now accepting suggestions for non-weight bearing exercise I can do (at home) instead, so that when I *am* back to running, it won't be like starting from couch-potato...even though I will need to be practically the definition of couch potato for two months.**

Also, if anyone wants to contribute to my "summer of sitting" amazon fund, I have a really long list of books I want to read. hahahahahahahaha.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some comfort foods to eat. Because obviously if I can't exercise, I should instead plan to drown my sorrows in cheese and ice cream...

*it looks like a little bubble almost, wider than it is deep of course, just an arch of fibers separating from the edge of the bone. Now that I have seen it, I kind of think that's what it feels like, actually.

**It's probably not a running injury, just an exacerbated-by-running injury, so let's not go down the "maybe you should quit running" path. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hope in the Face of Fear--a sermon on Jeremiah 42

Rev. Teri Peterson
Hope in the Face of Fear
Jeremiah 42.1-12
24 July 2016, P2-2 (overflowing: hope)

The events of today’s reading happen shortly after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had defeated the Israelites, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried their king, officials, leaders, priests, and well-off people away into exile. The people left behind were either too poor to be of interest to the Babylonians, or were military men who had fled out into the countryside to escape.
Just before the people came to Jeremiah in today’s story, they discussed their options, and decided it would probably be best if all of them who were left went out of the land and down into Egypt. Their own land had been ruined by war, so a famine was likely. Their cities were rubble, and the government and artisans and people with resources were all gone. Egypt was the opposite direction from Babylon, and far out of reach of Nebuchadnezzar, so felt safer. Having figured all this out, they come to the prophet to seek God’s blessing on their decision, as we read in Jeremiah 42, which can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you’d like to follow along.

Then all the commanders of the forces, and Johanan son of Kareah and Azariah son of Hoshaiah, and all the people from the least to the greatest, approached the prophet Jeremiah and said, ‘Be good enough to listen to our plea, and pray to the Lord your God for us—for all this remnant. For there are only a few of us left out of many, as your eyes can see. Let the Lord your God show us where we should go and what we should do.’ The prophet Jeremiah said to them, ‘Very well: I am going to pray to the Lord your God as you request, and whatever the Lord answers you I will tell you; I will keep nothing back from you.’ They in their turn said to Jeremiah, ‘May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the Lord your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the Lord our God.’
 At the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Then he summoned Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces who were with him, and all the people from the least to the greatest, and said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your plea before him: If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, as you have been; do not be afraid of him, says the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to rescue you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, and he will have mercy on you and restore you to your native soil.

The world was falling apart. First, the king and all the ruling class and the religious leaders, along with the merchants and artisans, had been carried away to Babylon, and a puppet king installed. Then, when he also refused to listen to the prophet and insisted on going his own way, the Babylonian army had come and camped around Jerusalem, laying siege to the city for 17 months before finally breaking through and destroying everything—pulling down buildings, including the Temple, setting fire to the city, and tearing down the city walls. The entire Israelite army was either killed or ran away. The Babylonians looted the Temple and the city, and carried off all that bronzework we heard about a few weeks ago, and all the gold and silver ritual dishes, and also the rest of the merchants, officers, Temple staff, secretaries, and advisors who had come to live in the city in the intervening decade. Second Kings ends the story of the battle with the simple statement “So Judah was exiled from its land.”

Those who are left—the officers who deserted during the battle, making their way back to the ruined city, the poor people left behind to work the land, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar—have watched their whole world turn upside down. Their leaders have failed them. The economy is in shambles, the environment is a disaster, and their understanding of themselves as chosen and blessed by God, the best nation, has been shaken.

Into this anxious and angry community, the newly appointed governor tries to speak calmly, encouraging the people to live in this new reality and make a way forward.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord, saying the same thing: stay here in your land, build and plant, and God will build you up and plant you here—no more tearing down, no more plucking up. Live here now, and be God’s people here and now, and don’t be afraid.

The people, though, can’t hear it. They shout that the prophet is lying, God would never say that. They insist that the governor is corrupt because he was appointed by the king of Babylon, so they kill him over the dinner table. And then they get together and talk about how good things used to be, and how they just want to feel that way again—safe and prosperous and blessed.

It’s like they are re-living the exodus, channeling their ancestors insisting that it was better back in Egypt when they sat by the pots and ate their fill.

But they are so blinded by their fear that they can’t see—they can’t see how their memory of the past is colored by their anxiety, they can’t see forward, so they decide to run away. They’ll go back to Egypt, as far from the stranger king as possible, reaching way way back to their roots…and then, maybe, they’ll be safe.

They come to Jeremiah for prayer with this plan already in mind, anticipating that he’ll offer them God’s blessing. They insist that they’ll do whatever God says, as long as Jeremiah tells them everything. They insist so vehemently that it feels suspicious, actually, like they may be covering their anxiety with lots of words, babbling almost. Protesting too much, perhaps.

Jeremiah knows, and God knows, they’re not going to obey. But Jeremiah takes them seriously anyway. He goes to God and prays—for ten days, asking God for guidance. That’s a long time in an anxious space, with people stewing in their fear. It’s hard to wait, especially when it feels like the world is falling apart and we have to do something RightNow. Jeremiah doesn’t rush, though—he isn’t afraid to listen for what God is truly saying, and to take the time to be certain before speaking.

When the word comes, Jeremiah knows it won’t be well received, but he speaks it anyway. He offers God’s words of hope: I will build you up, I will plant you, do not be afraid, remain in this land.

It’s a beautiful vision: God says “I am with you.”

Spoiler alert: the people can’t see this vision. Their eyes and minds and hearts are clouded by fear—fear of invasion, fear of hunger, fear of each other. They cannot hear quiet truth, or carefully considered words. They long for the way things were, and they don't want to do the hard work of building God’s new future when it seems easier to go back, so they instead insult Jeremiah and his secretary, calling them liars and other names. And they pack up Jeremiah and Baruch into the already loaded caravans and carry them off to Egypt too.

In the face of fear, the people could not choose hope.

It takes courage to be hopeful when the world is falling apart. When everything is upside down, and our self-image is shattered and we aren’t sure what’s coming next, and our minds are full of images of the good old days, it is hard work to look for God’s presence and hope amidst the ruins of our assumptions and anxiety. And it’s hard to pray honestly, as Jeremiah did. Many of us are tempted to take the path of the people—asking God to bless the side we are already on, rather than asking God to open our hearts and minds and wills to walk God’s way…and then to wait for God to reveal the path, even while we are afraid of what might happen.

In the world at any given moment, there’s plenty to be afraid of. And there are people all around encouraging us to fear our neighbors, the possibilities of the unknown, the future, the government, nature, other countries, other religions, other political parties. We are constantly inundated with messages of fear, and it’s easy to slip into “it was better before when we were in Egypt” mode. It’s easy to join the throng in putting our trust in things other than God, taking matters into our own hands because God is too slow to answer, or because the word of God is too hard to follow.

But there’s also plenty of reason to hope. Even in the face of fear, we can choose hope. We can live as if we believe God’s promise is true: Do not be afraid, I am with you. We can be careful not to be blinded by the anxiety peddled by our leaders and our media, we can insist that they be truthful in their dealings with us, and we can refrain from automatically disbelieving anything we don’t already agree with. We can act with integrity—a key theme of the book of Jeremiah—and make sure that what we do and how we behave lines up with what we say we believe. We can do our part to make the world look a little more like the kingdom of God—treating everyone, even our enemies, with kindness and respect; caring for God’s creation even when it isn’t convenient; looking out for people on the margins and helping those in need even when it costs us more than we get back. We can refuse to participate in groups or systems that do not recognize the image of God in every person no matter their race or religion, and instead create spaces where all are truly welcome. We can choose hope, in the midst of all the fear that floats around and threatens to overwhelm us. It will take enormous courage, and we may sometimes have to do it even when we aren’t feeling it, but we can, and we should, be people who embody the good news of God, true in every time and every place: do not be afraid, I am with you.

May it be so. Amen.

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.