Sunday, January 18, 2015

By Heart--a sermon on Matthew 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Just the Beginning--a sermon for baptism of the lord sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Just the Beginning
Matthew 3.1-17
11 January 2015, NL1-19, Baptism of the Lord

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

You brood of vipers!!

I’ve always wanted to start a sermon that way. I have no idea what situation or text would make it appropriate, and no clue what the sermon would actually be about, but it’s fun to say. You brood of vipers!

It makes me wonder if John the Baptizer—whom I often call JTB—had been waiting for the opportunity to say it too. I picture him standing waist-deep in the Jordan River, calling people to a renewed commitment to living God’s way, when all of a sudden he sees the people who have murmured against him, undercut his message and his character.

It’s no wonder he shouts at them, really. These are people who scoff at John’s ministry, believing that because they grew up in the church, they don’t need to do anything else. They see themselves as the keepers of the tradition, ready to point out when we haven’t done things that way before, ready to offer their perfect bloodlines as evidence of their faithfulness. John wants them to know that God can do amazing things, both with the children of Abraham and with those who will be adopted into the family tree. God calls us all to bear fruit, not just to stand unyielding even if the tree is dead.

John’s words at the end of his rant have echoed through time: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We have read this as a threat, and used it as one too. If we don’t ask Jesus into our hearts, if we aren’t baptized, if we don’t go to church often enough, if we don’t read the right translation of the Bible, if we don’t support the right political party, we might turn out to be chaff, thrown into an unquenchable fire.

Or rather, if other people don’t do these things, then they are chaff—useless, a nuisance, only worthy of being carried away by the wind or burned. 

We have forgotten something important about chaff and wheat. Namely: chaff is a part of wheat. These are not two different things, they are together. And as grain is growing, chaff is important—it is the hull that protects the grain from bugs, from the elements, from falling prematurely off the stalk. It is, in most grains, a hard shell that builds up as the stalks grow and the heads mature.

At the harvest, the chaff must be separated from the grain in order for the grain to be useable. That husk is stripped away and sifted out, until what’s left is a pile of grain ready to be ground into flour and turned into bread, and a pile of husks ready to be swept away.

What JTB tells the Pharisees and Sadducees—and everyone else listening that day on the riverbank, and all of us who continue to read his words—is that a life committed to God’s path is a life of letting God strip that husk away so that we can be useful. Much though we might want to hang on to those layers of protection we have so carefully built up, the reality is that those layers keep us from fulfilling our calling. It is only when they are removed that our true nature is revealed and we are ready to be used for God’s purpose.

It can sometimes hurt, and sometimes be confusing, when God pulls off the husks we have so carefully put in place. It makes us vulnerable, and it changes our whole view of the world. Where once we saw through layers of protection, now we see as God intended, and the light can be overwhelming.

If it’s any consolation, this was just as true for good old JTB as it is for us. The final words of his temper tantrum are barely out of his mouth when Jesus wades into the river next to him, and he finds himself protesting. This is all wrong, this isn’t how the story is supposed to go, he wasn’t prepared for this. John had worked it all out, and he was the one who would set the script…except all of a sudden, John and Jesus were standing there together and John discovers that he still had more husk to peel away, more chaff to be winnowed and burned. Through his protesting, Jesus gently pulls…it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness. Not your self-righteousness, not your righteous anger, but true righteousness—right relationship with God, each other, and creation.

In order for us to be in the right relationship to God, and to each other, and to the community, this is the way it must go. Jesus has come to be the next steps on the way, and John is not in charge of the story anymore. He has to give that up and allow himself to be a part of God’s plan, not only his own.

And as Jesus comes up from the water, when both he and John are at their most vulnerable, the plan is revealed in one word:

That’s what Jesus lived, died, and rose to show—that under all those layers: Beloved.

In the life of Jesus we see that we don’t need all that tough husk, because even as it protects us from those things we would rather not see, it also blocks us from knowing Christ in all his fullness. When we stay huddled inside the chaff, our grains of wheat shrink and rot from lack of light. It’s almost as if we are trying to push away grace because we find it uncomfortable to let go of our security blankets. But even inside that dark hull, the reality is the same: Beloved.

No wonder baptism is the ritual we use to symbolize God’s grace already at work in our lives—before we can put up all those layers, before we can respond, God is already there, making kernels of grain that will feed the world, and growing requires water. Baptism is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and it is the beginning of our communal Christian story. In the water, we see right relationship with God and with each other. Because of course one grain of wheat doesn’t get very far, but many gathered together can create an abundance. It is in this community where we remember that underneath it all is one word: love. It is in this community where we can have some of the husk stripped away, because we are growing into mature faith that is ready to be used for God’s kingdom, and that’s going to mean letting go of our own. It is in this community where we support each other, challenge each other, and practice authentic relationship as we find ourselves broken open again and again for the sake of the world. And around us and in us will be the water of life abundant and eternal, swirling with the voice of God, whispering and babbling and singing and roaring: beloved.

This is just the beginning. Over and over God will pull back more and more layers, and we will squint at the light, and wish we could stay under the covers, and watch as our protective husks are blown away by the winds of the Spirit. Over and over, every time we encounter God’s gift of water, we remember the covenant: that at the center, we are beloved, and we are made for a purpose: to come together into something useful and nourishing for God’s world.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

dreaming in the dark: a sermon for Epiphany

Rev. Teri Peterson
dreaming in the dark
Matthew 2.1-23
4 January 2015, Epiphany, NL1-18

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Have you ever used the phrase “we all know how that ends”? I’ve heard and said it about stories, some from this very book, as well as used sarcastically to suggest that something is not a good idea.

This story seems to fall outside “we all know how that ends”—I would be willing to bet that very few people know how the Christmas story ends, actually. The pageants and the movies end with the wise men and shepherds going home and sharing the good news, and then we move on to adult Jesus out teaching and healing and calling disciples. For some reason we almost always cut out the actual end of the birth story as Matthew tells it—the part where the wise men’s decision to stop following the star and start following their usual script leads to the death of a whole town’s worth of children.

If we do talk about it, we often read this in the context of the larger story Matthew is setting up—he wants to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecy, that he is the new Moses, and so he makes sure to tell us the story of how the holy family came to be in Egypt, so that the Son could be called out of Egypt. We talk about the importance of Jesus leading God’s people to freedom from sin the way Moses led people to freedom from Pharaoh. We conveniently gloss over the dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of tiny coffins that paved the way.

It’s easy to do this, of course. For one thing, we don’t like to be uncomfortable, and we especially  don't like scripture to make us uncomfortable. For another, stories like this one don’t fit our image of the Christmas story as all about peace and harmony and surprisingly clean animals in a surprisingly snow-covered stable.

But that’s the thing about epiphanies—they rarely fit our Christmas-card understanding, and they often make us uncomfortable. Like a light that is too bright and makes us want to shield our eyes, or put on sunglasses, or put our head down and look at only a tiny piece of the world right in front of our feet, Epiphany—the revealing of God in the human Jesus—might hurt a little bit, and we might want to turn away. We might be tempted to walk our well-worn paths of explanation and excuse, because the light is too bright on any other way. And yet the light keeps shining, on and on, urging us to just try to look, just try to open ourselves enough to perceive God’s action, God’s presence, just try to take in the wonders of God’s grace.

The wise men were doing a pretty good job, weren’t they? They were outsiders, people of a different religion and a different skin color and different foods and a different language. But they were paying attention, and they were courageous enough to set out from home to see this important thing happening in the world. They saw the light and they followed it. Yet they would follow only so far, and then they knew how the story ends. After all, they were learned men, they studied the stars and the texts, they knew their history and their mythology. They knew that such a light could only mean one thing: a king. And they knew that kings were in palaces. So, naturally, their eyes turned toward their own understanding, leaving the light behind.

How often do we walk by habit, almost with blinders on, because we already know how this story goes? How often are we looking right past the light to our own predetermined plan?

Eventually they get it right, with some help from Herod and the royal scholars. They head the last 6 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where they find the star had been waiting all along, and where the child called God-With-Us was growing up in a family, in a neighborhood, in a synagogue. They present the gifts of kings, confusing the heck out of his parents, but preparing the way for how this story will proceed much farther down the line. And then, in the dark of night, they have a dream, and they finally manage to blaze a new trail, rather than going again and again over the one they had already trod.

But Herod…Herod has heard about the light now. And sometimes we cannot handle light brighter than our own. He could not risk people seeing by this light God had sent. He wasn’t finished with his own power scheme, so it couldn’t possibly be time for the Messiah yet. He liked the throne, and the light shining out of that little house in Bethlehem might not only eclipse his own, but it might also illuminate all his faults and failings—both as a Jew who bowed to Roman idols and as a Jewish king who danced to the tune of the Roman emperor. He needed the darkness, so he created it, dimming the eyes of mothers with tears as the light went out from their children.

How often does our fear, or our privilege, need the darkness?

The soldiers came, and with impunity they killed the future of a whole community. Because one man believed his life was in danger, a gaping hole was slashed in every family tree. No incident report, no trial…it was justified, after all. Best not to bring these things to light.

Where was God-with-us while Herod’s power trip was mowing down Jesus’ neighbors and playmates? It must have felt as if the very light of God had fled along with the holy family. Where once the darkness held dreams, now only a nightmare.

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

We don’t like this. We want people to grieve quietly, not with wailing and loud lamentation. We want it to be appropriate, and private if at all possible. We want to be able to console, to comfort, to offer words or casseroles that will make it all better. And those things matter, they really do. They are the presence of God in the midst of pain. But if they are accompanied by any whiff of “when will she move on?” then we are working for ourselves, not God. It’s counterintuitive; we see this kind of inconsolable horror as the darkness, needing the light of encouragement and busyness and laughter. But to sit, stand, march, refusing to be consoled, is also to stare into the face of injustice and refuse to back down. It is to stand hand in hand with the creator and stand up to evil, insisting not only that God hear, but that the world hear: we will not simply put up with someone’s fear and privilege blotting out the light of life.

When Rachel wails, when the mothers of Bethlehem weep, when Pakistani fathers carry lifeless bodies out of a school, when communities block traffic by lying in the streets, when people swarm the steps of government buildings begging for justice, when the people of God refuse to be consoled because others made in God’s image are no more…it forces the rest of us to face our discomfort. Will we complain or whisper or gossip? Will we shake our heads and say a prayer then forget? Or can we stand there, hand in hand with the prince of peace, and look into the darkness?…By looking and wailing and sitting, by refusing to offer platitudes or to hint that we know a better way, maybe we begin to let the light in.

How often do we insist on moving on, being appropriate, putting on our shades and lowering our eyes, taking an easier way, rather than standing to stare into the despair and hold its gaze until it is the darkness that has to back down this time?

Light can be a dangerous thing. It is also beautiful, and healing, if we will let it in.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Emmanuel--a sermon for Advent 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

I only have fond memories of one of those pastors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 08, 2014

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

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

the best laid plans...

...sometimes have to be sacrificed for sleep.

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

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

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Vision--a sermon for Advent 1, on Habakkuk

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

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

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

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

How long, O Lord?

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

How long, O Lord?

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

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

It hurts—to feel forgotten, to feel ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(conversation in the pews)

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

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

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

May be it be so. Amen.