Friday, February 27, 2009

I Can See Clearly Now...a sermon for Lent 1B

Rev. Teri Peterson
I Can See Clearly Now…
RCLPC
1 March 2009, Lent 1B
Genesis 8.6-12, 15-19, 9.8-17

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.
Then God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.’ So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’
God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’



When I was a Camp Fire Girl, one of the things we did a lot of was singing. I remember learning a song about Noah’s ark—perhaps you also learned this song? The chorus is the best part—“Rise and Shine and give God the glory glory!” The verses include such classics as “the Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody floody” and “God told Noah to build him an arky arky.” It’s a classic children’s song, isn’t it? I even found verses I never learned when I checked out websites like childbiblesongs.com. The song tells the whole story, from the ark to the animals going in by twosie-twosies, to the rain and flood and the sun coming out again.

Well, the song tells most of the story, anyway. There are a few key parts left out. Because really, this story isn’t a children’s book, at its core it doesn’t belong in a children’s song—it would be better off starting “it was a dark and stormy forty days and forty nights…” because it’s nearly that sinister. You see, before God has Noah build the ark and bring his family and all the animals in, God looks at the world, the world God created and called good just a few chapters before, and sees only corruption and anger and violence. The world lacks compassion and hope and care. And so, in the face of overwhelming disappointment, God decides to counter violence with violence. The divine retribution is complete devastation—nothing will be left…except Noah, the 7 members of his family, and two of each living animal. That’s it—everything else will be utterly wiped out, drowned, washed away in the flood of God’s grief and anger.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember that verse in the song.

After the rain stops and the waters begin to subside, after the ark comes to rest on the top of a mountain, Noah begins sending out scouts—first a raven, then a dove. When the dove comes back with an olive branch, a sprouting twig of hope from below the tree line, a sign of spring, of new life, then Noah knows it’s nearly time to go. And then, just as all these animals come out of the ark, family by family, God speaks.

It seems that God is a pretty fast learner—much faster than we are. God looks around at the fresh new world, shiny and clean, and sees more clearly than ever before that this won’t work. Now that the rain is gone, God sees that the creation will always be slightly less than perfect, will always be disappointing because people have free will, will always contain the seeds that can grow into violence just as easily as they can grow into compassion. The question about those seeds is what kind of water they get, and the flood waters of violence will not stamp out violence. God sees clearly now that redemptive violence is a lie—fighting violence with violence will always fail. In the words of Ghandi: an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

And so God hangs up the bow—a weapon, a vehicle for violence—facing away from the earth. God chooses a different path, a path based on covenant and creation and love. This covenant to never again use violence against the world is made not just with Noah and his family, but with all the creatures of the earth too. In this dawn of the new creation, this springtime of the covenant, God promises to look forward with hope, and asks us to do the same.

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with Lent. Well, the word “lent” is an old saxon word for Spring, and refers primarily to the lengthening of the days. The word was adopted by the church in the middle ages to refer to the time of preparation for Easter (the old word was a very long Latin name). Lent, the springtime of a new covenant, the time when we sit in the ark while God prepares a new thing around us, the time when we look for twigs of hope sprouting in the darkness and chaos around us.

One of the hardest parts about Lent, I think, is the sense of inevitability. We journey through these forty days, this time in the wilderness, this time of preparation, and every year, without fail, we come to the part of the story that is all death and darkness and despair. Every year, without fail, Judas betrays, Peter denies, and Jesus prays on the cross. The story is never going to go differently. Whatever we do, whether we give something up or take something on or drape our sanctuary in black or let our Alleluias fall silent, it’s going to be the same.

This is also one of the best parts of Lent, in my opinion. Because no matter what we do, no matter how dark the world is, no matter how deep the despair, Friday will always give way to Sunday, when light rather than darkness pours out of an empty tomb. God is indeed doing a new thing, making a new creation, marking that creation with a new covenant, no matter what we do. We sit in the ark, we pray in the wilderness, we wander through the desert, and all around us God is doing a new thing, pouring out love and grace and compassion with arms spread wide in welcome, because no more will God rain destruction—the only thing that can overcome despair is hope, the only thing that can overcome darkness is light, the only thing that can overcome violence is love.

So maybe this story does belong in children’s songs and storybooks after all. It’s a story of learning and growth, a story of a commitment to compassion and love, a story of God making a promise and keeping that promise. For all the violence and destruction, for all the nonsense words of the song, there’s also hope for a new creation—even now it springs forth, in olive branches, in lengthening days, in rainbows.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

kiva!

I just tried to go re-lend some money I've had paid back on Kiva, only to discover that every single loan is funded!  That's so great!  

And yet, I'm a little sad that I can't go perusing the small businesses around the world and help them out.  But happy that everyone's fully funded!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

thanks

Today I just want to say "thanks" to all of you who are my friends.  I really appreciate you guys/gals!  And, as I'm in the process of getting to know a new--ish friend better (someone who really needs friends), I want you all to know that you're awesome because now I have the capacity to be a good friend too!

Also, to those of you who may work in seminary-type environments:  please start telling students that parish ministry is very isolating, even if you're not serving in a geographically isolated area.  It's hard to make friends when you're fresh out of the tight-knit group that is a seminary class.  It's hard to make friends when you're the pastor (or pastor's spouse).  It's hard to make friends when you don't have disposable income or much free time.  Most people don't seem prepared for that shock of isolation, and have no tools for coping other than a telephone call to other friends who are similarly isolated.  People need to know this so they can at least mentally prepare a little!  

And to those of you looking for friends in a new place:  it's hard, but please do it.  It's so worthwhile to have good friends who can support you, challenge you, and all around make you a better person. Take my word for it, I'm lucky to have a bunch.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

lesser is More--a sermon for Ordinary 6B

Rev. Teri Peterson
RCLPC
lesser is More
2 Kings 5.1-14
February 15 2009, Ordinary 6B

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’ So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.


When I moved to Egypt, I discovered something I’d been told, but could still only figure out for myself. Egypt is a study in contrasts—incredible poverty across the street from incredible wealth, tourist-brochure blue seas and golden sands next to the gut-wrenching air, water, and land pollution of an overpopulated developing nation, the ancient and amazing pyramids of Giza across the street from a modern, two-story no less! McDonald’s.
This story, in some ways, reminds me of those contrasts I found in Egypt, beginning with our reaction to it. This is a shocking story—shocking enough that when Jesus references it during his first (and last) sermon in his home church, the people try to throw him off a cliff! But why?
I could practically hear the collective groan in our subconscious when you all heard the words “Second Book of Kings.” Be honest, now, how many of you tend to think of books like second kings as part of our holy scripture that doesn’t make much sense, full names that are hard to pronounce, and stories that don’t mean anything to us…more the stuff of skimming than of reading over and over?

And yet, as people of the book, we claim that these stories we read are part of our story, and we are part of the story that this book tries to tell, whether we like it or not. But still, that’s not so shocking—people are bored by the Bible all the time…what is it about this story that’s throw-him-off-a-cliff worthy? It seems so harmless—Girl says “hey, we have a prophet who can heal!” Guy says “oh, excellent, let’s check that out.” Prophet says “go take a bath already.” Guy does, he’s healed. Done.

If only things were that simple.

Before the story begins, the Aramean army, apparently aided by God, has just obliterated the northern kingdom of Israel—there’s practically nothing left. The people are quiet but wary. The king is a figurehead, perfectly aware that he has very little power. The Arameans have taken some prisoners of war, including women and children, and one of these children is now a slave in the house of the four-star general who planned and executed this war.

But the general has a problem—he has a skin disease. He’s probably tried to keep it a secret as much as possible…but things like this get out. Now, Naaman is a very rich man, but visiting every doctor and magician in Syria hasn’t helped. Naaman can still do his job, he can still attend the king’s court, he’s just itchy. But to the Israelite prisoner of war slave girl, leprosy is something very different—it’s an affliction that means that Naaman can’t be whole, he can’t be ritually clean, he can’t be a full part of the family or community. It’s something that needs to be cleansed immediately. So she offers her suggestion…

She’s a young girl—nothing more than property, a plaything. A slave girl—easily disposed of if she’s insolent or not useful. A prisoner of war—an inferior being, captured from an inferior people. A nameless young thing, advising the most powerful man in the middle east, and Naaman takes her seriously.

As if that’s not shocking enough, Naaman gets permission from his king to go back to Israel to seek out this prophet. So he loads up his carriages and chariots, his baggage train, his money, his offering to placate the king he knows perfectly well has been demolished by Naaman’s own power. In other words, he loads up the spoils of a war he’d just won, a symbol of his power and might, and he rolls on down from Damascus to Israel, through towns and villages with his military escort and his wagons of money looted from those same towns and villages. No wonder the king tore his clothes when he read the letter—between the letter demanding that the king heal Naaman and the intimidation of the military baggage train, he must have known he was in trouble.

And then in steps Elisha, a prophet unlike any Naaman has known. In Naaman’s world, prophets belong in royal courts, they’re in the employ of the king, their job is to tell the king what he wants to hear. But these Israelites are strange people, and that’s not how Elisha works, so off Naaman goes to Elisha’s little hut, where another surprise awaits. He pulls the chariots, the wagons, the carriages, the horses, the military escort, the money, the extra clothes, up to the door of a mud brick hovel, knocks, and waits…only to be greeted by a servant and given instructions to take a bath and go home.

A servant???? Where is the magician? Where is the royal prophet? Doesn’t he know who Naaman is? Doesn’t he recognize the chariots and soldiers that were here such a short time ago? Doesn’t he recognize the general who led a successful war right here on this land? Doesn’t he know that there’s better water to be had everywhere besides here, in this literal backwater, an inferior country overrun with inferior people? I suspect I too would storm away in a rage.

Again, servant to the rescue, and again Naaman listens…and the man who came looking for a magical cure, laden with possessions and burdened with power, finds healing, naked and shivering in a muddy polluted stream. The one who thought power and might could save him finds that only when he’s alone in the river, powerless and vulnerable, dripping with mud and water—only then is true power revealed. Grace abounds, but the earthly trappings may blur our vision more than water in our eyes would.

What about Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus? Aren’t they better than all the waters of Israel? Could Naaman not wash in them? It’s not like the Jordan is a magic river. It’s a muddy and polluted trickle of water in some places. It’s not clean, it’s not beautiful, it’s not special. What makes it special this time is actually two things, both having to do with Naaman, not with the river. Remember that Jesus said, “there were many lepers in Israel, but only Naaman the Syrian was healed.” Why? First, he agrees to go in the water. Remember, leprosy to Naaman wasn’t something that needed cleansing, he thought he needed curing. Did you catch what Elisha said?—“your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But how could getting dirtier in the Jordan, rather than cleaner in his own sparkling rivers, help anything? But he does it anyway. We’ll never know whether Abana or Pharpar would have been good enough…he doesn’t seem to have tried them first, since he was looking for the wrong kind of cure. Second, and more important, in order to wash seven times in the Jordan, he had to leave everything else, from his baggage to his wealth to his escort, on the shore. He had to shed his power to find shalom—and then his flesh was restored, and he was clean.

The whole time he’d been suffering from dis-ease, Naaman had been looking in the wrong places, asking the wrong questions, living on the wrong side of the contrast. He went to the king, having taken the advice of a prisoner slave girl. He demanded magic, having sought out a prophet. He brought more money than anyone in Israel had, seeking grace that can’t be bought. He expected a show of power equal to his, and instead found a different kind of power, a power found in weakness and vulnerability—in a slave girl, a prophet’s messenger, a servant, a muddy river. The lesser the person or task, the more powerful they are, and the more shocking the story becomes.

It’s hard to summarize what we all do while looking for God, looking for grace, looking for healing, any better than the Indigo Girls did:
We go to the doctor, we go to the mountains,
We look to the children, we drink from the fountains,
we go to the Bible, we go through the workout,
We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive,
The closer I am to fine.



May our eyes be opened to look in the right places, to expect surprising grace, to find wholeness in the undefined mystery of faith.
Amen.


Some of the music for the service this week: 


at 830:

 

at 830 and 930: a song called "River of Mercy" that I can't seem to find a video of...but includes the words "flow, river of mercy, wash away my fear...run through me like the sea crashes into the sand...pour, river of mercy, healing water flow..."

and, at all three services, after the sermon/during the offering!!


Monday, February 02, 2009

confession

no, I don't have anything juicy to confess--I don't have enough free time to really get into too much trouble.

But last week, while I was at the Celtic Spirituality for Today conference, led by Philip Newell and John Bell, we had some interesting discussion on the topic of confession.

I have to tell you, I'm Reformed.  Very Reformed, particularly when it comes to liturgical issues and the theology behind our liturgies.  One of the things about Reformed liturgies is that they pretty much always have a prayer of confession somewhere near the beginning--we prepare to encounter the living Word by confessing that we don't get it right, that we don't live the way God calls us, etc.  This is one of the things that helps me when people say that Christians are hypocrites--"not really," I say, " because we admit out loud every week that we don't do it right."

But Philip Newell, who is from the Church of Scotland and is also Reformed, said one day that, "in no other relationship do we begin every encounter with the other by saying what s***bags we are.  If we do have a relationship where every encounter begins that way, it's probably not a healthy relationship, it's probably very sick and won't last."  He says this is the result of the way we have thought of Original Sin, which is a whole different blog post and is also a discussion that involves looking at our tradition from a different angle.

So, back to the confession thing:  If, in fact, we do begin our encounters with God by confessing (and it is up close, too, even in the acronym for prayer: ACTS--adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication...sometimes with ID added--intercession, dedication), and if in fact that could be construed as a mark of an UNhealthy relationship with another, then we have a problem.

Is it possible that the reason people *feel* so unworthy, the reason that people *feel* that they have nothing to offer, the reason people *feel* that God hates them...could be because we have a liturgical tradition that reinforces that feeling every week?  Yes, I know, we offer words of assurance, declarations of forgiveness, etc, but...is it possible that the words of the confession are sticking more, and polluting our relationship with God, a relationship based on love, not shame?

I do think prayers of confession are important.  But I'm beginning to wonder if we need them every week after all?  (I know, I know...call up my Reformed theology professor and out me as a heretic now!)  Or do we need something else...something that nurtures our loving relationship with God rather than (even subconsciously) plants more seeds of shame?  Hmmm....