Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Trust--a sermon for Advent 4

Rev. Teri C Peterson
Luke 1.5-13, 18-22, 57-80
20 December 2015, Advent 4, NL 2-15

 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.
 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
   in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were getting on in years. They probably knew it was Zechariah’s last time in the rotation of priests called to offer sacrifices and prayer at the Temple. He would make this journey, and he would do his duty, serving God and people, and when he journeyed home he might still do a few things around the local synagogue now and then, but he wasn’t likely to have extensive work duties anymore.

I wonder what Elizabeth did while he was away, with her last chance for a little peace and quiet. I’m sure she knew that when her husband retired, nothing would be the same. Especially with no children or grandchildren around, the transition to just the two of them at home all the time…well, I suspect that it was as rocky then as it is now for many couples!

Imagine her surprise when he returned home and said nothing.

I suspect there are some couples who would find the unexpected silence a beautiful and joyous thing, especially in those early days of retirement.
And some might find it unnerving, at least at first.

We don’t know what Zechariah did to communicate with Elizabeth. Perhaps he wrote on tablets for her—though it’s unlikely that she could read. Maybe he was a very good mime. Or maybe she was so happy to have some time to think her own thoughts that it didn’t matter what he wanted to say. Either way, the silence was always there.

This Advent season we have been exploring different ways to give voice to God’s promise—we’ve heard about when the Israelites rediscovered God’s law and they spent time together listening to God’s word, we’ve pondered how to speak God’s unending faithfulness to a people who are fickle and shallow in comparison to God’s grace, we’ve persevered in following God’s call in the midst of opposition and heartache. In many ways, today’s story feels the most like the theme—because it ends with Zechariah literally giving voice to God’s promise. He sings this song that tells all that God has done and proclaims this great faith in what God will do. Our candlelighting liturgy says “God’s promise is the foundation of all life”—reminding us of true reality, and our job to find ways to make God’s love known and seen in the world. With his song, Zechariah is practically the poster child for Advent 2015: Giving Voice to God’s Promise. He lifts up his voice and lets the word be heard, echoing through him, his family, his town, and history.

But I think it’s possible that the real lesson in Zechariah’s story comes not from his amazing song, but from the silence which precedes it—a silence that probably lasted about a year.

Zechariah, as a priest, was probably used to knowing just what to say. But when Gabriel appeared in the inner sanctuary and gave him the news that he and Elizabeth would have a son after all these years…well, he did not say the right thing.

I am often asked why Zechariah’s question got him punished, while Mary’s question to Gabriel got her an answer. On the surface, it really does seem as if both of them, in their encounters with the angel, responded in the same way, but the angel Gabriel reacted very differently. Why?

Zechariah meets Gabriel in the inner sanctuary, next to the altar—a place where ordinarily no one was allowed, so he should have known something special was happening. When he hears Gabriel’s news of an impending son who will be a great prophet, he asks, “How will I know?” Or in the newest English translation, the Common English Bible, he says “How can I be sure?” Mary meets Gabriel in the midst of everyday life. Some traditions suggest he met her at the town well, others in her kitchen. In any case, he delivers the news that she will bear the Son of God, and Mary asks “How will this happen?”

Mary’s question seems to be one of mechanics—how will this thing be accomplished? To ask that question, she must have already known it could and would happen—she simply wanted to know what any young person might want to know. Would she have to break her engagement vows? Will it hurt?

Zechariah’s question is one of control—how will he know? How can he be sure this thing is really going to happen? It seems like he doesn’t want to get his hopes up again, after so many years of disappointment and grief, so he is looking for certainty for himself.

In other words: Zechariah’s question reveals his fear, while Mary’s reveals her trust. Mary’s question is a “yes, and…” response, while Zechariah offers Gabriel a “yes, but…” When we are acting out of fear, we often try to get concrete answers, to control outcomes, and to force certainty. Zechariah did not trust that God could or would do this thing—he needed personal certainty if he was going to walk home and face his wife with this news.

We usually read the silence as a punishment, but what if it was a gift? Without his voice, Zechariah has no choice but to trust. He cannot explain himself. He cannot explain things away. He cannot control situations with his intellect or his witty conversation. He cannot defend himself. He can’t force his way. All he can do is listen.

For many months, Zechariah listens. He can see God’s grace taking root in his own house, he can hear the buzz in the square. He must have become very attuned to the excitement and fear and wonder and joy all mingled together everywhere…and to the voices of the women like Elizabeth and Mary, who have space to speak boldly since Zechariah can’t. He, the man of the house, the priest who was chosen for the highest honor, the elder of the community, is silenced, and for perhaps the first time, he has to really pay attention to life, to people, and to God.

At last, John is born and named. Zechariah listens to the wonder and fear of his neighbors…and then finds his voice again. And his first words are a song of trust beyond imagining—he sings of all God’s promises to care for the people, to save them from oppression and fear, to deliver them into abundant life and light. And he sings of all those promises in the past tense. Not “God will do this” but “God has done this.” He sings of God’s goodness as a present reality, and God’s redeeming grace as something that has already been accomplished. Finally able to heed the angel’s instruction to not be afraid, he gives voice to God’s promises fulfilled.

This trust is born out of silence. To trust God at this level—the level where we can see, know, and freely proclaim God’s promises as true reality, and to act from that reality rather than from our fear—we need significant practice letting go of all our means of control and certainty, defense and manipulation. It takes work to move from saying to God “yes, but…” toward saying “yes, and…”, to accept the premise of God’s word and move forward with that into the new thing God is doing in our midst.

That is the practice of Advent—to be still and know God, to listen in the deepening darkness and watch what God can do in the world and people around us, and then to go where God is going. Advent preparation is not about busying ourselves so we can celebrate—it is about emptying ourselves so we can be filled. As the day of God’s birth draws near, let’s listen, and persevere, and trust—and then speak.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’”

May it be so.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Persevere--a sermon for Advent 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
Ezra 1.1-4, 3.1-4, 10-13
13 December 2015, NL 2-14, Advent 3 (Giving Voice to God’s Promise)

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:
 ‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill-offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.’
When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighbouring peoples, and they offered burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt-offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day,
 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.

It’s been nearly 60 years since my grandparents left their hometown to begin a life adventure that would end up taking them across the country, 3000 miles away from their families. And yet a few weeks ago, my grandmother, who now lives alone on the farm they bought in western Oregon 35 years ago, told me that she didn’t have any holiday travel plans, and that was okay because, and I quote, “I haven’t been home for Christmas in such a long time anyway.”

Even after 60 years away, and 35 years living in one place, she still talks about “going home” as if home is somewhere else.

The Israelites in exile have been waiting for around 60 years too. A few are very old, having left Jerusalem when they were very young. Some have never seen home, but have grown up on the stories. Some aren’t really sure what’s going on, but their families are leaving the only home they’ve ever known to go someplace important. And then there are the people who never left. The ones who were too poor to be worth anything to Nebuchadnezzar when he was taking people into exile had lived under siege, had teamed up with their neighbor tribes, and had grown up with the ruined Temple, the formerly glorious house of God, in a heap at the center of their former capital city. After all these years of making do, now the others come back, with money and the Temple furnishings and a jubilant attitude.

The returnees, who are pretty well-off thanks to the generosity of King Cyrus and their Persian neighbors, gather supplies and get to work. First the altar—because they were in fear of their neighbors. Remember, these neighbors are the remnant, the poor Israelites who weren’t taken into exile because they weren’t important enough. Many of them had intermarried with other tribes in the area, and they had all been living relatively peacefully for decades. But they are poor and they are different, so they are scary. The returnees build the altar real quick so they can offer sacrifices and beg God to keep them safe from those people.

Once that is done, they get to work on the rest of the Temple. Solomon’s Temple had been enormous, and covered in gold, and completely destroyed all the way down, including the foundations. So the people begin pulling stones and dirt together and laying a new foundation. It’s in the same spot where the old Temple was, but it isn’t the same footprint because the king of Persia had given instructions as to the size he was willing to pay for.

When the foundation was ready, they all gathered together to celebrate—the people who had returned, and the people who had never left. They stood on this foundation with the altar in the center, and they celebrated with a brass band and cymbals and singing and shouting and cheering. I imagine the sound was similar to the one we will hear when the Cubs win the World Series next fall.

And at the same time, in the middle of the cheering, some are grieving. Home isn’t the way they remember it. Even in the midst of a great celebration, there is also great loss—they persevered through so much, watching the temple destroyed, being taken from their homes, raising families among strangers, and now returning and working so hard to rebuild with their own hands…only to be disappointed to discover that they couldn’t truly go home again, because both they and home are different now.

In the coming chapters, they will use their grief as the fuel for trying to return their nation to its former glory. They will work hard to make Israel as great as they remember—and the first step in that work will be to look at those people who were left behind in the land and force them to get rid of their wives and children who come from other tribes. In their sadness about change, and their desire to go back to what they know, they forget that the reason they are home at all is because God anointed a foreign king with the Spirit, and used that foreign king and their foreign neighbors to get them to this point. They forget that these neighbors are their fellow children of God, and that they have been commanded to seek the welfare of the city to which they have been sent—and the one to which they have been brought back. They gloss over the commandment to welcome the stranger. They’re focused so intently on their own desires, they’ve lost sight of God’s. All that matters is getting back the way it used to be.

Meanwhile, those who see the past differently, or who know it through their parents’ oft-told stories of God’s faithfulness, see possibility and joy: the foundation is laid and a new thing has begun. They have heard the words of God’s instruction in the Torah, they know God’s promise is true even if the packaging changes, they see the Temple rising in the center of the city, and they are ready to enter a new era in their relationship with God and as a community of God’s people. They wait with eager longing to see how God will make God’s presence known in their midst.

This Advent season is one of both celebration and grief, a season where sometimes it seems as if everything has changed. Even as we look toward the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christmas, we also see the fear around us, and the desire to go back to what we remember—whether that was really how it was or not. At the holidays, we just want one day when everything feels familiar. And at the same time, in the midst of the cheery jingle bells, there are also empty chairs at the dinner table and traditions that aren’t the same without everyone there and a 24 hour news cycle filled with pain. We await the kingdom of God coming to earth…and the cheering and the weeping mingle together so that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.

The second temple would never be the same as the first. But it was still a place for gathering to meet God and learn from one another. It was still a reminder of who God is, and who God calls them to be. It was still a witness to the ways they got it wrong, and a place to start the process of making amends. The walls of this new temple soaked up shouts of joy and tears of grief, and encouraged people to persevere in trusting God’s promise. Because whatever else has changed, God is faithful, God is present, and God’s love endures forever.

As we come yet again to a beloved and holy time and place and story, I wonder what we are hoping God will do. Are we walking toward the manger with a Christmas card picture of how God should look and act, or a heart ready to receive all the dirty and glorious diversity of the people called to the stable? Because the incarnation of God cannot be an excuse to exclude or oppress our neighbors. Are we following the star, planning all the things we want to see under the tree, or preparing to give God something extravagant, knowing we may never see the return on that investment? Because the presence of God in our midst will always call out our best, most abundant and generous selves. Are we looking for the Christ child to follow him where he is going, or to try to lead him where we are going? Because God can and will use the past to build the future, but that future is not ours to map out. We are promised a future with hope—not a future with our every desire. Will the foundation we lay this Advent season be one on which God can build a house for all nations, a place of peace and justice and hope and love, a place where God is seen, in the flesh, maybe even in our flesh as the body of Christ?

May it be so. Amen. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Speak--a sermon for Advent 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Isaiah 40.1-11
6 December 2015, NL2-13, Advent 2 (Giving Voice to God’s Promise)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
   And I said, ‘What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.’
‘The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   ‘Here is your God!’’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep.

It’s been one of those weeks, hasn’t it…or really, one of those months—it feels like every time I check my email there are new headlines of horror. If I’m honest, it might even be just one of those years, or even one of those decades…the bad news just keeps coming, and it feels like the world can’t catch a break. From climate change and terrorism to greed and distrust and back again, plus the everyday grief and illness and pain of life, every day seems to have something new to be sad, scared, or angry about.

Earlier this week I was talking with Anita and trying to decide whether I should try to write a sermon on Thursday, because it was going to be a busy Saturday here with the cookie walk and the theater showcase. But it was too close to the shooting in California, which was hard on the heels of Colorado Springs, and of the video from the Chicago Police Department, and Paris, and Beirut, and underlying it all is Syria and racism and controlling women and the general harsh way we talk about and treat each other—I wasn’t ready to write anything worth hearing. But as we talked, I realized that there’s danger in waiting until I’m ready, because by then, it’s likely something else will have happened. And it did, of course—with the attack in London and the bombing in Nigeria happening Saturday afternoon.

There’s always something, and it is so easy to give up hope. We may begin to wonder if there’s any point to trying to practice love, justice, and peace, because it feels like we’re always swimming against the stream.  

After 40 years in exile, the Israelites knew that hopeless helpless feeling. The memories of home were fading even as their idealized rose-colored versions were as bright as ever. The feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, unwanted but also trapped, could be overwhelming. They had done their best to make a life in this reality, but it was one thing after another—watching families separated, homes destroyed, land lost…and then having to learn new language, new neighbors, new rules, new foods, raising children among strangers while trying to rethink their religion that had been so based in the land and the Temple they’d lost…they had that desolate feeling of wrongness when they tried to sing their old songs, like something was missing and they might never get it back. For a while maybe they hoped this would be a short captivity, that it was just one of those weeks, one of those months, one of those years, and better days were ahead. But after 40 years, this gloomy, dangerous, unmoored life was their new normal. Children had been born, grown up and had children of their own, surrounded by the day-in day-out drudgery of living under oppression, fear, and scarcity. They didn’t know any other way.

So often, then as now, it doesn’t feel like we can do anything about this. The world’s problems seem too overwhelming to fix, so we go on as if it’s perfectly acceptable that we could be shot at any moment, or that there are children who don’t have enough food to eat, or that there are people whose lives are so desperate they are willing to cross desert and ocean just to survive, even knowing they will be met by hostile faces. Our everyday lives play out on a backdrop of drought, rising sea levels, and unusually extreme weather, and it barely brushes our consciousness. This is normal now…and that’s just how it is.

This was also the prophet’s answer, when God said “speak!” and the prophet said “what should I say? All people are like grass—their faithfulness fades away at the first sign of trouble. There’s no use speaking your word to them, they’ll just forget or leave it behind.”

But God wasn’t having any of that, and said to Isaiah the same thing God says to us: “people’s faith may fade like grass, their courage may wither like flowers in the noonday sun, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” However faithless we may be, God is still faithful. God’s promise is true and present, even when we drop our end of the deal. So speak it out, over and over, as many times as it takes….and when the people forget and fall away, cry out again, whisper again, teach again, sing again, love again. Use your voice, and trust that God can use it too. It will take constant reminding, but this reality is more true than whatever new normal we have settled for: the word of the Lord stands forever.

And the word of the Lord today is this: Take comfort. I am coming. Get ready.

We could certainly use the comfort.

Getting ready is a bigger deal than just cleaning the house like we do right before our parents come to visit. That always seems like a nearly insurmountable task, but this is serious construction work: every valley shall be lifted up, and mountains brought low. Out in the desert’s endless stretches of rocky hills and sandy dry creek beds, level out the ground and make a good road, straight and flat. There’s nowhere to hide out in the desert, no escape from the heat or the boredom or the danger. But out we go, in spite of our fear, to bring down mountains and lift up valleys, to make space for God to come among us. It seems ridiculous, to look at the state of the world and then spend time, money, and effort on a road—whether the road is made of prayer and study, or of service and activism. But it is the road that our true king will use to cross the chasm and enter our lives. This construction project is just the beginning of the ways we will be transformed when God takes on flesh and walks that road.

Too often we raise the mountains up higher, leaving those in the valley to sink in despair. The peaks of the mountains are great, but only a few can be there…the rest are in the shadows. We act as if that’s just the way things are, even as we exploit each other to take earth from the valley and use it to make the top ever higher, even as we build walls that Christ himself orders us to tear down, even as we make it ever harder to climb the mountain. We tell ourselves we can’t do anything about it, it’s too big and we’re too small, and by our inaction we contribute to the problem rather than solving it. But the Spirit calls us to level the field, even though it goes against our socio-economic and political system to do so. We are to speak comfort and make peace and constantly make God’s promise known…even in the midst of a world where the gap widens instead of shrinks, we are supposed to use our voices to make big changes: to tear down the powerful mountains and use that earth to lift up the valley floor, until we all—ALL—can see and know and live God’s promised abundant life. The prophet says that when God comes down this desert highway to retrieve the people and lead them home, all flesh shall see God’s glory together. Not just those who can afford the mountaintop views, not just those who said the right words or pledged to the right flag, but all flesh shall see it together.

It seems a far-off vision, but it is a vision made of truth: the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. So lift up your voice, speak out, do not be afraid. Take comfort. I am coming. Get ready.

May it be so.