Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lovable--a sermon on Hosea 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We love because God first loved us.

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

things I didn't want to learn...

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Amen.
  

Friday, July 08, 2016

psalms--prayers for everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pulled over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#blacklivesmatter


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