Wednesday, August 31, 2016

following the thread of grace

Over the summer, we read the Bible in 90 Days. It was awesome. During worship on the Sunday after we finished reading, we had a "Tour Through Scripture"--each of the following verses were written down on notecards (one book's quote per card), and then we read them aloud, with each person in the room reading a card. In order, obviously (the cards were numbered, too...). Then I encouraged people to take their notecard with them, to put it on the mirror or to carry it around and to use it to memorize the verse, and to use it as a lens through which to look at life for the rest of the year. Where does this snippet of scripture seem to shed light, or give a different perspective, or remind me, etc?

There really is evidence of God's grace, love, and forgiveness all throughout the Bible, in spite of the common misconception that the Old Testament is all wrath and judgment and the New is all love and light. There's plenty of all of those to go around in all 66 books. But this particular tour follows one of the many threads of grace, from "In the beginning..." to "Amen."



Tour Through Scripture: Tracing a Thread of Grace
(for the closing worship service after we finished the Bible in 90 Days, 2016)

Genesis 1.1-4
Exodus 3.14-15 (or 34.6)
Leviticus 19.9-10, 18
Numbers 6.22-27
Deuteronomy 16.16b-17 & 26.10b-11
Joshua 5.13-15 (or 24.13-14b)
Judges 2.18
Ruth 1.16-17
1 Samuel 3.8b-10 (or 7.10-12)
2 Samuel 24.24-25
1 Kings 8.15-21
2 Kings 4.42-44
1 Chronicles 16.8-15
2 Chronicles 34.28b-32
Ezra 7.27-28b
Nehemiah 9.5-8
Esther 9.20-22
Job 42.1-5
Psalm 73.24-26
Proverbs 3.13-15, 19-20
Ecclesiastes 3.10-11
Song of Songs 8.6-7a
Isaiah 25.6-9
Jeremiah 31.1-3
Lamentations 3.22-26
Ezekiel 37.26-27
Daniel 10.11-12, 18-19a
Hosea 11.3-4, 9
Joel 2.12-13
Amos 5.14-15
Obadiah 12, 20a, 21
Jonah 4.10-11
Micah 4.1-5 (or 7.18-20)
Nahum 1.15
Habakkuk 3.17-19
Zephaniah 3.9, 19-20a
Haggai 2.5-7
Zechariah 8.7-8
Malachi 3.6a, 17
Matthew 22.37-40
Mark 2.16-17 (or 4.21-23)
Luke 24.9-12
John 15.12-13, 16
Acts 10.28, 34, 36
Romans 5.1-2
1 Corinthians 1.27-30
2 Corinthians 4.15
Galatians 5.13-14
Ephesians 1.18-19a (or through 23)
Philippians 2.12-13
Colossians 2.2-3
1 Thessalonians 1.2-4
2 Thessalonians 1.11-12
1 Timothy 4.7b-8
2 Timothy 1.9-10
Titus 2.11-14
Hebrews 10.23-25 (or 4.12)
James 1.17-18
1 Peter 4.8-11 (or 1.20-21)
2 Peter 3.8-9
1 John 3.2
2 John 5-6
3 John 4-5
Jude 20-21
Revelation 22.1-6, 20-21


*note: many of the cards used the Common English Bible translation. Some used the NRSV. Very occasionally I might have used something else if I liked the way it flowed, from a memorization perspective, but the vast majority were CEB. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Grace Is Enough--a sermon on Galatians 4

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


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

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

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

~~~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Amen.




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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Shape of Life--a sermon on John 21

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so. Amen.



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