Wednesday, April 26, 2017

If This Table Could Talk--a sermon on Luke 24, on my last day at PCOP

Rev. Teri Peterson
If This Table Could Talk…v.2
Luke 24.13-48 (CEB)
23 April 2017, NL3-33, Easter 2 (Open), Last Day at PCOP

On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.
He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.
The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
He said to them, “What things?”
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.
While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them.
Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

There is long-standing wisdom among pastors that trips are often the mountaintop experiences in our faith journeys—both for young and older. Whether the trip is for mission work or pilgrimage or to the zoo or on retreat almost doesn’t matter, because it’s the bus ride that makes all the difference—as long as we’re willing to leave the iPad off, anyway. We may play games or sing songs or learn about what we’re passing, we may nap or snack or just chat. It’s on the bus that we get to know each other differently as we traverse unfamiliar landscapes—both outside the windows and inside ourselves. It’s on the bus that we hear one another’s stories and tell our own, weaving in and out until we are a tapestry of community, learning what it means to be part of this family.

I think that wisdom may have originated in this morning’s scripture reading. Compared to how far most of us travel every day, it doesn’t sound like a long journey—just seven miles. But that’s a couple of hours of walking at a pretty decent pace. If you’re talking while walking, caught up in grief and uncertainty, it might take even longer. In any case, it’s a road trip of sorts, and like every good road trip it includes good stories, good food, and an unexpected twist.

It had been a wild ride for Jesus’ friends and followers—from listening to him teach to seeing him heal to being a part of the mystery. Every day their hopes were raised, their expectations soared, their minds and hearts overflowed. But then it all came crashing down, in ways so horrible they couldn’t even have imagined it. For the one who was to redeem to become the one on the cross was inconceivable. And yet, there it was. For the body to be missing, for women to know what they are talking about, for the horror to continue rather than to be able to put this sad ending to rest—all inconceivable. No wonder that when the stranger fell into step with them, they couldn’t see that he was indeed the only one who truly knew what had happened in these days.

One of the things that made crucifixion work as a method of torture and control was not just the awful physical reality, but the shame. It was so great that when someone was crucified, they were erased. Bodies were usually left on the cross until they disintegrated or were picked over by animals, and then the person was never spoken of again. They disappeared from history. Family and friends were so shamed by the association, so afraid they’d be next, that they’d never mention the name or the incident. Crucifixion wasn’t just death, it was annihilation. For this story to go on, the friends of Jesus risked everything. This wasn’t just silly choose-your-own adventure storytelling on a road trip. This was a life-or-death story, and they chose to continue to tell it, even to a stranger.

We rarely think of stories this way. The word “story” has come to mean something that’s frivolous or not true or unimportant. But the reality is that stories may be the only thing that matters—if we lose our story, we lose ourselves. It’s one of the ways culture works—we have shared stories that tell us who we are. But even behind that, we have a God who is a master storyteller, and the day we lose sight of the narrative is the day we descend into hell, just as the crucified one did the day he was erased from the earth. But his is a story that won’t stop, that can’t be held back, that shows through even when we do our darnedest to erase or white out, and the disciples were still telling the story, even at risk of their own lives.

That story carried them through a whole road trip. Sometimes they told it, sometimes the stranger did. It was comforting and healing, but it was also learning who they were and what it meant to be a part of this family. No wonder their hearts were burning within them—they were finally coming to understand how this whole community thing works. They offered each other their shattered dreams, their grief, their hopes, their fears, their reality…and they were truly heard and known like never before—they were found by grace. This is what it means to be the community of Jesus’ friends—to share our reality and to hold those stories, to really know one another, as we walk along the road.

They asked him in for dinner, of course. The only place stories fit even better than a road trip is around a table. If our tables could talk, they would tell of laughter and tears, bad jokes and bad days, celebrations and sorrows. Next to water marks and spaghetti stains and bread crumbs they hold memories of homework, of dinner disasters and family feasts, of shouting matches and romance, of love and war and everything in between. The tables in this church would tell stories of cake, celebrating new life and new journeys; of ice cream sundaes made by guests with nowhere else to go; of really really really long meetings; of potlucks that never turn out to be entirely salad or dessert; of careful study and deep prayer; of meatballs and school kits and more collating of paper than we ever thought possible; of new forms of worship and of a hundred projects that seemed like a good idea at the time. The table is where we are fed with more than just food. We listen and we tell, and we learn who we are, our place in the family and the world.

And this table—this table is where it all comes together. This table’s story is the basis for all others. It’s at this table that the stranger became the host. It’s at this table that joy and disbelief and proof and wonder all mix together. It’s at this table that the breathless story of two disciples mingles with the hope of a great cloud of witnesses, and passes through the ages. If this table could talk, it would tell of feast overcoming famine. It would tell of the hard work of growing trust in the midst of fear. It would tell of doubt and faith joining with wheat and grape to make something unbelievable. This is the table where eyes are opened. This is the table where God’s big story meets our story, and we are strengthened to live in a world where nothing will ever be the same. This is the table where we listen and tell and learn who we are and what it means to be part of this family in this world. This is the table where we are fed by grace.

And what does this table teach us?

It teaches us who is invited—everyone, faithful and faithless, broken and healed. It teaches us who is loved—for God so loved the whole world. It teaches us what true abundance looks like—enough for everyone. It teaches us to taste and see that God is good. It teaches us how to accept hospitality, and how to offer it. It teaches us that stories endure for a reason, and that the word and the bread together feed us as the people of God.

At this table, we see that it is possible for a simple meal to be a feast. We see that God is not far away waiting for us to get it right, but traveling our road trips and sitting at our tables, giving us new eyes and new hearts and new stories and new recipes. We see our brothers and sisters as God does—beloved, worthy, beautiful—rather than as different, old or young, troublemaker or saint. We see that we are part of something bigger than our imaginations, spanning time and geography with a story and a loaf of bread.

This feast is our practice room. Here we receive so that we can learn how to give. We come to be changed, so we can see that the table of God’s community, the communion of story and bread, is every table—starting here. And from here, we follow by grace, because our story is joined to God’s story, our body is joined to Christ’s body, and our hearts burn with the Spirit.

May it be so. Amen. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

fake news vs. good news: a sermon for Easter

Rev. Teri Peterson
Fake News v Good News
Luke 24.1-12
16 April 2017, Easter Day, NL3-32

Today’s scripture reading comes from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 24, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
At noon on Friday, the day had become dark, and at 3:00 in the afternoon, Jesus breathed his last. His twelve male disciples had already fled in fear, but the women stood nearby and watched until the end. It was both the first day of Passover and the day before the Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council of Jewish elders, had taken Jesus’ body and laid it in his own family tomb. Luke tells us that the women who had followed Jesus through his ministry in Galilee and Judea went with Joseph, and they saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid and the tomb sealed. Then they returned to their lodgings, and prepared spices and ointments. The next day was the Sabbath, and they rested according to the commandment.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

I sometimes think that Easter is the hardest day of the Christian calendar. It is without question the most important day, when Christ was raised from dead and so the power of God’s love was proven to be greater than even the worst humanity could do.

But sometimes it’s still awfully hard. For one thing, “we do not have language large enough for the reality we have now entered.”[1] The resurrection of Jesus changed everything—the world can never be the same. But I’m not sure that now, thousands of years later, we think much about that. It’s so commonplace that we have become used to the domesticated Jesus. We have carefully contained God in words—lots and lots of words, sometimes big fancy ones—and therefore carefully put God exactly where we’d like to keep him (because this God is always a him) safely out of our way. We are no longer shocked by the idea that God would become a human being, let alone one who would be killed by the state and then raised from the dead. And we have often dismissed Jesus’ teaching as nice stories and good ideas that can’t really be applied in modern life.

We have far more words now than at any time in human history, and yet we still can’t quite express just what God is up to. No matter how many fancy words we create or borrow, we just don’t have language expansive enough to describe God, love, or resurrection, without confining Christ in our limited human ideas. And if there’s one thing we learn from Easter, it’s that Jesus cannot be confined. He is out of the tomb, alive in the world, no matter what we think or say about that.

From the beginning, he’s been turning things upside down. His mother Mary, on meeting the angel, declared that God had filled the empty with good things and lifted up the poor…and brought down the powerful and sent the rich away empty-handed. Jesus’ first sermon nearly got him thrown off a cliff, as he proclaimed that his job on earth was to bring sight to the blind, release to the captive, healing for the lame, and relief to the debtor—and that God’s love was for those outside the chosen people as much as it was on those inside. At the end, God in the flesh absorbed all the violence we could throw at him, and he didn’t return a word of it. And then the end turned out not to be an end at all, but a new beginning that is beyond belief.

As if all of that weren’t difficult enough to find adequate words for, there’s also the reality we live in every day, which looks very little like the kingdom of God. Think of all the things that have happened in the world just in the past couple of months. Political turmoil throughout this nation and others, children gassed in Syria, missiles shot from US Navy ships, a shooting at a school in California, the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, posturing in North Korea, bombs in Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt, landslides in Colombia…a complete list would take an entire sermon to recite.

No wonder more than a million people watched April the pregnant giraffe give birth yesterday morning. We could use some joy and new life! We live in a world that almost seems to be starved for good news.

The women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning could use some good news. They didn’t expect any, though. They’d been waiting…waiting…waiting in the valley of the shadow of death. They saw where Jesus’ body was laid on Friday afternoon, and then they had to leave him there, carrying their sorrow with them throughout the Sabbath. All the other disciples had hidden themselves, fearing the long arm of the Empire and the mob mentality that had gripped the leaders and crowds during Jesus’ trial. When at long last the sun set on that terrible day, and rose on a day when nothing would ever be okay again, and they survived waiting the whole Sabbath day for it to set and rise again, then finally the women went out, bearing the burden of loss along with the spices and ointments for a proper burial. The first rays were just peeking over the horizon when they arrived, unable to wait another moment. When they got there, the stone was rolled away from the door, the tomb was open.

So, naturally, they went in. But the body was not there.

The women were confused, and rightly so. They’d watched him be put there, and the door closed, a final end to their friendship and their hope.

In the midst of their confusion, two dazzling messengers appeared, and without so much as a “do not be afraid” preamble, said: why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he has been raised. Remember what he told you.

They remembered. The pieces came together in their minds, as they remembered all he had said and done, and they went back to tell the others—what? Tell them what?

There’s no way to tell this story that doesn’t sound crazy. Jesus back from the dead? The men listened to them as if they are hysterical in all the worst stereotypical senses of the word. They called the story ridiculous nonsense, a load of crap. No matter what the women thought they experienced, it’s not possible—the others, who had been hiding away in the locked room, knew this for sure even without having been there. I imagine Mary and Joanna and Susanna and Mary Magdalene standing there, as many women have done in our lives, with joy turning to frustration as they realize they will not be believed, that they are being written off as silly deluded women making up stories to ease their own pain, as they realize that there are no adequate words, because this is a thing that doesn’t happen. It is beyond belief. The truest good news in the history of humanity has been labeled fake news.

Peter, at least, went to look. He didn’t go in, though. Even though he could really have used some good news about now, he stood outside the tomb and looked in, and then went home again and locked the door. Seeing was not believing.

But what if it’s true?

What if it’s true, that the tomb was open, and Jesus was alive, somewhere out in the world?

What if it’s true, that all it takes to experience resurrection is to remember what he told us?

What if it’s true, that all the fractured pieces of our own lives, our own communities, could be  re-membered, put back together with unbelievable grace as the glue?

What if it’s true, that God’s love is the most powerful thing in the universe?

What if it’s true, that the Christ who is alive is the same one who reached out to sinners, ate dinner with outcasts, touched lepers, called some of the dimmest bulbs on the tree to be his disciples, and really believed we could do it when he taught us things like “love your enemies” and “welcome the stranger” and “blessed are the poor” and “come, follow me”?

What if it’s true, that grace is a gift and not something we have to earn?

What if it’s true, that death does not have the last word, that darkness cannot overcome the light?

The truth will set us free…free from the need to prove ourselves, free from our impulse toward violence, free from fear of those who are different from us.

The truth will set us free…free to love as we have been loved, free to reach out and welcome as if we are Christ’s hands and feet, free to be changed and so to change the world.

We live in a world so full of bad news and fake news—like the idea that God’s love is only for some, that you have to be good enough to get into heaven, that human vengeance is the same as divine justice, that my skin is safe but Jesus’ brown skin makes him suspect, that violence can lead to peace—all of this exclusion and superiority is what closes us off, separates us from each other, from ourselves, and from God’s true good news. But remember: the tomb is open! We may not have language large enough to tell the story of God’s unfettered redeeming grace, rolling away the stone and leaving the tomb empty, but that only means that we’ll have to use our whole lives—music and dance and art and poetry; relationships and work and everyday choices and voting levers. The world needs us to walk right in to the empty tomb, and then walk right out again to share what we have to offer, the truly good news: Christ is alive, love wins, and nothing will ever be the same.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Monday, April 10, 2017

What Would Jesus Do? A sermon for Palm Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
What Would Jesus Do?
Luke 19.29-44
9 April 2017, NL3-31, Palm Sunday (are you all in?)

Today’s scripture reading is from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 19, beginning at verse 29, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
For many weeks now, we have been walking with Jesus as he set his face toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem was, and still is, the most important city for the Jews. It was home to around 500,000 people, contained palaces for the king and for the Roman officials who might need to visit to keep order, and of course the Temple was there, at the city’s highest point. Jerusalem is so important that one always goes “up” to Jerusalem, and “down” from Jerusalem, no matter the direction one is traveling. In today’s reading we find Jesus east of the city, approaching the Mount of Olives (which is of similar elevation as the Temple Mount), on his way up to Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’

Try for a moment to picture the scene of that first Palm Sunday, as Luke tells it. What do you notice happening? (multitude of disciples…no Hosannas, no palms…stones shouting out…praising God for all the deeds of power they had seen)

The last parade I attended was the Cubs World Series victory parade—which was amazing, with energy and cheering and singing. My friends and I made early morning guesses about how many times we would hear the song “Go Cubs Go” and then we kept a count throughout the day. There were throngs of people, and they really did seemingly spontaneously burst into song.

Palm Sunday wasn’t exactly a victory parade, though. The Roman empire was well known for victory marches, and some scholars even say that it’s likely Pilate arrived in Jerusalem with a show of strength around the same time Jesus arrived riding on a donkey. The Palm Sunday procession was more of a protest march than a victory parade, intentionally different from what Pilate or the Emperor would have done. So I think back to protests I’ve attended over the years—to the women’s march a few months ago, for instance—and how multitudes of people moved through the streets, sometimes chanting rhymes that became something of a mantra, and sometimes just chatting to each other along the way about things that are important enough to draw us out of our comfortable beds and into the crowded streets.

Each of those experiences in the streets of Chicago were very different. The atmosphere and the sense of purpose in the group were clear both times, one a long-awaited celebration, the other a day of passionate concern.

Twice, I have visited Jerusalem and walked the path down from the Mount of Olives, and up to Jerusalem and its Temple. Both times, I happened to walk that street right behind a large group of Israeli soldiers, in army uniforms and carrying large weapons. To say it was jarring to read the story of the Prince of Peace while walking behind a dozen rifle-carrying soldiers would be an understatement. That’s now the image I have in my mind when I picture the scene…and I wonder what would have happened, if those who ordered Jesus to silence his disciples had that kind of backup when he refused.

Everyone in the city would have known what they were seeing. From the very beginning, Jesus has said that today, in our hearing, while we are together in his presence, scripture is being fulfilled. He found a donkey colt and so even more scripture was fulfilled—that the Messiah would enter the holy city riding on a donkey. People around him were chanting and singing “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and talking about all the miracles and healings and teaching he had done. No one could have missed the meaning behind this protest, especially at a time when the Empire was sweeping into the city with their own display of power and might, their own understanding of keeping the peace.

So the Pharisees ordered him to stop it. It’s dangerous to be part of a crowd in these days, and this crowd looks an awful lot like treason, with words like “peace” and “king” ringing off the stone walls of the city. But Jesus knows there is no way to stop the good news, because God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. God’s voice will be heard, even if the stones themselves have to do the shouting. The ground itself cries out for justice and for peace, for an end to bloodshed and fear, for a world of hope and love, where scripture is fulfilled and the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the poor are lifted up in the year of jubilee.

Jesus knows that the power of the Empire is the power of violence, which relies on silencing the voices of the other—voices of the oppressed, voices of dissent, voices of pain or grief. That was never more true than in the act of crucifixion—a torture designed to be so shameful that the one facing it would be left to decompose and his family would never speak of him again. Crosses lined the roads of the Roman Empire, testament to the power of violence.

But Jesus refused to give violence that power. Even if everyone else’s voice is cut off, God’s will still speak—through stones if necessary.

And Jesus knows it will be necessary. He knows the day is coming when even his most fervent supporters and closest disciples will fall silent under the weight of fear and betrayal. He sees that so many of us will choose being peace lovers rather than peace makers, as the quote on the bulletin says. We will say the words, but we can’t seem to see our way to the work of peace. We too fall silent, for many personal reasons ranging from party loyalty to fear of retribution to belief that we can’t make a difference and everything in between, and our silence is what gives the empire its power to enforce its own version of peace through violence.

And Jesus wept over Jerusalem, looking across the valley at the Temple, at the thousands of residents and pilgrims, at the multitudes of disciples cheering around him and the Pharisees with their angry and scared faces… “if you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” If only we could see what Jesus sees, and understand his teaching and his life and his path…if only we could walk the way, the truth, and the life.

I can imagine Jesus’ tear-streaked face today, looking across the world at all the ways we have openly decided not to care for each other, the ways we have made war as if it will lead to peace, the ways we have believed that peace can exist without justice or hope, the ways we have turned inward seeking our own security and left God’s creation and God’s children to fend for themselves. God’s heart breaks in Syria, in Yemen, in the Sudan, in Palestine, in Colombia, in Mexico, in the halls of our shockingly segregated schools and prisons, in Egypt. I hear Jesus’ voice, thick with emotion and maybe shaking a little with sobs: “if you had only recognized the things that make for peace.” And I think of all the pretty words I’ve said, the hymns we sing and the token offerings we make, and I wonder: what are the things that make for real peace? What would it take for us to be peacemakers, not just peace lovers?

Kierkegaard wrote that many of us have fallen into the trap of admiring Jesus, like fans on the roadside during a parade, rather than following Jesus[1]. We aren’t called to be just fans, like of our favorite team or band. We’re called to follow—to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, to do what he did. To be a disciple is to pattern our lives on the one we trust, not only to think his teaching is good and important. The word disciple comes from the word discipline—to follow Jesus is a discipline, a practice, of trying to be like him. Kierkegaard wrote that admirers remain detached, not seeing that the thing we admire has a claim on us, and so we fail to become like what we admire. The fan uses plenty of words about how they love and treasure Jesus and his teaching…but it never reaches beyond words. The follower, though, tries with all their heart to be like Jesus, even if that means changing behavior or activity or life.

On that first Palm Sunday, there were plenty of fans, lots of admirers. And some naysayers, of course, who were at least open about their desire to silence the living Word. The trouble is that fans want silence too, as soon as the Word begins to speak about things that challenge their own beliefs, security, or plans. They’re just sneakier about how they seek that silence, using the threat of waning popularity or safety or money as their preferred tool. Remember that even the fans mostly deserted Jesus or turned against him as that first Holy Week went on and his challenge to the government and religious leaders became more clear. But the stones will still shout, no matter how silence is achieved. God has things to say, and they are things we need to hear, to see, to recognize—about peace and justice, love and grace, hope for the future, passion for the kingdom of God to come here on earth as it is in heaven.

As we enter this holiest of weeks, I encourage you to listen for what the stones are saying. As we walk this journey to Jerusalem, consider whether we do so as fans, or as followers. As a Holy Week practice, I think we should ask ourselves frequently “what would Jesus do?” It sounds cheesy, but it is as relevant a question as ever. When reading or hearing a news story, ask “what would Jesus do?” When we see a neighbor, or a co-worker, or another driver on the expressway, ask “what would Jesus do?” When we come to church, or read our email, or get out our offering envelopes, ask “what would Jesus do?” In small moments and big decisions, there’s the question: how would Jesus see this? how would he respond? what words or feelings or actions or prayers or offering or gesture would be most like Christ?

And then…here’s the catch. Try to do what he would do. After two seasons of reading Luke’s gospel straight through, we know Jesus’ mission: to feed, to free, to heal, to lift up, and to change the system that keeps people down. This can be the day that we recognize the things that make for peace—and not just that we see them, but that we do them. We can work to make our behavior line up with the pattern he set with his life, death, and resurrection. This Holy Week we will learn yet again that violence can never drive out violence, death can never drive out death, hate can never drive out hate, apathy can never drive out apathy, fear can never drive out fear…only love can do that.

May we be all in with Jesus.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Party Time--a sermon on things lost and found (Luke 15)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Party Time
Luke 15.1-32
19 March 2017, NL3-28, Lent 3 (are you all in?)

Today’s reading is from Luke chapter 15, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
Since we left off last week, Jesus has been at a dinner party, and teaching about hospitality and who is invited to feast in the kingdom of God. He reminded people that those who are lowly will be lifted up, and those who lift themselves up will be brought low. He taught that we are to invite people to share our bounty, especially if they cannot repay us or invite us in return—undoing the system of reciprocity and quid-pro-quo, insisting that hospitality is a blessing we are to share. He told a story about people invited to a large dinner, who made excuses when it was time to come to the table. In his parable, the host then had everyone in the city’s streets and alleys, including the poor and sick, brought in to share the feast. Jesus speaks of the cost and demands of being his disciples, and calls us to be fully committed to following him. That’s where we pick up the story today.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
 So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”

I Will Arise, verse 1 & 2

 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

I Will Arise, verse 3

            One:    For the word of God in Scripture;
                        for the word of God among us;
                        for the word of God within us,  
            All:     Thanks be to God.   

I Will Arise, verse 4

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Surely all of us would abandon the obedient sheep out in the wilderness—not in a pasture or fenced grazing area, the wilderness—in order to go after the one that didn’t want to conform. Who wouldn’t leave 99% of their property and wealth in danger, and then on returning with the one recalcitrant sheep, throw a party for all the neighbors, who likely think he’s irresponsible for risking the rest of the flock?

Or what woman, having ten days wages, if she loses one day’s paycheck, wouldn’t move all the furniture and sort through all the recycling until she found it…and then call together all the neighbors for a party, probably spending that money to celebrate finding what was lost?

Or what family, having said goodbye to the ne’er-do-well younger child, knowing they’re going to behave badly and lose everything but hoping they won’t get themselves hurt, wouldn’t watch out the window and wait for his return, and then run out to meet him and hand over all the best party clothes and fire up the grill and break out the best wine and call all the neighbors for a party when he finally returns penniless?
There seems to be a theme in Jesus’ parables today. Even a quick read through this chapter will make clear Jesus’ stories are about being lost and found—and that whether we are one of a hundred, one of ten, or one of two, God cares deeply about us, and we are all found by grace, again and again. Nothing, and no one, is lost to God.

But there’s another theme right alongside being found…the party. Every single one of these stories of being found ends with a party! Jesus is obviously into celebration. He, too, was clearly looking for reasons to have cake, no matter how tenuous the need for a party might be. One found sheep—cake! One found paycheck—cake! One found son—cake! You can see that I came by my love of church celebration cakes honestly. J

And it isn’t just about the party—in every story, there’s a growing hint that the celebration is extravagant, perhaps even unwise or unnecessary. No one wealthy enough to have a hundred sheep would leave 99 of them at risk to go search for the one…and no one poor enough to search so desperately for one day’s wages would spend it on inviting her neighbors over for a party because she found it. We see the rational, responsible, early free-market leanings in the elder brother in the third story. He worked hard, he followed the rules, and instead of being rewarded with advancement, he sees his shiftless moocher of a younger brother get celebrated for doing nothing other than losing everything with his wasteful and lazy ways. So he takes a stand for radical individualism and personal fiscal responsibility: he refuses to go in to the party.

Here is why it’s important that we read all three parables together, as the Narrative Lectionary places them, rather than one by one at different times like we might be more used to. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus asks “which of you…” and then at the end of the chapter we wonder: does the older brother go in? And we realize that the question has been building the whole time. He knows that we are often like the older brother, and wants to know: are we coming in to the party?

Through all three stories we see Jesus sketching out the character of God: it is the nature of God to seek, to find, to welcome. It is in God’s character to restore identity and relationship—the one sheep is reunited with the flock, the woman comes out of her individual consumer fear to join with her neighbors, the younger son “came to himself” and remembered who he is, the older son distances himself with words like “this son of yours” and the father responds with “this brother of yours”…and every single instance of being found by grace then leads to the whole community coming together in gratitude.

And so the question: will we go in to the party? The decorations are up, the grill is going, the cake is still warm, the sparkling cider is poured. Everything God has is already ours, now how will we experience it and use it in this life?

Going in to the party means letting go of a grudging spirit…Gratitude can’t be only for what God has done for us, but also what God has done for them. Even if they’re the ones who wandered off and got into trouble, or the ones who are using their found money in ways we wouldn’t… if we want to experience the fullness of mercy and grace ourselves, here and now, we’ll need to practice celebrating God’s grace given to others. We have been found by grace, again and again, for the Spirit is always calling, breathing life, creating community, bringing together all kinds of people.

Going in to the party means admitting that love doesn’t require confession…the younger son never even gets his whole confession out of his mouth before the father is dressing him and hugging him and cutting the cake. Love was there the whole time. Our repentance is just that—ours. It reminds us who we really are, puts our focus on our true identity, rather than all the other ways we have defined or hidden or created ourselves. It doesn’t earn us a place at the table, it simply prepares us to receive what God is already giving us. We are fed by grace at Christ’s table, where no reservations are necessary!

Most of all, going in to the party means accepting grace as the family rule. Being part of this family, God’s family, the Body of Christ, means everything we are, everything we say, everything we do, is about grace. Setting aside grudges and our understanding of who is good enough, allowing God’s love to be the foundation and the measure of life. It means admitting we’re just as lost, and just as found, as anyone else, no matter how much we think we have earned or they have not earned. And it means that even when we would prefer not to claim some of the family, they’re still ours to love, because in this family, we follow by grace, seeking to be living examples of Christ’s welcome.

No matter who you are, what you have done, or where you are on life’s journey…all are welcome, we mean it. And more importantly, God means it.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017

fox in the henhouse--a sermon on Luke 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
fox in the henhouse
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35
12 March 2017, NL3-27, Lent 2 (are you all in?)

This morning’s scripture reading is from Luke chapter 13, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and the crowds who follow them throughout the countryside and towns. He has taught them directly about prayer, and he has spoken in parables about many things. He told them to let their light shine, and to look carefully at the circumstances and times they are living in for evidence of God’s work. Remember that each gospel writer gives us a different perspective on Jesus’s life and teaching—Matthew looks at Jesus from behind, through the lens of the whole Old Testament; Mark looks at Jesus from right next to him, as if they are holding hands walking together; John looks at Jesus from above, with a cosmic perspective; and Luke looks at Jesus from just in front, looking back, almost like a movie maker looking through the camera, trying to capture faces and details along with the background and context. He wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so he has more information about what is to come in the future, and sometimes we see that in his wide-angle lens, as in today’s story.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

Today Jesus jumps right in with the age-old question of why bad things happen…or, as the main character in the musical The Book of Mormon asks God, “more to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?” The assumption in the ancient world—and, if we’re honest, often today as well—is that tragedy is a result of sin. We intellectually understand and protest this view when it is given voice by people who, for instance, insist that Hurricane Katrina is punishment for allowing gay people to exist and live regular lives with the same rights as anybody else, or that the earthquake in Haiti is punishment for voodoo practiced during the centuries-old slave uprising that led to Haiti’s independence. We know those are ridiculous statements…and yet the same idea rears its head when we ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” Because underneath that question is some assumption that there are people who deserve bad things…we just don’t know any of them personally, of course, because “good people” usually means us and people we know and love.

In the case of today’s issue of the Jerusalem gossip chain, we have people who were going about everyday lives when a building collapsed—perhaps it was bad engineering, perhaps there was an earthquake, perhaps it was terrorism, perhaps it was just old and the infrastructure was compromised. Whatever the case, the tower fell and 18 people were killed. Were they worse offenders than everyone else living and doing business in Jerusalem? What did they do to deserve such tragedy striking?

Or the Galileans—of particular interest to Jesus and his disciples, as many of them are Galilean, and therefore often looked down upon as low-class, uneducated, uncouth—who had been on pilgrimage, went to the Temple to offer sacrifices, and were killed by the very government that was supposed to be keeping the peace… They were good, faithful people, going to church…were they particularly awful sinners, to be targeted by their own government?

When we put it so starkly, it seems ridiculous. And Jesus makes sure we are aware that the answer is always no: NO, there is no star chart of the worse and better sins, nothing that we can do that would cause God to rain punishment in the form of tornadoes or cancer or car accidents or gunshots. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory and call. Period. Every person, and every group or institution needs to repent—to turn around, away from sin and toward God’s way of love and justice. And God doesn’t use tragedy to try to force us to come back. Bad things happen, yes. We all sin, yes. Those are not related statements, though. Trying to figure out why God is punishing us with illness or heartbreak or disaster, or how we can guarantee our security against those things, will lead nowhere, because that’s not how God works.

Instead, Jesus tells us a story. A fig tree has been growing in the garden. It’s in the right place, it has the right name and qualifications, but it isn’t producing fruit. It is taking up space, using resources, claiming to be a fig tree…and it is in danger of being cut down. But the master gardener intervenes, promising to spend more time nurturing the tree. Digging around the roots, fertilizing, watering, pruning, caring for it, putting in the effort to help it grow into its purpose. During this year of the Lord’s favor, the year when God is making the kingdom come right here in the presence of Jesus, the fig tree gets a second chance.

This is how God works. Not by promising safety or security, but by investing time and energy, pushing us to look at our lives and the fruit we bear for the kingdom. We might get dirty, and sometimes the pruning is painful, and it might be harder work than we thought we signed up for, but ultimately the purpose of the tree in God’s garden is to bear fruit. Our purpose in God’s kingdom is to bear fruit…which will mean digging up the things we’ve long buried, getting our hands in the manure that is so gross and so life-giving when we use it for the right reasons, cutting off the branches that are siphoning away energy, turning our attention away from comparing ourselves to what other plants in the garden are doing and focusing on what the master gardener is doing, so turn from simply existing and trying to protect what little we have to bearing fruit that provides for all who encounter us.

It’s time-consuming work. Focusing on what God is doing, and doing what we are called to do, doesn’t leave any space or energy for figuring out how to best build a fence to keep everyone else off our little plot of land, or for passing judgment on people experiencing hardship, or for maintaining systems that ensure that water and nutrients only get into our roots and no one else’s. The spiritual work of looking honestly at ourselves and allowing God to dig and prune and feed is never about fixing other people, only about growing so that we can better serve other people. Bearing fruit doesn’t mean that the tree eats better—it means that the tree feeds better, and we don’t get to control who enjoys the fruit we bear in the kingdom of God. Our task is to figure out how to bear the fruit God calls us to give, and to learn to give it freely and generously, just as we have received freely and generously from others and from Christ the gardener who intercedes for us so faithfully.

It is in the midst of this that we jump to the end of the chapter and hear Jesus say of Herod, who wishes to see him, “Go tell that fox for me…I have work to do, and I’m doing it.” Herod has already killed John the Baptizer, and he’s been wanting to question Jesus and see if he is really the miracle-worker everyone says. But Jesus is busy with life-giving work, and has no time for death-dealing interviews. So he uses this beautiful, motherly, vulnerable metaphor: “long have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…but you were not willing.” Even the mother hen can’t force all the chicks to snuggle up together, to move as one in the direction she wants them to go. 

So he warns them instead: we have set a fox to guard the henhouse, and we shouldn’t be surprised when that starts to go terribly wrong. It seems confusing how we could get here, but if we just look back at the chapter, it’s all there. We’ve been duped into believing that some people deserve bad things, while others deserve good things, and we’re always in the latter category ourselves. We’ve blindly participated in systems that feed us while starving others, and we’ve cared more about protecting ourselves than about bearing fruit. We’ve learned to blame God and sin rather than to dig down and uncover our own complicity and rather than pruning off the branches that we hang on to even though they hinder our growth.

When our image of God is of someone whose favor you have to earn and whose wrath you have to avoid, whose circle is closed, and who only calls and uses and speaks through people who meet a human-made set of criteria, it’s a short leap to believing that we deserve what we have and therefore must protect it at all cost, especially from those who are different. It’s an even shorter leap to believing people who don’t-have must be undeserving, must have made bad choices or brought it on themselves or be dangerous. All of this sets the stage for the fox, who is cunning enough to manipulate our fear and our desire for self-advancement. He then takes advantage of us all running every which way except under the wings of the mother hen. The fox counts on us judging each other rather than having compassion, and the fox’s power depends on us turning a blind eye to our own fruitless trees so we can stay focused on what we’re missing rather than what we have and what responsibility we bear.

Jesus, in contrast, spreads wide his mother-hen wings, knowing they don’t offer the kind of protection that the fox claims to promise—he literally uses the chicken, image of weakness and cowardice, to face down the fox. He calls us to gather round, stick together, and move where he moves. He calls us to unpopular self-examination, knowing it is the foundation for bearing fruit…and that is the purpose of residents of God’s garden: to produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, goodness, and self-control…fruit that feeds others, changes the world, and lasts well beyond anything the fox can do.

May it be so. Amen.