Sunday, August 13, 2017

Entrance Exam--a sermon on welcoming the kingdom like a child

Rev. Teri Peterson
MSG
Entrance Exam
Mark 10.13-16
13 August 2017

Psalm 100
Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Serve the Lord with celebration!
    Come before him with shouts of joy!
Know that the Lord is God—
    he made us; we belong to him.
    We are his people,
    the sheep of his own pasture.
Enter his gates with thanks;
    enter his courtyards with praise!
    Thank him! Bless his name!
Because the Lord is good,
    his loyal love lasts forever;
    his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.


Mark 10.13-16
People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever does not welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I wish I had a hard time imagining the disciples scolding parents who brought their children to Jesus. Unfortunately, I think it’s still quite common in many churches for parents and children to be met with judgmental looks and shushing, or with instructions on how to find the crèche or a crying room, or even with the clear statement that worship and study and prayer are for adults, and young people are meant to be somewhere else—somewhere soundproof. It seems that we have been attempting to control access to Jesus for thousands of years.

That’s what this is about, of course. The disciples in today’s gospel story believe that Jesus is too important to be bothered with mere children. They are not worth the time they take, nor the resources required to minister to them. Children in the ancient world were decidedly at the bottom rung of the social ladder. The first couple of boys born in a family would be a sign of God’s blessing, of course, but ultimately all children are something of a liability in the early years—they cost a lot, without producing much. They mattered a great deal as they grew older and could contribute to the household, but until then, they were simply property. They had no status, no value in themselves. They were definitely not worth Jesus’ time.

Or at least, that’s what the disciples thought. But that assumption made Jesus angry. The idea that there is anyone not worth his time, even the lowliest of children, is enough to warrant anger at his closest friends and followers. They wanted to control who had access to him, and instead he moved them aside and flung open the doors and invited everyone in, starting with those who had been shushed or told to come back when they were able to sit quietly and understand everything.

And then he said something astonishing: whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.

What does it mean to welcome the kingdom like a child?

It could be a statement about our mindset—children have curiosity, openness, and wonder. They often accept people for who they are and the barriers we build as adults seem meaningless to them. They aren’t afraid to ask questions, and they are perfectly willing to play with others who are different, at least until we teach them to be afraid or discriminating. And children don't care much about not having social status. They don’t spend their time and energy trying to improve their position or to look good on their CV. Those are adult concerns. Children are far more likely to do as the psalm says—to shout to the Lord, to give thanks, to celebrate, to feel they belong to God. The rest of us are more likely to tone it down a bit and to wonder if we’ve been good enough to be considered one of God’s people. 

So perhaps Jesus means we need to be less concerned about our own status, less worried about whether we are earning our way into heaven, and more accepting and curious and full of wonder and praise. To become like children—who believe themselves to be loved unconditionally, and in turn reach out and love others, without concern for worthiness or standards or reputation.

Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it, Jesus says. 
This could also be read as welcoming the kingdom of God like we welcome a child—in other words, about our practice of hospitality. After all, he was addressing the disciples who believed they could control and limit who had access to him, teaching them that all are welcome, not just those they want to welcome. Ultimately Jesus is the only one who gets to decide who is in and who is out, and over and over again he widens the circle. Foreigners, lepers, women, Gentiles, prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, and now children…it seems there is no one Jesus won’t let in. Perhaps he is saying that how we welcome the child is a reflection of how we welcome God’s kingdom. How we extend hospitality to those the world deems “least” or “lowly” or “outcast” is how we welcome God. 

Jesus says that when we close the circle of God’s love, we will find ourselves on the outside, not the inside where we intended. This is not to say that God won’t let us into the kingdom, but rather that when we shut people out, we will have also shut ourselves out of experiencing the reality of God’s infinite love and welcome, because our actions and words and lives are to be a reflection of the grace we have received…if we think some people are worthy of grace and others are not, or some are welcome in the church family and others are not, or if we are more excited about a new member with qualifications than about one who struggles with life, then that is a reflection of the idol we worship. And again and again Jesus shows us a God whose boundaries are much different than ours. As an ancient philosopher put it: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Whichever way we hear those words, it’s hard to imagine how they fit into the world we know today. A world where some nations’ leaders casually toss around the threat of nuclear war, and where white supremacist groups carry torches and weapons through the streets, and where people fleeing for their lives are turned back in the middle of the sea. These things feel far away, and yet they betray the same kind of thinking that led the disciples to turn away the children and scold the parents, and on a smaller scale we all do it. We have a mental checklist, which is often subconscious, or even unconscious, it's so ingrained. It tells us who is in and who is out, who we want in our community and who we don’t. 

Keeping the wrong sort of people away—whether they are the wrong sort because of their nationality or skin color or religious practice or language or job or family configuration or financial reality or age—is unequivocally against the gospel. If there’s one thing we can safely say of Jesus, it’s that he did not keep anyone away, and when his disciples did, he was angry about it and turned around and not just welcomed those who had been scolded by the disciples, but embraced them and blessed them.

The good news is that means we too are embraced, and blessed…because all those who are outside, including those who put themselves there, are welcomed in. The circle is always expanding, because, as the psalmist says, God made us, we belong to God, all of us. And we are called to enter God’s courts with praise and thanksgiving, with the joyful shouts of children who know themselves to be loved and accepted, with the open hands of mature faith that has learned to break down barriers, as reflections of the image of God whose faithfulness is from generation to generation.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Living Faith--a sermon on Timothy

Rev. Teri Peterson
MSG
Living Faith
2 Timothy 1.1-7
6 August 2017

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, to promote the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.
To Timothy, my dear child.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith also lives in you. Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

~~~~~~~~~~

On Friday afternoon I attended a performance by the Soweto Gospel Choir—they are on every day of the Festival at 2:40pm at the General Assembly Hall, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. They began their concert saying, “most of these are songs that were sung by our grandmothers, and that we grew up singing in our churches.” And then they launched into an hour of some of the most beautiful, intense, powerful music, with words in languages I didn’t understand but with harmony and rhythm that communicated perfectly clearly.

And I thought of Timothy, and his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois, and how they must have sung and prayed and served in ways that communicated their faith to the next generation. Paul is writing to Timothy to encourage him in his ministry, and the first thing he says is, essentially: remember who you are and where you came from. It’s like when we talk about someone coming from a long line of preachers, or bakers, or, in my case, a long line of stubbornly independent women. It’s a gift, handed on from generation to generation.

Each of us has a Lois and Eunice, ancestors in the faith. They may not be our blood relations, but that doesn’t matter. I’d like us to just take a moment to think about these people—who were the people who taught us about God, in one way or another? People who shared the love of Jesus with us, who guided us as we learned how to recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit around us? Bring their names and faces to mind, if you can. We come from a long line of faithful people, saints who have gone on before and showed us the way. Generation to generation, faith is passed down like something precious and beautiful.

Notice, though, that Paul says that this faith lived in Timothy’s grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice, and now lives in him. It was not an object they possessed, nor something they created or controlled. Faith lives in them.

What does living faith look like? Faith that is alive, dwelling in us without being owned by us? It has to be more than simply believing the right things. We have seen it, in our own cloud of witnesses. Living faith is active, visible, maybe even tangible. Paul writes that God gave us a spirit that is not timid or fearful, but powerful and loving. Not a faith that hangs back or hides out, but a faith that is forward and moving. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of light in the darkness, of resurrection life—like flames dancing, and wind blowing. And we are admonished to revive that gift, to rekindle the fire that we had covered over, or let die down to embers, because the world needs the light and the warmth. It is in us…but is it living? We have received the gift, and Paul wants us to know that now it’s up to us to let it live, and to pass it on. This is a gift that only grows when we give it away.

Living faith reaches out to people in need and asks how we can help, without judgment or patronizing. Living faith insists that all are welcome, and works to dismantle whatever barriers have been put up to keep people out. Living faith looks after the creation that has been placed in our care, and insists on stewardship rather than simply using it up. Living faith makes space for difference and keeps its eyes open for what God is doing between us. Living faith is rooted in prayer, and worship, and study, and service, and recognizes that all four of those are necessary. Living faith looks for the next generation and builds up the body through relationships of mutual love and respect and hope.

Living faith looks like seeing ourselves as Lois and Eunice, recipients of a gift we can’t help but pass on. After all, we come from a long line, but we don’t want to be the end of that line!

Several years ago I was at a conference where the preacher was Otis Moss III, minister at Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago, formerly President Obama’s church. He gave a sermon about Moses and Joshua that is still, eight years later, the most memorable sermon I have ever heard. Much like Paul and Timothy, Moses had trained Joshua and then left him to minister to the next generation. Reverend Moss talked about how the message of God’s love and justice and peace is always the same, but the method for sharing that message changes in each generation, and so Joshua was not simply a new Moses, he was a new leader for a new time. He spoke of the challenge of the church being that we sometimes want to keep using the Moses methodology, because it’s what we know and are comfortable with, and so we lose the Joshua generation. Rather than building on the foundation of those who came before, we are prone to trying to replicate the way things used to be and we miss the new thing that God’s spirit of resurrection life is doing in our midst.

Grace is the message, the gift, the fire that needs rekindling in each one of us, so it can shine out in a world desperate for good news. But that means we need to be willing to speak the good news in a language the world can hear. The message is the same, but the method may need to be adjusted if we are going to pass on the gift that was so generously handed down to us through the ages.

Some of you have noticed that this summer, as we have explored stories of God’s work through the generations, we have been reading from a new translation of scripture. The Common English Bible was just published a few years ago, translated from the original Hebrew and Greek texts by a number of scholars. They compared newly discovered ancient manuscripts to those that have been used for a long time, and worked with the most current information from archaeologists, linguists, historians, and theologians to ensure that the English was as faithful as possible to the sacred text and its meaning, while also making sense to a 21st century audience. All translation is interpretation, and these scholars were careful to be sure that their interpretive choices were in line with the context in which scripture was originally written, and also with the way the English language has evolved over the years. The hope was to both rekindle the gift in those of us who have perhaps missed some of the meaning as language has changed and scholarship has offered new insights, and also to make scripture accessible to a wider audience, to those who have not encountered the incredible gift that is the word of God for the people of God. It’s an attempt to pass on the gift we have received, and ensure the line doesn’t end with us, an attempt to reach the Joshua generation, or the Timothy generation, and allow faith to live once again, not only in the words on the page but in the church and the people.

No translation of scripture is perfect, just as none of our ancestors in the faith were perfect, and none of us are perfect. We come from a long line of imperfect saints with living faith—faith that built on the past without being bound by it, that grew as it was shared in new ways, through song and prayer and service. The message remains: that God is love, and that the spirit we have been given is not a spirit of fear, but of power and grace. That is the faith that lived in Lois and Eunice and all those who are part of our great cloud of witnesses, that now lives in us, and that we now pass on, generation to generation, like the precious gift that it is. 


May it be so. Amen.