Sunday, August 25, 2019

Thoughts and Prayers—a sermon on 2 Kings 5 and the spiritual gifts of compassion & service

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Thoughts and Prayers
2 Kings 5.1-19, Mark 1.30-31
25 August 2019, spiritual gifts 11 (Compassion and Servanthood)

Call to Worship: Romans 12.3-8

with children, Mark 1.30-31
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Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

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2 Kings 5:
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’
Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. ‘By all means, go,’ the king of Aram replied. ‘I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’ So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: ‘With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.’
As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!’
When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: ‘Why have you torn your robes? Make the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’
But Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, “Wash and be cleansed”!’ So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.’
The prophet answered, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.’ And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.

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Sometimes when I’m reading, it’s hard to tell what is a contemporary news story about world leaders posturing and provoking, and what story is thousands of years old. I don’t know about you, but it’s actually a little concerning to me that I can just picture these two kings and generals, conducting diplomacy by way of tweets and extravagant gifts and deals that aren’t good for anyone besides them. And then one makes assumptions about how the government of the other one works, thinking their prophets will work for the king like his do, rather than for God...and the other wilfully misunderstands the communication, and the whole thing falls apart in a temper tantrum involving torn clothes and accusations, and yet another insists on being treated like royalty and throws his own tantrum when he can’t just buy what he wants with all the money he is flashing around—money he didn’t exactly earn honestly. Meanwhile, behind the scenes the underlings are trying to smooth things over, gently making suggestions and trying not to anger the great men, cleaning up messes and keeping the place running.

You see what I mean? So often the Bible is far more contemporary than we realise.

In this story of the people who think more highly of themselves than they ought to think, there is also a subplot about people who look past barriers of status, ethnicity, religion, politics, and even personal gain, and choose to offer compassion. The way they do that is perhaps the part of the story that feels most foreign, most removed from our contemporary reality.

Today, I think we would find plenty of tweets about “thoughts and prayers.” Imagine if the little girl, kidnapped from her home, enslaved in Naaman’s house in a foreign land, had just said “it breaks my heart to see him ill. I feel terrible for him.” At first glance, that seems like we would still call her compassionate. She feels empathy for a person who is suffering. But when that empathy only goes as far as thoughts and prayers, it’s not the spiritual gift of compassion. This is a gift that moves from feelings to actions. She offers an idea, a potential route to healing, not just her own feelings on behalf of the other person. 

Or imagine if she had empathised, expressing her feelings of sorrow and her thoughts and prayers, but going no further because after all this person had led the army that defeated her people, kidnapped her and her neighbours, and was enslaving her. They were different nationalities, different religions, and he was her oppressor. He didn’t deserve her help, and if she offered it to him she’d get no thanks, no recognition, no freedom. 

Again, that wouldn’t be the spiritual gifts of compassion or service either, because the Spirit gives these gifts so we can help others even across these lines, and without regard to whether the person or group will have the response we want them to have, or whether we think they deserve the help. 

Naaman seems to have no difficulty accepting the compassion of this girl he has enslaved. He does have some difficulty accepting that of the prophet. When he arrives at Elisha’s house, ready to pay a literal king’s ransom, he finds instead that he is freely given instructions...but not instructions he wanted to hear. He wanted a song and dance, a performance that matched his status and his situation, and instead he was offered a simple solution, but one that would require humbling himself in order to receive it. He had already seen the king crumble under his gaze, so I’m sure he felt very powerful, and expected that this prophet would bow down and be subservient too. He was a man used to getting his own way. 

It’s only after he storms away in a rage, and then is talked down by his servants—who risk their own lives and livelihoods to approach him and suggest he do what the prophet told him, finding ways to speak to him that will reach past his ego and convince him to accept the compassion and service being offered to him in ways he didn’t expect—only after that does he experience healing and then comes to make a profession of faith. It took three different encounters with people who extended him compassion before he truly experienced it as the grace that it was. And then the story says that when he came out of the river, his flesh was restored and he was like a young boy...like the young girl who had started this whole story. Like a child, he was able to receive and understand.

Though he didn’t fully understand just yet. He returned to the prophet’s house and try to pay for the gift. But you can’t buy compassion. Which is not to say there is no cost to serving others with compassion...but it can’t be purchased. Like all the gifts of the Spirit, it is outside of our human economy. 

I wonder if that is part of why sometimes compassion and service seem to be in short supply. We have an abundance of thoughts and prayers, but not so much of the action that those thoughts and prayers are meant to become. If there was a monetary value placed on helping others, would it suddenly be more valuable? Or would we go even farther down the road that we’re already on?Where it’s illegal to save someone drowning in the Mediterranean in case they are a refugee, where people are not being allowed off of boats they used to escape war and famine because they might be a burden, where corporations can set the Amazon on fire with the government’s blessing because indigenous people refused to give up their homes for the expansion of cattle farms, where peace is expendable in pursuit of the illusion of returning to an imperial economy...in other words, where the profits of the few are the only thing that matters, and the poverty and suffering of our neighbours can be met with nothing more than tearful emojis or a hashtag.

To be willing to actually expend our own energy or resources to help others in a tangible way, to make their lives better both immediately and systemically—including those who are unworthy for some reason, including those who are different from us, including those who will never turn back and say thank you, including those who will use our gift to them in a way we would not have chosen—and to do all that with no reward, no payment, and possibly no recognition...that’s a tall order. And yet it is what the Spirit asks of us, it’s what the gifts of compassion and service are for. 

When our empathy becomes action, the world starts to look a little more like the kingdom of God—where we bear each other’s burdens, share resources, and lift each other up so that the lowly and the mighty can come together, because the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ erases the boundaries we have put up, and calls us together. And if doing those tangible things feels somehow unspiritual, remember that it took three encounters with compassion in action before Naaman came to faith...we never know when we might be the one whose generosity and graciousness in offering aid might just be the tipping point. And, like Peter’s mother-in-law, those who are helped up may then turn and serve others, spreading the kingdom even further, like ripples on the water. 

Jesus said that when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bring the homeless into our houses, visit the sick and imprisoned, we are actually serving him. Giving tangible help to the least of these who are members of Christ’s family is a way of turning thoughts and prayers into the love-in-action that God calls us to share. When we put into practice the gifts of compassion and servanthood, we remind ourselves and others that each person is made in the image of God, each person is loved, each person is worthy of care, and indeed we see Christ in them. And that is a reminder the world needs.

May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Speaking to the heart—a sermon on the gifts of hospitality and communication

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Speaking to the Heart
Acts 16.11-15, Acts 2.1-12
21 July 2019, spiritual gifts 6 (Hospitality and Communication)

From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.

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When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’
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Conventional homiletical wisdom says that preachers should always include a story that will be memorable for the hearers, so that perhaps one day in the future, they’ll recall the story and also the point of searing biblical insight it was meant to convey. I have heard many a sermon that began with a story that never seemed to get to the point, of course...and I have even been known to check my watch to find out what percentage of a sermon has been taken up with a story whose connection to the biblical text was tenuous at best. 

I don’t get the sense that either Paul or Peter used the kind of illustrations that are so common in modern preaching. They tell the story of what God has done in Christ, and encourage people to become part of that story themselves, and people respond to that. It’s a gift they both had, to communicate the gospel in ways people could understand and enter into. 

When Paul and his companions turned up on the river bank outside Philippi, they hoped to find people who might listen to their message, but they were by no means certain—either of the existence of a community nor of their reception. The fact that they had to go outside the city gate to the riverfront, rather than to a synagogue, suggests that there was no synagogue within the city walls—perhaps an indication of the status of Jews in this important Roman city. So they made their way to the literal margins, hoping to find a place of prayer. When they encountered the community of God-worshippers, they were gentile women—and so on the margins of the Jewish community as well. This is the edge of the edge. 

And yet, Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth—which was expensive stuff. She would have spent most of her days rubbing shoulders with the elite. She had her own business and she was the head of her own household. It must have been quite a shift for her to make, from being in the midst of the great and the powerful in her day job, to the Sabbath when she found herself at the edge of the margins for her faith. 

Perhaps it was that ability to move between worlds—to be adaptable and resilient is a gift in itself!—that made her quicker to receive the message that Paul offered. The Lord opened her heart, it says in the scriptures, and she and her entire household were baptised.

Then something fascinating happened.

Lydia, this Gentile businesswoman who worshipped the Jewish God, who had just become the newest convert to The Way of Jesus, invited Paul and his companions to her home. Not just for a meal, but to stay. She opened her home to them, saying “if you consider me a believer along with you, then accept my hospitality.” Almost as if hospitality is the natural and expected response to receiving the gospel. She had been ministered to, and now she was ministering to them in return. And Lydia’s house would grow to become the church’s headquarters in Philippi, as more people were added to the Body of Christ. The community met in her house for worship, prayer, meals, and meetings. 

Lydia definitely had the gift of hospitality. The Holy Spirit obviously looked at this situation—no synagogue, only a gathering place by the river, a community that was about to grow rapidly, and a woman with a lot of grit and adaptability—and thought the gift most needed for the time and place was hospitality, the gift of welcoming people, making them feel at home, and seeing opportunities for ministry in every knock on the door. And so the Lord opened her heart and her home, and the church had a place to thrive and grow, through her ministry of hospitality. That same gift is still needed, not only because God has plans to grow the Body of Christ, but also because there are people who are being forced, by violence or by climate change, to leave their homes and make their way to new lands, and we will need to be able to see ministry in every conversation, and be ready to welcome people that God brings to us, without fear and without pressure. 

Meeting new people and making them feel comfortable enough to be able to hear the good news is the connection I see between the two spiritual gifts illustrated by the two stories we heard from Acts today. Lydia, with her gift of hospitality, obviously had the capacity to welcome strangers and friends into her home and provide space, support, and care that helped her place become the house of the whole Church. And in the other text, the one we more often hear on Pentecost, the disciples are sent out of the house where they are staying, blown out by a wind, and they speak to people in the streets in their own languages, talking about God’s deeds of power to anyone who will listen.

Jerusalem, of course, had the opposite situation from Philippi. Rather than having to go outside the city to a marginalised location, the people would instead stream into Jerusalem to visit the Temple for the feast day. It was the feast of Weeks, a pilgrimage festival, and people would have come from all over to worship, which is why the city was fuller than normal, with “Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in town. 

All of these people lived in the Roman Empire, though, and many of them would have spoken Greek, as it was the language of commerce and the language of their occupier. They would also have known Hebrew, because it was the language of the scriptures.

And yet, when the Spirit blew the disciples out of the house into the streets, they spoke to people in their own native languages. They were still Galileans, and everyone could tell—Galileans were stereotyped for never being able to shed their accent or learn proper grammar. People often assumed they were uneducated and unable to speak anything but their native Aramaic. But here they were, in the streets of Jerusalem, communicating God’s love and power in the language of every person they met, whether they were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamian, Cappadocians, Egyptian, Cretan, or Arab. 

Remember, all these people already shared a common language. They would have understood if someone started preaching a sermon in Hebrew or Greek. But instead they heard the good news of God’s grace in their mother tongue, in the language of their heart, the language that would put them most at ease, even if it came with a Galilean accent.

If you have ever traveled to a place where you aren’t fluent in the local language, you may know how disconcerting it is to suddenly hear your own language coming from another table at a restaurant or across the aisle on a bus. I have sometimes said that one of my favourite parts of traveling to foreign countries is that I can’t eavesdrop, because I don’t understand enough of what’s being said, and so I’m better able to hear myself think instead. When I unexpectedly hear English somewhere, it’s like a magnet drawing my attention—I hear more clearly and am more likely to take to heart what the person is talking about, even if it was just about the wine list or a slow bus service. And if in the middle of the trip I encounter a waiter or hotel staff or a bus driver who speaks my language, it’s like an oasis in the desert when I need help. Imagine then, traveling for days or weeks, speaking always in your second or third language, and then suddenly at the heart of the holy city, hearing your mother tongue in the street. No wonder that when they heard the wonders of God proclaimed in their own languages, they were amazed and perplexed and asked what it all meant! And no wonder, too, that when Peter then seized the chance to preach about Jesus, thousands of people took his words to heart and joined the way of faithful life that would later become the Church.

The gift of being able to communicate across boundary lines is one that I hope the Spirit is still giving out, though it may look different today. Christianity is one of the few faith traditions that insists on translation—both of our sister religions, Judaism and Islam, insist that the sacred text must be read in its original language, while we have been busy translating scripture into every language we can learn. But beyond the actual written human languages, there are plenty of communication barriers that still stand, that we need the Spirit’s help to overcome if we are to speak people’s mother tongues, and so put them at ease enough to receive the depth and breadth of the good news of Christ’s love for us. The gift of communication may now look like the ability to get the message across to digital natives, people who have grown up with the internet and social media, or across barriers of race and class and generation and politics that seem so entrenched. To speak someone’s mother tongue is also a gift of hospitality, to make them feel welcome in a strange place.

At the end of the reading we heard today, just before Peter gets up to preach and three thousand people are baptised, we hear the people asking “what does this mean?” All these people who heard about God’s love and power in their own mother tongue, from a bunch of Galilean disciples of Jesus, asking what it means....well, at least one thing it means is that the Holy Spirit is not the private property of an elite few or a particular nation or race. Over and over again the story says “all”—all of the disciples were filled with the Spirit. All the people heard them speaking their own languages. God’s story is out there among the people, not confined to one language or one institution or one person—it’s meant to be shared across every barrier and boundary, so that each one of us hears it in the language of our own hearts. When that happens, then just like those who joined the Body of Christ that day, and just like Lydia and all those who came to the community of faith in Philippi, we too will come to participate in the story of God’s creativity, God’s love, God’s power, God’s hope, and God’s future, made known in Jesus. Because the Spirit isn’t just for some, it’s for all, in every language and every land, at the margins and at the centre, bringing good news that we can’t help but share.


May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Good listeners—a sermon on the gifts of shepherding and apostleship

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Good Listeners
Acts 18.24-27, 1 Corinthians 9.19-23 (NRSV)
14 July 2019, spiritual gifts 5 (shepherding/mentoring and apostleship)


Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers.

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For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

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“I have become all things to all people,” Paul writes. It’s a phrase that is often misused, taken out of context and applied to the idea that one person can do all things, or can make everyone happy in a situation. But Paul doesn’t say anything about his skills in people-pleasing or in being a jack of all trades. In fact we know that his people-pleasing skills were....nonexistent. He didn’t sugarcoat the truth just so people would like him. 

But he did have a way with people, specifically with getting into spaces and relationships where they would be able to hear the truth he spoke and receive it. He could go across the boundaries the world imposed, and meet people on their terms. Paul was gifted by the Holy Spirit with apostleship, a zeal and skill that moved him out from familiar territory into uncharted waters for the purpose of sharing the good news. He met people where they were, and however he found them, he accommodated that in his preaching and teaching so that all could hear about Jesus in one way or another. He didn’t make people come to him, he didn’t wait for them to turn up when he was preaching on a Sunday. He didn’t insist that in order to hear the good news you had to look or act or speak a certain way, or be his type of person. Instead, he went to them, bringing to the fore whatever aspect of his personality or history would be most useful in engaging a relationship.

Some might call this inauthentic. It certainly sounds like that chameleon thing some people are able to do, to pretend to be one way for this relationship or job or place, and a completely different way somewhere else. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying he did, or suggesting we do. I think Paul is reminding us that, as one commentator puts it, “the gospel always encounters and engages people where they are, in their own social matrix. It moves and changes us, but it always first nourishes us exactly where and as we are.” (NIB p.908) 

There is a famous quote that says that God loves us enough to meet us where we are, and loves us too much to let us stay there. That seems to sum up Paul’s approach to apostleship. First, he crosses the boundaries. Whatever boundaries the world has set up, he knocks down. Religious barriers? Class barriers? Ethnic barriers? Age barriers? Personality, mental health, emotional maturity barriers? Physical ability barriers? He breaks them all. He knew how to speak the language of people whose life experience is different from his—which really means he knew how to listen well, to engage with people in the everyday realities of their lives, to make them feel seen, heard, and understood, and like he was really one of them.

Too often, I think, when we think of crossing social or economic barriers, we do it in a patronising way, or even a colonising way. Rather than starting with listening, we start with telling, or fixing, the things we assume need doing...and then, if we’re honest, sometimes that leads on to bragging about our great magnanimity in taking the risk to cross the boundary in the first place. But Paul’s description of this apostle life begins with “I have made myself a slave...”—suggesting he went in with a heart for service. And true service starts with listening, not with doing. The most important thing we can do, honestly, whether we have the gift of apostleship or not, is to learn how to listen carefully to what others are really saying. 

Imagine the possibilities, if Christians had conversations with people out in the world, not with the goal of making people come to church, but with the goal of learning about their lives, their experiences, their hopes and dreams and fears and worries, their joys and sorrows, their capacity and limitation? What if we were known for listening with the heart of Jesus, rather than for telling people they don’t belong? To really get to know one another, regardless of whatever barriers the world thinks we ought to have between us...we would have to be willing to start conversations, ask questions, and listen to the answers. Along the way, we might just find that what the Church has offered to people has not been what they needed or wanted, or that it has been answering questions no one is asking. We might find that there are real needs in our community that Jesus calls us to meet, but we haven’t known anything about them because we have assumed we knew what the needs were. And we might find that people are more open to the good news of God’s love because they have been seen, heard, known, and loved by God’s people in a real and effective way.

This kind of work, listening carefully and making people feel like you’re one of them, part of the team, requires knowing and being secure in one’s own identity. This is how we know it isn’t just the chameleon thing that some people are so good at, changing themselves to suit the circumstances or company...because those people often don’t have a good sense of their own core self. Paul knew who he was, and he knew to whom he truly belonged, and so he was able to be strong in that core, while flexing other things to ensure that everyone felt he was on their team so that he could then share the truth of God’s grace with them. 

Growing strong in that core identity is work each of us has to do, rooted in God’s word and prayer. Knowing ourselves as beloved children of God, and knowing God’s will for us, is part of our lifelong task as Christians. Along the way, we may find that we have the help of a community or a mentor who guides us in examining our hearts and aligning ourselves more closely to the Way of God. People like Priscilla and Aquila, who helped Apollos on his faith journey in Ephesus. Apollos would go on to become a teacher almost on a par with Paul—he is mentioned in several of Paul’s letters as a fellow worker for the gospel. But when he was just starting out, he had more enthusiasm than knowledge. The book of Acts tells us he was educated, well-trained in rhetoric and scripture, but that he hadn’t yet experienced the Holy Spirit—that’s what it means when it says “he knew only the baptism of John.” He was excited about the story of Jesus, but it was still intellectual for him. It wasn’t yet in his heart, in his body, a part of who he was. So when he spoke boldly in the synagogue, some of the people with a more developed faith took him under their wing. 

Notice how Priscilla and Aquila, also co-workers of Paul’s, exercised their gift of shepherding, or mentoring. They heard Apollos themselves—they didn’t rely on secondhand reports about him, they had firsthand knowledge of his gifts, his teaching, his passion, and his level of knowledge. They took him aside, not in a public place or in front of everyone, but rather they developed a relationship with him outside the synagogue. They walked with him, got to know him and let him get to know them. Together they studied God’s way, explaining things they knew, and letting him discover more of the Spirit’s power. They guided him in learning and in experiencing the fullness of God’s story. They gave him opportunities to lead in the Christian community, and to know others who could also guide him, and let him practice becoming the shepherd he was called to be. And then, when he was ready to go share the good news somewhere else, the whole community of believers commissioned him, essentially confirmed him as a newly qualified teacher, and wrote to the other disciples with a recommendation. After all this mentoring, Apollos then became a mentor himself, as it says he “greatly helped those who had through grace become believers.” 

Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos develop that sense of core identity, of being personally engaged by God’s grace and in Christ’s work, encountering the Holy Spirit in person. In some ways, their method sounds similar to the gift of apostleship that Paul describes, but with one important difference: They didn’t have to go anywhere or cross any boundaries. Apollos was already among them, and they had firsthand experience of him before they became his mentors. Then they developed a relationship that would allow them to share their own experience and learning to facilitate his spiritual growth and development, guiding him on his walk with God by coming alongside and joining him on the journey.

Usually people with this gift of shepherding or mentoring are people of deep spiritual maturity, people whose own experience of God is personal and long-standing. They have seen many parts of the journey of faith, and so are equipped to guide others on the way. Having said that, few would probably describe themselves that way! Shepherds are also always learning, always growing, and they know they have not reached the destination, so they may sometimes hesitate to offer mentorship to others because they know they are not themselves perfect, and that there’s always more depth to reach, more of God to know.

Like apostles, the root of the shepherd’s gift is listening. Building a relationship always requires a willingness to hear others and to know them for who they really are before offering anything, and a willingness to let people grow at God’s pace rather than forcing them to change to meet our own ideas of what their faith or life should be like. And so both gifts require being strong in one’s own faith and identity, because relationships like this are not for the faint of heart! Being a facilitator while allowing the Spirit to do the work of transformation, rather than imposing our own ways, can be hard work. But the relationships formed between those who are seeking God together can also transform the world. If nothing else, there’s a little more peace, justice, and love, and less conflict and hate, when we are really listening to one another, and to God, together. 

Paul says that he does all this boundary crossing, all this listening to others, for the sake of the gospel—so that he may share in its blessings. And when Priscilla and Aquila mentored Apollos, he was then prepared to participate in the community of grace to which he was called, sharing the blessing. Perhaps if we too practice listening to others, without an agenda, and listening to God together as a community, we will also find ourselves sharing in the blessings of the gospel, here and now.

May it be so. Amen.





Sunday, July 07, 2019

Hard truth—a sermon on Luke 4

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Hard Truth
Luke 4.16-30
7 July 2019, spiritual gifts 4 (prophecy and justice)

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: “Physician, heal yourself!” And you will tell me, “Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”’
‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

~~~~~~~~~~~

You might recall that a few months ago, at our annual meeting, I asked you all to talk about what scripture feels like it might be our core story—what in the great story of God seems to speak most particularly to us as a church right now, and might shape the way we live out our faith as a community. Well, this story of Jesus visiting his hometown is what I sometimes call Jesus’ mission statement—when he reads his own core story, and then explains what that is going to mean for his life and ministry.

It’s fitting that Jesus is in his hometown when he offers his mission statement to the public for the first time. He is surrounded by the places and people he knows best. The buildings feel like home, and he knows his way around the streets and countryside, all the back alleys and hidden doorways, whose roof ladders are creaky and who always stays up too late and who is the village busybody. Probably everyone in the synagogue is sitting in the same place they’ve been sitting for his whole life. His neighbours, aunts and uncles, cousins, and old school friends would all be there. On the surface, it should be a friendly crowd, full of people who want him to succeed and will be rooting for him. If ever there was a moment to take a risk in public speaking, this was it, because these are the people whose love and pride will overcome any faults.

So he unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he read out a portion that contains many of the same themes as the song his mother sang when she was pregnant with him: “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 

The prophet describes God’s justice as involving three layers: an immediate practical needs layer, lifting up the lowly and healing those with ailments; a liberation from all kinds of oppression so that all people can flourish together; and a change to the socio-economic system as a whole. That last bit is less obvious to us in English, but the “year of the Lord’s favour” is a reference to the Old Testament command for jubilee, a year of economic re-set, when debts are wiped out, slaves are set free, and land reverts to its original owners so that no one is without the means to provide for themselves and their families. It’s a command to level the playing field, so that no one has more than anyone else, and all can start from a clean slate.

All three of these aspects of justice are part of the Spirit’s working gift. This isn’t just charity, meeting needs without changing systems. And it isn’t just big picture, forgetting that there are real people who are living in poverty and oppression right now who need help. It’s a combination of working in tangible and political ways for the flourishing of all people, trying to change the world for the better, so that it looks more like the kingdom of God, here and now.

After reading the passage, Jesus sat down, signalling he had become the teacher, and he said “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Which doesn’t sound like much, but is in some ways the perfect example of the gift of prophecy. Prophecy isn’t about fortune telling or seeing the future, it is about seeing as God sees and proclaiming that truth. When Jesus uttered these words, he was saying that God’s blessing is right here, right now. 

And this hometown crowd ate it up. They loved him, and whispered to each other with pride...and maybe with some prideful hope, too, that because he was one of them, his glory would also reflect on them. He was a credit to his parents and his village...surely that meant now they would get the benefits of being the ones who raised him? They’d heard about what he’d done in other places. Since they were his people, then he would do even more here, and their star would rise with his. 

But Jesus wasn’t done preaching yet. 

He reminded them that the prophets of old crossed boundaries, saving foreigners rather than their own people. Elijah and Elisha were surrounded by people who thought their special connection should get them priority prophet service, but it was the people on the margins, who spoke the wrong languages, had the wrong skin colour, worshipped the wrong gods, and even fought for the wrong army who ended up being healed.

With the gift of prophecy, Jesus proclaimed God’s truth: that blessing has never been confined to just one people, and special consideration doesn’t depend on where you live or who you know. Instead, as he had just read, God’s concern is for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the marginalised. That’s where he’ll be, not serving the selfish ambition of those who believe the accidents of their birth make them better than others, more worthy of healing or feeding or safety.

Then, as now, this was not a popular message.

It’s hard to understand how two thousand years after Jesus preached this message, showing us who he was and who he called us to be, we still live in a time when our leaders lament that there are people who live in this country whose first language is something other than English, and claim that those people are the root of whatever problems we might have, or when the news is filled with stories of people hurling racist or homophobic abuse at other human beings who happen to be in the same space, or when we have people profiting off the increasing polarisation of society, or when there are boats of desperate people being turned away from the possibility of safety, or when charities are being enlisted to help deport people who can’t get a foothold in our unfair economy.

Too often, fear of the other combines with selfish superiority to create a toxic atmosphere, a hostile environment...the kind where we would rather throw the Son of God off a cliff than admit that God doesn’t love us more just because of our nationality...or our religion, or our language, or our class, or who we know, or because we were in the right place at the right time. 

Jesus proclaimed the truth that day in Nazareth: God’s blessing is indeed here...and it is unfettered by our rules. God’s justice is for all, because it is the natural outworking of love, and God’s love is for all. 

Sometimes that will be a hard message for those who want to maintain the status quo, or for those who see an opportunity to use their connection to God as a way to get ahead. It will always be a hard message for those who want to be able to live more than comfortably at the expense of others and the environment. But ultimately, God’s justice sets us all free from all kinds of oppression—whether that is freedom from slavery, from prison, from broken relationships, or from self-centred individualism or personal possessions and wealth or inflated self-importance or closed minds. And that freedom makes it possible for us to join in God’s kingdom life, here and now, to be a part of the blessing that is already happening, the fulfilment of God’s vision of abundant life for all.

It feels a little bit like cheating to use Jesus as an example of spiritual gifts, because of course as God incarnate, he was One with the Spirit! It also feels a little bit dangerous, because I don’t want to give anyone the excuse of saying “well, that’s not my gift” as a way to get out of growing in Christlikeness. We’re meant to follow Jesus, meaning that we do our best to do what he did, to become more like him all the time—even knowing we can never be him, in the sense of being God and having every spiritual gift imaginable, shouldn’t stop us from putting our faith into action in some of these ways. Those who have the gifts of justice or prophecy will be the ones who guide us in that endeavour, revealing God’s perspective on our current reality and showing us how to look past the superficial issues to work toward the deeper change that God desires. 

Desmond Tutu wrote that “the sheer act of making the truth public is a form of justice.” That kind of truth-telling is something all of us, whether we have the gifts of justice or prophecy, are capable of doing, in one way or another. All we require is the willingness to see what God is constantly showing us—the belovedness of this world and all its people—and the courage to say what is true: that even now, God’s blessing is here, and is for us...all of us.


May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Relational Gifts—a sermon about Discernment and Wisdom

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s 
Relational Gifts
James 3.13-18 (NRSV), 1 Samuel 16.1-13 (NIV) (Wisdom and Discernment)
23 June 2019, Spiritual Gifts 2

With children:
The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’
But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’
The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’
Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’
Samuel replied, ‘Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.’ Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’
But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’
Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ Jesse then made Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’
‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’
Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’
So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.
Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’
So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.
~~~~

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

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

I am often asked why we still read the Bible and take it so seriously, when it’s thousands of years old, written for people of a different time and place. After all, within our holy text is all kinds of teaching that makes no sense for us, or that we disregard—like the dietary laws, for instance. In both the Old and New Testaments there are many pages of rules regarding what the people of God can and cannot eat. They are meant to remind people that God is interested in every aspect of our lives, and to set us apart from people who worship different gods. Those rules created a particular kind of community. We no longer follow those parts of the Bible, though there are of course people who do. Similarly, there are things in the Bible that feel so far away from us—stories of God seeming to sanction war against the indigenous people of Canaan, letters to churches that have long ceased to exist, and teachings that feel very bound to their time and culture.

It’s true that the Bible contains all those things, and that it can be a challenge to discern what the enduring message is for us today. Sometimes it might very well be “don’t allow this history to repeat” or it might be a catalyst for discussing what it means to be God’s people and how others would know us as Christians, for instance.

It’s also true that sometimes we get readings like today’s, and it is shocking just how contemporary it feels. German theologian Karl Barth advises that we should always read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and today you don’t have to look far for examples of “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It’s almost as if James had a copy of the news from 2019. Though I think even someone from the first century Roman Empire would be shocked and appalled at the thought of children being kept in cages at the American border, sleeping on concrete floors with no blankets, no medicine, and no soap, while the world looks on in silent disbelief that concentration camps can be happening again. I think even someone from the first century Roman Empire would be surprised at the people we have chosen to lead our nations—in fact, reaching farther back, I think even Samuel might be surprised, given that the story we heard a little while ago so clearly says that looking only at appearances instead of at the heart is the way to choose the wrong leader. God looks at the heart, the character, of a person, and may choose someone who surprises us. When we look only at charisma or bank account or whatever other strange criteria seem to apply, then we end up with leaders who don’t think twice about tweeting celebrations of the Windrush generation that same leader tried to deport only a year or two ago, or with leaders who can congratulate themselves for pulling back at the last second from starting a war, or leaders that are so far removed from reality that they can’t see how Universal Credit drives families further into poverty and puts women at risk...the list could go on. I could stand here all day with the newspaper in one hand and see the examples, worldwide, of the disorder and wickedness that comes from envy and selfish ambition.

Yet we want leaders who have the gifts of discernment and wisdom. Those are the gifts Solomon prayed for when God asked what he wanted—the ability to know what was right, what was God’s direction that he was to lead the people toward, and the ability to see the application of God’s teaching to daily living and leadership, to understand God’s will and live it out.

Now, I think even Solomon would admit that even having received those gifts from the Holy Spirit, he still made mistakes. He still sometimes acted from selfish ambition rather than from God’s wisdom. Having a spiritual gift doesn’t mean we are perfect, or that we use it correctly all the time. It means that God has a purpose for us to fulfil, and gives us that gift as a tool—and we have to learn how to use that tool wisely.

Samuel is a good example. He once was the young boy whose mentor, Eli, was blind—both physically and spiritually. Samuel was given the gift of discernment, to be able to see where God was leading, to be a good judge of character and to sense what was the movement of the Spirit and what was a distraction or a false teaching. But now he is older, more experienced, and more burdened. By the time we get to the story we heard today, Samuel is blinded by grief about Saul, and perhaps about his own failures as well. When God calls him to go to Jesse and choose one of his sons to be the next king, Samuel has to be persuaded, and when he arrives he initially thinks he’ll just choose the obvious firstborn, who is tall and handsome and the eldest, and so clearly must be right.

But God intervenes and reminds Samuel of his gift: don’t consider his appearance or height or birth order or inheritance. Remember how to use the tools you’ve been given to judge right from wrong, to see what God sees, to discern. God doesn’t look at appearance, but at reality. Appearance is no substitute for substance, for heart, for character. 

That’s a hard lesson for a people obsessed with curating our entire existence into social media stories.

But as we know, whatever image we project, God is not deceived. And honestly, even our neighbours know better, if they think about it for more than a few seconds. Everyone knows that there is more to the story than what we portray on instagram or facebook. When we look past the filters, we can get glimpses of who people really are. Though sometimes, as in the case of a few leaders that come immediately to mind, we don’t have to look hard, and I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s line “when people show you who they are, believe them.” Especially if it’s an inadvertent glimpse behind the curated image, when we see something that demonstrates someone’s character, that might be a nudge from the Spirit’s gift of discernment.

James says that wisdom will be visible in works—that the way a person lives, behaves, acts, speaks, will be a demonstration of what sort of wisdom they have. Worldly wisdom comes out in envy and selfish ambition, boasting and falsehood, and results in disorder and wickedness. God’s gift of wisdom, though, looks like foolishness to the world—it is marked by gentleness, peaceableness, willingness to yield, mercy, a lack of partiality. This sort of wisdom doesn’t seek power, doesn’t result in neighbours being afraid enough to phone the police, doesn’t put children in cages, doesn’t start wars, doesn’t shut others out when they are in need, and isn’t interested in personal gain. 

Instead, God’s gift of wisdom allows us to see what is true: that often, we have confused being with having. When we measure our worth by what we have, whether that’s possessions or power, then the result is envy and selfish ambition—making everything about us, our position, our status relative to others. When we instead measure worth by who we are—beloved children of God—we find that right relationship to God and each other leads to a way of life that is in accord with God’s teaching, with what we know to be true at the deepest level: that the word that created the world is love.

Both wisdom and discernment are, at their heart, relational gifts. And their absence is often marked by a sense of individualism and jockeying for position for oneself. The ability to cut myself off from caring about others, or about God, as I seek my own interest, is not a gift, but rather a lack of gift. 

Samuel demonstrates that discernment is a gift that requires constant attention to the voice of God inside us. He nearly makes a terrible mistake, but he listens to God instead, and as each son passes by, he listens again. To use well the gift of discernment means being in constant open and honest communication with the Holy Spirit. Which, of course, is something that I hope we all want to cultivate, as Paul teaches us to pray without ceasing! 

And James gives us a description of what wisdom looks like, and it is entirely made of relational words. Unlike the individualistic self-seeking of worldly wisdom, God’s gift of wisdom leads us to make peace, to be gentle with one another, to know when to compromise to help another along the way, to do mercy, and to be fair, showing no partiality. To live like this requires careful attention to the image of God in other people as well as in ourselves, and a sense of the right order of relationships—with Christ at the head, we are all together in this Body. No one is more important than another, we are all needed, wanted, and loved.

It sometimes feels as if these two gifts are in short supply in the world just now. But we know that God gives us what we need to pursue God’s work in the world, so perhaps the issue is not that God has not given the gifts, but rather that we have not yet learned to nurture the relationships that make these gifts work—open and honest, marked by careful and constant attention, to the voice of God inside us and speaking through others. Whether we have these particular gifts or not, nurturing our relationship with God and our relationship with each other can only help—as James says in his letter that is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, a harvest of righteousness is sown by making peace. 


May it be so. Amen.