Monday, February 18, 2019

Parabola—a sermon on the parables of Matthew 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 13.1-9, 24-35, 44-46 (NIV)
17 February 2019, NL1-24

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.
‘The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”
‘“An enemy did this,” he replied.
‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”
‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: first collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’
He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
‘I will open my mouth in parables,
    I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Many of Jesus’ most memorable teachings came in the form of parables—stories that are mostly about everyday life but offer some insight into what the kingdom of God is like, or how we can participate in God’s kingdom even now. Jesus was a master storyteller, as he connected the reality people knew with the one God is continually making known. Sometimes we fall into reading his parables as allegories, where each element of the story stands for something else. The difficulty with that is that you need a key to understand it, and the people who heard Jesus’ stories for the first time had no such key, yet they seemed to find meaning in these teachings, so it must be possible to read them in a variety of ways. The beauty of a parable is that it will reveal different meanings from different angles. The root of the word “parable” is the same as the root of “parabola”—for those of you whose geometry skills are a bit out of date, a parabola can be pictured as a U shaped cross section of a cone, parallel to one side. It is, essentially, a bounded space around a point, but the U shape never touches the point, it simply rotates around it. 

Similarly, a parable is like the space around a point. It doesn’t touch the point exactly, doesn’t always make an obvious connection, doesn’t make an explicit tag line of moral teaching at the end, but rather rotates around the point so that we can see it in a new way.

The parables in today’s reading are a great example of Jesus taking everyday life and helping people see the kingdom of God already in our midst. He uses normal things—seeds, weeds, gardens, food—and also imagination-catching things—like hidden treasure and great beauty—to offer a different vision of the way the world can be.

In the first of today’s parables, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who is terrible at his job and wastes seed by throwing it everywhere without preparing the ground first. We might consider it a reminder that actually the seed never goes to waste...after all, the birds that eat the seed off the path need food too, and even the flower that grows in the middle of a crack in the pavement might brighten someone’s day, and perhaps the plant growing and dying amongst the thorns will decompose and help nurture the soil. We’re meant to share the good news without deciding ahead of time what soil is good enough, and trust that the seed will serve its purpose, whatever that might be.

In the second parable, we have another master gardener who doesn’t trust his labourers...he sows good seed, but then weeds are sown alongside. The weed in this case is called Darnel, or False looks just like wheat until it’s nearly harvest time. Then the real wheat has ears that are full and heavy and begin to bend the stalk, while darnel stands up straight and tall. But all the time it’s been growing silently alongside the wheat, the roots have become entwined, and it’s impossible to pull one without the other. When the workers ask if they should pull out the weeds, he tells them an unequivocal no. They are not qualified to do that work. We, the workers in God’s good creation, are not the harvesters. We don’t get to make decisions about who stays and who goes in God’s kingdom. And when we try to weed out some, it’s likely we’ll damage others. Instead, the master gardener tells his workers to tend the whole field. Water it, fertilise it, take care of it. Regardless of our feelings about the people we share our field with, our job is only to nurture the life of the whole garden together. The harvester will manage the weeds in his own time.

We’ve heard about the mustard seed and how it provides extravagantly for all, even those who might be a bit of a pest around the garden. 

The two parables at the end of the reading feel different—they fit the extravagant theme, but they don’t seem quite as accessible to everyday people. The buried treasure is something we all may daydream about, but it’s hardly a worthy use of time to look for it. Yet when it is discovered, it’s worth rearranging our whole lives for. The pearl merchant is far outside the experience of 99% of Jesus’ listeners at the time, and probably still today. It’s a strange story in which a man finds something he didn’t realise he was looking for, and not only gives up all his possessions but also his identity—no longer is he a merchant, buying goods for the purpose of selling them to others. His life and his understanding of himself is changed because he came across something more valuable than he could have imagined. This is a perfect example of why parables are not allegories—because often we think the pearl must equate to the gospel, or to Jesus, or to salvation. But none of those are things you can possess, as the man possesses the pearl. Rather the story shows us someone who re-orients their life and identity, who has a change of heart and mind—which is what is asked of those of us who would walk the Kingdom Way.

Right in the middle of the reading today is my favourite of these parables. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in about three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. 

Let’s talk about yeast. Nowadays it’s a nice little powder that comes in a tin and we measure it out. But the yeast, or leavening, that Jesus would have known is what we today would call sourdough starter. It’s weird looking and smells a It has to be taken care of regularly, and it has to be used or else it gets out of hand. At its most basic, it’s something that is fermenting and decomposing right before our eyes.

And in the story, the woman hides this lump of starter in a massive quantity of flour. Some translations say “mixed” but the Greek is actually very clear, it says enkrypto...which means exactly what it sounds like. She hid it. In somewhere around 30 kilos of flour. And the yeast did what yeast does...expanded and worked its way through until all of the flour was leavened. Not one handful would be left untouched.

If we were to assume the woman did the usual things next—kneading, shaping, and baking—then she would have somewhere around 60-80 full size loaves of bread. Like our modern-sized loaves, meaning it was likely closer to 100 loaves then. In a time when most baking took place at a communal oven, where women gathered and took turns putting things in and out of the oven while watching children and talking amongst themselves, this is an unthinkable amount of food. Even if she were capable of preparing that much dough, she would have monopolised the oven for days, baking enough for her whole town to have bread.

Can you picture the neighbours, as loaf after loaf goes into the oven, and comes out to be passed around? Not a one of them would have to bake for days. Everyone would have their daily bread, without effort and without price, as Isaiah 55 says. All because of this woman who hid her fermenting sourdough starter in her entire stock of flour. 

Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like.

Nothing is hidden except to be revealed*...and here indeed is the kingdom revealed, in that bubbly decomposing blob that rises and infects and lightens and grows, until the entire village has enough to eat and share. Abundant bread of life for everyone, without thought to whether they deserved it or earned it or paid for it or were ready for it. Just as a city on a hill cannot be hid, just as Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, this parable reveals God’s kingdom way: a way that surprises us with enough for all.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in about three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

May it be so. Amen.

*With thanks to Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories of Jesus for reminding me of this connection.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Foundations: a sermon on Matthew 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 7.1-14, 24-29
10 February 2019, NL1-23

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

I don’t know how many of you are watching The Greatest Dancer on BBC1 right now, but as I was watching last night, the first words of today’s reading kept running through my mind. “Don’t judge,” Jesus says. But the host of the show says to vote for my favourite, which requires judging which dancers I think are better than others—which are more talented, more hard-working, more entertaining, more evocative, more interesting to watch. And the ones who don’t get the votes...well, they take their crushed dreams home. And often I’m left on the sofa thinking judgmental thoughts about my neighbours who have clearly voted for the wrong people, because honestly at least one of the groups that stayed last night ought to have gone, and one of the ones that didn’t get enough votes really was very good and should have gotten another week. The very concept of these kinds of shows forces us to make some judgments, and invites us to make plenty of others.

Judgment is a common theme in our lives—we have to make judgment calls, decide between options, figure out what is best. We talk about being a good judge of character. We are also prone to making snap judgments, relying on shallow information and our own biases, and those may or may not be helpful. We hear young people say “don’t judge me” both seriously and as a joke, sometimes about things as simple as choosing to have nothing but chips for lunch or as complicated as a career choice or a romantic partner. And I think some people have relied on Jesus saying “do not judge” as a way to avoid the hard work of calling for justice, speaking against racism and sexism and homophobia, or holding each other accountable when we do things that hurt others.

I’m going to let you all in on something that should not be a secret. The Greek word that most of our Bibles translate as “judge” in this passage is actually best translated as “condemn.” And the word “condemn” has a very specific meaning relating to people’s place in relation to God. To condemn someone is to place them out of God’s grace, beyond the reach of God’s love, to say that they don’t deserve salvation.

That’s a drastically different thing than simply deciding which dancer is your favourite. 

Hopefully we are uncomfortable with the idea of claiming that anyone is beyond the reach of God’s matter who they are, or what they’ve done, or where they’ve been. 

Unfortunately that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history we have often been quick to condemn. We’ve used words like “barbarian” or “savage” or “uncivilised” or “thug” or “animal” and then from there it was a short step to stealing people, their land, and their resources. Colonialism is based in this type of condemnation, placing others beyond the reach of grace. That continues subconsciously in white supremacy or in isolationist and nationalist policies that assume some of us are more worthy of existing than others. And even more insidiously, it has crept in to our social and economic life as well, with phrases like “deserving poor,” implying that there are some who are undeserving of compassion or assistance.

I will admit that this kind of condemnation can be tempting in some cases when people’s actions are particularly horrific, or when the special-circle-of-hell tweet was funny and captured the mood of a moment, but the reality that Jesus offers us is one in which God’s love is well beyond our control, even when we might wish it was more limited. And when we insist on trying to place our limits on God, we will find those limits often end up leaving us out. Not because God will let us go, but because our small vision affects our ability to live in God’s kingdom—the measure you use will be the measure you get.

There is an old adage that whenever we draw a line that creates an us-and-them, we will always find Jesus on the other side. That is not to say we can’t draw lines of right and wrong behaviour, or personal or communal boundaries, but if those boundaries even begin to imply that there are more categories than simply “human, made in the image of God,” or that some people deserve God’s love and some don’t, or that anyone is past the point of God’s redemption, then we are on the wrong side. And that limits our own experience of grace—until the measure we give is so small that it has shrivelled our spirits and we are less and less able to receive the full measure of God’s kingdom.

I am sure that no colonial powers have thought of themselves as participating in the starving of their own souls as they conquered and stole and dehumanised and pillaged the earth for their own gain. I’m sure that is still true, that those who even now engage in those practices, whether politically or militarily or economically, don’t think of it that way. But Jesus says that is what happens: when we place restrictions on God, on love and grace, on the reality of the divine image in every face, then we find ourselves the ones restricted in the end.

It’s a hard teaching, and it will take us a lot of practice! But when we try, Jesus says we are like people who build our houses on a strong foundation of rock rather than on shifting sand. Notice that he doesn’t say it is his teachings themselves that are the rock, nor even really that he is the rock—though that is a common biblical image for God. Instead he says that the one who puts these things into practice is the one who builds on a sturdy foundation. The foundation is the actions of faithful living, striving to act in accordance with Jesus’ word, practicing all the things he says, not simply hearing them.

We all know that hearing and acting upon are two different things. All the coaching in the world won’t help those people competing on the Greatest Dancer if they don’t also practice the things the coaches say. That is even more true when it comes to learning to be a disciple of Jesus. We can listen and read and study and pray and worship, but if we aren’t also trying to do the things God calls us to do, that Jesus shows us how to do, that the Spirit equips us to do, then our house of discipleship is built on sand.

The thing about construction is that it’s often a fair-weather activity. And the house built in the dry season will always appear to be fine. It’s only when the rain comes, the wind blows, the stream rises—only when trouble makes its way over the horizon, or when we realise how much we have lost by our small measure—that we know whether it’s watertight or not. The one who builds on sand is the one who didn’t do the hard work of digging deeper into God’s word and into himself. Without knowing God’s word, how can we put it into action? And without knowing ourselves, how can we faithfully live as the people God wants us to be? 

Jesus invites us to the full measure of grace, by spending our time in studying his word, in connecting to God, in praying for the kingdom to be seen on earth...and then doing everything in our power to ensure that the circle is wide, that all know the good news of God’s love, that the systems of this world don’t continue to oppress or condemn. 

In short, building our house on rock is a way of life where our actions and our words and our prayers and our songs all line up, so light shines like a city on a hill, and all can see it. 

That’s also what the last line of today’s reading means, the one that wraps up the Sermon on the Mount. It says the crowds were amazed because Jesus taught with authority, not like the scribes...and the word “authority” means that his words and his actions matched up perfectly. He didn’t need to appeal to experts or to other interpretation, because his life demonstrated the truth of his teaching. That is what Jesus calls his disciples to learn as well—to not just talk about the Kingdom Way, but to live it, as he did. And remember, he would not call us if he did not believe we could do it. He knows it is possible to put his way of life into practice, to build our house on a solid foundation. All that remains is for us to believe him when he calls us, and to practice as best we can, trusting that the Spirit can take our faltering steps and turn them into something beautiful and strong, a refuge for all who seek shelter in the storm and strength for the journey.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

It’s Just That Easy and It’s Just That Hard—a sermon on Matthew 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
It’s Just That Easy and It’s Just That Hard
Matthew 6.7-34 (CEB)
3 February 2019, NL1-22

“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. Pray like this:
Our Father who is in heaven,
uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom
so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,
just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
“If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.
“And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendour wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
I have a friend who used to end every sermon with “it’s just that easy, and it’s just that hard.” That feels like an apt description of today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus makes it sound so easy—don’t worry about things, God takes care of them! And you can’t serve God and wealth. And where your treasure is, your heart will be also. But of course we all know it’s far more difficult than it sounds. Jesus is once again teaching that our actions should grow out of our identity, that our way of life, from our diaries to our bank accounts to our conversations to our work to our prayer, should demonstrate that we are his followers. He wants us to let go of all the things we think we are supposed to think about and do in this world, in favour of living as if the Kingdom of God is already here and now. Which is easier said than done! 

That doesn’t mean we ought not to try. The fact that we can’t possibly live up to this expectation perfectly is no reason not to make our best effort. After all, Jesus isn’t wrong—God does feed the sparrows and other animals, and God does clothe the fields in glorious flowers, and God does provide for us too, and worrying does not add time or joy to our lives. Though the idea that we are worth more than the other parts of creation may be at the root of some of our struggles with being good stewards of the earth, and the idea that we can avoid planning for the future on a global scale is really problematic, which is why it feels both just that easy and just that hard. 

“Desire first and foremost the Kingdom of God.” I think it’s so interesting that Jesus uses the word “desire” here. So often we think of the word “desire” as almost a bad word, like we want something we aren’t supposed to have. It feels selfish, or worldly, or maybe even a little illicit. And yet it is what Jesus says today: desire God’s kingdom first. 

I don’t know about you, but the word “desire” feels stronger than simply “want.” It speaks to me of something deeper, coming from a different place inside. 

Which leads me back to a thought I had this week about the first half of today’s text, where Jesus teaches us how to pray.

First he tells us we don’t need a lot of fancy words in order to talk with God. Then he tells us we don’t need to look miserable when we’re fasting. He speaks of both practices as if they are expected, saying “when you do this...” but he wants to be certain that these disciplines direct attention to God, not to ourselves or even to the acts we are doing. That all makes sense to us, I think, even though fasting is not as common a practice as it once was. We understand not making our own piety the centre of attention.

But then he goes on, and I think because we so rarely read whole chapters of the gospel at once we may miss the connection here. He says “stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth....where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

This week as I was reading this passage, I suddenly wondered: what if Jesus is still talking about prayer and fasting? What if the idea of praying and fasting in ways that other people can see and reward us for is collecting treasures for our own benefit on earth? When we do things so that people will think of us as holy and good and spiritual, or even so that we get some personal sense of fulfilment, then that prayer practice is really about us, and our own benefit. But Jesus teaches that we should be doing these things for the benefit of the kingdom of God.

Which made me wonder: what would it mean to have a spiritual practice that was about God’s kingdom, not about me and my own spiritual life or relationship with God? How do our different ways of nurturing a spiritual life, a with-God life, a relationship between ourselves and God and God’s world, benefit the kingdom that Jesus brings? The kingdom we are supposed to desire above all else?

It feels like a completely different way of thinking about prayer and spirituality than we are used to. So often we think about what we get out of spiritual practices: inner peace, hope, joy, wonder, strength. But what if those are the side effects, not the purpose? Jesus says when we think about the side effects as the purpose, we are only collecting treasures for our own benefit on earth, rather than for the benefit of the kingdom of God. So then prayer is not about our own feelings or about getting what we ask for, but about opening our eyes to God’s vision. Fasting is not about our own sense of clarity or closeness, but about letting go of things that are holding us back from participating in God’s mission.

Jesus is trying to teach us to orient our hearts to the kingdom of God, which is here among us already. In the ancient world, the heart was considered the core of the self, the part of the body where your will, your decision-making ability, and your thoughts and feelings all lived. To have a change of heart was also to have a change of mind and action and orientation. So here Jesus is asking us to orient our hearts—the centre of our beings, of our lifestyle and choices and everything—to this new reality he is showing us, even when it seems at odds with the one we’re more familiar with. 

It’s a bit daunting to think that our own spiritual practices—prayer, different types of fasting, worship, music, silence, study, service, giving, whatever we do as a way to connect to God and to seek God’s will—could somehow benefit God’s kingdom. Surely the kingdom of God is already perfect, right? Yet it seems that is what Jesus is saying. That when we desire God’s kingdom first, when our heart and mind and will are all oriented toward the right relationship, then even our spirituality is for more than just ourselves. And that naturally leads to the rest of our lives also being for God’s glory, more than for our own comfort or power or prestige. When even our prayer lives are for God’s glory, not for our own good feelings or spiritual nourishment, then the kingdom becomes more and more visible on earth as it is in heaven. 

Because prayer changes us, until we become agents of God’s will more than our own. And then that naturally leads us to a particular way of being that not only reveals God’s goodness and love, but also works for the whole world to experience the justice and grace of God’s kingdom—so that people don’t have to worry about what to eat or what to wear or where to safely spend the night, so that the cycles of creation work in harmony with each other, so that there is enough for all because no one is caught up in the grip of wealth or poverty, so that no one has to be anxious about tomorrow and they can live in the beauty and wonder and joy of today. 

When we get a glimpse of this world, this kingdom of heaven on earth, I hope it makes us want to orient our lives in that direction, and to figure out how to pray toward the benefit of the kingdom. I confess I don’t entirely know what that looks like just yet, but seeing the vision ignites a desire, and that desire for God’s kingdom first and foremost will propel is forward in exploration together. Jesus promised that when we pursue God’s kingdom first, even in our private spiritual lives, even in our economic lives, even in our relationships, as well as in our public lives, then other things will also fall into place, that if we can all do this, there will be enough, that God has already made this more excellent way possible and brought it among us and lived it himself to show us the way...come and follow, for God’s glory.

It’s just that easy, and it’s just that hard.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Skin-to-skin—a sermon for Advent 3 (Jeremiah 31)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Skin to Skin
Jeremiah 31.1-25
16 December 2018, Advent 3

At that time, declares the Lord,
    I will be the God of all the families of Israel,
        and they will be my people.
The Lord proclaims:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness.
As Israel searched for a place of rest,
    the Lord appeared to them from a distance:
I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.
    And so with unfailing love,
        I have drawn you to myself.
Again, I will build you up,
    and you will be rebuilt, virgin Israel.
Again, you will play your tambourines
    and dance with joy.
Again, you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
    farmers will plant and then enjoy the harvests.
The time will come when
    the watchmen shout from
        the highlands of Ephraim:
“Get ready! We’re going up to Zion
    to the Lord our God!”
The Lord proclaims:
Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob;
    shout for the leading nation.
Raise your voices with praise and call out:
    “The Lord has saved his people,
    the remaining few in Israel!”
I’m going to bring them back from the north;
    I will gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the disabled,
    expectant mothers and those in labour;
        a great throng will return here.
With tears of joy they will come;
    while they pray, I will bring them back.
I will lead them by quiet streams
    and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.
I will be Israel’s father,
    Ephraim will be my oldest child.
Listen to the Lord’s word, you nations,
    and announce it to the distant islands:
The one who scattered Israel will gather them
    and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.
The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob
    and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.
They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion,
    jubilant over the Lord’s gifts:
        grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds.
Their lives will be like a lush garden;
    they will grieve no more.
Then the young women will dance for joy;
    the young and old men will join in.
I will turn their mourning into laughter
    and their sadness into joy;
        I will comfort them.
I will lavish the priests with abundance
    and shower my people with my gifts,
        declares the Lord.
The Lord proclaims:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and wailing.
It’s Rachel crying for her children;
    she refuses to be consoled,
    because her children are no more.
The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!
I hear, yes, I hear Ephraim lamenting:
    “You disciplined me,
        and I learned my lesson,
    even though I was as stubborn as a mule.
Bring me back, let me return,
    because you are the Lord my God.
After I turned away from you,
    I regretted it;
    I realised what I had done,
        and I have hit myself—
    I was humiliated and disgraced,
        and I have carried this disgrace
        since I was young.”
Isn’t Ephraim my much-loved child?
    Don’t I utterly adore him?
Even when I scold him,
    I still hold him dear.
I yearn for him and love him deeply,
    declares the Lord.
Set up markers,
    put up signs;
    think about the road you have traveled,
        the path you have taken.
Return, virgin Israel;
    return to these towns of yours.
How long will you hem and haw,
    my rebellious daughter?
The Lord has created something new on earth:
    Virgin Israel will once again embrace her God!
The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: When I bring my people back from captivity, they will once again utter these words in the land and towns of Judah:
The Lord bless you,
    righteous dwelling place,
        holy mountain.
Those who live in Judah and its towns will dwell together with farmers and shepherds. I will strengthen the weary and renew those who are weak.


A few months ago, I gave the elders some homework. Each of them was given a slip of paper with a book of the Bible on it, and they were to read that and then come back to the next Kirk Session meeting to discuss what God might be saying to us here at St. John’s in 2018. Some people were assigned to read the first half of Exodus, others were assigned to read the first half of Acts, some were given half of the gospel according to Luke, and some the other half. Some were assigned to read Esther, which caused some consternation as it wasn’t a well known story, and some were to read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Some read sections of Isaiah, and some read sections of Jeremiah. When we then came together last month to discuss what we thought God was saying to us today in his word, among the things that came out was the bit of Isaiah we heard last week about even those people who have been outcast for so long that they believe themselves inferior will be gathered in, because God’s house is for all people, not just for some, and this bit of Jeremiah, from the section called “the scroll of comfort.” 

Remember the prophets we have read during Advent originally spoke to people for whom the world was all changed, and the familiar and comforting seemed far off. Their longing for the way things used to be was matched only by the anxiety of their present circumstances. They were waiting for something they weren’t actually certain of, but cautiously hoped for nonetheless—that God, who had abandoned them, might remember them again and bring them home.

What we find in Jeremiah’s scroll of comfort—right in the middle of his book that is often hard to read, maybe even verging on depressing—is even more than the people could have hoped for, actually. 

While they wanted to be taken back to the way things used to be, God offers something even better: a good, joyful, loving relationship between God and humanity. Even from the distance we have put between us, God says across the wilderness “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever”...and then the crucial words: “I have drawn you to myself.” All that feeling of being alone, uncertain, far away, is taken care of by the God who closes the gap and brings us together. From the ends of the earth, different types of people, different abilities and stages of life, different experiences in the land—all will be gathered in from the ends of the earth, and God will lead us on smooth paths by quiet streams. God will be like a parent, caring for us so closely, giving gifts of life and abundance beyond our imagining. 

It’s a beautiful promise. “Their lives will be like a lush garden, and they will grieve no more. I will turn their sadness into joy, and I will comfort them. I will shower my people with my gifts.” On and on God speaks, describing the good relationship between us. This is the relationship God longs to have with us, and that God is insistent will happen. And notice that all the action here is on God’s side. God will initiate this new closer relationship. God will cross the wilderness to show us grace. God draws us to himself. God comes close to us, like a parent to their first born child—imagine what that looks like, a parent and a baby. The mother picks them up, holds them close, skin to skin, looks in their eyes while feeding them, takes care of every need. That’s how close God promises to be with us. Even when we don’t hold up our end of the bargain, God still says “isn’t Ephraim my much-loved child? Don’t I utterly adore him? I yearn for him and love him deeply.” There is nothing we can do to lose God’s love...and God has decided to do something new, something no god has ever done before: to come so close that we are skin-to-skin. 

What is it, then, about this scroll of comfort that speaks to us today? What is God’s word to us, in this place, in this time?

It’s easy to say that we still need the reminder of God’s unfailing love. We do, of course. In a world scarred by hate, living in constant war, and embroiled in more than enough uncertainty, God’s love is a constant, whether we see it or not. It is the good news that people need when they are leaving everything in search of safety, when having crossed the desert or the ocean they are then faced with fear and anger and hostile policies. It is our relationship with God that will sustain us as we finally deal with the reality of decades of church decline. It is God’s relationship with us that brings us hope, and calls us to responsibility, in the midst of a changing climate and all that means for those who live on this planet with us. It is God’s relationship with us that challenges us in a world where creating an us-and-them, deserving and undeserving, insider and outsider, is a strategy that wins elections by causing worry about scarcity and difference.

But what, specifically, is God saying to us, here and now? 

In these 25 verses, the most common words are God saying “I will” do something. But then the next most common words all have the same root. Ten times in 25 verses, one particular word appears. God does something, and then this word is used to characterise the response, the type of relationship that we will have with God. 

So often I think we have thought of a relationship with God as being something solemn, requiring great commitment to silence and particular types of prayer, and a set form of worship that we take very seriously. The stereotype of a very spiritual person is someone who seems to have a great well of inner peace. The church has been a place for recognising our sinfulness and hearing about all the ways we need to do better, and our worship has been orderly and careful and often somber and restrained.

Yet the word most used to describe this new, good relationship between God and humanity It is all over this passage of Jeremiah! Joy, jubilant, rejoice, laughter, voices raised in praise! 

What if this is God’s word to us today? God says, I have loved you with a love that lasts forever, and drawn you to myself, skin-to-skin. And we respond with jubilation! Can you imagine a relationship with God that is marked by rejoicing? A church that is known to be joyful? A way of life that could be described with joy-words more than any other words?

Near the end of today’s reading God says “think about the road you have traveled, the path you have taken...and then follows that up with “I have created something new on earth.” 

Think about the road we have travelled...a road of hope and despair, of success and failure, of love and loss and anxiety and wonder. Our paths may have meandered a bit, or sometimes gone straight by places where we ought to have turned aside to see, or even occasionally led us exactly where we wanted to go. But whatever the path, wherever we have been and whatever we have done, God is still right there, our closest relationship, taking us on a new road. And that road will take us from mourning to dancing, from tears to laughter, from scarcity to abundance. Jeremiah says there will be tambourines, singing and dancing! He was obviously not a Presbyterian. And yet perhaps that is indeed the word for us today: that it’s okay to let some of those things from our past path stay there, as we walk God’s new path into good relationship. And that relationship with God brings us great joy...and our joy should be contagious. Not just for us to feel happy, but to share with all those whom God is gathering in. 

The Lord has created something new on earth—a good relationship that can never be destroyed, for it is based on God’s unfailing love for us, God’s constant presence with us, skin-to-skin, God’s refusal to allow separation between us, Immanuel, God-with-us...and for our part, we get to be joyful, jubilant, dancing and laughing, raising our voices in praise. Rejoice! Scripture says to us. Let your heart be glad, and let your joy bubble over for the world to see and join in.

May it be so! Amen.