Sunday, July 10, 2022

before and behind...a sermon on crossing the Red Sea

Rev Teri Peterson
Gourock St John's
Before to Show, Behind to Push
Exodus 14
10 July 2022

Exodus 14.5-8, 10-16, 19-22 (New Revised Standard Version)

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him; he took six hundred elite chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. 

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

For the word of God in Scripture

For the word of God among us

For the word of God within us

Thanks be to God.


Sometimes I think we don’t give the Israelites enough credit for setting out on this journey in the first place. It had been a wild ride, being enslaved for generations, knowing their neighbours wanted to throw their male children into the Nile, living through the plagues…and every time Moses, their leader, tried something new to improve the situation, it actually just made everything worse. Yet when the moment came, in the middle of the night no less, they just did it, leaving behind their homes and walking into the unknown.

That can be a really hard thing to do, to make that first step into something new. Especially when trying the little tweaks along the way had not helped at all, because it starts to feel like nothing will ever work, and it’s really demoralising to have more things go wrong, or to have to let go of another thing we used to enjoy because we can’t sustain it anymore and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn this around and recapture the good days we remember. And when we’re demoralised, it's even more difficult to step out the door on something huge and unknown and scary.

But they did it. They opened those doors and walked out.

At first they were probably a bit giddy. They did it, they really did it! They could hardly believe their eyes, as the whole community surged forward in an unstoppable march to new life.

And then…they looked back.

It’s a natural thing to do. Remember Lot’s wife, who looked back as they fled her hometown, the place she’d grown up, the family and friends she’d left behind, the streets she played in as a child…of course she would look back, it was her whole life up to that moment. But when she looked back she was turned into a pillar of salt. There are other stories in scripture, and in novels and films and other myths, about people looking back, too. It’s no surprise they looked back.

There’s that great meme that goes around every so often that says “don’t look back, you’re not going that way.” It can be sound advice! The Israelites looked back and saw challenges chasing them down, and they were  immediately filled with fear and a desire to GO back, not just look there. Their fear made them wish for the good old days, and forget all the things that made those days not actually good at all, and soon they were shouting at Moses that he shouldn’t have brought them to this new place, they didn’t like all this change, and they’d much rather just live the way they always had even if it meant there would be no future generations of their community.

Looking back can be fun occasionally (like looking at family photos), and instructive sometimes (as we hopefully learn from history so as not to repeat it), but often it is dangerous for individuals and organisations. We get caught up in nostalgia and it weakens our resolve to step out into God’s future with hope.

Moses did what many leaders have done down through the ages when the people are anxious: he slowed right down, stopped to try to allow them to be calm and feel back to normal, told them just to hold still and wait and see. But God actually had other ideas: God said “why are you standing around? Get moving! Go forward! You did the hard part, taking the first step out, now keep putting one foot in front of the other.” And the only way to go forward is to turn your eyes forward, to stop looking back with either fear or longing, and move on.

And right in front of them, as always, was the pillar of cloud and fire, the visible presence of God, going before them to show them the way. The pillar was a signpost, a guide they could follow, a light for the path, but more than that it was God’s presence and protection.

That night as the Israelites battled their temptation to look back and their fear of going forward, the pillar of cloud and fire did something new — it moved. God moved from in front of them to behind them, blocking their view. They could no longer look back, because God was standing there like a wall they couldn’t see around. And as Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters were pushed back and a path appeared, I suspect that pillar inched closer and closer….and pretty soon the only option was to turn around and go forward. There was nothing to see behind them, and the pillar was pushing them right into a situation they never wanted to find themselves in and certainly would not have been able to manage on their own. But God knew they could do it, they just needed a nudge from behind.

When they finally got to the other side and this particular challenge was defeated, there was singing and dancing and a return of that giddy feeling of “we did it…now what?” It wasn’t the end, there were still challenges ahead on their way as they followed God into a new land. But the entire time, God went before them to show them the way, and behind them to push them into places they might not go alone.

There are probably dozens of resonances between this story and our lives today…the challenges and the opportunities are both immense. I could make connections to the things we need to do — and the backward-looking we need to let go of — if we are going to deal with climate change, or the pandemic and what sort of world we want to live in after covid, or the political and economic dramas that will require much of us as we try to sort out new systems that lead to a better life for everyone rather than just a few. Indeed, I hope you are making those connections and asking both yourself and God what being pushed forward might look like!

It probably won’t surprise you, though, that one connection I want to make today is to the situation with presbytery mission planning in the church of Scotland. There’s change coming, we all know that. And I want to take a moment to recognise that here in St John’s, and in many places across the church, we have made the first steps toward change! We sometimes get so caught up in how far there is to go that don’t give ourselves enough credit either, just as we forget how hard that first step was for the Israelites. A lot has changed in our church life in the past few years, and we are making those steps, often with at least a bit of grace. There have been changes in worship, and in our study, and in our Kirk session meetings, and in creating the Fuzzy Parish and growing those partnerships as we became Connect. There have been changes in technology, enabling collaboration we couldn’t have done before, and enabling accessibility for those who previously were excluded from our fellowship for various reasons. There have been changes in our practices of inclusion and hospitality and welcome and love. We still have more of this journey to make, and there are still challenges ahead, but I just want to pause and notice together that we have started on the journey toward God’s new future, and the first steps can be the hardest!

We don’t know where God will lead us, or push us, or both. We do know it will be different, it will feel uncharted and like we are wandering, and sometimes the challenges will seem daunting. And change is hard, and like the Israelites we will probably complain along the way, and we may lose some people who don’t like the direction God pushes us. Sometimes we might shout at the leaders and demand to be taken back to the old familiar ways, and other times the leaders might get so frustrated they throw down the tablets of the ten commandments and smash them into pieces. Sometimes we’ll remember that the old ways guaranteed the death of the community we love as they sacrificed the next generation and left people out, and sometimes we’ll be tempted to only care about how good it is for us without thought for those who come after. No one said the journey to the promised land would be easy. 

But God knows we can do it! So God goes before us to show us the way, and behind us to push us into places we might not go alone….and maybe behind us to block our view when we try to look back, too. Don’t look back, we’re not going that way. God’s way is always forward. 

We may find the Spirit leading us into new ways of gathering as a community, or new ways of working across old parish boundaries. 

Jesus will reveal himself outside our church buildings, and call us to new ways of connecting with the people who would never walk through this door. 

God’s mission will be for all of us to work together to fulfil, ministers and elders and members and friends — 

and the Holy Spirit will give each of us exactly the gifts we need to do that mission, if only we will work together. 

The Body of Christ is about to get a workout, and sometimes we’ll be like “we hurt in muscles we didn’t know we had” as we learn new things and try new moves and walk farther than we have before. That’s how we get stronger, and how we mature into who God created us to be: a Church that loves and serves and cares for the world we live in now and the world God is still bringing into being — the world God loves so much that he sent his Son to change everything, the world God loves so much that he sends us out to be his Body.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Missing Ingredient -- a sermon on the call of David

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Missing Ingredient

1 Samuel 16:1-13

17 October 2021, NL4-7, Uncovered 6

Last week we heard God calling to the child Samuel. Samuel grew up to be a trustworthy prophet who revealed God’s word to the people, and so the people began to recognise that they needed a more formal leader. They asked for a king. Samuel reminded them that God was their king, and a human king would inevitably go wrong, but they insisted, and God agreed, anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul was head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the country, and he was handsome and charismatic. Unfortunately, he also chose political expediency over faithfulness to God’s way, and when waiting for God and Samuel to give their blessing in the midst of a military situation became too difficult, he took matters into his own hands. As a result, Samuel told him that God would choose another king to take his place. We pick up the story today in 1st Samuel chapter 16, when Saul is still on the throne but has just heard from God that his days as king are numbered. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version. 


The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.’ And 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 you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

This week on Bake-Off, one of the bakers made a very big mistake in the technical challenge. When reading the recipe, she didn’t notice that one line of the ingredient list went onto a second page, and so when making sticky toffee pudding, she left out……flour.

As you can imagine, this was a disaster in the oven.

You might be thinking “how can you just forget about flour when making a cake?” Or perhaps “why didn’t she look at the second page before starting?” Good questions.

We might ask the same question of Jesse! Samuel invited Jesse and all his sons to the ritual sacrifice and feast, and Jesse brought seven sons with him. Seven was, of course, the perfect number, the number that symbolised completion. And his seven sons were tall and handsome and just great in every way. The eldest in particular seemed to have everything it takes to be just what Samuel was looking for. As the firstborn he was well positioned to inherit, and people would listen to him. Plus, of course, Saul was very tall and handsome, so clearly whoever God would choose to replace him must also be at least as good looking, right?

God’s answer to Samuel demonstrates that Samuel isn’t great at seeing with God’s eyes. Most of us aren’t, to be fair. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

It always makes me wonder just what God was looking for, in the hearts of these young men who were being paraded in front of Samuel while the whole town looked on. It was like the great Bethlehem pageant or something, with seven contestants who look great but don’t have that special something that puts them over the top.

At which point, Samuel looked at Jesse and said “are you sure this is all your sons?” 

As if he could possibly forget one — of course it’s all of them…oh, turn the page, there’s one more line on this list…David is out in the fields. But he's the last, the youngest, and therefore the least important, right? No big deal to just miss out the one ingredient, just power on through even though this recipe looks all wrong…

Can you imagine that moment? When everyone else has been through the process of being sanctified for the ritual — we don’t know exactly what that means, but it was likely a day of fasting, bathing, and praying — and then they’d been through the whole beauty pageant, only to find that one person had been forgotten? And then for Samuel to insist that the ritual and its attendant feast couldn’t go ahead until someone went out into the fields outside of town, located Jesse’s flocks, got David to round them all up and bring them in, and come to the gathering…it would take a long time. And David wouldn’t even be sanctified when he arrived, he likely came in straight from shepherding, still looking (and smelling) like a young boy who’d been sleeping on the ground and wrangling sheep.

And yet, he’s the one God is calling.

The one who came after the perfect complete family of 7. The one who was not sanctified. The one who was so forgettable and run-of-the-mill that he didn’t even count in the list of ingredients. He was the one God insisted could not be left out, the one without whom nothing could go ahead.

We don’t know what God saw in David’s un-sanctified heart that was different from what was in his brothers’ hearts. But we do know that God had chosen to call someone who fit zero of the criteria for what people thought was important, and not just that — anointed him to be the king of the nation, to lead the people through the trials and triumphs that were to come. So the Holy Spirit took hold of David that day, filling him and directing him and refusing to let go. He would become the one whose word carried weight in the community, whose choices everyone looked to, and whose fashions they imitated. They would trust him to be their guide and to do the things that needed to happen to make their nation safe and prosperous and faithful.

And he had been the extra line that went onto the second page, easily overlooked.

This month we have been watching some films together on Sunday afternoons — films made by and about people who are living with the everyday effects of climate change. We saw one about a Kenyan farmer and his community’s struggle with the changing pattern of rainy and dry seasons, leading to droughts and then floods, ruining crops, meaning they cannot afford to send children to school or take them to a doctor. And another film was about a family in Kiribati, where changing weather patterns have brought floods and hurricanes they never experienced before, so the family has had to split up and emigrate one parent at a time because they can no longer make a living as the sea rises and claims their islands. Both the Kenyan farmer and the president of Kiribati went to Paris to speak to world leaders about climate change, and both left disappointed that the deal everyone was praising fell so far short of anything that would actually tangibly help their people. This afternoon we’ll be watching a film about seven people from different communities around the world, trying to figure out how to make people care about our neighbours who live on the other side of the world. 

All three of these films are about those people who are the line that goes onto the second page of the recipe…out of sight, out of mind. Most of us couldn’t place Kiribati on a map. I only learned how to pronounce it when we were watching the film last week. When we’re asked about bringing everyone to the table, they are the ones left out until someone asks specifically if there’s anyone else, and then we turn the page and say “oh yeah, that other one. But they’re small and insignificant and poor and no one will notice if they’re not here.” 

God notices that they’re not here. And that we’re not only not listening, but actively ignoring them, choosing not to care about our neighbours who live on the other side of the world.

And it’s out there — beyond the boundaries of what we think of as whole and complete, on the forgotten second page of the list of people we have decided are the ones who count and whose opinions matter — out there that God has seen and provided a leader for the people.

Maybe they don’t have the experience we think they should, and maybe they don’t look the part of a world leader to us, and maybe they’re not sanctified like everyone else coming to the feast, but the truth is that we cannot proceed until everyone is here, because they’re the ones God is calling to lead, and we’re the ones God is calling to listen and follow.

Without flour, the sticky toffee pudding is just a burned pile of smushed dates, butter, and sugar. Without the 8th-born child shepherd David, even the powerful and rich will wait in fear and expectation because the ritual cannot go on until the future king arrives. Without the people of those nations we have overlooked, we cannot move forward on climate justice and we will miss the future God has planned. 

God may well be working outside the systems we set up, and calling into leadership people whose bodies or histories or locations are outside what we think is the “norm,” and God is definitely calling us to take notice of those we have long thought didn’t count, didn’t need or deserve or earn a seat at the table, those we didn’t even remember they existed let alone mattered.

The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. Whatever God is uncovering in our own hearts, and in the hearts of others, it’s time to look and to listen and to follow faithfully.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Hineni -- a sermon on the call of Samuel

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s / Greenock St Margaret’s

Hineni (1st third “Blinded” MSG 2017)

1 Samuel 3.1-21

10 October 2021, NL4-6, Uncovered 5

Last week we read about the Israelites at the beginning of their wilderness journey, learning how to trust God and live in God’s kingdom ways. After forty years, they stood on the banks of the Jordan river and crossed into the land God promised them. It took some time to settle down and there were many conflicts and mistakes along the way. There was no leader or king, and each person did what they wanted or felt was right for themselves, and the situation deteriorated as over time the people forgot what they had learned about being God’s people. God raised up judges to be leaders who reminded people of God’s ways, but they had only limited success. By the time we get to today’s story, the people had built a shrine to house the ark of the covenant that they brought from their wilderness years, and there was a seer there — not exactly a judge, not exactly a prophet, but someone who could help conduct worship and interpret God’s word to the people. His name was Eli. He had become something of a foster-parent and mentor to a child, Samuel, because his mother Hannah had promised him to the service of God at this shrine.

We pick up the story in 1st Samuel chapter 3, and I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.


Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called to Samuel and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

When I arrived at my first church as a brand new minister, I discovered that one of the things the church had been putting off doing until the new minister arrived was a confirmation class. They had 20 teenagers waiting, and no plan. Among my first tasks, therefore, was to recruit several teachers and at least 20 mentors who would work with these young people one-on-one. 

In making what felt like a hundred phone calls, I lost count of the number of adults who told me they were afraid to talk to children.

Afraid of what, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps afraid that the teens would only know how to talk about mobile phones and video games? Worried that they didn’t know how to have a conversation without a script or curriculum? Or maybe afraid that the kids would have questions about God that they didn’t know how to answer? 

I wonder how Eli felt when Hannah dropped off Samuel at the temple, saying “this is the child I prayed for that day we last spoke—here, he’s dedicated to God, so take him in and teach him.” I wonder if he was afraid he wouldn’t have anything in common with a four year old, and wouldn’t be able to relate to him. Did he worry about how to talk about the God that Hannah had promised Samuel to serve?

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about people’s feelings or inner thought processes, but in this case I think it’s possible that Eli felt ill prepared for this task. His own sons were corrupt and he didn’t know how to set them right. And here, a few years after Hannah had left Samuel in the temple, we discover that in spite of his religious duties and his presence beside the ark of the covenant day and night, Samuel does not yet know the Lord, and God’s word has not been revealed to him.

It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To get so caught up in the tasks of the church that we never get around to knowing the Lord. And it’s easy to pass that on, too, as we inadvertently communicate that church or faith is an obligation grown ups bear, rather than a body, a relationship, a way of living, or a family where all are valued. Yet it is to Samuel that God speaks. Even though he doesn’t have the right education or credentials or anywhere near enough years of sitting in the pew or serving on a committee…even though he hasn’t yet been taught, even though to him God is more like a piece of furniture than a living Word…Samuel is still known, by name. God knows where to find him, and how to call him, and God waits patiently while Samuel learns how to be in this new relationship he didn’t even know to expect.

Eli had lost his sight—which, granted, was never particularly good in the first place. When he first met Hannah at prayer, what he saw was a drunken woman, rather than a person pouring out her heart to God. When Samuel appeared at his bedside at night it took three tries before reality broke through. Perhaps he thought Samuel was too young, or too inexperienced, or too ignorant of God’s ways, or maybe just adorably naive. I suspect many of us have thought the same when a young person has spoken up. Perhaps Eli was so used to doing things on his own without God that it didn’t occur to him that the Spirit’s voice could still speak. Maybe he was just tired—after all, his own sons were grown, so why did he now have to deal with teaching another round of Sunday School? Whatever the case, he was blinded, whether by his assumptions, his fear, his arrogance, or his apathy.

Once Eli began to see, though, he became the mentor Samuel needed. He passed on what he knew of prayer, and Samuel heeded his advice and ran back to his bed, probably practicing his lines as he made his way through the dark temple. When God stood at the foot of the bed, Samuel was ready—or as ready as any of us ever can be. He responded to the voice calling his name, and listened carefully for what the Lord had to say. 

What God has to say at this moment is actually a message for Eli. Perhaps Eli’s blindness extended to his ability to hear for himself. Now, through the collaboration of mentor and student, elder and child, the word of the Lord was becoming known once again. Remember at the beginning of the story we heard that the Lord’s word was rare at the time…and by the end, God is appearing again and again and all the people are hearing the word. That is only possible because the elder both teaches and learns from the younger. 

Eli’s response to the message that God gives through Samuel is fascinating. It’s a message of destruction, of punishment for not doing more to stop his corrupt sons from taking advantage of people and abusing their power as priests. It’s the sons who have done wrong, yet Eli bears the responsibility because he did not stop them. Instead he had just halfheartedly said “it is what it is” — which is exactly what he says when he hears that the consequences are coming. It is what it is. There’s nothing to be done. That’s just the way things have always been.

Perhaps it is this apathetic complacency that made it impossible for Eli to hear the word of the Lord and do his job passing it on to the people. Or perhaps this apathetic complacency has actually solidified into opposition to hearing God’s word, because it might require something of us, calling for change that we do not want. After all, saying “this is just the way it is” makes a nice cover or excuse for all sorts of mischief and wrongdoing, and at the same time lets us off the hook for things we find uncomfortable anyway.

Often when the word of the Lord shows up in a community, it’s the young people who hear and take it seriously, who then say “things need to change if we’re going to be faithful.” Young people hear with fresh ears, and they believe what we teach — that we are striving for the kingdom of God, and God’s vision is an alternative way to what this world offers and demands. And they believe it’s possible! Rather than simply accepting the way things are because it’s easier, young people, like Samuel, often insist that we take seriously the word of the Lord.  

It’s hard, though, for older people to listen. Like Eli, our vision grows dim and we are tired and we are comfortable with how things are. We like that our religious institutions are set up to serve us. And, if we’re willing to be super honest, we don’t want to admit that the way we’ve always done things has produced the results we now have, where whole generations of young people realised we didn’t actually intend to change our lives based on what we taught so they left the church to find causes or groups that put into practice the words they spoke.

Samuel’s answer when he’s called is “here I am” — that Hebrew word Hineni that we’ve heard all autumn. It’s more than just “here,” it means I’m fully present and committed, ready to do whatever you ask. That’s what he says to Eli, over and over and over: hineni. I’m here, I’m committed, I’m all-in. 

That’s what our young people are saying to us. Hineni! They trust that we, the people who have promised to bring them up to know and love Christ and his church, to pray for them and teach them, to walk alongside them on this journey of faith, are also saying Hineni to them. That we are fulfilling our promise to be fully present, committed, all in. To say “here I am” to each other across the generations is to commit ourselves to a relationship — both of teaching and learning, listening and speaking. 

Young people want to know if what we say we believe, what we teach them to believe, actually matters to us and how we live. They want to know if our faith makes a difference in our choices, our business practice, how we spend our money, how we share our resources, how we vote, how we get around, who we care about. They want to know if the Christianity we teach them gets put into practice when we see things in the world that are wrong, unjust, harming people…or if, like Eli, we simply say “it is what it is” and go on in our comfortable ways that look no different than anyone else. To say Hineni to one another, not just youngster to elder but elder to younger as well, and all of us together to God, is to promise that we will believe together in the possibility God is setting out before us, and that we will walk hand in hand on this road even when it takes us away from the safe place and into unknown territory. When we say Hineni, Here I Am, we commit to following God’s lead together, even if it means that we have to stop saying “that’s just the way things are.” 

In the whole story, Eli never once said Hineni. Not to Samuel, and not to God. In fact what he teaches Samuel to say to God is not “here I am” either — he teaches Samuel to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Which is an important lesson — if we aren’t listening, we can’t commit. But Samuel shows us how to commit to whatever God is going to ask…and how to follow through, even when the task is difficult, like delivering bad news to his mentor and foster parent.

It often feels like the word of the Lord is rare in our days, just as it was when Samuel was a child. But perhaps if we are willing to offer our commitment, not just in words but in actions, to God and to each other, we might just uncover the promise and calling that God has been speaking all along.

May it be so. Amen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What God Learned -- a sermon on the binding of Isaac

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

What God Learned

Genesis 21.1-3, 22.1-14, Robert Alter

19 September 2021, NL4-2, Uncovered 2

After the creation story we heard last week, the story moves quickly along through the drama of the first sibling rivalry, between Cain and Abel, to the earth’s population booming and trying to come together to become like gods and build a tower to heaven, to the flood and Noah’s family and the animals floating in the ark, to the reality that violence can never stop violence, and so God commits to another path and offers the rainbow as a sign of that promise. And then we meet Abram, whom God calls to leave his family and familiar surroundings and go out into a new-to-him land. Abraham and Sarah pack up and go, trusting God to guide them and to provide what they most want: children. It’s a long journey through foreign lands, different tribes and towns and difficulties and adventures, but through it all two things are constant: God promises to make their descendants more numerous than the stars, and also Abraham and Sarah have no children. Today we hear about that promise finally being fulfilled, when Sarah and Abraham were in their 90s! 

A couple of years after their son Isaac is born, however, jealousy flared between Sarah and the slavegirl Hagar, who had previously borne a son to Abraham, named Ishmael. Sarah and Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, throwing them out of the house to fend for themselves in the desert. When their food and water ran out, Hagar left Ishmael alone and travelled on until she couldn’t see or hear him, so she would not have to see him die. Both of them cried out, and God heard them and opened Hagar’s eyes to see a well, providing just what they needed to go on, so that Ishmael too would carry his part of God’s promise to his father Abraham, to be a great nation. 

I am reading today from Robert Alter’s translation as we hear the first few verses of Genesis chapter 21, and then continue in chapter 22. 

The Lord singled out Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the set time that God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And he said to him, “Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.” And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar. And Abraham said to his lads, “Sit you here with the donkey and let me and the lad walk ahead and let us worship and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood for the offering and put it on Isaac his son and he took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together. And Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father!” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.” And the two of them went together. And they came to the place that God had said to him, and Abraham built there an altar and laid out the wood and bound Isaach his son and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham reached out his hand and took the cleaver to slaughter his son. And the Lord’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” and he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from me.” And Abraham raised his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket by its horns, and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place “He sees”, as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord there is sight.”

This is a pretty terrible story.

Actually not just pretty terrible, it’s very terrible. 

Abraham had just sent Ishmael and Hagar away, casting them out into the desert with only a couple days of supplies, and hoping that he could indeed trust God to provide for them — sacrificing one son to his wife’s jealousy. And now he’s being asked to sacrifice the other, this time with his own knife. And again he says nothing, just does it.

This is a man who argued with God, negotiating to ensure that no innocents were collateral damage at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham convinced God to spare the entire city if only ten people could be found doing the right thing, and when they couldn’t, God rescued the one faithful family first. Abraham laughed in God’s face at the idea he would become a father in his old age, and he talked with God about other options for his inheritance. And yet when finally the promise comes true, the one child who would carry on his name and the covenant to be a blessing to the world, Abraham was willing to let it all go without a single question. God did ask politely, saying please — which is unusual! — but still.

Though it does say he was up very early in the morning…perhaps he was having trouble sleeping. I know I would. I would be lying in my bed thinking about that phrase “Here I am”…the Hebrew word is “hineni” and it’s not just like “I’m over here” but like “I’m all in, fully committed” — it’s the word Abraham used when he heard the voice call his name. Before he actually knew what God was going to ask, he had proclaimed his commitment. I would be lying there wishing I’d used another word…and then wondering if I’m allowed to regret answering God’s call? 

But we don’t know why Abraham was up so early. We don’t hear anything of his thought process or his feelings or his interior life. Since he doesn’t reply to God at all, doesn’t engage in his usual back-and-forth as he has in every previous conversation, we’re left to wonder what on earth was going on in his head. Or maybe whether he was so caught up in his own thoughts that he just went on auto-pilot. 

When Isaac was finally able to break in to his father’s silent thoughts, Abraham again answered with “hineni” — he was all in, fully committed to his son, at least while they walked together. The whole story is full of notes about how they traveled as one, united in purpose — or so Isaac thought, anyway. 

At the top of the mountain, it feels to me like those movie scenes where everything goes into a weird sort of slow-motion, with the edges of the screen blurred, almost like a dream sequence. Basically without looking, Abraham builds an altar, and he stacks up the wood, and he ties up Isaac, and lifts him onto this pyre, and he reaches for the cleaver…it’s all like moving through molasses, like the air is thick, and Abraham is going through the motions without really seeing anything, just moving his hands until it's all in order. Then again, the voice calls—twice, this time, urgent, desperate to get his attention, to break through the thrall he’s caught in. And Abraham again says “hineni” — he’s all in, whatever the voice is going to ask. And finally he looks up, almost like that moment when you shake your head and see what you were doing like for the first time, and there’s a sheep standing right there. Just as God promised to provide of Ishmael in the desert and God did, though Abraham didn’t know it…just as Abraham had told Isaac that God would see to the sheep, God did, though Abraham very nearly didn’t know it, because he wasn’t looking.

The next words God says are, I think, the most disturbing in the story. God says “now I know…” — implying that God really didn’t know what Abraham would do. The story is set up as a test — not necessarily a pass-fail final exam, but a progress test that reveals how much we’ve learned and where we still need to do a bit more work. We can talk another time about the idea of God setting a test, but what I want to wonder today is just what this test revealed that God didn't already know. What did God uncover in Abraham that maybe neither of them actually knew he had in him?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice the person most precious to him — his only legitimate son, and also all that he represented, the fulfilment of the promise that God made to him all those years ago. Remember by this point Sarah would be well into her 90s and Abraham past 100 years old. This one child is the one who will carry the covenant, because God promised that through him Abraham would become the father of many nations, with more descendants than the grains of sand or stars in the sky. And beyond even all those decades of waiting and longing for him, Abraham loved him, it says. 

And he was willing to put a knife to his throat, if he thought that God was asking for that.

Here’s what I think God learned that day:

If Abraham was willing to sacrifice even his most precious beloved, and the covenant promises God had made, without even asking a single question…how much more easily would he sacrifice someone he didn’t love so closely? Someone he didn’t like at all? Someone he didn’t know? God learned that humans, even those in close relationship with God, are far more willing to sacrifice each other than we would like to admit.

I suspect that if any of us heard a calling to sacrifice a member of our family for God, we’d at least pray about it again first before deciding to reject the voice that did not align with the call to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves

But would we do the same when asked to sacrifice someone who isn’t close to us?

What about if we don’t have to personally hold the knife…but simply put an x on a ballot paper for a person or party who believe in turning refugee boats away and sending them back to sea? Or simply to demand cheap clothes and food, even knowing that people must work for pennies in order to provide that for us? Or simply to insist on the convenience of our own private cars while the sea rises and swallows people’s homes and livelihoods? What about if all we have to do is continue to believe our economy and power and standard of living must grow indefinitely because that’s what politicians say…while in other parts of the world water sources are drying up and healthcare is a distant dream and the fires and floods and famines get worse every year? What if all we have to do is look away from the person we’re walking past on the street, or turn off the television…sacrificing our literal neighbours to poverty or drugs or mental illness for our comfort or worse, our self-righteous judgment. Or what if all we need to do is hold to one narrow understanding of God’s love, leaving everyone different than us outside it?

How easily we sacrifice each other.

That’s a reality that I think we would prefer stay hidden deep within us, but God uncovers in this terrible story — how easily we are willing to sacrifice those who are not so precious to us, despite the fact they are precious to God. Despite the fact they are made in God’s image, and carry God’s promise.

This test reveals where Abraham still has work to do…and where we still have work to do. The truth is that we can only transform what we can name — so even though it is painful and awful, bringing this story out into the open means that now we are capable of doing that work. We are capable of seeing our choices and their impact on others, and making a different choice. We are capable of seeing the pain we cause, and changing direction to be healers instead. We are capable of keeping our eyes and hearts open, of saying “hineni” and being all in and fully committed to not only those most precious to us, but those precious to God. In fact, more than being capable of this, it is our HOLY CALLING to do this. God uncovered our tendency to sacrifice each other so that we could stop doing it and learn a different way. If only we will open our eyes and look and see what God has provided — abundant life for all. On the mount of the Lord, there is vision.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Boundaries -- a sermon on Genesis 1

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s


Genesis 1.1-2.4a (Robert Alter)

12 September 2021, NL4-1

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. 

And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.” And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was. And God called the vault Heavens, 

and it was evening and it was morning, second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters he called Seas, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth grow grass, plants yielding seed of each kind and trees bearing fruit of each kind, that has its seed within it upon the earth.” And so it was. And the earth put forth grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, and God saw that it was good. 

And it was evening and it was morning, third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the heavens to divide the day from the night, and they shall be signs for the fixed times and for days and years, and they shall be lights in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth.” And so it was. And God made the two great lights, the great light for dominion of day and the small light for the dominion of night, and the stars. And God placed them in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth and to have dominion over day and night and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 

And it was evening and it was morning, fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with the swarm of living creatures and let fowl fly over the earth across the vault of the heavens.” And God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that crawls, which the water had swarmed forth of each kind, and the winged fowl of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas and let the fowl multiply in the earth.”

And it was evening and it was morning, fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind. And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of every kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.” 

And God created the human in his image, 

in the image of God he created him, 

male and female he created them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit-bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food.” And so it was. And God saw all that he had done, and, look, it was very good. 

And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.

Then the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their array. And God completed on the seventh day the task he had done, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the task he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for on it he had ceased from all his task that he had created to do. 

This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

We are so used to the opening line of the Bible being “in the beginning”…but I have to admit I really love this new translation that Hebrew scholar Robert Alter worked on over the past decade. “When God began to create” — it’s a reminder that God’s creativity is not confined to this one story, but goes on throughout history even to today. 

I also love the sense that there’s no beginning separate from God’s activity. It’s God’s creative energy that is, itself, the beginning. So it isn’t as if we could point to a calendar and say “this is the beginning” like we can with the school term or the new year, but rather that in the midst of chaos, God started something…and that was the beginning. When God began to create, everything was chaos and darkness, and God started something new by pulling that chaos and darkness back, revealing light and airspace and earth, which were full of potential. Particularly this year, I just find that the idea of God uncovering the potential of the earth from underneath the chaos — the welter and waste — to be really provocative and interesting.

There’s certainly plenty of welter and waste to go around, and I don’t know if it’s because of social media or having spent so much time home alone or what, but somehow the world feels more chaotic than ever, as we try to figure out what “new normal” looks like. There’s still a pandemic raging around the earth, of course. The climate change situation is dire and the consequences become more visible and more tragic with each passing day. We still live with the fallout of war-making decisions made decades ago. All of these things mean people are moving around the globe in huge numbers, seeking peace and safety, seeking clean water or refuge from drought, seeking higher ground, seeking healthcare. And many who aren’t yet desperate for those things are unwilling to accommodate those who are, so conflict intensifies. 

I think there’s something instructive, then, about how God goes about creating order from chaos. Because it turns out that God could see the abundant life of creation already, in the midst of all that welter and waste…it just needed uncovering. It needed space to flourish and grow into its potential…potential that only God could see. The breath of God hovered over the dark depths — hovered like a mother bird hovers over the nest, caring for eggs and then chicks, going back and forth, one eye always on what’s happening in the nest and one eye on what else is moving in the background. And the breath of God hovered…and then God drew in that breath and sent it out in a word that literally moved heaven and earth.

The light shone, and the waters were pulled back, and earth and air and sea had space to breathe too. Another word and they were commanded to bring forth life — and the earth and sky and sea were obedient to God’s voice asking them to join in the creation. Notice it doesn’t say in this story that God created plants, it says that God told the earth to put forth grass and plants and trees. The potential was there, and God called it out of the ground. And into that environment, which God saw could continue being endlessly sustainable in re-creating itself, God called forth animals and birds and humanity. God saw what was possible, and made enough space in the chaos and darkness that possibility could become reality. God uncovered life where it looked like there was only welter and waste.

And then God asked humankind to continue the work. The word sometimes translated as “have dominion” or what Robert Alter translates as “hold sway” is a royal word, about being the royal representative…humanity is meant to be God’s image, God’s representative, amidst the creation, to take the kind of responsibility for it that God has done. And what has God done? Made space in the midst of chaos for flourishing life, uncovered potential and allowed it to do what it does best, set in motion a system that continues to create and re-create. God both creates things and enables creativity by setting boundaries — boundaries for water and sky and chaos and time — and by calling out the goodness buried beneath the depths.

How do we do that, as the people made in God’s image? How are we making space for creation to flourish, allowing it to continue its God-given creative work, and uncovering goodness?

If we’re honest, the answer is that we don’t. Instead we fill up the space with our stuff, snuffing out the creativity of the earth and sea and sky with our rubbish. We disrupt the cycles of creation so that it will serve our greed, even though it depletes the earth. We take what it produces and keep it for ourselves, believing we are somehow outside the system rather than a part of it. Rather than acting like God’s representatives in the midst of creation, we have acted like the idols we believe ourselves to be, agents of chaos rather than creativity. Rather than uncovering the goodness at the heart of God’s creation, we have laid waste to it.

But planted more deeply than all that is wrong, God’s word of goodness is still true. God can still see the potential and possibility in the midst of the welter and waste. It’s still there, and the creation is still partnering with god in creativity and flourishing. When God began creating, God didn’t then quit. But where previously it was the dark depths and the waters that needed boundaries set in order to reveal the fertile ground, now it is human greed and idolatry that needs boundaries. If we are restrained, as the seas were, as the darkness was, then there will be space for new life. God is, even now, calling forth and empowering the creative capacity of all things…and that includes us. It will take all our creative capacity as human beings if we are to find ways to restrain ourselves in order that all life might thrive. 

We could begin by taking the seventh day seriously. It’s a built in time when God allows creation to do its thing without interference, as God rests…and if we were to take time out from shaping and re-shaping and micromanaging and using and abusing the environment around us, we may find that our relationship to the creation is re-set to be more like the image of God…but at this point, we can’t stop there. That is just one small boundary restraining our insatiable desire for more and the truth is that because we ignored it for so long, now we need much deeper cuts if we are to be good stewards of this gift for future generations. 

In about half an hour our boys brigade will be doing a litter clean up, and that’s a good start. Of course if we restrained ourselves from littering in the first place that would be better. Restraining our use of private transport, and fossil fuels, and single use plastic, and intensive agriculture, especially animal agriculture, is also all crucial. But we are beyond the point of individual actions being enough. We need them, don’t get me wrong. We must act as individuals. But we need the whole human family, all of us who are made in God’s image and called to act in God’s likeness, to come together to set some boundaries on the relationship we have with the rest of creation. We cannot abuse it and expect it to continue to nourish us, any more than we can expect that in any other relationship. We cannot simply overrun it and expect it to live up to its potential. And we cannot uncover the good news God planted within creation if we are constantly burying it under mountains of landfill. In other words, we cannot be agents of chaos and expect creation to treat us like agents of grace. 

We need to restrain ourselves, individually and corporately and politically, and we need to do it now. To live into the image of God is to create space for life to flourish, and to nurture that potential and possibility together, letting the world do what God made it to do: thrive.

May it be so. Amen.