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.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Roomy -- a sermon God's many mansions

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s


John 14.1-10 New Revised Standard Version

29 August 2021, Sunday School Revisited 14

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

Some of you may know that two new cats came to live in the manse recently. For the past two weeks, it has been a slow process of getting them settled in. We started out with several days spent in my bedroom — anytime I was home, I was in there with them, and the rest of the time they stayed in by themselves, door firmly shut. Then they were allowed out to explore the hallway and stairs to the upper floor…but all the doors to rooms were closed, so they couldn’t get into mischief. After a week, I took them one at a time to the sitting room for an afternoon, then to the study and kitchen for an afternoon — both of those days they were so exhausted that they slept about 9 hours straight overnight! Then we had a little time exploring just the ground floor, and then just the upstairs again, and finally a day when the gate was opened and they could go anywhere in the house, as long as I followed them around. And now they are able to roam freely and unsupervised around the whole house — except the rooms that are always closed for heat-saving purposes!

It’s a big house, so there’s plenty of room for them to run, have adventures, sprawl out on the floor for an impromptu nap, or hide behind the books on the shelf. They have plenty of toys in basically every room, and yet they have stolen cherry tomatoes off the counter, balanced precariously on the bannister on the top floor landing, and hidden under the duvet. They are not kittens, but they’re still fairly small creatures, so this three story house must feel like…well…like their mama’s house has many mansions.

I promise I’m not being sacrilegious, or comparing myself to God and God’s house. Just trying to give a different perspective on a text that many of us are very familiar with — whether from Sunday school and holiday clubs or from funerals. Every day there’s some new place in the house for the cats to discover…and every day there’s something new within God’s house for us to discover. 

The thing that makes all that exploration of the house possible is the security of our relationships within it. Before they were out wandering the house, the cats had to get to know and trust me. Each time we went to a new room they knew it was okay because I took them there, and they could always come back to my lap. The same is true within God’s house — especially since, honestly, most of the time scripture uses the word “house” it’s actually about a relationship, a family, not a physical building! Jesus says there are many places to dwell in God…just as he and the Father dwell in each other, and just as he tells us to abide in him as he abides in us. To live in God’s house is to trust the relationship we have with God — a close relationship in which we live our lives together, meaning that we share our lives with God and God shares God’s life with us. When Jesus says he is the way to a relationship with God, this is why — because in Christ, God shared life with us and brought us into the family. 

The disciples didn’t really know what was going on when Jesus talked this way. Then, as now, people just can’t really fathom the idea that God’s house, God’s family, is roomy enough for everyone. We’ve usually got quite a list of people we just frankly don’t have time for, but God has all the time in the world…for each of us, and for each of them. That’s what it means to have roominess in God’s “house”, God’s family — the relationship is spacious, there’s room to walk around, to learn and grow and change, to ask questions and to explore and to know we can come back to the safety of resting in God’s had. Because God gave Godself to us, and we give ourselves to God. That’s how committed relationships work.

The disciples, though…they thought they had to understand in order to commit. They thought they had to have the right words, the right map to follow, before they’d be allowed in. They were so afraid of being left alone, so afraid of the future Jesus was trying to prepare them for, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them. 

In reading their story from the outside, we can see very clearly what they could not when they were in the midst of those last days of Jesus’ earthly life — that fear obscures vision. When all they could think about is how to save themselves and the way of life they had come to love from certain death and destruction…when all we can think about is how to save ourselves and the way of life we have come to love…it’s like having blinders on. We see so narrowly, and so dimly, that the expansive Way of Truth and Life becomes impossible. We miss out on relationship because we’re too afraid to allow the fullness of God to meet our whole selves. So we reduce Jesus to a tool that buys our salvation but locks the gate to others so that we can feel safe.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby once said that “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human. Uniquely in all of human history, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage.” Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human — it locks us up and blocks us from full relationship with God and with others, rather than stopping “them” who we wanted to be kept out…and Jesus lives God’s love so fully that it sets us all free to be courageous, to live this life with God rather than simply waiting for the next.

Courage is actually exactly where Jesus began this teaching: do not let your hearts be troubled. We so often read this at troubling times that I think we have decided to live with only the shallowest meaning of “do not let your hearts be troubled.” Yes, it certainly can be a reminder that Jesus gives us peace beyond all understanding. But deeper down, it’s an instruction to take heart, to not allow the troubles of the world to narrow our vision and weaken our courage to do good and stand up for what is right.

Even when we are afraid.

Even when it looks like the shadows are overtaking the light.

Even when the world is threatening.

Even when it feels like we are drowning in grief.

Even when the problems are bigger than we can solve and all we can see are obstacles.

Even when it’s our lives, or the life of our beloved institutions, at stake.

In fact especially at those times, take heart, and act like the members of Christ’s family that we are. Do not let fear obscure our vision of the roominess of God’s house or tempt us to use Jesus to lock the doors behind us so that we can live in ignorant or apathetic comfort. There’s space to spare, and God has time for refugees, and people who are homeless or hungry, and people who look and sound different, and people who need extra support, and people who work for peace and those who are trying to change their ways, and people who can’t see past the dark cloud of despair, and people suffering from climate change, and people struggling with addictions, and and and…so we, who are made in God’s image and grafted into God’s family tree, had better have time and space for them too. Because it’s when we act like Jesus that we will most likely see him. When we choose, like Philip and Thomas, to focus on ourselves and our fears of the future, we’ll miss God’s presence literally in our midst. 

The house is roomy, and Christ has set us free to live life to the full within it — all of us. Take heart.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Opposite Blessings -- a sermon on Jacob before and after the ladder...

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Opposite Blessings

Genesis 27-28 (NRSV)

22 August 2021, Sunday School Revisited 13

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, ‘My son’; and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savoury food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.’ 

Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savoury food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

So he went in to his father, and said, ‘My father’; and he said, ‘Here I am; who are you, my son?’ Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.’ But Isaac said to his son, ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ He answered, ‘Because the Lord your God granted me success.’ Then Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.’ So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’ He did not recognise him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.  He said, ‘Are you really my son Esau?’ He answered, ‘I am.’ Then he said, ‘Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.’ So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank.Then his father Isaac said to him, ‘Come near and kiss me, my son.’ So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said,

‘Ah, the smell of my son

   is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. 

May God give you of the dew of heaven,

   and of the fatness of the earth,

   and plenty of grain and wine. 

Let peoples serve you,

   and nations bow down to you.

Be lord over your brothers,

   and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.

Cursed be everyone who curses you,

   and blessed be everyone who blesses you!’

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

I used to think that my brother and I were pretty bad as far as fighting and sibling rivalry goes. When we were younger we broke things, hurt each other, and shouted ourselves hoarse. I don’t know how our parents put up with us honestly. 

And then I read the Bible, and the things that siblings get up to, even just in the book of Genesis, puts our petty squabbles to shame. 

Jacob and Esau are a good example. They’re twins, and even in the womb they were already wrestling. While she was pregnant, their mother Rebekah suffered a lot from their constant movement, and when she prayed about it, she received a vision from God to say that she was giving birth to two nations…and that the younger would take precedence over the elder. Now of course they’re twins, so there’s not much room for younger and older, especially since Jacob was born quite literally on the heels of Esau — it says that he was holding on to Esau’s heel with his hand!

From that moment onward, they were rivals in every way. One was their father’s favourite, and one their mother’s favourite. One was skilled in hunting, the other in husbandry. On and on the list goes of how they were polar opposites of each other. And of course there’s the story where we learned that Jacob was a typical Scot as well — he was able to cook a good hearty meal, and his lentil soup was so good that when Esau came in from hunting and was so hungry, he agreed to sell his birthright, his inheritance, to his brother for a bowl of it! A good cook and canny too! 

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a twist to the story of their father was preparing for his last days, and thinking about his legacy, wanting to give his eldest son a blessing.

Remember Rebekah had been told by God that “the elder will serve the younger.” She simply did, in her mind, what she had to do to ensure that God’s word came true. So she and Jacob worked out a plan to dress Jacob in Esau’s clothes, to cover him in goat hair, and to take in Rebekah’s best cooking. After all, Isaac’s eyesight had failed, and he wasn’t mentally as sharp as he’d once been either, so the plan that Rebekah and Jacob concocted paid off. They were able to manipulate and scheme their way into Jacob getting his father’s blessing.

Esau was murderously angry, of course, which is why Jacob fled towards Haran — the homeland of his grandfather Abraham, running away with only what he could carry. No servants, no livestock, no extra baggage allowance, just what he was wearing and a bag on his back as he headed into the wilderness.

When he laid down that night, exhausted from running, having left his mother with his dying father and his angry brother, the only thing he had to hand was a stone. We always think he used it as a pillow but it’s more likely to have been a large stone that he laid down next to, his back to it, protecting his head and back and hiding him from at least one angle as long as he didn’t stick his legs out. The wilderness is a dangerous place, especially at night, that’s the best he could hope for in terms of protection. 

There, in the middle of nowhere, under the stars, his back to a stone, exhausted and sad, Jacob slept. 

There’s nothing more vulnerable than a person who is mentally and physically exhausted, exposed to the elements, asleep. 

And that is when God appeared.

Not when Jacob was controlling the situation and scripting the conversation, but when he was asleep, outside, far from home, alone.

There he saw the connection between earth and heaven, and how easy it is to move between them for those messengers doing God’s work. He understood that even there, in the wilderness, he was in the house of God, literally sleeping at the gates of heaven…and he had no idea. 

Now at this point I could go on for quite some time about the fact that we, like Jacob, so often have absolutely no idea that God is in this place. Right here and now, wherever we find ourselves, is the gate of heaven. God has not left a single square millimetre of the universe without divine presence, it’s just that we choose not to see God all around us, and we choose to treat the creation as if it is not God’s house, but our own to abuse as we wish. Rather than being vulnerable and open to receiving the truth of the interconnectedness of heaven and earth, we have chosen to stay closed in order to manipulate and overpower creation for our own purposes, as if that will have no consequences for us or others or for the kingdom of God.

And that is all true.

But what I most want to notice with you today is slightly different. Related, in a way, but different.

Take a look at the blessing that Jacob and Rebekah worked so hard to get from Isaac. It is about two main things: material prosperity first (the fatness of the earth, plenty of wine), and power second (let peoples serve you, be lord over your brothers). 

Those are things that many of us strive for. To have more than enough to satisfy our desires, and to have a higher status than other people. To work our way up the ladder, socially and economically, to be better off than our parents were — isn’t that what we’re culturally conditioned to work for our whole lives, and what our western economies require of us? 

Now take a look at the blessing God gives to Jacob while he is sleeping at the gate of God’s house. God says “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” and promises that this land will be full of his descendants, people who will be a blessing to others.

God blessed him with the knowledge of God’s constant presence everywhere, not just in holy places, and with the gift of being a blessing to others, to all the families of the world.

It’s the opposite of the blessing he’d manipulated his father for, which was about being served while God’s blessing is about being a blessing.

One is what we often think of as blessing, we work for it or we say we’re “so blessed” when we have prosperity and power. And the other is what God thinks of as a blessing: to know God’s presence and share it with others, to spread the news that “surely the Lord is in this place” and to work for a world where all can experience God’s goodness here and now.

In other words, as Jesus put it, to receive a blessing is not to be served, but to serve. To love as we have been loved. To represent God’s image in the world.

This doesn’t only apply to us as individuals, though it is the opposite of the way we use the word “blessed” culturally. It also applies to the church as a whole. A blessed church is not a church that has a lot of people and a lot of money and a high profile in its town or nation or the world. A blessed church is a church that gives itself away as a blessing to others. A blessed church isn’t a church with a beautiful building, a blessed church is a church that knows the people are the church, wherever we are. A blessed church isn’t a church that’s packed to the rafters, standing room only, a blessed church is a church that is reflecting the image of God outside the sanctuary walls, loving its neighbours in every neighbourhood where the church lives. A blessed church isn’t one that controls or manipulates to get what it wants, a blessed church is one that recognises God’s presence everywhere and stands up to say “Surely the Lord is in this place” — in the high street and in the train station and in the dark alleyways and in the deprived empty town centre and in the hospital and in the funeral parlour and in the drugs den and in the beautiful park and in the school and in the eyesore of a building and in the pub and in the fancy restaurant and in the community garden and in the close no one is caring for and in the care home and in the library and in the council offices and in the chippy and in the big fancy yachts and everywhere else. 

The blessing we’ve been pursuing so hard for ourselves is actually no blessing at all, and while we’re putting all our energy into that, we can’t see what’s right in front of us. Which means a blessed church has to be one that is full of people who are willing to pause, to let our guard down, to be vulnerable, to stop working so hard for our own institutional survival and the desires of those already inside the walls, and instead make space for God to speak…even if it’s to give us a blessing we aren’t sure we actually want. Because that’s what comes when one sleeps at the gates of heaven.

When we are vulnerable enough to recognise that the Lord is in this place, and that the Lord is calling us to be a blessing to others, then what will we do? How will we give ourselves away to share the good news, to spread the blessing far and wide, to participate in the work that all those messengers of God are doing when they go to and fro between heaven and earth?

When we answer that, we’ll find ourselves in God’s house, wherever we are.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Mirror -- a sermon on the crucifixion

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s


Mark 15.16-47 New Revised Standard Version

8 August 2021, Sunday School Revisited 11

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

This is one of those stories that many of us know, and yet if we were pressed to talk about it we may find that we have only the bare basics of it, or that we resort to simply saying “Jesus died for our sins” — which Mark’s gospel doesn’t say explicitly, he simply tells the story and we have come to understand its meaning over the years. It’s one of the central moments of the Christian faith — some might say the moment. There is often a friendly disagreement between those who see Good Friday’s crucifixion as the most important part of the easter story, and those who see Sunday’s resurrection as the most important part. Without death, there can be no resurrection, of course — something we who worry about the loss of certain traditions or institutions should remember. But then again, without resurrection, this is just another execution in an empire that famously crucified hundreds of thousands of people. 

Crucifixion was meant to be humiliating torture, the most painful way to execute those who dared to oppose the empire. It was supposed to be a spectacle, and also to be so shameful that those who were crucified would essentially be erased from daily conversation. Friends and family wouldn’t mention them, for fear someone might connect them to the person who had been caught rebelling against Rome and turn them in too. Often bodies were left to the elements and the animals, rather than buried properly. It was intentionally as terrible as anyone could dream up. And it happened nearly every day in the Roman Empire, for about 500 years.

As an aside: you would think that if it was an effective deterrent, they wouldn’t have to do it quite so much. But we know how easily we humans fall into the trap of continuing to do things that don’t work, even harmful things, simply because it’s what we’ve always done. The death penalty and other forms of physical punishment and, indeed, many punishments in general, are no different — they don’t work but we want to believe they do. 

Which is why it matters that we tell this story, in all its brutality and horror. 

Not because we need or want to glorify gore, or torture, or pain. There’s plenty of that to go around in other places, other stories.

But because we do need to see the truth of what humanity can do, and the truth that it doesn’t work. We want to believe that inflicting pain on others will make us feel better, but it doesn’t. We want to believe that making an example of someone will deter others from working for change, but it doesn’t. We want to believe that punishment works, but it doesn’t. Jesus, on the cross, holds up a mirror to us as human beings and asks if this was really what we believed?

Think of the people who saw him there and looked square into that mirror.

The soldiers who pulled things out of the dress-up box and played out their fantasies of being more powerful than the monarch…as they were beating him and spitting on him, they inadvertently spoke truth by calling him the King of the Jews. In that moment they revealed themselves, who they really were and what really mattered to them, and it was to hold the power of violence in their hands, to put others below them and climb to the top of the heap by any means possible including even throwing dice to divvy up his last possessions. It’s not a flattering picture in their mirror. But could they see it?

Along with passers-by, the others who were crucified beside Jesus also taunted him, calling names and mocking his power to save. Even in the midst of their own agony, even as they bore the same punishment, they still needed to be better than the man next to them. They were likely there for committing acts of treason or violence against the empire, while Jesus was there for speaking in ways that undermined the empire’s power with God’s love…and yet when they looked into the mirror-image of the cross next to them, what they saw was one more chance to prove they were more manly than the next guy.

The women, looking on from a distance…they’d been with him from the beginning, following him through Galilee and Judea and to Jerusalem. They had been providing for him and his followers, making space, making food, sharing their resources, learning at his feet and going out with his good news. They were the only friends who didn’t run away and hide, and even they had to watch from a distance. But they saw every writhe and heard every cry, and at the last they saw the tomb and the stone’s heaviness shuddering into place. They saw their friend, their teacher, their brother, their son…and they saw an end. The end of everything. In that moment it may have felt like their lives were over too.

And the centurion. Mark says he stood facing Jesus, and when he saw everything, the way others treated him, the way Jesus responded, his final breath, he saw truth shining through all the pain and sorrow and horror: truly, this man was God’s Son. Truly.  

We couldn’t see it in the thousands of other bodies, made in the image of God, on crosses. But this one was God’s flesh and bone on the cross, God’s blood pouring out, God’s breath that stopped, and we are forced to confront just what cruelty we have chosen. We could not deal with the truth of what God-with-us said and did, the challenge he posed to the way things have always been, and so we killed him instead. And if the world were being honest, we would do it again.

On the cross, Jesus reflected that truth back to us in a way we cannot ignore, though we have tried to look away, or pretended that when we continue on the wrong path it was okay because those people deserved it — forgetting what he said about “whenever you have done it to them, you did it to me.” The mirror shows uncomfortable truths, and will continue to show them to us every time we read the story and take it to heart, for we cannot stand at the foot of the cross and walk away unchanged. Or rather, we should not, though we often resist the transformation the crucifixion calls for.

When Jesus breathed his last, anguished cry, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The way that grieving people were to tear their clothes and put ashes on their heads, even the holy place grieved. And yet that tearing — from top to bottom, though it was taller than any human being could tear — also opened something. Sometimes we talk about grief as being broken-hearted, broken open, falling to pieces. Perhaps that’s what happened in the Temple that day, too. The curtain separating the holy place where God lived from the rest of the world and all its messiness was torn, from top to bottom. The word “torn” is a word Mark only uses one other time in his whole gospel — to describe the heavens opening at Jesus’ baptism and the Holy Spirit descending on him. The heavens were torn open and the Spirit flew…and the curtain was torn and holiness was free, unconstrained. God had experienced the depths of human suffering, unmedicated. Mental and emotional and spiritual anguish, betrayal and desertion by all his friends, bullying and taunting and mocking of his very identity and passion and love, physical brutality and torture, the loss of a child…there is nothing in this world that we can go through that God hasn’t already experienced. And the separation between God and us has been torn to pieces by grief and love, so we will never walk the dark valley alone — we always have an experienced guide.

God shows us what really does work, and calls us to a new way. Not torture or punishment or cruelty, but tearing down separation barriers and coming together to walk the journey. If God wouldn’t stay separated from us even when we were literally doing the worst we could imagine, why would we insist on separating ourselves from one another?

The curtain was torn from top to bottom, from heaven to earth…and the tomb was open and empty on the third day…and nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love, revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Demonstrably Different -- a sermon for Pentecost

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s

Demonstrably Different

Acts 2.1-13 (selected), Galatians 5.16-26 (Common English Bible)

23 May 2021, Pentecost, NL3-46

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? …we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” Peter stood up and said “Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!”


I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.

When Pentecost Day arrived — 50 days after Passover, the day when Jews celebrate God giving the Torah on Mount Sinai, thus creating the Israelites as God’s covenant people — the disciples were together. Traditionally, Jewish people get together to study scripture all night long for this particular holiday, so it’s possible that’s what the disciples were doing that day, reading scripture and giving thanks for God revealing the word and bringing them together as a community.

That morning, when perhaps they had been reading scripture all night, and maybe they were a little bit giddy from sleep deprivation and holiday excitement, there was a loud and rushing wind blowing through the house — like the wind that blew over the waters of creation back in Genesis 1. And tongues of fire, like the flames that had danced in the burning bush, and like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness, appeared above them, leading them out of the house, into the street. And they spoke…and people heard. It was a day of new creation, with the wind of God blowing and the fire of the Spirit filling them all, so that they could share stories of God’s amazing works in ways that people would understand, bringing a new community into being.

It’s a community that, of course, seeks to become more like Christ every day. And, according to Paul, the way we do that is by being guided by the Spirit, rather than being guided mainly by the ancient law. Paul says that when we are guided by the Spirit, we will choose to set aside our selfish desires, and choose instead things that build up. He told the Galatians, and still tells us today, that if we are following the Spirit, our community will have a demonstrably different character than those who are not. And then he describes two different and competing visions of what life can be like: life driven by selfish desire, and life driven by the Spirit. If we are following the Spirit, Paul says, it will be obvious to even a casual observer who looks at us or our community.

Listen to the things Paul describes as coming from “selfish motives” — things like sexual immorality, hate, fighting, competitive opposition, group rivalry, jealousy, doing whatever feels good, idolatry. These are things that put myself first — above what’s good for others, above what’s good for my community, even above God. Sometimes it might seem like they serve us — to be competitive, to have rivals, to do what feels right, even to hate people who are different. But in addition to hurting others, they are harmful to ourselves as well. When we dehumanise others, we lose a bit of our own humanity. When we think only of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from support and relationships that could help us grow. When our focus is on me and my security and what I want — when we focus on serving ourselves, or saving ourselves — we paradoxically lose everything, including the chance to experience the kingdom of God.

Now listen to the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Do you notice anything about those things? They are relational things. Love is always received and given, not kept for ourselves. Joy bubbles over and is shared. Peace is known between people. Patience and kindness and gentleness and self-control are how we treat each other and how we interact with the world. Generosity is about giving away. Faithfulness means being focused on Jesus and following him. The fruit of the Spirit draws our eyes away from our self-centredness and pulls us into community. Just as the Spirit blowing through the upper room on Pentecost morning drew the disciples away from studying for their own sake and pulled them out into the street to speak to people who needed to hear the good news in understandable language.

When people look at the church today, do they see a different way of life than anywhere else? Do they see a community that loves, is joyful, works for peace, has patience, is kind and generous, faithful and gentle? In other words, is the Body of Christ demonstrating the relational, outward-looking fruit of the Spirit, in a way that any casual observer could see or experience? Or do they see a community that cares mainly about itself, about keeping the people inside the church happy, arguing amongst ourselves and serving our own comforts and desires and doing what we want regardless of what else is going on around us?

The General Assembly is meeting this week. Lots of people might wonder why that matters…and it’s a good question. Does the Assembly demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit? Does it lead us all, as the church, the Body of Christ, in living a more fruitful faith in the world? Or is it just arguing about how to best keep members happy while ignoring the things affecting real people, like climate change and weapons of war and economic injustice and gender disparity and health problems and cycles of poverty and violence and trauma? Those are big issues, yes, but they are also things that are part of everyday reality for billions of people. They may not seem to immediately be about theology, but they are about how we respond to God’s work in Christ in this world, how we steward the gifts we have been given and live with the compassion, justice, and love of God for all people. And if the Body of Christ can’t do anything about those things because we’re too busy worshipping our buildings or our legislation or our traditions, then we have not followed the Spirit’s lead and we’re not bearing fruit and we are far away from the kingdom of God.

If our faith doesn’t lead us to do things that make other people feel loved, and that work for peace, and that expand generosity, that bring more beauty and goodness into the world, then we’re not being led by the Spirit, Paul says. He would say it’s time to seek the Spirit more, and then follow more closely. The Holy Spirit blew into the upper room and made a new creation — a Body that went out of its comfortable familiar building into the streets, met people, spoke their language, and invited them into God’s deeds of power. 

More than just singing happy birthday to the church, perhaps it’s past time for us to celebrate this birthday by doing what the Spirit has always been calling us to do: to go out of our comfortable familiar building into the streets, to meet people where they are rather than insisting they come to us, to speak their language rather than insisting they speak ours, and invite them into God’s deeds of power rather than lamenting that no one wants to join in our personal pet peeves or projects.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the things God’s law has always been trying to bring forth in us, the things that studying all night for Pentecost are meant to help us learn. These are the things that the Spirit is calling the Body of Christ to live. These are what the world should see and feel and experience from the church. Imagine how delicious that would be, if we could be the ones living so that everyone can taste and see that God is good.

May it be so. Amen.