Sunday, January 12, 2020

New Wine — a sermon on Mark 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
New Wine
Mark 2.1-22
12 January 2020, NL2-19 (Epiphany theme: 2020 Vision)

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’
Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.’

~~~~~~~~

During the season of Epiphany, as we read straight through the gospel according to Mark, we are honing our 2020 vision, looking for who Jesus really is as he reveals himself to the world. I hope you are keeping your eyes open for moments of everyday life that seem like illustrations of moments in the gospel, and snapping a photo so we can compile an illustrated gospel for our times. 

Today we see these encounters between Jesus and people who don’t yet understand. Their vision is constrained, we might say, by the familiar. Like wine skins that are already stretched, they can’t hold the bubbling expansion of new wine...and so their worldview is burst open, if they try to accommodate the new thing God is doing in Christ.

Sometimes, our worldview needs to be burst open.

But notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the old wine skins or the old cloak are useless and ought to be thrown out. He says that they still have some life left in them, if they are used for the right thing. If we want to store old wine, then an old wineskin is just the thing. In fact, a new one would be wasted on the old wine, and potentially ruined as well. 

The categories and structures inherited from the past cannot contain Jesus and his message, any more than a tomb would. And similarly, if all we want to do is live in the old way, there’s no point in trying to do that within the new life Jesus is showing us. He doesn’t say it’s bad to continue with old wine and old wine skins....though we should be aware of the limited lifespan they have. And if we want to go with him, then we will have to be willing to leave the old wineskin behind, because he is forever expanding the boundaries of the kingdom.

That boundary expansion, or rather erasing, is what precipitated this discussion of old and new wine in the first place. Jesus had decided, first, to call a hated tax collector as one of his disciples...and then, to add insult to injury, he went to their house and shared a meal with all sorts of sinners. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and the teachers, people who tried their best to be as holy as possible all the time, following all the rules as a way to be close to God, could not fathom this situation. Why on earth would he purposely go hang out with those people?

Well, because for Jesus, every meal shared is an opportunity to break down barriers. Every time he’s at the table, he offers healing of one sort or another. And he is demonstrating that all kinds of people, not just the people who get close to God by following the rules, but all kinds of people, can be his disciples. Not only that, but he will seek them out, not waiting for us to come to him and ask, but coming right up to our dinner tables and our workplaces and our favourite pews and calling us to join him....even though it will mean doing the hard work of stretching and seasoning a new wineskin, from within. 

Because it isn’t just Jesus himself who is the new wine that can’t be contained by the previous generations’ ways. It’s his disciples as well. They are noticeable out in the world, because they behave the same way that he does, and they cause questions from those in authority and those who think their way is the only way to holiness. When Jesus is questioned about his disciples, it’s because people can see that they are the people who eat together with sinners and tax collectors, they are the people who insist on a table that’s open to all, they are the people who are feasting while the disciples of the old way are fasting. And they aren’t just feasting for conspicuous consumption, though they are conspicuous. They are feasting because they recognise God in their midst. They don’t need to become holy first in order to get close to God....God has come, in the flesh, right to their tables. Right to our tables. And when we choose a feast where all are welcome, where the table can stretch to include sinners and outcasts and people who never know where their next meal might come from, that is more holy than any fast can ever be. 

Right in the middle of today’s reading, at the end of the part we heard with the children, is this line: “everyone was amazed and said “we have never seen anything like this!” 

It’s true, the world doesn’t see things like this very often. Our vision is so limited, so clouded, so constrained. When we do see it, we love the warm fuzzy feelings we get from such an inspirational story — stories like those about kids rallying around their classmate who has a disability, or about athletes from different countries turning back and helping each other across the finish line when one couldn’t make it another step, or about animals of different species being best friends. 

But the thing is, those people who were in the house that day when Jesus amazed them all by seeing into their hearts and praising the committed friends and forgiving sins and telling the man to get up and walk, turning him from a passive recipient of grace to an active participant in the story...those people were amazed, but that didn’t translate into discipleship. Amazement is easy. Following is harder. Living in such a way that people see Jesus in us, that makes them question and ask why we do the things that he does...that’s more than just clicking “love” on an inspirational video. 

I wonder how many followers of Jesus fell away when they realised they’d have to sit at table with “those people” if they wanted to really see Jesus. I wonder how many other friends that man had who didn’t commit themselves to carrying him to Jesus and digging through the roof. I wonder what people beside the Pharisees said when they saw those dinner parties....I bet they were amazed and said “we have never seen anything like this!” But then did they decide to be a part of showing that grace to the world? Or did they decide they preferred the old wine skins? 

When Jesus said he came to call sinners, I think he was saying that he came to call those who need to be set free from all sorts of things...sometimes perhaps the things we would easily call “sin.” And sometimes perhaps the people he called needed to be set free from their attachment to the limited life span of the old structures they knew...or from the blinders that made it hard for them to imagine friendships across the barriers of class and religion and categories....or from a sense of personal ability, and therefore responsibility, to earn holiness and grace...along with those who needed to be set free from a belief they couldn’t ever be invited to the table.

We have never seen anything like this...but Jesus and those who claim his name will be found revealing it again and again, until all see both Jesus and themselves truly: with love.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Begin as you mean to go on — a sermon on Mark 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Begin as You Mean to Go On
Mark 1.1-45 (NIV)
5 January 2020, NL2-17/18

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way’ –
‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.”’
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’
‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’
Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’
Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’ Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
~~~~~~~~

Do you know the saying “begin as you mean to go on”? It’s often said to ministers beginning a new call, because the temptation is to start off doing everything, skipping days off and being everywhere all the time, in an effort to get to know people. But that makes it extremely difficult later to set boundaries and to take holidays and sabbath time and to make choices about which good things are our thing to do and which may be someone else’s calling. So they say that we should start from the very beginning with our day off boundaries and our holiday plans and a schedule for fitting in sermon preparation and visiting and prayer and personal development, and then we will hopefully be equipped to discern along the way when to flex and when to hold firm.

The saying is true in other contexts too, I think....and makes sense at the beginning of the year and the beginning of the decade, to think about how we want to go through this year and try to begin as we mean to go on. That’s the sentiment behind New Year’s Resolutions, after all. 

And here at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, it seems that both Mark and Jesus are beginning as they mean to go on. Mark has a story to tell and he doesn’t have any time to waste—it’s important and he wants us to be swept along in the urgency and excitement of God made flesh, walking among us, bringing the kingdom of God right here and now. Throughout Advent we heard “the time is surely coming” and now it has come. The time is here — God is with us. And he has no time to lose in transforming people’s lives and the world and everything we thought we knew. From the moment Mark opens the story, things are happening, people are talking, there’s healing and new life and challenged norms and expectations.

There are about a dozen different things I wish I could talk about in this chapter of the gospel, but we would be here all day if I started in on everything I think is exciting or interesting just in this segment of the story. So I won’t do that, but I will encourage you to go back and read this chapter again at home, to let the story soak in a bit. Mark is fast-paced and easy to read, you’ll feel like you’re in the midst of the action as you go. 

So I have narrowed it down to three things I want to highlight this morning, though I hope you’ll go back and savour all the fascinating parts of the story at home!

First: when Jesus calls the first disciples, many of our western English translations say that he told the fishermen “I will make you fish for people” — like he was just changing the task that they were doing. But in the original Greek, it says “I will make you fishers of people.” That sounds like such a small difference, but it is actually a big deal. Jesus doesn’t call them to simply a different task — he changes their identity. No longer are they identified by their work, now their identity is defined by their relationship to Jesus. Which is the same thing that John the Baptist had said — that he baptised with water, symbolising a change of circumstances, but the one coming after him would baptise with the Holy Spirit, symbolising a change of identity. When we come to follow Christ, we are transformed from the inside out. Being a Christian is not only a matter of doing certain tasks, but also a matter of being. It is who we are, and what we do grows out of that identity, our behaviour and actions are reflections of our inner life being transformed by Christ.

Second: in this one chapter, Mark shows us Jesus acting in and transforming every sphere of life. He is in the workplace, calling disciples....he is in the synagogue, the place of worship...he is in the private realm of the house....and he is in the public square. In each place he heals people, changes their circumstances and their realities, and shows people what he means when he says that the kingdom of God has come among us. There is no aspect of life that is not touched by Jesus’ transforming power.

Third: when Jesus goes out to pray in the wilderness after a long day of healing and teaching, the disciples come to look for him. When they find him, they even claim that everyone is looking for him. They want him to come do more of the miraculous things he did yesterday....but Jesus responds by saying that their vision is too limited. They do not see him for who he is, they only see what they want him to be. So he says “let’s go to the other towns so I can preach there too — that is why I have come.” Jesus is clear about who he is and what he is called to do. Even in the face of other people’s agendas for him, he stands firm. This is the first, but not the last, time that the disciples misunderstand because they have placed their own ideas of who Jesus is ahead of who he actually is. 

We are entering the season of epiphany, a season of revealing and understanding. In this season, we will be invited to have perfect 2020 vision, to see clearly who Jesus really is, so that we can also see clearly who we are meant to be as his followers. That will mean removing some old lenses, and looking at what Jesus actually does and says, not only what we have been taught or what we think he ought to be like. In the process, we may find clarity about our own calling in this difficult new world as well.

And in this season of epiphany, the time when we look for how Jesus is revealed to the world, I also invite you to join in a new form of revealing. We will read Mark’s gospel from beginning to end between now and Easter. So each week, read one chapter of the gospel and then go about your week looking for things that seem like they might be a modern illustration of some aspect of the chapter that week, and snap a photo—or do a drawing, or make a craft, or whatever works for you. It doesn’t have to encapsulate the entire chapter, just one bit of the story. Send it to me and we will use them to compile a modern illustrated version of the gospel according to Mark—the gospel in 2020 vision. Who knows, perhaps what you see may help someone else understand the story of God-with-us a bit better too.

Let’s begin as we mean to go on, looking for Christ revealed in the world, for we need an epiphany more than ever.

May it be so. Amen.



Sunday, December 08, 2019

Landscaping—a sermon on Isaiah 40

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Landscaping
Isaiah 40.1-11
8 December 2019, Advent 2, NL2-14 
Advent theme: “The Time Is Surely Coming” // Promise


Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
    And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures for ever.’
You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    ‘Here is your God!’
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.
~~~~~~~~

Last week, at the beginning of Advent, we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking to Jerusalem in the middle of a siege. The Babylonian army had been camped outside the city walls for a year, and there was still a year to go before they would finally win the battle and take the people into exile. Throughout the week the Advent calendar has reminded us of various aspects of God’s promise spoken by Jeremiah — to raise up a new king, who would bring new life out of the chaos and destruction they were experiencing. God’s promise is true and reliable, just as we can rely on day following night and the stars and planets working together in their heavenly courses. Indeed, only if we could number the grains of sand would we be able to fully count the goodness of God.

Today we have moved forward about 40 or 50 years. The Temple was indeed destroyed, and Jerusalem was left in a ruin. Many of the people were taken away to Babylon and resettled there, in the towns and countryside where they wouldn’t know anyone, they wouldn’t speak the language, and they wouldn’t have a chance to organise a resistance or plot to return. The poorest of the poor were left behind in the devastated Judean countryside to tend vineyards that would supply Nebuchadnezzar with wine for his extravagant courtly life. 

Fifty years is a long time to live in exile. The people who first lived through that upheaval had long since gone, and new generations were born, grown, and had children of their own who never knew anything but this life and this place. 

We can imagine that the people tried to keep their stories and traditions and memories alive...but it gets harder to do with each successive generation that has no personal experience of those stories and traditions. The same is still true of immigrants and refugees, of course — they try to keep their traditions and stories, to pass them on, but things inevitably change in the telling. Plus the culture around them, then and now, makes it difficult to hold on to their foreign ways. The host culture always wants people to integrate, but what they really mean is to assimilate, to let go of the foods and language and religion and clothes and stories and songs of the old place, and become like us. 

The Israelites living in Babylon experienced this tension, of wanting to maintain their identity while the culture and government around them wanted exactly the opposite. And added to that was the fact that the ancient world believed that gods were tied to territory...so now that they were far from their homeland, they were also far from their God. They were adrift, and it felt as if all was lost — both the past and the future.

To then hear the words of the prophet beginning with “comfort my people” must have been startling, after all this time. Things had changed so much for those who originally came out from Jerusalem, the idea of comfort when they’d lost everything must have seemed absurd. And for those born into exile, what sort of comfort would be relevant to them? They understood this world and navigated it with ease — they had a harder time understanding their parents and grandparents and their attachment to the past. The challenge of speaking to multiple generations in a way that makes sense to each of them is not unique to our time.

Into this reality the prophet speaks, calling us out into the wilderness — the place where no one is comfortable. It is unfamiliar to everyone, and there’s no map ... in fact, there is no road. And there, in the place where all of us feel a little out of our element and a little off-balance, is where we are called to prepare the way for the Lord, to change the landscape so that God can be seen. 

It is big work, this preparation. Not just the seemingly insurmountable tasks of cleaning the house well enough for your parents to visit, or of getting the perfect gift and planning the perfect Christmas dinner, but a massive construction project. In preparation for God to come, we are to level mountains and fill in valleys and smooth out the rough ground. To level the playing field, removing barriers and changing the tangible things of this world to make it possible for everyone to experience God’s glory.

That’s what the prophet says — that all people will see God together, when the way is prepared. 

Can we even imagine such a world? Where we willingly leave our comfort zones in order to break down the barriers that block people’s view of God? In order that all people can know comfort?

What is so interesting about this to me is that the people were in exile — which is not exactly traditionally thought of as a comfortable place. But then again, even when things are not the way we want them to be, it is often more comfortable to put up with the problems we know than it is to go out and do something different. We know that it is scandalous that some should have excess while others have nothing. We know there are people deep in the valley, unable to climb out, while others sit back and enjoy their panoramic mountain top views. The world is full of rough ground that trips up those who don’t have connections or opportunities, while a few are lifted over and then don’t understand why everyone can’t just sail smoothly like they did. 

To go into the wilderness to prepare the way means that all of us — those of us born into exile who don’t know anything different, and those who have memories of the good old days — will have to leave behind what we know and work together on creating something new. One does not level a mountain or fill in a valley on one’s own. It’s a community endeavour. The same is true for creating a new system that doesn’t trample some down in order to raise a few up. This is a major reconstruction project, and it will be hard and sometimes painful work, to let go of the way we’ve always done things in order that a new way can be found.

Isaiah’s vision of the community coming together to prepare the way for the Lord echoes again in the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings when she is pregnant with Jesus. Mary sings of the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought down, the hungry filled with good things and the full sent away...of the world turning upside down, basically. And that’s what true equality would feel like, for those of us at the top of the mountain. But notice that neither Isaiah nor Mary says that the mountain will become the valley. This is about levelling. So that no one is sleeping in the car park or the doorway while a few metres away others live in luxury, no parent is relying on a foodbank box to feed their children while their neighbours have three course meals every day, no one is working three jobs just to keep a roof over their head while the companies they work for dodge taxes and the CEOs hide their billions off shore. 

The world we live in now has such a gap between the mountain heights and the valley depths, and it seems insurmountable. But nothing is impossible with God. And God has promised, and his word endures forever, even when our own enthusiasm for God’s kingdom has waxed and waned, withering like flowers in the sun when the task has been difficult. It may require more of us than we thought we could manage, and it will need every tool at our disposal, but it is also what we are called to do: to tangibly change the landscape of this world so that it looks more like the kingdom of God. The voice is calling, even now, even in election season, even in the midst of the terrors of the world and the twinkly lights of the holidays: in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord. Raise up the valleys and bring down the mountains, level the ground so that everyone can see...God is coming. 


May it be so. Amen. 

Sunday, December 01, 2019

When? — a sermon on Jeremiah 33

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
When?
Jeremiah 33.14-26 (CEB)
1 December 2019, Advent 1, NL2-13
Advent theme: “The Time Is Surely Coming” // Promise

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfil my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. 17 The Lord proclaims: David will always have one of his descendants sit on the throne of the house of Israel. 18 And the levitical priests will always have someone in my presence to make entirely burned offerings and grain offerings, and to present sacrifices.
19 Then the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah: 20 This is what the Lord says: If one could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night so that they wouldn’t come at their proper time, 21 only then could my covenant with my servant David and my covenant with the levitical priests who minister before me be broken; only then would David no longer have a descendant to rule on his throne. 22 And just as the stars in the sky can’t be numbered and the sand on the shore can’t be counted, so I will increase the descendants of my servant David and the Levites who minister before me.
23 Then the Lord’s word came to Jeremiah: 24 Aren’t you aware of what people are saying: “The Lord has rejected the two families that he had chosen”? They are insulting my people as if they no longer belong to me. 25 The Lord proclaims: I would no sooner break my covenant with day and night or the laws of heaven and earth 26 than I would reject the descendants of Jacob and my servant David and his descendants as rulers for the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will restore the captives and have compassion on them.

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

Last week we heard about King Josiah and the reforms he instituted when the scroll of God’s word was discovered during a Temple renovation. Josiah was a young man, just 26 years old when he led the people in renewing their commitment to follow God’s way together as a community, gathering around the scripture and doing what it said—which meant following the book of Deuteronomy’s instructions about structuring society in such a way that the poor, the immigrant, and the widow would be cared for, that the land would be stewarded well and preserved for future generations, and ensuring that only the one true God was worshipped. 

Jeremiah was a child himself when he was called to be a prophet a few years before that reform — back when Josiah was 21. God commissioned him to speak to kings and to the nation, to call them back to faithfulness and to let them know that the consequences of their bad behaviour were on the way.

Over the years since then, and through the change of kings, Jeremiah spoke boldly. He reminded people of God’s instructions, and of God’s enduring faithfulness even in the face of their brokenness. He acted out the words he was given, not just speaking them but actually putting on a one-man drama of the things God wanted the people to hear. His message was unpopular, and he was regularly contradicted by the court’s official prophets, who were paid by the king to say what he wanted to hear. 

By the time we get to today’s story, more than 30 years and three intervening kings have passed—some with reigns as short as a few months, so it must have felt much like a constant election season does. All of those kings are described as “he did what was evil” — and still Jeremiah is speaking God’s challenging word to the people. Where we picked up today, Jeremiah is about my age, and Zedekiah is the fifth king of his lifetime, and the Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah is in prison. 

The Babylonian army, led by their King Nebuchadnezzar, had surrounded Jerusalem, and tried to starve the people out. They had siege engines and such, but they hadn’t been able to break down the walls....and they had held the siege now for a year. Inside, the people of Jerusalem were beginning to crack under the strain. They were running out of food and water, and there was no sign of an end to this drama. Their political leaders were oblivious to the impact that their decisions had on the everyday person in the street. The religious leaders were not much better, and regularly led them astray, following other gods that promised success, wealth, and power without asking for any kind of life changes, though they did ask for child sacrifice sometimes.

The siege would go on for another year before the city finally fell to the Babylonians. But the people Jeremiah was speaking to that day didn’t know that. They were simply living in the middle of the chaos, trying to eke out a normal existence, to manage all the stress of the constantly uncertain situation. 

They were under a literal siege, but sometimes I honestly feel like we are being psychologically besieged in our postmodern world. Between the political dramas, the manufactured crises, the economic instability, and the daily onslaught of misinformation or partial information or flat out lies, not to mention terrorism....added to the regular stressors of life in the digital age, and in the midst of a massive climate change...it feels like a swirl of chaos from which there is no escape. And we have no idea how long it will go on, or whether we’ll ever get a calmer normalcy back, or if there’s something worse ahead, or if there’s a new normal we have to create along the way.

The people of Jerusalem were just on the edge of desperate, but they were still in the middle of all of it.

And that’s the moment that Jeremiah offered them this vision of God’s restoration and compassion, a vision of hope and a promise of a future of peace and justice, when the political and economic and religious systems would be structured like the kingdom of God, and everyone would know the presence of God with them.

They didn’t even know yet how the crisis was going to end, and here the prophet was giving them this promise. First there would be the consequences for their years of injustice and infidelity—they would be taken into exile, scattered across the Babylonian empire, and Jerusalem would be destroyed. They would end up living 70 years in exile, with only the poorest of the poor left behind as caretakers of the vineyards, because of course no king can be without his full wine production capacity in use. But one day...the time is surely coming, the prophet proclaims. But not yet.

The fact that it is not yet does not mean the promise is untrue. God does not break promises. Just as it would be impossible for God to break the system of day and night, it is impossible for God to break faith with us. Though people might look in from the outside and say “it seems like they’ve been abandoned” the reality is that there is nowhere we can go away from God’s presence. Because once God is committed, there’s no out. God is all in, forever. From the very beginning, until the end of time, just as day follows night, so God will be with us. The promise of the kingdom of heaven coming on earth will be fulfilled. God will raise up the people that make this possible, the people who will lead us in a society structured around justice and righteousness and faithfulness. 

In the middle of a siege, whether literal or psychological or political or emotional, this feels like an impossible promise. When? When is the time that is surely coming? And what do we have to go through first?

That is the question of Advent. This is a season of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation. The time is surely coming, but it isn’t yet. The promise will be fulfilled, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like exactly, yet. 

Of course we do know what is coming. We already know the fullness of Christ’s promised presence, we know that God chose to be among us in the flesh and do this work himself, we know that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to be the people God promises to the world, the people who lead the society in doing what is just and right. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world. 

But this is an already - not yet reality. Yes, we already know it. But it is not yet visible in all its fullness. The kingdom of God is not yet known on earth as it is in heaven. Just like the prophets and the people they spoke to, we are still waiting, still anticipating, still longing for the day that God promises. We are still waiting to see those promises fulfilled. And even when the storm swirls around us, we still look forward to that day, and know that God never breaks a promise. The time is surely coming—the time of restoration and compassion, of justice and righteousness, of grace and peace.

May it be so. Amen.




Sunday, November 17, 2019

Success — a sermon on Isaiah 5 & 11

Rev Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s 
Success
Isaiah 5.1-7, 11.1-9
17 November 2019, NL2-11

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
my loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.
‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.’
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
...
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord –
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash round his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

~~~~~~~~~~

This week I spent three mornings at primary schools, running a workshop with Primary 7 pupils that is designed to help them begin to transition to high school. We do four of these throughout the year, and each one is about one of the Clydeview school values. This week the workshops were on the theme of Success. Throughout the morning we do activities that invite the kids to think about what success means, how we judge if something or someone is successful, and what it takes to succeed ourselves. Often, when we first ask them about it, they say things like “you know you’ve succeeded if you feel good about something you’ve done.” The conversations also usually include talking about awards, passing exams, and sometimes status symbols like big houses or fancy cars. But almost always the first reactions this week were about feeling more confident, knowing in yourself that you’ve done something well.

It was interesting to be thinking about success all week while also pondering this reading from Isaiah — in which it becomes clear that God’s vineyard has not succeeded. Whether the measure is by how God feels about it or by a more objective standard of fruitfulness, the vineyard is a failure. It’s a shocking idea, that God could fail at something. But through the prophet, God asks: what else could I have done? What more effort could I have put in? I did everything I knew how to do — cleared the ground, planted the best vines, prepared the wine press, pruned and weeded and watered and fertilised and cared. And still the fruit was bad. The vineyard was not a success, it did not produce grapes that could be made into wine and shared to make glad the hearts of others.

Instead of receiving all that care and turning it into an outpouring of goodness and care for others...instead of being blessed to be a blessing...it turns out that the people had taken the blessing for themselves and refused to share. They were supposed to do justice, to lift up the poor and level the playing field so that all would have enough. They were supposed to live righteously, with their relationships in the right order — God in priority position, and everyone else equal. They were supposed to understand that they were as intertwined as the vines of the vineyard, all in it together, working together to produce fruit that could be shared to enhance God’s kingdom. Instead, they set up systems that oppress. They allowed some to be outcast, and the poor to be trampled. They turned away, choosing not to look at the people who were the collateral damage of their economy, their social norms, and their greed. Instead of justice and righteousness, they produced a crop of bloodshed and cries.

So the vineyard was left in disarray...overgrown with weeds and vines dying, trampled by animals and left without water or care.

But.

Even though it looks like God gave up on the vineyard, we know that is not how God is.

And death never has the last word.

From the stump, the dead tree that had been cut down and was left there to rot in its place....from the dry stump, symbol of lost hope...from the stump will come a new shoot. The deep roots can still nourish new life. God will do a new thing, and bring life out of death.

The shoot that will grow out of the stump will be marked by the very things that the vineyard lacked: justice and righteousness, both of which will favour those who had been oppressed or left out. He won’t judge by what he can see — because remember, God looks at the heart. This new life won’t be about status symbols like fancy cars or holidays or clothes, but about the other measures of success. Even one tiny, fragile, shoot coming out of a deeply rooted stump will bear more fruit...fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

The results of this new life, deeply rooted in the truth of God’s love and call, will be just as shocking as the sight of the dead, overgrown vineyard, though. It will at first glance involve just as much disarray. The order that we think is built into the world will be turned on its head. Rather than the strong preying on the weak, they will live together. The wolf and the sheep, the leopard and the goat, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, the lion and the ox...it’s a comprehensive list of predators giving up their natural inclinations and choosing a different way. 

In this new vineyard, the powerful treat the powerless as if they matter. 
In this new vineyard, relationships that have been fraught with violence become peaceful and mutual.

Not because the lamb or the calf or the child have changed. They haven’t become more confident, or worked harder, or paid money, or earned their way in by acting in ways the others think are appropriate.

It’s the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear that change. They choose to change their diet—to eat straw rather than each other. They choose to change their way of relating to others, lying down rather than chasing and attacking. They choose to give up some of their power in order to raise up others, making a system of equals who can work together. They choose to use their resources to create opportunities for those who had none, for both meaningful work and for rest. 

It feels wrong, because our human society is so used to the idea that it is right for some people to have more than others. But here we have a picture of the top of the food chain choosing to share meals with the bottom...where neither of them is on the menu. We have a vision of the powerful and powerless living side by side in the same house, and of neighbourhoods where those who are deemed dangerous and those who we think deserve protecting live side by side. 

God says this is what the world will be like when the earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord. They will not hurt or destroy...because why would we need to? Why would we want to? It may seem at first glance like everything is in disarray, with the powerful and powerless living together and valuing each other as equals — meaning neither has power over the other any longer. But then we would truly be living in right relationship, with God and one another. There would be no oppression or bloodshed or cries of brokenness. We would live as we are meant to — blessed to be a blessing.

Given the contrast of these two visions — of the failed vineyard and the peaceable kingdom — why do we continue to choose the one that failed?

This is a question for us as individuals, of course, but it is also a question for us as a society, and as a church....and as nations heading into elections on both sides of the Atlantic, with a daily news cycle that highlights every moment the choices we have made along the way.

I don’t have an answer as to why, other than our sinfulness, our brokenness, that leads us to think that imbalance of power and inequality of wealth is somehow a mark of success. But I do have a hope, that one day soon we will choose a different way. That when we recognise the effects of choosing to be the failed vineyard, we will want to choose the way of new life instead. Surely we would rather go through the upheaval of learning to give up our position at the top of the food chain, if it meant we could have a world of peace and fruitfulness....as opposed to the continuous cycle of destruction that comes with bearing bad fruit. I want to believe that we can dig deep, and find ourselves rooted in God’s grace, however hidden it sometimes appears to be...and then from that grace, find the capacity to do a new thing, to try a new way of sharing the blessing, and perhaps find the success God is calling us toward: a world marked by fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control.

May it be so. Amen.