Sunday, March 21, 2021

Not an Object -- a sermon on Luke 18-19 for Lent 5

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Not an Object (out on a limb 2.0)

Luke 18.31 - 19.10

21 March 2021, Lent 5, NL3-35

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, and today’s story takes us on the road through Jericho, a city about 20 miles northeast of and 3400 feet lower elevation than Jerusalem. 

In the verses that come just before today’s reading, a well-off man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, and was instructed to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow Jesus. He was saddened by this teaching, and Jesus’ response was “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.” When the disciples expressed their own shock, Jesus said: “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.” He continued to teach them as they traveled, which is where we pick up the story in the gospel according to Luke, chapter 18, beginning at verse 31 and continuing to chapter 19 verse 10. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.


Then Jesus took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’ But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’


He wanted to see Jesus…so he packed up all his dignity, power, and prestige and climbed a tree, like a small child, hanging from the branches while the rabbi stood underneath and summoned him.

Zacchaeus was probably more used to summoning others than being summoned himself, more used to other people making a fool of themselves, creating a spectacle…but he wanted to see Jesus. It didn’t matter what people thought of him.

And it turns out that what people thought of him may not have been correct anyway—as he dropped down out of the tree and led Jesus to his home, he could hear them grumbling that he was a traitor to his people, taking the job collecting taxes for the Romans, that he was just like the rest of them, getting rich off the suffering of his neighbours. The way taxes worked at the time, Rome allotted each sector a certain amount they had to bring in…anything they collected over and above that amount was their salary. Given that Zacchaeus was rich, that must obviously mean that he was cheating people, extorting them and living high while the rest of them struggled to get by, right? He was probably used to hearing their rumours and gossip about him, he was well known in town. 

And yet, in his business suit and shiny shoes, he climbed up the tree and went out on a limb, trying to see Jesus.

And when he came down, he went out on a limb to declare that he was giving away his wealth and that he was careful not to defraud people—in the Greek, Zacchaeus speaks in an ongoing present tense, not a future tense as it’s often translated. He is describing how he is now, already, what is current habits are…and Jesus too says “Today”—just like in his first sermon, when he declared that today, right now, in his presence, in his very being, the word of God was being fulfilled, coming to life. Zacchaeus doesn’t just say that Abraham is his ancestor, he lives like a son of Abraham. Despite the fact that to everyone else he was an object of scorn, Jesus saw him for who he was, a human being trying to be faithful. Jesus recognised him, and invited others to recognise him too, as an integral member of their community…though to recognise Zacchaeus would also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at their own hearts.

He wanted to see Jesus…but the people around him wanted him to be quiet. And yet the blind man shouted all the more. Even just the act of standing up on that crowded roadside meant laying aside propriety and expectations. His neighbours shushed and pushed, but still he went out on a limb, speaking up and refusing to be held back. He could hear, but he wanted to see Jesus.

When Jesus summoned him—a man used to being ignored, walked around, talked over—he came and stood face to face with the man he could not see, and heard the question: what do you want me to do for you?

Imagine how infrequently he had been asked this question. Most of the time, those who live on the streets or who navigate life with disabilities are told what they are getting, or what they should want. Their lives are defined by the people around them, and what we think they can and can’t do, marked by assumptions that most of us have codified as fact. 

When the man shouted for Jesus, he took a risk—challenging the picture of those around him, knowing that most people would not see him for who he is (a beloved child of God, a son of Abraham) but rather as a problem to be solved. But Jesus saw him, and not only restored his sight but his dignity, his humanity, his place in the community as well. Despite the fact that to everyone else he was an object of pity, Jesus saw him for who he was, a human being with more vision than even his own disciples had. Jesus recognised him, and invited others to recognise him too, as an integral member of their community…though to recognise the blind man would also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at their own hearts.

They wanted to see Jesus…these friends who had followed him for so long. They’d seen miracles, and performed some themselves. They’d been healed and taught, they’d walked in his footsteps, basked in his glory, shared his dinners. But when it came to the idea that he could absorb violence without returning it, they could not see. When it came to the idea that he would lead them not to power and glory but to service and weakness, it sounded like foolishness. They wanted to see Jesus, but their eyes were clouded by the values of the world, their minds closed off by their assumptions about how things ought to be. To them he was the object of their political and spiritual desire, not a whole person inviting them into a new way of wholeness too.

The disciples walked the roads with Jesus, stirring up dust and controversy every step of the way, and yet for all their seeking, they weren’t yet able to lay aside those same constraints that had caused people to shush the blind man or to grumble about Zacchaeus. 

It’s so easy to see other people as objects…of our desire, of our pity, of our scorn. Jesus sees us, though, and calls us to recognise that people are not the one dimensional objects or representatives we so often reduce them to. An example I like to give is that I am a woman, and a minister, and an immigrant, and a curly-girl. But I don’t speak for all curly-haired people, and “minister” is not the only thing I am, and my experience of being an immigrant is different than many others. I’m not only any one of those things, nor am I the spokesperson for any of them. That’s true for every single person we meet. A person sleeping rough is a person, with interests and experiences and family background and a story. They don’t represent all people without homes any more than I represent all people who have a home. A person with an addiction is a person, not an addiction. A person whose job I would personally never do is a person, not their job. 

Jesus recognises them, and us, and invites us to recognise one another too, as integral members of our community…though to recognise each other will also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at our own hearts.

Zacchaeus and the blind man wanted to see Jesus — they had some measure of vision already, to recognise Christ in their midst. It was the people around Zacchaeus and the people around the blind man who could not see. They couldn’t see their neighbour fully, but that was at least partially because they could not see themselves. They thought of themselves as the normal ones, arbiters of what’s right and wrong, who’s in and who’s out. They were the measuring stick for who else belonged in their community. It was only when Jesus challenged their vision that the whole community could be healed. 

The disciples were a more complicated situation. They couldn’t fully see Jesus, because they were still holding back part of themselves — and being held back by their reluctance to allow that God might work outside of their own frame, their own people, their own story. They kept their feet firmly on the ground, respectable and correct, well within the boundaries they had set up for themselves and God.

But if we want to see Jesus, we’ll need to be willing to recognise him in the faces of our neighbours — even the neighbours we have seen only as an object. We’ll need to be willing to go out on a limb, to broaden our vision and open our minds and hearts beyond what feels comfortable. And we’ll need to be willing to ask for help, however much we want to project an image of having it all figured out. When we ask Jesus to give us vision, he’ll summon us recognise the kingdom of God among us — a kingdom of love and grace and justice, where no one is an object, no one is simply a screen for our projected stereotypes, and everyone has the chance to both give and receive, because each and every one is a whole person made in God’s image and beloved.

May we recognise Jesus among us, and see his vision. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

what more do we need? a sermon on the rich man and Lazarus

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

What More Do We Need?

Luke 16.19-30

14 March 2021, Lent 4, NL3-34

Last week we heard Jesus teaching in parables about looking for the lost and restoring the wholeness of community. He proceeded straight after the story of the Lost Son to tell some very confusing parables related to how we use our resources, especially wealth, ending with the statement “you cannot serve God and wealth." Some Pharisees and other leaders heard him teaching and they mocked and criticised him, and Luke describes them as “Pharisees who were lovers of money.” Jesus then says to them, “you justify yourselves before others but God knows your heart.” That’s where we pick up the story today, in Luke chapter 16, at verse 19. I am reading from the Common English Bible.

Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

Lent is a season when we are meant to prepare for Easter by first noticing and then detaching ourselves from the things that separate us from God — things that take our attention and energy when we ought to be focused on God’s kingdom. We fast from things that distract us, so that we can be ready — or at least as ready as possible in our limited human reality — to receive the incredible grace of resurrection. Lent is about honest self-reflection, letting go, and clearing ourselves, body, mind, and spirit, so that we can repent and return to God’s way. 

So perhaps it’s no surprise that readings like this come up in Lent. It isn’t exactly the cheeriest of seasons, when we confront our brokenness with honesty, sorrow, and hope. And this reading is not cheery. It’s one we’d probably rather skip over…but that discipline of truth-telling that we practice in Lent so that we can do it all year long requires us to confront the hard words Jesus has for us today.

The contrasts in this story couldn’t be more startling — between a nameless rich man who has the best clothes, and a poor man called Lazarus whose broken skin doesn’t even cover him, between the man who feasted luxuriously every day and the man who saw those feasts and wished for a crumb but starved just outside, between the one who died and was simply carried off, and the one who died and was given a proper and dignified burial. 

There was clearly a chasm between these two men, and their experience of the world. They existed in the same sphere, living in the same space, looking at each other through windows, through the gate, or whenever the rich man left his house and had to step over poor Lazarus. They knew each other, but their lives were so different, they might as well have lived on different planets. One had more than he knew what to do with, and so had access to anything he could ever want or dream. The other had less than nothing, and could only look longingly and hope for mercy from those in his community — mercy that was never forthcoming. Not even a crumb.

Once they had both died, the tables turned but the chasm remained. They could still see each other, and speak to one another…and the rich man did. He was used to getting what he wanted, and saw no reason this time should be any different. So he begged for the same thing that he had denied Lazarus in life — just a drop of cool water. Just a drop, just a crumb. 

But in asking, he betrayed himself: he called for Lazarus by name.

It’s easy to imagine that having lived such incredibly different lives, that the rich man might never have even noticed the poor man — just always studiously avoided looking. It’s something many of us who have spent time in cities are practiced at, the looking away, never making eye contact with people in need sitting on the side of the street. We stay safely on our side of the chasm, imagining we have little in common with “those people.” 

But the rich man said “send Lazarus.”

He knew him. He recognised his face and knew his name. 

He knew that man who sat at his gate, starving and wounded. Which means he chose to ignore his suffering. These two people lived in the same space and were in the same community and one of them simply decided that the other was not valuable enough to help. He preferred his sumptuous meals and beautiful clothes and didn’t care about anyone else, not even his closest neighbour, who lay at his very gate.

We might put it like this: he loved himself far more than his neighbour.

When the chasm he had created was brought to his attention, he was undeterred in his sense of entitlement to control Lazarus, asking for him to be sent away from the comfort he’d never had in life, back to the very place where he had suffered, for the benefit of the rich brothers. Who, for the record, appear to have never cared for Lazarus in life, so it’s not at all clear they would pay attention to him coming back from the dead either.

Abraham’s response should give us all pause. He said “they have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.” 

In other words: we already know what we’re supposed to do. The commandment to Love God and Love Neighbour are not news, they’ve been there this whole time. That’s supposed to be the core of who we are and what we do. What more do we need before we act on the word of God? What will it take for us to recognise the truth of God’s call, and respond to it?

Remember that Jesus told this story to “Pharisees who were lovers of money” — as Pharisees, they knew the Torah. They knew perfectly well the commandments and the words of the prophets through the ages, calling people to live God’s way. And yet their love was out of order. Rather than loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving their neighbour as themselves, they loved money first. 

I think Jesus told this story to show them what kind of world that out-of-order love would create. 

The thing is, we know all this, and yet we choose not to know it. We know that we have created that chasm between us and them, coming up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t cross it to love our neighbour. And so we look away, and congratulate ourselves, jockeying for our return to normal while developing nations continue to die of covid with no access to vaccines. We look away as we place our stockpiling grocery orders, while people fleeing from violence or environmental disaster or abject poverty die, either trying to get here or in substandard accommodations in our cities. We look away as we justify ourselves as not knowing anyone who would do those things while women are abducted and killed for walking home after dark. We look away as we repeat rumours and jokes about others, while they hear us and wish they weren’t alive anymore. And the chasm grows, and grows, and becomes more and more fixed, and it feels impossible to cross.

The rich man knew Lazarus’s name. He recognised his face. But he did not recognise the image of God in his neighbour. Or, to be more honest about it, he chose not to see the image of God in his neighbour, because he loved himself more.

Lent is a time for honesty, for the kind of self-reflection that brings us closer to the truth that sets us free. Choosing to live in ways that create that chasm, while the kingdom of God beckons from the other side, may feel like freedom but actually we end up trapped too, unable to get out of a system we can’t even see, and it can be terrifying to admit it. But perfect love casts out fear, and the Way of Jesus leads to life — not just surviving, but abundant life, eternal life that starts now. Jesus says, in this story and in plenty of others: you know the way. I am the way. 

May we recognise our part in creating the chasms of this world, and choose to live by Christ’s command to love. Amen.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

The One Matters -- a sermon on Luke 15's lost things

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

The One Matters

Luke 15.1-32 (CEB)

7 March 2021, Lent 3, NL3-33

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

These stories may already be familiar to many of us — whether we’ve heard them from the Bible or not, they’ve entered into the public consciousness, like the story of being a neighbour from a couple of weeks ago. We use phrases like “prodigal son” or “lost sheep” even if we don’t know the specifics of the full story that Jesus told. 

Some of you know what I’m about to say next, I suspect! — that the popularity of those phrases and the things we think they refer to might be obscuring what Jesus was actually talking about. Remember that a parable is a story that is intentionally open-ended — like a parabola in maths is an open-ended shape — so that we can continue to learn about the kingdom of God from many angles within the story. 

One of the things that has happened over the centuries is that we have conflated these stories Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel with one of his sayings from John’s gospel, where he says, “I am the good shepherd”…and so we assume that this story is the same as the one John is telling. But that means we have to ignore the set-up of today’s parables, which suggest something quite different!

Jesus is speaking to the people who are grumbling about his choice of companionship — in this case, some leaders in the community. To those leaders, he said, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep, and lost one…”

Now, we have been conditioned by the conflation of this story with the one about Jesus being the good shepherd to assume that this is a story about God seeking out the lost. But listen carefully to the start of the story. To the Pharisees and scripture experts, Jesus said, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep and lost one.” From the very first sentence, Jesus is letting the listener know that they are supposed to see themselves as the shepherd! Except the things he then says are things that no shepherd would do. First of all, what shepherd can just glance at a hundred sheep on a hillside and notice that there are only 99? Second, what shepherd would leave the whole flock on that hillside and go searching for one…especially since that probably means when he came back, he’d have a flock of just one?!? One lost sheep out of a hundred would not be a terribly big deal, though it does suggest some carelessness on the part of the shepherd, a bit of a failure at his job.

The second story ups the stakes a little bit, with the coin being lost — that coin is a whole day’s wages. To lose an entire day’s wages would be a pretty significant problem! 

The shepherd and the woman then search, thoroughly and tirelessly, until they find what they have lost. Then they rejoice, calling together their community to celebrate with them — maybe even spending more than they had originally lost and found on the party!

The third story increases the stakes even more. Many of us have used phrases like “family is most important”…well, here’s a story about a family that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The younger son demanded his inheritance while his father was still alive, and he ran off and spent it. When he came home, the father welcomed him with open arms and again there’s a big party, what was lost has been found! But when we read all three of these stories together the way they were intended, we see something unusual:

No one went looking for the younger son who wandered off. 

And when he returned, no one went looking for the older son to tell him the news and invite him to come in from work early and join the party.

The shepherd recognised that he had lost a sheep, and went looking. The woman recognised that she had lost a coin, and went looking. The father doesn’t seem to have recognised what he was losing, and he did not go looking. Yes, he welcomed the younger son, and pleaded with the older one, but only when they turned back up of their own accord.

Perhaps by now you can see the problem with the way we have often understood these parables. The shepherd is responsible for his sheep and loses one. The woman is responsible for her coins and loses one. The father is responsible for his sons and loses…one and then the other. But of course we know that God does not lose us. God never loses track of a sheep. There is nowhere we can go that would be out of God’s sight. God does not simply forget about us, toiling away in the fields. 

And when we hear the interpretation Jesus gives, that there is rejoicing when someone changes their heart and life, when they repent — we see further how bizarre that interpretation really is, though we have been used to it for a long time. A sheep doesn’t need to repent for doing what sheep do — wandering around looking for better grass. And a coin can’t repent because it’s an inanimate object. Sheep and coins don’t lose themselves, they are lost by their owners. 

Which means it must actually be the owner that is changing their heart and life in this story! It’s the shepherd who recognises his error, and works to put it right, to bring the flock back to wholeness, even at great risk to his livelihood. It’s the woman who recognises her error, and works to put it right, bringing her savings back to wholeness, even if it means staying up all night tearing the house apart and putting it back together. But the father — who is tasked with caring for something far more valuable than sheep or coins — doesn’t seem to recognise his error until it’s too late and the family is coming apart at the seams, wholeness out of reach.

And Jesus has addressed the religious leaders as if they are the shepherd…the woman…the father. Telling them what they are supposed to be like: not to complain about another leader who goes looking for the lost, but rather to recognise their faults and failings and change their ways. That means seeing who’s missing and taking some risks to restore the wholeness of the community, because that is what causes rejoicing in heaven: restoring wholeness.

All of which leads me to wonder: have we noticed who is missing from our community? And what effort are we willing to put in, what risks are we willing to take, for the one? So often we are focused on what the majority wants or needs…what about the one who doesn’t feel they fit in, or who hasn’t been able to access, or has been left out and feels unloved or taken for granted? Are we willing to make changes to the way we do things so that the one, or the few, can be included at the same level as the 99? Or do we either assume they’re fine out in the field without an invitation to the party, or that they’ll be perfectly fine just out on the edges of the community where there’s no trouble to us?

Perhaps the most obvious connection is disabled access — how do people feel entering our church buildings and other buildings in our community? — like a valued regular part of the family, or different and causing trouble to get in and navigate around the space and participate fully in activities? We might ask the same questions about socio-economic status, or educational experience, or family configuration, or ethnic background, or health needs, or gender identity, or knowledge of our traditions, or traumatic pasts, or facility with technology, or any number of other things that might be keeping people separate. Without them, our community is not whole. So what effort are we willing to put in not just to make the one welcome, but to look for them and rejoice in their presence? It’s so tempting to count the cost of making changes, not to mention the risk to the 99 and their feelings of being left on the hillside for a bit. But what about the cost to the one who has never fit in, or always been made to feel second-class or marginal or have to come through the back door? And what about the cost to the whole community when we are fractured and missing pieces?

The Pharisees and legal experts grumbled about Jesus spending time with the people they thought weren’t worth the effort. Jesus responded with stories of God rejoicing when we recognise the sinfulness of that thought and change our hearts and lives by going to seek the lost…and the consequences to the family if we don’t recognise and don’t try. 

May we recognise the missing members of our family, and seek the wholeness God desires for the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Lives worth talking about -- a sermon on Luke 13

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Lives Worth Talking About

Luke 13.1-9, 31-35 (CEB)

28 February 2021, NL3-32, Lent 2

Since the story we heard last week about Jesus telling the parable of the good neighbour, and then encountering Martha, Jesus has been teaching his disciples and the crowds who follow them throughout the countryside and towns. He has taught them directly about prayer, and he has spoken in parables about many things. He told them to let their light shine, and to look carefully at the circumstances and times they are living in for evidence of God’s work. We pick up the story in the gospel according to Luke, chapter 13. I am reading from the Common English Bible.

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertiliser. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked “why do bad things happen to good people?” Or its cousin, “why has this bad thing happened to me?” Sometimes when we are reading the Bible we remind one another that in ancient times, before people knew about bacteria or viruses or meteorology or plate tectonics or other sciences we take for granted, people often believed that illness or calamity was a result of sin. It’s fascinating to me that we speak about that as if it’s an ancient idea that we no longer hold, and yet even now, both people of faith and people who’ve never set foot in a church can ask “am I being punished for something?” when they get a diagnosis or experience a tragedy in their family or home. 

So it should not surprise us that people around Jesus wanted to bring up the Galileans — people from the same region as Jesus and his disciples — who did everything right, made their pilgrimage, were worshipping at the Temple, and yet were slaughtered by the Roman governor’s militia, literally in the middle of their worship service. What did they do wrong, that this terrible thing would happen to them? And, if it wasn’t their sinfulness, then should they be worried that Galileans are being targeted? Should Jesus and his disciples maybe stay away from Jerusalem, for safety?

Jesus is pretty clear that sinfulness has nothing to do with it. Sometimes, bad things happen. And it isn’t just Galileans — he reminds them of the Jerusalemites who happened to be walking in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tower of Siloam collapsed. They weren’t any more sinful than everyone else — as Paul would later write, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” 

Which makes our question about why bad things happen to good people interesting. Jesus, and later Paul, seem to be reminding us that actually, there are no good people. When we say “why do bad things happen to good people” we are implying that there are bad people who deserve bad things happening to them — though we usually don’t say that part out loud, it’s still there. But the truth is that all have sinned…and all receive grace. There’s no hierarchy where some people deserve tragedy or illness — no one deserves it. But they still happen.

The statement Jesus makes is confusing, then. He says, “unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” At first glance it sounds like he’s saying that we can avoid tragedy by repenting. But since he just said it wasn’t sinfulness that caused those deaths, that can’t be right. And we know that we can’t avoid death forever, as it’s a natural part of life. 

But we can, Jesus says, live in such a way that when we die, it’s our lives people talk about. Will we be remembered for the fruit we bore for the kingdom of God, or simply for the way we were cut down? 

I think that’s why he tells this particular fig tree parable to the people who ask this question. The fig tree in the vineyard looked like it had grown to maturity. It was no longer the sapling it once was…but despite its appearance, it had yet to live up to its purpose. Yet the gardener believed in the tree and its potential — he just needed time and intentional effort to change its story.

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he calls us to change our hearts and lives — to put intentional effort in. 

That means we need to dig down around the roots, even though sometimes that’s hard work and exposes things we would rather not see. What is around our roots, tangling us up and choking off our connection to our Source?

It means we need to nourish ourselves with the things we need to grow in grace, even if it’s not what we would really prefer. Remember that fertiliser really meant manure and compost! It’s smelly and unpleasant, but it’s also the best thing to nurture the tree. What would feed our lives and help us become the people God created us to be in this world?

It means we need to prune some branches, even if it hurts. Unpruned trees waste energy that could be used for bearing fruit, instead just growing long branches with leaves that don’t produce anything. What branches in our lives or communities need pruning so that our energy can go into doing what we’re made to do, and what Jesus is looking for us to do?

The time and effort put into bringing the tree not just to look good but to do good is, I think, what Jesus is talking about when he calls us to change our hearts and lives…so that the fruit we bear is worth talking about.

Hearing this, some Pharisees come and offer Jesus a second warning — as if the story about the Galileans being killed by Pilate wasn’t enough, they want him to know that Herod is out to get him too. But Jesus is too busy going about God’s kingdom business to make time for Herod’s nonsense, and his mission to bring life in all its fullness will not be deterred by the death-dealing powers of his day.

Though the political and religious leaders hold people fast, he continues to try to gather them like a mother hen. They may not recognise him yet, while they are still in thrall to the powers around them, to the status quo and their desire to get ahead and focus on themselves and their own happiness, but the day is coming when they will recognise that the house they have built themselves is empty, while Jesus offers abundant life. 

I have to confess to you that at this point, I have about five examples of our current social, political, economic, and cultural life I want to give to make an explicit connection between this biblical text and our contemporary moment. But I also don’t want to constrain your thinking — part of digging around the roots and fertilising our lives is loosening the soil enough to see the connections the Spirit is presenting to us, so that we can bear better fruit in the midst of those situations we find ourselves in every day. So I invite you to think about the world in which we live, and the systems at play in our lives — from what we value as a nation or a community, to how we express those values in our economy and politics, to the choices we make in caring for our neighbours both locally and globally. Where do you recognise Jesus gathering us like a mother hen, and where do you see us resisting his call and choosing our own ways, or the way it's always been, instead?

And then what digging and fertilising and pruning needs to be done, in order to see Jesus more clearly and bear fruit for his kingdom — in our own lives, in the church, in our community, in our nation, in the world? How can we live in such a way that it’s our lives that are memorable, no matter how they end?


May we recognise the things that make for abundant life, and act on them. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Love in Balance -- a sermon on Martha, Mary, and the Parable of the Good Neighbour

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Love in Balance

Luke 10.25-42 (CEB)

21 February 2021, NL3-31, Lent 1

After the transfiguration, Jesus continued his ministry of healing and teaching, with a new emphasis on talking with the disciples about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. Just as he had sent the twelve out to teach and heal, he then sent out seventy apostles, to go in pairs into every village and town, sharing the good news and healing the sick. He told them not to take any extra supplies or money, but to rely on the people they met. They returned with many stories of the Spirit’s work, and Jesus rejoiced with them, even as he reminded them that it is God’s will to be revealed, not their own worthiness or work. Today’s reading begins at the end of that conversation, in Luke chapter 10, beginning at verse 25. I am reading from the Common English Bible.

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbour to the man who encountered thieves?”

Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”

The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

One of the things I like about the Narrative Lectionary is that it sets out readings in longer sections so we see the context in which Jesus says things, rather than only the short snippets we might be used to. In this case, it’s always surprising to me that the parable about the Samaritan who was a good neighbour and the story of Martha and Mary are next to each other. It seems so strange, to have Jesus tell a parable like that, about doing something to help another, and then immediately turn around and say that Mary has chosen the better part. 

That strangeness led me to do two things over the past couple of weeks. First, to check what else is going on — if the reading were even longer, what would we see? Well, backing up a little bit we find Jesus sending out 70 of his followers to do his work, his ministry, throughout the area, and then they come back and report on all that happened. It’s in the midst of that reporting that the legal expert asks his question. Perhaps he had been on the edges of the crowd, listening to all these things that Jesus’ followers had done, and that led him to ask his testy questions! 

And then after the story of Martha and Jesus talking about Mary, Jesus teaches his followers how to pray. Which is something that any rabbi of the day would instruct his disciples about, of course — and all the more poignant after witnessing Martha’s distress.

The second thing was to dig more deeply into the original language and what some of these words mean. Because we know that all translation is interpretation, but sometimes if we look at words that are shared across the several stories yet translated differently into English, we can get a sense of the point that Jesus is trying to make through these different angles.

This is the moment when I ran into something I had never noticed before. The story of Martha and Jesus and Mary is nowhere near as neat and tidy as we’ve been taught Martha’s housekeeping was. Translators have done quite a bit of interpreting along the way. 

For instance, in the oldest Greek manuscripts it says “Martha welcomed him” but doesn’t say anything about her house. That same phrase is the one used for those who receive Jesus’ message … and those who don’t, like the Samaritan village in chapter 9 where it says they “would not welcome him because his face was set toward Jerusalem” — they did not receive the message because they did not approve of his intentions. Martha welcomed him…but with no evidence anywhere of dinner being prepared!

Then it says that Martha also had a sister named Mary who also sat at the Lord’s feet…and all of those “also”s are left out of English translations. But it’s pretty important to know that Mary “also” sat at the Lord’s feet because it means that’s what Martha was doing, and Mary was also. And then to learn that every other time the phrase “sit at his feet” is used, it means to be a disciple — to travel with a teacher, to learn from him and to do what he does. It isn’t literally at that moment sitting on the floor while Jesus is on a chair, but following him with the other disciples, perhaps even being one of those seventy who had been sent out earlier in the chapter! 

The thing that was most startling to me, though, was the realisation that the word for “my sister has left me”…is a word that in about 80% of other times it is used means “went away” — like physically left, for good.

This is the point that I realised for the first time in 25 years of seriously reading the Bible that Mary never speaks in this story. She has no response to this conversation between Martha and Jesus. All the times I have wondered why Martha didn’t simply speak to Mary rather than triangulating Jesus suddenly made sense. There’s no evidence that Mary was actually there. In fact, it seems more likely that Mary was out in the community of disciples — perhaps even one of the seventy who travelled, two by two, through the countryside. We know there were at least a few women among that company, though it was outside the gender norms of the day. It’s very possible one of them was Mary, out ministering to people and proclaiming the good news.

Ministry is the word used to describe what Martha is doing — though our English translations use words like “getting ready for the meal” or “preparing the table” it’s actually the same word, diakonia, that was used for the angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness, for Peter’s mother in law, and it’s the same word that will be used in the book of Acts to describe the ministry done by the apostles serving the community’s needs. So Martha sat at the Lord’s feet by doing practical ministry, serving people in need, possibly out of her home. And Mary also sat at the Lord’s feet, somewhere away from home, healing and teaching. And the story tells us that Martha was stressed by this — the words used actually mean she was “pulled in many directions” and “deeply distressed.” She’s carrying a huge emotional burden — as anyone is when someone they love is far away and doing things that could be dangerous. Yet she also needed to focus on the ministry right in front of her. She was feeling pulled apart, mind and heart in two places at once, torn between caring for people in her community and worrying about her sister. No wonder she asked Jesus to send her sister home!

When Jesus then noticed and named Martha’s worry, and told her only one thing is necessary, perhaps he was speaking to that sense of feeling torn, and inviting Martha into her own sense of wholeness, without worrying about whether someone else was doing it right or not. Perhaps he was even calling back to his own teaching about how family ties are changed in his community of followers, and so how Mary followed her call to discipleship was not Martha’s to control, just as how Martha was faithful was not in Mary’s control! And in fact, it says Mary has chosen a good way — not the best way or even a better way, but a good way. There’s no implication that Martha’s way is not good, but rather a sense that both are good and valid forms of serving God and neighbour. Deep down, Martha already knew that…but she still wanted to prove herself right, with Jesus or with her sister, and those competing desires, between sisterly love and faithful discipleship, were tearing her apart.

This is the moment when I saw a connection to the good neighbour parable that I’d never noticed before. I hope you all will tell me what you think of this connection, and whether it makes sense to you or not!

The legal expert — someone who knew perfectly well what the scripture says — asked Jesus what one thing he could tick off his to-do list that would guarantee him eternal life. When Jesus turned the question back on him, he revealed that he already knew the answer: to love God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus said that is exactly how you live…a whole way of life rather than one thing to tick off the to-do list, not exactly about eternal life but rather about abundant life, but the legal expert seemed to understand…and so he looked for another loophole. Who exactly is the neighbour he ought to love the way he loved himself? And therefore who was he free to not love?

Jesus then told a story in which two characters love God more than they love their neighbour. The third character, shockingly, was an enemy, disliked, sometimes feared, and generally thought to be wrong in their religious beliefs… and he behaved with compassion. He set aside his business, his travel plans, and his resources to help someone he did not know and could not have recognised…yet he did recognise him, as a fellow child of God. His love of God and his love of neighbour were balanced, and it showed in his actions. 

Then Jesus was welcomed by Martha, who was feeling pulled in every direction in service to others, so much that she was beginning to lose her own sense of self, and she thought having her sister there would help. Her love was out of balance too — she was showing more love to her neighbour than to herself or to God — and she was feeling the pressure of that imbalance. 

Perhaps these stories are really one big story about what loving God and neighbour looks like. When we’re too caught up in our godliness, we may feel we can’t risk that for anything, even an emergency. And when we’re too caught up in our service, we may feel pulled apart and like we need someone else to come fill us up. When the balance is right, we’re able to see past the to-do list, past the rules, and truly love each child of God we come across.

As Jesus said to the legal expert, and to Martha, and to us: You already know this. None of this is headline news or a groundbreaking discovery — God wrote the covenant on our hearts and called us to love. Do this and you will live. Not just after death, but a whole life worth living, to the full, in God’s kingdom now.

As we begin this season of Lent, may we recognise God’s call to love. Amen.

**among other sources, this paper presented to the Society of Biblical Literature in 2014 (and the basis of a later book) was most helpful in curating a list of footnotes and language notes to supplement my mediocre greek knowledge when I started to realise that something was fishy with the Martha and Mary translations: