Thursday, December 25, 2008

going to the warm

I'm headed to the airport for a trip to SoCal--see you on the sunny side!

Merry Christmas, all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reading Challenge 2008

I keep forgetting to post about this book (much like I kept forgetting to return it to the library...).  But I did in fact read it a couple of weeks ago now:  Borg and Crossan's The First Christmas.  

It was pretty good--no stunning revelations, for me anyway, though.  I can't say it made me think of Christmas differently, but I can see how it would do that for some people.  Anyway, if you're looking for a slightly different way to view the story and its purpose, here's one.  I like their exposition of the birth narratives as parables or overtures--probably because it's similar to how I teach about the Christmas stories!  :-)

Now on to fluff for the holidays--lots of travel coming up, so I should be able to finish a couple more books before the end of the year!

Bad Joke--a sermon for Christmas Eve

Just a draft right now...still have all morning and half the afternoon to edit!

Rev. Teri Peterson
Bad Joke
Luke 2.1-20
December 24 2008, Christmas Eve

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


So a middle aged man, a pregnant teenager, and a donkey walk into a barn…
It sounds like the beginning of the world’s worst joke, but in fact it’s the beginning of the greatest story ever told.

This is a story many of us know well—a story of light and life and love and joy. The baby, surrounded by a chorus of angels and shepherds and sweet farm animals. The mother, wondering and pondering. The human father, silent and stoic.

It’s also a story that is, frankly, a little strange. I mean, this is an act of God we’re talking about here. God became a human being, joined us on earth, showed us what real power and real love and real service look like. God, who created the heavens and earth and all that are in them with just a word. God who parted the Red Sea. God who inspired the psalms and the glorious writings of the prophets. God—all powerful, glorious, wonderful, awe-inspiring. Wouldn’t you expect a big-budget Broadway musical for God’s entrance into human life? Even if that musical included being born a helpless infant, it seems like the guest list at least would be more carefully controlled. Philosophers, maybe, playwrights, musicians, definitely an emperor or king or at least a prince. They would arrive with majestic elephants and camels leading a caravan of exotic animals, money, and priceless art, singing and dancing in perfect time.

Instead we get something that begins like a bad joke—a peasant carpenter, his suspiciously pregnant fiancĂ©e, some smelly shepherds, a dirty barn, and a food trough for a crib. Not a dancing hippo in sight—instead we have cows and sheep and donkeys. No fancy clothes, no behind-the-scenes orchestra, no emperor or prince, not even a room in the inn. The angel chorus appears to the shepherds, but that’s as close as anything from Broadway gets to the stable.

Why would God, almighty, glorious, powerful, God, choose to enter the human scene in this way? Why not have fanfare and trumpets and dignitaries? Why peasants? Why peasants in an occupied country? Why peasants displaced from their ancestral home? Why shepherds for the welcoming committee? Why enter the world as the poorest of the poor—homeless, displaced, disgraced?

God often works in strange and mysterious ways, as many of us can attest. But I really think this is the strangest way God has worked—to solve the problem of distance, of our misunderstanding of power and love and covenant by joining our human condition at the lowest possible rung of the ladder. To change the world, to bring light and life and hope that cannot be overcome by even the darkest valley, by starting with the lives of ordinary people. This is so opposite the way we think, it’s hard to grasp. But this is at the heart of the Christmas story, at the center of the Incarnation—God became human not as a powerful leader, not as a military general, not as a wealthy landowner, but as a poor, innocent, helpless, vulnerable child. A child who needs love, and who gives love unconditionally. A child who changes everything—his parents’ life, his surroundings, his friends and disciples. A child who will grow up to bring hope to a distressed people. A child who will grow up to shatter the chains of death and darkness with light and life.

And that, friends, is what makes this night so holy. Not just the fact that a baby was born, though that is always a miracle and a holy event. Not just the fact that the baby was God’s word, God’s love, here on earth for us. But the fact that this baby who is God’s word and God’s love will grow up among ordinary people, will do and learn ordinary things, and yet will be the most extraordinary human being ever known. And he will change the world through love, through light, through hope, through grace, one ordinary person at a time. Unlike most of the gods prevalent at the turn of the millennium, God isn’t just for the rich, for the amazing, for the powerful. Instead we see on this night that God is with us, Immanuel. The angels say they have good news of great joy for all the people—not just the wealthy, but all the people, even shepherds, lowest of the low. This is God, turning the system on its head, surprising the whole world with grace and with the good news that power isn’t about might, isn’t about strength, isn’t about violence. Power, God-style, it turns out, is about love—love come down to earth to pour itself out for us, that we might love one another.

And so we celebrate on this holy night—we celebrate that God’s love came down to earth and lived among us, not in a palace or a castle, but in a stable, in a village, in borrowed homes, in a tomb. And that love is so strong, so real, that no darkness, no despair, no hate can overcome it. What began as a bad joke ends as a Broadway musical, full of light and life and joy. It is indeed the greatest story ever told—the story of a tiny baby born in a stable, who is in fact the Son of God, light that came into the darkness, saving grace of all the world.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Good Things--a sermon for Advent 4B

Rev. Teri Peterson
Good Things
Luke 1.26-38, 46-55
December 21 2008, Advent 4B

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name. 

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation. 

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly; 

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy, 

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Hail, Mary, full of grace—the Lord is with you! These words of the angel to Mary have been passed down through the ages in the story and in prayer. We Presbyterians have a hard time with Mary—the last line of the Hail Mary prayer, the one that asks Mary to pray for us, was added to Luke’s words in the year 1555 and has colored our vision of Mary. We don’t believe she’s better than anyone else, we don’t believe she was special, we don’t believe she prays for us. Those things would, actually, obscure the thing God has done.

Hail, Mary, full of grace—the Lord is with you. Hello, unmarried teenage girl. Hello, poor peasant girl. Hello, piece of property nearly ready to be transferred to another family. Hello, lowest of the low in your society. You are full of grace. The Lord is with you.

Mary wasn’t special, she wasn’t the winner of the Mother-of-God sweepstakes, she wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. She was a peasant teenager in a backwater village in an occupied land. And yet the angel comes and says “Hail, Mary, full of grace—the Lord is with you.”

Mary, at this point, is confused. She’s wondering what on earth this angel is talking about—full of grace? The Lord is with you? Found favor with God? What could this mean? Why is he talking to her? What kind of nonsense is he saying about having a baby?

So she asks what seems a simple question—after all, poor teenage girls in backwater villages still know some basics of biology. But the answer is anything but simple, anything but obvious, anything but good sounding. The angel doesn’t say “well, when you and Joseph are married, then your first son will be the child I’m talking about.” The angel says, in essence, “the fact that you are an unmarried virgin teenager is irrelevant—nothing is impossible for God.”

It’s hard to imagine what Mary was thinking at this moment. Was she imagining what it might be like to finally be someone important? Was she imagining what Joseph’s reaction would be when she turned up pregnant? Was she imagining the consequences that might come if she were discovered alone with a strange man—angel or not—in her room? Or did she somehow know, deep inside, what this would mean for her, for Joseph, for her baby, for her people?

Mary’s response to the angel is the classic prayer of the ages: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” We always imagine that she said it with joy and wonder, with anticipation and love. We never imagine that she says it like this, “here I am, the servant of the Lord,” complete with an eye-roll. We never imagine that Mary thought of this as a burden to bear, something she was forced to do. Even when we talk about the culture of her time, about how Mary could very easily have been stoned to death for this conversation, let alone the results, we don’t get any sense of burden. Hail, Mary, full of grace, the angel says. God-bearer, the Church calls her. “Yes,” Mary says, and it is done.

And then she goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and one of the first things she does is sing a song about God’s goodness. She treats this whole experience as a blessing, not a burden. She borrows parts of her song from Hannah, who was so overjoyed to finally have a long-wanted child that she couldn’t help but burst into song. Mary and Hannah couldn’t be more different, and yet Mary sings, with her ancestors and her whole people, a people longing for freedom, for promise fulfilled: “the Mighty One has done great things for me,” and “surely all generations will call me blessed” and “he has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.” Good things? Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, the angel said.

“God has filled the hungry with good things,” Mary sings. This is so lovely and wonderful and Christmasy, isn’t it? The next line, though, brings us up short: “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The whole song is like this—pulling down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, looking with favor on the lowest of the lowest servant—a peasant woman in an occupied land. This is no gentle Mary, meek and mild, sweet Christmas carol. This is a song about what God is doing through Mary, the ordinary peasant girl Mary—keeping God’s promises, doing a new thing, a thing that people who have earthly power are not going to like. There have been times when this passage of scripture was outlawed by governments because it was considered too subversive—times as recent as 20 years ago in some places in Latin America. People with earthly power do not like Mary’s song, it does not sound like good news, especially coming from a poor village girl. And yet Mary sings it, in spite of the outlawing, in spite of the danger she’s in when people find out her shocking news, in spite of the cultural norms that make her even more of an outcast than she was before she met the angel. And thousands of years later, recognizing Mary’s ability to see the blessing in this burden, still we read and pray these words: Hail, Mary, full of grace.

But remember, Mary isn’t special, she isn’t perfect, she isn’t Miss Nazareth 4BC, she isn’t different from us. And here’s where the message of Mary gets hard. Mary was asked to do a very tangible thing, to bear God, to birth God’s love into the world, to proclaim that God’s promises are fulfilled and that is good news to the poor, to sing that being full of grace is a blessing, not a burden. Aren’t we all asked to do the same? Ann Legg shared a Meister Eckhart quote with us at Team Night, and I think it asks this same question. 700 years ago, Eckhart asked, “What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to the Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?” I would push us to ask not only “what good is it to me” but “what good are we to the world if we do not give birth to the Son in our time and culture?”

Bearing God is not, as Mary found, easy. It involves saying yes, first of all. Did you notice that the angel did nothing until Mary gave her consent? And then it involves nurturing and loving, sharing and letting go, pain and sadness, difficulty and wonder, burden and blessing. Mary was, in the most literal sense, full of grace—full of the wondrous gift of undeserved love, given from God to us. How can we too be bearers of God in the world? How can we too stop thinking of obligation and the things we “should” do as Christians, and start thinking of our calling as a blessing? Perhaps when we hear the angel say, “Hail, people of God, full of grace—the Lord is with you.” The Lord is with us, and we are full of grace—may we bear that grace into the world as a blessing.
Thanks be to God.

Friday, December 19, 2008

for Sunday

I'm using this poem on Sunday, and thinking about it in relation to the Annunciation and Magnificat, the idea that Mary seems to think of being the God-bearer as a blessing rather than a burden, and possibly the subversive nature of what God is doing through her (and through all of us each day).  I thought I'd share the poem with you.  It came from the Iona Community publication Hay and Stardust and is by Anne Lawson.

Is this what you had in mind Mary?
Is this what you dreamed of,
idly planned and chattered of with the girls in Nazareth?
Did you dream that your first child would be
born out of wedlock
of an unknown father?
Born miles from home
in a place fit only for animals?
Is this the birth you dreamed of for your first child?

Did you dream your firstborn son would be
greeted by strangers?
Greeted by shepherds,
Outcasts of society?
Greeted by wise men
from strange far-off countries?
Greeted by the host of angels?
Is this the welcome you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of this life for your firstborn son?
A birth in a stable?
A desperate flight for safety?
A life as a refugee?
A peripatetic life?
A life in which other women cared for him?
A life with no wife, no family?
A life lived in the shadow of hostility?
A life ending in a criminal’s death?
A horrific death?
Is this the life you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of your own life?
A happy marriage?
A growing family?
Sons and daughters to care for you in your old age?
Did you dream of this for your own life?

And if you had known, in those days of idle teenage chatter,
as a girl in Nazareth,
what you know now,
would you have said “yes” to God’s angel so quickly?

Mary, did you say “Yes” to God’s angel so quickly?
Did you offer yourself to God so fast?
Was there no feeling of wanting to think?
No sense of anger, injustice even,
that God could take your body and life so easily?
Did you really understand all that was being said?
All that was being asked?
And would I have been so willing?
Would I have been so willing to offer myself to bear God’s Son?
To bear the shame and disgrace
of bearing a child of an unknown father outside of marriage?
Would I have watched my own son die?
Would I have lived with the wound of knowledge,
a sword which pierced my heart?
Would I have lived with the burden of unknowing?
I doubt it.

Thank you, Mary, that you did.
You heard and looked, observed and listened.
Lived with the pain of unknowing.
Lived with the shadow of the cross.

Not as a stained glass window saint,
not as some saccharine-coated statue,
but as a flesh-and-blood woman
who knew what it meant
to bear the burden of unknowing,
and was prepared to live the pain
of bearing God.

Monday, December 08, 2008

self-aware much?

So, I'm a 7 on the enneagram.  There are some gret things about being a seven.  but, as with any personality, there are downsides too.

When sevens are stressed, they tend to move to the negative traits of a 1 (the perfectionist type).  One of the typical traits of a 7 moving to the negative side of 1 during stress is to think in terms of black and white and to KNOW they have the truth/are right/whatever.  They also tend to feel a pervasive, low level of irritability during this kind of stress.

When I re-read this (my small group is currently exploring implications of our personality types for our spiritual lives and practices), I laughed out loud and then started thinking about my previous post and other positions of my liturgical high horse.  I think some of this is going on...and I know the root of the stress, which is not going to go away (and, worse, this is of course self-perpetuating because obsessing about ideas/projects/people/situations/etc is another of the characteristics sevens in this situation work against).  So the question is:  how can I be conscious enough to stop myself when I see these traits coming out...and how can I move myself more toward the positive parts of my 7 self?


(more info on the enneagram here)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

liturgical theology of time

That's what I think is at the root of the carols-vs.-no-carols during Advent argument.

I am one of those people who does NOT want to sing Christmas carols in worship during Advent.  You can sing them elsewhere, you can hear them on the radio and in stores and in the Christmas specials that are no doubt all over TV.  But not on Sunday morning in Advent.

I have likened it to premature births--generally not good (though in the last month it's slightly  more okay for the baby and also many moms are READY!!).  The argument there is "Jesus has already been born--we're waiting for something different now."  

I have likened it to singing happy birthday a month before your birthday--generally not done.  What happens to the anticipation if you sing early, get your presents early, etc?  

But really, I think this is about conceptions of time.  

I think of time as cyclical, as opposed to linear.  This is born out by our liturgical calendar, which brings us the same stories at nearly the same time every year.  But the story is never exactly the same--we never hear it or experience it or live it the same way one year to the next.  It's not a circle, it's more of a spiral.  The place looks familiar but isn't exactly identical.

Cyclical time, when it comes to Christmas, is important because Advent is when we prepare for the Incarnation.  No, we're not technically preparing the way Mary did 2012 years ago.  But every year we need the time to prepare for God's breaking-in again.  Yes, the Word is incarnated in us as the Body of Christ every day, not just once a year.  But this is the time when we intentionally take time out and think about that, prepare, anticipate, wait.  How can we do that if we're busy singing about how it's already happened?  Where's the anticipation, the pain of waiting, if we're all GLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORIA! all through advent?  

If time is linear, then fine--sing the Christmas carols through all of Advent, because what we're really waiting for is something off in the future, not something that happens repeatedly in us.  We're waiting for God to do something we can't see yet.  We're waiting for GOD to do something further on down the line.

But if we're preparing for the word to be part of us, for us to be part of the action of the Word, yet again, then hold those carols, sing in minor keys, plaintively chant "O Come, O Come" and "how shall we meet you?" and wait for it.  It seems like it would be worth it.  Because we're coming around again to this reminder that, in many ways, WE are now the ones we are waiting for.  WE are the body of Christ in the world.  WE are preparing OURSELVES to be the incarnation of God in the world.  And that's going to take some work, not some jumping ahead to the main event.  Every year it's going to take work.  Every day, even.  Maybe every minute for some of us (aka me...).  The fact that the baby Jesus has already been born is irrelevant, because that isn't just some event that happened several marks back on the timeline, it's something we pass by every year on the spiral, something we re-live because it matters.  Jumping to it early only allows us to forego the hard work in ourselves and our communities.  We might as well light all the candles on the wreath, since we're not willing to wait for the light or walk through darkness to get there.

In so many ways, I think this is a symptom of the culture and the church being afraid of darkness, silence, grief,'s about instant gratification and instant grief recovery and refusal to be in the quiet dark places because they're too scary and too hard.  But even though we can just turn on electric lights, even though we can fill our ears with carols and our homes with beautifully wrapped stuff, even though we can party and eat and shop, we can't rush the work of Incarnation.  It happens when it happens.  Here's hoping we don't miss it, or miss out on being part of it, while we're singing cheery carols in the dark days.

One final, snarky argument:  would you sing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today!" in Lent?  (okay, I'm done now...)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

a few days later...

sorry for not posting more the last couple of days.  I am still obsessing about the worker killed in a rush of consumer madness.  I just cannot believe that people were upset that they had to stop shopping and leave the store.  really?

It also makes me think:  if we can be so callous as to kill someone for a good deal, no wonder we don't care so much about children making our clothes and shoes and trinkets in sweatshops.  No wonder we don't lobby for a living wage for factory workers in the developing world.  

And no wonder manufacturing has moved overseas--where we can't see the poor working conditions but can reap the benefits in the form of cheap products...for which we are willing to sacrifice a life to get on sale.

I'm trying to get into the Advent spirit, but I just can't.  What are we waiting for?