Sunday, August 29, 2010

ever-widening, a sermon for August 29

Rev. Teri Peterson
Luke 13.18-21
29 August 2010, Ordinary 22C (off lectionary)

Jesus said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Have you ever noticed that Jesus is like the king of the one-liner? “love one another as I have loved you,” “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” blessed are the cheesemakers…”…well, okay, peacemakers, but still…Jesus is good at the one-line sayings—he packs more into one sentence than most of the scholars who try to explain them can say in whole books, and certainly more than I can say in a whole sermon!

Perhaps this is also a case of the form illustrating the content—a one-liner, just a little sentence, whose meaning expands until it’s illuminated our understanding, our faith, our life as people of God’s kingdom…like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge plant, a weed really, an invasive species that takes over the whole garden. Or like tiny grains of yeast that lead to bowls of dough rising to overflowing.

My mother loved to cook and bake. I remember watching as she mixed yeast and slightly warm water, I remember watching it fizz and then seeing it disappear into the bowl of other ingredients…and then the whole bowl disappearing under a towel. A while later, like magic, it would have doubled or tripled in size…and sometimes, depending on what she was making, this would even happen in two shifts. In between there was the punch-down-let-the-air-out move and some kneading…and in the end we would have a huge loaf of something very yummy, or we’d have bagels, or a braid of bread. Whatever it was, it always seemed so mysterious how it worked. I knew that yeast was some kind of living thing, and that it grew and it involved air..and that’s about it. And actually, now that I think about it, all these years later that’s pretty much still all I understand about how yeast works, but I can see now the beauty of Jesus’ one-liner too—the kingdom is stealthy but kind of fizzy, it works it’s way out into the world, it’s full of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, it’s tasty…

What’s so interesting is that generally in the Bible, the holy things and holy days require unleavened bread—yeast was corrupt and unholy and impure and inappropriate for holy places and holy days and holy worship. Yet Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like yeast mixed into flour…as one of the scholars from our Saving Jesus class last year said, “until all of it was corrupted.” (Bernard Brandon Scott)

It’s hard to imagine this kind of parable—the kingdom of God is like yeast that was mixed in until all the flour was corrupted, until all of it was impure. Corruption has no place in the Kingdom of God, right? The kingdom is about purity and holiness, so unholy things don’t belong in the kingdom, so where did Jesus come up with this one? And come to think of it, why on earth would anybody plant an invasive species of weed in their garden anyway? Mustard is even worse than strawberries gone wild—it just grows and grows and chokes out other plants and takes over the whole space, not to mention looking kind of unruly!

For an idea about what Jesus could be talking about, I looked back at the story right before this one, right before the “therefore” at the beginning of today’s sayings. It’s the story from last week of the woman that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and the leader of the synagogue who was so angry about Jesus “working” on God’s holy day. The people in power, the people who depended on things being done they way they had always been done, the people who needed for others to stay in their place, were upset that Jesus healed a woman when it should have been against the rules…a little bit of unruliness in a system that depended on dotting every I and crossing every T.

Could it be that the kingdom of God, in its mysterious workings, looks, feels, and even tastes like “corruption” of the values of the status quo, the values of the world’s power structure? That healing, speaking truth, sharing love would be unruly and unholy according to the rules?

Could it be that grace, like yeast and weeds, keeps growing, wider and wider, pushing the boundaries of the bowls and the garden plots, taking over…leaving no room for hate, no room for injustice, no room for self-righteousness and self-serving systems?

Could it be that we are called to be the yeast of the kingdom in the midst of the world…fizzing and working gently and mysteriously to make room for Holy Spirit to move and blow where she will, widening the circle of grace until the Love of God has taken over the world…could that be what “your kingdom come” means?

If these things could be…then what does it mean for us to be the yeast of the kingdom? What does it mean to be the agent of corruption of this world’s power systems and values, to be the ones who work to change the world from the inside out?

One thing is for certain—yeast doesn’t do anything if it stays sealed up in its little package. Yeast works by being activated by water and air and then by being mixed in to other ingredients.

I know you can already hear where that metaphor is going, right?

If we’re yeast, we must be activated for service by our baptism—by water and the breath of the Holy Spirit…and then we’re sent out into the world to do the work of the kingdom wherever we are. We’re not only the church, the Body of Christ, the people of God, the yeast of the kingdom when we’re gathered together but also when we’re out in the world. We’re participating in God’s mission when we are at work, when we are at play, and when we are at home. Each of our jobs is a ministry in some way, each of our relationships is a place for the Spirit to move, each of our actions is a chance for grace, love, and peace to overtake the values of gain, power, and violence.

Jesus is good at the one-liner, but none of these are throwaway lines. Even the smallest sentence, the smallest seed, the smallest grain of yeast, the smallest action, the smallest person, the smallest change, can work to change the world into the kingdom of God.

May it be so.

Friday, August 27, 2010


On this day (August 26) in 1920 (just 90 years ago), the 19th amendment went into effect.

For those whose memory of just which amendment is which is a little shaky (as mine is), the 19th is the one that gives women the right to vote.

Ninety years of voting in a "democracy" that is 225 years old.

Meanwhile we expect the rest of the world to conform instantly to our current value system, though it took us two and a quarter centuries to get here.'s my opinion that it took a shamefully long time for women to gain the right to vote. (It's also my knowledge that President Wilson was not, as he described himself in the New York Times on this day 90 years ago, "the biggest proponent of women's suffrage." A visit to his birthplace and library in Staunton Virginia will quickly disabuse anyone of this notion, and highlight just a few of the misogynist things that man did, though he's awesome in some other ways...) It's also my opinion that women both here and around the world are still treated horribly in so many ways--whether it's voting or abuse or being harassed in the streets or being told where/when/with whom they can go or being forced into arranged marriages or being sold into slavery or being paid 70 cents for every dollar a man makes or anything else. We have a long way to go--voting was hardly the culmination of our struggle, though it was a huge milestone to reach.

And it took 135 years to make even that step.

I heard a story on NPR a few minutes ago about the women who sit in or are running for Parliament in Afghanistan.

Women. In Parliament. In Afghanistan. Over 300 women (maybe even as many as 408) are running for office in next month's election there. In Afghanistan. They risk their lives and their families lives sometimes, but they believe the struggle is worth it, they believe they are making a difference, they believe that things are changing for the better and they want to be a part of that movement. One woman they interviewed has been in the Parliament since 2005.

2005. In Afghanistan.

Yet we insist on pushing them (and other cultures too) farther and faster--because we believe it's right, we believe that women deserve equality, that no one should be oppressed...all good and valid reasons. I'm not one to give up or to say "give it time" or even "just wait--the day will come." In fact, I'm much more along the line with Carrie Newcomer's song "If Not Now, When?"

But let's also get some perspective, people. A LOT of the countries in this world are much much younger than we are. And many of them are tribally/culturally/geographically diverse from the outset (which, remember, we weren't...not really, anyway). Some are amalgamations of people groups that have never lived together before but were close enough geographically to be convenient for the UN to make into a country, but they have no idea how to overcome centuries of cultural divides and even flat-out hatred. They are often poor, lack infrastructure, and endure a great deal of other disadvantages and hardship.

And then they look over here, where we haven't even achieved full equality but are full of preachiness about the best way to be a nation.

Meanwhile, 3-400 women are running for Parliament in Afghanistan's second EVER election.


Those women of 90+ years ago may have done more good than they realized...

but we still have a long way to go.

Monday, August 23, 2010


When I lived in Egypt, one of the frustrations I heard over and over was about how the government (supported by the general populace) under Nasser took over church buildings (schools, sanctuaries, etc) with no compensation, and refused to give building permits for new church buildings--whether schools, community centers, or worship spaces. It was an extremely frustrating and oppressive situation, one supported almost entirely by the subconscious idea that "they" (Christians) don't belong. Religious freedom extends only to the right to exist as people, and to congregate in approved locations (for now, and as long as the government and the neighborhood continue to consider that location "approved")...but not to build new locations, not to plant new churches, not to evangelize/proselytize/talk about Christianity (illegal), not to convert to Christianity (illegal), etc. The majority population, undergirded by hundreds of years of "Christian" imperialism and terrorism, have decided where Christians belong, and that's nowhere near where they are or where their children go or where their important sites are.

There, we called it unfair, we called it discrimination, we called it oppression.

What's it called here?

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I'm on vacation in Southern California, hanging out with my cousin Max (age 5). We've been to the Aquarium of the Pacific,

the San Diego Zoo,

SeaWorld (I totally teared up during the Shamu show as I was
thinking about how beautiful these
animals are and here they are performing for our benefit, very dance-
monkey-dance...), and


Today: whale watching for my mom's birthday. Tomorrow: Disneyland. And Monday too.

Today's mom's 52nd birthday. She loved the ocean, marine life, tide pools, whales, dolphins, etc. Hence the whale watching trip this afternoon. We're also plotting what to have for far we've agreed on salad and black-beans-and-olives (mmmm, yummy).

Friday, August 13, 2010


So I've been involved in a number of discussions about "church growth" here at Church Unbound.
What's interesting about this to me is that even after a zillion unsuccessful campaigns to "grow" churches numerically, churches are still experiencing numerical and demographic decline, while the "no religious affiliation" demographic grows in number with every poll. And even KNOWING these two (dare I suggest related?) facts, people still incessantly talk about church growth and mean getting more people on the rolls and in the pews. For some reason church growth is pretty much only about membership.

Please tell me this is not what growth means. Because ultimately, the church is not the same as the purely capitalist economy, which must continually grow or die. Besides that, we won't even talk about how "membership" is an increasingly irrelevant thing, not just in the church but in all kinds of organizations.

The church is about being the people of God in the world. Which means we're supposed to be about loving people and creation, caring for one another, serving others, feeding the hungry (in all aspects of the word "hunger"), building community, other words, we're about living good news, exhibiting the kingdom of heaven to the world.

When people wonder why unchurched people are unchurched (or dechurched), I always remind them that the church is overwhelmingly known in our culture for *bad* news, not good news. It's hard to grow numerically when what we see of church is mostly exclusion, hate, and fighting.

But besides that, church growth shouldn't be about the number of people on our rolls. What if, instead, we measured as Reggie McNeal suggests--in numbers of people engaged in serving others or numbers of people who view their everyday jobs as ministry? What if "growing the church" was about communities cooperating with the Holy Spirit rather than trying to do what we think we're "supposed" to do as a church? What if growth has more to do with love and understanding than it does with numbers? What if growth is about people living the good news in every place where they are, about *being* the church in every context in which we find ourselves, about being the body of Christ out in the world...and has nothing whatsoever to do with how many people are in our Sunday School classes?

Nothing I'm saying is new or even news. (though some conversations I've had the past few days have shown me that it is a radical idea for some.) Jan and others have been talking about these things for a very long time, and I suspect we'll still be talking about them for a good long while yet. I just hope we can reframe the conversations into something not about a slick new marketing technique (because who needs more products, religious or otherwise, marketed at them?), conforming, and pew-filling, but instead about growth.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I love to travel. LOVE to travel. Travel feeds my soul—I get to see places, meet people, do stuff…
So I’m at the beginning of two weeks of travel right now. Today I left home in mid-morning and arrived at Montreat, several hundred miles away, only a few hours later. Saturday I’ll leave here and, through the miracle of time zones, end up 3000 miles across the country in just “4 hours” (including a layover!).

The downside of travel is the means of transportation. Here in the good ole USA we don’t have a lot of good travel options—it’s pretty much drive or fly. Driving takes forever (12 hours from my house to Montreat if you don’t stop. at. all.) and is fairly uncomfortable. Flying is getting less and less comfortable every day—long security lines, oppressive packing rules, people insisting their bag is carry on size when it is clearly not, and very small spaces in which to sit for the duration of your flight.

Today as I was getting on the plane (a small regional jet—the kind where you have to walk out on the tarmac and then climb a little staircase) AND, coincidentally, contemplating my woefully inadequate handling of the one-word project so far, I realized that the thing about flying is that all these people are basically crammed into a capsule—it’s an oversized Tylenol tablet (and you kind of need those to fly anyway!). It’s also, in some strange way, sort of a living time capsule. All these diverse people, their stories, their belongings, their hopes/dreams/fears about where they are going and where they are leaving…their dated hairstyles or latest fashion, their iPods and laptops and hot novels…all speeding through the sky at 35,000 feet, going hundreds of miles an hour.

I think shooting them off like rockets would make time capsules more interesting than burying them. Someone take a cue from airplanes, the living speeding time capsule!!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

life storage--a sermon for Ordinary 18C

Rev. Teri Peterson
life storage
Luke 12.13-21
1 August 2010, Ordinary 18C

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

Okay, be honest: who’s uncomfortable already, before I even start talking?
It just seems like we should get that little fact out of the way—we’re uncomfortable when it comes to talking about money, material goods, and all that other stuff that we all really like to have and some of which we even need…and we’re especially uncomfortable talking about it in church.

Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable. He talks more about money and possessions than about any other topic, and basically nothing he says about it makes us feel any more comfortable—“sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.” “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Today’s is probably the least offensive of the bunch: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions…beware of storing up treasures for yourself but not being rich toward God.”

I’ll never forget my first experience in a Presbyterian church—I’ve told the story before, I think, of being hired to play the special music and hearing my very first sermon, which was about that story where Jesus tells the man to sell everything and come follow him…and the pastor said, “Jesus doesn’t mean that WE have to sell all our possessions and give away all our money.”
In my literal teenage mind, I wrote off the church then and there…it was obviously full of hypocrites who were more concerned about maintaining their own wealth than about following Jesus. God obviously has a sense of humor, since 15 years later I’m standing here, trying to think of ways I can make the story easier without resorting to the same words I heard that pastor say.

The thing is, Jesus does say those things. And they do matter, and they are just as important now as they were 2,000 years ago, and they DO apply to us, whether we want to think they do or not. And the other thing is: the church IS full of sinners, people who struggle with what it means to follow Jesus in the midst of all the other things of life. That’s what it means to be human, and a big part of what it means to be a Christian—that we work together to try to figure all this stuff out, we hold each other accountable when we fail, and we support each other in good and bad times.

Here, I think, is a way for us to think about the story Jesus tells. For the most part, actually, this doesn’t seem like a story of a foolish man, it seems like the story of a wise and practical man who wants to be a good steward of the bounty his land has produced, storing up for the winter or for a lean year, preparing so he can be self-sufficient, providing for his needs in the future.

Did you notice anyone else in the story?

I didn’t. The man uses exclusively “I” language—11 times—and never once mentions anyone else—whether a family, a community, a synagogue, a village, or even a friend.

Here is where the trouble comes—not with the bounty itself, nor even in the idea of storing things for the future, but in the fact that he kept it to himself. He didn’t share his joy with his village, he didn’t ask for suggestions in what to do with the excess, he didn’t make an offering or leave part for the poor, he didn’t turn to his community for accountability and sharing and challenge and joy and hope. He turns instead to himself and decides that because he has all this wealth, he is self-sufficient.

Well…newsflash. No one is self-sufficient. No matter how much money you have, no matter how big your harvest, no matter how big a storage unit you have, no one is self-sufficient. And when we start to believe that—when we believe we can store up our lives, when what or how much we have becomes a defining factor in who we are—then we are in danger of being full of plenty of things, but not rich toward God, the provider, the giver of every good gift. We’ll have so filled up with the good life that we miss out on Abundant Life.

The thing about Abundant Life is that it happens in community—God did not create people to be alone, but to be part of a community as vibrant and filled with love and challenge as the Trinity is. When we try to go it alone, when we believe we can be self-sufficient, when we put more trust in our cultural dream of a big house and lots of toys, then we are acting more like the rich fool and less like people who follow Christ. When we have storage unit companies called “Life Storage” alongside people who live on the streets and children who go to bed hungry, then we are as a culture and as a church acting more like the rich fool and less like people who follow Christ. And, dare I say it, when we bristle at these stories and the conversations about money and stewardship, and we go home fuming that Jesus would dare to talk about something so personal and so private…we may be acting more like the rich fool and less like people who follow Christ. We forget, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that we are dependent on God for everything—breath and life and everything else, none of it is truly “ours.”

There is actually a term for this—for those of us (and yes, sometimes I’m one of these people too!) who are perfectly willing and able to claim belief and love and all that stuff…as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with what we do and how we live outside of our church personas. The term is “practical atheism”—we may believe all we want, but in practice we often act like God has no claim on who we are and how we go about our lives and, in the case of this story, what we do with our stuff and how we use our resources.

Just as the love of God penetrates into everything we are and everything we do, so the challenge of Jesus worms its way into every nook and cranny of our lives—from how we manage our money to how we treat each other to how we vote to how we handle accountability and joy and sharing. The good news for us is that the strength of the Holy Spirit also blows its way through every aspect of our lives, empowering us to live as followers of Christ in every moment, every decision, every action. The Spirit forms us for community and moves among us so we can be the people God has called us to be. At the risk of sounding a little like that pastor I remember from years ago, I’ll even suggest that we are called not to merely become poor, but to become Generous…and so find ourselves rich toward God.

May it be so.