Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not Deathly Ill

There are waves in the PCUSA right now about a letter that came out from a bunch of men who pastor big churches. When the biggest uproar was about how no women or elders had signed the letter, they issued a follow up clarification letter, as well as adding a zillion new signers practically overnight. The letter claims that the PCUSA is deathly ill and that the main cause of this illness is the fight for (and now trend toward) inclusion. They name the LGBT "issue" as the primary symptom of our illness, as well as including a list of other fun things like "creeping universalism" (which is just fun to say and to picture). The bottom line is that the denomination is getting smaller and we have to stop it ASAP before we fade away into irrelevance or just...well...fade away. They lament the lack of young people, the disproportionate funeral-to-infant-baptism ratio, and (I think) a lack of passion for mission and evangelism. They believe these problems to be the result of lax theological standards and loose morals, and somehow both the cause and the effect of institutional decline.

There have already been a number of fantastic replies to these letters. There have also been defensive replies to the replies. There is a vibrant, if sometimes heated, discussion going on in the church. There is frustration, disappointment, and even anger all around, as well as love and hope and fear and joy and wonder. Some feel the initial letter was condescending, some feel the replies are hateful, and in general everyone is focusing once again on, in my opinion, the wrong thing.

Yes, the PCUSA is getting smaller. Yes, most mainline denominations are getting smaller. And, in fact, most megachurches are even getting smaller.

I do not believe that to be a symptom of deathly illness.

I believe this is a symptom of our culture's move away from institutions. I also believe, along with those who write about generational theory, that this anti-institutional fervor is likely to change in the next 25-50 years as Millennials take the stage with their communitarian and institution-building and institution-trusting tendencies.

More important than the generational theory (and I think it is CRUCIAL, frankly, but few are likely to listen to me about it....go read the book), though, is the fact that we may finally be in a position to stop believing that the institution, the building, the Sunday attendance, is the church. The church is not a building, is not a theological system or a moral code, is not a set of rules, is not a denomination, is not a fight over "issues," is not even a book of order. The church is the people of God, working with God, doing God's work in the world. and in that sense, the church is nowhere near death. In fact, it's quite presumptuous and extremely condescending to declare the church deathly ill when the people of God are working with God all over the place. The fact that they are not joining the PCUSA or any other denomination is not the point (and attendance trends often seem to suggest that people attend but don't join). The fact that the birth rate in the US has dropped, particularly among the educated white families that the PCUSA tends to attract, is not the point. The fact that Millennials are not flocking to church (gee, do/did their parents?) is not the point. In other words--the writers of this letter have missed the point. By a lot. The point is: the people of God are out there doing God's work all over the place. People are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, loving the unloveable, connecting with the image of God in every person, caring for God's creation, loving their neighbors and their enemies, sharing their resources, shining a light, bringing a little joy, offering grace...they are studying, teaching, learning...they are worshipping, gathering, fellowshipping...and it may not be happening in a church building, but it sure as hell is the church. And the church is not deathly ill.

In fact, it is more obvious than ever that the church is alive. The institution may not live in the halls of power, the big-steeple pastors may not have the influence they once had, the culture may not care what we as a whole have to say...but those things aren't what Jesus did anyway, and the early church didn't have any of those things and yet thrived anyway.

So I would argue that the way these letter writers have framed the issue, viewed through my biblical, theological, socio-economic, political, and generational framework: the church has indeed been ill. For the past 60 years (or more, if you head all the way back to Constantine), we have gorged ourselves on power and influence and numbers and programs and attractionalism and big buildings/salaries/pensions and assumptions. Those things crippled our ability to be the people of God working with God to do God's work in the world--to transform the world into the kingdom. And now we are beginning to get well. But like any healing process, some parts are painful.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

be yourself--a sermon on the text for ordinary 5A

Rev. Teri Peterson
be yourself
Matthew 5.13-16
13 February 2011, Ordinary 6A (5A text)

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

When we give advice, whether it’s about a relationship or an outfit, choosing a school or interviewing for a job, one of the most common phrases we use is “just be yourself.” We want people to be who they are so they can get the best fit, best express who they are and what they are looking for, and be happy. Of course, sometimes when we say “just be yourself” what we really mean is “just be nice” or “just be the bubbly, happy, enthusiastic you,” which is not always the same as being yourself. And occasionally, “be yourself” really means “be who they want you to be” in order to land the interview, get the job, or score the second date.

If we stop to think about it for a moment, the advice to “be yourself” is not the simple proposition most people seem to think it is. It’s actually pretty difficult to first know yourself well enough, then to be able to express who you really are, in all the various settings you might find yourself in. Knowing ourselves, and being ourselves, is hard work. There’s a reason therapists always have full practices and the self-help shelves take up so much of the bookstores.
There is a story about a rabbi who was wandering through the forest one evening. As he was praying and walking along, he lost his way and found himself in front of a military base, where a guard brought him out of his reverie by shouting, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" The rabbi replied, "How much do they pay you?" "Why do you ask?" the guard wondered. "Because," said the rabbi, "I need someone to ask me those questions every day.”

So we are here to wonder together: who are we? And what are we doing here?

The very first question in one of our Presbyterian teaching tools is: “who are you?” and the answer is “I am a child of God.”

Not, “I am an enthusiastic and passionate person,” not, “I’m a pastor/teacher/computer geek” or “I’m a daughter/parent/friend,” but “I am a child of God.”

Today Jesus reminds us what that means, and he says to us, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” He doesn’t say “you should be” or “one day you will be” or “you are like” or “work harder at becoming” the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He says, “you ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world.”

I wonder how many of us think first of these kinds of descriptions when we think about who we are. We are children of God, made in the image of God, salt of the earth and light of the world.
We are things necessary for life—salt and light. Nothing can live or grow without them.
We are symbols of covenant—in the ancient world salt was exchanged to seal the deal, to create an unbreakable promise.
We are the ingredients that bring out the flavor and character of things around us, the way salt brings out the flavor of veggies or tomatoes or chocolate and caramel; the way light makes it possible to see the details of what’s around us.
And we didn’t become this by ourselves—God created us this way, and called us very good.

So I am here today to tell you that regardless of what other words you might use to describe who you are—whether you look at yourself and think “beautiful” or “plain” or “fat” or “stupid” or “awesome” or “freak” or “witty” or “geek” or “teacher” or “unemployed” or “sad” or “passionate” or “graceful” or “frazzled” any of the other millions of words we use to think about ourselves, good and bad…no matter what words you think when you look in the mirror or hear the question “who are you,” you are a child of God, loved by the creator, and made to be salt and light for the world.
The same is true when we think about the church—whether we start out with words like “welcoming” or “dynamic” or “broken” or “lost” or “dying” or “faithful,” our primary identity is that we are the people of God, salt and light, made to bring zest and show truth and offer flavorful hope to the world, pointing to the glory of God.

So then the question becomes WHY do we so often turn to those other identities first? Why do we so often believe the other descriptors but not the ones God has given us? Why is our saltiness always either too strong or too weak, our light so often hidden under a bushel basket? Why do we so often forget the answers to “who are you?” and “what are you doing here?”

Sometimes I think we forget because those other words are so much more prevalent, so much more accessible, so much more real-feeling. That whole business about needing 10 positive words to counteract one negative word is true for adults as well as children. It’s easy to become who the culture tells us we are, whether that’s beautiful, smart, and talented or whether that’s lazy, at-risk, and dangerous.

Sometimes I think we choose to forget, we choose to hide under the bushel basket, because we are afraid of making a scene. We don’t want to be the one who points out the problem or the one who suggests the unpopular solution. We don’t want to do too much—to blind people with bright light or to over-salt the dish. We want people to like us, we want to be part of the in-crowd, and that means not drawing attention.

And sometimes I think we reject our primary identity because we DO want to draw attention to ourselves, and so often the purpose of salt and light is to enable us to see something else—salt is there not to be tasted on its own, but to bring out the natural flavors of other ingredients; light is there not to be looked at directly but to let other things be seen. Which means that salt and light are not the center of attention, and for some of us that is just too much to handle.

But we don’t get to choose…God has created us to be mirrors of the divine image, to reflect God’s glory into the world, to be children of God, salt and light. God has told us who we are, and what we are doing here. In the words of another of our teaching tools, “the chief purpose of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” There’s a reason that’s the first sentence! So, friends, it’s time to cast off our bushel baskets. It’s time to claim our true identity, to let go of our fear and our need to be liked, to stand on the lampstands of the world and let God’s light shine through us.

I’m reminded of a quote from a book by Marianne Williamson. She says, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."

Friends, we’ve just received the best advice in the world: just be yourself, the person God made you to be.

May it be so.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

the way--a sermon

Rev Teri Peterson
the way
Psalm 25.1-10, Micah 6.6-8
6 February 2011, Ordinary 5A (text for 4A)

In you, LORD my God, I put my trust.
I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.No one who hopes in you
will ever be put to shame, 

but shame will come on those
who are treacherous without cause.
Show me your ways, LORD,
teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior, 

and my hope is in you all day long.
Remember, LORD,
your great mercy and love, 

for they are from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways; 

according to your love remember me,
for you, LORD, are good.
Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right
and teaches them his way.
All the ways of the LORD
are loving and faithful 

toward those who keep the demands
of his covenant.

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


This morning I have a confession to make. I spent this week not particularly interested in writing a sermon. Instead, much like last week, I’ve been glued to the news, watching and reading everything coming out of Egypt. I’ve been waiting to hear from my friends and colleagues and students, hoping and praying for justice and peace…and I’ve been disappointed and frightened that the peaceful revolution turned violent. I’ve watched as protestors have camped out in the square downtown, as the army has been cheered through the streets, as the police first disappeared entirely and then came back with guns and rocks. I’ve laughed hysterically and yet with hope and awe at videos and interviews that show protestors picking up trash from the streets of Cairo, and shed tears at the video from a friend showing bullet holes in the windows of the church where I worshipped and preached. I’ve waited anxiously as internet and cell phone service was cut off, and then been one of those people trying to get through when it came back on. I’ve followed the news on al-jazeera, twitter, facebook, cnn, blogs, and anywhere else that’s publishing or broadcasting. And thinking of the people of Egypt has consumed my time and my energy for the past two weeks in ways I would never have imagined. So I want to tell you about some of these people who have been on my mind this week. People like Naadia and Marsa, who kept our house and made sure we stayed out of trouble and helped us with all kinds of things from shopping to cleaning to cooking.
Like Sabray,
my taxi driver, and his family who offered not just a way around the city but also hospitality and love, even though we lived such different lives and were of different religions. Like the people who took care of us and made sure we had enough fruit and vegetables to eat, who found us great treats and great prices nearly every day.
Like my Arabic teacher Ashgan, who helped me communicate and always had a smile even when I was so slow sounding out words or writing my own name.
Or Mehir, the gatekeeper at the school, who greeted us, gave us directions, rescued me from more than one sticky situation, helped us find our way, and was always good for a late-night conversation or a joke or story over a glass of mango juice.
I’ve been thinking of my students—girls who are now in the 6th grade and whose futures are being fought for in the streets of Cairo…I’ve especially been thinking of the troublemakers from Class C, Ireny, Nourhan, Maria, and Sandy, and wondering what they are doing now as their classes are disrupted and their country is in turmoil around them.
Or the teenagers in my English class, girls who are now in college, many of them at universities near Tahrir Square.
And of course there are the students and teachers and families of Fairhaven. I still haven’t heard anything from them, but we continue to pray that they are okay.
I think of the teachers I worked with at the Ramses College for Girls—6 women who gave their lives to first graders,
and of the congregations pastored by my friends from the protestant seminary. And I think a lot about Martha Roy, who is now 98 years old and has been in Egypt for most of her life. She’s seen a lot of change in that country, and she’s done a lot of good. She taught, built schools, helped run clinics, and transcribed the music of the Coptic liturgy so it could be preserved and studied and used outside of Egypt. As late as her 93rd birthday she was still playing the organ every Friday and Sunday for the St. Andrews United Reformed Church downtown, the one that was damaged by looters. She lives in the nursing-home wing of a hospital a few blocks from Tahrir Square, and no one seems to have heard anything about her. As I think about and pray for Martha, I can’t help but worry about her even though this is hardly her first revolution.

Egypt is changing, and I think it’s safe to say that no matter what happens in the politics, the country will never be the same. The hopes and dreams of generations of people are on the line…millions are praying for a way forward, but that way seems unclear.

As I talked with the confirmation class about these two scripture texts, we wondered together how we find the way. How do we discover the path we are supposed to follow? There are a lot of options, a lot of possibilities, and often they’re all good. Sometimes we look for the way by following our friends or our families, sometimes by taking facebook quizzes or reading our horoscopes, sometimes by being so perfect that God will be forced into helping us, sometimes by just going along with the flow and avoiding the subject entirely. Sometimes we even read Scripture and pray and discern in our church community. We prayed this psalm together—“show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths.” And then we flipped over to Micah and read that “God has shown you what is good—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

It often seems that our prayer for God to teach us or show us goes unheeded…we flounder around in our own ways, confused or worried or detached, looking for a burning bush or a flash of light. We say we put our hope in God, that we want to walk God’s path if we could just find it…and here’s the prophet Micah pointing us to the path laid out before us. And then we call to mind the example of Jesus, who directed us to love others as he loves us…and the path still seems unclear. I think we often prefer the unclarity, because it’s a hard road to walk. This road requires us to both realize and act: to realize that we have been given everything we need to travel this journey—freely God has given God’s own self to us, in life and in death and even at this table; and to act on love, justice, mercy, and humility. Our first reaction to hearing these things is always “but HOW do we do that?” much like the man who asked Jesus “but who IS my neighbor?” I’m reminded of Stephen Colbert, in a show near Christmastime, who said that we are going to have to start either openly pretending that Jesus is as selfish as we are, or acknowledge the things he commanded us and then admit that we don’t want to do it.

I think we know what we are called to do…and we know how to do it. We know that in our everyday lives we can love as we have been loved, we can give as freely as we have received, we can build community and feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. We can work to change systems, we can lobby and vote and pray and even protest, we can be beacons on the path of justice and mercy that God has shown us. The question is whether we’ll choose that path, or another, or whether we’ll be too consumed by looking back at where we’ve been to move down any path at all.

I want to leave you with one more picture. This picture has been widely distributed since it was taken on Thursday, and it’s a perfect example of people who have so freely received grace upon grace…giving out of that abundance, acting without fear, and doing justice together. This is downtown Cairo, during noontime prayers. Thousands of Muslims are gathered to pray, and they are vulnerable. Or they would be, if not for the ring of Christians who have joined hands, standing between those praying and the mob intent on violence.

May we too do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.