Monday, October 24, 2011

peace unity and purity

One of the ordination vows every officer at any level of the Presbyterian Church USA takes is to "further the peace, unity, and purity of the church." Sometimes, this vow has been used as a club to keep people out, sometimes it's been ignored, sometimes it's been misunderstood...most of the time, I think we generally fall into the ignoring camp in my congregation.
Until last week, anyway, when the personnel team asked me during my annual review about how this vow is reflected in my ministry.
Of course, part of me had an internal freak out, as in "do they think I'm a troublemaker?" And the other part of me (the rational part) thought "ummm......."

So, I answered the question, kind of, but what it really came down to was that no one was sure entirely what we even meant by these words, and what the words mean in the context of the local church (not just on a denominational level), and how they might apply to our congregational life. SO...what I ended up saying was something about how "unity" is not about uniformity, but about unity of purpose--that we are all here seeking the same goal: to follow Jesus, to be transformed for the transformation of the world, to participate in the mission of God in the world, etc...and "purity" is not about what our current American culture labels as pure but instead about purity of intention, purity of heart, purity of love for God and neighbor and enemy. But "peace"--this is the hard one. Peace, of course, is not just the absence of conflict (though after a conflict, a little absence feels pretty peaceful!) but also the presence of justice. Peacemaking is a big part of our call as Christians, and so creating conditions for justice and peace to flourish in the church is a large part of ministry.

Having said that, I went home from that meeting wondering if I had done a disservice to the role of pastor in regards to peace. Is the role of a pastor to make peace in a congregation? Or is it to disturb the peace, so the people of God can go out and work for justice and peace in the world? I wonder how often we use the word "peace" the same way we use the word "nice"--as a cover for shallow relationships and vague understanding, rather than as the Shalom God intends. Particularly in situations where the pastor has a lot of things to do, a lot of people to work with, programs to administrate, and saints to equip, it can be easier to avoid conflict in order to keep the "peace" than to challenge the status quo. It's often been said that our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable...and some of us do a better job and one side or the other of that coin, no doubt. But how often do we avoid one in favor of the other?

I'm contemplating giving myself a new title--because I think the church and world need more of these people, instead of people who will continue to live with the way things are. Plus, five years post-ordination, it's time to think about which aspect of my role I most live into right now (I keep hoping I'll identify most with "steward of the mysteries of God"...that'll probably be coming soon. LOL). Therefore, I will now consider myself The Reverend Teri Peterson, Disturber of the "Peace." (yes, with air quotes!)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Learning Love--a sermon for Ordinary 30A

Rev. Teri Peterson
Learning Love
Matthew 22.34-40
23 October 2011, October 30A

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Do you know the cartoon “love is…”? It’s a daily one-panel drawing with the words “love is” at the top, and words finishing the sentence at the bottom, with drawings of people that slightly remind me of the Little Miss… girls. Every day since about 1970 there has been a different description of what love is. Among the descriptions from the past few days, we have things like “Love is…an open door” “Love is…not even noticing you forgot the picnic basket” “Love is…not wanting to say goodnight” and “Love is…taking that second chance.”

We might almost say that love is one of those words that has so many possible meanings that it often means nothing at all. For instance—do I love mashed potatoes the way I love my family? Do I love celebrating my birthday the way I love pursuing my calling? Do I love scotcharoos the way I love God? In the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, a teenage girl explains the difference between like and love: “I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.” If all of those are love, what is love anyway?

Jesus probably had a similar problem—there are a lot of things “love” can mean. It helps, of course, if you speak a language with more nuance than English has in this case, and it helps if you live in a time with fewer material possessions and a culture that values people over things, and it helps if you are part of a religious system that tells you exactly what to do in every circumstance. So when asking which law was the greatest, the lawyer was asking Jesus to prioritize—among the 613 laws of the Torah, which one is most important? It’s a trick question, designed to force Jesus into heresy. But Jesus answers with the Shema—the Bible verse that every Jew would recite multiple times every day: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In other words—with your whole being, love God. Then he adds a verse from everyone’s favorite book, Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The word “love” here is agape—one of four choices in Greek. Others include eros (erotic love), storge (affection), and philia (brotherly love). Philia and Agape are both words that imply self-giving, sacrificial, unconditional, steadfast, loyal, all-in love. So when Jesus, or Paul, or Deuteronomy, or Leviticus, call us to love God with our whole being, they’re almost being redundant—the poetic repetition tells us they really mean it, every word. In fact, the latest English translation of the Bible ends this passage with the phrase “everything depends on these two commands.”

Everything depends on these.

I’m reminded of The Five Pillars of Islam, which are confessing your faith in God, prayer, fasting, giving, and pilgrimage. In other words—the whole of the Muslim faith is held up by these five practices. Not five beliefs, not five words to say, not five books to read, but five actions to do regularly. They might say that “everything depends on these.”

What would our five pillars of Christianity be? We probably share some in common with our Muslim brothers and sisters—confessing our faith in Christ, prayer, and giving are fairly obvious. We may even say fasting or pilgrimage too. But Jesus says there’s one big pillar, and all these things are more like supporting columns—our big pillar is to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

How does this foundation play out in our faith and life, though? Just as the five pillars of Islam are practices, not simply beliefs, this pillar Jesus lays before us is also a practice, not a belief. I can say that I love God, and I can claim to love my neighbor, but does that mean anything more than that I love mashed potatoes? How does my neighbor—or my enemy—know that I love them? How does my neighbor know that I love God? Just as the letter of James says: ‘faith without works is dead.’ Or, to put it in terms most of us know: talk is cheap. Christian faith is not cheap, nor is it just talk. It’s a way of life, a practice. And this way of life changes us, and changes the world. Or at least, it should. But there are a billion Christians in the world, and still the Black Eyed Peas can ask “Where is the Love?” and we just don’t have an answer. Love has been so watered down into a song or a tv show or a feeling easily transferable between people and possessions or a nice thing that doesn’t have much to do with God. But the love of God is not nice—just as Aslan is not a tame lion, the love of God is not tame, not for our own use, and not to make us feel good. Love calls us to action—it’s a verb.

So if love, as Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Jesus and Paul call us to, is more than a feeling and more than words, then how do we do it? How do we learn love? What does it mean in a world where we apply it to backpacks and shoes and food and people and God all in the same breath? We know that God is love, we know that we love because God first loved us, we know that we are called to love God and God’s creation—including people we know, people we don’t know, and even our enemies. But that’s all so much easier said than done.

Saint Francis de Sales, who lived in the 17th century, might be able to help us out with this. He says, “the only way of attaining that love is by loving. You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; and just so you learn to love God and people by loving. All those who think to learn in any other way deceive themselves. If you want to love God, go on loving God more and more. Begin as a mere apprentice, and the very power of love will lead you on to become a master in the art. Those who have made most progress will continually press on, never believing themselves to have reached their end; for charity should go on increasing until we draw our last breath.”

We learn to talk by making sounds…we learn to read by reading everything our eyes land on…we learn to ride a bike by riding up and down the street, picking ourselves up when we fall and getting back on…in other words, by being disciplined in our practice. By doing it over and over until we have mastered the skill. Could love be the same—we learn to love by being disciplined in our practice, taking every opportunity to practice loving God and loving others, picking ourselves up when we fall down, and trying again? Eventually the training will change us—just as you never forget how to ride a bike, you can never forget how to love. So let’s get out there and practice together, because everything depends on this.

May it be so.

Friday, October 21, 2011

oh yeah, it's my birthday....

I heart birthdays. Especially mine, but I like other people's too.

Today is my birthday. I'm 31. The sun has come out, the rain has gone, it's a balmy 57 degrees (brrrrr), and the leaves on the tree outside my window are bright red. The kitties are completely indifferent to my desire for them to sit on my feet and let me pet them. For some reason the dishes have not washed themselves, but I live in a house with dishes and food to cook in said dishes, so that's okay.

It's going to be a good birthday, I can tell.

Maybe later (or tomorrow, when I'm procrastinating on a sermon) I'll post today's RGBP Friday Five, which is also birthday-prompted, about 5 stages in my life. But for now, I gotta get moving because I have a big day planned! :-)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Friday Five on Saturday...home sweet home

I was away from home all day Friday, but I love these questions from Songbird over at RGBP, so I'm excited to play anyway!

1) Where was your first home?
I recently discovered that there was an apartment that I think was my first home, but I don't remember it. The first home I remember was a mobile home in Hubbard, OR. There was a very old man who was our neighbor. I lived in this home in this location until I was 8, and then in this home in another location (my grandparents' 40 acres outside Lebanon, OR) for another few years. While I remember the actual house well, and I remember a few things that happened there, I remember a grand total of nothing about that town, except that my school bus crossed railroad tracks.

2) Do you ever dream about places you used to live?
Sometimes I dream about my grandparents' house. Occasionally I have dreams about the house where my dad and brother still live. But mostly my dreams involve other buildings (church, former church, etc) or places I've never seen in real life, or intense distortions of places I have been (ie 3rd floor apartments, but you have to crawl through body-sized holes to get to the stairs, etc).

3) If you could bring back one person from your past to sit at your dinner table, who would you choose?
Hands down, my mom.

4) What's your favorite room in your current living space?
hmm...that's a hard call. I love the light in the living room in the mornings. I love my bed and the color of the walls and the artwork in my bedroom. I love the kitchen--not because it's a good kitchen, but because it's where the food is and the cooking happens!

5) Is there an object or an item where you live now that represents home? If not, can you think of one from your childhood?
I don't know...books, maybe? I'm always intrigued when there are no books in someone's home. Books make a place feel homey to me. The more books, the better! Also, cats. Where my cats are is home, I suppose.