Sunday, September 29, 2013

god the verb--a sermon for 29 September 2013, Narrative Lectionary 4-4

Rev. Teri Peterson
God the verb
Exodus 2.23-25, 3.10-15, 4.10-17
29 September 2013, NL4-4

After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
So God called to Moses: ‘come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations.
But Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.’
But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.’


When I was in ninth grade, one of the things we had to do was memorize a list of passive and linking verbs that are often a hallmark of weak writing: am is are was were, be being been, do does did, have has had, shall will should would may might must can could. These words, when used in conjunction with more interesting vocabulary, create an impression of static action and passive voice. When used alone, they convey a sense of existence but not much else. That same year, I figured out that all these words were essentially ways of conjugating what turns out to be the most irregular and yet most foundational verb in most languages: the verb “to be.”

Without the verb “to be,” coherent language is almost impossible. I have used it eight times already in just a minute, and that’s after cleaning up the first paragraph of the sermon to use it less. While articles like “the” and “a” are the most common words, To Be is the most common verb. We rely on it to express our reality of existence, action, speech, desire, and identity.

It is this verb, slippery and essential as it is, that is the name God gives when asked.

When God called Moses to go back to Egypt and bring the Israelites out of slavery, Moses’ first response was “who am I to do that?” God’s answer was: I will be with you. Moses’ second response was: “well who are you anyway?” And God’s answer was the iconic: I am who I am. Or possibly I will be what I will be. Or some combination, because frankly this is the only time this particular form of the verb is seen, and it’s always written without vowels so it’s not possible to pronounce—because in the ancient world, as in some places still today, names have power that must be respected and never misused. To speak a name is to use power—which is why the second creation story in Genesis has God bringing all the animals to Adam to give them their names: it is a way of saying that humans have dominion and are to be good stewards, because we were the ones who spoke the names of every living thing. And as the Thursday morning Bible Study has been learning, every name has a meaning!

For God to reveal God’s name to Moses is a powerful thing. Still today, Jews do not speak this name. And the meaning of the name is simultaneously ephemeral and persistent, foundational and yet always moving. God’s name is a verb that can’t be pinned down and that can’t be lived without.

Sounds about right.

And yet even knowing God’s name, and having the promise of God’s presence, is not enough for Moses. He still has excuses—he stutters, he doesn’t want to go…this verb of a God is hard to nail down. But God doesn’t really take no for an answer when justice and freedom are on the line. So there’s a compromise: God will still go, of course, and so will Aaron. Moses will not have to face Pharaoh alone. He’ll have his brother by his side to do the public speaking, and God within and among and around them to give words and power.

There are scholars who say that this verb that is God might best be translated as “I am who I will be.” With a God like this, is it any wonder that we, who are made in the image of God, are called to action? Or, more specifically, to transformation? While God comes to us, loves us, accepts us, and calls us exactly as we are in this moment, God also has hopes and dreams for all creation, that we will all be transformed into the kingdom of God. The purpose of our life with God is to be transformed more and more into God’s image, not to simply stay exactly as we are now. This change happens when we, like Moses, turn aside to see, stand barefoot on holy ground, and allow the Spirit to live and work in us. It’s a long and slow process, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful, just like any growth process. Sometimes we are transformed in growth spurts and other times it feels like nothing is happening. But the mark of a person in whom the Spirit dwells is a transformed life—a life turned toward grace, justice, love, peace, generosity. Our time spent in worship, in fellowship, in study, in prayer, in service—that time is supposed to lead us into a life changed, an attitude adjusted, a way of being shifted, as we seek to be who God desires us to be.

Just one chapter ago, Moses was a hotheaded murderer. His crime was discovered and he ran away from the law, hiding out in the desert. He stutters, he’s quick tempered, and his leadership skills, as we will see as we turn the pages of Exodus, are mediocre at best. And yet God calls him. And Moses argues, pointing out all the ways he’s not the man for the job, and finally just flat out saying he doesn’t want to do it. And yet God calls him, and works in him, and Moses is transformed, bit by bit, into one of the greatest prophets and leaders in our faith history. He slowly, very slowly, learns to trust God, to heed God’s word, to follow where God is leading. He becomes a conduit for God’s Spirit to enter the community and fill the people. He moves his ego to the side and allows God to dwell in him, and he is changed, and his whole nation is changed. He doesn’t become perfect—his temper still flares now and then, he still does some rash things occasionally, and he still argues with God to try to get his own way. But those incidents become fewer and farther between as he continues to follow God’s lead and becomes more and more in God’s likeness. There is even a point in Moses’ life when the people can literally see God’s Spirit shining in Moses’ face.

That’s the kind of transformation we are called to embody, to move our egos out of the way and to allow the Holy Spirit to do her amazing work in us, until the light of God shines in our faces. God, whose name is “I am who I will be,” calls us to also live into who we will be, right here and right now.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, September 23, 2013

words matter, part 1

That's right, I have so much to say I'm being merciful to my four readers and splitting into two posts.

Words matter. A lot. The words we use contribute to the reality we experience. In some instances, our words even create that reality.

We have become a people who are sloppy with words. We speak and write with unclarity, walking in circles until we've said nearly everything and nothing at the same time.

But sometimes we use words with perfect clarity, and that can be even more disturbing.

Case in point: here are two quotes from news stories from the past week.

1. "While we're not ruling anything out, we do not suspect terrorism."
2. "Dozens killed in a terror attack at Kenyan mall."

The first quote is what was said repeatedly about the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington DC. The second, obviously, is the characterization of the tragedy at the big "new" mall in Nairobi. Both are mass shootings involving more than one gunman. Both were planned and carried out by people who intended to create fear even as they killed as many people as possible.

In other words: they are both terrorism. They were actions meant to create terror.

But we have relegated the word "terrorism" to mean "something foreigners do (to us)" and generally those foreigners are of darker skin tone--only rarely do we classify a light skinned person as a terrorist, and then only if they use a bomb. We have forgotten that the meaning of terrorism is "an act designed to instill fear."

And worse: somewhere along the way, we Americans decided that a mass shooting does not qualify for terrorism. (at least not when it happens here)
Maybe this is because they are so common and we don't want to believe we live in a place plagued with terrorism.
Maybe this is because there are powerful people and many dollars behind the gun lobby, and we don't want to create the impression that gun violence is on par with "real terrorism."

Whatever the case, the two news stories this week--news stories of shocking similarity in other respects--highlight that words matter, and we use them on purpose to create a particular reality. In this case, one shooting is essentially just another in a long line of regrettable but unstoppable tragedies, while another is the target of a multi-trillion-dollar war. Guess which one involved brown people?

I wish I believed that this was evidence of poor use of language, but I think it is evidence of the opposite: very intentional use of language designed to ensure that we remain in our bubble of exceptionalism, where we don't have to deal with the shortcomings of our society as it currently exists.

The people at the Navy Yard, and their families, were terrorized. The people in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where 13 people (including a 3 year old) were shot during a basketball game at the neighborhood park this week, were terrorized. The people of Newtown were terrorized. The people of Aurora CO were terrorized. I could go on (sadly).

The people of our nation are being terrorized every day. Perhaps if we called it what it is, there'd be some action to change?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

blessings to go--a sermon for 22 September 2013 (Narrative Lectionary 4-3)

Rev. Teri Peterson
blessings to go
Genesis 28.10-17 (Genesis 27.1-23, 30-35, 41 in the children's time)
22 September 2013, NL 4-3

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

my personal favorite thin place
In the Celtic tradition, there is a thing called a Thin Place—a place where the distance between earth and heaven is just tissue thin. In Thin Places, the kingdom of God is palpable. Things happen in a Thin Place—people encounter God in amazing ways, are transformed by the Spirit, can sense the power of prayer. Many thin places have become pilgrimage sites, as people throughout the ages have recognized that it is a special place. Some of these places are set apart from normal life, like the Isle of Iona, which is small and remote, while others, like the birthplace of Jesus, have had cathedrals built on them to mark the spot. Whether it’s a place of great natural beauty, or requires a hard pilgrimage to get there, or whether it looks just like any other church or neighborhood park, these thin places are often drenched in the prayers of the cloud of witnesses. And sometimes we discover a Thin Place by accident, and find ourselves in the presence of God when we weren’t seeking much of anything.

The latter is what happened to Jacob. Though later a Temple was built on the site where he turned his stone pillow into a pillar, when he stopped there it was just a spot of ground that looked flat and soft enough to spend the night. As Jacob lays his head on the stone, he sees a connection between earth and heaven, and God’s messengers are coming and going…and suddenly it’s not just a messenger, but God standing there at Jacob’s side, saying the same words God had said to Abraham many years before: “I will be with you wherever you go, and this land will belong to you and your family, for you will be a great nation, and I will bless you so that the whole earth, every person in every family, will experience my blessing because of you.” This is a pretty serious promise—that even as Jacob leaves the promised land and returns to the place from which Abraham had originally come, God is going with him every step of the way, making sure that everyone in the whole earth knows the blessings of God’s grace because of Jacob.

Jacob’s response is exactly right: Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not even know it. This is the Lord’s house, the very gate of heaven.

It was a thin place. The separation between earth and heaven is so thin, we can see across, touch the kingdom, hear God’s voice.

What did Jacob hear in the Thin Place? A blessing. And not just any blessing, but a blessing even more powerful than the one he stole from his brother. You will be a blessing to others, and I will be with you every step of the way.

Now remember that Jacob and Esau were the ultimate sibling rivals. They’d been fighting each other before they were even born, and Jacob used all his skills—his cunning, his cooking, and his mother’s apron strings—to get his way. The reason Jacob is out here at the edge of the promised land, returning to the old country, is because his deceitfulness finally caught up with him and now his brother is mad enough to kill. So why is it that God comes down that ladder and stands next to him and utters this incredible blessing? Isn’t God’s blessing something we have to work for, something we ask for, something we earn with our goodness?


While we have twisted the love of God into something we can get for ourselves, the reality is that God’s grace and promise are a gift, and God is the one who gets to give it. So if God wants to bestow the promise on a completely unworthy lying rascal of a younger brother, God can do that.

Because a blessing is God’s prerogative, not ours. While both we and Jacob are accustomed to asking God to bless what we want—our plans, our nation, our desires—the reality of blessing is that God does it, and waits for us to catch up. So here we find Jacob, not only not turning to God and repenting of all his bad deeds, but running away from the consequences of his part in a dysfunctional system, and expecting his father’s god to go along with the plan. And into that life, a life filled with distrust, fear, and twisted values, God speaks: I will be with you, and because of you everyone in the world will know my blessing.

It doesn’t sound odd to us when God says “I will be with you.” But it was a strange idea—in these days, gods were very geographic. Leaving your land meant leaving your god behind and entering the land of a new god. When Jacob, on the threshold between the promised land and the old land with its old gods, hears these words: “I will be with you,” that’s a new thing. Still he sets up his pillar, and later people build a temple, using the words “this is the very gate of heaven.” But the thing about God going with you is that every place is a thin place. Every place is the very gate of heaven. If we’re looking, we can see the messengers of God coming and going wherever we are. That’s the promise, that is for you and for your children and all whom the Lord our God shall call: that God will be with us, and the whole world will experience God’s blessing through us.

So really, it’s kind of a blessing in a to-go container. It’s not a blessing for what we have already accomplished—Jacob has yet to accomplish anything beyond damaging relationships, hurting people, and running away. It’s not a blessing for what we want to have happen—I suspect Jacob would much rather be safe and comfy in his own tent rather than sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow, on his way to some place he’s never been to meet people he’s never seen. To leave one’s land is dangerous, after all. God’s blessing to go takes us out into the unknown. It takes us into God’s dream, what God imagines could be. It takes us into Thin Places, no matter where we’re standing. This is the grace of a thin place: that God dreams with us even when we have turned our eyes away from the kingdom. This is grace we know in a thin place: that God showers us with the promise even when we are busy insisting on our own way. This is the grace that makes a thin place: That God stands by our side and calls us to be light for the world, God’s blessing to every family of the earth.

May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

view from the X-Millennial bridge

Over the past several months, I have witnessed or been a part of a large number of conversations in which people, often Baby Boomers, lament about "young people." By "young people" they mostly mean everyone under 50, least two generations (X and Millennial) are lumped into that category.

This lament has taken several forms, including but not limited to:

  • young people are entitled, wanting things without working for them.
  • young people are lazy, expecting everything handed to them.
  • young people think they're special, because everyone always got an award.
  • young people are apathetic and don't work for justice.
  • young people don't listen. They think they know everything.
  • young people don't appreciate what we did for them.
  • young people are excluding us. We're still young on the inside!

There have been so many answers to the first several points here, I just don't even think one more blog post is going to matter. So, in short: the economy sucks, the world has changed, and it's no longer possible for most of us to get a job with insurance and a pension and a salary to support a whole family with just a High School diploma or even a Bachelor's degree. We're not lazy, we're working harder than ever just to pay the rent, and putting everything else on the credit card while we pray not to get sick. We're not entitled, we're looking for work that fits in with our two other jobs' schedules. I don't know where you saw everyone getting an award and no scores kept, but that's a fallacy so stop perpetuating it--when we were being noticed at all while you were climbing the career ladder, it was to be taught to play harder and run faster and be better so we could get into the best schools and have the best resumes so we could get a job. Not even a better job than our parents had, just a job, period. We have experienced some of the most competitive and pressure-filled lives, all just to live up to your expectations...only to end up unemployed because *somebody* (ahem) killed the economy and society with their runaway desires and entitlement. (if there are actually younger people, those squarely in the Millennial generation, for instance, who really did grow up with everyone getting an award and no one keeping score, who do you think started that? are you telling me that a whole generation of kids in the most individualistic competitive nation in the world suddenly went all ubuntu on us all by themselves???) And as for the working for justice part: I'm not even going to dignify that with a response beyond this: just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not happening. It means you're controlling the media and don't want to see.

Now, to the last few points, where I really want to focus.

It's hard to listen when any of the above sentiments infuse nearly every sentence.

And when we're being told that "young people" are untrustworthy by the original purveyors of "never trust anyone over 30."

And when we are told we're lazy entitled worthless blobs by the same people who insist they're 30 on the inside.

It ends up feeling like people who realize they are no longer "young adults" are trying desperately to hold on to those glory days (even while still holding basically all the power and all the money and most of the jobs in our country) . Meanwhile, the rest of us are just supposed to wait in the wings until the two older generations have had their fun, lived their dream, found themselves, and gotten everything just how they like it. (but we'll be called lazy while we wait. and entitled for being upset that what we're left with is minimum wage jobs, crushing debt, broken systems, and a ruined planet.)

Let's be realistic: 50 is not the new 30. 50 is the new 50--as in, those of you who are 50 are making 50 brand new, doing 50 the way no one has ever done it before. You can do that without wishing you were 30. And you can do that without insisting that 30 year olds be the same as you were when you were 30 (or that you wish you were when you were 30). Because you know what? 30 is also a new 30.

And while we're at it: it is good and right for people who are experiencing life in a similar cultural and generational cohort to be together. (this is why the Young Clergy Women Project exists--because being a 20-something clergywoman is a very different experience than being a 50-something clergywoman, even if we were both ordained yesterday.) AND it is good and right to have intergenerational friendships, gatherings, and groups--IF those intergenerational gatherings are not primarily about one generation informing another about how they should be/act/think more like the other. (this is why groups like RevGalBlogPals are so important--because clergy of all ages and experience levels can learn and laugh and cry and pray and dream and work together.)

So here's the deal.
We are grateful for the amazing work done by those who've gone before us. We are grateful for the stories we hear and the doors that are open for us in ways they weren't for others. We want to learn from those who have blazed trails. We see that there is still work to be done, and we see where the battle lines have shifted along the way.
And we also recognize that the world today is strikingly different than it was a generation ago. We have other trails to blaze, because we're solidly along some that others worked on for decades. We have a rapidly changing globalized culture and technological reality that takes serious work to navigate. We can't have the same kind of American Dream that previous generations had, if we can have it at all. We don't use the same social outlets, trust the same institutions, or anticipate the same retirement (or any retirement...even if you have been retired since before I was born, that doesn't mean I'll get that...).

So how about everyone stop with the smugness. Every generation has challenges. Every generation learns things that the next generation ends up not needing to know, and forgets things that will be necessary to survival someday down the road. Every generation has amazing victories and horrifying mistakes that will echo down through the lives of the future. And every generation must see and create change--because if we keep doing the same things the same way, that's insane. Things change. The world has changed and is changing. 

Please: if you hear yourself starting with "we used to...", stop and ask what's changed since you used to do that. If you hear yourself going down the "I'm not old!" road, stop and ask why it bothers you to allow young adults to exist without you among them. Why does it matter so much that you're in a new life stage with all its attendant possibility (and, realistically, power and influence and relative wealth)? In other words: why do you insist that "young people today" need to "grow up/mature" but you don't? And young people: if you feel the eye-roll coming on, squash the urge and instead listen to the stories. 99% of stories contain a nugget that can work its way into the 21st century framework, or a thought that can break open a problem, or an experience that shines light on the next part of the road--IF you listen with the right lens.

this post probably sounds angry. I've written and deleted it half a dozen times over the last few months, but the conversations I've seen both on news articles and in groups I'm a part of lately pushed me over the edge. I am tired of people refusing to relinquish the adjective "young" even as they trash young adults, all while ignoring some serious economic and cultural realities. So I guess this is my really long way of saying SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE? SERIOUSLY. In my best 80s kid voice: can't we all just get along? Or is it literally impossible for people who wish they were still young to move on without ripping everyone else to shreds? Because that's what's happening here. One generation is building itself up by tearing the next down. just stop it already. (or, as I said in my sermon on Sunday: It is not okay for us to sacrifice one another on any altar. Not even the altar of our own whitewashed memory or the altar of our own self-esteem.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wednesday Interesting--so much good stuff!

Since the internet is down at church--yes, still--I'm going ahead and posting this now, in hopes that other people do in fact have the beautiful time-sucking internet that will enable you to enjoy all this great stuff.

First, a disclaimer: I am in serious news fatigue. So it's true that this week things that I find interesting are mostly not about Syria, Egypt, gun violence, the economy, generation-bashing, etc. I just need a break so I can continue to care passionately about all those things.

So here we go.

Where's the octopus? This is seriously awesome. I had no idea octopi could do this. Watch both the edited video and the raw footage and let nature blow your mind for a minute.

This is super cool and totally worth contemplating, O Church and Other Institutions That People Associate With Buildings....

Is your church, club, non-profit, social organization, or other group wondering where the young people are? (answer: probably yes, because that's what we love to wring our hands about right now.) Well, here are some surefire ways to get rid of them forever.

I can often be heard talking about brain development, so I found this very interesting. I don’t have beautiful handwriting, though I envy those who do. But when it comes to things that enhance our ability to learn, I am all about that. One of my pet peeves about education as I see it playing out right now is that it is not about learning to learn, it is about learning to test. :-( so…save cursive!

This docu-mercial is scarily real. Though I wonder: what does it say about the world that this is coming from a chain of fast food restaurants???????? of course, would be even better if they then decided to be a vegetarian restaurant, to stop that poor cow from a horrible death…. 

Last week I attempted to fix my toilet. The floaty-arm thing had broken off. Everyone I know said it would be easy. I got the part, took the stuff in the tank apart, and when installing the new piece, discovered that it did not fit. Another late-night trip to the store (thank you, Lowe's, for being open until 10pm and for your employees being nice to me at 9:50pm) resulted in a whole new inside-the-tank assembly thing...the store guys and the box said it would take 15 minutes. 2 hours and many tears later, I had a functioning, though accidentally low-flow/water-saving, toilet, that only leaks a little bit. Part of the issue? Instructions that look basically like these.

And, last but not least for today: