Saturday, November 30, 2013

out of the fire, life--a sermon for December 1 2013

Rev. Teri Peterson
out of the fire, life
Daniel 3.1, 8-30
1 December 2013, NL 4-13, Advent 1

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.
 Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live for ever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’
 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
 Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.
 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’ So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them. Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.’ Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Here we are—the first day of Advent. Today we enter the season of waiting and preparation, the season of trying to hold together both the cultural trappings of the Christmas season and the spiritual importance of waiting in the darkness. It’s not easy, living in this tension. One minute, we’re giving thanks for all the blessings God has given us, the next minute, we’re jockeying in the crowd, trying not to get run over by a reindeer as we search for the best deal. One day we’re singing in a minor key, longing for God’s light to break into the world again, and the next we’re humming Jingle Bells and eating Christmas cookies. But regardless of how difficult it can be, this season matters. Learning to live with both the Christmas cheer and the Advent stillness is important. Looking for the spark of God’s light in the darkness takes practice, and will serve us well when cheerfulness runs out and we’re left wondering what to do next.

Very few people enjoy waiting, though. It feels simultaneously like a waste of time and like hard work. And yet there’s a whole season of the church year dedicated to the practice of waiting on God, getting ready for God’s next surprise, sitting with the stillness until we hear the whisper in the silence. This year I encourage you to be intentional about your looking—keep an eye out for what God might be doing during your regular day. One way to do that is with a practice like the photo-a-day prompt: each day there’s a word, and you take a picture that illustrates that word for you. Think of it as an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens, and maybe see the Spirit moving in unexpected ways.

This is the season of the unexpected. Keep alert, and who knows what you might see.

Nebuchadnezzar saw God and was so surprised he sprang out of his chair in a most un-kingly way. He was a powerful man, used to getting his way. He had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered the Israelites into exile. He sat in Babylon, building an extravagant city on the backs of slaves and paying for it with equally extravagant taxation. He led a fearsome army, expanding his empire by conquering land and dividing populations until they were so intermingled with each other that they couldn’t possibly rise up and fight back. Nebuchadnezzar made the rules, and everyone always fell in line.

Until they didn’t.

It’s hard to not get what we want. For Nebuchadnezzar, it was unthinkable. He’d been born to the throne, spent his whole life with people obeying him, and if necessary he simply took what he wanted by force. The effect on other people didn’t matter to him—he kept his eyes on the prize and never looked at the people he trampled along the way.

This sounds like a familiar story. Perhaps we don’t do this as individuals, but it’s a common theme among nations and corporations, and we do participate in those systems that claw their way to the top with no regard for the welfare of the people involved. Even our language is designed to make them invisible—we say “the poor” “the needy” “the homeless” and “the disabled,” we talk about “diabetics” and “the mentally ill,” and we forget that these are people, with names and stories and hopes and dreams and families, not a condition. We forget that it’s a person who is poor, a person who has diabetes, a person who lives with a disability, and their worth is not defined by their circumstance. It’s a short mental hop from talking about people in this way to actually seeing a condition or a category rather than seeing a person. So often brown skin makes us defensive and wheelchairs evoke pity and a straggly beard or dirty fingernails arouse our suspicion. Meanwhile we’re hunting for the bargain even when we know that the people who make our products or grow our food do so under horrifying conditions and for very little pay. We know that the water and air are being polluted and people are being exploited, and we want what we want and won’t be swayed.

Sometimes it seems as if Nebuchadnezzar lives on in the systems we humans have put in place to ensure that those in power can always get what they want, no matter the cost to others. We confess our complicity in these systems, the ways we benefit from injustice, and we wait for the coming kingdom of God that will make all things new.

And in this season of preparation, this seems like a perfect story to read. Because usually we like to think of Advent as the time when we prepare. We scurry around trying to get ready. We do our best to declutter our souls as we declutter our houses, and we prepare our inner houses to receive the Christ child by decorating and baking just the same way we prepare our houses for a party. But what if Advent is the time when God prepares? What if God is the one doing the work, getting us ready? We know that in the relationship between God and the world, God is always the initiator. Why would Advent be different? The world needs some preparation, sure—but to think we can do that under our own steam makes us more Nebuchadnezzar-like than ever, insisting that we can do it, we can get what we want, we can force things to go our way.

What we find here is that God did something amazing—God showed up, walked through the fire, and changed Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, mind, policies, and personal behavior. And with that preparation, a little bit more light shone through the darkness.

We usually read this story in a way that casts us as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We’re supposed to stand up for what is right, even at great cost. We’re supposed to trust God to deliver us from every trial, to walk with us through the fire and the flood, to protect us and constantly be by our side. And that is an important message—one we need to hear over and over again, that God can be trusted, that God shows up, that we can act on God’s promise, that we too can walk out of the fire without even the smell of smoke clinging to our clothes.

But honestly I think most of the time we’re Nebuchadnezzar. We want what we want, when we want it, and we’ll do just about anything to get it. And just like Nebuchadnezzar, when God shows up, we too can find ourselves changed, turned 180 degrees around to a new way of being in the world. This story points to things we’d rather not see about ourselves, which is the first preparatory step in any transformation—to see clearly what is. Like any self examination, it burns like fire. But this fire is not destructive, it’s creative and refining, preparing the soil to receive the seeds, and what walks out of the fire is life that grows into the kingdom of God.

May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

water flows downhill--a sermon for November 10 2013

Rev. Teri Peterson
water flows downhill
Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
10 November 2013, NL 4-10, stewardship commitment

The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.
And he said:

The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.
Seek good and not evil, that you may live;

and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said. 

Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;

it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

As soon as I realized that this Amos reading was going to come up on Stewardship Commitment Sunday, I began dreaming of a skit. Unfortunately, in my mind the skit has only two lines, and therefore is not very good. But the two lines are amazing! So picture it with me—Amos shouts at the top of his lungs, on behalf of God: “I hate your festivals and I don’t care about your perfect services. I’m not interested in your burnt offerings, I won’t accept your grain offerings…” and then a member of the Stewardship ministry team would pop up in their seats and interrupt with “but we always accept cash!”

It’s been hard to imagine how to tie together the prophet thundering about people whose actions in the Temple don’t match their actions outside the Temple, leading to the rejection of their worship and their offerings, with a plea for all of you to prayerfully consider your financial and time-commitment pledge to the ministry of this church in the coming year. After all, we are a church with a surprisingly high level of involvement already. So high, in fact, that we are also experiencing a high rate of burnout. One of the phrases I hear around here is “we do a lot with a little.” Which is true—God has done amazing things through us, even though we do not have the same level of resources to offer that other churches might. God can work with any offering, right?

Amos seems to be saying that “can” and “will” are not necessarily the same thing. Yes, God can work with any offering to do amazing things. Whether or not God will work with an offering is a different question. It seems to matter whether the people worship and give offerings because they think they’re supposed to, because they think they’re sacrificing something that belongs to them, because they want to ensure a ticket to heaven…or because it’s important to their relationship with God and others in the community.

Amos spoke to a kingdom on the brink—a wealthy community that could not see the disaster looming, just a few years before their kingdom would be destroyed and the people taken into exile. Like any community, not everyone was wealthy. Not everyone had access to the same resources, the same schools or hospitals or services. Some were growing fat while others starved. Some sat around all day—Amos calls them fat cows, actually, in a previous chapter—while others worked their fingers to the bone just to feed their children. The wealth disparity was unacceptably large. And Amos brought the word of the Lord right into the comfortable living rooms, spas, and board rooms of the day. Naturally, everyone agreed with him—something must be done, justice is important, we should donate for a soup kitchen. Justice, as a concept, is great. We can all get on board.

When Amos started asking people to act differently, to give of themselves, to change their ways…that’s when things started to go downhill. Because while the concept of justice is amazing, the actual doing of justice requires something of us. It requires us to look at the world and ourselves in a different way. It requires us to leave those comfy living rooms and not just text a $10 donation to the Red Cross but to ask hard questions about why people are hungry or homeless or susceptible to extreme weather or facing situations of daily violence, and then to take action to change the system that creates those situations. Why are there people burning out in our community? Why are people feeling bullied in our schools, churches, and workplaces? Why do we care more for some than for others? How do we respond when faced with someone’s story? What does justice look like when we think about how we talk about, or to, one another? When we think about the difference between “us” who sit in the pew and “them” who sleep downstairs on Wednesday evening?

God’s justice is demanding. God’s call to do justice will not allow us to simply sit back and send a check once a quarter. God’s call asks for much more than that, something more fundamental. After all, the Israelites fulfilled their religious duties—they showed up for mandated festivals, they sang songs, they gave all the right offerings. They figured that doing their Sunday duty meant they could do whatever they wanted the rest of the week—almost like a bribe. If they paid their dues, then God would look the other way while they trampled on the poor, ignored those in need, and worked their way to the top without any regard for the consequences. If they were members in good standing, it didn’t matter how they treated one another or how they used their influence in the community.

The reading for today ends with “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Throughout the Bible, justice usually refers to a reversal that creates parity. It involves both lifting up and pulling down, simultaneously. It requires us to let go of a bit, so others can have enough. Because the abundance God promises is just that—enough for everyone. As the preacher William Sloane Coffin said, “It is one thing to stand with the prophets of old and call for justice to roll down like the mighty waters, it is quite another to design the irrigation system.” While we might prefer to think of justice in a criminal justice sense, or in a fairness sense, or (more realistically) as revenge, God’s justice is almost always talked about as economic, and almost always about having enough, not a ton. This is one of the reasons giving is such an important spiritual practice—because really: God has given us everything we have, and in gratitude we pay it forward. We offer our money and our time back to the work God is doing. But make no mistake: it will cost more than we probably want to give. God has big plans and big vision, and we can see in Amos that those plans will not be thwarted simply because the Israelites offered the bare minimum, or even what seemed like a nice amount. God wants relationship, wants justice, wants the kingdom to be visible, even in our days, and our participation is required, even if it’s not comfortable.  

Which sounds, honestly, like a recipe for burnout. And while the prophets were invested in reminding people that God expects better, no one wants to see people or communities drown in shame over not being able to do more. We may need to assess what exactly is being done and whether it furthers God’s kingdom of justice and peace, but the actual activity level is not always the question.

Rigteousness, on the other hand, is a more complicated word. Our culture has twisted it into self-righteousness, but the word actually means “to be in right relationship with.” So Amos begs that we step into the ever flowing stream of right relationship—with God and one another. Right relationship means that every word is infused with God’s grace, that we are trustworthy, that betrayal and gossip are rare. Right relationship means we care for one another regardless of what we will get out of it, or who the person might be. Right relationship means we spend time with God and with each other, listening more than justifying. Right relationship means talking directly to one another when we have a disagreement, and refusing to listen to unhelpful rumor. Right relationship means that we treat every single person as a beloved child of God. Because you know what? That’s what each of us is—beloved. To be in right relationship with one another means that we all know that love from each other and from God. This relationship can’t exist alongside injustice, because justice is ultimately also about treating one another as beloved. In fact, all the acts of justice and words of truth are pointless if we do not love as God loves. Paul says we are nothing but noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, no matter what we say or do, if the reason behind everything is anything other than love—anything other than a right relationship with God and our neighbor.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Notice that those are things that happen on their own, as long as we don’t stop them. Only when we build a dam does the water stop flowing downhill. God’s justice and righteousness, God’s love and peace, God’s grace—they are the way things are, a law of nature…so what are the dams we need to dismantle?

As long as we continue to add stones to the dam, our offerings and worship will not be so different from those of Amos’s people. Our songs, our prayers, our giving—these are designed to increase justice and righteousness, not to stop it. They are supposed to offer us a new way of living, a way that looks like God’s kingdom. They are disciplines—things we practice because we are disciples. We don’t always get it right any more than Jesus’ disciples did. But that is no reason to stop practicing! So we lift our voices, we sit closer together, we pray and we listen, we put our checks in the offering plate or set up our recurring online-bill-pay—not because we think that makes God love us more, not because we consider it the ticket to being a better person or punch on our hell-escape card, not because coming to church makes us Christians, but because they are part of our discipline, our practice as following in God’s way. That practice extends to every aspect of life—in every place where God has given us something, we are called to offer it back: money, time, energy, blessings, relationships, hope, love. If this hour in this room is the only place we practice, we will surely find Amos’s words ringing in our ears as we close the doors. If this hour in this room is the time we gather courage to start taking stones out of the dam on the river of righteousness, we just might find that the kingdom of God is at hand.

May it be so. Amen.