Tuesday, December 24, 2013

advent, christmas, kitties, new stuff, weather, and travel

Because apparently I don't blog when I think about it, so then I have to cram everything into random dots.

*Advent = awesome. At church we got the new hymnal just before Advent, which gave us SEVEN verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel to sing. Love it. Add that to the Advent Wreath and its ever-evolving decorations to match the Elemental theme (fire, air, water, earth) and we have a recipe for fabulous.
*I confess that I didn't manage to keep up with every day of the ReThink Church advent photo-a-day project, but I did many, and I've loved getting emails and FB posts with other people's. We put them on a bulletin board outside the sanctuary. So great.
*Book group this month was children's Christmas books shared over the best hot chocolate ever. Love the Book Group.
*Of course, the weather has been ridiculous this month, and between that and all the insanity of life, I've definitely had more than my fair share of days when I'd really rather just stay in bed. If not for hungry cats, a great therapist, and interesting work I might have just hibernated for the whole season…

*Christmas also = awesome, and it hasn't even technically started yet. The Live Nativity was super fun, complete with Kelijah the camel.
*My dad (yes, I know you're reading this, dad) only managed to open one of his presents early and without warning (dad! who opens boxes they didn't order during December??), and to spot one of them and know what it was before my brother could intercept and wrap.
*A dear friend sent me a new board game that I can't wait to play…someone come over and play Forbidden Desert with me, seriously.
*I ate about a pound of fudge while making bulletins for January.
*And soon…very soon, in fact, TONIGHT, I'll be on a plane to a place where the temperature is more than 80 degrees warmer than it is here. Because here it is below zero, and there it is 79 degrees. See you in 14 hours, southern california!

And now to pack…if I can keep the kitties out of the suitcase. :-)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Speaking Love--a sermon for 22 December (NL4-16)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Speaking Love
John 1.1-18
22 December 2013, Advent 4, NL 4-16

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

I think my favorite part of the Live Nativity on Friday night was watching children as they realized that Kelijah the Camel was real and alive, not just a prop. It’s not every day that we get to be up close and personal with such a large exotic animal, and Kelijah played his part very well. He was gorgeous and friendly, posed for pictures and endured our squeals, whispers, giggles, and awe. And most of all, he was real.

There’s lots in our world that isn’t real. We’re used to photoshopped people and food grown in a lab. We’re used to being marketed to and we’ve learned to see through many of the messages and images that bombard us every day. Even reality TV isn’t real, and we know it. So to see something so amazing as a real live camel, in the flesh, and not just behind a fence at the zoo, is an incredible opportunity. It’s a reminder to us all that there’s something about in-the-flesh reality that still matters, even in our technological age.

And the word became flesh and lived among us.

Not just a god far away, pulling strings and pushing buttons, sending hardship to some while smoothing the path for others, this god is the real deal. God is not content to stay in heaven, looking down and laughing or crying at the things we do. God does not want to be just another photoshopped advertisement or domesticated idea—God comes to earth, in the flesh, and is real. Walking, talking, moving, eating, drinking, laughing, crying, real.

John says “and we have seen his glory”—which I interpret as oohing and aahing, squealing and gasping like children seeing just how big a camel really is, up close and personal. No one has ever seen God…except that we have, because the Word made flesh is God, visible and available and living right here, on earth, with us. Living a human life, struggling human struggles, walking the same ground and breathing the same air and drinking the same water.

Imagine how much God must care for the earth and all its people, to take up residence right here, in a frail human body in the midst of a fragile ecosystem. I mean, God could always just make a new planet and call a new people. God has the creative power to start over. God has the destructive power to start over, too. Yet God has promised not to destroy again, but rather to make a new heaven and a new earth in the most incredible way: by walking around on the old one and teaching and healing and reconciling until it’s like new. That’s an incredible commitment to physicality, there—a commitment to the human body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a commitment to life, a commitment to the creation in all its glory and messiness and confusion and wonder. God is invested in the world—for God so loved the world that he came to walk on it and live in it and save it—the whole shebang.

These verses at the beginning of the gospel according to John are often called The Prologue—they are like an overture in a musical. Actually all the Christmas stories are like this— just as we hear all the major tunes in the overture, the prologue and the birth stories give us the themes, in little snippets and hints, of what the rest of the show will be like. While John doesn’t give us shepherds or wise men, he does give us a hint of what’s to come, and it’s perfect as we think about how God is preparing us, and preparing the world, for the coming of Christ:

In the beginning was the Word, and all things came into being through him, and the Word was life and light of all people.

Last week at the potluck I asked what that word might have been, and the first answer was Love. By speaking Love, God brought the world into being, and Love was the life and light of all people.

Since we know from elsewhere in scripture that God Is Love, this seems like a good word to be the root of all things.

How might we be changed if the word at the center of this busy season was Love?

How might the world be different if the word behind everything we said was Love?

What would our lives look like if the root of every action, at the mall, at work, at home, at school, at church, and everywhere in between, was Love?

This is the part where normally I’d offer some suggestions. But I think one of the things that would be different is that Love would speak in each of our own heart languages, our own life choices, and outside all our different sized comfort zones. So today I invite you to think outside the box about how God’s word of Love is preparing you for the next step on the journey—because I can’t think it for you, or pray it for you, or be open to it for you, or follow the call for you. I can only ask the question:

What if God is preparing the world by insisting on love, by speaking love—even to us, and even to them? What if God is preparing us by shining the kind of light that only love can bring? Last night was the longest night of the year—are we willing to step into the light? Or will we continue to believe that love is just a nice feeling and some things and some people aren’t worthy of it?

Because here’s the thing: this Word become flesh, this Love made visible and tangible, is not about a feeling. It’s not all warm-fuzzies-baby-in-a-manger. That baby grows up and will say things we don’t really want to hear. The Christ child grows up to turn everything upside down, and that turning is what will reveal God right here in our midst. This overture gives us a hint, but when we dig into John’s gospel in the coming months we will find that God-with-us will shine light in places we’d rather keep dark, and will speak truth we find uncomfortable, and will behave in ways that are contrary to everything we thought we knew. The Word won’t stay in the manger. The Word became a human being, and will refuse to be a prop in our play—this is God the real thing. This love will demand things of us, because God refuses to be just words on a page, just ideas in a sermon, just in our heads. Word made flesh means that the Word also takes up residence in our flesh—no more can we simply believe things about God, because will not be trapped in thoughts. God is in a body, and in our bodies, and this fleshy word changes everything.

And let’s not forget that we are created in the image of God, so we also have the power to speak and create. Our words can bring light and life, or they can bring darkness and pain. We can testify to Love, or we can remain silent and complicit in a world of dark indifference. The Spirit can speak through our voices, or we can insist on sticking to our own script. We have the power to become children of God—to use our words to shine God’s light, to allow the fullness of grace to overflow through us.

With that power of speech comes great responsibility—to use that power for good, to ensure that every word and every action is Love. Not everyone will choose that way, for some prefer the darkness, but this is how we know a disciple of Jesus: Love. This is how God is made known—through the Word, speaking all things into being, making God visible, Love taking on flesh and living with us. And we are the body of Christ.

May it be so.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Yesterday at church we got a call from a young man who was looking for a place he could do 10 hours of community service. Before Thursday.

And already at this point in the story, everyone to whom I've told it has made some assumptions about this young man.

When I add in his name, which (let's just say) is not a "typical American name" (even though it is), the assumptions solidify. If I told you his skin color, we wouldn't even need to say anything more beyond "required community service" and we'd have a complete picture in our minds.

This is problematic on so many levels.

We'll start with just two things:
1. When did community service become a punishment? And why? I have so many issues with that. Probably its own blog post.

2. Why is our first assumption--often our only assumption--that this young man must have gotten into trouble?

I remember being about his age and filling out my National Honor Society paperwork. At the last minute. And looking at the requirement for community service hours and wondering how to pull that off.

I remember being in seminary and filling out paperwork about myself and wondering if something I technically got paid for, but badly, could still count as "service to the wider church."

A couple of years ago the youth group was doing an Earth Day service project cleaning up trash in a local park, and nearly every conversation we had with community members using the park was about kids "serving their time," not about kids giving back or kids being good citizens or kids caring about their community. Afterward the youth and I talked about that feeling of being stared at like they're criminals, and the assumption that the only reason they would go clean up a city park is because they were paying off some kind of debt to society.

It's possible that this young man needs community service hours for a scholarship, for a Boy Scout requirement, for a club at school, or for his own church. Or it's possible that he's been in trouble--whether of his own volition or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Why is one of those our go-to thought? (and let's not pretend it isn't…every conversation I've had about this situation has made clear what people's first thoughts are. Even mine, I regret to say.)

A few years ago I was at a David LaMotte event where he said something about "at risk youth" and how that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because at-risk always means something bad. No one is ever at risk of being awesome.

What if we--ESPECIALLY those of us in the church, who have been admonished to think about whatever is good, to look for the image of God in one another, to bear one another's burdens--what if we first assumed people were at risk of being awesome?

That's a prophecy I'd love to see fulfill itself. And when this young man comes back to church after school today for another 3 hours, I plan to make sure he knows that's what I expect. :-)

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Not Another Zombie Movie--a sermon for December 8 2013

Rev. Teri Peterson
Not Another Zombie Movie
Ezekiel 37.1-14
8 December 2013, Advent 2, NL 4-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

a costume is one thing...
I have to confess to you that I’m not much of a zombie fan. The craze of zombie apocalypse preparation, which has even reached the CDC, has me rolling my eyes. I mean, honestly, the science behind the whole zombie thing is a little ridiculous—just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I’m much more of a vampire girl.

But I will admit that zombies and vampires share some similarities, at least in the classic forms (Twilight is a whole other thing completely outside the usual lore, so we’ll leave them out of it). Most obviously, of course: they’re both dead, or rather undead. They walk, talk, and have survival instincts, and in many ways act much like normal people, with feelings, thoughts, and even relationships.

But the undead are different from the living in one major way:

They don’t breathe.
That’s how we know that God didn’t take Ezekiel down and dump him in the middle of a zombie army: because the vision begins and ends with breath.

Ezekiel wrote to people in exile—people who had been taken from everything they knew, whose homes and Temple and lives had been destroyed, people who were certain that they were alone, abandoned, hopeless. These are the people who gave us the lament “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The light had gone out from their eyes, the songs had fled from their lips, and they may as well have been dried up and dead. Ezekiel’s vision begins in a mass grave, the bones jumbled together and dried out, no possibility left.

Sometimes life feels like that. Hopefully not all the time, but at some point in most of our lives, the darkness seems impenetrable. Possibilities dry up. Grief clouds our vision. We long for the way things used to be. We miss family and friends who are no longer with us. We can’t understand what is happening in the world, in our nation, in our church. Nothing is turning out like we imagined. We look back at the good old days, not just to reminisce but also to grieve for our dreams, which may not have come true.

This happens in our individual lives, and our communal life. Sometimes it can feel like the church is in exile—somewhere along the way, we stepped off the path, or the path moved and we didn’t notice, and now we can’t see how to get back. We are tired, burning out, and wonder when it’s our turn to rest and someone else’s turn to do all the things church is supposed to do. All we can see is what was, and in comparison what is or what might be are just not worth singing about.

Into that dark nostalgia, the Spirit of God blows like wind. Last week I said that Advent may be the season when God is preparing us, rather than only a season when we are preparing for God. This vision of Ezekiel’s is exactly that: a story of God preparing the people. It takes several steps, though—like any good thing, it’s worth waiting for, but the waiting can be the hardest part.
The first step is that God pulls this jumbled mess of bones together, bone to its bone, in the right order so they can be whole. But just a complete skeleton is still not a body. Sure, we might have all the right pieces, but that doesn’t make us ready.
The second step is God putting flesh and sinews—holding together the bones with tendons and ligaments, muscles and fat, organs and tissues. Bones by themselves aren’t much use, really. They only stick together if they’re immobilized, like in a museum. This second step makes movement possible, so we’re not a museum piece, but still not a whole body either—though it’s starting to look familiar!
The third step is God covering the bodies with skin. The largest organ in the body, skin not only holds everything in, but protects too. We may want to get moving, but without skin the body is susceptible to injury, infection, and falling apart. This step in the preparation may be uncomfortable, because we don’t like boundaries. But without them, viruses multiply and pieces fall out.
At this point, stuck together with all the right pieces, we’re chomping at the bit, ready to go! This is the moment most of us as both individuals and churches get to, and then we’re off. We look like the body, feel like the body, and feel perfectly put together and prepared. Three steps is just right for our attention span and for our capacity for waiting for God to get to work already.

So we walk around, doing things, trying our best, and still can’t figure out why people aren’t flocking to churches or why there’s a budget deficit or where the families are going. We listened when God called us together, so how come things still aren’t the way they used to be, when pews and classrooms and offering plates overflowed? God promised to restore us, so why aren’t we reliving the good old days yet?

Because at just three steps, that valley is full of zombies. And zombies are, by definition, living in the past.

At this point in the process, we’re not jumbled up skeletons, but not full of life either. That’s still exile. Yes, we go about our daily lives, we do what we’ve always done, we get by…but there’s nothing transformative happening. It’s just day in and day out. We don’t experience life, we’re not touched or changed, we just…are. Just exist. The Israelites in exile seem to have swung between these two positions—dried up and hopeless, and just waiting out life without expectation.

But as scripture tells us over and over, God is a God of the living, not the dead, and not the undead. God’s promise is not just that we’ll walk through life, but that we’ll breathe life. God’s promise is not just that the bones will organize into skeletons and be covered with flesh and skin, but that they will be filled with breath, coming from the four winds, blowing into their bodies and hearts and minds and souls so that they can love God and love their neighbor with everything they’ve got. God’s promise is not that we’ll be undead, God’s promise is Everlasting Life Abundant, even when we can’t see how it’s possible.

And we know God keeps promises. Every time. Even impossible ones.

The Hebrew word for breath is ruach, the same word that’s translated as wind and as spirit. When the wind blows, that’s the breath of God. When we breathe, that’s the Spirit of God filling our bodies. The very air we breathe, in other words, is God’s presence, God’s promise, God’s hope, entering our lungs and our blood stream. When God tells Ezekiel to call the breath from the four winds, that’s the Spirit that comes rushing in, bringing life and hope and possibility and love.

In this season of Advent, we need to take the time to wait for the fourth step, to wait for God to do the most amazing thing, to prepare us not just by putting us together as the Body of Christ, but to breathe life into that body, to transform us from a walking corpse into a living, breathing, transforming, glorious body. The church is not meant to be zombies, but too often we human beings want to take things into our own hands rather than waiting for what the Spirit is doing in the church, or in the world, or in our own lives. Or worse, we don’t want to be transformed, because we like the way things are just fine, and change is hard, and we can’t imagine how it’ll work, and what if it’s not good for me?

Here’s what I know: God’s vision is always better than mine. God’s dream is always more glorious than mine. God’s work is always more meaningful than what I imagine on my own. And to breathe the Spirit is always going to be better than the anxiety and fear and frustration of not breathing at all. I dislike waiting as much as the next person. I hate not being in control. I don’t like the feelings brought on by change any more than you do. Letting God prepare me can be painful even as I see it’s for the best. And I also see in scripture and in history and even right here among us that God is way better at this than I am. And if my options are to go through the motions like a zombie or to feel the stretch and burn of God’s breath in my lungs, I’ll take the breath of life anytime.

The first sentence God gives to Ezekiel is “I will cause breath to enter you” and the last is “I will put my Spirit within you.” This is the good news, grace upon grace: from the four winds come the four steps of Advent preparation, if only we will wait, and listen, and open ourselves to the winds of the Spirit. No longer a jumble of bones, no longer zombies, but life in all its fullness, transforming into the Body of Christ so that the world can be transformed into the kingdom of God. May the wind blow. Amen.