Monday, June 30, 2014

yoked--a reflection for July 6

(published in the Abingdon 2014 Creative Preaching Annual)

Matthew 11.25-30

Few of us use yokes anymore—we often have to explain that a yoke is equipment used to hitch animals together and to something else, such as a plow. Machines do so much of our farming, and so few people work the land, that a yoke is an antique, a museum piece, not an everyday item.

However, for Jesus and the people in his community, the yoke was both everyday and held double meaning. The most obvious is the agricultural, but there was also the example of Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?” (v. 6, NRSV) A yoke is a system, often a system of bondage—whether that system is economic, political, or intellectual. Sometimes people are put under the yoke by an oppressive power, as the Israelites had been by the Babylonians, or as they were under the Romans. Sometimes the yoke is a choice—by choosing to follow a particular teacher, one took his yoke upon oneself. The yoke was the system of teachings, the teacher’s philosophy. And sometimes a system that should be life-giving—like the Torah—is turned into an oppression, as we see with the wise and intelligent—the Pharisees and the scribes—who have made the good law of God into a religious and political system that oppresses people and needs to be broken.

So Jesus calls all of us who are caught in those systems, especially those weary of following all 613 laws to the letter and still wondering about the grace of God, especially those who believe God’s love has to be earned, to come to him and trade that yoke for another.

I always thought the point of breaking the oppressive yoke was to be free. But we all know that isn’t exactly true—as Bob Dylan said, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” The question is: will we be yoked to the letter of the law? To the economic and political system? Yoked to our possessions? Social status? Desires? Yoked to our limited understanding of God, or to what we think the good life looks like? Or will we slip into the empty side of Jesus’ yoke and partner with him in the work God has in mind for the world?

When a farmer has a new animal to train, the new animal is yoked together with an experienced one. That way the new animal learns the way while the experienced one carries most of the burden. Eventually the new animal becomes so experienced that it follows the way willingly, and finds the work easy, the burden light.

Are we willing to take Jesus’ yoke upon us? Are we willing to submit, knowing it means we cannot continue to pull our other burdens (however much they may look like blessings), to walk with Jesus until we are so trained that our lives won’t go any other way?

Monday, June 16, 2014

a well of laughter--a reflection for June 22

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Genesis 21.8-21

Isaac received his name because he caused laughter in his parents’ lives. It seems that laughter is restricted, though, since when Ishmael laughs, it causes not happiness but rage. Sarah sees Ishmael and Hagar laughing and feasting as they celebrate Isaac’s weaning, and it is too much to bear. Though Ishmael exists only because Sarah gave her slave Hagar as a concubine for Abraham, and though his status as second-wife’s-son is below Isaac’s, he is still the firstborn, and his laughter cuts into Sarah’s heart.

So out they must go, out into the desert with only a little food and a day’s water. If Hagar had doubts about this God of Abraham’s, they have been confirmed now—this is a God who cares only for his own kind, not for outsiders or those who are mistreated. She will have no part in the covenant God is making with his people—she is literally and figuratively cast out. Her last meeting with God had resulted in instructions to put up with Sarah’s abuse (Gen. 16), and now she must know for certain that this is a God who not only allows but encourages pain, grief, and heartache. It seems unlikely she (or anyone else who feels outside of grace) would be interested in adding this kind of God to her already heavy desert burden.

Finally God takes notice…of Ishmael’s cries. Never mind that Hagar has been lifting her voice in grief and despair too, God has heard the cries of her son and remembered that promise to make him a great nation as well, to pay heed to his status as Abraham’s son even if no one else will. That paternity is what will save Hagar as well as Ishmael. By this point Hagar must be wondering if she matters at all—a foreigner with dark skin and different language, a slave turned concubine, an outcast. God’s messenger has even had the audacity to ask “what’s wrong?” What isn’t wrong? God is making covenant partners and has left her out, casting her aside into the desert. Is there any good news to be had?

There is a well. And actually, the presence of shrubs under which to place a child also means the presence of water. The haze of grief and despair can sometimes cloud our vision, but even so God offers what we need. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees her well of salvation right in front of her, and she is strengthened to go on, to find a way forward as a part of God’s great story, rather than as a footnote. How often do we resign ourselves to the bit part, eyes closed to the possibility of good news or clouded by resentment and despair of injustice ever being overcome? There is a well, even in the desert, for those whose eyes are open to see, and perhaps there will be laughter too.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


Today, this happened:
 and then...
I couldn't get the actual moment because when I did it for 99,000, I got busted by a FB friend for snapping the photo while driving...

It's a little ridiculously exciting. This is my first very-own car, finally paid off almost 2 years ago now. And now I'm filling up the odometer! Lots of places gone, people seen, trips taken.

Getting to this moment made me think of this awesome story from Snap Judgment. Except that I was alone in my car, and there's no one to turn those miles over with me. Except you, oh bloggies. So imagine those miles, these last few miles spent on US highway 14, sometimes called Northwest Highway. I drive it almost every day, to work with and for the people who make up a life with me. It's a stay-together ride.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

attitude adjustment--a sermon for June 1 (Philippians 2)

Rev. Teri Peterson
attitude adjustment
Philippians 2.1-13
1 June 2014, Easter 7, NL4-39

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that someone I knew from my clarinet-playing days had just been appointed principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. He’d already been principal at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and had played at President Obama’s first inauguration, and was well known as being one of the best clarinet players of our time. And still it caught me off guard a bit—to think that someone my age could be in such a prominent position in such a competitive arena. Of course, when Ingrid and I talked about it she noted that we’re not young anymore—people our age are doing amazing things all over the place, as they should be!

Then this weekend, several young clergy women were talking about how it feels now that some of our classmates seem to be pulling ahead of the pack on the career ladder, with people our age and younger getting called to be senior pastors at large churches. One person started a conversation wondering why some people climb that ladder while she doesn’t—even though she feels called to one day be in a big church.

Church size is also pretty common conversation among both church members and pastors—we all want our churches to grow, to be successful in the eyes of the world, to have plenty of money and more than enough people to do great things. Often those conversations involve comparing one church to another, wondering how to be like others, how to copy what they’re doing or climb the size ladder.

Meanwhile, I was thinking about Paul’s teaching in the second chapter of Philippians. Remember he is writing from prison, to a church that is thriving under Lydia’s patronage and leadership. Last week we heard him exhorting us to remember our place in God’s vision: we are workers, not master builders, sidekicks to the greatest hero. Now we hear him telling us to think of others as better than ourselves, to love indiscriminately as Jesus did, and to be of one mind with both Christ and one another.

The phrase “of one mind” or “the same mind” has nothing to do with how we think, or what we believe. It is about attitude: how we approach things, our way of being.

In other words, it feels like Paul is speaking right into my budding jealousy of those other 30-somethings who are doing amazing things and telling me I need an attitude adjustment. Not to mention a reminder that I really didn’t like to practice the clarinet!

I doubt I’m the only one who needs this kind of attitude adjustment, though. Our culture teaches us to stand up and stand out, to get noticed and be a leader. Paul couldn’t have written more counter-cultural or difficult words if he’d lived down the street from us. And to top it off, when he says “you” that’s a plural you, not an individualistic, singular you. So he says to us:

Y’all have the same attitude among you as Jesus had. Y’all love the same way Jesus loved. Y’all think of others as better than yourselves. Y’all turn off that selfish ambition and seek the greater good. Y’all look to the interests of others, not your own desires. Remember that Jesus was obedient to God all the way through his life and death. The Body of Christ, and all the members of it, need to do the same.

That is indeed an attitude adjustment.

It has often been noted that those of us who follow Jesus are often not very much like him. Gandhi famously said that he loved Jesus, but Christians were another story. Yet we also know that when a rabbi called someone to “come, follow me,” they did so because they believed the student could become like the teacher. We know that Jesus entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation, of healing, of speaking and living the good news of God’s love. And today we hear Paul’s words, asking us to have the mind of Christ, an attitude of obedience and humility, a posture of love and unity…and it kind of seems impossible.

It’s so much easier to work for what we want. It’s so much easier when we know we’ll be rewarded, with recognition, or thanks, or money, or power, or admiration. It’s so much easier to look after ourselves and offer the leftovers to God and our community. It’s so much easier to point the finger than to be part of a solution. It’s so much easier to talk about people than to them. It’s so much easier to make assumptions and judgments than to think the best.

Spiritual teachers say that one of the most important things for us to learn is a prayer for indifference. Not in the negative apathetic sense in which we usually use that word, but in the sense of being indifferent to everything but the will of God. In other words, we need to learn to pray not for what we want, but for what God wills. You may remember that even Jesus had to learn this by practice: in the garden, just before his arrest, as he looked into the shadow of death, he prayed “if it is possible let this cup pass from me…yet not what I will, but what you will.” To be indifferent to everything but God’s will is to truly not be tied to one outcome or another, as long as it is God’s direction. If we have been given this gift, we are able to participate in things that may not be our preference, to walk a path we might not have chosen, because we believe the Spirit is moving the Body is moving in God’s direction. To let go of our own preferred or desired outcome makes listening for God’s call easier…but of course it’s crazy hard to let go! This is why the spiritual teachers say we need to learn to pray for indifference—to ask God to make us care more about what God wants than what we want, to ask for the gift of seeking the good of the whole before our own good. Sometimes we may look into our hearts and see that we really desire our way, and that is an opportunity for us to pray again to be made indifferent to everything but the will of God.

Here is some good news in the midst of this challenge. Just at the end of today’s reading, Paul reminds us of what he told us last week: It is God who is at work in us, enabling us to will what God wills and to work for God’s glory. We don’t have to do this with our own willpower—indeed, we can’t. We are able to pray for indifference, and to see others as better than ourselves, and to look death in the face knowing that resurrection is on the other side, and to love as Christ loves, because God enables that in us. We couldn’t do it under our steam, but the breath of the Holy Spirit makes this all possible.

I suggest we, in this part of the Body of Christ, take up this challenge. For the month of June, pray each day for an attitude adjustment. Ask for God’s help in letting go of our own will and seeking only God’s will instead. Rather than praying for us to climb the church ladder, or to be like other churches, or even for the church to grow: pray for the church, the Body of Christ, to be indifferent to everything but the will of God, and then for the courage to work for God’s will rather than our own. We may just find ourselves aligned with Christ—the one who was obedient even unto death, and then was lifted up for God’s glory.

May it be so.