Monday, August 31, 2015

Show Me -- a sermon on James 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Show Me
James 2.1-17
30 August 2015, Pentecost 2-7 (We Follow By Grace)

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.


Last week we read from chapter 1 of James’ letter, which ended with him telling us to be doers of the word, not only hearers—and today we pick up where we left off, with James asking if we really believe what we say. Do we, with the ways we show favoritism and partiality, actually believe in the gospel? Do we believe what Jesus said and did?

All week, as I’ve been living in the very small space between these two chapters, I’ve been hearing a song in my head. Some of you may recognize it.

If you’re in love, show me.

This is James’ plea to us: if we love God, if we have known God’s love, then show me. All the words in the world cannot make up for even a single action. We can claim to be God’s chosen people, but if we then exclude others who are made in God’s image, what speaks louder? We can say that we have accepted Jesus’ love and forgiveness, but if we don’t forgive as we have been forgiven, do the words matter? We can believe all the right things and say all the right prayers and subscribe to all the right doctrine, but if we care more about some people than others, we have broken the central tenet of God’s law: to love others as we love ourselves.

We are people who have known amazing love, incredible grace. To count the ways God has blessed us would take all day and then some. When we consider what God has done in our lives, it’s almost as if we run out of words.

Which is okay, because James isn’t interested in our words. For a guy who is writing during a time when nailing down the doctrine, making sure people believed the right things and worshipped the right way, was of crucial importance, he is decidedly dismissive of the doctrine. While all around him raged debates about how to talk about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, debates about who is in and who is out, debates about how much of the Torah we have to keep, James says that the doctrine is not enough. Prayer is not enough. Attending a worship service is not enough. Keeping part of the law is not enough. While we bristle at the idea that God demands something of us, it is still true: God has given his all…and wants ours in return. God is love, and created us to be love too.

James is relentless in making his point—he tells a story that we shudder at, insisting we would never privilege the wealthy-looking person over the poor one. And that is probably true here—whether a person is in a three piece suit or sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt, they would be welcome in this room. What about when we aren’t in this room? When we’re at the office, at home, on the train, at a restaurant, at school, at the theater, watching the news—how do we react when someone of a different color, or different class, or different religious tradition appears? Do we love them the way we love ourselves? Or do we start to use loaded words like “thug” and “cheap” and “dangerous”, or to say words like “Muslim” and “poor” and “Mexican” with a tone that betrays our disdain and fear?

If you’ve been loved, show me.

James summarizes thousands of pages and thousands of years of scripture with one phrase: “God has chosen the poor.” While we are making judgments about who deserves what, God has opened the gates and offered space to all those the world has left out. Where we have spent hundreds of years constructing systems that make it difficult for people of color to thrive, and thousands of hours concocting requirements for getting help when the money runs short, and billions of dollars bombing homes and building fences, God has spent eternity loving every single being that has made its way into the universe, and preparing the kingdom to receive them.

When we are all tell and no show—or worse, when we tell one thing and show something different—we are as guilty as if we’d broken one of the Big Ten. For the whole law is summed up, according to Jesus, in two commandments: Love God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. And love is never just words.

If you’re in love, show me.

If we love our neighbors, we will work for their prosperity and safety alongside our own. If we love our neighbors, we cannot simply walk away shrugging our shoulders about generational poverty, gun violence, street gangs, language gaps, food deserts, rising sea levels, and drought or flood. If we love our neighbors, we will want them all to be housed and fed and educated and healthy. Otherwise, when we simply pray for peace and justice from our comfortable chairs, James says our faith is dead.

If you love God, show me, he says.

Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.”

This is the Jesus truth: that love is stronger than anything else in the universe.

This is the Jesus way: to love God so much that he was obedient to God’s will all the way to death, loving God’s people even when they were torturing his body and spirit.

This is what James—or rather, Jesus—asks of us. To love as we have been loved—even when we don’t feel it, even when we would rather keep them over there, even when we’re not sure, even when they don’t deserve it.

Faith with works, together, is alive and vibrant. Our service is our worship. When we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way, we too will have the Jesus life. If you’re in love, show me.

May it be so.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

on the patio

Most weeks, I spend one day in "Coffice Hours"--working from the Starbucks, ideally the patio (though I'll go inside if I need an electrical outlet or to get warm!).

It's a good change of scenery and the people are interesting. Mostly I read and write and update the website and answer emails and talk to people. Though sometimes I don't talk to anyone at never know how the day's going to go.

A few weeks ago, it was a busy day on the Starbucks patio and every table was taken. A woman, casually but nicely dressed, medium build, walked through and stopped to talk to people, and when she got to my table I realized she didn't know everyone, she was looking for some help. She needed three more dollars to get a sandwich. Her sister had dropped her off downtown, with a borrowed cell phone, and gone to work. I didn't get to hear why she'd been dropped downtown--it seemed like perhaps she was going around putting in job applications, or maybe she was waiting for a train, I don't know.

In any case, a man, muscular and with a large number of tattoos, pierced ears, a muscle shirt and low-slung shorts handed her a cup of salted almonds and explained in patient patronizing tones how she needed to eat this protein and salt because it would be healthy for her and get the drugs out of her system, rather than asking for money for more drugs.

The woman protested that she didn't do drugs. The man asked why she had an iPhone if she couldn't afford a sandwich. Another man at a nearby table told the woman to go away or he would call the police.

One guess about the color of this woman's skin.


If I had gone to their table asking for $3, I suspect the assumption would have been that I left my wallet at home, or that my cash had blown out of my hand (it was a windy day), or that I'd just been caught short without my debit card.


I wanted SO MUCH to confront the man and ask why he assumed this woman was high, or dishonest, or deserved his patronizing scorn. I wanted very badly to speak up and defend her, and call out his racist assumptions and bad behavior.

But I didn't. And I am ashamed to say that. And I am further ashamed to say the reason:

Because he was a muscular man, with a lot of tattoos and piercings, wearing a muscle t and baggy shorts and half-tied shoes, and having shown himself to be a bit on the aggressive/belligerent side. It did not feel safe for me to confront him, any more than it felt safe for that woman.


He was white.


The woman left the patio. I don't know where she went, but I hope she came across someone who carried cash and compassion at the same time. I hope her sister had a good day at work, and was able to be supportive when she heard this story.

The man continued to talk, loudly, to his table mate and to the man at the next table, about her.

I continued to sit across the patio, simultaneously too angry and too worried about my own safety to do anything about it. Because assumptions play both ways.



Monday, August 24, 2015

Traditional--a sermon on James 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
James 1.17-27
23 August 2015, Pentecost 2-6

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

I frequently have conversations that involve the phrase “the traditional way.” Sometimes they are about communion—and how we should do it the traditional way. Sometimes they are about what time worship should be, or what style of music we should sing. Sometimes they are about what food shows up at a potluck—for instance, last week’s picnic lacked the traditional jello salads, much to at least one person’s surprise. Sometimes the traditions people have in mind are less benign—many believe that the traditional way excludes people from one thing or another. Still more believe that the main tradition of the church is asking for money.

Many of these conversations involve me asking the question “what do you mean by traditional?” Because for some people, passing trays of tiny cups of juice through the pews is the traditional way of serving communion, and for some people coming forward and being served by the pastor is traditional. For some people, traditional architecture is a cross-shaped sanctuary divided by columns and with very high stained glass windows, for others it is a whitewashed square room with clear windows. For some, traditional cookout food involves potato salad and watermelon, while for others it involves hot dogs and spaghetti.

Our traditional ways are, generally, the ways we remember doing things when we were younger. We apply our traditions to times past, forgetting that tradition morphs through the years, changing with the needs of the people who practice it. So traditional communion, for James, would have been a potluck where people brought food to the communion table and then shared a meal that included Jesus’s words about the bread of life and cup of salvation. Traditional music depends heavily on where we are—some might say that unaccompanied singing is the real tradition, others might say the pipe organ is truly traditional, while others use tambourines and percussion to make the traditional joyful noise.

Occasionally our traditions are more concerning. The tradition of the church grapevine, where gossip is recast as news and prayer. The tradition of the meeting after the meeting, where instead of talking to the person we have an issue with, we talk to everyone else. The tradition of arguing over the color of carpet or the location of pews. The tradition of cutting the mission budget first. The tradition of saying one thing on Sunday and doing another on Monday.

Before we all start protesting that we aren’t like that, we may want to take a moment to remember that, however awesome we are, we are not perfect. Those old stereotypes of church come from somewhere, and it’s likely we’ve played a part in them at some point or another.

And then we can look to James, and find the real issue laid out plainly in the first verse of today’s reading. While we cling to our traditions, both good and bad, we forget that they are just that—ours. And here James reminds us that all good gifts come from God, and our call is to be the first fruits of those kingdom seeds God has planted. James doesn’t give much thought to what we say we believe—he wants to see what we believe.

What happens to our traditions when we ask first what we have received from God? When we start from the list of blessings? What happens when we allow the word, planted in our souls, to take root and grow, and then we use that word as the starting point for our traditions?

After all, we would say that we believe all creation, all life, and all we have is a gift from God. How would someone see that belief in our action?

We would say that God is love and that Christ defeated death with grace. How would someone see that love and grace in our behavior?

We would say that every member of the body is equally important, equally created in God’s image, equally called to life with God, and equally equipped by the Spirit for their calling. If someone watched how we treat people with different skin color, different language, different religion, different abilities, would they see our faith?

Every family and community has traditions—some healthier than others, some more grounded in the Spirit than others, some reaching farther back than others. We might say things like “we are good Presbyterians, we do ___,” or “in this family, we always ______.” Because we belong to these communities, we do certain things. Today James has given us a glimpse of the traditions of the kingdom of God.

Because we are God’s people, living in God’s kingdom of grace, this is what we do:

*We give thanks. Everything is a gift, including our ability to earn, so we can never say we deserved something. Grace becomes gratitude.

*We are generous. Because we are grateful, because everything belongs to God, because we are called to be like Christ who gave everything for love of God’s world—gratitude becomes generosity.

*We listen more than we talk. Listen for the voice of God, listen for the voice of our neighbor, listen for the voice of the silenced, listen for the voice crying out for justice. We are the students of the greatest teacher, and so we listen.

*When we talk, it is with grace and humility. We share the love of God, and we speak up on behalf of those who cannot, but refuse to bully people into belief. The Spirit will give us the ability to speak.

*We practice healthy communication. We speak truth in love, directly to the person involved, never cloaking gossip in the self-righteous folds of “sharing concerns.” We are open and honest, so there is no dank corner where anger and hurt and disease can grow.

*We are tireless in caring for those who occupy the lowest rungs of society. We care for them directly and in big-picture ways, working for the day when the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, the addict, the black and brown, are not outcast but included, because we know their lives are just as important to the body as ours, and so should be treated with the same respect and care.

Imagine the world if this was what we meant when we talked about the traditional way: gratitude, generosity, listening, hopeful humility, honest sharing, including and caring for all.  This is true religion, this is who we are as members of God’s household, this is the kingdom way.

May we be doers of the word, not only hearers.


Monday, August 17, 2015

__stand__ -- a sermon on Ephesians 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
__ stand __
Ephesians 6.10-20
16 August 2015, P2-5 (We Follow By Grace)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Stand firm. Take a stand. Stand up. Withstand.

I confess that I am usually one of those people firmly against using war metaphors for faith. Military clothing and tactics, battle imagery…it doesn’t seem to jive with following the Prince of Peace, the one who defeats death. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to pray for our enemies. The letters of Paul tell us to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness, to bear one another’s burdens, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, to work together the way a body works together, to turn swords into plows and rely on the power of love.

And yet in this stirring speech to end the letter, the writer of Ephesians—who, remember, is from the workshop of Paul—calls us to battle.

Or, more accurately, calls us to stand firm. To hold the line against those powers and principalities that would dearly love to claim every inch of culture and creation for their own purposes.

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the sword of God’s word…none of these are for attacking. None of them give us an ounce of power over another person on earth. And the battle is not against human beings anyway. There’s nothing here about fighting each other—it’s all about standing fast in the face of powers larger than any one of us.

Sometimes it seems that those who take a stand for truth and peace are indeed embattled in our world of spin and justification. Grace is often in short supply, and even two thousand years after Christ defeated death we still face death-dealing powers every day: powers of sexism and racism, of nationalism and greed, of fear and power-mongering and self-interest. These cosmic forces are so much bigger than any one of us, and even when we try individually not to give in to them, we can’t help it—it’s the water we swim in and the air we breathe.

These are not enemies of flesh and blood—there’s no one person or nation or religion or ethnicity we can fight. Nor should we—that is the opposite of our call.

Our call is to stand firm. To hold the line. To refuse to cede another inch to hate and fear, to violence and greed, to racism and sexism.

Easier said than done, I know. But here is some good news: this letter, remember, is addressed not to individuals, but to the whole community, the whole body of Christ—the church that is already doing this work and needs some encouragement to keep going. This is not about individuals tying each other up with the truth as we see it—it is about the whole body of Christ being held together by the truth of God’s love. It is about the whole body of Christ lacing up shoes that will carry us near and far with a message of peace. This is about the whole body of Christ wearing these gifts together, standing together.

The shield of faith is the perfect visual. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, everyone is shielded by the faith of others. And, as JOHN (not Paul) Bunyan noted in the Pilgrim’s Progress, there is no armor for the back or sides. There is no option to turn back, only to stand together. It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.

And stand we must. 
When the powers call for violence, we must stand together for peace. 
When the powers call for silence, we must stand together and speak. 
When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, we must stand firm for justice. 
When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, we must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.

The Body of Christ is clothed in the armor of God…in compassion and kindness, in willingness to bear one another’s burdens and to rejoice with those who rejoice, in the belief that every member of the body is equally important. 
Will we hold the line of justice when our brothers and sisters are killed in the streets, standing firm and speaking the truth that life, including black lives, matter to God and to us? 
Will we hold the line of hope when our culture is fractured into marketing segments, withstanding the onslaught of those who would divide and conquer with greed and self-interest, insisting on God’s desire for right relationship and wholeness? 
Will we plant our feet on peace when our leaders call for fear and violence as a means to achieve their ends, insisting that violence can never drive out violence—only love can do that?

It feels like an impossible task. And it is—but nothing is impossible for God. Remember when the Israelites left Egypt, and the Egyptian army pursued them to the banks of the sea—the people were terrified, and God spoke: “Stand firm, and see what the Lord will do.” We do not stand under our own power—we are gifted everything we need for this task. Now here, at the end of the letter, facing a world of uncertainty and persecution, comes the big speech. The one that the king gives as the army stands arrayed before him, to give them courage and hope as they make their stand.

In the classic allegory of the battle between good and evil, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series, the day comes when the men who stand for justice and peace are lined up outside the gates of Mordor, the land of shadows and terror and despair. They are surrounded and outnumbered by all the monsters of greed and hatred and violence and fear. And the king speaks to them before they hold the line to give Frodo a chance to accomplish the task of destroying death:

Hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
Today, we fight.
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!

Here in this place and time, in the bonds of fellowship and friendship, we make our stand, with prayer and action for God’s vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, truth, and grace.

May it be so. Amen.