Sunday, November 13, 2016

Who Will Go? A sermon on Isaiah 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Who Will Go?
Isaiah 6.1-8
13 November 2016, NL3-10, H2-5 (God Provides)

The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE, when the Assyrian empire was expanding, conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and destroying much of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, the only city relatively unharmed in this war, and he spoke primarily to the kings, priests, and their wealthy advisors. Isaiah insisted that being God’s people involved not only worshipping the One God, but also behaving in ways consistent with God’s plans—and that God’s concern was primarily for those outside the halls of power, without wealth or connections. Much of the first section of Isaiah is about God’s vision of justice and righteousness, and how the leaders of the nation fall short of that vision, and therefore both oppress their people and lead them astray. In today’s reading, the king has died and the nation is in turmoil. We hear about Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne room of God, where heavenly beings worship and where Isaiah receives the difficult grace of confession and call. The reading from Isaiah chapter 6 can be found on page __ in your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’


In the year that King Uzziah died, he had been on the throne for 52 years. According to 2 Chronicles chapter 26, he became king at age 16, and he was faithful in seeking God with his tutor Zechariah for many of those years. He rebuilt cities, he went to battle with the Philistines, he built towers in the walls of Jerusalem, and neighboring tribes paid him tribute taxes. He became very wealthy and very powerful…and according to 2 Chronicles, when he became powerful he also became proud and arrogant. He stopped giving his attention to any but those who could advance his interests. He assumed he could do things on his own, so he left God out of it. He used people to build his projects and pay for shiny equipment for his massive army. And one day, he went into the Temple and tried to make an offering of incense inside the Holy of Holies, the room that only the high priest could enter, the room where God lived. Eighty priests followed him to try to convince him that what he was doing was wrong…and while inside, he broke out in an unclean skin disease and was banished from not only the Temple but also the palace and the town. He lived the remainder of his days in a camp, and his son reigned in his stead.

So in the year that he died, there was a complicated situation. He wasn’t allowed to be buried in the same place as those who were ritually clean. His son was already on the throne unofficially. And his arrogant ways had already affected how people lived and treated each other.

This is the moment—a very human moment in history—when Isaiah, who has already been a prophet for five chapters now, has a vision of the Temple filled with the hem of God’s robe and the heavenly host winging through the air singing. The Temple, where Uzziah had gotten into so much trouble at the pinnacle of his pride and power. The Temple, where Isaiah was not, apparently, among those who called the king out on his bad behavior. But now he stood there in this vision, practically touching the hem of God’s robe, and he realizes his need to confess: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”

Today we might say it like this: I have said things I should not have said, and I have kept silent when I should have spoken up.

When the man full of pride and power used and abused people, I was silent.
When the man who accumulated the wealth of surrounding nations turned his back on those who had built his cities, I was silent.
When the man who believed his position allowed him to do anything actually did unspeakable things, I was silent.
Instead I spoke in generalities, I spoke to others rather than to him, I spoke of happier topics, I made excuses, I spoke in cryptic metaphors meant only for the few who were already in the know.

I said things I should not have said, and kept silent when I ought to have spoken. I am a person of unclean lips, and I come from a whole people who have used and misused their voices and allowed this turmoil to happen. We have lost sight of God’s kingdom and turned to our own instead, leaving behind the vulnerable, the different, the outcast, the poor, the immigrant, the minority, the veterans.

And then one of the heavenly host came to Isaiah with a hot coal, and touched his lips, burning away the cowardly silence and the haughty words. That would be a painful cleansing, a lesson that hurt…the way we use our voices matters, and it isn’t easy to undo. But afterward, with his mouth freed to try again, Isaiah can now hear the voice of God, cutting through the din of his own self-centered cries, and God says:
who will go for us?

Who will go…to the edges of society, where people are hurting?
Who will go…to the slums and the refugee camps?
Who will go…to the hospitals and prisons?
Who will go…to the protests and the rallies?
Who will go…to the Congressman’s office and the mayor’s town hall?
Who will go…to the social media feeds where we can hide behind a screen?
Who will go…to the places that need good news?
Who will go…to insist that there is no place for hate or exclusion in the kingdom of God?
Who will go…to comfort and protect those who feel unsafe and unwanted?
Who will go…remembering that good news comforts the disturbed AND disturbs the comfortable?
Who will go…to try new things in hope of seeing God at work in unexpected places?
Who will go…carrying words and actions of hope and challenge, living the vision of a new kingdom, a new way of being?
Who will go…to stand up for those who we think don’t belong?
Who will go…to speak up even when it’s uncomfortable, protecting the people God loves even when we don’t?
Who will go…to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and house the homeless?
Who will go…to ask our leaders why there are people who are hungry, naked, sick, and homeless?
Who will go…when it is inconvenient or difficult or painful?

Isaiah doesn’t hesitate. He already knows the cost of staying silent, or beating around the bush with excuses. This is his second chance, his moment to be renewed and re-dedicated to his task, to his community, to his people. He hears “who will go?” and he says “Here I am, send me.”

742 BC and today, the same is true: we know the cost of silence, and of excuses. We know there are people who need our voices to speak on their behalf, and people who need us to be quiet so their stories can be heard. There are places that need good news, and leaders who need to be challenged, and neighbors who need care. God provides us with a second, and a third, and a sixtieth, chance to examine ourselves and admit our failings, and then to live up to the call…and God asks: who will go? whom shall I send?

We give our answer in word and song, in prayer and action, in giving of time and resources: here I am, send me. And here we are, the body of Christ on the corner of Palatine and Rohlwing…send us.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Opening to the Light: Advent Candle liturgies for 2016

2016 Advent/Christmas Theme: Opening To The Light
Narrative Lectionary Year 3: Daniel 6, Joel 2, Isaiah 61, Luke 1
Musical verse is from Light the Advent Candle by Ruth Elaine Schram

Lit candle is carried in as congregation sings (tune: Picardy, except last two lines):

As we light the Advent candle
with the light of hope burning bright,
faithfully we wait for his coming;
faithfully it shines through the night.
In our humble hearts a fire burns as well;
hear the prayer these flames would tell.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Candle-bearer: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

week 1 (Daniel 6.6-27):
Liturgist:  One candle shines as shadows lengthen and chaos roars—
the dawn of God’s kingdom in our midst.
All:  Courage awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

week 2 (Joel 2.12-13, 28-29):
Liturgist:  Two candles shine as light peeks through the cracks
and God’s dream overflows.
All:  Vision awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

week 3 (Isaiah 61.1-11):
Liturgist:  Three candles shine as God’s promise draws near,
beckoning us to be good news in body and spirit.
All:  Justice awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

week 4 (Luke 1.26-55):
Liturgist:  Four candles shine as God’s purpose is revealed
in word and flesh.
All:  Possibility awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.

Liturgist:  Radiant flash and feeble flame break through;
a long time coming, yet unexpected.
Watching and waiting, we prepare him room.
All:  Christ is coming to make all things new,
and we are opening to the Light.

The middle section swaps out each week (not cumulative, as some previous years) so, for example, the bulletin for week 1 would look like this:

Lit candle is carried in as congregation sings
      As we light the Advent candle  
      with the light of hope burning bright,    
      faithfully we wait for his coming;
      faithfully it shines through the night.
      In our humble hearts a fire burns as well;
      hear the prayer these flames would tell.
                  O come, O come, Emmanuel,
                  and ransom captive Israel.

Candle-bearer: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Liturgist:   One candle shines as shadows lengthen and chaos roars—
      the dawn of God’s kingdom in our midst.
All:           Courage awakens in us, a spark to brighten the way.
Liturgist:   Bright flash and feeble flame break through;
                  a long time coming, yet unexpected.
                  Watching and waiting, we prepare him room.
All:           Christ is coming to make all things new,
                 and we are opening to the Light.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Assumptions--a sermon on Hannah and Eli (1 Samuel 1-2)

Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Samuel 1.9-20, 2.1-10
16 October 2016, NL3-6, H2-1 (God Provides)

After Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and divided up the land among the twelve tribes, they lived in the promised land for around 300 years, during which God would occasionally raise up judges to lead them through a crisis—judges such as Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. During this time, scripture tells us “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The fabric of the nation frayed as each man looked out only for himself, until by the end of the book of Judges, society had so decayed that people, especially women, were treated as disposable.
It is at the end of this 300 years that we meet Hannah and her husband Elkanah, and her rival wife Peninah. Hannah was barren, and she longed for a child more than anything else in the world. Peninah had many children, and used her status as a mother to bully Hannah. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, she could not be consoled. We pick up their story at the point when the family goes up to worship and offer sacrifices at the temple at Shiloh, where Eli and his sons were priests, as they did each year. The reading from 1st Samuel chapters 1 and 2 can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’
 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
   my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
   because I rejoice in my victory.

‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
   no one besides you;
   there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
   let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
   and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
   but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
   but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
   but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
   he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
   he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
   he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
   and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
   and on them he has set the world.

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
   but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
   for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
   the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
   he will give strength to his king,
   and exalt the power of his anointed.’

how great is my hair?
if you're going to make assumptions about me
based on my hair,
I hope they're "she's obviously awesome"
and not "I can't take her seriously." 
Assumptions: we all make them, we all have them, and many of us chafe under them.
We all know what happens when we assume.
But it’s as if we can’t help ourselves, we do it anyway. It’s unconscious—we’ve just absorbed certain things, and we see them as if they are reality, never thinking to question them until something dramatic happens to tear the scales from our eyes and give us a little clearer vision.

Hannah was a woman about whom a lot of assumptions were made. Peninah, the other wife, and all the rest of society assumed Hannah was worthless, a barren woman who contributed nothing, not even fulfilling her most basic purpose. She was easy to look down on, because she was in fact beneath them. Her husband assumed she knew her own worth in his eyes. It’s likely that Hannah even assumed about herself that she didn’t matter, that something was wrong with her.

And then Eli, sitting on the Temple steps, watched her…a barren woman, talking to herself, crying. Perhaps she was what we used to derisively call “hysterical.” He assumed she was drunk. He assumed she was a sinner, a woman of no account, making a spectacle of herself, embarrassing herself and her family.

But Hannah shocked everyone—probably including herself—by standing up and challenging Eli’s assumptions. NO: She is not drunk. She is not a worthless woman. She is a person made in God’s image, whole and beloved. She matters.

Any number of things could happen at this point, when someone challenges our assumptions. This is the moment a lot of violence, especially domestic violence, happens—when one person asserts their worth, contradicting the one who assumed they were in control. So often we make assumptions about the people we see, or the people we hear about. Consciously or not, we have decided somewhere along the way that they matter less—because of their gender, or their skin color, or their weight, or their sexual orientation, or their religion, or their economic class. We would never put it like that, of course. We look back on those ancient times when women’s worth was measured by their ability to bear male children and we shake our heads, grateful that isn’t the scale anymore.

But if we’re honest, we have a scale. Some people are more worthy, more deserving, than others. Somewhere along the way, humans equated “having” with “deserving.” And when those who don’t have, and therefore don’t deserve, stand up and insist that they matter too, they are made in the image of God, they are beloved…we who live with a lot of advantages have a hard time with that. Perhaps we even fear that if they are loved and valued, then we won’t be anymore. So we lash out, with words or with guns. We put them back in their place, whether by wondering why they won’t just conform to our standards or by physically putting them where we think they belong—often in prison.

Thankfully for Hannah, when God provided her the courage to value herself and to challenge Eli’s assumptions, God also provided Eli the courage to hear her with an open mind and heart, and to drop his beliefs and treat her differently. Instead of chastising her further for her uppity response, or hitting her, or calling her husband to shame her in public, he gave her a blessing. He recognized there was more to this story than he originally perceived.

It is from this moment—not the moment she gets pregnant, or the moment she gives birth to a boy, or the moment she drops Samuel off at the Temple—this moment, when Hannah challenged the assumptions that had been made about her, that “her countenance was sad no longer.” The weight of other people’s projections and expectations was lifted, and she saw herself as she truly was. And not only that, but God provided her a witness, someone else who could see her as she really was, even if it took some fighting on her part to get there. Eli’s perception was changed as he allowed Hannah to be a person in her own right, not just a carrier of other people’s assumptions. And Hannah’s life was changed from the inside out when she knew herself both seen and valued.

It isn’t surprising that Hannah would burst into song—with a new understanding of herself, she sees God’s world more clearly. She sees that it is God who provides—from the foundations of the earth to the cares of the barren woman. And her whole song is about how God’s providence challenges the assumptions of the world—breaking the bows of the mighty, while strengthening the feeble, filling the hungry while the full seek nourishment, raising up the poor and the needy from the dust and seating them with princes. While the world is in the business of getting and keeping, and often does so by pushing some down, God is in the business of reversal.

This week there was a conversation in one of the narrative lectionary preaching groups about Hannah’s song, particularly the line “my mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” Surely we don’t want to encourage people to gloat? After all, God calls us all to reconciliation and wholeness, not to celebrating at the expense of others. We talked about this for a long time, but ultimately I think this is another place where we are relying too heavily on our assumptions, and God may be providing us a new way of seeing.

Throughout her story, Hannah has been brutally honest about her distress and her need. She doesn’t mince words or pretend things are okay (but by the way, God, if you have a moment…) She has borne the abuse and scorn of society and even her own family, for years. Doesn’t it make perfect sense that she would then have a moment of triumph? It doesn’t last long—her song is about God and all the ways God works in the world to bring about justice. But for a moment, she gets to be angry at how she has been treated. She is allowed to feel that anger.

It’s that moment when we get uncomfortable. We don’t want people to be angry. And in some cases, if we were fully honest and allowed God to open our eyes like Eli’s, we don't even necessarily want people to credit God with the reversal. We want the credit for making change, creating space, helping the less fortunate. Acknowledging that it is God who provides—often through our abundance—means also acknowledging that those people matter to God just as much as we do. It means challenging our deep and sometimes subconscious assumptions that people of color are less capable, or people who are poor are lazy, or people who are Muslim are terrorists, or people with accents don’t belong here.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it—the world, and those who live in it. Hannah acknowledges that God is, for lack of a better term, the “owner” of all things, and provides for us what we need. Sometimes what we need is a reality check, a glimpse of God’s kingdom truth. When we get it, God also provides us the courage to do something with that gift. Just as with every other gift God gives, it’s for a purpose. Hannah knew that the proper response to God’s providing was to give it back—she promised Samuel to God, to serve in the temple, and she took him there and left him to grow up to be the priest who changed the course of history. The same is true of less tangible gifts. God provides, and we are called to respond.

I hope that throughout this Harvest 2 season, as we consider the many different ways God provides, we will also consider what God calls us to do with what we are given. Whether that’s a gift of challenged assumptions, a gift of resources, a gift of talent or time—God’s purpose is the same: abundant life for all creation, to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. May we have the courage of Hannah and the openness of Eli, to participate in God’s great reversal until all know themselves beloved.


Monday, October 10, 2016

God Can't? -- a sermon on the golden calf fiasco

Rev. Teri Peterson
God Can’t?
Exodus 32.1-14
9 October 2016, NL3-5, H1-5 (In God We Trust)

When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organize their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, and can be found on page 69 of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

“And the Lord changed his mind”—these are words we don’t hear often.
As we read the Bible in 90 Days this summer, it came up a few times, and each time it was a little bit of a shock to many. Before deciding the flood the earth, God regrets making humans on the earth…there are discussions between Abraham and God where God listens to Abraham and adjusts the course of action…and of course there’s the story of Jonah, where God reverses a decision and God’s ability to change makes Jonah angry. It makes us uncomfortable, to think of God changing God’s mind. Somewhere along the way, we decided that is impossible—God can’t do that.

As soon as we start uttering words like “God can’t do that” we should be getting nervous.

It’s one thing to say “the God we see in Jesus is like ____” or “in scripture we learn that God does ____.” It’s a whole other thing for us to claim what God can and cannot do.

One of the core tenets of the Reformed tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part, is the Sovereignty of God. We believe that God is free to order and rule creation according to God’s will, and we—who are not God—can’t restrict God. Which sounds so obvious when we say it out loud, and yet we are so uncomfortable with God’s ultimate and eternal freedom that we have placed all these bounds on how God should behave, when really the unchanging thing about God is Love—that is God’s nature, God’s essence. From that core reality, God is free to do whatever God will, including changing direction.

We are so used to metaphors like God is my rock and my fortress, the ground of being, the foundation, our refuge and strength…our hymns and our creeds describe God as eternal and unchanging…and we forget that is one side of a metaphor, one aspect that isn’t the whole story. We like our God to be stable and reliable, right there when we need someone to lean on, and not too demanding as we face a world that could never have been imagined by the writers of scripture.

Which is, in many ways, exactly what the newly freed Israelites wanted too. They had seen what God could do—witnessed plagues, crossed through the sea on dry ground, been fed by manna and quail, seen water gush from a rock, heard God’s voice rumble at the top of the mountain, and committed themselves to following God’s way. But now…Moses had been gone a long time, and they were getting antsy. This just wanted something more stable, more visible, more… unchanging.

It isn’t that they made themselves a new god, exactly. After all, they use the same liturgy—here is the god who brought you out of Egypt. It’s more that they made a static image to stand in for our dynamic God. Rather than give their offerings of gold and fine linen and precious jewels—as they had been called to—for a tent that would symbolize God living among them, they give them instead to capture what they want God to be, and hold on to that image they have built as if it is the real thing.

We often talk about how easy it is to find ourselves worshipping things that are not God—things like money, opportunity, power, fame, relationships, social status, nation, celebrity, sports, nostalgia. And that is true. We need to be aware of just what story our lives tell—where is our time and money and energy going, and how does that relate to following Jesus? But there’s another, far more insidious, form of idolatry that I think is shown by this story. It isn’t only about placing something other than God as the focus of our lives, it’s about solidifying what we think God should be and do into a statue we can carry around but will never change. We take the One true God, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer and sustainer, with all the complexity and possibility of love incarnate…and flatten it into something that works for us but bears little resemblance to the original. God cannot possibly be captured or contained in a stagnant medium, because God is the God of the living, always working for a new creation where everyone experiences abundant life, and because the promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” is always growing and flexing as the people’s lives change over time and travels.

That’s what Moses reminded God up on that mountain that day. “Remember the promise you made to Abraham and Sarah? Remember your relationship with Isaac and Rebekah? Remember the wrestling and blessing you did with Jacob, and the promise you made to all his sons and daughters? You are a God who keeps promises.” And God remembered…and changed God’s mind, choosing faithfulness over rejection, choosing mercy over judgment, choosing love. Because that is what God does…and what God is free to do, whatever we think of the choice.

This is good and beautiful news. It is also hard news, because it can be difficult to come to terms with the freedom and sovereignty of God when we are so bound to what we believe God is like and what Love means. When we have decided what God can and cannot do, who God can and cannot call, how God can and cannot love or save…we have made an idol—a false image that we have carefully shaped to be unchanging and predictable and reliable, something we think we can trust. Too often what is most reliable about this image is that it makes God out to value the same things we value, and to dislike the same things we dislike, and to love within the same boundaries we allow. But behind this image is a real, living God who won’t be trapped in our beliefs and words any more than God will be contained in a statue or a picture or a box or a tomb.

But it’s also hard because we do this same thing—flattening reality into ideologies we don’t question and refuse to believe can change—with other parts of life too.
We have hardened our conception of what it means to belong to a political party until we can’t see or accept when things have changed.
We have a pretty solidified image of our elected officials or candidates, insisting they are who we say they are, whatever evidence is available to the contrary.
We have turned sexuality and gender identity into a single image of predatory lust that makes it impossible to see multi-faceted human beings who long for love and acceptance.
We have dug in our heels and insisted racism and sexism are over and this is as far as we’re willing to go, and everything beyond this line is dismissed as “just being politically correct.”
We have claimed that there is just one meaning to the words “black lives matter” or “Muslim” or “refugee” or “Christian” or “pro-life” or “feminist” or “American” or “civil rights” or “freedom”…
the list goes on and on of ways our society, our churches, and each of us have solidified our limited understanding into a statue we can point to, insisting there’s no change to be had, that the bounds of our understanding of normal and good are also God’s. Our idols, just like the golden calf, provide a sense of comfort and stability, an illusion of control in a world where everything seems to be falling apart. And, like Jonah when God changed his mind about destroying Ninevah, we will have to come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t play by our rules, and that is actually good news—for us and for the whole world.

God is Love, and Love will not be bound by what we think God can and cannot do, and will not consent to live in the carefully constructed belief systems we have built. As 2 Timothy says, “the word of God is not chained.” Instead God asks us let go of our idols and join in the dance of doing a new thing. In God we trust, not because God can never change, but because our God is living and active, breathing life, creating community, feeding and healing, freely choosing to keep promises time and again, to be faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, both ever-changing and ever-the-same—no matter what we think about that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Five: bible faves

Today's Friday Five is about the Bible! You may play right here in the comments, or if you write a blog post, link it here.

Since we just finished reading the Bible in 90 Days, this is particularly current/relevant/awesome. :-)

1. What is your favorite Bible verse? Isaiah 55.8 "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord..."

2. What is your favorite book of the Bible? Isaiah for sure! If I had to pick from the NT I'd choose Mark, every time.

3. What is your favorite story from the Hebrew Scriptures? Today I think I'd go with Zelophehad's Daughters (from Numbers 27), or perhaps the widow who feeds Elijah and her jar of meal never runs out (1 Kings 17).

4. What is your favorite story from the Christian Scriptures? Mark 2, where the four people bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus and dig through the roof to get him in, and Jesus looks at them, sees their faith, and heals their friend.

5. What verse do you wish people would quote less often? John 3.16. Seriously? That's the best we can do? I might have to start sneaking in something like "1 John 3.16-17" just because it's so much better, and a subtle enough difference that people might not notice until later, and maybe they'll look it up. Or just noting lots of other 3.16s (both letters to Timothy have great chapter 3-verse-16, for instance...).

Bonus: What is your favorite obscure fact or verse or story or thing about the Bible? I don't know if this is my favorite or not, but I think it's my favorite thing I learned this summer when preaching through really strange things during the Bible in 90 Days...Jephthah says to his daughter that he has made a vow and he is therefore required to fulfill it. That's not true. I would never have noticed this if we hadn't just read the Torah a couple of days before, but: in the midst of all the lists of punishment for not fulfilling a solemn vow, there are provisions for what to do if a vow turns out to require something illegal (child sacrifice, for instance), and also monetary offerings that can be made if a sacrifice is impractical. So Jephthah's daughter was sacrificed to his ego and his just-enough-knowledge-to-be-dangerous, not to his vow. #thatllpreach

Thanks for playing!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Starry Night--a sermon on Abraham and God in Genesis 15

Rev. Teri Peterson
Starry Night
Genesis 15.1-6
18 September 2016, NL3-2, H1-2 (In God We Trust)

When God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home in Ur and go to a new land, they went without question, believing God’s promise of descendants as numerous as grains of sand, trusting that God would use them to bless the whole world. When the camp grew too large for the land to sustain all the herds and people, Abram’s nephew Lot took his part of the family and animals, and went to settle in another area. During a war between Canaanite tribes, Lot was kidnapped by raiders. Abram took his men and went to battle the hostile tribe, rescuing Lot and all his family and their possessions. Abram then refused to take any of the spoils of war, returning home having received only a blessing from the high priest of the area where Lot lived. We pick up the story from there, in Genesis 15, which can be found on page __ in your pew Bible if you’d like to follow along.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

They did all the right things.

They married and built a life—by most accounts a successful life with many animals and people, though no children, which meant Sarah was considered a failure.
They heard God’s call and followed—God said “go” and they went, without knowing where or why exactly.
They believed God’s promise—land, heirs too numerous to count, blessing for the world.
They looked out for their family, rescuing nephew Lot and the others who’d been captured in battle.
But still…a fairly major part of the picture was missing.

There were no children.

That part of the promise where God said Abram and Sarai would be a great nation, with so many descendants they would fill the whole earth…it was not only not fulfilled, it was impossible. They were in their 80s now, and their life and future were less secure than ever.

They probably thought about it every day. They’d done everything right, followed all the directions…perhaps they even went back over their memories, year by year, wondering where they’d gone wrong to end up in this situation. How did they get to this point, where all they’d worked for would be left to a slave because there were no children to inherit? They never thought this was how it would turn out.

And now here’s God, promising yet again “your reward shall be very great.” And I can practically hear Abraham’s sarcastic “thanks a lot, God”…because what good is a great reward if there’s no one to pass it on to? There’s no one to remember when he’s gone, no one to carry on the legacy of promise or even just of hard work. So there’s no point in collecting more stuff or more wealth, because soon it will all be over anyway. What can God possibly give that would matter to someone whose family has no future?

I suspect many of us have had some variation of this feeling—wondering if all the work we’ve put in might be for nothing. Maybe because life just hasn’t gone according to plan. Maybe because there’s no next generation to pick up the things that have been important to us. Maybe because we’re struggling in ourselves, wondering if God’s promise is really true, or if that really was God’s call we followed or some other voice.

One of my favorite things about this story is how blunt Abram is. He barely lets God get a word in edgewise as the accusing words tumble out—“what will you give me? You promised children, but there are none. I had to come up with someone to put in my will, because you didn’t.” He point blank says that God has fallen down on the job, has broken the promise, and that has real consequences. He doesn't mince words, or try to be nice, or flatter God…he just says what he’s feeling.

And God answers him. God doesn’t gloss over Abram’s worries or frustration or grief, and doesn’t just reiterate the previous promise as if Abram hadn’t heard the first time. There are no platitudes or clich├ęs here. God meets Abram right where he is—sad and angry and tired and confused.

And there, with Abram’s accusation hanging in the air between them, God ushers Abram out of the tent and points him to the starry night.
Van Gogh's vision of the starry night
After speaking specifically to the Eliezer question, God lifts Abram’s eyes out of the swirling vortex of despair he’d thought his way into, and told him to look at the swirling expanse of the universe instead. Abram looked up and saw light that came from thousands of years ago, shining in the sky. He saw the milky way, like a carpet runner across the sky. He saw millions and millions of stars…each placed there by the same God who was now speaking with him.

Think for a moment about the starry night sky. We can’t see it very well here, but even though we have obscured it with our own lights, it’s still there. Thousands of generations have passed since that light began to move toward us. And there is nothing we can do to stop it from twinkling for a thousand more generations after us.

Look into the sky, God says—try to count. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
That is what I have in mind for you.

God answers Abram, not with the pragmatic solution he’d hoped for, but with the gift of insight into God’s plan—which is far bigger than anything we can count or imagine. The practical part of the answer comes later, well after they try to take matters into their own hands and force God’s promise to their timetable. But along the way, every night, there’s the reminder: God’s intention is as long lasting as the stars, and as vast as the universe, and there is nothing we can do to stop it shining.

This answer seems to have worked for Abram, at least for the night. He cleared the air with God, and he caught a glimpse of God’s vision, and he trusted God’s word.

And then comes this little line: Abram trusted God, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. Remember that righteousness means to-be-in-right-relationship—so Abram trusted God, and God put Abram into right relationship with him.

But I learned this week that the Hebrew is actually kind of vague here. The translation we read today adds a word to clear it up, but in reality, it’s unclear. We read through the lens of the letter to the Hebrews, and assume it was the Lord who reckoned righteousness to Abram. On its own, the Hebrew simply says “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness”…and who is “he” and who is “him” is ambiguous. So there are some who say that it was Abram who reckoned God righteous—believing God was someone trustworthy and caring and real with whom he could be in right relationship.

Or perhaps it works both ways. God worked on Abram, and Abram worked on God, and between the two of them trust built up, and their relationship grew and matured. After all, a right-relationship will never be static, and it will certainly never be one-sided, or dishonest or inauthentic. Abram was painfully honest, and God listened and responded. Not the practical but shallow response Abram wanted right at that moment, but the response he needed to keep moving toward God’s goal. Together, Abram and God trusted each other.

And starry night after starry night, God’s promise is true, and God’s presence is real, and God’s compassion can never be extinguished…whether we worry about our future or our past, what we have done right and what we have done wrong, when we and God trust each other, it will be reckoned as righteousness. With God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.