Sunday, February 14, 2016

Real Live Camels--a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

Rev. Teri Peterson
Real Live Camels
Mark 10.17-31
14 February 2016, Lent 1, NL2-23

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

I remember distinctly the very first time I heard this story. I was in high school, and it was my first time in a church service. I was a hired musician for the day at a Presbyterian church across town from my house, in West Valley which was everything you imagine when you hear those words.

This story was read and I thought “dang, this guy doesn’t mess around.”

The pastor stood up and I will never forget his first words: “Jesus doesn’t mean you have to sell all your stuff and give away all your money.”

I have no idea what the rest of the sermon was about, because in one sentence he proved to me every stereotype of religion was true. Not only did they not really believe this Jesus guy, but they were going to find a way to twist his words to justify their big houses, nice cars, and sparkly jewelry while over in my neighborhood my family was helping out a woman who couldn’t afford olives to make Thanksgiving dinner special for her kids.

In one sentence, he told me, on my first visit to a church, that going to church wasn’t about being like Jesus.

There were two services that day. I stayed through the special music at the second and then, when I was finished playing, I left, in the middle of the service. I had no need or interest to hear the sermon a second time—I’d heard plenty. I didn’t go into church for several years after that, though I certainly talked about that one time.

The way that pastor probably interpreted the story is a common one—that Jesus was speaking only to this man, or that he was saying that the things that get in the way of our relationship with God need to go (but that might not be possessions and money for all of us). He probably perpetuated the myth that there was a small gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle”—a myth created in the middle ages by a preacher who wanted to soften the blow of Jesus’ words for his patron. Or maybe he used the one about the word “camel” and the word “rope” being very similar.

Here’s the thing about those interpretations: they sound an awful lot like a way to justify our comfortable lifestyles and very little like Jesus. And when I hear it, I wonder what else we’re willing to justify, regardless of what Jesus says? We already talk our way around “love your enemies” and around “put away your sword” and “blessed are the peacemakers.” When someone listens to us talk about these things Jesus said, do they assume the same thing I did that day 20 years ago—that we have no intention of even trying to be Christlike?

Jesus is pretty blunt in this story. We are always listening to parables and wondering why Jesus can’t give a straight answer…well, here’s a straight answer, but we may not like it, because it feels so very extreme.

The man seems earnest in his seeking. He wants to know how to be faithful and to experience God’s loving presence. Jesus tells him to keep commandments 5-10, the ones about not harming your neighbor—don’t murder, steal, or commit adultery, honor your father and mother. And the man says he has obeyed them all.

So Jesus looks at the man—really looks at him, sees him to his core. And Jesus loved him—loved him enough to tell him the truth: that now it was time to keep the first half of the commandments too, the ones about love rather than just not-harm. Sell everything and give the money away, and come, follow me. Jesus loved this man enough to look him in the eye and say: the idols of your life have to go—and not just your stuff, but the security it represents for you and the indifference it shows to others. Redistribute your wealth as a sign that you love God and your neighbor, and come walk this road with me.

It’s pretty extreme. Sell everything. Give it all away. The disciples protest and Jesus both commends them and reiterates: leave it all—family and property, everything that tells us who we are. He uses an example: a camel, the largest animal any of them would know, and the eye of a needle, the smallest opening any of them would regularly encounter. That’s how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom. And in case we missed the extremes at play, he finishes with “the first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We want desperately to ease our discomfort and find a way to make Jesus a proponent of moderation in all things. But there’s nothing moderate here—it’s all or nothing. Moderation was what the man wanted to hear too—he has led a good life, followed the commandments. But Jesus loved him enough to say the hard thing: that the path to abundant life is not wide enough for all that he carried.

this is me, riding a camel in September 2005.
Riding a camel is not that comfortable.
And the man was shocked and went away grieving. We look at him with sadness, wishing he’d had the guts to follow Jesus, when really, first of all, we don’t know if he did or not. Jesus said Go and the man went…his grief doesn’t mean he didn’t then do what Jesus said. After all, if we followed those instructions, I suspect we would grieve along the way too. We don’t know the rest of his story, or what he did with those words straight from the mouth of God.

And secondly, most of us have no intention of following Jesus this way either. Now, maybe some of us are already sacrificial givers, tithing and giving an offering that represents our gratitude for what God has done. I don’t know about you but I'm uncomfortable with Jesus’ words here. I’m no biblical literalist, but I have to wonder: what if he meant it? Finding out that the whole gate thing and the camel-rope mix-up thing were both made up by preachers as uncomfortable as I am, and that Jesus is almost certainly talking about a real live camel and an actual tiny needle as a representation of how hard it will be for me—because even though I am not wealthy here, I am on a global scale—to enter the kingdom of God…well, let’s just say that shocked and grieving are polite descriptions of how I feel about it.

If we want him to be talking about something else, I think we need to be honest about that—that we would rather Jess be talking to us about something else that gets in the way of our ability to follow him. And then whatever that thing is, we need to see if we’re willing to be just as extreme. Are we willing to give up every little bit of our partisan rancor and bickering, and actually work for the common good? Are we willing to give up every aspect of our love of violence—in our language, in our posturing, in our search for security—and instead learn to love our enemy? Are we willing to give up our nationalism and seek peace for all of God’s world? Are we willing to completely wipe out our indifference to the way other people are affected by our economic and social and political choices? Are we willing to give up any sense that we can secure our own safety or construct our own identity, and place our trust entirely in God? Or are we looking for ways we can make Jesus a moderate?

Lent is a season when we often disrupt our routine—maybe we fast from something, or maybe we take on something new. It’s a season when we examine our interior lives and look for ways to get rid of those things that hinder our discipleship, those things that we have decided—whether consciously or unconsciously—are more important than God’s call.

Jesus looks at us and loves us—not like hallmark cards and pink hearts love, but like giving everything including himself to us love. This isn’t a candy-hearts crush, it’s the kind of love that speaks truth and calls us into real life. To follow him will ask much of us. To follow him will turn everything we know upside down. To follow him will change us, and change the world. For with God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016


Tonight I had dinner with a friend/colleague at an adorable little place on the adorable little square in Woodstock. It's a charming store front with careful architectural details dating back a century--a chocolatier (bean to bar) in front, and a bar/cafe at the back. Along the side are comfy chairs and a fake fireplace. At the back is an old-style bar, all shiny dark wood. They make delicious inventive cocktails and small plates combining flavors you would never expect (just like their chocolate does too).

It was a lovely dinner and great conversation ranging from sheep to church to travel to hobbies to luxurious experiences to books and back again.

And when we left, it was snowing onto the trees and brick streets and sidewalks lined with iron railings, with the old-school street lights giving off a warm glow, and the bank's readerboard said it was -76 degrees (hahahahah). As I brushed the snow off my car, classical music played over hidden speakers throughout the whole square. That's right--even at 8pm on a Monday night, when nearly no one is around, still they are playing Mozart in the town square.

As I drove home I thought about how very civilized the whole evening had been--from the music to the food and everything in between. It's the same feeling that makes me love The Thomas Jefferson Hour--because the theme music makes me feel so civilized and intellectual and normal. Which I realize could also be translated as "elite." But I think that's one of the things I like about both these experiences--that the civilized feel is accessible to everyone. The classical music is playing in the square. The podcast is free. The architecture is there for everyone to admire. The menu may not be accessible to many (it's one of those places where they make everything and use as much local stuff as possible, and that's not cheap but it is good for my neighbors and community and economy) but even just reading over the menu and its imaginative contents is an exercise in expanding the mind.

It so often feels like our culture is spinning out of control toward demagoguery and incivility. People are mean to each other on the internet and in person. It's almost impossible to be a woman online and not receive harassment or even death threats. Our politicians shout at each other and demean one another's person, not just disagree with their ideas. Our popular culture is full of violence. Our education system leans on tests rather than on education, cutting everything that can't be standardized.  (aside: watch this. Then do something to make sure every kid has a chance to connect their brains like this. it'll make the world a better place in so many different ways.)

And into the middle of that: Mozart was playing in the town square as snowflakes floated into the glowing light. Reminding me of who we really are, or at least who I want to be.

**yes, I realize that the way I'm using the word "civilized" is loaded with racial and cultural bias. I keep trying to find another word to encompass what I mean and I don't have one yet. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

lifesavers--a sermon for transfiguration sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Mark 8.27-9.8
7 February 2016, Transfiguration, NL2-22, Epiphany 6 (A-Ha Moments)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

This winter I have been reading a series of novels in which the main character is a scientist who travels the world studying dragons and getting into all kinds of scrapes and adventures along the way. She learns languages and makes friends in many cultures, she gets herself into and out of trouble, and she watches dragons underwater, on volcanoes, from ships, in trees, and flying through the air. She is working intensely to try to learn as much as possible about them, for a variety of reasons. After one particularly thrilling day of research, she has an incredible idea that seems to put all the pieces in place. She talks it over with a colleague, who agrees it is a real breakthrough deserving of more study…and so she writes an article and mails it off to a journal, from halfway around the world.

Within a few days of mailing the article, she sees something else, and her whole theory falls apart…but the mail is long gone and her own ship is far from port. By the end of the book, she is writing a new column retracting the previous one, and dealing with all the scrutiny and mockery that comes with her public confusion, even as she puts forth new and better research.

I couldn’t help but think of our Epiphany theme as I was reading about Lady Trent this weekend. The ups and downs of a-ha moments can be confusing! One minute, we see so clearly, and then when we have to integrate that new insight into our lives, everything seems so mixed up and muddy.

And so it is with Peter.

He has been watching Jesus, soaking up as much teaching as he can, seeing him heal bodies and communities against all odds. And in the middle of all the many temples to the god Pan that fill Caesarea Philippi, he sees so clearly, for just a moment, and in that moment Peter is the first to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah.

A few minutes later, he is plunged back into confusion as Jesus starts to talk about what this means. Peter understands all the words, but can’t make sense of them when they are put together. Surely Jesus can’t be serious.

So Peter, still giddy from his a-ha moment, knowing he got the right answer last time, decides to teach the teacher that this is no way to talk and really he should be careful not to mess up his Messiah-image.

He gets in front, and puts his idea of who Jesus is and what he should do ahead of what Jesus is actually saying. It’s like he published his essay when he only had half the information. He knew who Jesus was, but he hadn’t yet figured out what that meant.

Can you picture the scene? 11 disciples behind Jesus, following his steps and hanging on his every word. Peter in front of Jesus, telling him what to do.

And Jesus turns his body around and says “get behind me.”

Where disciples should be—right behind the rabbi, following his way.

Not in front, leading with their own agenda and ideas and preconceived notions. To be a follower of Jesus means following where he’s going, not leading him where we’re going. When Peter tried to be the leader rather than the follower, Jesus called him Satan—the adversary. Putting our own agenda, whether that is about what we want for ourselves or how we expect God to treat others or anything else, ahead of Christ’s agenda, means we are working against the kingdom, rather than for it. And Jesus reminds us of the difference between a disciple and an adversary: the disciple is behind Jesus, walking in his footsteps, not in front using our fear or our pride or our self-interest or our desire to block him from carrying out his mission. When we follow, we are never alone, and every place we go is a place Christ has been already.

So he calls the whole crowd—because Peter is all of us. To the whole crowd of people in this busy city—to all of us reading his words in the midst of our busy lives—Jesus explains what it means to be a follower of the Messiah.

They, and we, have seen what he does—his actions and his teaching, his priorities and consistency. The Messiah is the one who has been through every village in the country, touching unclean people, accepting foreigners, healing bodies that seemed irretrievably broken, putting communities back together in configurations no one knew they needed, teaching people a new way of living that isn’t defined by their status in the empire but by their status as people created in God’s image. The Messiah is the one who has fed every person and then some, who has inspired people to work together in ways they never imagined, and who has offered the same relationship and care to the poorest and the wealthiest, the Roman and the Jew, the religious leader and the bleeding woman.

This is the Messiah we follow. And in order to follow him, he says, we will have to lose our lives. If our priorities include strengthening our image, gaining wealth and power, saving our institution, or fretting about our security, we may hear those same words from Jesus: get behind me. You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Our human minds dwell on protecting our interests, climbing the ladder, assuaging our fear, getting what we want. But the divine mind seems to dwell on the people who are weak, unwanted, poor, rejected, despised. The divine mind seems to dwell on creating a world where no one goes hungry, no one is cast out, no one is judged even subconsciously by the color of their skin or the balance of their bank account or the size of their muscle or their accent or their win-loss record. It is this mind we are called to—the mind of Christ, who is the head of this body—and we are called to undertake his mission even at the risk of losing our life. Because when we try to save the way of life we like, we will lose the life that matters. Abundant life is possible, even now, but we will live into it only if we stop trying to win the good life we so often want instead.

Peter resumes his place behind Jesus. A week later, he and James and John hike up a mountain with Jesus and catch a glimpse of glory. They have a moment together, seeing just for an instant who Jesus is. And then Peter…god bless Peter…he gets out in front again, offering to build a village for them to live in together on top of the mountain, where people can take pilgrimages to see the holy men. And once again I can just picture Jesus’ face as he looks up to heaven in exasperation: seriously? This time God’s voice comes from the clouds: This is my Son—listen to him.

Listen to him.

Set aside what you think you know, and listen to him.
Let go of how he should work, and listen to him.
Take off the mask of “fine” and listen to him.
Lay down the burden of safety and self-interest, and listen to him.
Put away your shame and your pride, and listen to him.

Jesus said, those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
Jesus said, love God will all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus said, give to God what is God’s.
Jesus said, bring them to me—outcast, disposable, useless, dirty, homeless, unlovable, children, women, foreigners. Faith has restored you to wholeness.
Jesus said, the first will be last, and the last will be first.
Jesus said, love your enemies.
Jesus said, I will be with you, I will go before you, do not be afraid.
Jesus said, you give them something to eat.
Jesus said, get behind and come, and follow me.

May we hear and obey. Amen.