Monday, July 31, 2017

Advice--a sermon on Moses & Jethro (exodus 18)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Marchmont St. Giles
Exodus 18.1, 5-27
30 July 2017

Jethro, Midian’s priest and Moses’ father-in-law, heard about everything that God had done for Moses and for God’s people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife back to him in the desert where he had set up camp at God’s mountain. He sent word to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you along with your wife and her two sons.” Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him. They asked each other how they were doing, and then they went into the tent. Moses then told his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on Israel’s behalf, all the difficulty they had on their journey, and how the Lord had rescued them. Jethro was glad about all the good things that the Lord had done for Israel in saving them from the Egyptians’ power.
Jethro said, “Bless the Lord who rescued you from the Egyptians’ power and from Pharaoh’s power, who rescued the people from Egypt’s oppressive power. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, because of what happened when the Egyptians plotted against them.” Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought an entirely burned offering and sacrifices to God. Aaron came with all of Israel’s elders to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in God’s presence.
The next day Moses sat as a judge for the people, while the people stood around Moses from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?”
Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them. I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions.”
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing isn’t good. You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone. Now listen to me and let me give you some advice. And may God be with you! Your role should be to represent the people before God. You should bring their disputes before God yourself. Explain the regulations and instructions to them. Let them know the way they are supposed to go and the things they are supposed to do. But you should also look among all the people for capable persons who respect God. They should be trustworthy and not corrupt. Set these persons over the people as officers of groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times. They should bring every major dispute to you, but they should decide all of the minor cases themselves. This will be much easier for you, and they will share your load. If you do this and God directs you, then you will be able to endure. And all these people will be able to go back to their homes much happier.”
Moses listened to his father-in-law’s suggestions and did everything that he had said. Moses chose capable persons from all Israel and set them as leaders over the people, as officers over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They acted as judges for the people at all times. They would refer the hard cases to Moses, but all of the minor cases they decided themselves. Then Moses said good-bye to his father-in-law, and Jethro went back to his own country.

I have never experienced this myself, but I have a number of friends and family members whose voices are filled with dread when they utter the words “my in-laws are coming to visit.” For many people it seems that particular family relationship is one of the trickiest there is. Of course some people manage it beautifully, and then they talk about winning the in-law lottery, as if it’s a rare and beautiful thing to get along with the parents of one’s spouse.

When Moses received the letter saying his father-in-law was coming for a visit, we don’t know if he sighed and looked around at how much the tent needed tidying up, or wondered how quickly he could get rid of him, or if he smiled in anticipation and waited eagerly for his arrival. We know from their first encounter, several chapters ago, that Jethro was good at hospitality, that he was a successful farmer, that he loved his seven daughters, and that he was a priest of a people who shared a long-ago common ancestor and possibly a common god with the Israelites. But did Moses dread the arrival of the older man? Or look forward to it? Or just put it out of his mind because there was too much work to do?

When the two were finally together again, out there in the Sinai desert, surrounded by thousands of tents of people who were so newly free, they talked well into the night, marvelling at all the things God had done since they'd last seen each other. They worshipped together, and shared a meal with the elders in the makeshift traveling temple. And then the next day, Jethro stood off to the side and watched his son-in-law at work.

He observed carefully for the whole day, seeing how many people came seeking justice and instruction. He saw how they stood waiting, and how hard Moses was working to do the right thing for every person who sought him out. And at the end of the day, in private, he asked Moses to tell him about his work.

Only then, after watching the whole process and asking Moses directly about his job, did he utter the only words that may strike more fear than “in-laws coming to visit”—he said, “let me give you some advice.” And the combination of these two things—unsolicited advice from one’s in-laws—it’s a miracle families survive.

Yet Moses was able to receive this advice as the grace that it is. He knew that Jethro had been watching how things were going, and he’d had the chance to tell his father-in-law himself about the work he was doing… and also they were alone, not standing in front of the council or in the crowd of people clamouring for Moses’ attention. He didn’t get defensive, assuming that his father-in-law thought he was doing a bad job or believing he had to prove himself right. He didn’t accuse Jethro of meddling, nor turn to Zipporah and ask her to deal with her dad. He listened, and took the advice to heart.

For his part, Jethro gave his advice following the same spirit with which Paul would later instruct the church: “speak the truth in love.” He worried about Moses getting burned out, and about the inefficient system that was sure to result in people being unhappy or maybe even unruly. He reminded Moses that no one person can fulfil God’s kingdom vision alone. It is too big a job, and requires many people working together.

All the while, Jethro kept the conversation centred where it belonged: on God. This wasn’t about whether Moses was good or bad, or about what Jethro wanted or thought was best. It was about teaching people God’s ways, and communicating between God and the people, and leading the whole community in becoming the people God made them to be. If Moses was able to focus on teaching and big picture issues, then the people would be able to be faithful without having to always come to him with every question. He could, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, “equip the saints for ministry.” 

By centering his advice on God, rather than on himself, Jethro acted like a good spiritual director, a mentor who helped Moses see God’s way more clearly. He became a vehicle for grace, not just another unsolicited advice-giver. And Moses was able to hear his advice in the spirit in which it was given—literally, by the Spirit of God whose desire is not for one person to do all the work, seeking glory or power, but for the whole Body to function together in harmony so that all might have abundant life. 

In this exchange, we can find the roots of the way we still organise the church today. Some are called to lead and equip the saints for ministry, and some are called from among the congregation for all the day to day tasks that make up the church: teaching and caring and organising and reaching out and singing and praying and repairing and planning and serving.

All of that from one ancient visit from the in-laws.

There’s one last thing about Jethro’s advice to his son-in-law that I think is so interesting. In addition to his gift of observation, listening, discernment, and direction, he also stayed for just long enough. He didn’t give his advice and then get up from the table and say “well, good luck with that, I’ll be going now.” Nor did he move in permanently and micromanage Moses’ life and work. It appears that he stayed as a support through the tricky time of transition, as Moses sought the right people and equipped them, and as he taught the congregation this new way of living together. I imagine he was there at the end of the day when Moses wanted to talk, and he probably helped keep both Moses and the people focused on what God was doing rather than on their own desires for honour or accolades.

And then, when the system was up and running, he went home. He trusted that God was leading this people, and that Moses was perfectly capable of equipping the saints, and so he went on his way, back to his flocks and his people.

I think all of us need a Jethro—someone who can help us see how we might better live out our calling. And all of us need to be a Jethro, too—to guide and teach, in a spirit of love and compassion, without attaching ourselves too closely to the outcomes. That’s part of what it means to be the family of God: we are all always both learning and teaching, as we seek to be faithful together, generation to generation.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Found Family--a sermon on Ruth

Rev. Teri Peterson
Marchmont St. Giles, Edinburgh
Found Family
Ruth (most of the book) (CEB)
16 July 2017

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.
But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.
But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.
Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.
Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.
So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem.

They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field so that I may glean among the ears of grain behind someone in whose eyes I might find favor.”
Naomi replied to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she went; she arrived and she gleaned in the field behind the harvesters. By chance, it happened to be the portion of the field that belonged to Boaz, who was from the family of Elimelech.
Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem. He said to the harvesters, “May the Lord be with you.”
And they said to him, “May the Lord bless you.”
Boaz said to his young man who was overseeing the harvesters, “To whom does this young woman belong?”
He answered, “She’s a young Moabite woman, the one who returned with Naomi from the territory of Moab. She said, ‘Please let me glean so that I might gather up grain from among the bundles behind the harvesters.’ She arrived and has been on her feet from the morning until now, and has sat down for only a moment.”
Boaz said to Ruth, “Haven’t you understood, my daughter? Don’t go glean in another field; don’t go anywhere else. Instead, stay here with my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that they are harvesting and go along after them. I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you. Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs and drink from what the young men have filled.”
Then she bowed down, face to the ground, and replied to him, “How is it that I’ve found favor in your eyes, that you notice me? I’m an immigrant.”
At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here, eat some of the bread, and dip your piece in the vinegar.” She sat alongside the harvesters, and he served roasted grain to her. She ate, was satisfied, and had leftovers. Then she got up to glean.
Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her glean between the bundles, and don’t humiliate her. Also, pull out some from the bales for her and leave them behind for her to glean. And don’t scold her.”
So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed what she had gleaned; it was about an ephah of barley. She picked it up and went into town. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She brought out what she had left over after eating her fill and gave it to her.
Thus Ruth stayed with Boaz’s young women, gleaning until the completion of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law.
Naomi said to Ruth, “My daughter, shouldn’t I seek security for you, so that things might go well for you? Now isn’t Boaz, whose young women you were with, our relative? Tonight he will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. You should bathe, put on some perfume, wear nice clothes, and then go down to the threshing floor. Don’t make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, notice the place where he is lying. Then go, uncover his feet, and lie down. And he will tell you what to do.”
Ruth replied to her, “I’ll do everything you are telling me.” So she went down to the threshing floor, and she did everything just as her mother-in-law had ordered.

In the morning, Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there. Just then, the redeemer about whom Boaz had spoken was passing by. He said, “Sir, come over here and sit down.” So he turned aside and sat down. Then he took ten men from the town’s elders and said, “Sit down here.” And they sat down.
Boaz said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has returned from the field of Moab, is selling the portion of the field that belonged to Elimelech. I thought that I should let you know and say, ‘Buy it, in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you won’t redeem it, tell me so that I may know. There isn’t anyone to redeem it except you, and I’m next in line after you.”
He replied, “I will redeem it.”
Then Boaz said, “On the day when you buy the field from Naomi, you also buy Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead man, in order to preserve the dead man’s name for his inheritance.”
But the redeemer replied, “Then I can’t redeem it for myself, without risking damage to my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself. You can have my right of redemption, because I’m unable to act as redeemer.”
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife.
He was intimate with her, the Lord let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi, “May the Lord be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They called his name Obed. He became Jesse’s father and David’s grandfather.


Yesterday afternoon I spent a few minutes perusing the website It’s a place where people can find groups that share interests—everything from walking to horror movies, sparkling wine to raw food, board games to a cappella singing, and so much more. There are multiple groups that offer people the chance to just go out for lunch of after-work drinks so they don’t have to get a table for one. Many groups here in Edinburgh say that they organize small events so that people can really get to know one another, rather than feeling lost in a crowd. There are hundreds of groups, and some have thousands of members. Nearly every group I clicked on said some variation of the same goal: to make friends.

This is something that comes up a lot when I talk to people my age—we don’t know how to make friends as adults, now that we don’t have the built-in community of a university residence hall or the familiarity of school friends, and most of us didn’t get married and have children right out of college. Our individualistic culture has left many people, of every generation, not just mine, lonely. We are longing for connection, common ground, people with whom we can laugh and cry and explore and learn and share and eat. 

That longing is where Naomi found herself after her husband and sons had died. She was alone, or thought she was. When she returned to her hometown she even told people not to call her Naomi anymore—because it means “pleasant”—but to call her Mara, which means “bitter.” Yet through all her lonely and sad days, a younger woman walked beside her on the road. Ruth, a foreigner and a generation younger, insisted on staying…and then not just staying by Naomi’s side, but going out to find friends for them both, building up a community once again, without even the internet to help.

I have probably read the book of Ruth a dozen times, and somehow have never noticed the sheer number of people in the cast of characters. We usually just focus on Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, and then move on to the fact that Ruth, a foreign immigrant, became the great-grandmother of King David and therefore ancestor of Jesus. But in addition to them, we find Boaz’s workers, and the womenfolk who work in the fields beside Ruth. There are ten men who witness to the scene at the city gate between Boaz and the other possible redeemer. There are women who surround Naomi at the end of the story, celebrating all that God has done, and are even the ones to name Ruth’s son. In just four short chapters, Naomi and Ruth go from being an unlikely pair—an older Israelite woman and a younger Gentile woman, alone in the world, vulnerable, outcast, dependent on the mercy of strangers—to being the center of a found family, brought together not by blood but by faithfulness. 

Ruth tells Naomi “where you go, I will go…your God will be my God…your people will be my people…” She has seen Naomi’s faith, and that inspires her own. And back in Bethlehem, it is Boaz’s faithfulness to God’s law in Deuteronomy that makes his field safe and prosperous for those in need to glean behind the workers. The women who gather round sing praise to God who has brought them together and made a new family where once there was only despair, starting with the simple love between two generations of women.

It’s a beautiful picture of what the church can be. What if the Body of Christ was where we found family? The connection people are looking for through meetup and Facebook is built in to our calling. The family of the church is bound together by faithfulness, across bounds of age and race and class, as we share where we have seen God at work, and give thanks together. The vulnerable are cared for, the privileged stand up for what is right, people in the midst of grief or trauma or stress are surrounded with support. In our baptismal vows we offer young people extra aunts and uncles and grandparents to nurture them, and those whose relatives live far away find people with whom to share their stories and wisdom. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep…we learn from one another, and lean on each other when we feel like we’re wandering in the wilderness, and offer our resources to those in need. Because God first loved us, we love…like family, for that is what we are.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Blinded--a sermon on 1 Samuel 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
Marchmont St. Giles, Edinburgh
1 Samuel 3.1-21
2 July 2017

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.
The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
(Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
The Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”
Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the Lord’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”
“I’m here,” Samuel said.
“What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.
“He is the Lord, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”
So Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the Lord’s prophet. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh because the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh through the Lord’s own word.


When I arrived at my first church as a brand new minister, I discovered that one of the things the church had been putting off doing until the new minister arrived was a confirmation class. They had 20 teenagers waiting, and no plan. Among my first tasks, therefore, was to recruit several teachers and at least 20 mentors who would work with these young people one-on-one. 

In making what felt like a hundred phone calls, I lost count of the number of adults who told me they were afraid to talk to children.

Afraid of what, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps afraid that the teens would only know how to talk about mobile phones and video games? Worried that they didn’t know how to have a conversation without a script or curriculum? Or maybe afraid that the kids would have questions about God that they didn’t know how to answer? 

I wonder how Eli felt when Hannah dropped off Samuel at the temple, saying “this is the child I prayed for that day we last spoke—here, he’s dedicated to God, so take him in and teach him.” I wonder if he was afraid he wouldn’t have anything in common with a four year old, and wouldn’t be able to relate to him. Did he worry about how to talk about the God that Hannah had promised Samuel to serve?

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about people’s feelings or inner thought processes, but in this case I think it’s possible that Eli felt ill prepared for this task. His own sons were corrupt and he didn’t know how to set them right. And here, a few years after Hannah had left Samuel in the temple, we discover that in spite of his religious duties and his presence beside the ark of the covenant day and night, Samuel does not yet know the Lord, and God’s word has not been revealed to him.

It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To get so caught up in the tasks of the church that we never get around to knowing the Lord. And it’s easy to pass that on, too, as we inadvertently communicate that church or faith is an obligation grown ups bear, rather than a body, a relationship, a way of living, or a family where all are valued. Yet it is to Samuel that God speaks. Even though he doesn’t have the right education or credentials or anywhere near enough years of sitting in the pew or serving on a committee…even though he hasn’t yet been taught, even though to him God is more like a piece of furniture than a living Word…Samuel is still known, by name. God knows where to find him, and how to call him, and God waits patiently while Samuel learns how to be in this new relationship he didn’t even know to expect.

Eli has lost his sight—which, granted, was never particularly good in the first place. When he first met Hannah at prayer, what he saw was a drunken woman, rather than a person pouring out her heart to God. He could not see her, he could only see his assumptions about her. The same seems to be true when Samuel appears at his bedside at night…it takes three tries before reality breaks through. Perhaps he thought Samuel was too young, or too inexperienced, or too ignorant of God’s ways. I suspect many of us have thought the same when a young person has spoken up. Perhaps he was so used to doing things on his own without God that it didn’t occur to him that the Spirit’s voice could still speak. Maybe he was just tired—after all, his own sons were grown, so why did he now have to deal with teaching another round of Sunday School? Whatever the case, he was blinded, whether by his assumptions, his fear, his arrogance, or his apathy.

Once Eli begins to see, though, he becomes the mentor Samuel has needed. He passes on what he knows of prayer, and Samuel heeds his advice and runs back to his bed, probably practicing his lines as he made his way through the dark temple. When God stands at the foot of the bed again, Samuel is ready—or as ready as any of us ever can be. He responds to the voice calling his name, and he listens carefully for what the Lord has to say. 

What God has to say at this moment is actually a message for Eli. Perhaps Eli’s blindness extended also to his ability to hear the voice himself. Now, through the collaboration of mentor and student, elder and child, the word of the Lord was becoming known once again. Remember at the beginning of the story we heard that the Lord’s word was rare at the time…and by the end, God is appearing again and again and all the people are hearing the word. In between, a community develops between adult and young person in the house of the Lord.

A little while ago, I heard about a nursing home in Seattle that is also home to a preschool. Every weekday, the home is filled with small children running about, playing games, talking to residents, learning social skills and colors and counting. There are stories of residents with dementia suddenly speaking clearly when they encounter the group of children, and of older people becoming more lively when the children are present, and stories of children becoming accepting of a wide variety of abilities and adaptive devices. 

Similarly, in Denmark there is a home where university students live in the empty rooms, spending time with the elderly residents in lieu of paying rent. The students teach their neighbors how to use the computer, they play games and do puzzles, watch movies, eat meals, and hang out together. Both young and old say they love learning from each other and they are less lonely.

So much of our world is stratified by age—we separate out year by year, until we almost never spend time with people older or younger than ourselves, let alone people of different skin colors or religious backgrounds, which makes it much easier to see our assumptions or our fears, rather than to see people, let alone to see what God might be doing. It often feels like the word of the Lord is rare in our days, just as it was when Samuel was a child. But perhaps it’s that we haven’t learned to listen. What would happen if we purposely built relationships across all those lines of age and experience? If we learned to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”—not just in our own beds at night, but also in the presence of our neighbors young and old? Eli and Samuel were able to put aside their blindness and their fear and learn from one another, and it was through their speaking and listening that God was revealed, not just to them but to the whole land.

We might find that we are asked questions we’ve never thought of before, or taught ways of knowing God we haven't encountered. We might discover a deeper faith as we pass on our experience. We might have to make room for other ways of understanding, or for a word from God we didn't particularly wish to hear…but isn't that always the risk when we say “speak, Lord”? We would definitely find that each of us is already known, and loved, and valued…and as we grow together, we will likely find ourselves standing on holy ground.

May it be so. Amen.