Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Evidence of Faith—a sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
Evidence of Faith
Jeremiah 1.4-10, 7.1-11
25 November 2018, NL1-12, Christ the King, To See Ourselves 6

The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’
‘Alas, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am too young.’
But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am too young.” You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’

We are now about a hundred years on from where we left off with the prophet Isaiah last week, and about 15 years on from the first chapter of the reading we heard a few minutes ago—roughly between the years 615-600 BCE. Jeremiah has grown up, and the king who worked for reform and tried to bring people to faithfulness has died and been succeeded by one who is opposed to those reforms. Today Jeremiah stands at the gate of the Temple as people from all around the country arrive for a festival that begins with worship. We pick up the story in chapter 7, reading from verses 1-11, which can be found on page ___.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
‘“Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
‘“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’– safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.


Many years ago now I overheard someone say “going into a garage doesn’t make you a car, why do we think going to church makes us a Christian?” It’s the kind of question that I think Jeremiah would have liked. He stood at the gate of the Temple, the building where God’s glory dwelled, the building that symbolised all God’s promises to the people, the building where people made sacrifices they thought would maintain their relationship with God...and what he saw was an awful lot of people whose lives on all the other days of the week didn’t match up. 

Sometimes it feels like maybe not much has changed, as one of the most common things I have heard about church—in fact I just heard it again last night at a dinner party—is that it’s full of hypocrites, people who say one thing and do another. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace, and yet we arm for war. We hear Jesus say that whatever we do to the least of these, we have done to him, and then we walk by people who are homeless and hungry and turn away our eyes. We let the words “love your neighbour” fall from our lips, and we gossip about the person down the road or we allow others around us to make jokes that are sexist or racist or homophobic.

And then, as Jeremiah observed, we go to church and say the right words and do the right actions and believe ourselves safe for another week. 

My response to the charge about churches being full of hypocrites is that every week, worship begins with a prayer of confession. We admit, out loud, that we have not lived up to the calling with which we have been called. It’s hard to be a hypocrite if we start by saying we failed and want to do better....unless, of course, we don’t actually mean it when we say we want to do better.

The people of Jeremiah’s time believed that God lived in the Temple, and God had given them this land, and that both of these were unchangeable realities. This sermon of Jeremiah’s, given at the entrance to the Temple, to the thousands of people streaming in for a festival, would not have made him very popular. No one likes to have their idolatry or their lies called out in such a public way. 

But Jeremiah had been appointed to uproot and to tear down, to built and to plant. He had felt God’s words enter his mouth and his heart and his bones, and he couldn’t help but tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it was. In a culture that thrives on lies, truth tellers will always arise, but we may not want to hear them.

And it was a lie that was at the centre of the problem. The lie the people told themselves, about who God was and who they were, about what mattered to God, and about the purpose of worship. Rather than worship being a time of re-orienting to God, changing their hearts and lives, repenting and trying to do better at following God’s way, it had become a time for buying a few more days of God turning a blind eye to their unjust actions. They sang the songs and said the words and then went out and used immigrants for cheap labour, turned women into objects to be played with, and passed orphans around from home to home without caring about what abuse they endured. They offered their sacrifices and, with the scent still clinging to their robes, they walked past the hungry people in the street and told them to get a real job, and scrolled past the stories of food banks and benefits cuts and said it was a shame. They looked around at the big and beautiful building, huge stones and high ceilings and wonderful artwork, and it fed their ambition to get more for themselves, to surround themselves with pretty and enormous things so they wouldn’t have to see the despair, the fear, the need around them.

They could not see the lie they had built their lives on. And so Jeremiah opens their time of worship with a call to confession, a call to see themselves clearly, to admit their wrongdoing and ask for God’s help to do better. He says “do not trust in deceptive words”...and he reminds them that the best evidence of one’s faith is a changed life. 

As Richard Rohr put it: Just as worship begins in holy expectancy, it ends in holy obedience. If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship.”

If our encounter with God in the worship of the Christian Community doesn’t change us, move us toward a new way of living in the world, a more compassionate relationship with our neighbours, a more justice-oriented way of making decisions or doing our work, a more peaceful way of speaking and acting...have we encountered God? Or only our own ideas about God?

Today is Christ the King Sunday—a festival created in 1925 in an attempt to counter the rising tide of fascist nationalism in Europe. It’s a day meant to remind us of our true loyalty, and to call us to live as subjects of Christ our King, rather than as part of any one nation or people or language. It is particularly meaningful, I think, that the Narrative Lectionary places Jeremiah’s Temple sermon on Christ the King Sunday. In a political and cultural world that is often built on a western church that often values buildings over a period of history when nationalism is again on the rise...we need these words, calling us to see ourselves as God sees us. Or perhaps even to remember that God sees us outside of our church buildings, and that our behaviour Monday through Saturday matters as much as our attendance on Sunday does. 

Christ the King begs us to be honest, to trust in the truth, and to live according to that truth, to let our everyday lives be evidence of faith—that God is love; that God cares about those whom the world ignores or uses for its own ends; that God believes we are capable of building the kingdom of heaven on earth, and entrusts to us the ministry of reconciliation and justice; that we belong together, and the suffering of one member of the body will, somehow, be felt throughout the body, even if we try to ignore it; that no matter our age or ability or where we are on the journey of life and faith, God has a calling for us and a desire for us and a vision, a plan, for the flourishing of all life...not just some, not just those who look or speak like us, not just those who were born here, not just those who can afford it...all life. 

If our worship is to mean anything, it must be accompanied by living as if these things are true—because they are. And our lives are the vehicle God uses to spread the message outside these walls. They’ll know we are Christians by our love—for each other, and for the world God so loves.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Messages—a sermon on Isaiah 36-37

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Isaiah 36.13-20, 37.1-7, 2.1-4
18 November 2018, NL1-11

Last week we heard from the prophet Micah, who lived in the countryside in the late 8th century BCE. Today we will hear from the prophet Isaiah, who lived at the same time, but in the city of Jerusalem.
The year is 701 BCE. For the past 20 years, the Assyrian empire has been growing, as they have taken over the many small nations around the areas that are now Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan. The northern kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes that settled north of Jerusalem, had already been swallowed up, and the people, like those of other kingdoms, had been scattered around the empire, re-located so they couldn’t gather themselves to rebel.
Everyone in Jerusalem knew what had happened to their neighbours. At the start of today’s story, the Assyrian army has the city surrounded and under siege. King Hezekiah was a faithful king, one of the few success stories to be found in the annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah. He sent his administrator, his secretary, and his recorder out to meet the general who commanded the Assyrian army, at the aqueduct that ran alongside the road toward the field where launderers worked. They asked the General to speak to them in Aramaic, which was the language of official documents and diplomatic business at the time, but was not usually understood by the average person in Jerusalem, who spoke only Hebrew.
We pick up the story of their meeting, just outside the city walls, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 36, beginning at verse 13, then continuing into chapter 37, and then ending with the prophetic poem that is now placed at chapter 2 in our English bibles. I will be reading from the Common English Bible translation, which will also be on the screen. 

Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’
“Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my power? Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”
When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”
When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumour, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”
This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.
Come, house of Jacob,
    let’s walk by the Lord’s light.


There are a lot of voices competing for our attention. On any given day, we are surrounded by messages that are designed to make us feel something: fear, anger, desire. This time of year is particularly full of these messages, as new Christmas advertising campaigns meant to tug at our heartstrings and make us want their products are added to the constant hubbub of headlines and memes and viral videos.

And sometimes, those messages contain kernels of truth. Yes, sometimes a gift is more than just a gift, it’s as life-changing as Elton John’s first piano. And yes, it’s good to avoid the use of palm oil, and not just for cute orangutans. 

Other times, those messages are just repeats of lies, but with the liar hoping that if it’s said enough times, we’ll start to believe it. (I feel confident we can all think of examples without me naming any!)

That day in Jerusalem, the people heard a message that was meant to instil fear. The message was shouted out in their language, rather than in the official diplomatic language, so they could all hear it and understand, and it contained a kernel of truth: the gods of other nations had not been able to rescue those people from the Assyrian army’s destruction and redistribution of the population. 

Around that very tiny kernel, he wrapped a very seductive message, one that still resonates for many today: “do as I say, and you will eat from your own vine and fig tree, and drink water from your own well.” I think the commander of the army probably whispered the next bit, because it’s like the terms and conditions at the end of an advert: “until I come and take you away to another land.” 

If you just come quietly, abandon your god and your community, then you can be self-sufficient. You can take care of yourself. You first, and you can be great on your own. Don’t worry about what God has taught you, or about the other people around you. God can’t save you, and those other people can fend for themselves too.

The message had at least part of its desired effect: the people were afraid. And isn’t that what so many of the messages around us all the time want us to be? Afraid. It’s certainly the root of most of the politics and economic policy of our time. We are meant to be afraid of our neighbours. Afraid of people fleeing war or famine or disease, looking for safety or prosperity. Afraid of people who are poor, or immigrants, or of different religions or have different accents or skin colours. Afraid that people will use up resources and there won’t be enough for us. Every headline leads us down this path: be very afraid, and then resent those you fear.

The people then did what we all ought to do when we hear messages of fear or hate: they then sought God’s word on the matter, not to confirm their own feelings or biases, but to hear what God would have them do. And the first thing God said was “don’t be afraid.” When we hear those other messages, we need to be reminded that God hears, and provides, and loves. God is trustworthy and faithful. God’s vision and plans cannot be thwarted by the lies shouted at us, no matter how seductive they sound, no matter that they’re in our native tongue or that they play on our fears and desires. Take comfort, and do not be afraid.

Whatever we are hearing from advertising, or politicians, or journalists, or films, or wherever else, and whatever tiny kernels of truth they might build on to create fear or anger or greed, this story reminds us to seek out the one message that matters: God’s. It can be hard to hear in the midst of the din of the world. It takes practice to pick out God’s voice through all the hubbub—that practice will involve reading scripture for ourselves, so we recognise God’s word when we hear it; it will involve prayer time that includes both speaking and listening; it will involve seeking God with all our senses, and serving God’s people wherever we see them in need, and building a community together than can withstand the onslaught of messages tempting us to individualism and self-sufficiency, choosing instead to truly know one another and to share both the burdens and the joys of life. 

The king and the people of Jerusalem looked for God’s word to them in the middle of the many other messages around—and they found it, and it helped them to live faithfully through the crisis. Whether we are in a crisis or just in the everyday chaos, the same is true for us.

As the prophet’s poem said at the end of the reading: the Lord will teach us his ways, the word of the Lord will go out to all the earth. And this is what it will look like when we focus on that message instead of all the others:
We will turn our weapons of war into tools of cultivation. We will turn from fighting each other to feeding each other. Rather than training for war, we will live together, training others up in the way of love. Our lives will be the opposite of individualism and self-reliance and greed and fear. 

This is a message that is easily drowned out. Swords and spears and their modern equivalents make much more noise...and they are more profitable, too. Shifting not just our mindset but our economy from fighting to feeding will always feel impossible, as long as we allow the other messages of scarcity and fear and greed to speak the loudest. 

But this is what we are baptised into. This community that God has called together is created for a purpose: to amplify the message of love, grace, peace, hope, and justice; the message of enough for all; the message of a different way of life than that offered by politicians and economists and celebrities. The Assyrian general had a very loud voice. Politics and Money and Fear and Desire have loud voices. God’s voice may not thunder out over the airwaves, it may not have a clever ad campaign, but it can be heard, if we learn to listen...and it can be taught—indeed, it must be taught...and we can be the ones who bear the good news in every conversation, every action, every decision, every prayer. Come, let us walk by the Lord’s light.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2018

To End All Wars—a sermon for Remembrance / 100th anniversary of armistice

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s 
To End All Wars 
Micah 5.2-5a, 6.6-8 (CEB)
11 November 2018, NL1-10, To See Ourselves 4, remembrance 

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labour gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become our peace.

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.


Photo of St John’s Church, Gourock, by Ronnie McFadyen
A hundred years ago right now, men up and down the Western Front, on both sides, were picking up their things from the trenches and walking away. The silence was eerie, after years of fighting. There was a recording that went around this week, a recreation of a sound graph of the few minutes before and after 11:00. The guns sounded right up until the moment the armistice became official, and 2,738 men were killed on the last day of fighting, including one at 10:59am. And then, suddenly, as the clock ticked over, silence.

The men and women who went to war in those early years of the 20th century did so because they hoped to be participating in the war to end all wars. Not just the biggest and most all-encompassing war the world had experienced thus far, but the last war the world would see. The intention was that we would learn that fighting each other for territory or partisanship or resources was not the way forward into the modern world. As Micah put it: they will dwell secure, and God will become our peace.

To say we have not learned the lesson they tried to leave us would be an understatement. We remember with great gravity the sacrifice of so many lives, both in the war to end all wars and the many we have engaged in since then, and the words “for our freedom” fall easily from our lips, yet sometimes I think we neglect the meaning of that sacrifice. We say “they gave their tomorrow for our today”...which is true. And we are meant to use the today that they gave us to ensure that no others need be sacrificed, that the world finds another way forward rather than violence being the only means we can find to the end—or worse, an end in itself.

The prophet Micah calls us to account, reminding us that all the ceremonies, all the right words, and right offerings will get us nowhere when it comes to being part of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. It isn’t the symbols or the songs or the rituals that bring us into right relationship with God or with God’s world, it is the way of life that honours God’s call, honours the image of God in each person, and honours the gift given to us by our ancestors. And what does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love faithfully, and to walk humbly with God. 

This is the way to peace: to create a just world for all, to put love into action, and to be humble. 

God does not ask us to perform for him. God asks us to live for him. 

The story in which God places us is a story with many twists and turns, with violence and peace, hope and despair, remembering and forgetting. Yet over and over, God calls us to look at ourselves, to see ourselves truly, to remember who we are and to whom we belong. Only then can we behave in ways that make for peace with others. 

This is our story: we belong to the One who brings a future out of the tiniest of the clans. We belong to the One who offers security beyond our shallow understanding of the word, who gives us life when all seems lost, who made us in God’s image and holds us in God’s care. We belong to the One who created all things and called them good, and who invites us to a different way of life—a way that seeks God’s glory, not our own; a way that serves others before self; a way that recognises a variety of paths and chooses the one that seeks the nurture and flourishing of all people; a way that loves both neighbour and enemy the same way we love ourselves. 

This way is not easy. But it is nonetheless the way to which we are called, if we claim to follow Christ. And the peace that passes all understanding is the peace we seek—we may not be able to see it for ourselves, we may not be able to figure out how to get there, but still we pursue it. Those who have gone before offered themselves in service of that goal, which is now in our hands.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch—be yours to hold it high.”

The torch they have passed to us is the torch of seeking peace and pursuing it. To do what God requires—not simply a few words or minutes of remembrance, but a life dedicated to doing justice, loving faithfully, and walking humbly. 
In this life, we will do everything in our power to ensure that no one else is sacrificed, so that one day soon we may truly see the end of all wars. 
In this life, we will remember that each of those names on the memorials, and each of those lives lost without ever getting a memorial—whether because they were civilians or because they were on the losing side, or because they were part of one of the many conflicts we have had since the war to end all wars—was a person, made in God’s image, precious in God’s sight; a person with a family and friends, a story, hopes and dreams and fears and loves, baby pictures and birthday cakes and lost teeth and Halloween costumes and childish dance moves and high school sweethearts and job prospects and talents...a whole person, who was seeking to do the right thing, to leave us a better world that they would never see. 

One of my favourite young adult novels includes this bit of advice from an older woman to a young man:
“You must learn to see death as something more than loss, more than absence, more than silence, more than a bad dream. You must learn to make mourning into memory. For once a person takes leave of his life, they become so much more a part of ours. In death, they come to be in our keeping. The dead find their rest within us. Thus, in remembrance, we are never alone, and neither are they.” (DeathWatch, by Ari Berk, p299)

In remembrance, we are never alone, and neither are they. Our ancestors have given us a gift: the chance to live according to God’s calling, to make the world look more like God’s kingdom, no matter how small or insignificant we feel, to do justice, love faithfully, and walk humbly. May we take this gift as seriously as they gave it.

1 Hope for the world's despair:
we feel the nations' pain;
can anything repair
this broken earth again?
For this we pray:
in every place
a spark of grace
to light the way.

2 Wisdom for all who bear
the future in their hand,
entrusted with the care
of this and every land.
When comes the hour,
O Lord, we pray,
inspire the way
we spend our power.

3 Honour for all who’ve paid
war’s painful, bitter price,
when duty called they made
the greatest sacrifice.
Their memory
will never cease
to cry for peace
and harmony.

4 Ease for the troubled mind
in endless conflict caught,
each soul that cannot find
the peace beyond all thought.
May they be blessed
with healing balm
for inner calm
and perfect rest.

5 Love for the human heart:
when hate grows from our fears
and inwardly we start
to turn our ploughs to spears.
Help us to sow  
love’s precious seed
in word and deed,
that peace may grow.

Ally Barrett
Winner of Jubilate's Hymns of Peace competition 2018, to mark the centenary of Armistice Day and the end of the First World War.
Tune: Love Unknown