Sunday, October 20, 2019

Burst Forth — a sermon on 2 Samuel 5-6

Rev. Teri Peterson
Burst Forth
2 Samuel 5.1-5, 6.1-15 (NRSV)
20 October 2019, NL2-6
(For Cameron to preach)

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.

6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’ So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
It was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.


Picture the scene: a political leader who needs to unite the country as they face some major challenges, creating a spectacle of a procession, with carriages and the military and all the trappings of power and prestige, including the symbol of their real monarch, the ark of the covenant—the box which signifies God’s presence. The parade wends its way through the countryside and the town, with some people in their formal ceremonial robes, and others playing music or dancing, and the whole thing takes ages to go from one place to another....and the purpose of the procession is both to honour God and give thanks for God’s presence, and also—perhaps primarily—to showcase the political leader’s power and rule. Some might even call it manipulating the public, or perhaps at least using the visual and emotional appeal of the pomp and circumstance to prop up an uncertain system and earn some points for the leaders.

Sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed in the past 3000 years, doesn’t it?

David had risen far, from his days as the youngest brother, keeping the sheep, to being a court musician for Saul, the first king, to being a military commander, and now king himself. At the beginning of the reading we heard about those leaders who had previously been loyal to Saul changing their allegiance, and then eventually David becoming the ruler of a United Kingdom, northern and southern tribes together. He needed something to cement that position, and the answer seemed to lie in this box that had not been seen in some time.

The ark of the covenant was originally built when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, and it was supposed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and perhaps some other things that reminded the people of God’s saving grace and divine commands. It was decorative, covered in gold sculptures, and had a seat on the top, and it was the primary symbol of God’s presence. It isn’t that they believed God lived in the box exactly, though I think it would be easy for that to become the shorthand, especially given that wherever the ark was, divine things seemed to happen.

For years the ark had been kept in a home...and when it was brought out, the two young men who had grown up in the presence of the ark were the ones who stewarded its journey. Except they didn’t do it the way it was meant to be done. The ark was a holy object, representing God among the people. There were rules about how to carry it — always on poles, carried by four men, who touched only the poles, not the box itself. To put the ark on an ox-cart was already a wrong choice, perhaps signifying that the family who had kept it safe all this time either didn’t know the rules, or that they didn’t realise what they had.

When the oxen shook the cart, Uzzah — one of the young men who had lived with the ark — instinctively put out his hand to steady it.

It was an action that betrayed his familiarity with the ark, or perhaps his overly-casual treatment of this holy object. Or maybe he thought that the box containing God’s presence needed to be protected.

But here’s the thing: God doesn’t need our protection. 

In that one fateful gesture, Uzzah put himself in the place of God, the protector and saviour. He forgot that God is far more powerful and more holy than we humans are. However close our spiritual relationship is — and we want to be close, of course — the reality is that God is God, and we are not. God isn’t meant to be treated lightly or casually, not carted around on whatever we have available, and then grabbed unceremoniously as if we were capable of saving God from disaster.

David named that place “outburst”, claiming that God had “burst forth” against Uzzah. But it wasn’t really against Uzzah, exactly. It was against the ease with which we get our relationships out of order, putting God somewhere other than at the head of the list. It was against the casual use of God has a prop in political theatre. It wasn’t about God punishing one person, it was about the whole of the situation.

It is true that God burst forth, though. Because the truth is that God cannot be contained, and will always be bursting out of whatever box we have decided to keep him in. Whether that box is made of wood and gold, or of our words and ideas and theologies, or of our traditions and desires and comfort....or even if it is a tomb sealed shut with a huge stone. God will burst forth, breaking all our preconceived notions, all our boundaries, and all our mind games and power struggles. 

It is not possible to use God for our own ends. It is not advisable to treat God casually, like an object we can set down and pick up again when it’s convenient. And it is not our place to protect and defend God. Quite the other way around, in fact.

David wisely went away and left the project of using the ark as a symbol of his own kingly power. When he was ready to try again, he took the reality of God’s presence more seriously. It was carried appropriately, and with ceremonial reverence. Every 10 meters or so, they stopped to offer sacrifices, which also meant that the ark bearers would get a rest. And at the head of the procession was the king — dressed not in robes and crown, but in a simple priestly skirt and nothing else, dancing with all his might.

The language of this story is really interesting, because the word used for David dancing with all his might is the same word used when scripture says we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength—or “might.” To love God with all we have and all we are, with every ounce of our being. That is what David put into his dancing, or more accurately, “whirling.” He was spinning and jumping, with every fibre of his being. 

This time, the procession was about honouring God and celebrating that God was present with them, not just in this pretty box, but in real and powerful ways. It was no longer about David, but about God. Their relationship was back in the right order. 

In some ways, we might even say that God was no longer being confined to a box, but rather recognised and celebrated and praised as living and active in the world. God had indeed burst forth, and nothing can keep God separate from us again.

That sounds like good news. But as Uzzah and all those around him that day know, it can also be difficult news. God won’t be contained. And that means that God might just call us into a new kind of relationship too...and perhaps might call us out of our own carefully contained faith and life, to burst out into something that changes the relationship between God and the world. It isn’t just a nice happy ending to a difficult story, it’s a reminder that this is an ongoing journey that we cannot control.

Author Annie Dillard sums it up:
“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

God cannot be treated casually, nor protected, nor contained. God will always burst forth, whether from our too-small boxes of comfort and tradition, or from the tomb, and calls us ever onward into a future with hope.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Love Beyond Belief — a sermon on Ruth, for Harvest

Rev. Teri Peterson 
Gourock St. John’s
Love Beyond Belief
Ruth 1.1-17
13 October 2019, NL2-6, harvest communion

1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’
11 But Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!’
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 ‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’
16 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’


It seems perhaps an odd choice to put our harvest celebration on the day when the lectionary gives us a story about a famine—or it might be the perfect day, as we remember that while we have an abundance of good things, there are many who are hungry and thirsty, and part of our duty as people with plenty is to share with others.

In Bethlehem, the town whose name literally means “house of bread,” there was no grain to harvest to make bread. It was bad enough that at least one family left that place, looking for more abundant life, and went to the land of Moab—a land whose people were enemies of the Israelites, specifically banned and despised. Living up to its reputation, Moab turned out to be a land not of plenty but of grief and loss, as Naomi’s husband and sons all died there over the decade they lived there. 

When Naomi heard that the Lord had ended the famine in Bethlehem, she decided to go home. But she had a problem — Moabites were unwelcome among her people, and she had two Moabite daughters-in-law. 

Actually, she had more than one problem. Because though she recognised that God’s hand was at work in saving the people back home from the famine, she also believed that God’s hand was turned against her, that she was, at best, abandoned by God, or perhaps even cursed. 

Two Moabite daughters-in-law didn’t help that feeling. So she urged them to go home to their own families, and she sent them away with a blessing from the God she believed had turned his back on her — she compared these young women to God, actually. Our translation says “kindness” but the word is chesed, which means something more like loving-kindness, faithfulness, and loyalty, all rolled into one word. It’s a loyalty and love beyond belief, beyond expectation. Ruth and Orpah have done more than could possibly have been expected of them as foreign wives brought into this family.

It took several tries, but eventually Naomi was able to convince Orpah to return to her birth family. Perhaps Naomi’s insistence that God had abandoned her played a part in that decision, or perhaps Orpah understood the difficulty that lay ahead if she, a Moabite, chose to emigrate, or perhaps she simply followed her mother-in-law’s directions. Whatever the case, Orpah wept, and said goodbye, and set her face back to her first home.

Ruth, however, clung to Naomi. She insisted that she had made a commitment and would not break it. She knew the challenges, she knew the risks, and still she held fast. And again, our English translations make it hard to see the full truth of her words, as they try to smooth it out for the way we speak, but Ruth doesn’t speak in the future tense. She speaks of a present reality. In explaining her insistence on sticking by Naomi’s side, she says literally “Your people, my people, and your God, my God.” Again, she acts on chesed, loyalty and love above and beyond expectation or belief. Ruth has decided to surrender her past and to go forward into God’s future despite whatever obstacles there might be. Where you go, I go, where you stay, I stay. 

It’s an astounding speech, really, highlighted by the fact that this chapter of the book of Ruth uses the word “turn around” — which is the same as the word for “repent” — twelve times. In the midst of so many reversals, turning back, and repentance for decisions made over the past ten years, we have this steadfast movement in one direction. Ruth will not turn back, she will not repent of her choice to stay by Naomi’s side, she will not reverse her familial commitments. Despite the dangers and difficulties of being a foreigner in a new land, despite the ways people will make fun of her accent and the limitations her background will place on her, she is steadfast in her loyal love, her faithful loving kindness, her chesed

Naomi and Ruth arrived back in Bethlehem just before the barley harvest, and Ruth took matters into her own hands by going out to glean in the fields. Landowners were required to leave some of their crops at the edge of the field so that those without land could come and harvest something for themselves, and Boaz was a faithful and righteous man, so he did that, and more, for Ruth. And the way Ruth managed the situation ensured not just her own survival, but Naomi’s position in the community...and ultimately she became the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king. This immigrant woman, from the most despised foreign nation, has a place in the genealogy of the people of God — because of her willingness to put aside her own self interest and to be loyal and loving beyond belief, and because God can and does use all sorts of people, even the ones we have excluded.

Yesterday morning, thousands of people witnessed a version of this as well. Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to run a marathon distance in under two hours. But part of the reason he was able to do that was because he had 41 other world-class runners to take turns surrounding him and helping him keep the pace. They protected him from wind resistance, running in front and behind in a tight formation, and they kept the exact pace outlined by a laser on the road in front of them. They had to run an incredible 13.1 miles per hour in order to accomplish this feat.

Those 41 other runners came from 11 nations, including some who are both sporting and political rivals to Eliud’s own nation of Kenya. A number of them came straight from the World Championships in Doha, using their well-earned holidays to help him reach this goal. None of them will get medals or prize money, their names will be instantly forgotten by most who saw the spectacle of yesterday morning. They were not there running ridiculously fast and in meticulous formation for themselves or their own glory. Many of them said in interviews they were doing this—on their rest days, remember!—for Eliud. 

That is a loving-kindness that is beyond belief. I mean, the pace at which they ran also boggles the mind and feels unbelievable. But so does the idea that they would give up their time and risk injury without any chance of personal gain. Yet they stuck close together and to Eliud, going relentlessly forward. It was like watching that loyal loving-kindness above and beyond expectation, running through the streets.

Most of the time, chesed is the word used to describe God’s posture toward us. Though we turn away, God is always faithful. Though we have difficulty acting as if we are made in God’s image, still God deals with us with loving-kindness. Even when we decide the risks of following God’s way are too great, God risks everything, all the way to the cross, to show us chesed. God surrounds us and brings us relentlessly forward...and asks us to do the same in return. To be like Ruth, or like the runners, to stay close whatever the cost, to cling to Christ, to live our commitment not just with our minds but with love beyond belief. 

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Not With Our Ancestors — a sermon on the Ten Commandments, for a baptism

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Not With Our Ancestors
Deuteronomy 5.1-21, 6.4-9
6 October 2019, baptism, NL2-5

Moses summoned all Israel and said:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and the laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. 4 The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. 5 (At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
6 ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
7 ‘You shall have no other gods before me.
8 ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
12 ‘Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
16 ‘Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
17 ‘You shall not murder.
18 ‘You shall not commit adultery.
19 ‘You shall not steal.
20 ‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
21 ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’

6:4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.


In some ways, it feels a little bit strange to have a baptism where we focus on how God’s grace is given to us before we can respond, before we can try, before we can understand...and then to read the Ten Commandments, which have so often been used as a measure of who is good enough for heaven. But in other ways, it’s the perfect reading for a day like today, because both baptism and the Commandments are all about God choosing us and then calling us to a particular way of life that reflects our identity and our community.

Today’s reading is actually the second reading of the Ten Commandments — the first is found in Exodus, right after the people come out of Egypt and arrive at Mount Sinai. Today’s is nearly 40 years later, when they stand on the edge of the promised land, and nearly everyone who was at the foot of the mountain that first day is gone. It’s a new generation that has grown up in the wilderness, learning how to be free people rather than slaves. Yet at the beginning of the reading, Moses said to them: “it was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us.” God is the God of the living, and we don’t get to simply rest on the work of those who came before us. We, here and now, are the people God chooses, the people God loves, and the people God calls—and God does not call us to be carbon copies of the past. We give thanks for those who have come before us, but we don’t re-live their lives, and we can’t expect that their ways will continue to be our ways forever, nor can we simply allow their faithfulness to stand in for our own. Instead, we pick up the mantle of grace ourselves and go forward into God’s new future.

Then, at the end of the reading, we are told to teach all these things to the next generation. One day we will be the ones who are gone, and they will stand there and hear the words, “not with our ancestors, but with us.” Until that day, it is our responsibility — all of us, not just parents or grandparents or godparents, but the whole church — to pass on the good news in ways they can hear, to talk about what it means to be God’s people, to live faithfully, to keep our focus and attention not on ourselves and our traditions and desires, but on loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength, to have God’s word constantly in front of our eyes as we go about our lives in this world. The children learn from what we do, as well as what we say, and our choices will speak loudly to them of our priorities.

In between these two reminders that it is our job to be tending the seeds of a church and a world that we will not be around to see, we find the Commandments which are meant to shape our lives into reflections of God’s glory...not so that we can earn our way into heaven, which is impossible, but rather so that we can, with every aspect of our life, heart, soul, mind, and strength, demonstrate that we belong to God. After all, the first commandment says “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery.” The first words are a reminder that God started this: God chose us, rescued us, loves us, before commanding anything at all. 

And then the instructions teach that God cares about every area of our lives, not just the religious hour of the week. In every sphere of activity, whether that’s our family relationships or how we use language or how we participate in the economy or what we do with our time and money, God is asking us to be the holy people that we were created to be. God loves us, chose us, saved us...and in response, we live a particular way. And that way is toward fullness of life for the whole creation, with no need for gossip or untruthfulness, no room for jealousy or greed, no tolerance for violence or objectifying’s a way that includes all, regardless of their age or gender or immigration status or economic’s a way that recognises the impact of our choices on future’s a way that entails keeping the love of God at the forefront of our mind, life, and attention, no matter what activity we are engaged in, or who we are talking to.

This way of life is so different than what the world normally asks of us, it cannot be lived alone. Throughout this text, God addresses the whole community together. We are not meant to try to manage by ourselves. This is for the whole Body, supporting each member, holding each other up when we bear the consequences of refusing to participate in the world’s ways, reminding one another of the promises, and holding ourselves accountable when we fail, so we can try again. 

And isn’t that also what baptism is about? It’s a sign of God’s amazing grace, and also a time when we re-commit to this community life, promising to work together in response to that grace. Not so we can earn it, but because we have already received grace upon grace, because we are already loved beyond imagining, because we are already called children of God...and now that we know who we are and who we belong to, we can be more faithful in living out of that truth, and teaching it to the next generation so that they too can understand that they have an important place in this family of faith that stretches back many generations, and also forward into a future that God is preparing for them, even now, even through us.

May it be so. Amen.