Sunday, April 26, 2020

Eye Contact -- a sermon on Acts 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
Eye Contact
Acts 3.1-10 (NRSV)
26 April 2020, NL2-34, Easter 3 (theme: Witness Apprenticeship Programme)

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognised him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.


Over the last several weeks, I have noticed a drastic change in something I didn’t expect. Yes, a lot has changed, obviously, and we are all finding our way in this strange new reality. But a side effect seems to be that we often no longer look at each other. When I’ve been out for a walk, or when I’ve been sitting in the front window watching people go by, it seems that now many people look away when approaching another person. It’s almost as if even just making eye contact will spread the virus. 

Of course there are some people we’ve always turned away from. When walking through city streets and seeing rough sleepers or people begging for change, one of the most common responses is to avert our eyes, as if looking away will also make the problem of poverty go away. And there are other situations where we look at everything but someone’s eyes, whether through morbid fascination with a wound or condition or accident, or through conscious or subconscious sexism or racism or whatever.

But looking away from our neighbours, even when there’s a whole street, or a closed window, between us? That’s new. It’s a different level of “social distancing” than I think was really intended by the phrase! 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in part because it’s unnerving, and in part because it is the exact opposite of what happens in today’s reading. Peter and John were doing the things we would expect them to be doing, going about their daily business, including joining other Jews for daily prayer at the Temple. And on their way in, their usual routine was interrupted by someone else.

It’s striking that they were willing to be interrupted, diverted from their task...even now when our daily business is different than it used to be, it’s so easy to ignore or overlook those “distractions” that may just be opportunities to lift someone else up. 

This man they were willing to turn aside to see had never been able to walk, but he did have friends who helped carry him places. Each afternoon those friends took him to the gate that led into the Temple, so that people who were on their way to worship, and therefore might be feeling generous and looking for a way to enhance their spiritual life through giving, would have the chance to give to him. He must have assumed Peter and John were just another worshipper. It does not appear that he knew anything about them, or about Jesus....he was just going about his daily business, the same as they were.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, but often people who are on the streets asking for help have downcast eyes. They rarely look at the people passing. Perhaps that is due to shame, or perhaps it is due to the crushing disappointment of making eye contact with so many people who then look away in disgust or embarrassment or guilt, or perhaps they are just protecting themselves, or others, from seeing the pain and beauty of the world. It seems that perhaps this man also wasn’t looking up much, because he had to be told to look up. 

When Peter and John looked intently at him, stopping in front of him and giving him their full attention, it was an unusual moment. That would still, today, be an unusual moment. And then they said “look at us”—I can just picture it, a verbal version of reaching out and tipping his face toward them. In fact the word that’s used when it says Peter “looked intently” at him has the connotation of “stretching”, like reaching out with his eyes and looking into the man. Then he asked the man to look back, and he fixed his attention on them. Their eyes locked together, and it’s almost as if these windows to the soul were opened....they saw each other, as equals, as whole, real people, made in God’s image, beloved.

Had anyone ever done that before? 

It’s surprisingly intimate, to look into another person’s eyes for any length of time. It really is almost as if you can see inside the other person, if you look intently enough. And especially right now, as masks become more common and so facial expressions are harder to read, our eyes are communicating more than ever. Perhaps that is why we rarely look as intently as Peter and John were doing....and perhaps that is why right now, when so much of what we would see or reveal is fear, we don’t make eye contact. We don’t want people to see how afraid we are, and we don’t want to see how afraid they are either. If we can hide our eyes, we might be able to hide our emotions and our spiritual state as well, protecting ourselves from being known. Unfortunately, that can also be a barrier to knowing the full extent of grace and love, too.

When Peter said “I have no silver or gold,” I wonder then if he saw a quick flicker of disappointment in the man’s eyes before he finished the sentence. The man may have thought that his expectations were about to be dashed, when in reality they were about to be exceeded. 

Peter then gave him the most incredible gift he had ever received — in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk. He lifted him up, in body and in spirit.

And this man, who had been deposited outside the Temple every day for his whole life, never being allowed in, jumped up and began to walk and leap and praise God....all the way in to the Temple for the first time, with the other people who were going in to pray. No longer an outsider, he was healed physically, and spiritually, and communally. And the first thing he did was go in and praise God, with body, mind, and spirit. The people inside recognised him as the man who used to sit outside...but had they ever actually seen him before? Had they ever looked him in the eye before? Had a conversation? Seen him as a whole, beautiful, loved, equal human being?

I wonder: is this what could happen, if we looked at each other with the eyes of Christ? 

Peter and John looked this man in the eye, gave him their full attention, and saw him the way Jesus did. He looked them in the eye, perhaps the first time he’d ever been treated as an equal by people going into the Temple, and saw the grace of God come to life.

So I wonder: can we be ready to be diverted from our daily business, if God places an encounter in our path, even six feet away? And can we really look at people, truly see them? What would it be like to actually look people in the eye, to hold that eye contact (even from across the street or through the window!), and to take the moment of recognising each other as beloved people of God, equals, in this together, handling things in different ways, longing for something we can’t yet understand? And then....can we offer people, in the name of Christ, a living example of God’s grace and healing? Sure, we probably won’t literally lift each other up by the hand right now. But we can lift each other up in other ways, in Christ’s name. We can share the gift we do have, rather than only focusing on what we don’t have. Peter didn’t have money to give, but he did have something else. What do we have? How can we offer that as grace to another, acting as the Body of Christ still living and active in the world?

I believe we can. Whether we look in each other’s eyes through a computer screen or a window, or by listening intently with our whole attention fixed on what the other person is saying from the other end of the phone, we can give each other the gift of being seen. And perhaps we will also then experience the gift of being seen, even if it makes us feel vulnerable, even if it is unfamiliar. There is nothing quite like the love that comes from truly being seen for who we are, from making eye contact with another person.

And then, in the name of Christ, we can give each other what we have. Whether that’s words of comfort, or a prayer, or a card in the post, or a friendly phone call, or picking up shopping and including a wee treat, or artwork in the window, or whatever we can do....we can lift each other up, in Jesus’ name.

Be ready for the opportunity in the encounters. Look, and really see. Offer what we have, in Christ. That’s how we will be his witnesses, even now, even here.

May it be so. Amen.

If there is someone else with you, maybe take a moment to practice: just look each other in the eye, without breaking eye contact, for a minute. Allow yourself to be seen, and take the time to really see, and to let love and grace be known.
If you are alone, you might try looking in the mirror. It can even be hard to meet our own eyes sometimes, but try to imagine that you are looking with Jesus’ vision, into your own eyes, and know yourself loved by God.
I also recommend the facebook or instagram accounts “Eyes of Children Around the World.” Take a moment to really look into the eyes of these people from different places, and to know them as equals, made in God’s image, beloved, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

When the Time is Right -- a sermon on Acts 1

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
When the Time is Right
Acts 1.1-14 (NIV)
19 April 2020, Easter 2, NL2-33

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Is this the time? 
How about now?
Are we there yet?

It feels like the press corps asking questions of our leaders, as much as the disciples asking questions of Jesus — when? How much longer? What do you mean by “wait here”?

The disciples didn’t love the waiting time any more than we do. Sitting around, waiting for something to happen — or, in our current case, hoping that very little will happen — is not what we expected resurrection life would look like. So I suppose it makes sense that when Jesus started to talk about the gift of the Holy Spirit, they immediately jumped to wondering if this was the moment that all their expectations would finally be fulfilled. After all, they had followed faithfully (and less faithfully, sometimes)....they had lived through the ultimate disappointment of their expectations, and then seen that God was more powerful than they had ever realised. Surely now that all that humiliation and death business was out of the way, Jesus would at last take up the mantle of the messiah they expected him to be, defeating the powers of this world and setting the system to rights?

There is some danger in imposing our expectations on God. One of those dangers is that God may have completely different expectations in mind....and so ours will be challenged, or perhaps outright dashed. 

The risen Christ saw his disciples clamouring about him, and he heard their pleas, and this time he didn’t say “how much longer must I put up with you?” Instead he calmly explained that this resurrection life wasn’t going to be about their expectations of God, but rather God’s call to them. So first, we would have to wait. And then, when the time is right, Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses.” 

Those are Jesus’ last words to his friends and followers: when the time is right, you will be my witnesses.

The question on the disciples’ minds must have been: when will the time be right? When is the time? 

When Jesus began to rise toward the sky, I wonder if any of them remembered the story of Elijah and Elisha. When Elijah’s earthly life was over, rather than dying, he was taken up into heaven. Elisha knew that something was about to happen, and he asked Elijah for the gift of “a double share of your spirit.” And Elijah told him that if Elisha could keep his eyes on him while he was going into heaven, then his request would be granted. Elisha, therefore, stared after Elijah, who was taken up in a fiery chariot into the sky, for a long time, until the sky was empty, and after. And only then, when he was certain he had seen all he could see, did he turn away, take up Elijah’s mantle, and carry on — with the gift of Elijah’s spirit alive and well within him.

We always sort of make fun of the disciples for staring at the sky long after the soles of Jesus’ feet disappear amidst the clouds. But perhaps they were waiting for that gift of the Spirit — if they saw him go into heaven, then the Spirit would immediately fill them and they would feel ready to take up the mantle and carry on. And if they didn’t feel any different that day, then no wonder they stood staring at the sky, squinting against the sun as their necks began to ache.

It took some more men in white robes — the very messengers we usually call angels — to call their eyes back to earth. This time the messengers did not start with “do not be afraid,” instead they reminded the disciples where they had come from, and what they were meant to do. “Men of Galilee”....remember who you are. Remember where you met Jesus first. Remember what he did, and taught, and now what he has called you to do. Don’t just stand here looking for him to meet your expectations. Your job now is to go out and meet his expectations.

I wonder what it felt like to return to that upper room, having no idea how long they would need to stay there. 

Actually....I think maybe we have some idea what it feels like now, more than we ever have before!

But to know that at some point, they would be sent out to be witnesses, not just to the people they already knew, but also to their historic enemies, and also to people far and wide whom they had never even heard of, let alone met?

How does one prepare to be a witness?

First I think we need to consider what the word “witness” means. A witness is someone who testifies, who speaks in order to give evidence to those who are trying to discern the truth. And what they speak about is what they know — what they have seen and experienced themselves. That experience can also often lead to testimony by behaviour, by their actions or way of life changing because of the experience they have had, so that others can see, as well as hear, the story that the witness knows.

And Jesus says that we will be his witnesses.  

The disciples heard that call, so different from what they hoped and expected Jesus would do. They thought he would change the world so that the kingdom of God was visible everywhere, from top to bottom and all around....and instead he reminded them that the kingdom was embodied in him, and that they were now to be his Body. Instead of meeting their expectations, he turned them around and insisted that it was us, the Body of Christ, who would carry on the work of changing the world, making the kingdom of God visible everywhere. In Jerusalem and Judea — the places where they were to wait, to stay, to shelter in place. And then in their neighbouring country. And then to the ends of the earth. Wherever they went, the kingdom would be, and it was their testimony that would help people see it — by living and telling the story of their experience of Jesus, they would be the witnesses that all who seek truth need in order to come into resurrection life.

It’s a tall order, and I wonder if perhaps as they walked down the Mount of Olives, the disciples maybe wished they’d been given an easier answer? “Stay home” might have felt more manageable if it came with “because I’ll be right back with all the answers you need, and the power to change everything to exactly the way you envision it.” Instead they got “stay home, for however long it takes, and be ready to be a reliable witness to my grace, justice, love, and hope when you come out.”

Which brings us back to the question: how do we prepare to be a witness?

Jesus’ friends and followers give us the pattern. They spent their time in lockdown in prayer. They waited on the Holy Spirit. They prayed, they told the stories of Jesus’ life, and they were alert to whatever God had to show them, even behind closed doors. 

Remember, they knew firsthand that closed doors were no barrier for the risen Christ, and so would not be a barrier for the Holy Spirit. Even locked in the upper room, they could see and hear and experience God with them. 

And perhaps the most important part, honestly...maybe even more important than the time spent in prayer and in reminding themselves of God’s word: they wanted to be ready.

They wanted to be ready.

That desire to answer Christ’s call meant that they were able to spend however long it took, whether it was days or weeks, preparing in prayer and recalling the story. They wanted to be effective witnesses when the time was right — to tell the story so that people would understand its truth, to live lives changed by their experience of the risen Christ so that people would see his power. So they prayed. They listened. They looked for God right where they were. They read the scriptures. They encouraged each other. They stayed alert to the movement of the Spirit.

From the outside, that will have looked like wasting time, like hiding in fear, like dilly-dallying. Why weren’t they continuing to ask when things would change? Why weren’t they just getting on with it now, regardless of the instructions? But they had heard Christ’s clear call to resurrection life, and they knew that when the time was right, he would send them out.

Perhaps we too can use this time to prepare to be the witnesses Christ calls us to be. The world has changed, people are looking for hope, for truth, for grace....more than ever, we could use some evidence of resurrection. When the time is right, will they see us living resurrection life? Will they hear our story of love more powerful than death and be convinced? Will the truth of God’s amazing grace be seen and heard in Christ’s Body, so that the whole world understands the kingdom of God is at hand? 

If we want to be ready, the Spirit can show us the way. So let’s not waste this crisis in asking questions that betray only our own expectations for someone else to do something....instead, let’s prepare to be witnesses, in our neighbourhoods, our town, our nation, and the world.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

The story is in the details — a sermon for Palm Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
The story is in the details
Mark 11.1-11 (NIV)
5 April 2020, Palm Sunday, NL2-31

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you doing this?” say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.”’
They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, ‘What are you doing, untying that colt?’ They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!’
‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

I have some friends who have said that in these days of “distancing” and “lockdown” and “isolation”, they notice more than ever when there are crowds of people in, for instance, television shows. It has already been so drilled into us to stay two metres apart, even after just a few weeks, that it’s startling to see crowds jostling each other on screen. It feels almost like a different world.

This story of Jesus entering Jerusalem feels a bit like that, as it’s full of things we can’t do right now....there are people moving about, going from town to town, and then lining the streets like a crowd at a parade, shaking out clothes and laying them down, handing out branches, shouting near each other without face’s startling how quickly something like this starts to feel unusual. 

Of course, that day was unusual. Not because of the parade aspect — that may actually have been the most normal part of the day. At Passover there would be throngs of people coming to Jerusalem, making their pilgrimage to the holy city for the holy festival. And often those already in the city, whether residents or pilgrims who arrived earlier, would line the streets and welcome them. Normally they would do so by singing psalms, and the pilgrims would respond...and there are several psalms set aside for just this purpose, for going up to Jerusalem and for welcoming others in. Notice in our opening psalm today, Psalm 118, there is a line for those who are in the city already: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.” And there is a response from those who are entering: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light.” The psalm even mentions the branches!

But the details of the day...they were unusual. Mark’s gospel is renowned for its details, things that you wouldn’t expect to hear, as when he notes that during the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus had people sit down on the green grass, or when Jesus was asleep on the boat during a storm, he had a pillow. So I want to just explore a few of the little details Mark gives us in this story, details that we might usually gloss over. Why do these little details matter? Mark is a good storyteller, and he is the most concise of the gospel writers. He never wastes a word in conveying the point he wants to get across, so he would not have included them if he didn’t think they were important for some reason. Each of these seemingly insignificant details must tell us something about Jesus, and about the drama that is unfolding in Jerusalem.

  • Bethany was about 2 miles from Jerusalem. There Jesus sent his disciples to look for a donkey — which would have been the normal mode of transport, of course, aside from walking. But this wasn’t just any donkey, it was a young, unbroken, never-been-ridden-before donkey. Why does it matter that the donkey is, shall we say, new? 

In the prophets of the Old Testament we read that God’s anointed one will come, not on a warhorse, but on a donkey, a humble everyday pack animal. In contrast to the Roman emperor and his officials, Jesus enters God’s city in God’s way, and anyone who knew of his teaching and healing and then saw this entry would understand the reference. But why a young donkey that had never been ridden? Even the most humble person shouldn’t need to subject themselves to an unbroken colt. Then again, in the prophets we hear God saying “behold, I am doing a new thing...”. Could there be some symbolism here, of a new thing entering the holy city? Completely new, and maybe a little awkward to watch..... Not just a new king, but a completely new way of living, of understanding the world, of knowing God.

  • Most homes at the time had a space at the front of the ground floor for animals to live. But this donkey was tied up in the doorway....not inside the house, not somewhere separate outside either. It was in in-between space, public and private at the same time. Why does it matter that the donkey was tied up in a doorway?

This week, Jesus is in and out of Jerusalem every day. The whole week feels a bit like the city and the disciples and even Jesus holding their breath. We are at the threshold of something big, but it isn’t all the way out in the open just yet. Each moment of the week takes us in and out...big public moments in the Temple, private moments in back rooms, and in-between in dining rooms with friends. There’s a lot of coming and going, as if we need reminding that Jesus and the ways he is changing the world affect every arena, not just public life, not just private life, but all of life.

  • When the disciples untied the donkey from its doorway parking space, people questioned them, and the next unusual detail emerges: they said the teacher needed it, and would bring it back shortly. When exactly was Jesus planning to return the donkey?

I confess that there is a part of me that wonders if that detail is actually answered in the next bit:

  • Jesus entered the city, and went up to the outer court of the Temple, and looked around.... “but since it was already late” he turned right around and went back to Bethany for the night. Why was it late? Did they get a late start? Did the unbroken donkey colt take longer to ride than he anticipated? Was there a big crowd and they couldn’t move fast enough? And why simply look and then turn around and go two miles back up the Mount of Olives to the very place they’d just left?

...was he late returning the donkey? 
It does seem as if Mark is trying to tell us that the procession into the city took a very long time, not just the 45 minutes or so you would expect if you were making the journey in normal circumstances. Sadly, I think this might be one detail whose background we will never know for certain, but it is interesting to think about why it might have taken such a long time to go two miles! Perhaps it’s a reminder that we cannot control God’s timing.

  • And one last detail, which all the gospel writers give us, and which is even in the Psalm if we know what to look for, but which often escapes us as modern readers in English translation. The crowd was shouting Hosanna — which we sometimes use as if it’s interchangeable with Hallelujah, but it isn’t really. Hosanna means “save us” — did you see it in the psalm? “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord” the psalmist wrote. Though, interestingly, in the responsive use of the psalm, those are the words said by the people approaching Jerusalem, and in the gospel story of Palm Sunday they are the words said by the crowd welcoming him into Jerusalem. And, of course, the name Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) has the same root as Hosanna....Jesus means “God saves”. So there is no one better for them to shout “Hosanna — save us!” to than the one whose very name is salvation.

It’s probably obvious why the order of the psalm response would be reversed. Of course it is the crowd that needs saving, and Jesus that can deliver. There would be no need for Jesus to be the pilgrim chanting those words, of course, when he embodies God’s salvation in himself. 

I wonder, if we were to join the crowd, welcoming Jesus into the city, what would we be asking of him? When we call out “save us, we beseech you!” what are we asking for? Right now, of course many of us would ask for saving from pandemic viruses. But when we take all these details into account — the threshold at which we stand, the new thing that Jesus is doing, which is all-encompassing of every aspect of our private and public lives, the fact that God’s time is not always aligned with ours — what are we asking when we pray for The One Who Saves to rescue us?

The crowds that day were likely asking God “save us from Rome!”

Perhaps some of us today are praying “save us from ourselves!” as we become uncomfortably aware of things within us that are normally masked by our activities and relationships and busyness.
Or maybe “save us from each other!” if being cooped up together is starting to get to us!
Save us from us from us from us from despair....
Some might be praying to save our economy, save our NHS, save our planet...

Whatever you are praying for today, know this: Jesus is salvation. Not just his name, but his life, his presence, his Way, his Truth. And he turns everything around, from the order of the psalm response, to the order of the world. He is doing a new thing that no one else can accomplish, and it will involve all of us—heart, soul, mind, and strength—in his love.

May it be so. Amen.