Sunday, July 19, 2020

#SoBlessed -- a sermon on the visit of the Queen of Sheba

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
1 Kings 10.1-10, 13 (Common English Bible)
19 July 2020, Postcards of Faith 5

When the queen of Sheba heard reports about Solomon, due to the Lord’s name, she came to test him with riddles. Accompanying her to Jerusalem was a huge entourage with camels carrying spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones. After she arrived, she told Solomon everything that was on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too difficult for him to answer. When the queen of Sheba saw how wise Solomon was, the palace he had built, the food on his table, the servants’ quarters, the function and dress of his attendants, his cupbearers, and the entirely burned offerings that he offered at the Lord’s temple, it took her breath away.
“The report I heard about your deeds and wisdom when I was still at home is true,” she said to the king. “I didn’t believe it until I came and saw it with my own eyes. In fact, the half of it wasn’t even told to me! You have far more wisdom and wealth than I was told. Your people and these servants who continually serve you and get to listen to your wisdom are truly happy! Bless the Lord your God because he was pleased to place you on Israel’s throne. Because the Lord loved Israel with an eternal love, the Lord made you king to uphold justice and righteousness.”
The queen gave the king one hundred twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spice, and precious stones. Never again has so much spice come to Israel as when the queen of Sheba gave this gift to King Solomon.
King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba everything she wanted and all that she had asked for, in addition to what he had already given her from his own personal funds. Then she and her servants returned to her homeland.

Several years ago I celebrated my birthday by taking a trip to France, Switzerland, and Germany. I landed in Paris on my birthday, and after a day wandering about, I got on a train out to Versailles, where my grandma had booked me in at the fanciest hotel I will ever stay in, as long as I live. From my room’s multiple balconies, I had a view of the palace, and the next morning, I walked over and began what felt like a completely surreal day. The fences are covered in gold. The doors too. And the walls. The chairs, the dishes, the artwork…literally everything, everywhere I looked, was gilded. The enormous palace, filled with beautiful things, was the most opulent place I had ever been. It was breathtaking. 

I imagine that’s a little bit like what the Queen of Sheba experienced when she arrived at Solomon’s palace. Granted, unlike me, a 30-something minister just barely hanging on to the bottom of the middle class at the time, she was fabulously wealthy herself, queen of a nation that controlled the major trading routes across the Arabian peninsula and across the sea to North Africa. She was used to palaces and gold and jewels. Yet even one of the wealthiest monarchs of one of the wealthiest nations of the time was overwhelmed by the grandeur of Solomon’s life. It even says that it took her breath away.

When she saw all his wealth and wisdom, she proclaimed that it was because of God’s love and blessing that he was king, and that his kingdom was so happy. And in so doing, she reminded Solomon that his job as king was to uphold justice and righteousness.

The thing is, he wasn’t exactly doing that…and his kingdom wasn’t exactly happy. Just as the prophet Samuel had told the people when they first asked for a king, Solomon had conscripted people into both his armies and his workforce, building palaces and temples, serving in the palaces and temples, and generally working very hard for not a lot of reward. He was gaining more and more wealth both by taxing people and by receiving gifts from other nations and tribes as they worked out trade agreements — like the Queen of Sheba was likely there to do, bringing her gifts and taking others away with her. Solomon was well insulated from his people, and he began to make choices that were not in line with the faithfulness God required.

It’s interesting that the queen uses the word “happy” to describe Solomon’s people and servants, because it’s the same word that the psalms use to describe people who follow God’s way. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, but their delight is in the law of the Lord…” Yet Solomon had already begun to stray, marrying foreign princesses and adapting to their worship, in order to make alliances with other nations; forgetting to take care of the poor while he amassed vast treasure; using and abusing people to build up his kingdom. He was indeed gifted with incredible wisdom, but the purpose of that gift was so that he would be able to govern rightly. The more separate from the people he became, the less he was able to use that gift for its true purpose. The Queen of Sheba reminded him of it that day…though the reminder doesn’t seem to have lasted long.

This is one danger in the way of thinking that sees wealth as blessing. The queen takes Solomon’s palace, possessions, and people as a sign of God’s blessing — as does Solomon, most likely! And often, we all do this. We talk of the blessings of having a decent income, a nice house, a chance to go on a fancy holiday. We look at those who are less fortunate and we count our own blessings. It’s easy to do, and it is important to give thanks! Gratitude is a crucial part of our faith. As is recognising that we have more than the vast majority of people in the world, even if we don’t feel wealthy. Where I think we sometimes get into trouble is by claiming that’s God’s blessing for us…because then what does that say about those who have less? Why is 40% of the world’s population living on less than £4 per day…does that mean God isn’t blessing them? Why is it that who has blessings like these, and who doesn’t, often seems to line up with old colonial realities? Sometimes we forget that many of the blessings we enjoy have come at the expense of others, whose lives, land, resources, and livelihoods were often stolen, and even now are kept in debt by global superpowers who enjoy our comforts well-insulated from those who provide them. That forgetfulness and insulation then also allows us to overlook the ongoing disadvantaging of people — people who are made in God’s image, who are beloved, and yet are held back from enjoying the things we call blessings.

Solomon got into trouble when he amassed so much that he didn’t have to be among the people, and when he forgot his calling and the purpose of his gifts. The Queen of Sheba, even inadvertently, reminded him, and reminds us, of the truth: all these blessings are not for us, they’re so that we can share them with others, so that we can do justice and righteousness. Remember that when God called Abraham, he said “I will bless you, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.” Here is an example of a foreign nation coming to see the goodness and love of God, perhaps even more clearly than Solomon himself did. 

So what if we adjusted our understanding of “blessed” to be more about the gifts we have to do justice and love kindness, the gifts we have to bless others, rather than about the ways our life is comfortable or good or fun? And what if we decided not to engage with the world in a transaction, like these two monarchs, always seeking what we can gain from what we give, but rather to engage with the world from a position of wanting to be a blessing?

Perhaps the love of God would be more visible through us, and the kingdom of God more evident even here on earth.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Standing Stones -- a sermon on entering the promised land

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John's
Standing Stones
Joshua 3.14-4.9 (NRSV)
12 July 2020, Postcards of Faith 4

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing towards the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: ‘Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.”’ Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’
The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there. (Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.)

Can you imagine the what the Israelites’ journals and diaries would have been like as they made this journey from Egypt to the Promised Land? Imagine for a moment that it was a literate society and that paper books and pens existed…

There would have been entries from the oasis at Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy date palms, where they finally experienced abundance after years of slavery and had a chance to reflect on that journey walking through the Red Sea. There would be pages grainy with dust from Mount Sinai, detailing the commandments God had handed down and the experience of standing trembling before the mountain. There would be space for them to process the sorrow and amazement as they learned how to rely on God to provide manna and quail and water in the wilderness. There would be the quickly dashed-off note about that incident with the snakes, maybe even a drawing of the serpent on the pole, but don’t worry it’s okay now. There would probably be quite a few days that just said “well, we’re still walking…” There would be the pages that included tributes and obituaries and memories as the first generation who left Egypt began to die and the youngsters grew up to leadership of the families and tribes and nation, taking on the journal for themselves.

And then there’d be the pages standing at the shore of the river Jordan, their new home so close they can almost taste it. But it was also full of spring rains, bursting the banks, rushing fast as they looked on. 

This was the moment that they needed to draw on their memories. Not their own physical memories, but institutional memory, the stories handed down from generation to generation. Forty years ago, their parents and grandparents had stood on the shore, freedom so close they could taste it, but dismayed at the challenge ahead. There seemed no way to safely bring everyone across. And God had done an amazing thing, pulling back the waters and leading them through on dry ground. Since that day, God had led them, provided for them, taught them, listened to their complaints, brought them back from the brink of self-destruction, and stuck with them through it all.

Standing on the banks of the flooded Jordan, recalling all that God had done, the priests who were carrying the ark of the covenant, the big chest that held the tablets of the law, and a jar of manna, the piece of art and furniture that symbolised God’s presence with them, did the only thing they could do: they took one step into the water, and then another. And a miracle happened: they were the only ones whose feet got wet.

Once again, God brought the people across — on a stony riverbed and the legacy of their ancestors’ stories.

Now that they’d entered the land that would be their home, they knew this sort of experience was unlikely to be repeated for their children and grandchildren. They knew they had received a great gift, to be able to re-live their people’s history just this once, to have passed through the waters to freedom from slavery and now passed through the waters to freedom for faithful living. But they didn’t want to forget, they didn’t want their children not to know the story. So they took up some stones from the river and stood them up in the camp. 

Maybe it was like a stone circle, or maybe it was like a cairn. Whatever the case, it was built to prompt discussion — not to stand silently on its own, but to point the way to both the past and the future. Joshua says “when your children ask what this means…” because he anticipates that these stories will be passed down, that they are a crucial part of forming a people. 

Every family has those stories — the ones that we look back on and laugh about during holidays, or at weddings and funerals. The ones that we carry with us and that make us who we are, as individuals and as a family. Sometimes we even have objects that remind us — a dish, or a piece of art, or a hole in the wall, or a knick knack on the shelf. Whenever someone new comes into the house and asks about it, we get to tell this story over again, and it strengthens our ties to each other and our history…and the best of these stories give us something to draw on when we face the road ahead.

The stones pulled from the river were a reminder that God had brought them to this place, had removed obstacles, provided everything they needed, and taken care of them. God could be trusted, therefore, to be their guide and help in times to come. There were twelve stones, for the twelve tribes, because the whole community did things together, for all of them were God’s people. These stones provoked memories and invited people to tell stories, and they also pointed the way to the future: together, trusting in God, they could flourish and be whole.

I wonder what stories we tell of our own community that form us in this way? When someone asks about what an object or a building means to us, or why we do things the way we do, what do we say? What connections do we see between our ancestors in this place and ourselves? How are we still living out the story they left for us?

There is a moment in the musical Hamilton when two of the characters speak to their newborn children, and each of them says, referencing the fact that the children were born at the same time the nation of the United States was, “if we build a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you…” I have been reflecting for the past week or so that in many ways, the USA is indeed still living out the story of that foundation, but unfortunately it was flawed and that always leads to cracks in the house. The foundation needs fixing, but that’s hard work. That’s true for a nation, or a church, or a community, or an individual. We need to dig deep and do some uncomfortable work if we’re going to heal and build something stronger for everyone.

Jesus taught that those who hear his words and put them into action are like those who build a house on stone — the house will stand through any storm. And those who hear his words and do not put them into action are like those who build on sand — the house slides away at the first sign of trouble.

Perhaps it’s time for us to consider the stories we tell as a family of faith, and ensure that they make us into the people we are called to be. To read through their journals of their journey with God and learn the lessons they once learned. To look back at the stones our ancestors set up, and to ask “what does this mean?” and listen to the whole story, and determine if that is a story we want to build on. And then to use them the way a cairn was meant to be used — not only as a marker of the past, but a pointer to the future. It shows us that God brought us this far through every kind of obstacle, and calls us to trust that God will lead us onward, no matter what challenges we might face. Sure, we don’t stand on the banks of the Red Sea or the flooded Jordan, feeling cut off from the promise of life in all its fullness, unable to move. But we do stand at the threshold of something we don’t yet see, and the obstacles seem insurmountable…yet we know that nothing is impossible with God. So we are able to remember the stories of God’s faithfulness, and then turn our faces forward, knowing we do not go alone.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Thirsty -- a sermon on Exodus 15

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Exodus 15.22-27 (NIV)
5 July 2020, Postcards of Faith 3

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they travelled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
There the Lord issued a ruling and instruction for them and put them to the test. He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.’
Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

Here in Scotland, going out into the wilderness is more likely to involve worries about too much water, rather than not enough. But in the Sinai, and throughout most of the places where the action of the Bible takes place, water is a real concern. Many stories involve looking for water, digging wells, meeting at the well, watering animals, or, as is the case today, a dangerous lack of water.

The Israelites were only three days past the saga of crossing the sea when they ran out of water. Remember there were thousands of them, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, the way the story is told. And they also had sheep, cattle, donkeys, and maybe even camels, who would all need water as well. Even fleeing on short notice, they could probably have carried food enough to ration for many days…but no matter how much time they had to prepare, they would not be able to carry enough water for more than a day or two. They needed to find a well, or even better a spring or stream or pond.

It’s easy for us, who have plentiful access to clean water on demand, to forget what a valuable commodity it is. There are many in the world who do not have that, whose water is polluted, or has dried up, or is carrying disease. And when we start to think about people who have had to flee their homes due to violence, oppression, or disaster, just as the Israelites once did, we can add even more people to the list of those who are thirsty and worrying about when they’ll come across a clean water source again.

It doesn’t take long, when one is food or water insecure, to have all thoughts revolve around that lack. People living in poverty or where there is no water spend more mental and emotional energy thinking about food and water than those of us who have them immediately to hand. It crowds out other thought, makes it impossible to focus on other tasks, and generally means that everything that isn’t about survival must be put on the back burner.

So it is not surprising that when the Israelites, who had run out of water probably a day or even two days before, finally arrived at a place that looked wet, all they could think about was finally getting a drink. To discover that the place was called “bitter” because the water was undrinkable was the last straw. There was no space in their brains for anything other than desperation…and so they turned on Moses.

Remember it was just three days ago that they stood on the banks of the sea and complained that Moses should have let them stay in Egypt because at least then there’d be a place to bury them when they died. Just three days ago that scripture reports they crossed the sea and that they trusted God and Moses. Probably three of the longest days of their lives, as they walked on without any sign of water, jugs running dry, worry crowding out everything else in their minds, feet growing heavy and tongues starting to feel thick and dry.

This man Moses, who was cast upon the waters as a baby and rescued from the water by a princess, who brought them through the water…had led them to a place where they could not drink.

They could be forgiven for thinking back to the very first of the ten plagues, when the Nile and all its tributaries and canals were turned to blood. It was said then, in exactly the same words: they could not drink its water. 

Remembering all that happened after that first plague, and standing in front of water they could not drink, perhaps the Israelites wondered if they were at the beginning of the end themselves. Would the next nine plagues be ahead for them too?

Once again, the people grumbled against Moses. And Moses turned to the Lord, on behalf of the people. He absorbed their fear and pain and thirst, and took it to God…and God provided. God opened Moses’ eyes and mind to a solution, and Moses followed that guidance, and the people were able to drink their fill, and care for their animals.

Only then, after they have quenched their thirst, when their minds are no longer entirely absorbed in the problem of finding water, does God speak: “I will not bring on you the diseases that plagued the Egyptians.” Don’t worry, this is not the start of another round of horror. Instead, God says, “I am the Lord, who heals you.” The one who brings a balm to your wounds, who renews and makes whole.

And this is part of the healing process: Listen carefully. Follow God’s ways. Do what is right in God’s eyes, not only your own. This is how you will be made whole, stitched back together after years of oppression and pain and fear and grief: by learning to trust that God desires your flourishing, and following the way God lays out for you.

This will not be an easy task…for the Israelites, or for generations to come, or for us.

Sometimes, we will forget all that God has already done.

Sometimes, we will look back at the way things used to be, and wish we could go backwards.

Sometimes, we will refuse to be healed, preferring to perpetuate our own pain rather than do the hard work of desiring God’s way.

But even then, it will still be true that God is the one who heals us, and who offers us a part to play in that healing, for ourselves and for the world. Because remember God’s words to Abraham: he would be blessed, and all the world would be blessed through him. From generation to generation, we can be a part of passing on the blessing by participating in this healing work. Allowing our own fears and desires to drop to the side, so that we can see what God is doing, and join in. God knows that when we are in the midst of the trauma, it is hard to think about anything else. God knows that when we are thirsty, all we can focus on is water. God knows that when we are in the middle of a pandemic, all we can do is watch the news updates. God knows that when people are constantly being harassed, in large and small ways, for their skin colour or their accent or their religion, all they can think about is how to protect themselves. 

And God showed Moses the tree branch. It had been there the whole time, but he couldn’t see it…yet when he listened to God’s word and followed God’s way, the whole people was saved, again and again. 

The end of this episode is easy to overlook, after the fear and relief of finding water. It says that they journeyed on and came to an oasis that had twelve springs and seventy date palms — can you imagine the feeling of arriving somewhere so abundant, after time spent in the desert, and after generations of being enslaved? 

Twelve springs — one for every tribe. Seventy fruit trees — one representing every elder. This was a place where there was enough for everyone. No one would go thirsty or hungry here. Finally, they could relax. They could taste and see that God is good. They could begin to live into their new reality as free people, no longer scrabbling about for scraps of straw to make Pharaoh’s bricks, no longer hiding their children in the reeds of the river, no longer suffering in poverty despite their forced labour. This was a true oasis, a place of nourishment for body and soul, the first stop on their journey to healing.

The journey ahead of the Israelites was still long. There would be many setbacks along the way. But this first moment of trial in the wilderness, when God provides first and then shows them the path to wholeness, will be played out again and again. This is how God works: saves first, and then invites us into a way of life in response. Over and over. Then, and now. 

As our eyes are opened to the ways God is providing for us in this day’s trials and tribulations, let us also listen for the ways God invites us to participate in the healing that is ahead, for us and for our community and for the world. Not so that God will love us more, but because we are already so loved, so cared for, so nourished, so blessed, that we can join in God’s work of blessing the world.

May it be so. Amen.