Monday, April 19, 2021

Don't Want to Hear It -- a sermon on the stoning of Stephen

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Don’t Want To Hear It

Acts 6.1 - 7.2a, 44-60 (Common English Bible)

18 April 2021, Easter 3, NL3-41


After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples several times before being taken up into heaven — Luke records the ascension both at the very end of the gospel and the very beginning of Acts. Then the whole group of the disciples waited in Jerusalem. They continued to worship in the Temple and to gather together, around 120 of them. They chose Matthias to replace Judas, and they spent time in prayer. After several weeks, the Holy Spirit filled the house and sent them out into the streets sharing the good news, and the church began to grow, by the hundreds and thousands. Still this growing community spent their time praying, worshipping, sharing meals, teaching, and healing the sick. They took care of each other, ensuring that no one was in need among them. Some of their healing and teaching activities caught the attention of the authorities, but one member of the council persuaded the rest to leave them be. That’s where we pick up the story in the book of Acts, chapter 6, beginning at verse 1. I am reading from the Common English Bible.

~~~


About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word.” This proposal pleased the entire community. They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The community presented these seven to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith.

Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose from some who belonged to the so-called Synagogue of Former Slaves. Members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia entered into debate with Stephen. However, they couldn’t resist the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly enticed some people to claim, “We heard him insult Moses and God.” They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts. They caught Stephen, dragged him away, and brought him before the Jerusalem Council. Before the council, they presented false witnesses who testified, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the Law. In fact, we heard him say that this man Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and alter the customary practices Moses gave us.” Everyone seated in the council stared at Stephen, and they saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.

The high priest asked, “Are these accusations true?”

Stephen responded, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. ….


44“The tent of testimony was with our ancestors in the wilderness. Moses built it just as he had been instructed by the one who spoke to him and according to the pattern he had seen. In time, when they had received the tent, our ancestors carried it with them when, under Joshua’s leadership, they took possession of the land from the nations whom God expelled. This tent remained in the land until the time of David. God approved of David, who asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built a house for God. However, the Most High doesn’t live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says,

Heaven is my throne,

    and the earth is my footstool.

‘What kind of house will you build for me,’ says the Lord,

    ‘or where is my resting place?

Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’

“You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”

Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.


~~~~~

Music: Steal Away

~~~~~


The spiritual Steal Away to Jesus was sung by enslaved people in the USA in the 1800s — both as a reminder that the suffering they were enduring now was not the full truth of their story, an affirmation that God cared for them…and also as a call to come to meetings for worship and organising and a message that underground railroad conductors would be waiting during upcoming stormy weather to help people escape. For nearly 200 years it has been a song of faith and of longing for freedom and hope — in this world and the next.


On Friday morning, I woke up to news headlines and social media stories about 13 year old Adam, who had been shot and killed by Chicago police. The police lied and said he had a gun when he did not, and they just released video showing that in fact had his hands in the air just as they had asked. Having seen a similar video of when they killed 17 year old Laquan four years ago — a boy in his last year of high school, also unarmed though they lied and said he had drugs — I knew not to watch this time, as it’s a sight that will never disappear from my memory.


Earlier in the week the headlines said that Minneapolis police had shot and killed 20 year old Daunte, just a few miles away from where another Minneapolis police officer is currently on trial for killing 46 year old George by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes.


So many of these things happen that the responses are fairly predictable. 


Of course African Americans and other people of colour in the US get yet another gut punch, they seem to come every day — reminders that their very existence inspires fear in so many, and that their lives are expendable.


While some white Americans are outraged or saddened or feel detached from the problem, many will claim that if these people would just comply with police, they would be alive. It’s hard to know where to begin with that, since the facts proclaim it to be untrue — George Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the ground, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her own bed, 13 year old Adam had his hands up…and 12 year old Tamir was killed at the playpark before the police even got out of the car to speak to him…and and and. Not to mention that being unable or unwilling to comply, especially in a split second, should not be an immediate death sentence. 


On this side of the Atlantic, white people will read the headline and shake our heads in disbelief at how bad things are over there. The different roots, history, culture, and community understanding of policing make it almost impossible to understand how these things happen. So we’ll be saddened, and confused — especially those of us who live in places where police rarely carry guns. We might comment on how shocking the state of race relations is in the US. And then we’ll move on with our lives until the next incident captures a headline.


Meanwhile, here in our own nation, many people of colour will also be feeling grief and anger and solidarity, and will tell stories of experiencing racism even here where we don’t have so many weapons. They’ll be asking for our attention to our history and to the current realities of living with brown skin in a nation where in everyday conversation “traditional British” means white, and we have a variety of shorthand slurs and stereotypes at the ready for people of Asian descent, where people of colour are suffering more from Covid, and we defend our statues of slave traders more than we stand up for our neighbours.


And then I read this line in Acts: “At this, they shrieked and covered their ears.” 


The people who picked up their stones and threw them until Stephen’s body was battered to death didn’t want to hear what he had to say. And it didn’t matter to them that what others had said about him were lies. They could not deal with the fact that he was a foreigner who had not only turned from his ancestral Judaism to follow Jesus, but he was so charismatic and so obviously full of the Spirit that his very existence frightened them. At least he got the chance to speak first, though — a chance denied to so many today.


Stephen’s powerful teaching and his grace-filled way brought attention — not because he wanted it or sought it, but simply because some people have such gifts that the rest of us are drawn to them. They shine and we gravitate to their peace, their passion, their spirit. But some didn’t approve. Perhaps they were jealous, or maybe they thought he had risen above his station, or maybe even that this immigrant-Jew-turned-Christian-leader was making their lives complicated as Greek-speaking immigrants to Jerusalem. When their lies about him landed him in court, it says that the council could see his face was shining like an angel. You may remember that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after speaking to God, his face shone as well, and it scared people so much that he wore a veil. The leaders of the council would certainly have remembered that story. Stephen didn’t cover up though, he stood there just as he was, comfortable in his own skin, and faced their accusation that he wanted to change things from the way Moses did them thousands of years ago.


Stephen spoke about the relationship between their common ancestors and God over a hundred generations, and pointed out that things had already changed. After all, during the time of Moses, God lived in a tent and traveled with the people in the wilderness. When David got everyone settled in peace in the land, God denied him his desire to build a permanent Temple. Eventually Solomon did build that Temple, and that was already a significant change from the way Moses did things! From a traveling God who lived close to the ground among the people, to a massive gold-plated temple with different sections for different people where God would live behind many thick stone walls…and then through the changes of the destruction of that Temple, the exile and discovery that God was with them even in a foreign land, then building a new smaller Temple…and on down to where they sat, in that second Temple, now surrounded and infused by trappings of the Roman Empire, discussing whether God could have taken on flesh in Jesus, whom thousands were now following as the Messiah. 


Things had already changed. Stephen was simply inviting the people of God to catch up to what God was already doing. In some ways, it was the macro version of the micro-event that started the chapter, where we heard that the fast-growing church was becoming more diverse and didn’t quite know how to manage everything. They were committed to caring for each other and ensuring that there was no one among them in need — as we talked about in Wine and the Word on YouTube and Facebook on Thursday. But also the leaders all spoke Aramaic and some members spoke only Greek, and that meant that some of the poorer members didn’t have the language or means to speak up for themselves. So new leaders were added, to ensure that everyone would be looked after — Stephen was one of those, called and ordained to minister to people who were being overlooked. And so in the first steps toward an organisational structure, the church tried to follow where God was already at work. 


But the council leaders did not want to hear about how God might be doing things that were different from the way they’d always done it. And they especially did not want to hear that from an immigrant who didn’t even speak their native tongue. Stephen called them “stubborn” and said that they set themselves against the Holy Spirit — they insisted that God could not do a new thing, and even if God did, they weren’t having any part of it.


And they didn’t want to hear this truth about themselves, or about God. They covered their ears and shrieked when he described the beauty of God’s kingdom to them….and they picked up their stones and threw them until he was quiet.


Meanwhile, a young man named Saul, who was also called Paul, held their coats and looked on, silently. Whatever he might have thought inwardly, his silence was approval enough. And he learned from them what was possible, and carried that brutality forward in the next chapter.


What is it that we don’t want to hear? Where might God be moving that we don’t want to follow, so we cling instead to our traditions and insist they can’t be changed — forgetting that they, too, were innovations once? What beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom are we missing out on because there’s no room for it in our systems and structures? And are we covering our ears because we don’t want to hear it…or silencing those stories because they disrupt our comforts…or standing by quietly while people assume we approve of their behaviour?


We don’t have to throw the stones in order to participate in the injustice. After all, someone started by lying about Stephen, and others allowed it, listened to it, shared the gossip. And even the rest of the church community seems to have pulled back, leaving Stephen out on his own — they’re nowhere to be seen in the rest of his story, he stands on his own before the council, only Jesus by his side. And no one stopped the council as they dragged Stephen out of the city. And the witnesses taught the young Saul how to handle those who challenge the old ways.


This is a story that is hard to end with “thanks be to God.” Especially when we continue to enact it, day after day. But there is good news hidden here: that God has no intention of being bound by our ways. Whether we are willing to hear it or not, God is moving beyond the structures and traditions of our churches, and our white supremacy, and our culture and language. And the Spirit is calling and gifting people — us, the Body of Christ — to follow where God is already moving and working, to change those systems that kill. Even when we don’t want to give up our conveniences and privileges, even when we don’t want to hear the harm others have suffered, even when we would rather shake our heads in dismay but not rock the boat. Stephen saw the truth: that Jesus was indeed God’s word made flesh, and his resurrection changed everything, including us…so that we can change the world. We don’t only await our chance to steal away into heaven. God offers liberation from things that bind us here — from enslavement to white supremacy, to vision constrained by nostalgia, to a false peace without justice. As the spiritual says, “I haven’t got long to stay here.” Our neighbours and siblings in Christ haven’t got long…they need us to speak up and to be faithful to God’s call now, before any more lies are told, before any more stones are thrown, before silence kills again. May we be willing to break down those ways and follow Jesus into a new way, sooner rather than later.


May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Trying to Make Sense of it All

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Trying to Make Sense of It All

Luke 24.13-35, NRSV

11 April 2021, Easter 2, NL3-40


Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.




Have you ever had the experience of trying to figure something out, but you just can’t get everything to make sense? Like you have multiple pieces of information, but they don’t seem to fit together, and no matter how much you obsess about it — or what I call “thinking about things” — it just doesn’t come together into a complete picture. So you keep thinking it over, trying to see if you’re missing a piece, or if there’s something that you thought was right but isn’t, or maybe if you just think in a different order, it’ll all work out. 


Now add in grief and crushed hopes, and that’s where these disciples were, on Easter afternoon. They had a lot of information, but it didn’t make sense. And when someone joined them along their walk and invited them to talk it through out loud, they started their story with past-tense hope. They used to hope. Once they had hoped. Their hopes were dashed, left behind, and all they had was a bunch of disjointed bits that they could not for the life of them figure out.


The stranger on the road listened to them as they wrestled with their confusion — with their “besides all this” and “moreover” and “but” — and then he started the story from the beginning. He talked of God’s work through people and places and events, from the shores of the Red Sea to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and showed how all these seemingly disparate bits fit together as pieces of the larger picture. He invited them to see themselves as part of God’s story — in a way that only the living word made flesh could do. 


Before they knew it, both their journey and the story were at an end — or at least, so it seemed. The two disciples were perhaps feeling a bit less scattered than they had been before. When their companion waved goodbye at their door and stepped off into the twilight, they did what any follower of Jesus would do: they invited him in for an evening meal. They had learned well the lesson of hospitality, as they traveled the countryside two by two, visiting villages with the good news. So they insisted he come in, and together they sat down at the table.


There, around their own kitchen table, with a simple evening meal, their companion picked up the bread and did what the host usually did: he took the bread and said the blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for you have brought forth bread from the earth.” And he broke it in pieces, and gave it to them, serving them as if it were his own table.


In that moment of broken bread, they remembered. I mean, they re - membered. They put it all back together, and they themselves became whole again as everything fell into place. Their eyes were opened and they recognised him — recognised: to understand something they had known before. They saw Jesus, right there at their own table, being the host. And though they couldn’t understand it all, that moment drew them into a deeper reality that was there all along. They remembered all the other times he had taken bread, blessed and broken it, and given it to them — with the crowd on the hillside and at home after synagogue and in the borrowed upper room. They remembered the story he had told them on the road, and with the pieces of bread in their hands, it all just…clicked. Their eyes were opened, and they recognised him. 


And before they could do or say anything, he vanished from their sight. 


It turned out that neither the journey nor the story had ended. Jesus was alive, but not back, if that makes sense. They wouldn’t be able to grasp onto Jesus and hold him in place and just pick up where they left off before the trauma of losing him. Just a few verses after the end of our reading today, Jesus blesses his disciples and then ascends to heaven, leaving them to do all that he taught them — to teach his word, to heal, to welcome, to challenge injustice, and to take bread, bless and break it, and share it, so that others might also see him. Jesus is alive, and leading us forward into life too — and he left us with the power of the word and the bread together, and that was enough for the disciples. They still didn’t get him back to the way things used to be, but he gave us something we can do anytime to remember and be re-membered: to hear the word and break the bread, and see. Wherever they were, at any table, they could see him. Wherever we are, at any table, we can see him.


We are inundated with more information than we can really make sense of, but the story of God’s love and providing and leading is still there for us to enter into, and it can tie together things we never thought would be part of the same big picture. There are still unexpected companions on our journeys, and there are still people who need inviting in to share a meal. And we still need to share our experiences of seeing God. Because it is in telling the story of God’s saving grace to others that the Body of Christ is able to see the fullness of God’s goodness. It took the women’s story, and Peter’s, and the two disciples who went to Emmaus, all seen together, each in light of the others for the truth to become clear: that Christ is alive, and brings us into new life with him. Not into our old lives, but new life. Jesus may have vanished from their sight, but he is still visible when we make him known. 


When we break bread together, we are re-made, re-membered into the Body of Christ. We are the ones who live as his hands and feet in our community, we are the ones whose voices speak his word. We remember all that he did and said, and by pulling that past story into the present, we help    others experience God today. If we will not act like Christ and share his word, where will people see him?


The first step into new life with Christ is that we must see him — not just a jumble of facts and moments, but a whole story God has been telling from the beginning of time and continuing on today. And we see best in the breaking of bread.


Look at this table. (And when you are at home, look at your table!)

Its familiar contours, that scratch on the leg, that one spot you shouldn’t lean too hard on.

Look at this table.

Everyone has a place here — 

whether we sit at the same spot every time or this is our first visit.

Despite all appearances and expectations,

Christ is the host at this table.

He is the One who tells the stories, 

the One who takes, blesses, breaks, and shares,

the One who knows us better than we know ourselves.

Christ is the host at this table, 

at every table,

and in him all our broken pieces are re-membered into his Body.

So come, take your place at Christ’s table,

listen,

be fed,

and your eyes will be opened to recognise him.





Sunday, March 21, 2021

Not an Object -- a sermon on Luke 18-19 for Lent 5

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Not an Object (out on a limb 2.0)

Luke 18.31 - 19.10

21 March 2021, Lent 5, NL3-35


Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, and today’s story takes us on the road through Jericho, a city about 20 miles northeast of and 3400 feet lower elevation than Jerusalem. 

In the verses that come just before today’s reading, a well-off man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, and was instructed to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow Jesus. He was saddened by this teaching, and Jesus’ response was “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.” When the disciples expressed their own shock, Jesus said: “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.” He continued to teach them as they traveled, which is where we pick up the story in the gospel according to Luke, chapter 18, beginning at verse 31 and continuing to chapter 19 verse 10. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

~~~~~~~


Then Jesus took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’ But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’



 


He wanted to see Jesus…so he packed up all his dignity, power, and prestige and climbed a tree, like a small child, hanging from the branches while the rabbi stood underneath and summoned him.


Zacchaeus was probably more used to summoning others than being summoned himself, more used to other people making a fool of themselves, creating a spectacle…but he wanted to see Jesus. It didn’t matter what people thought of him.


And it turns out that what people thought of him may not have been correct anyway—as he dropped down out of the tree and led Jesus to his home, he could hear them grumbling that he was a traitor to his people, taking the job collecting taxes for the Romans, that he was just like the rest of them, getting rich off the suffering of his neighbours. The way taxes worked at the time, Rome allotted each sector a certain amount they had to bring in…anything they collected over and above that amount was their salary. Given that Zacchaeus was rich, that must obviously mean that he was cheating people, extorting them and living high while the rest of them struggled to get by, right? He was probably used to hearing their rumours and gossip about him, he was well known in town. 


And yet, in his business suit and shiny shoes, he climbed up the tree and went out on a limb, trying to see Jesus.


And when he came down, he went out on a limb to declare that he was giving away his wealth and that he was careful not to defraud people—in the Greek, Zacchaeus speaks in an ongoing present tense, not a future tense as it’s often translated. He is describing how he is now, already, what is current habits are…and Jesus too says “Today”—just like in his first sermon, when he declared that today, right now, in his presence, in his very being, the word of God was being fulfilled, coming to life. Zacchaeus doesn’t just say that Abraham is his ancestor, he lives like a son of Abraham. Despite the fact that to everyone else he was an object of scorn, Jesus saw him for who he was, a human being trying to be faithful. Jesus recognised him, and invited others to recognise him too, as an integral member of their community…though to recognise Zacchaeus would also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at their own hearts.



He wanted to see Jesus…but the people around him wanted him to be quiet. And yet the blind man shouted all the more. Even just the act of standing up on that crowded roadside meant laying aside propriety and expectations. His neighbours shushed and pushed, but still he went out on a limb, speaking up and refusing to be held back. He could hear, but he wanted to see Jesus.


When Jesus summoned him—a man used to being ignored, walked around, talked over—he came and stood face to face with the man he could not see, and heard the question: what do you want me to do for you?


Imagine how infrequently he had been asked this question. Most of the time, those who live on the streets or who navigate life with disabilities are told what they are getting, or what they should want. Their lives are defined by the people around them, and what we think they can and can’t do, marked by assumptions that most of us have codified as fact. 


When the man shouted for Jesus, he took a risk—challenging the picture of those around him, knowing that most people would not see him for who he is (a beloved child of God, a son of Abraham) but rather as a problem to be solved. But Jesus saw him, and not only restored his sight but his dignity, his humanity, his place in the community as well. Despite the fact that to everyone else he was an object of pity, Jesus saw him for who he was, a human being with more vision than even his own disciples had. Jesus recognised him, and invited others to recognise him too, as an integral member of their community…though to recognise the blind man would also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at their own hearts.



They wanted to see Jesus…these friends who had followed him for so long. They’d seen miracles, and performed some themselves. They’d been healed and taught, they’d walked in his footsteps, basked in his glory, shared his dinners. But when it came to the idea that he could absorb violence without returning it, they could not see. When it came to the idea that he would lead them not to power and glory but to service and weakness, it sounded like foolishness. They wanted to see Jesus, but their eyes were clouded by the values of the world, their minds closed off by their assumptions about how things ought to be. To them he was the object of their political and spiritual desire, not a whole person inviting them into a new way of wholeness too.


The disciples walked the roads with Jesus, stirring up dust and controversy every step of the way, and yet for all their seeking, they weren’t yet able to lay aside those same constraints that had caused people to shush the blind man or to grumble about Zacchaeus. 


It’s so easy to see other people as objects…of our desire, of our pity, of our scorn. Jesus sees us, though, and calls us to recognise that people are not the one dimensional objects or representatives we so often reduce them to. An example I like to give is that I am a woman, and a minister, and an immigrant, and a curly-girl. But I don’t speak for all curly-haired people, and “minister” is not the only thing I am, and my experience of being an immigrant is different than many others. I’m not only any one of those things, nor am I the spokesperson for any of them. That’s true for every single person we meet. A person sleeping rough is a person, with interests and experiences and family background and a story. They don’t represent all people without homes any more than I represent all people who have a home. A person with an addiction is a person, not an addiction. A person whose job I would personally never do is a person, not their job. 


Jesus recognises them, and us, and invites us to recognise one another too, as integral members of our community…though to recognise each other will also require seeing their own reliance on stereotypes and stigma, looking at our own hearts.


Zacchaeus and the blind man wanted to see Jesus — they had some measure of vision already, to recognise Christ in their midst. It was the people around Zacchaeus and the people around the blind man who could not see. They couldn’t see their neighbour fully, but that was at least partially because they could not see themselves. They thought of themselves as the normal ones, arbiters of what’s right and wrong, who’s in and who’s out. They were the measuring stick for who else belonged in their community. It was only when Jesus challenged their vision that the whole community could be healed. 


The disciples were a more complicated situation. They couldn’t fully see Jesus, because they were still holding back part of themselves — and being held back by their reluctance to allow that God might work outside of their own frame, their own people, their own story. They kept their feet firmly on the ground, respectable and correct, well within the boundaries they had set up for themselves and God.


But if we want to see Jesus, we’ll need to be willing to recognise him in the faces of our neighbours — even the neighbours we have seen only as an object. We’ll need to be willing to go out on a limb, to broaden our vision and open our minds and hearts beyond what feels comfortable. And we’ll need to be willing to ask for help, however much we want to project an image of having it all figured out. When we ask Jesus to give us vision, he’ll summon us recognise the kingdom of God among us — a kingdom of love and grace and justice, where no one is an object, no one is simply a screen for our projected stereotypes, and everyone has the chance to both give and receive, because each and every one is a whole person made in God’s image and beloved.


May we recognise Jesus among us, and see his vision. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

what more do we need? a sermon on the rich man and Lazarus

 Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

What More Do We Need?

Luke 16.19-30

14 March 2021, Lent 4, NL3-34



Last week we heard Jesus teaching in parables about looking for the lost and restoring the wholeness of community. He proceeded straight after the story of the Lost Son to tell some very confusing parables related to how we use our resources, especially wealth, ending with the statement “you cannot serve God and wealth." Some Pharisees and other leaders heard him teaching and they mocked and criticised him, and Luke describes them as “Pharisees who were lovers of money.” Jesus then says to them, “you justify yourselves before others but God knows your heart.” That’s where we pick up the story today, in Luke chapter 16, at verse 19. I am reading from the Common English Bible.


Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”





Lent is a season when we are meant to prepare for Easter by first noticing and then detaching ourselves from the things that separate us from God — things that take our attention and energy when we ought to be focused on God’s kingdom. We fast from things that distract us, so that we can be ready — or at least as ready as possible in our limited human reality — to receive the incredible grace of resurrection. Lent is about honest self-reflection, letting go, and clearing ourselves, body, mind, and spirit, so that we can repent and return to God’s way. 


So perhaps it’s no surprise that readings like this come up in Lent. It isn’t exactly the cheeriest of seasons, when we confront our brokenness with honesty, sorrow, and hope. And this reading is not cheery. It’s one we’d probably rather skip over…but that discipline of truth-telling that we practice in Lent so that we can do it all year long requires us to confront the hard words Jesus has for us today.


The contrasts in this story couldn’t be more startling — between a nameless rich man who has the best clothes, and a poor man called Lazarus whose broken skin doesn’t even cover him, between the man who feasted luxuriously every day and the man who saw those feasts and wished for a crumb but starved just outside, between the one who died and was simply carried off, and the one who died and was given a proper and dignified burial. 


There was clearly a chasm between these two men, and their experience of the world. They existed in the same sphere, living in the same space, looking at each other through windows, through the gate, or whenever the rich man left his house and had to step over poor Lazarus. They knew each other, but their lives were so different, they might as well have lived on different planets. One had more than he knew what to do with, and so had access to anything he could ever want or dream. The other had less than nothing, and could only look longingly and hope for mercy from those in his community — mercy that was never forthcoming. Not even a crumb.


Once they had both died, the tables turned but the chasm remained. They could still see each other, and speak to one another…and the rich man did. He was used to getting what he wanted, and saw no reason this time should be any different. So he begged for the same thing that he had denied Lazarus in life — just a drop of cool water. Just a drop, just a crumb. 


But in asking, he betrayed himself: he called for Lazarus by name.


It’s easy to imagine that having lived such incredibly different lives, that the rich man might never have even noticed the poor man — just always studiously avoided looking. It’s something many of us who have spent time in cities are practiced at, the looking away, never making eye contact with people in need sitting on the side of the street. We stay safely on our side of the chasm, imagining we have little in common with “those people.” 


But the rich man said “send Lazarus.”


He knew him. He recognised his face and knew his name. 


He knew that man who sat at his gate, starving and wounded. Which means he chose to ignore his suffering. These two people lived in the same space and were in the same community and one of them simply decided that the other was not valuable enough to help. He preferred his sumptuous meals and beautiful clothes and didn’t care about anyone else, not even his closest neighbour, who lay at his very gate.


We might put it like this: he loved himself far more than his neighbour.


When the chasm he had created was brought to his attention, he was undeterred in his sense of entitlement to control Lazarus, asking for him to be sent away from the comfort he’d never had in life, back to the very place where he had suffered, for the benefit of the rich brothers. Who, for the record, appear to have never cared for Lazarus in life, so it’s not at all clear they would pay attention to him coming back from the dead either.


Abraham’s response should give us all pause. He said “they have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.” 


In other words: we already know what we’re supposed to do. The commandment to Love God and Love Neighbour are not news, they’ve been there this whole time. That’s supposed to be the core of who we are and what we do. What more do we need before we act on the word of God? What will it take for us to recognise the truth of God’s call, and respond to it?


Remember that Jesus told this story to “Pharisees who were lovers of money” — as Pharisees, they knew the Torah. They knew perfectly well the commandments and the words of the prophets through the ages, calling people to live God’s way. And yet their love was out of order. Rather than loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving their neighbour as themselves, they loved money first. 


I think Jesus told this story to show them what kind of world that out-of-order love would create. 


The thing is, we know all this, and yet we choose not to know it. We know that we have created that chasm between us and them, coming up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t cross it to love our neighbour. And so we look away, and congratulate ourselves, jockeying for our return to normal while developing nations continue to die of covid with no access to vaccines. We look away as we place our stockpiling grocery orders, while people fleeing from violence or environmental disaster or abject poverty die, either trying to get here or in substandard accommodations in our cities. We look away as we justify ourselves as not knowing anyone who would do those things while women are abducted and killed for walking home after dark. We look away as we repeat rumours and jokes about others, while they hear us and wish they weren’t alive anymore. And the chasm grows, and grows, and becomes more and more fixed, and it feels impossible to cross.


The rich man knew Lazarus’s name. He recognised his face. But he did not recognise the image of God in his neighbour. Or, to be more honest about it, he chose not to see the image of God in his neighbour, because he loved himself more.


Lent is a time for honesty, for the kind of self-reflection that brings us closer to the truth that sets us free. Choosing to live in ways that create that chasm, while the kingdom of God beckons from the other side, may feel like freedom but actually we end up trapped too, unable to get out of a system we can’t even see, and it can be terrifying to admit it. But perfect love casts out fear, and the Way of Jesus leads to life — not just surviving, but abundant life, eternal life that starts now. Jesus says, in this story and in plenty of others: you know the way. I am the way. 


May we recognise our part in creating the chasms of this world, and choose to live by Christ’s command to love. Amen.





Sunday, March 07, 2021

The One Matters -- a sermon on Luke 15's lost things

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

The One Matters

Luke 15.1-32 (CEB)

7 March 2021, Lent 3, NL3-33


All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”





These stories may already be familiar to many of us — whether we’ve heard them from the Bible or not, they’ve entered into the public consciousness, like the story of being a neighbour from a couple of weeks ago. We use phrases like “prodigal son” or “lost sheep” even if we don’t know the specifics of the full story that Jesus told. 


Some of you know what I’m about to say next, I suspect! — that the popularity of those phrases and the things we think they refer to might be obscuring what Jesus was actually talking about. Remember that a parable is a story that is intentionally open-ended — like a parabola in maths is an open-ended shape — so that we can continue to learn about the kingdom of God from many angles within the story. 


One of the things that has happened over the centuries is that we have conflated these stories Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel with one of his sayings from John’s gospel, where he says, “I am the good shepherd”…and so we assume that this story is the same as the one John is telling. But that means we have to ignore the set-up of today’s parables, which suggest something quite different!


Jesus is speaking to the people who are grumbling about his choice of companionship — in this case, some leaders in the community. To those leaders, he said, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep, and lost one…”


Now, we have been conditioned by the conflation of this story with the one about Jesus being the good shepherd to assume that this is a story about God seeking out the lost. But listen carefully to the start of the story. To the Pharisees and scripture experts, Jesus said, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep and lost one.” From the very first sentence, Jesus is letting the listener know that they are supposed to see themselves as the shepherd! Except the things he then says are things that no shepherd would do. First of all, what shepherd can just glance at a hundred sheep on a hillside and notice that there are only 99? Second, what shepherd would leave the whole flock on that hillside and go searching for one…especially since that probably means when he came back, he’d have a flock of just one?!? One lost sheep out of a hundred would not be a terribly big deal, though it does suggest some carelessness on the part of the shepherd, a bit of a failure at his job.


The second story ups the stakes a little bit, with the coin being lost — that coin is a whole day’s wages. To lose an entire day’s wages would be a pretty significant problem! 


The shepherd and the woman then search, thoroughly and tirelessly, until they find what they have lost. Then they rejoice, calling together their community to celebrate with them — maybe even spending more than they had originally lost and found on the party!


The third story increases the stakes even more. Many of us have used phrases like “family is most important”…well, here’s a story about a family that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The younger son demanded his inheritance while his father was still alive, and he ran off and spent it. When he came home, the father welcomed him with open arms and again there’s a big party, what was lost has been found! But when we read all three of these stories together the way they were intended, we see something unusual:


No one went looking for the younger son who wandered off. 

And when he returned, no one went looking for the older son to tell him the news and invite him to come in from work early and join the party.


The shepherd recognised that he had lost a sheep, and went looking. The woman recognised that she had lost a coin, and went looking. The father doesn’t seem to have recognised what he was losing, and he did not go looking. Yes, he welcomed the younger son, and pleaded with the older one, but only when they turned back up of their own accord.


Perhaps by now you can see the problem with the way we have often understood these parables. The shepherd is responsible for his sheep and loses one. The woman is responsible for her coins and loses one. The father is responsible for his sons and loses…one and then the other. But of course we know that God does not lose us. God never loses track of a sheep. There is nowhere we can go that would be out of God’s sight. God does not simply forget about us, toiling away in the fields. 


And when we hear the interpretation Jesus gives, that there is rejoicing when someone changes their heart and life, when they repent — we see further how bizarre that interpretation really is, though we have been used to it for a long time. A sheep doesn’t need to repent for doing what sheep do — wandering around looking for better grass. And a coin can’t repent because it’s an inanimate object. Sheep and coins don’t lose themselves, they are lost by their owners. 


Which means it must actually be the owner that is changing their heart and life in this story! It’s the shepherd who recognises his error, and works to put it right, to bring the flock back to wholeness, even at great risk to his livelihood. It’s the woman who recognises her error, and works to put it right, bringing her savings back to wholeness, even if it means staying up all night tearing the house apart and putting it back together. But the father — who is tasked with caring for something far more valuable than sheep or coins — doesn’t seem to recognise his error until it’s too late and the family is coming apart at the seams, wholeness out of reach.


And Jesus has addressed the religious leaders as if they are the shepherd…the woman…the father. Telling them what they are supposed to be like: not to complain about another leader who goes looking for the lost, but rather to recognise their faults and failings and change their ways. That means seeing who’s missing and taking some risks to restore the wholeness of the community, because that is what causes rejoicing in heaven: restoring wholeness.


All of which leads me to wonder: have we noticed who is missing from our community? And what effort are we willing to put in, what risks are we willing to take, for the one? So often we are focused on what the majority wants or needs…what about the one who doesn’t feel they fit in, or who hasn’t been able to access, or has been left out and feels unloved or taken for granted? Are we willing to make changes to the way we do things so that the one, or the few, can be included at the same level as the 99? Or do we either assume they’re fine out in the field without an invitation to the party, or that they’ll be perfectly fine just out on the edges of the community where there’s no trouble to us?


Perhaps the most obvious connection is disabled access — how do people feel entering our church buildings and other buildings in our community? — like a valued regular part of the family, or different and causing trouble to get in and navigate around the space and participate fully in activities? We might ask the same questions about socio-economic status, or educational experience, or family configuration, or ethnic background, or health needs, or gender identity, or knowledge of our traditions, or traumatic pasts, or facility with technology, or any number of other things that might be keeping people separate. Without them, our community is not whole. So what effort are we willing to put in not just to make the one welcome, but to look for them and rejoice in their presence? It’s so tempting to count the cost of making changes, not to mention the risk to the 99 and their feelings of being left on the hillside for a bit. But what about the cost to the one who has never fit in, or always been made to feel second-class or marginal or have to come through the back door? And what about the cost to the whole community when we are fractured and missing pieces?


The Pharisees and legal experts grumbled about Jesus spending time with the people they thought weren’t worth the effort. Jesus responded with stories of God rejoicing when we recognise the sinfulness of that thought and change our hearts and lives by going to seek the lost…and the consequences to the family if we don’t recognise and don’t try. 


May we recognise the missing members of our family, and seek the wholeness God desires for the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.