Sunday, January 24, 2021

open -- a sermon on Luke 5, fishing for the first disciples

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s


Luke 5.1-11 (Common English Bible)

24 January 2021, NL3-23

Last week we heard Jesus give his first sermon, in his hometown of Nazareth. It started well but by the end people were quite upset. He went on from there to Capernaum, where he was again teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when a demon who was possessing a man shouted out his identity for all to hear. Jesus cast out the demon and healed the man, and people began to talk about him even more than before. After synagogue, Jesus went to Simon’s house, where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and then once the sun went down and the Sabbath was over, the whole town came to the door to ask for healing. That night, Jesus went out and prayed, and decided it was time to go preach in new places, even as word about him was spreading. We pick up the story today in Luke chapter 5, beginning at verse 1. I am reading from the Common English Bible.


One day Jesus was standing beside Lake Gennesaret when the crowd pressed in around him to hear God’s word. Jesus saw two boats sitting by the lake. The fishermen had gone ashore and were washing their nets. Jesus boarded one of the boats, the one that belonged to Simon, then asked him to row out a little distance from the shore. Jesus sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he finished speaking to the crowds, he said to Simon, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.”

Simon replied, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing. But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”

So they dropped the nets and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. They signalled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They filled both boats so full that they were about to sink. When Simon Peter saw the catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinner!” Peter and those with him were overcome with amazement because of the number of fish they caught. James and John, Zebedee’s sons, were Simon’s partners and they were amazed too.

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

One day…just an ordinary work day like any other. Morning chores were in process, merchants were setting up their stalls, day labourers were congregating and waiting for work, children were running underfoot on their way to get water from the town well, fishwives were gathering up the night’s meagre catch to sell — not from Simon’s boats, though, since they had caught nothing — and fishermen were cleaning nets to prepare for the next night instead. Everyone else’s workday was gearing up, but theirs was winding down.

Jesus had been visiting synagogues in all the villages, but this was a work day, not a Sabbath day, so he was out doing what normal people did on an average weekday morning. Perhaps he was out waiting to buy fish beside the shore, or talking to day labourers, or waiting for the baker to get fresh loaves from the ovens. People recognised him though, and started to gather round, hoping to hear him say something profound. When the crowd got to be a bit too claustrophobic, he hopped into Simon Peter’s boat. Jesus clearly could not handle the boat himself, he asked Peter to push away from the shore — a task that actually would have required the crew of 4 or 5 men to stop their net-cleaning and get back into the boat. 

Once Jesus finished everything he had to say that morning, he ask them to go out into the deep water and go fishing.

The deep water…where anything can happen. It’s away from the crowds, and it’s the most dangerous part of the lake, where you can’t see what’s down there and where squalls could rise quickly and without much warning. It was also the place where, at that time of day, there might be more fish than closer to the shore. Life and danger together summed up in one phrase: the deep water.

These men were tired, they’d worked all night…perhaps they didn’t even have the energy to resist their new friend who was brought up inland. Even though a tired crew out on the deep water was likely an extra layer of concern, they humoured him — “if you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” The nets they had just cleaned, for the record, as their last work task before finishing their shift. It’s like when the tables are wiped and the machine is cleaned and the floor is mopped and with one minute before closing time someone comes in and orders a cappuccino. 

But they did it — they dropped the nets. And the result was so far beyond their imagining they didn’t even have time to think. Pretty soon they had so many fish that two boats were sinking — and each boat at the time could have safely held nearly half a ton of fish! With a literal ton of fish, they struggled — an exhausted crew working overtime on the biggest catch they’d ever experienced, they probably were barely even able to hum a sea shanty as they rowed their sinking boat to shore. Once they were safely on land, though, the truth hit: this was the best day in their small business owner lives! Nothing like this had ever happened before. Even after taxes, this was a huge windfall for them and their families.

Peter’s first reaction, though, was to worship. In awe, he sank to his knees and recognised that he was in the presence of something, someone, so great he could never deserve it. This man had power over the deeps, and though he wasn’t a fisherman he knew the fish better than anyone. They had experienced his teaching and healing but now they saw something else, something cosmic that could control creation.

All of them were overcome with amazement. Imagine realising that such power and holiness had left the sanctuary and the synagogue and come down to the shore in the midst of all the people and work and commerce, and plopped itself down in your business. That’s not how the world works! God is supposed to be safely in the holy places, not in the middle of the workweek, visiting our shops and offices and turning everything upside down!

It’s no wonder Jesus has to say “don’t be afraid.” Think of the other times human beings have encountered the presence of God — Isaiah in the temple seeing the hem of God’s robes and the seraphim singing Holy Holy Holy…the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, with the pillar of cloud and fire quaking with God’s voice…Samuel in the temple, uncertain where that voice is coming from…Elijah on the mountain hearing God in the silence…even when the people of God faced the moment with courage, they were nervous. Because meeting God is dangerous, for two reasons — first because human beings can’t handle or comprehend the fullness of God’s holiness, we’re made to be “a little lower” as the psalmist says. And second because all of these encounters end with God sending the people out to do something that they would likely not have chosen to do on their own. Isaiah and Samuel and Elijah all had to go proclaim a message that the kingdom would not want to hear. 

What would come next, for these fishermen who understood they were experiencing something beyond them?

Jesus said: come with me to fish for people. And they left everything and followed him. 

They left everything. Their boats. Their nets, which now needed to be re-washed and mended. A literal ton of fish, the catch of a lifetime. Their families and friends. The life they knew and were comfortable in, even though it was hard work. They left it all and followed Jesus. His invitation, to be close to that level of holiness and power and grace all the time, was more compelling than their social network, than their massive income boost, than their exhaustion at the end of the work day — more compelling than anything else.

So they left everything and followed him.

Whatever they expected that day, it wasn’t that. The crowd that pushed and pressed and begged to hear the word…the tired fishermen that humoured this itinerant preacher when he tried to tell them how to do their jobs…then found themselves overcome with wonder and amazement, falling on their knees and then getting up to follow. That was not how they thought their day was going to go when they got up that morning. 

But when it happened, they were open to it. When their expectations were shattered and confounded, they adapted to the new situation. When God showed up, they recognised and responded.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the tasks of a day, and in what we think is and is not possible in our situation, and our own sense of our expertise compared to others. Simon Peter and his business partners and their crew could have said “it’s the end of our shift, we’re done for the day” and just laid their nets out to dry and clocked off. They could have said “we’re professional fishermen telling you that there are no fish to catch today” and rowed back to shore. But they had enough space in their spirits to recognise when something divine happened, even unexpectedly in the middle of their everyday life. 

Wherever we find ourselves — at home whiling away hours, or working more than ever before without the usual boundaries between work and home; managing home learning, or never getting even a moment’s break from our family members; walking the dog half a dozen times a day for an excuse to go out, or relishing the time to get a break from the hectic pace — what would happen if God turned up? Can we make space within our minds and hearts for God to do something…and then to leave what we know and follow him?

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Beyond and Beneath -- a sermon on Jesus at Nazareth

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Beyond and Beneath

Luke 4.14-30

17 January 2021, NL3-22

Last week we heard about John the Baptist preaching at the Jordan River, and baptising people, including Jesus, who then heard God’s voice proclaiming him God’s beloved Son. After his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days, where he experienced several temptations — to turn a stone into bread, to worship Satan in exchange for the glory of the kingdoms of the world, and to demonstrate his specialness by throwing himself from the top of the Temple. Having resisted all these, he then returned home, where we pick up the story today in the gospel according to Luke, chapter 4, beginning at verse 14. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.


Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

        to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

        to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.”’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Can you imagine the scene that day in the synagogue? This hometown boy has been away for a few months, listening to John the Baptist and then going on that wilderness prayer retreat, and he’s been making his way home — they’re hearing glowing reports from every village along the way and can’t wait to welcome him back, to hear all about his experiences and what he’s learned about God and the scriptures, and to celebrate that one of their own is rising to prominence as a preacher.

New archaeological evidence suggests that Nazareth was a bigger town than previously thought, maybe having a thousand or so people. The scholars think that there may have been a number of priestly families living there, and that on the whole the town was more stringently devout than some other places — archaeologists have found evidence that they followed tighter rules and restrictions than some neighbouring towns did. If that’s the case, how much more proud would they be that this native son was becoming a teacher and healer, following in the footsteps of John the Baptist, encouraging people to repent and turn to God’s way? The buzz about Jesus was growing, people were talking about him at home, in the streets and marketplace, and in the synagogue.

His first weekend home, of course he was invited to the front to speak. It happens to everyone training for the ministry! Just come up and say a few words, we’re so proud and excited to hear from these young people who have grown up in our Sunday School classes, we just know they’re going to do great things and be a credit to us and all the time we invested in them.

Jesus stood and was handed the scroll for the week’s lectionary reading — Isaiah. Isaiah is a long scroll, 66 chapters, so unrolling it would take some time, carefully finding the spot for chapter 61, near the end, before reading out a passage we heard just a few weeks ago during Advent. All eyes were on him as he rolled and rolled, then found the right place, and finally read out: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Then when he finished reading, he rolled and rolled until the scroll was carefully put away. Only then did he start a sermon.

Already after the first sentence, people were thrilled. He spoke so well, especially for a workman’s son. They murmured to each other and swelled with pride for being the place that this great man came from, the neighbours who looked after him and changed his nappies, the friends who studied with him, the people who taught him and who bought their furnishings from his father — they knew him before he was famous, in fact it was probably their help in his upbringing that made him this way! They would definitely get a mention in his award speech.

And then Jesus kept talking. He didn’t stop where they were happy and leave them wanting more. He didn’t quit while he was ahead. He had read what was to become the mission statement of his own ministry, and now he was going to tell them what that meant in practice.

The truth is, he said, the good news is for the people who are beyond you — outside your circle of holiness, like the gentile widow that Elijah fed during the drought. And the good news is for people who are beneath you — like the enemy general that Elisha healed of leprosy. God’s grace is good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, the outcast, and the oppressed. 

And the people of Nazareth, who were careful and observant about correctness and holiness and purity, who were priests and small business owners and tradesmen, were furious. They are not the poor, the captive, the blind, the outcast, or the oppressed. Or at least, they don’t see themselves that way, aside from the situation with the Romans. So what does that mean for them, and their expectations for how their hometown celebrity Jesus will treat them?

In essence, Jesus said to them: not everything is about you. 

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you and care about everyone. It just means that God’s world does not necessarily revolve around me.

And Jesus’ mission was for those who never had their moment in the sun: those that the people of Nazareth assumed were beneath them or beyond their bounds. Too often, we expect that everything God says and does is for us — by which I mean the “us” that is in our comfortable circle. Us in our nation, or our language, or our skin colour, or our religion, or our socio-economic status. But if the way we interpret something is not good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, the outcast, and the oppressed, then it is not actually Jesus’ good news. It’s just our expectations, reinforced by some pretty words. 

No wonder the people of Nazareth were furious enough to try to throw Jesus off a cliff. He pointed out their privileged position, and said his mission was to people who needed him more — and then gave examples that suggested that his work would challenge their position, hold them accountable to a vision of God’s kingdom that was more just than the world in which they lived. Their response suggests that they would prefer the status quo rather than the work of God as described by the prophets, or even by Jesus’ mother in her magnificat.

The thing is, if it isn’t good news for the poor, it isn’t good news for anyone. And, despite what the people of Nazareth and down through the ages think, if it is good news for the poor, it will also be good news for the rest of us, no matter how uncomfortable it feels at first. As Emma Lazarus wrote, and later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Our welfare is bound up with each other, and — like the word I mentioned last week, kuleana —  we have a responsibility to one another. So as long as we think some people are beyond us, outside the bounds, or as long as we think some people are beneath us, then none of us have truly received the good news.

So what would be good news to the children who received such paltry food parcels for their lunches this week?

If it isn’t good news to hungry children, it isn’t good news for anyone, no matter how happy we might be to hear it.

What would be good news to the person fleeing their home because they can no longer live in the midst of war or famine or abuse or lack of opportunity? 

If it isn’t good news to the person standing on the beach at midnight trying to decide whether to get into the overloaded raft, it isn’t good news for anyone, no matter how good it makes us feel about God or ourselves.

What would be good news to the immigrants who serve as carers, working for private companies or councils rather than the NHS, wondering about their immigration status and their place in the immunisation priorities, and paying for their own PPE from their minimum wage?

If it isn’t good news for the invisible members of society, it isn’t good news for anyone.

Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah, a passage about God’s kingdom being a kingdom of jubilee, of justice that creates equity, and then says it is fulfilled in him, this is his mission. In his person, in his very being, by his presence among us, these words become true in our present reality. Throughout Luke’s gospel we will see him bringing this about — he is anointed for this purpose, to make God’s kingdom visible here and now, and that will be good news for the poor, the captive, the blind, the outcast, and the oppressed. We may well join the people of Nazareth when we realise the good news is not targeted just to us — indeed, that it is actually targeted to “them.” But only when it’s good news for the least can it be true good news for the greatest. Anything else is just shallow empty words…or even idolatry, a god made in our own image. And the good news of Jesus Christ is so much more than that, so much deeper, so much wider. He challenges us to follow him beyond our comfort zone, so that all people, even “them,” can hear good news and experience God’s kingdom, here and now. 

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

kuleana -- a sermon for Baptism of the Lord

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s


Luke 3.1-22 (New Revised Standard Version)

10 January 2021, NL3-21, Baptism of the Lord

Today’s reading may be a familiar story to some of us, but this is one of those times when our familiarity makes it easy to gloss over some of the details in the way Luke tells the story. But those details are important, because they tell us things about how God is working, who Jesus is, and what the Holy Spirit is doing in and through us as God’s people. So today, rather than reading all 22 verses at once and then talking about them, we’re going to read and discuss bit by bit. The reading today is from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 3, verses 1-22, and I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version. We’ll begin with just verses 1-6. 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

    make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

    and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’

We are familiar with this quote from Isaiah — usually we hear it during Advent, and it calls up memories of Handel’s Messiah. Isaiah wrote to people who were in exile, waiting for God to come and take them home. To hear God’s promise accompanied by the call to prepare the road on which God would travel to rescue the people meant that they should be hopeful because it would happen soon, they should get ready! Luke uses that same passage to describe what John the Baptist was doing — preparing the way of the Lord, because he was coming soon, so people should both be hopeful and get ready. Now, what John thought that would mean is unclear, we don’t know what he expected the Messiah to do or how he would act, we just know that he was preparing the way.

Usually that’s all we read for this section, but actually we really need to back up to the beginning! All those names and places seem so easy to skip over, but they are there for a reason. Luke tells us that all these things took place during a particular time and in a particular location. They didn’t have a calendar like ours where you could just say the month and year…but that isn’t he only reason he describes that time and location by referencing the important people of the day: the emperor, the governor, and the client kings, and then the high priests of the Jerusalem Temple. These are the people who defined the age, the ones who controlled the politics, economy, culture, and religion. While ordinary people would not interact with any of these leaders, the fact is that even if they didn’t think about it all the time, their lives and options were affected by those leaders’ choices and actions. Their images were on coins and buildings, their movements could ease or disrupt business, their rulings changed how people ate and worked and worshiped, and they were generally just the backdrop to life.

Against that backdrop, we have John, son of a priest, out in the wilderness — unsupervised, in other words — preaching and baptising outside the institutional and liturgical structures of the time. So after naming all the people who have power in the empire in one way or another, who define our lives, suddenly Luke changes focus, drawing our attention away from all those things that have consumed our energy and around which we have oriented our worldview. The word of God is in the wilderness. Out on the margins, away from the centre of earthly kingdom power, the kingdom of God is breaking in, and it will change the way we see. It will change the way we mark time. It will change what we think is important, and what will define our lives and actions and options. 

All those imperial powers are still there, but they are no longer the star of the story or the defining characteristic of the age. Instead, we tear our eyes away from their antics and we are drawn toward something happening out at the edges, where we have the space to re-orient our worldview around God’s kingdom instead of the empire.

Unlike some other gospel writers, Luke does not tell us about John’s clothes, he only tells us about his words. He was pointed in his preaching, as we hear in verses 7-14:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptised, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

It doesn’t seem that John is interested in winning people over with charm — it’s hard to imagine many people would love being called a brood of vipers! He wants people to realise that the fact that their name is on the roll of the chosen people is good and all, but that’s the beginning, not the end. They can’t rely only on their past to carry them into the future — how we live as God’s people matters. After all, the psalms tell us that all creation sings the glory of God in its own way — including the stones. So if all God wanted was names on the roll, the rocks would suffice. But we are meant to bear good fruit for the kingdom of God — this kingdom that is breaking through the world’s ways and drawing us out.

What then should we do? The people stand at the waters edge, dripping wet, receiving God’s grace and wondering how to live in response. How will their everyday lives reflect the change they have undergone in the river?

If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any. That way everyone in the community has a coat.

If you have two servings of your meal, give one to someone who doesn’t have any. That way everyone in the community has enough to eat.

If you have a position of power, don’t use it to enrich yourself, but rather to serve others.

Now tax collectors, who were Jewish but also collaborated with the Roman Empire, augmented their wage by inflating the amount people owed. That way they could keep the extra and so live more comfortably themselves. And soldiers were Romans, an occupying force meant to keep the peace, but they did so by terrorising people into submission. 

All of these people — those with an extra coat, those collecting taxes, even the soldiers — are normal everyday people, the middlemen of the empire. They’re not the leaders, but they’re also not the poorest of the poor. They’re people with more than enough. People like most of us. And John tells them that what they ought to do if they want to live according to the grace they have received is to take responsibility for one another. 

Having two coats and giving one away might make us feel vulnerable. What if I need that coat tomorrow? But in this kind of community, that moment would be met by someone else giving their extra one to me. It’s a way of life that is both generous and dependent at the same time. 

Last week I learned a new word from a friend who lives in Hawaii. The Hawaiian language has a word, kuleana, that’s hard to translate, but basically it means reciprocal responsibility. So for example, Hawaiians say they have a kuleana to the land, to care for it and respect it, and in return the land has a kuleana to us, to feed and provide. I think this word perfectly encapsulates this sense of responsibility to one another that John is preaching: I have a responsibility, as someone with more than enough, to give away that excess to those who do not have enough. And when I am in a vulnerable position, those with more than enough have a responsibility to give their excess to me. And so as a community, we depend on one another, in a constant give and take. No one is hedging against future vulnerability by storing up for themselves, like you would do in the imperial worldview, but rather by being part of a community of reciprocal responsibility. We have a kuleana to each other in the kingdom of God.

This was such a radical idea — remember that the word radical means “root”, and John said that the axe was lying at the root of the trees, changing things by going back to the very foundations, and his preaching was really bringing people back to the very beginning of how God’s creation was meant to work, in kuleana to each other from the ground to the animals to the humans made in God’s image! It drew people in and re-focused them, and they wondered…as we hear in verses 15-22.

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

For those who have never been to a threshing floor — chaff is the outer husk of wheat, and when the grains of wheat are agitated to loosen the chaff and then tossed into the air, the chaff separates and blows away. But it is very dangerous — even the tiniest spark of electricity can ignite that cloud of chaff and the fire can burn the whole field. 

Each of us will have chaff that needs separating…and every community does too. Those practices that are dangerous and can easily ignite a fire of bad behaviour that destroys the community need to be separated and blown away. It may not be pleasant, but it is important. 

Sometimes I think we forget that John said this right after giving those instructions about the kuleana of life in the kingdom of God, so we tend toward reading it as if there are bad people who are going to be burned away. And that may be one possible reading, but when we read the whole story together, it sounds to me more like the chaff is those ways of living that John was asking us to leave behind, to repent of — repentance literally means to turn around 180 degrees, to change the way of living and thinking. Chaff is a protective husk — and John has just asked us to shed our protections and entrust our welfare to the whole community of reciprocal responsibility. And chaff floating randomly in the air can be dangerous — we have to fully let it go, because grasping at those unhealthy old ways can destroy that community of care.

Perhaps that is one reason that baptism is the symbol of entering into this community — because the water washes that chaff away and we live differently in response. Isn’t it fascinating that Luke tells us that Jesus was just baptised with everybody else — he’s part of this community. Yet he’s also, of course, different: he sees the heaven opened and hears God’s voice proclaiming Love. He is one who does not need the chaff washed away himself, but he will still be in this community of kuleana, and so he shows us from the very beginning how to live in ways that bring God pleasure and delight. It will be a different way of life than the one defined by those important guys at the beginning of the chapter — we will need to turn 180 degrees and put that behind us if we are to instead focus on God’s kingdom living, here and now. This is what it means to be baptised: to live differently because we have experienced God’s grace and now can’t help but act on it.

May it be so. Amen.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

"healing" America -- a guest post by Laurene Lafontaine

A couple of weeks after the US election, a number of US citizens working in the Church of Scotland were asked to contribute an essay to the Church of Scotland magazine called Life and Work. The topic was about "healing America" after such a divisive election.

The essays ended up having to be significantly edited for length, but we were told we could publish full original essays here if we wished. The magazine was published this week...and after the events of this week in Washington DC and a number of US state houses, it seems like time. 

This guest post is by the Rev. Laurene Lafontaine, a minister in Aberdeen.


Growing up in a family which was neither religious nor political, I was a bit of an outlier with my overwhelming interest in both religion and politics.  There are  memorable moments in my journey of faith, and I can clearly remember various political moments as if they were yesterday.  For example, at a 1984 rally, I met Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman Vice-President nominee of an American major party; shaking hands with both Bill and Hillary Clinton after getting up at 4:45 am on election day 3 November 1992 for their 6:00 am last campaign stop in Denver; the resounding roar of 80,000 people when Illinois Senator Barack Obama accepted the nomination for Democratic nomination for President in Denver, Colorado 2008; meeting Vice President Joe Biden in 2012; and the haunting election night of 8 November 2016. 

In 2016, as voting results were reported along the political prognosticators’ acknowledgement they had got it wrong, a growing angst and dread overtook the anticipation and excitement many Americans felt earlier in the day. Around 1:30 am(CST)/6:30 am GMT, after it was clear a win was unattainable, I went to bed. I was feeling utterly devastated along with at least 63 million other Americans and countless across the globe. Hillary Clinton would not be the 45th President of the United States, and our worst nightmare had begun. 

This nightmare has included children being taken from their parents at the Mexican border, a Muslim travel ban executive order, impeachment, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and an America First agenda. Unimaginable damage to American democratic fabric has occurred. Trump has been the catalyst which not only brought the pervasive structural racism and white supremacy in American society to the forefront, but also legitimised outright brutality and violence perpetrated upon people who were African Americans, immigrants, children, Muslims, LGBTQ, Asians, reporters, to name a few. 

The unmitigated racism, on which America was founded and built, has flourished under this administration. The horror of watching African Americans literally being murdered, lynched, before our very eyes by those called to protect or armed young men … there are no polite words for this utter depravity.  Instead of bringing people together, he has spent four years golfing, tweeting, and sowing hate and discord in a divided country.  

His intentional dismantling of the American governmental social and educational programs and structures is deeply concerning as the impact will be felt for generations. As a child born into poverty, such programs provided early education opportunities, essential food support, medical care and financial assistance to families like mine. In 1965, I was a member of the first Head Start class held in my hometown. Head Start provided a safe environment where a curious 5-year-old could begin to thrive intellectually. Education is the golden ticket, in conjunction with social support, they are crucial to the development of a just and peaceful society. 

America is at a critical stage of societal development.  America is like an unruly 244-year-old adolescent, relatively speaking, nation struggling to develop a healthy identity, post-Cold War. Addressing the brutal history of genocide and slavery will be crucial in efforts to shift from a racially bias culture to a bias free society. 

After four years of divisive political leadership, President Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris are faced with a monumental task particularly as the catastrophic Covid crisis rages out of control.  Their challenge is to develop a new inclusive leadership approach beyond typical party politics. It is encouraging that a core value of their transition team is a diversity of ideology.

I am cautiously optimistic.  Joe Biden is the right person for this challenge.  He is centre-left with considerable experience and a rich history of bringing diverse perspectives together. He is a team player who surrounds himself with bright people who are often much smarter than he is. His selection of Kamala Harris was wise and bold. Joe Biden is a good man guided by a strong faith, an openness to learning, and an inclusive understanding of justice. Two of my friends worked on his staff whilst he was Vice President, so their experiences have also informed my perspective.  

Returning to religion and politics, often a hesitancy exists regarding a religious voice in the public forum because it’s perceived as political. Had several religious leaders spoke out when Trump belittled or said awful things about a person, ethnic groups etc, would it have made a difference? I hope so. At least, those people might have felt like they mattered. What are the social justice issues in the UK? As Christian leaders, we can share the Gospel message by addressing social justice issues in the public forum and advocating for those affected by those issues. If we don’t, who will? 

"healing America" -- a guest post by Julia Cato

 A couple of weeks after the US election, a number of US citizens working in the Church of Scotland were asked to contribute an essay to the Church of Scotland magazine called Life and Work. The topic was about "healing America" after such a divisive election.

The essays ended up having to be significantly edited for length, but we were told we could publish full original essays here if we wished. The magazine was published this week...and after the events of this week in Washington DC and a number of US state houses, it seems like time. 

This guest post is by Julia Cato, who is a graduate probationer, seeking a call to ordained ministry in the CofS.


“How do you think it will go?” a friend asked a week before the 2020 U.S. General Elections. “I have no idea” was my honest reply.  I sighed with what I realised was almost defeat.  I already had the sense that no matter how the elections would go, no one would come away a winner.  There was too much divisiveness and too much harm done. Now, a few weeks on, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s win feels more like a reprieve than a victory.   

I attended a DoDDS (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) primary school on a U.S. Air Force Base in Germany.  I remember every morning we would stand to sing either “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful”.  Then, with our hands on our hearts, we would recite in unison, “The Pledge of Allegiance” to the U.S. flag hanging in the corner of the classroom.  Every single day of every school year. 

I remember my German mother’s quiet discomfort with this morning ritual of school children pledging their allegiance to a flag.  It would be years before I would learn how a flag can mean different things to different people.  And even more time would pass before I would begin to understand how national histories haunt us until we make reparations for our sins. 

I can still recite “The Pledge of Allegiance” by heart. Not only did we pledge allegiance to the flag, but also “to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all (emphasis mine).”  The Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas writes, “On the one hand is the democratic vision that America is founded upon, with freedom and justice for all. On the other is the actual foundation of America, with its embedded ideology and practice of white supremacy. These two sides are at war with one another.”

The 2020 US General Elections are about more than just Biden versus Trump, they are about who we are as Americans and who we want to be.  Come 20 January 2021, the 46th President of the United States will have to lead a country greatly divided.  While many will be celebrating the new administration with its first woman of colour vice-president, millions will not.  If there is to be true and lasting change, the new President and his administration will have to push forward in new ways, not falling back on institutionalised patterns. 

“Liberty and justice for all” must embrace God’s justice moving us toward a freedom and wholeness in which we all can see one another as equals.  As Christians, we must articulate and model God’s justice from our pulpits, from within our prayer groups and bible studies, from within our homes, and from within ourselves.  There cannot be unity among the people of the United States of America where there is not justice for all.

A deeper understanding of reconciliation and healing is necessary, and this will require a reckoning with the injustices committed, not just over the last four years, but throughout our nation’s entire history.  My hope for the next four years is that we Americans will take advantage of this reprieve and begin a healing which can only unfold by effectively rooting out white supremacy embedded in our systems and structures, and perhaps most significantly for white Americans, within ourselves.  

- Graduate Probationer, Julia A. Cato

"healing" post-election USA

 A couple of weeks after the US election, I was asked to contribute an essay to the Church of Scotland magazine called Life and Work. The topic was about "healing America" after such a divisive election, and they were asking a number of American citizens living and working in the Church of Scotland to reflect. I said that I was feeling a bit cynical about calls for "healing" and that these were likely the most dangerous two months in post-Civil-War US history, but I would try.

The essays ended up having to be significantly edited for length, but I was told I could publish my full original essay here. The magazine was published this week...and after the events of this week in Washington DC and a number of US state houses, I thought it was time.


It feels difficult to write about healing a post-election USA when the election is, in many ways, still ongoing. It may or may not be too strong to say that I’m writing while we are witnessing an attempted coup, but however it turns out, I think it’s safe to say that the divisions in the United States are deep and present-tense, and will not be easily plastered over.

Indeed, it actually feels a little bit trite to talk about “healing” when that carries some implications of restoration to a previous health that I’m not sure has ever truly existed. From the inception of the nation, it has carried an illness (white supremacy and a sense of exceptionalism) that has inexorably led to this brokenness. Should that brokenness be healed if it means simply returning to the way things used to be? If that’s the road taken, then we will surely find ourselves at this same place again, and again, and again.

I want to be hopeful that the moment we are witnessing now is indeed a moment of transformation. Once upon a time, the racism in the country was institutionalised as a system of enslavement and of colonial expansion. Then it was institutionalised as a system of segregation. Then there was a period when racists hid behind hoods and under cover of darkness. Today it’s again out in the open, and that feels, paradoxically, like a move toward health. After all, we cannot transform what we do not name. Pretending the problem of white supremacy and nationalism does not exist will only allow it to grow (as has happened for the past 50 years when many thought we had made great strides). Now that we can see plainly that much of that progress was an illusion, there is hope for real change. Much like South Africa needed Truth in order to have Reconciliation, the same is true in the USA. And there has not been very much truth-telling there.

For centuries it has been the American way to present an image, to paper over differences (or to melt them together, we might say), and to act as if everything is fine — as long as you’re white, you’re one of us. But underneath, the sense that people of colour might not be “real” Americans, that they were inferior in some way, has persisted, both subconsciously in people (and consciously in plenty of people) and systemically in the way society and economy and culture are structured. Honesty about that could pave the way forward.

Perhaps the fact that so much division is now visible to the white gaze, where it used to be hidden (but still present, and has always been visible to non-white people!), is actually a good thing. It allows us to honestly see how much work we have to do, and to do it for real this time rather than just with a few words that are nothing more than a cheap plaster that does nothing for true healing. This will be heartbreaking work, but also heart-healing work — if we are willing to engage with it at every level, not just as individuals but also in the way the economy works and doesn’t work, in the ways cultural institutions (music, dance, theatre, art, literature) are valued, in government, in systems of power in communities, and within churches. It will mean wrestling with theological language that equates “dark” with “bad,” it will mean changing the way resources are used, it will mean adjustments in who is at the table when decisions are taken, it will mean listening and believing the stories people tell, it will mean stepping aside to allow new leadership, and — perhaps most difficult of all for a nation built on rugged individualism — it will mean actually caring about and for our neighbours in tangible ways and in policy ways.

The current situation feels so destabilising, but maybe that’s exactly what the USA needs if it is to truly achieve a society of “liberty and justice for all” and not just some. So I hope President Biden won’t rush to “healing” but will first encourage some soul-searching and truth-telling, so that the healing that eventually comes will be on a cellular level and not just skin-deep.