The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
May 31, 2020, Day of Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-22
Happy Pentecost Church! This is a holiday that celebrates the Holy Spirit becoming the continuing presence of God in our world. It is the day the early church leaders received the Holy Spirit and were able to interpret scripture and speak in all the languages they needed to spread the message of God’s love. Many think of Pentecost as the birth day of the church, however, I don’t agree that a birthday is the best analogy for what happened on Pentecost. The way I see it, when someone is born they are not particularly useful. Cute, yes, but babies are very limited in their abilities. When we are born we depend on others to take care of us for many years. The women and men who received the Spirit on Pentecost were not dependents. They were gifted with remarkably helpful abilities to proclaim the message of God’s love. They no longer depended on the guidance of others. They were able to understand scripture and interpret it for the masses. They quickly went off on their own to pursue careers in ministry. This was not a birth day, it was a graduation day.
Graduations are the tipping point from learning to doing. Before graduation, we are students. We gain knowledge, gather experience, and sharpen our abilities. We need teachers to guide us and check our work. After some time, though, the teachers recognize we have collected enough knowledge and experience and have sharpened our gifts enough to allow us to go out on our own. We are given a degree that signifies we have achieved a level of expertise that makes our words and our ideas worth listening to. We can see problems and brainstorm solutions in a way that is helpful and worthy of respect.
This is what happened to Jesus’ followers. They graduated from being students of Jesus to leading the people of God. Their degree shows up like a flame over their heads, which would be very cool if that happened to us, but it is a little harder to recognize when the Spirit enters our lives. Even though we have never had a flame dance over us, scripture assures us we have all received the same Spirit. God pours out the Spirit on “all flesh,” it says. Some say the Spirit comes to us in baptism. Others say confirmation is the moment. You may have experienced a different moment where you were convinced of the Spirit’s presence within you. No matter when the Spirit arrives, we are all graduates and hold the same degree.
You are probable wondering what that degree is exactly. Paul recalls the words of Old Testament prophets to remind the crowd that God said, “In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams.”
Paul is saying the last days have begun. I realize reading this 2000 years later takes some of the punch out of Paul’s declaration. It actually reminds me of a friend I had in college who had a dark sense of humor and whenever I asked him how he was doing he would say “dying,” because every day lived is one of his last. So the “last days” is all very relative.
But no matter how many last days we have left, Paul is marking this moment as the time when the Spirit of God is poured out on all flesh. It has been poured out. There will now be visions and dreams and prophecy, by the young and the old. Women and men, even the slaves, the most oppressed among them, who no one ever listens to, will be given the same measure of the Spirit. They hold the same degree. The degree we have been given on Pentecost is a degree of prophecy. We have all graduated into the profession of prophets.
Some of us may have gotten our degrees a long time ago and have forgotten what was taught in “Being a Prophet 101,” so let’s look at what it means to be a prophet.
Many languages translate the English word prophet from something that means a foreseer. Someone one who foresees the future. In Hebrew, the meaning is more like a messenger or microphone, someone who projects a message from God. The Old Testament talks about prophets in this way, a prophet is “a person of God” “a messenger of God” “a noticer” “a watcher for the people.” In the New Testament, the Greek words translate to something like “to speak in front of, or in place of.”
So the scriptural understanding of the role of a prophet is to speak in place of God. Prophets carry a message from God. They are given the task to watch the world around them on behalf of the people. A prophet is someone who has a connection to God, who understands what God wants for the world, and gives that message to the people. This is a little different than how we often think of prophets. We tend to think of them more like fortune tellers, people who can predict the future, however, there is a very important distinction to make between someone who predicts things and someone who sees things.
Here is an example to help understand the difference.
If we are in a raft paddling down a river and I notice the water is beginning to flow faster, I might say to everyone in the boat, “Looks like the water is going a bit faster than before. I wonder if there is a waterfall up ahead.” Everyone in the boat might assume I don’t know what I’m talking about and ignore me. If a few yards up I see a sign that says, “Waterfall ahead,” I would point it out to everyone. Some people might finally listen, but maybe the majority still does not believe the danger is real and we stay on course. If we then come to a waterfall it does not mean I predicted the future like a fortune teller does. It means I was paying attention to our present surroundings and noticed the warning signs of the potential dangers ahead. The fact that my warning came true might make it look like I have some special ability, but in reality anyone who was paying attention would have seen the same thing.
Here is a more biblical example. If the major empires are at war with each other, saying “Empires are about to fall,” is not a mystically inspired statement of the future. It’s simply stating that what is happening now: war will lead to an empire falling. Unless something changes, an empire falling, is the direction of the present path.
The prophets of the Bible do not predict the future, they live with a watchful eye and notice disconnects between what God wants for the world and where the current path is leading us. Moses was introduced to a loving God who yearned for equality. So Moses saw people in slavery and knew that was not what God wanted to have happen. Once Moses identified the disconnect, he went to the people to tell them God wanted them to be free. Most people did not believe him. SO, he and God got to working on a plan to free the people from slavery to help God’s vision become a reality.
Prophets pay attention in the present, and when things do not line up with God’s will they set out to help alert people to the disconnect.
The way prophets do this varies. Hosea (hoe-zeh-a) used his life choices, especially his marriage, to be a metaphor about the disconnect he saw. Hosea is the one who married a sex worker and every time she went back to that line of work Hosea forgave her. This showed how Israel kept abandoning the One God for their old gods, but that the One God was forgiving. Miriam used song to proclaim God’s message and align the people with God’s will. Deborah played out her prophecy professionally, taking on the job of a judge to help guide the people down God’s path. But the two major ways prophets alert the world to a disconnect is with words and actions.
Nathan is a good example of a prophet who used words. When King David killed Uriah (U-reye-uh) to get to Bathsheba, Nathan came to the King to tell a story about a rich man stealing from a poor man. David was appalled at the actions of the rich man. Nathan then revealed that the story was actually about David stealing Bathsheba from Uriah. David saw the disconnect and repented.
Ezekiel is my favorite prophet who used actions to alert the world to a disconnect. He built a little replica of Jerusalem on a brick. With siege walls and battering rams, and camps all around it. Then he laid in the middle of the city on his left side for 390 days. One day for every year Israel would be uncomfortable under the rule of another nation if they did not change their ways. Then he laid on his right side for 40 days. One day for every year Judah would be under the rule of another nation. One would think it would be hard to ignore the message of someone in the middle of the public eye in such an unusual position, but many thought this was not the right way to get a message across and demeaned Ezekiel’s actions.
The way a prophet gets God’s message across is as varied as there are prophets, but the way they are all the same is that they are witnesses to a present path that is not heading in the direction God wishes us to go. They are witnesses to a disconnect. They all find a way to alert people and say, “Hey, I know what God wants for us, and I see the path we are on and this path is not going to lead us where God wants us to be. We need to make a course correction if we are going to make the world the way God wants it.” Does everyone always listen to prophets? Not normally, but prophets are relentless in their critique of things that are not working. If one method of prophecy isn’t working, they find another way to reach the people. Eventually enough people agree with the prophet and they find a way to repent and correct their course.
When Pentecost happened, we all received a degree in prophecy. We received the Spirit, the connection to God needed to sense these disconnects. We were entrusted with the task to speak God’s message into the world.
The Good news is that we are not perfect prophets at graduation. You were not a great doctor, or teacher, or artist the minute that degree landed in your hand. All that degree does is say you know enough to get to work. We hone our skills further with every day we do the work of a prophet. Unfortunately, many of us prophets have not clocked into work for a while and have let our degrees collect dust. The messages we were created for and commissioned to tell are not being told. Pentecost is our time to remember to witness to the disconnects in our world. We have been given a specific language, and specific message that we alone can tell.
We can all think of at least one disconnect. A direction humanity is heading that is not the direction God wants us to be going. Those disconnects ring inside us as disgust and anger and dread. The Spirit yells from inside us giving us visions of a better world. We dream dreams of a day when the disconnect is set right. We cannot let these visions and dreams die inside us. They are the prophecies; the messages God has tasked us to give to the world.
We will each use different tactics to get the message into the world.
For some of us that message will be told with words as we teach our children to think in a different way. Words that remind friends and family that jokes that hurt are not funny. We may use words of poetry and song to inspire hard hearts to listen closer to God’s will. Our words may not even be heard by many, possibly only read by one senator or one police chief. Our way may be with words that highlight the disconnect between what God wants for us and the direction we see our world heading.
For some of us, God’s message will be told by our actions. The friends we choose, the places we spend our money, the people we vote for. We may choose to act by lying face down at the capital building with hundreds of other prophets. We may never say a word and yet the disconnect becomes clear when people see how we make decisions and the way we choose to live our lives.
The prophets reality, unfortunately, is that the world may not listen to what is obviously happening around them. There is a force all prophets work against. We can call it fear, or lack of confidence, or the devil, but there is a force that works to convince us we are helpless to right the course of our world. Every time someone does not listen, every time an attempt is made and fails to inspire change, our willingness to continue working as prophets falters. This force was what told Jonah to run the other way, away from his prophetic message.
But the story of Jonah tells us that the Spirit is stronger than this opposing force. That God’s message will find a way into the world. That one may want to run in the other direction to hide and yet still a prophet will end up in the exact place where God uses their voice to shout with every ounce of God’s distress, “You’ve got him down, let him breath at least.”
Pentecost is the day all flesh, young and old, men and women, especially the oppressed were tasked with carrying the message of God into the world. We have been uniquely calibrated to sense the disconnects between what God wants for us and the direction we are heading. We are not helpless. We are the help!
That help will manifest in any number of ways and it comes from the Spirit’s unrest within us. We cannot let the forces of fear and self-doubt convince us to run from the messages we have been given to proclaim. Imagine if every one of us, made in God’s image, gifted with God’s Spirit, speak the truth of the disconnects we witness in our world and listen to one another’s messages. Can you see that vision? Can you dream that dream? Will you proclaim that prophecy?
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Charon Barconey, Associate Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Detroit
May 24, 2020
Joshua 1:1-9; 1 Peter 3:13-22
Good morning, church. It is wonderful to be in the house of the Lord today. It is wonderful to be at First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, and we are worshiping today in spirit. I feel your presence with me and I also feel the presence of our Lord and Savior. I feel the presence of saints who have gone on before us. So this is the day that the Lord has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it. Let us pray. Creative God, continue to be in our midst. Lord, continue to open up our spiritual eyes so we might see you, if only a glimpse. Continue to open up our spiritual ears so we might hear from you but a word, and Lord continue to soften these hardened hearts so that we would receive all that you have for us on this day, and forever more. It is in Jesus Christ’s name that we pray. Let this body gather together in spirit and say, Amen.
Good morning again, church. On this weekend we commemorate Memorial Day weekend and it is the time when our country remembers fallen soldiers, those who have given their lives for us and for our safety. Many people are visiting cemeteries and memorials, and in recent times past we had a parade. Some of that has changed because of Covid-19, but we still take the time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I remember a team traveling to Arlington Virginia to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It's a monument dedicated to the deceased US service members whose remains have not been identified. It is located in Arlington. It's the national cemetery, and since 1937 the Army has maintained a 24-hour vigil. They guard this tomb. On the tomb are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor, and inscribed on the back of the tomb are the words, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” The men and the women who lost their lives serving are men and women of great courage. At this moment let us take a brief moment of silence recognizing and honoring those soldiers.
Brothers and sisters, here God says be strong and courageous do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you. God is with us. During this Covid-19, this global crisis, this pandemic, we are experiencing a different kind of courage. We are seeing courage in what some of us view as every day workers. Maybe they are the bus drivers, maybe there are those who clean the hospital rooms, maybe they're the ones who are in the grocery stores. We’re calling them essential workers. Maybe they’re the doctors or the nurses or the nursing assistants, maybe it's the respiratory therapists. We are seeing a new courage. Maybe it’s a thing that we took for granted that these workers do every day of their lives, but during this pandemic it is increased. Hear God say, “Be strong, be courageous, for I am with you.
Before Moses died he would place his hands on Joshua. Because the Lord told Moses, you, Moses, will not lead the people to the promised land, it will be Joshua. You are to go and get him and anoint him. And that is what he did. When he laid his hands on Joshua, the Bible says the Lord gave Joshua wisdom. Joshua was also a soldier and was also one of great courage, but I wonder how he felt? He was second or third in line and he was just following Moses. Did he have any fear? Was he afraid at all when this charge was being placed on him? Church, hear God say be strong and courageous for I am with you.
The second text in 1st Peter talks about hope, encourages the church to do what is right. In studying this text I learned that this church was having some issues - maybe there was some slander, some folks talkin’ about some folks. I know that doesn't happen here at First Pres Birmingham, but just work with me on this one. So Peter wrote a letter and he said, Do good, because it is better to suffer when you're doing good for Christ's sake. But then he says be prepared to be accountable for the hope that is in you, because sometimes when you do good, sometimes when you wear masks, sometimes when you stay home to stay safe and you're still a hopeful people, folks want to know why. Where does that come from? How do you do that? Why do you do what you do? Church, hear God say be strong and courageous for I am with you, Church, we're not alone during this pandemic, we still serve a faithful God.
I am encouraged, because when this really started to heat up, I am grateful that our Administration said that worship is essential, because we already knew that, but from wisdom a decision was made that we needed to stay home to stay safe. And that wisdom in our leaders, in our church, in our session, they made a decision that we would worship differently. So it may be Facebook Live, YouTube, some are worshiping by Zoom, some are doing a teleconference, knowing that this building does not define who we are. We are God's people and God has called us to go therefore, and that is what our churches are doing in the midst of a crisis. We still found a way to Proclaim God's Good News. We have still found a way to serve God's people, brothers and sisters. Hear God say: Be strong and courageous, I am with you.
I'm a fourth-generation Presbyterian and there was a time in my life, 20 years ago, when I rededicated my life to God. I started out sitting in the pew, but I wasn't involved. But the Lord was talking to me and talking to me. The Holy Spirit was telling me I have to do something. Twenty years ago I got involved, and I got involved in youth ministry. And I was so excited and I called my uncle, Samuel Steel, and I said, “I'm leading!” And my uncle said, “Blessed Assurance!” Then I went home that day and God gave me these words that I want to share with you.
Blessed Assurance were the words that he said.
Angels rejoicing, a soul had been led
To the Prince of Peace to the God of love.
No more wandering, I’m focused above,
To say the right words to do the right thing
For God has given me a new song to sing.
Blessed Assurance is what was said to me
On the right hand of God is where I plan to be
For God is preparing my special place
I'll shout “Hallelujah!” when I see his face.
God is preparing but I'm working as well.
I'm working on my building and my story to tell
Of how I was lost and couldn't find my way
Because I had everything, I thought, no need to pray.
For the Bible says what profits a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
So then I woke up (wake up, church) and I had to decide
Although I had everything, I was empty inside.
The cars, the houses, my friends, all great,
But who knew what really was to become of my fate?
The cars, they get old, the houses, they crumble,
My friends, my wonderful friends, aren't always there when I stumble.
Hear Jesus say, I am with you always.
So if you are confused or you're lonely or you're wandering and you can't find your way
Then you must listen to what I must say.
Confessing your heart and believe in his name,
Then Blessed Assurance will be yours to claim.
Brothers and sisters we are in the midst of a global crisis. Hear God say: Be strong and courageous, for I am with you always. Church, this is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
May 17, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Genesis 4:1-16, 1 Peter 3:8-12;
He had been relieved of duty. Less than 24 hours after the Navy asked its commanders to be honest about the extent of the spread of the coronavirus aboard their ships, Captain Bret Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt was out. He was out because he had sent an email to thirty recipients both in his chain of command and some outside of his chain of command expressing his frustration at the lack of rapid response to the outbreak of the virus aboard his ship. When the email was leaked to the press, the then acting Secretary of the Navy, not only reprimanded him but removed the Captain from his command. I want to pause here for a moment and say that, not having served in the Navy, I don’t know if this action was justified or not. That is not my issue. My issue is with what happened next. The Acting Secretary, not content with publicly removing the Captain from his command, flew to Guam, boarded the Roosevelt and proceeded to launch into a profanity laden speech, which led to his statement, that the Captain “was either too naïve or too stupid” to command this ship. What we need to realize is that this Secretary was addressing men and women who loved their Captain; who would have given their lives for their Captain. And this stranger was attacking the Captain’s character and ability. It did not sit well with the crew. What I have to say though is that the Secretary’s personal attack did not surprise me. And I say that not because of the political climate in which we live, but because that is what we human beings do. We seek and destroy.
We seek and destroy. It seems as if there is some hard-wired element in human beings that when we believe we have been wronged, or someone has something we want, or says something that hurts our feelings, or attacks our reputation that our first inclination is not to ignore the situation, but it is to seek and destroy “the other”. My guess is that all of us, if we thought about it for a second or two, could find an example of our own desire to seek and destroy someone in our past or present. And this is not new. It is in fact at the heart of one of the oldest stories in the Bible; the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Able were brothers, which for those of us with brothers know that brings its own issues. They each brought an offering to God. God accepted Able’s offering but not Cain’s. Cain was angry about this. We are not sure if he was angry with God, but we know he was angry with Able. Able had something that Cain wanted, the approval of dad, the approval of God. Notice in this simple story, that God knows that Cain is upset and tells him to try again and all will be well. But that is not enough for Cain. Cain is aggrieved. Cain is jealous. Cain wants to seek and destroy. Cain invites his brother on a picnic into the fields and there Able is slain. Being angry is not enough. Seeking and destroying is just what we humans do.
Seeking and destroying is something that Peter’s audience would have understood all too well. For, if there was a civilization that took pride in seeking and destroying, it was the Romans. One of my favorite examples of this took place not long before Peter would have been writing, and that was the story of Cleopatra. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Cleopatra was the pharaoh of Egypt. She and Mark Antony, the co-ruler of Rome shacked up together, had a couple of children and thought they could take over all of the Roman Empire. The other co-ruler, Octavian, had different ideas. This resulted in a civil war in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated. Antony took his own life, but Cleopatra thought she could strike a deal with Octavian and win in the end. What she discovered however was that Octavian had other plans. Her defeat would not be enough for him. Instead, Octavian planned to take her in chains to Rome and parade her through the streets so people could throw rotten fruit and vegetables at her and insult her along the route. Then she would be publicly executed, perhaps by crucifixion. It was only then that Cleopatra made a date with an asp. Octavian was on a seek and destroy mission. This is what Rome did. And everyone knew it.
It must have come as quite a shock to Peter’s audience when they got to this part of the letter. When Peter wrote these words. “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called-that you might inherit a blessing.” Peter is not only asking his readers to not seek and destroy, but he is asking them to go farther. He is asking them to bless rather than harm. I want us to stop for a moment and consider what we mean by blessing so that we can gain a fuller sense of what Peter is asking of his readers. Blessing is a word that comes with both a definition and a tradition. The definition of blessing means to prosper someone; to assist another in being spiritual, emotional, physically and financially prosperous. It means to assist another in becoming whole. The tradition is that God had given God’s blessing to Abraham and Sarah and that they were to pass this blessing, this prospering down to each successive generation until it could be given to all people and to all nations. Within Judaism what this meant was that parent’s blessed their children hoping their children would live full and rich lives just as Jesus was doing when he blessed the children. He was passing God’s spiritual, emotional, physical and yes, financial blessing on to those on which he laid his hands. This blessing of the other, of those whom we want to seek out and destroy, is what Peter told his readers that they were supposed to do. Which means this is what we are supposed to do. The question becomes then, how do we reprogram ourselves to bless rather than to destroy?
Our reprogramming comes through changing our posture and our orientation. Let me explain. When we are the aggrieved party, meaning that we believe someone has hurt us, or our reputation, or we are jealous because they have something we think that we ought to have, a space of anger opens between us. We then either mentally or physically do one or all of the following. We cross our arms to signal we have broken our relationship with them. We raise our fists to strike them in order to destroy them. We show our “angry face” in order to demonstrate our displeasure. Each of these postures is a prelude to attacking and destroying. What Peter asks of us is that we practice different postures. Listen again and see if you can hear different postures in these word pictures from Peter. “Finally, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart and a humble mind.” These are postures of open arms, of embracing care, of prayerful concern and of shared space. These postures move us from aggression to support.
A second way of understanding this reprogramming practice is to see it as a change of orientation. When we are aggrieved we often turn our backs on people. We break relationships. We turn toward the dark side which leads to seeking and destroying and away from the light, from Jesus, who calls us to bless. Peter tells us that we are to deal with this by turning around. Listen again, “Let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.” This is a conscious turning away from seeking and destroying and toward an attitude of blessing. This is an internal reorienting of our hearts toward the other. In combination, these two actions offer the possibility of changing our internal wiring.
Right now we live in an angry time; in a time of seeking and destroying. Shoppers are hurting security guards. People without masks are screaming in the faces of state troopers. Protestors are calling for our governor to be lynched. People are fighting in grocery isles. It is easy to be swept up in this. But Christians are called to be different people. We are called to be people of blessing. My challenge to all of us this week is to find a way to bless someone; to prosper them spiritually, emotionally or financially such that their lives are made better by our sympathy, our love, our tender hearts and our humble minds.
May 10, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Matthew 4:18-22; 1 Peter 2:1-12
He knew who he was. He had a very clear sense of his identity. He was an Air Force navigator. He joined the Air force right out of college and trained to navigate a wide variety of aircraft. He was so good at it that he would eventually teach at the Air Force Academy. This identity also allowed him to know his obligations. My best example was Bill’s commitment when he navigated an AC-47 gunship in Vietnam. His obligation was to protect soldiers on the ground. On one flight he navigated his ship so close to the action that incoming ground fire ripped through the fuselage, with some rounds flying between his feet and tearing at his clothes. Yet he did not recommend that the plane abandoned its mission. He knew his obligation; an obligation that flowed from his identity. He knew who he was. But then, after 25 years of service, he was called into his commander’s office and was told it was time for him to retire. Bill thought about it for a moment and told his superior how much he loved the Air Force and what it meant to him. What if he didn’t retire? The answer was short and sweet. You will be cashiered out and lose your pension. Again, Bill pondered and said, “I suppose I will retire then.” But as Bill told me his story I could hear the pain in it. He said one day I knew who I was, and the next I had no idea. One day I was an Air Force officer and the next a civilian. Who was he?
Who am I? What is my core identity? These are questions human beings have been asking from the dawn of time. This is why we gathered into families and tribes, gangs and nations, because those groupings gave us our identity. But what happens when we are unmoored from those identity giving connections? I ask that because our lives are filled with identity transitions. When one identity is lost we have to go in search of another. Early in our lives we are someone’s child; then we may be siblings, then friends, then students, then perhaps student athletes, or musicians or thespians, then graduates of particular schools, then maybe parents, employees, homemakers, then volunteers, then retirees. I think you get my point. All along our life’s journey we take on new identities that give our lives meaning and purpose. The issue becomes what happens when we lose our identity? We graduate and we are no longer a student. We lose a job or retire and we are not who we once were. Our children leave home and the parent/child relationship changes. Our world is turned upside down and we have a tough time. Who am I?
This struggle to answer the question of identity is nothing new. It was the same one that was faced by Peter and by those to whom he was writing. It was faced by Peter because before Jesus showed up he had a clear sense of who he was. He was a fisherman, a small business owner and a husband. But then along came Jesus. Jesus called to Peter and Andrew saying leave your nets, your families, your businesses and follow me. I will give you a new identity, you will be fishers of men. Now, no offense to Jesus, but I would guess that Peter and Andrew had no idea what Jesus meant by being fishers of men…or what it would mean to be a disciple of Jesus. Peter’s sense of identity had undergone a radical shift. The same was true for those to whom Peter was writing. Before Jesus came into their lives they had identities, not simply as Romans, but as citizens of a particular city and as worshippers of a particular god. We can see this with the people the Apostle Paul encountered in Ephesus. Their identity was they were Ephesians who worshipped the great god Artimus. Now that Peter’s audience, or those Ephesian Christians, were following Jesus, they needed to clarify who they were. They needed once again to be able to answer the question of who am I? Fortunately for them and for us, Peter offers an identity that spans all of life’s transitions and allows us to know what our obligations are.
So who are we? We are, “A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” I realize that this sounds like four different things, or four different identities. Yet in reality they are simply four ways of saying the same thing. And that same thing, is that we are part of God’s ancient and yet modern family. We are part of the family that was created when God called Abraham and Sarah and gave them a new identity as a people with a purpose to bless all the nations on the face of the earth. In other words, our identity is rooted and grounded in the great God of Israel and God’s story. What this meant for those who were reading Peter’s letter and means for us, is that we are not part of some new religion or some civic organization, but that we are family. We are God’s family. I realize that this can seem a bit disconcerting because we often speak of ourselves as being part of a religion, or a denomination, or a church and it is those associations that shape our identity. Biblically however, those do not define our primary identity. As the Apostle Paul puts it, there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all…and for Peter this means one family. And as one family, Peter tells us that there are two obligations that come to us; one internal and one external.
First, the internal obligation. Peter tells us that we are to be like living stones allowing ourselves to be built into a spiritual house. What in the world does that mean? It means simply that we are to be a family. Let me ask, how many of you had chores to do when you were growing up? At my house, my brothers and I had a rotation of chores. One would set the table, one would clear the table, one would do the dishes and one would mow the lawn. Though we often fought about whose turn it was to do what, we all understood that family meant each playing a part in making things work. This is what this image of living stones is all about. People in the time of Peter knew that in construction, every stone mattered. It didn’t matter whether the stone was the bottom, middle or top of a wall, or a column or was over the arch in a doorway. Each mattered because each carried part of the load for the building. Peter wants us to understand then that our internal obligation is that each of us is intended to carry part of the load of God’s family. Each of us has a role to play in the family. Each of us has our spiritual chores that allow the family to function. Our spiritual chores can be everything from praying, to preaching, to giving, to singing, to teaching. Our obligation is to be living stones, helping to build God’s spiritual house.
Second, the external obligation. Peter tells us that we are to “be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” I have to admit that this image is one that can be a bit disconcerting because it might be hard to think of ourselves as priests. Even so it is a wonderful and hopeful image. So what is a priest? Simply put, a priest is someone who builds bridges between God and human beings. Priests serve as intermediaries and intercessors between heaven and earth. It was their sacrifices that made things right between human beings and the gods. What does this mean for us? It means that we are to be interceding with God on behalf of the world. And this intercession can take two forms. It takes the form of prayers. We are called upon to be praying for the world; for friends and enemies, for those we know and don’t know, for those who are in need and for those who can help meet need. Intercession also takes the form of action. If there is one thing that the scriptures make clear, it is that sacrifices that are acceptable to God include caring for the poor, the widow, the stranger, the alien, the refugee, the children and those who live on the margins of society. Intercession means seeking justice and mercy for all; or, as we discussed two weeks ago, it means living our purpose as a holy people, reflecting God’s character into the world.
We have been given a great gift. We have been given an identity; an identity that begins at our birth and baptism, and continues throughout our life. That identity is that we are family. We are God’s family. And it doesn’t matter if we are together or apart; if we are here in the metro area or spread around the world; if we speak the same or different languages; if we are of the same or different sexual orientations; if we are of the have the same or different gender identities; if we have the same skin color or are of multiple hues. We are family. And Bill? Well he discovered this same identity. After retirement he became connected with a large Episcopal church where he lives out his obligations with joy and commitment. My challenge to you then for this week is to ask yourselves, How am I living out my identity as a member of God’s family by being a living stone and a bridge builder for God?
May 3, 2020
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
1 Peter 1:17-25
I want to start today with a refresher on how and why the new testament came to be. As with all things in Christianity we should start with Jesus. Jesus was raised knowing the Tanak (Torah, Writings, and Prophets) or as we call these the Old Testament. We know Jesus knew these well because he references them constantly throughout his ministry and uses them to demonstrate how his new message is a continuation of God’s story. His message uses the same rhythm of love, hope, peace, and joy that the Old Testament is founded on. So then we get a time when Jesus is gone and the early church has to figure out how to continue living and teaching this new message. They have to take up the rhythm of God themselves and continue it into a new generation. The first writings that come about are the Epistles. These are letters Paul and other leaders write to churches to help them stay strong, sort out debates, and respond to the wider world. These letters were passed around from church to church and copied for their archives. Over time churches had a collection of letters they could pull from to help them be the church. Letters that helped them remember what the rhythm of God sounded like.
When the apostles begin to be killed for their faith Luke decides to write down their stories for the people to remember too. That’s how we get Acts. And there was a rich tradition of telling the stories of Jesus’ life and teachings orally. They were not written down but passed from storyteller to listener. This is how the memory of the parables, the Sermon on the Mount, and miracles were remembered by the community. The events that encapsulated who Jesus was were told most often and some of the less loved stories were lost to time. The stories that remained in the community were about what it looks like to live in rhythm with God.
Eventually. Mark decides these need to be written too. As you can imagine with oral retellings, the sayings were being twisted and he worried the truth and the rhythm would become lost. Then Matthew and Luke decide to write their accounts of Jesus, and eventually John. But with the gospels and writings, we know today were other writers. So the early church had a wide range of teachings they were using to keep the rhythm of God heard in the world. This all happened in the first 80ish years of the Church’s existence. Then we have a few hundred years where the individual town churches operate from their archived writings that have been passed around. In some of these files are other gospels, other letters, and other stories of the Church that we do not see in our Bible today. That is because in the late 4th century the New Testament was finally decided on and canonized. This happened because the Church became a real power for change and needed to organize the message. Making sure the rhythm that was being passed down and lived out was the same from one church to the next. A council met and churches submitted their favorite letters, gospels, and writings for consideration. The canonized New Testament was born out of this process.
And so we have the gospels, epistles and other writings that the council decided best told the story of the Jesus followers. The words and stories that best conveyed the rhythm the community was collectively called to drum. They picked stories that showed how God has continued to guide the people and strengthen the community since the ending of the Old Testament. These words have brought Christians through thousands of years of life as a community. These are the stories we tell when someone is struggling with infertility, these are the stories we tell when people fall in love and get married, these are the stories we tell in happy times and in sad times because these stories show us that no matter what we are experiencing there is a common rhythm to it all. God has already been there and brought the people through it. It proves that we can depend on this rhythm. We can depend on God because God has weathered these storms with the people in the past, and we can trust that God will get us through the storm we are in now.
For us at this time, a pandemic is not something any of us have experienced. It is new and scary, we struggle to find the rhythm. For God though, this is not new. God has brought the world through multiple pandemics. God has seen churches close due to plague and God has brought the Church through it, even in times where there isn’t Zoom and Facebook and YouTube to help maintain a level of normalcy. It is new to us, but not to God. God will keep the rhythm going as we work to find it and take it up again. It's what the Bible tells us happens every time humanity faces chaos and tragedy. The Bible is all the evidence we need to keep trying.
One might ask why we don’t continue to update the stories we find here. For one, the stories here are enough. They show us how God blesses people, they show that God can handle us being angry with God in the lament sections, they show us how to respond in every situation a Christian could find themselves. Sure, there is not a story about what to do when the government asks you to stay home for two months, but it does tell us how God’s people act during adversity or unsure times. The Act's passage today was about the early church adjusting to having to be the church in a new way,without a leader sitting in the room with them, teaching them and planning trips for them. They had to devote themselves to reading scripture on their own; they had to pray for themselves; they had to identify needs on their own and find ways to meet those needs even if it meant selling their possessions. That kind of response is still very relevant for the place we find ourselves in today, and we can learn from that story, even though it is not the same situation.
Another reason I think we stick to the scriptures and do not add to them is that we have access to these other more modern stories of how God interacts with Humanity through the internet and published books. Pentecost Spoiler alert: Jesus leaves the Spirit with us to help us hear God’s rhythm in all sorts of sources: in music, in the wind, in ourselves, in poetry. If we have read and heard the stories that are recorded in scripture, we know the rhythm of God’s presence. We can sense that beating of love and hope in other things and make the connections we need to be inspired even 2000 years later. For example, this month a woman named Kitty O’Meara wrote a poem called “and they stayed home” about the pandemic our world is facing now. In it, she describes what communities do when they are asked to isolate. She highlights things like reading and creating, resting, and learning new ways to live. As I read the verses from Acts today her verses came into my mind too. They sounded like they were written by the same person. They had the same rhythm, the same sense of hope in chaos. Let me show you what I mean. I took the Acts passages and Kitty’s verses and wove them together. I wonder if you can catch which words are 2000 years old and which are 20 days old.
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. (Bold words are by Kitty O’Meara, normal words are from Acts.)
To hear these two passages this way made me realize how connected to God’s people throughout time we are. We are acting in the same way the early church did. They devoted themselves to one another, and WE have been more devoted to each other too. They gave their possessions to those in need, and WE have seen great generosity pouring from our community. And as I read Kitty’s words I could feel the truth in them. This is what God’s people do when life gets hard. They become more focused on the important things, the learning, the healing, the dancing, and the praying. If I had to guess, I feel confident in saying the early church danced too. The dancing just wasn’t recorded for us when someone finally wrote about their struggle 40-50 years later. The rhythm of God was what they recorded because it is what remained in their memory.
Imagine a high-schooler in 2030 needing to write a history report about the coronavirus. The child asks a parent to tell them about 2020. The parent recounts the fear everyone had and how even close friends became people to be cautious around. The parent remembers the stress of teaching, entertaining, working, and parenting 24/7. The parent admits they cried in the bathroom a lot. There are some memories of making masks, but no one knew which the right kind were. Then the parent says to their child, “But you must remember some of this, you were old enough then to remember something.” The child responds and says they only remember having more time with their parents, laughing while watching YouTube videos, and cuddling till bedtime. They remember sewing the masks and picking out which colors go with each other. They admit, learning to sew is why they want to go to fashion school and make accessible clothing for people in wheelchairs. Children remember the eternal, the way they felt. The details fade from our childhood memories and we can only remember how loudly the rhythm of God’s love was beating during different experiences. The surface details fade away, the eternal rhythm remains.
1 Peter demonstrates this in a great metaphor. The Old life is like the grass, its beauty as short-lived as wildflowers. Grass dries up, flowers droop, God’s word goes on and on forever. The word is where we learn God’s rhythm. That rhythm of God, of hope and love, is what is eternal. That rhythm is what is remembered in everything we do. We know this because we hear it in the Old Testament. It continues to beat throughout the New Testament, and we can hear it inspire and guide us today. That rhythm we feel from the scripture is what ultimately gets remembered after times of struggle. Time tunes down the superficial, making it dry up and droop, and time amplifies what is God’s rhythm.
We have been generous these past few weeks but the amount of money we have given is just the grass, it will fade. The number of masks we have made are like the flowers, they will wither and not be remembered exactly as they are. The number of phone numbers we dialed will disappear over time because what we do is the surface action. What will remain is why we did these things, because of love. To keep the rhythm of God’s love beating loudly into the world. If you have ever talked to someone who has been on a mission trip they usually say the same thing, life-changing, I met God there - it has anchored my faith. There is a reason many mission trips have this effect on people, it is a chance to connect to the rhythm of God’s love.
Before every mission trip, I give prospective participants the same message. I tell them it would be easier for us and our partner organization if we just sent the money we are spending on food, accommodations and flights to the organization and let them pay for professional masons and workers to do this work. The work would be done better than we could ever do it. They do not need us to build or to work. We do not need them to meet God. So there must be another reason you go. Ultimately a mission trip is not about the work, it is not about what we do, it is about why we do it. When love and fellowship and showing up for God’s people in another place is our goal, when that rhythm of God’s word is our inspiration, a mission trip will never fail. The reason why mission trips are life-changing and hold so much weight in a person’s faith journey is that they allow us to engage with the rhythm of God. We hear the stories of lives changed, but I can guarantee there was a fight on the mission trip or something went totally wrong, but that is not what is remembered when people commit themselves to the rhythm of God.
“And they devoted themselves to one another.” We don’t hear about the arguments. “They read and learned.” Wwe don’t hear about the lazy mornings and days when procrastination won. “They had glad and generous hearts.” We don’t hear about the regret-filled selfish moments. And I want you to hear these