Monday, October 2, 2017

Poured Out

Philippians 2:1-13
October 1, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture reading for today comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Verses five through eleven are widely regarded as among the earliest and most beautiful Christ hymns. But Paul’s letters were not written with chapters and verses, and today we have the pleasure of hearing that hymn in its intended context.

In the first chapter, Paul has commended the Christ-followers at Philippi, with those words familiar to many of us: “I thank my God every time I remember you,” and then he goes on to remind them of the importance of the way they live together in community, saying: “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

In this section, he continues his loving words to them, appealing to both their connection through Christ – the sense of community – and their life in Christ – the practice of humility.

It’s worthwhile to remember as you hear these words that Paul uses the second person plural – not just you, the individual Christian, but you, the church gathered by Christ – y’all!

Let’s listen for God’s word for all y’all in Philippians 2:1-13.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me,
not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Our gospel reading centers on the authority of Jesus.
He has been questioned once again by the religious leaders of the time,
legitimate questions wondering under what auspices he does his work.
Much as we might question a charismatic preacher who comes into town,
wondering what he is up to, they pose their concern.
He answers them in a way that does not start a fight,
but challenges their pre-conceived ideas of legitimacy.
Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 21:23-27.

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?"
And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'
But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet."
So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."
And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

It is World Communion Sunday today,
and it is the day on which the PC(USA) observes
our Peace and Global Witness offering.
The choice to have these two observances on the same Sunday
was inspired, I think, and it is worth considering both events
as we consider the scripture readings for today.

World Communion Sunday is a time when we celebrate unity –
our unity with one another as a congregation,
and our unity with other Christians, not only in our country,
but around the globe.

Whether we are Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist,
or some other brand, or simply generic Christians,
we are united by a few central beliefs and practices.
One of those is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
So on this day, we imagine Christians in every land
coming to the table with us in a global feast.

I like to imagine that this table is extended far beyond this chancel,
into every Christian community here in Sterling, across the Rock,
across the Mississippi, across the country, and across the oceans,
until it reaches to every person who would wish to come and eat.

This table is a place where we can be united as one,
even if it is only for one Sunday!

This table is a place where we can experience God’s shalom –
the wholeness, unity, and peace that come to us through Christ.

We approach that shalom, that wholeness and unity,
through having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind – the mind of Christ.

The Apostle Paul’s words speak for themselves,
and hardly need anything added by way of explanation.
However, like many parts of God’s word, it is simple, but not easy.

It’s simple to say, “Oh, while you’re up,
could you have the same love, humility, and compassion as Jesus?
Shouldn’t be too hard.”

But it is not easy to live those words.
How, after all, can we “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than ourselves”?

How do we choose to look not to our own interests,
but to the interests of others?

We are geared, as humans, to look to our own interests.
We are not particularly adept at humility.
The key, I think, to learning to live in this way,
as Christians who are in union with one another, and with Christ,
is this one little Greek word that packs a big theological punch:
the word “ekenosen.”

It means to empty oneself, to pour out oneself.
So the mind of Christ is one that doesn’t “lord it over”others,
despite the authority he is given by God.
The mind of Christ is one that regards itself as a slave to others,
not as the master of others.
The mind of Christ is one that pours out oneself on behalf of others.
If we were to learn no other lesson from the Epistles than this,
we would benefit so much!

It’s a lesson that involves our entire lives, and takes our whole selves,
that demands that we stay connected with God in Christ,
and with one another!

Having the mind of Christ leads us to our own kenosis –
our own outpouring of ourselves on behalf of others.
To live in such a way lifts us far above
the theological squabbles of our time,
into the realm of faith and trust in a God who loves us so much
that he came in human form, humble, obedient, willing to die.
To live in such a way marks us with that name that is above all names,
and unites us with every person on the planet.
To live in such a way is to bring into reality the call for God’s shalom,
and to invite the world to join us in confessing Jesus Christ as Lord.

Through this kenosis, this pouring out of self,
we do indeed work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
We pour out ourselves, as Christ was poured out for us,
we give our broken selves, as Christ broke the bread and gave it.
As we do so, having the mind of Christ,
God’s shalom becomes reality,
for it is God who is at work in us,
enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

Thanks be to God in Christ, poured out for us,
that we may be poured out on behalf of the world!


Job Insecurity

Matthew 20:1-16
September 24, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms wrote: “When Jesus delivered his parables, he lit a stick of dynamite, covered it with a story about everyday life, and then left it with his audience. By the time his hearers fully unwrapped the parable, Jesus and his disciples were long gone.”[1] And man, oh, man, was Clarence right! Last week we heard a story Jesus told about forgiveness. This week, we hear a story that he told about some workers in a vineyard. Or at least, the story seems to be about some workers in a vineyard. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 20:1-16.

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?'
They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.'
He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.'
When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'
But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

In 2015, the CEO of a Seattle company called Gravity Payments made an announcement to his employees.
Everyone was getting a raise.
Everyone who worked there.

Not only was everyone getting a raise, the lowest paid workers were getting a substantial raise. His plan, Dan Price said, was to set a base minimum pay for every employee in the place: a base minimum pay of $70,000 a year. Price had learned that research supported the idea that an income of $70,000 was the optimal level at which most people would be happy with what they made. It was enough to pay the bills and live comfortably, but not so much that they would experience the stress of having too much. His thinking was that by being generous with all employees, he’d get an increase in worker loyalty and morale, a promise of good productivity with less-stressed workers, and, yes, maybe some good publicity, and some new clients. He planned to pay for it by reducing his own salary.

Imagine for a moment that you were one of his lower paid employees.
You’d welcome that news, right? Of course you would.
What if you were one of his higher paid employees?
You’d get a raise, but not the same percentage raise as other workers.
Imagine now that you were one of Dan Price’s clients.
Would you care one way or the other?
And what if you were, say, Rush Limbaugh?
What would you think about this decision? 
What would you say?

I will tell you what actually happened in a minute, but I have to tell you, running across this news story this past week felt like a gift from heaven. Because Will Campbell, that wise old scoundrel, was right. This parable is a stick of dynamite wrapped in a story. Let’s tell the truth about what Jesus said: it is not fair.

Nobody thinks it makes sense for an employer to pay the people who work one hour the same as those who work ten. The workers who have worked all day don’t think it is fair. The other employers don’t think it is fair. And probably, those workers who worked only an hour would agree that being paid a day’s wage for an hour’s work simply is not fair. Once again, Jesus, we would respectfully request that you explain yourself. “The kingdom of heaven is like…,” Jesus starts out, and we know this is not going to be easy.

Anytime Jesus starts out that way, you can wait for the explosion. But it starts out with a familiar scene: a landowner needs workers. He goes to the place where laborers congregate, early in the morning, waiting for a day’s work. In some cities, that is the Home Depot parking lot, or the unemployment office, or the Co-op grain elevator, but every town of any size has such a place. He pulls up in his pickup and says, “I need some vineyard workers. I’m paying the usual daily minimum.”

He goes again at nine in the morning and does the same.
He goes again at noon and about three o'clock, and does the same.
Then at about five o'clock, Jesus says, “he went out and found others standing around;
and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here unemployed?'
They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.' So he hires them, too!
When it is time to pay everyone, he starts with those who came latest, and he pays them the usual daily wage. Then he pays everyone the usual daily wage. And those early-morning hires were not one bit pleased about it. “They grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'”

As would I.

I worked all day in this heat and you pay me the same as those who worked for an hour or so? But Jesus is no Calvinist. He has the landowner answer them with two questions:
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
Or are you envious because I am generous?'

This story probably did not sit well with Jesus’ first century audience, and it does not by any means sit well with American Protestants. We are so steeped in the Protestant work ethic that this kind of story is almost unimaginable. If we sympathize with anyone in the story, it is those hard working people who showed up early, did the job, stuck with it, and expected proportional compensation.

Sure, Jesus, it is okay to say “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” when we are talking in spiritual terms, but you are talking about the workplace, about our livelihood.

That Protestant work ethic, by the way, built this country. No matter what your view of American history and the founders, most everyone agrees that the colonists who first came to this country were hardworking, thrifty, committed people, willing to work for anything they got.

We get a little twitchy, we Presbyterians, when the Protestant work ethic is challenged. After all, Max Weber pointed out, way back in 1905, in his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” how the Calvinist view of hard work and thrift as signs of salvation contributed to the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of capitalism. Weber was well aware of the nuances of his argument, and did not go so far as to wed Calvinism and Capitalism permanently. But he did see how a religious system that often interprets worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, that emphasizes the duty to make good use of all resources, that regards decency and orderliness as important might be understood as being closely tied to an economic system 
in which hard work is rewarded with financial gain,
in which thrift is considered to be a cardinal virtue,
and in which upright living, tidiness, and discipline are valued.

In short, Weber knew that Calvinism and Capitalism were not wedded, but he saw that they were in a very serious relationship with one another. That relationship spawned a child that tends to be fought over by both Calvinists and Capitalists: the prosperity gospel. Which is why, I think, that the reaction to Dan Price’s pay raise idea was so strong, and surprisingly to me, not all positive. There was a lot of praise and positive response: “Talk show hosts lined up to interview Mr. Price. Job seekers by the thousands sent in résumés. He was called a “thought leader.” Harvard business professors flew out to conduct a case study. Third graders wrote him thank-you notes.  Single women wanted to date him.”[2]

But there was serious negative backlash: Rush Limbaugh hated it. Some of Gravity’s clients left them. At least two of the top performing employees quit. And Dan’s brother sued him.

One employee who quit after receiving a raise said: “He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump,”[3]

Another employee who received a $9,000 a year pay increase said, “Now the people who were just clocking in and out were making the same as me. It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”[4]

Does any of this sound like that parable to you?

I can almost hear Jesus asking, “Are you angry because I’m generous?”
Well, I would be.
After all I’ve done for you, Jesus, yeah, I am a bit peeved.
Sure, sure, you can do what you want with what is yours.
But I don’t have to like it.
You ask me to forgive, and I’m working on it.
You ask me to love my enemies, and I’m working on it.
You ask me to put God first in every aspect of my life, and I’m working on it.
But now you ask me to set aside the just rewards of my labors, and take the same pay as those others, those latecomers, who appear to me to be lazy and no-account.
That work is too hard.

Besides, you said your burden was easy. It isn’t easy.
I’d like to get the reward I deserve.
I punched the clock, put in the time, did the work.
So I’m bringing my time card to you, Jesus.
I’m bringing it to the cross, to demand what I deserve.

And the good news is that I’m not going to get what I deserve, and neither are any of you. Because when we bring our resentment to the cross, we are met with the same generosity that the landowner showed. When we come to Jesus with our productivity reports, and our time and effort records, he doesn’t give us the payment we demand or deserve.

The payment we receive is more than we can ask or imagine,
more than we could ever dream of,
more than we could ever earn in a lifetime of twelve-hour days:
grace upon grace,
mercy upon mercy,
lives overflowing with abundance.

Then, fellow workers in the vineyard, he sends us away from the cross with a job description:
to love as we have been loved,
to be generous as God has been to us,
to forgive as we have been forgiven,
to serve and sacrifice until sunset,
until we are called in from the fields
to sit down at a table prepared for us,
to feast with him, not as servants, but as friends.

Thanks be to God.


[2] Cohen, Patricia, July 31, 2015, “A Company Copes With Backlash Against the Raise That Roared” New York Times.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mercy Multiplied

Matthew 18:21-35
September 17, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Jesus has been trying to get it through the disciples’ heads: he is not going to be what they expect. This chapter begins with an argument between Jesus’ closest friends about who is more important. Jesus answers their question by placing a child among them and saying, “Be like this, like this child.” Then he warns them that anyone who misleads a child would be better off dead. THEN he tells them how to settle conflict in the community, a tidy three-step process that, if it is unsuccessful, ends in exiling the offender. But the very next line is Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive. Jesus seems to be giving a straight answer first, but follows with a parable that is rich in hyperbole, in exaggeration, and in imagery. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"
Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'
And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?'
And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I have a little quiz for you.
Don’t worry, it isn’t hard.
It’s fill in the blank.
You’ll do fine.
You know the answers.
I’ll start a phrase, and you finish it.
Don’t say the answers out loud – just think them, or write them down..


What goes around…..

You will reap….

Payback is …

Give him a taste of his…

Revenge is …

Last week when I started digging into the gospel text we just read, all those familiar sayings came to mind. Not because they are the point of the text – just the opposite. But you know that they express what most of us think and believe, at least sometimes, about this idea of forgiving and forgiving and forgiving, without end. 

You know, at some point, I just get done with all that forgiving. I’m like Peter – I want to know the equation on this, the mathematical end point, the number of times I absolutely HAVE TO forgive, which is actually the number at which I can say, “All right, enough. Not forgiving any more.
We. Are. Done.”

Most everybody reaches that point at some time, with someone. Most everybody can tell you a story about how they forgave, and forgave, and forgave, and finally they just couldn’t forgive any more, not one more thing. Some people might have stories of vengeance, how they themselves, or some circumstance, or natural consequence, gave an offender their just desserts, their comeuppance. We like those stories, mostly.

But this story that Jesus told is pretty disturbing. 
In the first place, it is all so hugely exaggerated. 
What king lends that kind of money to a servant? A loan shark king?
What servant is crazy enough to borrow that kind of money?
And then, if the king has loaned that outlandish sum to a servant who can’t pay it back in ten lifetimes, why even talk about getting paid back? It’s obvious to everyone that this servant can’t pay.

And what a jerk!

His debt forgiven, you’d think he’d forgive a measly few coins on an IOU. But no! He’s not letting one cent of that go. And then there are the weasly fellow servants, tattling to the king.

To top off this whole ridiculous parable, the king, who we are thinking all along is probably, you know, God, turns out to have a nasty and vindictive side – that last line is a shocker: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Say what, Jesus? He said, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Yep, that’s what I thought he said.

To put this in modern terms, Servant A maxes out his line of credit at King Bank. King Bank does not care about Servant A’s credit rating – let him get underwater, over-borrow, take on a mortgage he can’t afford. When he does get underwater, King Bank works out a payment plan to avoid foreclosure. Servant A walks out the door and runs into Servant B, who owes him 150 bucks.
“Gimme my money!” says Servant A.
“I don’t have it,” answers Servant B.
Servant A makes sure that Servant B gets thrown into debtors’ prison.
The mortgage officer at King Bank finds out, and calls the note on Servant A.
None of it makes any sense.

That’s why this can’t be taken as allegory – too simple! Too simple to say, “Well, the King is God, and Servant A is you, and Servant B is that jerk who hurt you….” It’s also too simple to say, “Well, just forgive and forget. Jesus wants you to reconcile with everyone, no matter how abusive or dangerous they might be.”

In some cases, if we offer mercy, we need to do it at a great distance.
In some cases, offering quick and personal mercy is downright dangerous.

I was at a meeting the other day talking about reconciliation. One person remembered hearing a holocaust survivor say, “I’m not reconciling with a Nazi. I’m not hugging someone who tried to kill me.” So those kind of simple interpretations don’t apply.

We can’t just go all church lady and say “Well, I just forgive you, come give me a hug.”
Nor can we set up that simplistic idea that the forgiving king is likely to turn on us. That makes God’s grace conditional, like God won’t forgive if you won’t, like God’s just hanging around waiting for us to slip up so all the punishment can be unleashed.

That’s not God.
That won’t work.

But Jesus wants Peter to know that being unforgiving has consequences for us. Not consequences from a King, or from a court system. But from the action itself.

If someone seeks forgiveness, asks for mercy, what do we do? Anyone who has held a grudge, sought revenge, withheld mercy, knows that it can be painful. Anne Lamott says that’s like drinking rat poison and hoping the rat will die. Likewise, anyone who seeks forgiveness and is met with revenge knows how painful that is. Either way, the lack of forgiveness is like torture. And who would know that better than Jesus?

While I was studying this text, I took a forgiveness quiz, to see how forgiving I am.
You’d think, you know, in my line of work, I’d ace that little quiz.

I scored about a sixty.

Mostly because I’m not vengeful.
So there’s that.

But I’d like to be more forgiving.
Shouldn’t I get partial credit for that?
You know, like WANTING to pay your mortgage gets you somewhere? Not.

But we all want to get extra credit for who we think we are, or would like to be, and extra mercy for what we actually do, or who we turn out to be. Someone said we overestimate the mercy we give others, and underestimate the mercy we receive from God.

Well then, this parable is just bad news, isn’t it?

If I’m your minister and I can only score a sixty on the forgiveness test, what’s that say about the average Christian?  This story says we are sunk. No way can we forgive like we should. We are sunk.

Except for who the storyteller is. See, Jesus knows better than anyone what it means to be merciful. Jesus knows what it means to be so radically loving that he would forgive even if the offender is not sorry, even if the debtor to whom he has given so much has no intention of repaying him.

Think about that.

You just took out an enormous mortgage. You’re in debt up to your ears. You paid nothing down, and you haven’t the slightest hope of making even one full payment. You call the loan officer and tell her this, and she says, “Oh, well, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Just keep the house.” 
……… Excuse me. What?

That’s the kind of mercy we are given by God in Christ. Jesus knows what it means to keep your arms open, ready to embrace anyone who comes, even if they are broken and mean and unforgiving and clingy and scared and petty.

Jesus knows that we who have received that welcoming embrace are changed by it, and maybe a little less mean, a little more forgiving, a little bit stronger and braver, a little more willing to reach out in love…

… and maybe that’s what saves us all.

Maybe those of us who have received mercy will be more likely to give it, and the mathematics of grace become mercy multiplied, not just counting up to the top limit of how many times I have to forgive.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t do the math the way we do.
The good news is that Jesus even forgives our stubborn refusal to forgive others.
The good news is that even when we’ve squandered every last bit of our moral capital, and gone bankrupt on every promise to do better, and mortgaged away our kindness in trying to get ahead of the other guy, or spent our last pennies of energy trying to even the score with some horrid person, even then, Jesus stands there at the door, his arms open.

He asks for our ticket, our canceled mortgage, our personal forgiveness record,
our loan documents that are stamped, “PAID.” We don’t have that.
So we show him our terrible credit rating, our mangled ticket, 
punched only eleven or twelve times of forgiveness out of seventy seven, 
and he opens the gate and waves us through.

What can you possibly say about a God like that?

I’ll tell you what you say.
You say to your brother or sister, “I forgive you.”
You say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
You say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
You say, “Thank you. Thank you. I owe ya one, God.
I owe ya one life. My own.”
You answer that kind of grace with your life, and you live into the equation-
you live a life of mercy multiplied.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Risking Resistance

Exodus 1:8-2:10
August 27, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures
begins with these foreboding words:

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

We ended last week’s scripture reading on a “happily ever after” with Joseph and his brothers hugging and weeping in a joyful reunion. Joseph and his eleven brothers, the forebears of the twelve tribes of Israel, lived out their lives in Egypt, where Joseph had provided for them during the time of drought in Israel.

But Joseph died, he and all his brothers, and with the passage of time, the story of Joseph was forgotten. And when history is forgotten, the void makes a space for untruths.

Let’s listen for the truth of God’s word to us in Exodus 1:8-2:10:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."
But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them,
"Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?"
The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them."
So God dealt well with the midwives;
and the people multiplied and became very strong.
And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live." Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 

When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said.
Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?"
Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes."
So the girl went and called the child's mother.
Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages."
So the woman took the child and nursed it.
When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son.
She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."

In our gospel reading, Jesus quizzes the disciples about his identity. It isn’t that Jesus does not know who he is, in Matthew’s gospel there is a focus on the disciples (and the readers) recognizing his identity as son of God and son of man. With Peter’s affirmation, Jesus establishes Peter’s future role as a foundational leader of the community. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 16:13-20.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi,
he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, 
and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, 
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Generations have passed since Joseph was the prime minister of Egypt.
He and his family are long since dead,
but it is hard to imagine that the story of Joseph and the Israelites
was completely unknown to the Pharaoh.
That story was a defining narrative, how Egypt survived the drought.
An immigrant Israelite, a foreigner and a slave, rose to power
through a convergence of extraordinary circumstance and talent.
That’s not a history that would be easily erased.

What is more likely is that this new king did not forget, not at all.
What is more likely is that the Pharaoh had deliberately forgotten,
or willfully ignored, the story of Joseph.
You’ve no doubt heard the quote attributed to George Santayana:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
In this case, the Pharaoh’s willful ignorance
would be his eventual downfall.

He was a tyrant and a liar, this new king.
His fear of the immigrant Israelites stirred in him
a suspicion that they would not only rise up in rebellion,
but that they would “escape from the land.”
Egypt would lose its slave population,
and the ruling class would lose its exalted status.
That must have been the twisted logic that grew out of his fear.

So he set out to increase the oppression of the Israelites.
They became slaves, leading bitter lives of forced servitude.
It was forced labor, ruthless, bitter, hard.

Do you suppose anyone suggested that their lives as slaves weren’t so bad?
Do you suppose anyone suggested that some of them were happy?
Do you suppose anyone suggested that some of the taskmasters were kind?

They were utterly, bitterly oppressed.
Still, whether through hope or desperation,
the Israelite slaves continued to bear children, and multiplied.
So the Pharaoh came up with a new lie: soon they will outnumber us.
He developed a new plan: genocide.
Kill their sons.

His plan was simple and ruthless.
But Shiprah and Puah, the midwives, feared God.
They honored God more than they feared the Pharaoh.
They became lawbreakers; they became resisters.
The Pharoah wanted to know what was going on!
They turned the Pharaoh’s own prejudice back on him, with a stereotype:
“These Israelite women are too strong. Stronger than Egyptian women.
They birth their babies before we can get there.”
The Israelites won’t help him by killing their own children.
So Pharaoh introduces plan C – if the midwives won’t kill the babies,
then all the baby boys will be thrown into the Nile.
When a dishonest and fearful tyrant comes into power,
the vulnerable fear for their lives, and the lives of their children.
Some will comply with the status quo,
and some will tell the oppressed that obeying a tyrant
is the same as obeying God.

But others will examine the claims of the tyrant,
and look closely at the actions of the king,
and courageously risk resistance.
They will resist at the risk of their own lives.
So it was with the Shiprah and Puah, the midwives, who honored God,
and so it was with Miriam and her mother.
Moses’ mother actually did not exactly disobey the Pharaoh.
She did throw her baby boy into the Nile, as ordered.
It’s just that she made sure he was in a little boat, an ark,
so that his life would be spared.
And Moses’ sister, Miriam, stayed close by to watch over him.
Pharaoh’s daughter, too, resisted his murderous edict,
and drew this baby boy out of the Nile,
She recognized immediately that he was a “Hebrew” –
a member of a marginalized population,
a potential terrorist, a slave child.
Contrary to her father’s orders, she decided to raise him as her own son.
That’s how Moses’ own mother became his hired nursemaid.
As she held him in her arms and fed him,
think of the songs she must have sung,
and the stories she must have told him.
Perhaps she told him the story of his ancestor Joseph,
who was also a slave, but rose to freedom and saved his people.
Perhaps she told him the saga of Joseph’s family, those twelve boys,
sons of Jacob, grandsons of Isaac and Rebekah,
and of their great-grandparents, Abraham and Sarah.
Perhaps she sang to him a song of the God of Israel,
who had promised the people would be a great nation,
who had established a covenant with the Israelites.
Perhaps in her songs and stories, she made sure he knew
that the promises of rulers and governments may not be sustained,
but the promises of God are everlasting.

Generations later, the Psalmist would write:
“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;…”

It will take some time for Moses to grow to manhood.
As a prince of Egypt, he will observe injustice, and react with violence.
Even though he flees, he will hear God’s call to him
to lead the people out of slavery.
God will continue to be faithful, not only to Moses
but to all of the Israelites.

Centuries later, another son of Israel,
his life spared in infancy from a murderous king,
will confront his followers with the question,
“Who do you say that I am?”

In an age where new kings arise who do not remember our past,
where power, wealth and worldly success seem to be the goals of many,
how we answer the question of Jesus
will define how our lives are shaped.
If we say that he is simply a Hebrew prophet, or a wise man,
we miss the point.
If we acknowledge him as lord of our lives,
we risk our own comfort, our own self-assuredness,
for he will certainly continue to call us to courageous faithfulness.
The risk of resistance is real;
whether for midwives in Egypt or for those who seek justice today.
Calling out the sins of racism, misogyny, homophobia and bigotry
does not usually make a person popular.
Addressing the slow motion violence of poverty and mass incarceration,
especially the impact on people of color,
is hard work, exhausting both physically and spiritually.

Speaking out and acting on behalf of refugees
and children and vulnerable people is not easy, either.
Shiprah and Puah held the lives of children in their hands,
and made the decision to risk resistance,
because they feared God more than they feared the government.

We may not be blessed to offer such immediate direct help,
but we are certainly blessed to be able to do much
to alleviate suffering and speak up for the vulnerable.
The reason we can do this is that the God of Israel,
and Jesus, the son of the living God,
are with us in every moment,
to fulfill the promises expressed in that Psalm:

“…Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.
He is the name that leads to freedom, the son of the living God,
and the bedrock of God’s promises,
the foundation of our hope,
the very basis of our of our daily lives.

In our baptisms, we are immersed in the ever flowing current of his love.
In our profession of faith, he draws us up out of the water
and gives us new names, welcoming us into the household of faith.
In our daily living, he feeds us so that we are strengthened to do his will.
The love he demonstrates to us is distilled into the courage to love others.
The grace he gives us overflows into the world around us.
The mercy he teaches us is the reason we can resist earthly powers,
and the reason we can risk all we have, even life itself,
on behalf of this world that he loves so much.

He is the son of the living God.
Because of him, even the gates of Hades cannot prevail against us.
Because of him we can resist evil.
Because of him we can risk love.
Thanks be to God for the courage to risk!


First Person Plural

I'm back! After a three month sabbatical, it's great to be back in the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church of Sterling, IL.

First Person Plural
Genesis 45:1-15, Matthew 15:21-28
August 20, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today comes from the book of Genesis, the almost final chapter of a story we looked at six years ago. If you’ve ever seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” you’ll remember that this is the big moment, when Joseph and his brothers are reunited, and he urges them to escape the famine and join him in Egypt. The reason this is such a powerful story is the events that led up to it do not predict a happy ending. Joseph’s brothers, jealous of his position as the favorite, threw him in a pit, then sold him as a slave, and told their father Jacob that he was dead. Now, in Egypt, they have come to ask for food, not knowing it is Joseph they are asking. And Joseph has recognized them, but concealed his true identity. Let’s listen for God’s word to us as Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.

Genesis 45:1-15
1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer.
He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty. 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here."
14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck.
15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Our gospel reading is from Matthew, with a story of reconciliation that is equally unexpected, but different in that it involves Jesus, and a woman who is seeking healing- not for herself, but for her daughter. The turn of events and the change of heart in this story show us that reconciliation, and inclusion of all people, are crucial to our lives as followers of Christ. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 15: 21-28.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."
He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."
He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."
And her daughter was healed instantly.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I want to start out by saying how good it is to be home. And when I first looked at these stories I saw this joyful reunion, Joseph weeping with joy to see his brothers, and of the joy of the Canaanite woman as Jesus, rather belatedly, welcomed her into the family of faith.

These stories made me think of family reunions, the kind in books, where people separated by conflict are reunited and reconciled; where the outcast comes home and is welcomed and embraced. Then, in spite of their continued troubles and their history of dysfunction, they somehow all manage to get along swimmingly until the end of time.

You know, fiction!

That makes these two texts very appealing. We love these pictures of Joseph embracing his brothers, weeping with joy at their reunion, forgiving them. We delight in that image from the Psalm that we heard in the call to worship, of covenant kin together in unity, as beautiful as being anointed with oil, as lovely and breathtaking as the dew on Mount Hermon. But they are not all about happy reunions and welcome and inclusion.

They are just chapters in much bigger stories, stories about God, stories about Jesus, and stories about us. The joy is still there. But as you know, even in the closest families, there is conflict, and even our best efforts don’t entirely wipe out our memories – of old resentments, of injustice, of emotional pain.

As we have seen from the events in our country over that last couple of weeks, history is strong, and it speaks loudly, and because of it, unity is not easy.

Take this imagery from the story of Joseph – beautiful as it is. We don’t really get the brothers’ point of view, and any of us who have siblings know that family stories are never so clear cut, never have definite heroes and villains. History, whether for a family or a country, is complicated. There are always three or four sides to every story. We’ve seen that demonstrated these last few days as people try to unpack all the events and conflicting stories that have emerged from Charlottesville.

Some accounts would have us believe that those carrying Nazi emblems and shouting epithets were the peaceful marchers, simply protesting the removal of a statue, proud patriots preserving history, victims, not aggressors. Eyewitness accounts reject this version, pointing out that the “Unite the Right” marchers came with shields, carrying torches, shouting anti-semitic chants, and were surrounded by armed militia.

Some would put forth a false equivalence, saying they were all doing wrong. But the motivating cause of one group is violent exclusion, racism, supremacy, while the motivating cause of the other group is justice and equality. You, of course, must make your own decision about that.

But there is one group about whom all the stories in the media and in social media seem to agree. They were faith leaders. As my friend David Shearman so eloquently puts it: “Among the many untold stories of the harrowing day are the stories of hundreds of religious leaders who descended on Charlottesville to resist white supremacy. While images of prayerful resistance are often less eye-catching than bloody fists, spiritual protesters were still a crucial part of both the counter-protests and relief efforts. Wearing preaching robes and stoles, clerical collars and shirts, they stood arm in arm in silent witness against the hate that stood before them…”[1]

How did they do that? I’m not sure I’d have the courage for it. But I’m not sure most of us would.
I’d at least want those people to know how wrong they are. They could have shouted angrily at the white supremacists and their racist rhetoric. They could have preached and moralized and told them a thing or two.

And if I’d been in Joseph’s sandals, I’d have had a thing or two to say to those brothers of mine!
I’d start with “How could you?” and probably move on to “How dare you?”
How could you treat me that way?
How dare you come and ask for my help?

Imagine – ten of your eleven brothers set out to kill you, but instead they sell you as a slave. You end up in jail, and are nearly executed, except for the fact that you have a knack for dream interpretation. Your skill at understanding the symbolism in dreams gets you out of jail, and into a position to prepare for a coming drought. Knowing that lean years are ahead, you store up enough grain so that everyone can survive. Then, your brothers appear, all the way from their homeland, and you have a golden opportunity!

Your brothers come with their hands out, asking for food.
Bam! Nail them, right?
Drop the hammer, right?

But he doesn’t.

Joseph doesn’t take his opportunity to shame or moralize or press his case any more than those clergy in Charlottesville. I’m not sure most of us could demonstrate that kind of grace. I know it would be a difficult challenge for me. And it was probably a difficult challenge for Joseph.

But Joseph was a follower of the God of Israel,
the God of Joseph’s father and mother, Jacob and Rachel,
the God of his grandparents, Isaac and Rebekah,
the God who spoke to his great-grandparents, Abraham and Sarah.
I will make you a great nation, God promised.
You are my people, God said.

God has not appeared to Joseph, to guide him.
God has not directed his actions with divine counsel.
But Joseph believes in God’s promise.

He does not take advantage of this opening to reproach his brothers. Joseph doesn’t hit them with all the pent up fury - the recriminations that he must have at least thought over the years. There is no outpouring of his stored up anger and pain at least not publicly. Joseph first goes away, privately, to weep. He is overcome, wailing in agony, so that everyone in the place can hear him.

Then he returns to his brothers and tells them who he is. While they are still reeling in shock and dismay and probably fear, he explains how this moment came to be:
God sent me before you to preserve life.
God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…
It was not you who sent me here, but God;
God has made me lord of all Pharaoh’s house and ruler over all of Egypt.
Hurry and bring my father down here.

What Joseph’s brothers intended for harm, God turned around for something beneficial. That was not just beneficial for Joseph, but for his entire family – his father, eleven brothers, their wives and offspring, their servants – all of the house of Jacob. Joseph understood that salvation – for all of them- for all of Israel, came from the God of Israel, and he understood that this was for all of his covenant kin. In other words, Joseph might have said, it is “WE” not “ME.”

I think that’s why Joseph wept, and how he could embrace his brothers. That’s what empowered and emboldened those clergy, marching arm in arm straight into the torchlight of those angry young men. They saw that God’s action in the world was on behalf of all of people. They were marching in unity with the assurance that God’s love is stronger than hate, and God’s grace is bigger than any national boundary, stretching across politics, party, people, and even our narrow view of history. They marched together, as one: not just me, but we.

It’s interesting, I think, that in the book of Genesis, when God refers to God’s self, it is also in the first person plural. “Let us make humans in our image.” God is a God of community, of relationships, of covenant. Because that’s who God is, that is who we are made to be. We can’t do that independently – operating only in first person singular.

We need each other,
to know who we are,
to help each other,
to learn how to live together in this world.

The gospel lesson demonstrates this, too, that the grace of God in Jesus Christ is not limited to a certain race or ethnic group, even though Jesus seems to say that at first.
He tells the Canaanite woman, “No, I’m not here for you.”
And she replies, in effect, “Jesus, Canaanite lives matter.”
Jesus agrees with her, and gives her the healing she seeks.

The healing mercy of God is available to all people, of every race and creed and nationality and ethnicity and rank and station.
Even to Canaanites.
Even to Samaritans.
Even to neo-Nazis.
Even to me and you.

It is in that mercy that we live and move, in that mercy that we find our connection and our community. It isn’t by our own will power, not by gritting our teeth and putting up with each other!

Our community – the “we” of First Presbyterian Sterling, is a priceless gift from God! In these three months that I’ve been away, I’ve come to value this congregation more than ever before. I’ve had the chance to meet with some of my colleagues, who listen with a slight tinge of friendly envy as I describe this community of faith. I’ve proudly described you and your wonderfulness as other clergy marvel at the fact that you gave me this gift of sabbatical, and that there were five of you who were courageous and gifted enough to step into the pulpit to preach and lead worship. While I’ve been away, I’ve heard some sad tales of congregations who don’t seem to be interested in unity, as brothers and sisters, who think about church in terms of “me” instead of “we.”

I’ve had time to reflect on and rejoice in our shared ministry together,
And I’ve missed you!
Of course, we don’t always agree.
I’m pretty sure that I don’t always live up to your expectations, and sometimes you don’t do exactly what I want you to do! But we are one family of faith, with all our eccentricities and flaws, with all our gifts and graces. In the midst of all the daily back and forth of living in community, we are bound together by God’s presence, by God’s love, by God’s forgiveness and grace. Even when we follow our own selfish paths, God can take what we have done and use it for something good – if we are willing, like Joseph, to offer mercy, to reach out with an embrace of welcome.

If God can forgive like that, will we?
If God can love like that, can we?
The answer is yes, we will; yes, we can,
because the self-giving love of Jesus Christ
draws us together inside a circle of love and unity,
where you and I, us and them, become “we.”


[1] David Shearman, “What Goes Around Does Not Come Around” Midrash, August 17, 2017.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Living Stones

1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
May 14, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading for today is from 1 Peter 2:2-10,
a letter to the churches written sometime at end of the first century.
The epistles of 1st and 2nd Peter were likely not written
by the Apostle Peter himself, but by a later disciple.
The sophisticated Greek and the scripture quotations
from the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures
indicate that it is unlikely that a fisherman from Galilee was the author.

The letters were written to Christians in what is now Turkey,
and were written to them during a time of distress.
In that time it was increasingly difficult, if not dangerous, to be a Christian.
Slander, accusations, insults, and discrimination were growing,
and would later turn into outright persecution
for those Christians who refused to worship the emperor.

This letter is meant to be encouraging, and fortifying,
for this young church made up mostly of Gentiles.
The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in about the year 70;
the western wall, still stands in modern-day Israel.
Those stones, still standing strong, are a good image for this text.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in 1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow into salvation—
if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals
yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,
to be a holy priesthood,
to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious;
but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts
of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The word of the Lord.

Our gospel reading today is from the very familiar
fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel, a text you hear often at funerals.
When I memorized it as a child, the words I learned were:
“In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
Back then, my understanding of this text was as a promise that in heaven, as the old song said, someday yonder, I’d have a mansion of my own.
The context for this text is far richer than that,
more than just a promise of a mansion in heaven.

This is a part of what is called the “farewell discourse,”
which was an important literary form of the time.
Almost like a final soliloquy in a play,
a farewell discourse is the last testament of a teacher,
like Socrates’ farewell speech to his students,
or Moses’ farewell to the Israelites.
A part of the function of this final lesson to the disciples
is that it reassures and instructs them,
so that they will carry on the work of their teacher.
John’s gospel here is unequivocal in its assertion that Jesus
is the only way to God.
That way is prepared for us through Jesus Christ.
Let’s listen to the words of Jesus for us in John 14:1-14:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again and will take you to myself,
so that where I am, there you may be also.
And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, you will know my Father also.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip,
and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own;
but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;
but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me
will also do the works that I do and, in fact,
will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
I will do whatever you ask in my name,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our scripture texts today are full of images and metaphors.
As a poet, I enjoy that.
But as a writer, the reading from 1 Peter makes me nuts!
We start off fine, with that imagery of the “pure milk of the word,”
Then we shift to this metaphor of stones – Jesus as the cornerstone,
the disciples – that’s us – as the living stones.
Then the writer shifts the metaphor,
and we’re talking about Jesus as a stone,
and/or the gospel message as a stumbling block to the unbeliever,
or the image of Jesus as the building block that was rejected.
Please, epistle writer, one image or metaphor at a time!

It reminds me of the bad analogy contest held by the Washington Post.
Here are some of the winners:
“The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil.
But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.”

“Even in his last years, grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap,
only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.”

See what I mean?
Those are almost as bad as mixed metaphors.
I had a friend who was brilliant at those.
My favorite was “Put that feather in your hat and smoke it!”
Here are some other winners:
“We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.
I’ll get it by hook or ladder.
From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb.”[1]
See, that’s so confusing!

So, rather than try to untangle whether Jesus or we are the living stones,
or what the stumbling block and rejected cornerstone have to do with it,
we’re going to just pick one – that wonderful image of living stones.

I mentioned that by the time 1 Peter was written,
the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.
There had been an uprising of Jews – the zealots,
an uprising long feared and suppressed by the Romans.
The Jews had scored some surprising military victories early on,
but their defenses in Jerusalem could not hold.
“the Romans employed new war machines
to hurl boulders against the city walls.
Battering rams assaulted the fortifications.
Jewish defenders fought all day and struggled to rebuild the walls at night.
Eventually the Romans broke through the outer wall,
then the second wall, and finally the third wall.
Still the Jews fought, scurrying to the temple as their last line of defense.
That was the end for the valiant Jewish defenders and for the temple. 
Historian Josephus claimed that Titus wanted to preserve the temple,
but his soldiers were so angry at their resilient opponents that they burned it.”[2]
It was a devastating blow to the Jewish people,
one which they still remember in the observance of “Tisha B’Av.”
The temple, the place of sacrifice and atonement,
the place where the spirit of God was known to dwell, was utterly destroyed.
The temple was gone.
Where, now, was God to dwell?
Only the western wall remained standing.
That wall still stands, and is a place of prayer and remembrance.
When people go to pray at the western wall,
they often insert written prayers between the stones.
There is a saying, from a song about the wall:
“There are people with hearts of stone, and stones with hearts of people.”

It’s hard to know if the writer of 1 Peter was thinking of that wall,
when he drew from the Old Testament images of living stones.
But it was then, and is now, a powerful image
for those of us who understand ourselves to be the church.

You know, of course, that the church is not a building.
As the Prelude Pondering says,
“People don’t enter a church; the church enters a building.”
But this image helps us make that even plainer –
you ARE the church, you are the living stones
being built up into a church, a dwelling place for God.

If we are the wall, the building,
then Christ is indeed our foundation and cornerstone.
If Christ lives in us, and we live in Christ,
then we are indeed a wall of living stones, a spiritual structure.

And because of the promises of Jesus Christ, our cornerstone,
God’s holy temple is in you – in me – in us.
Our living Lord assures us – believe!
Do not let your hearts be troubled!

Even in troubled times, we trust his words –
that while we are a living church, a place for Christ to dwell,
he is creating for us a final dwelling place,
through God’s initiative, not our own,
a place of expansive love and roomy grace, where all are welcome.

Until that day when we go to that place,
we are to do the works to which Christ has called us,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

We are the church!

No weapon of war will destroy us;
no hatred or prejudice will define us;
no ridicule can discourage us;
no dismissal will dissuade us;
no act of oppression will stop us.

We are the church – the location of prayer and praise,
resistance and renewal, sustenance and song,

We are the church, where the bread is broken and the cup is poured
so that we will be strengthened for action.

We do not do this on our own power,
but the master builder shapes us and sets us together,
supports us and makes us into a fit place for Christ to live.
We are living stones, continually being built up into the church.
In us, Christ acts.
In us, Christ lives.
In us, Christ loves.

Thanks be to God that we are living stones!




Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Voice

1 Corinthians 1:4-9, John 10:1-10
May 7, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

The Apostle Paul is known to us because of his dramatic conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, and because of his work with churches in the years that followed. Many books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul; those books are letters to churches, in which Paul advises, encourages, and confronts those new communities to help them become more Christ-like. Here is part of Paul’s greeting to one such church, the church in Corinth. . Let’s listen for his words of encouragement and God’s word for us from First Corinthians 1:4-9

I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The gospel reading for today from John’s gospel presents us with a familiar image, that of Jesus as our Good Shepherd, the one who leads and protects and cares for the sheep. This is a part of the “I Am” statements of Jesus, in which he begins by describing himself as the shepherd, then shifts the metaphor to describe himself as the gate to the sheepfold. Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us in John 10:1-10

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd…
for many of us, those words trigger the memory of the entire 23rd Psalm.
Among many Christians, all it takes is those five words,
and the Psalm comes back to them in its entirety.
Those words also conjure for us the image of the good shepherd,
the image that also emerges from this reading in the gospel of John.

Interestingly, Jesus does not even say “I am the good shepherd”
in this reading – that comes in the next verse.
In that part of John, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd,
contrasted with the hired hand.
Jesus lays down his life for the sheep;
the hired hand runs away at the first sign of trouble.
So if you hear a minister described as a “hireling” by another minister,
you should know that that is an insult –
implying that the “hired hand” is a false teacher, leading people astray.
\In any case, we tend to prefer the image of Jesus as a shepherd
to the image of Jesus as a gate!
But what captures my attention in this gospel reading
is the idea of the voice:
“….the sheep hear his voice.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

We know from actual shepherds that sheep do know their voice –
you can find some really charming videos on Youtube that show this –

Sheep listening to their shepherd

One of them depicts several different people calling the sheep,
using the same words as the shepherd, but with no response.
Then the shepherd calls them.
Their heads pop up from where they are grazing.
They turn toward the shepherd, and then they run to gather near him.

So, Jesus says, it’s like that.
You know my voice, so you come when I call, and you follow.
Then he shifts the imagery.
Jesus says, “I am the gate. You come into life abundant through me.
I’m the one who keeps you in the right place,
the place where you can thrive.”

Some of us really like those metaphors – imagery that helps us understand
in ways that more concrete descriptions can’t.
It’s easy to draw the parallels – the pastor like the sheepdog,
the bellwether sheep who leads the flock like an elder,
the sheepfold like the church, or like the life of faith.
But some of us need something a little more practical.
How, exactly, does Jesus lead us, and how exactly, are we to follow?
And, not being sheep, how do we sort out the voice of Jesus
from all the other voices that are muttering and shouting
and whispering and calling to us?

We can’t do it like that television show – The Voice,
where they listen and judge and advance to the finals.
We have to figure out, sometimes in a split second,
without celebrity judges, whether a voice is worth listening to or not.
That’s a good deal of what we discuss in confirmation class:
how to listen for Jesus in our own lives, and in our daily decisions.
I’ve told the kids repeatedly what I tell every group –
this class is not about you memorizing answers to get them right on a test;
this class is not about you repeating something you have learned,
whether you mean it or not;
this class is not even really about making up your mind once and for all
about every article of faith expressed in the Apostles’ creed.

No, this class is about asking questions,
and helping you learn how to explore questions of faith,
so that as you get older, and learn more,
your beliefs will be a strong foundation for your Christian life,
and you’ll be able to consider new questions or challenges
through a lens of faith and belief, without losing your religion!

In other words, you can believe, and change your mind,
and still believe, or believe anew,
and grow and develop as Christians.
That can happen because you know how to listen
to the voice of the Shepherd – in scripture, in the community,
and in your heart as you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that God is acting in our daily lives through those avenues
empowers us to live courageously and faithfully.
That’s what Paul is referring to in our Epistle reading.
The text uses that word, “confirm” – here it is again:
“you were made rich through him in everything:
in all your communication and every kind of knowledge,
in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. 
The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift
while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end
so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This confirmation process and this ceremony we go through
is as much about God confirming our testimony
as is it about these three young people confirming for themselves
the promises that were made for them in their baptisms.
This ritual we go through is a reminder to us that the Good Shepherd,
who leads us, also called us his friends,
entering into a dialogue with us that can continue throughout our lives.
In a few minutes, we’ll call Sarah and Caroline and Vincent up here,
and we’ll ask them to confirm the promises made on their behalf.
We will ask them if they will do their very best
to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd,
and if they will follow Jesus – not just say they believe,
but commit to living as faithful Christians.

We’ll invite everyone here to confirm those promises as well,
as we are reminded that “God is faithful,
and you were called by him to partnership
with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”
He knows you, and loves you, and calls you by name, to come and follow.
Can you hear him?

Thanks be to God for the voice!