Sunday, April 8, 2018

Learning to Share

April 8, 2018
John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-37
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Today’s gospel reading is traditional for the Sunday after Easter, the account of one of the post-resurrection appearances. Last week, we heard how Mary of Magdala reported that Jesus was alive, now our attention shifts away from the tomb and to the locked room where the men hid in fear. Although this is a significant gospel story, it is not our focus text today. But it does lay the groundwork for our reading from Acts, because it demonstrates for us the importance of faith in the risen Lord as the very foundation of the church that was going to come into being. Although they would not have said it this way at the time, those people hiding in fear in that locked room were Easter people.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in John 20:19-31:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our reading from Acts is part of the story of those Easter people and how the Christian community began to be formed. One commentary says that you can almost hear a song in the background -the theme song from “All In the Family.” Remember? Every episode opened with Archie and Edith singing “Those Were the Days.” This scripture has a bit of that feeling of nostalgia, a sense of the good old days when the church was a new thing, and everything was so great. But it also accurately describes how people formed a community that was centered on the Risen Christ and demonstrated to a hostile world what it means to live for Jesus. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Acts 4:32-37

Now the whole group of those who believed
were of one heart and soul,
and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,
but everything they owned was held in common.
With great power the apostles gave their testimony
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great grace was upon them all.
There was not a needy person among them,
for as many as owned lands or houses sold them
and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
They laid it at the apostles’ feet,
and it was distributed to each as any had need.
There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles
gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”).
He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money,
and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

God’s word for God’s people.
Thanks be to God.

I’ll bet many of you have sat with an older relative, leafing through a photo album as they reminisced, identifying long-dead ancestors, and dear friends, recalling the family house, birthdays, deaths, travels and homecomings. Their life story is depicted in those faces, and landscapes, and in the stories they tell about the pictures. Those pictures represent, for many folks, the good old days.

Someone once said that “Pictures, always a dialogue with the past, [become] receptacles for people’s personal histories. Over time [the pictures] replace the memories themselves.”[1]

Today we have pictures like that from this story in the gospel of John and this scene from the fourth chapter of Acts. John depicts for us the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, marking the transition of the disciples from fearful skepticism to courageous ministry; in Acts, we see a snapshot of the common life of the early church.

Both of these pictures show us the marks not only on Jesus’ physical body, but the marks of the church on us, the body of Christ. They are part of our family photo album of Resurrection life, showing us what it meant, and what it means, to be Easter people.

John’s gospel shows us the reality and power of resurrection.
And the reading from Acts – wow! talk about the good old days!
“they were of one heart and soul,
… no one claimed private ownership of any possessions,
… everything they owned was held in common
… not a needy person among them ...”

Of course, it is just a snapshot. In the very next chapter we encounter a story of people who withheld their money rather than sharing, and then lied about it. Even with that said, this is a beautiful picture of the church, and holds up to us an ideal of learning to share with one another. They shared one heart and soul, and they shared in their material goods. We are looking at a picture of people who, having been claimed by God, now understand that none of their worldly possessions belong to them.

It’s worth remembering that as they were learning to share, those early Christians didn’t cash in all their assets and put all the money into the general fund. They did so as the circumstances required: when someone had need. Nonetheless, this snapshot can feel threatening to contemporary American Christians.

We live in an economic system in which capitalism has become idolized, and in which people are often pitted against one another in an “every man for himself” competition. And in this increasingly polarized political environment, people tend to focus more on personal outrage or personal gain, than on the needs of the community and the common good.

So we want to dismiss this picture of the good old days of the church as something anomalous, something that has nothing to do with us. But the verb tense used indicates that this sharing among the people was an ongoing activity, not a onetime event.

I learned something interesting this week. I was listening to an interview with the former Prime Minister of Greece, whose tenure was short-lived as he attempted to help Greece sort out its economy. The country had complex financial problems, with global consequences, and Prime Minister George Papandreou had concluded a bailout deal with the three major powers of the European Union.

The issues and political intrigue were complex, and I don’t propose to try to sort that out this morning. But Papandreou said something that really struck me. He said that he had trusted the Greek people to make the right choice. Observing that Greece is the very birthplace of democracy, Papandreou noted the original meaning of the Greek word idiote – idiot: someone who was entirely self-centered.[2]

In ancient Athens to be selfish – caring only about self – idios, was rare, and it was considered to be a bit disgraceful. The overwhelming majority of Athenians participated in politics to a greater or lesser extent. The good citizen in ancient Greece was active socially and politically.

The idiot had nothing to contribute, was isolated and selfish, and relied on the work and skill of others, undermining community and caring nothing for the consequences. If you did not demonstrate social responsibility and political awareness you were considered apathetic, uneducated and ignorant.[3] In short, you were an idiot.

Papandreou went on to say something
I think the risen Lord would say to us, his disciples.
He said that things must change.
That change must come from people.

“from everyone who stands up to injustice and inequality.
[from] everyone who stands up to those who preach racism rather than empathy,
dogma rather than critical thinking, technocracy rather than democracy.
[from] everyone who stands up to the unchecked power,
whether it is authoritarian leaders,
plutocrats hiding their assets in tax havens,
or powerful lobbies protecting the powerful few,
…It is in their interest that all of us are idiots.
Let’s not be.”

I’m pretty sure there were idiots in the first century church; and it’s possible there are idiots in the church today. But this portrayal of how the community formed around the principles of unity in the midst of diversity and generosity in the midst of scarcity is instructive to us today.

Rarely are we as a congregation asked to share in that way; I like to think that if the occasion arises, we would do so. I believe we would. I know we would, because I have seen us do it. Not in the ways described here in Acts, but in ways that demonstrate that we really are, mostly, of one heart and soul.

One heart and soul.
One body, of which Christ is the head.

When the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, they were hiding in fear. When they recognized, thanks to Thomas, who he was, he conveyed to them some of the marks of his body, the church. He breathed the Holy Spirit into their gathering. He gave them the power of forgiveness, he granted them peace beyond any earthly peace, and he gathered them in himself to become the church. Those marks of the body of Christ became the marks of the church, the living demonstration of the living Christ. Those shared marks are what empowered and enabled the early church; they are the marks that enable us to be the church.

What makes us church is that we offer forgiveness to one another.
What makes us church is that there is a state of peace among us.
What makes us church is that we are always learning to share.

Do you remember the good old days?
Remember when our pews were full, and not just on Easter Sunday?
Remember when Mr. D. had his special spot where he always sat,
and everyone who was anyone came to this church?
Remember when there was always so much of everything –
plenty of money, plenty of prestige, plenty of people, plenty of kids…
There was a huge youth group, and they did things together all the time.
There was KDK where young couples dined together every month,
and Presbyterian Women and lots of Sunday School classes…

Those were the good old days, weren’t they?

But I don’t remember them, and there are fewer and fewer people here who do.
Those days are past, but there are new pictures in the family album.
They show a people who care about one another enough
to pray and work and support anyone who is in need.
They depict a community of hospitality,
in which welcome is not just a word but a way of life.
They demonstrate a people of faith whose center of life is the Risen Lord,
who have received forgiveness and peace,
and so are willing to give that to others.

They portray people
whose generosity is genuine,
whose common life is joyful and faithful,
who are of one heart and soul,
who are always ready and willing to help those who are in need,
and who are always and ever learning to share.

These are the good old days.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Rian Dundon,

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Challenge of Easter

John 20:1-18
April 1, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

John 20:1-18
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"
She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."
14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?"
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!"
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' "
18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Easter is a challenging day for Christians. It isn’t quite as appealing as Christmas is to the rest of the world. No shopping season, no Easter carols, no tree or office gift exchange. Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, said several years ago:

“It doesn’t boast its own annual TV specials for kids.
It doesn’t spawn new albums from pop stars.
… It doesn’t have its own sweaters.
…It doesn’t even have its own set date.
But in the eyes of most Christians,
Easter is a more important holiday than Christmas.”

Nevertheless, plenty of non-Christian people celebrate Easter. And similar to Christmas, they manage to do so without even a polite nod in the direction of the church, or Jesus. I had to do a little shopping last week for some things we needed here. For Holy Week and the stations of the cross, we needed a crucifix – not a cross, I have tons of those, but a crucifix, a cross with Jesus on it. It was eight days before Easter, should be a simple task, right?

No, it was not.

In fact, as I looked, I discovered that in all the Easter displays, there were only a few tepid nods to the resurrection of Jesus. In three huge rows of Easter merchandise, there were bunnies and baskets and boxes and jelly beans, there were tulips and chickens and plastic eggs and plastic grass, and candles and cards and cute cuddly toys, but there was hardly anything that indicated even the slightest awareness of any religious significance of Easter. I saw one pastel cross and one decorative sign that said, “Amazing Grace.”

But they DID have a SWAT team Easter basket.
That’s right.

It was jam-packed with fun Easter toys … like handcuffs.

The Walmart website described it like this:
“It allows your child to receive both fun toys and tasty candies for Easter. It includes all the items necessary for S.W.A.T. and police role-playing, including a badge with handcuffs, rescue blaster, walkie talkie play set and a tin box.”

Also, it has Fun Dip.
And Skittles. 
And M&Ms. 

Right next to it, on the main display, was an American Hero basket. It has “special forces toys.” And fruit snacks.

One of my friends said,
“Nothing says ‘hallelujah! Christ is risen!’ quite like a SWAT team Easter basket.”

For Christians, the crucifixion of Christ symbolizes humiliation, oppression, injustice and brutality. The resurrection, Easter, is a hallelujah shout of hope! For a child’s Easter basket to contain toy handcuffs and guns…well…

That’s why it was so horrifying for me to see toy guns in Easter baskets. To give gifts such as that, to commemorate our Risen Lord, runs counter to all that we believe as Christians.

But wait, pastor! Isn’t the cross a symbol of violence?

Well, in those days after the crucifixion, people certainly didn’t see the cross as a symbol of hope. In Jesus’ time, and in the decades following his death, when the Gospel accounts were written, the cross symbolized humiliation, oppression, injustice and brutality. It was a symbol of death, and of how Jesus died.

When they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was praying, they came with clubs and swords. Like a SWAT team. And then they took him away and tried him on trumped up charges, but they couldn’t even get the witnesses to tell the same lies. See, he’d led a protest march of sorts earlier that week, led it into the city of Jerusalem with a bunch of peasants waving palm branches, the symbol of victory.

And the powers that be were terrified of him,
terrified that he challenged their smug religiosity,
their corrupt practices,
their cruel and inhumane treatment of the poor and lowly,
their immoral and unethical lives.

They were terrified that he would start an insurrection to overthrow them. So they came and arrested the Prince of Peace. He asked them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me.”

But arrest him they did, and they brought him before Pilate. And then they executed him, like a common criminal, hung him on a cross atop a smoldering heap of garbage, between two thieves.

His friends were distraught. They couldn’t imagine that what he had been telling them for the last three years was literally true. After he died, the disciples thought it was over.
They ran away.
They hid in a locked room, afraid of being arrested or being killed.
They couldn’t see how the nonviolent resistance of Jesus Christ, which had resulted in his execution, was going to result in anything but more trouble and suffering for them.

When your leader has been hunted down and arrested,
tried in a sham court,
convicted of blasphemy and sedition,
and publicly executed,
your movement is pretty much over, right?

But it wasn’t over!
He came back!

He came back, alive, and the despair of that Easter morning turned to hope. Mary told them that Jesus was not in the tomb, that he had risen as he said. But they did not believe it. But after encountered the risen Christ, they were willing to believe, and then willing to risk their lives for what they knew.

They became fearless apostles.
Easter changed everything for them.

The challenge of Easter is not the sadness of his death or the surprise of his resurrection.
The challenge of Easter is this: how will it change our lives? 

The challenge of Easter is whether we will go out of the church building today with renewed commitment to following Jesus, or whether we will walk away with the false assurance that we need not do anything more than show up and sing Alleluia! 

The challenge of Easter is whether we will be willing to risk for the sake of the God’s love for all people, or whether we will succumb to the safety of silence and respectability, and live unchanged by grace.

Easter is not a story of bunnies and chocolate.
It is a story of God’s love for the world overcoming power and violence.
It is a story of resistance in the name of hope.

The great Black theologian, J. Deotis Roberts, said, “The Easter story, rightly understood, enables us to engage evil and suffering, transmute it for constructive ends, and move forward in hope to God’s future and our own.”

The challenge of Easter is whether we will join with God in the work of resurrection, as we transform despair into hope, and resist oppression by engaging the powers of death and violence. Every new morning, we have the chance to look into that empty tomb and remember who we are, and whose we are.

From the moment of our baptism,
until the day when our baptism is complete in death,
we are surrounded by the extravagant love of God,
which will stop at nothing to bring us
to that moment of wonder and commitment,
when we shout, “I have seen the Lord!”

The cross represents that challenge
to live as Easter people,
to be those who commit to the risky business of following Jesus:
to resist idolatry,
to speak for those long silenced,
to live in obedience to love.
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Freely Given

John 12:20-33, Psalm 51:1-12
March 18, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our gospel reading from the gospel according to John comes from the 12th chapter. In the verses just preceding this reading, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, accompanied by crowds shouting “Hosanna,” and waving palm branches. It’s worth considering that only in John’s gospel are the branches specified as palm branches. Since the Maccabean period of about 167-160 BCE, palm branches were symbols of national triumph and victory. The palm branches point us to the fact that the crowd greets Jesus as their national hero.[1] This only increases the discomfort of the Roman authorities. In this scripture, John points out that “some Greeks” have come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They find Philip and ask him to take them to Jesus.

Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us in that encounter with Jesus in John 12: 20-33
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.
21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."
22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
23 Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27 "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."
29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him."
30 Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.
31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our Psalm for this week is Psalm 51, a prayer of penitence attributed to King David. This Psalm is a cry of anguish from someone who considers themselves to be beyond the reach of God’s grace. But as we know, there is no one who is beyond God’s steadfast love and mercy. Let’s join together in reading and singing our response to Psalm 51:1-12

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Response: Change my heart, O God, make it ever true 
Change my heart, O God. May I be like you.

4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Response: Change my heart, O God, make it ever true
Change my heart, O God. May I be like you.

8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Response: Change my heart, O God, make it ever true
Change my heart, O God. May I be like you.

God’s word for God’s people. Thanks be to God.

Some years back, I worked at a Presbyterian church as the second worst choir director in the history of choir directing. I say the “second worst” because there had to be at least one person directing a choir who did a worse job of it than me. To be fair, I told them when I took the job that I knew nothing about choral conducting! In any case, I was really bad at it.

The pastor of that church has made space for all kinds of different people to find a path to faith. One of the things he did when I worked there was to do away with the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. His feeling was that the prayer of confession just made people feel bad. I disagreed; my argument was that the confession and pardon actually made people feel better! When I think about the importance of confession, I always think of this story, which I know you’ve heard, but here we go:

Three pastors went fishing together one day.
While they were out in a boat, one of the pastors said,
"We should share our struggles.
Let’s tell one another our greatest sin so that we can pray for each other.
The first one said, “I hate to admit this, but I have a problem with gambling.
Sometimes I the offering money and sneak off to the casino and gamble.”
The second pastor says, “I'm so ashamed to admit this,
but I am involved with a woman who is not my wife.”
The third pastor sat there silently.
The other two waited and waited and waited, then they said,
“We shared. We’re not leaving until you tell us your greatest sin.”
He said, “I’m really embarrassed to tell you this….”
The other two pastors waited in silence.
Then he said, “My confession is…. I am the biggest gossip in town.”

We humans have a complicated relationship with confession. Some of us struggle with a deep-seated sense of shame, and praying a prayer of confession, whether in a group or alone, triggers that shame, that feeling that we are bad or wrong. But we are made in God’s image, and while we DO bad things, we are not entirely rotten. After all, the creation story tells us that each day God created, and each day God looked the work of the day and called it good. Until God created humans. And then God looked at those humans and said, “very good.”

But also true is that in that story, the next thing that happens is that the humans mess up, and try to blame it on everyone else. It didn’t change God’s love for them, nor did it mean that God was mistaken about them, nor did it mean that they were NOT made in God’s image. What it meant was that they were frail humans, with free will, who disobeyed the ONE rule that God had laid out for them. They didn’t repent, or say they were sorry, even when they got caught. They cast around for someone to blame.

(Just a side note here – it isn’t necessary to believe this is a literal tale, but it is important to understand what the story says about humankind, and about God.)

What it says about us is that we don’t always use our free will
to do the things or say the things that glorify God.
What it says about us is that there are times in our lives
when we need to seek forgiveness from God.
What is says about us is that there are times we need to turn to Jesus,
who is drawing all of us to him.

What it says about God is that God’s grace and love are freely given,
and are not dependent upon the eloquence of our prayers of confession,
or how loudly we proclaim the gory details of our sins,
or how much we beat our chests and weep in sorrow.
God’s grace precedes our repentance!
God’s forgiveness is not the result effectiveness of our “performance”
God’s grace is what produces our confession!
God’s grace is not a reward or even a response to us –
it is a freely given gift.

As former Dubuque seminary professor Arlo Duba put it,
“The consciousness and acceptance of God’s mighty and gracious acts in Jesus Christ prompt praise; praise brings about repentance; and the first fruit of repentance is our confession of sin. The subsequent fruit is living a joyful and obedient Christian life.”[2]

That joyful and obedient Christian life becomes the fruit of grace. So when Jesus talks about the grain of wheat falling to the ground, he’s referring to his death and resurrection. That death is not to somehow appease God’s anger over human sinfulness, but it becomes the means for bearing much fruit.

Jesus says “When I am lifted up….”
and he knows that he will be lifted up for a purpose:
lifted up on a cross
lifted up from death
lifted up from the earth to return to the Father
And people will see that he and the Father were always one. 

Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”  We are called to repentance, not as a way to win God’s favor, but as a response to the one lifted up for us.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, our Jewish brothers and sisters observe a custom called “Taschlich,” as they symbolically cast away their sins. During this ancient ritual, a group gathers by a body of water, preferably a lake or river that might contain fish. As they pray, some may physically throw bread crumbs into the water, while others symbolically shake out their prayer shawls. As they do so, they pray a prayer that details the thirteen aspects of God’s mercy. In a moment, I’ll invite you to participate in a symbolic “casting off” as we enter into this last week of Lent.

In your pew are watercolor markers and slips of tissue paper. Use those papers and markers to write down the things that you would like to cast off, the failure that you’d like God to deal with, the regrets that you’d like to give to Jesus. No one will read them but you. And when you are ready, bring them here, and cast them away into this water.

As you do that, I want to recite for you the thirteen aspects of God’s mercy:
God has compassion before a person sins;
God has compassion after a person has sinned;
God is mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
God is merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
God is gracious if humankind is already in distress;
God is slow to anger;
God and plenteous in kindness;
God is truth;
God is faithful in keeping kindness unto thousands;
God forgives iniquity;
and transgression;
and sin; and God is always pardoning.
That’s everything that the prayer of Psalm 51 asks, and more.
Know that God has already forgiven you, and that God’s grace, freely given,
will help you to bear the fruit of lovingkindness, today, and always.

[1] New Interpreter’s Commentary on the Gospel of John
[2] Duba, Arlo. “True Confession,” Reformed Worship.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

John 3:14-21; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
March 11, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We are again in John’s gospel this fourth Sunday in Lent. We heard last week about one of the events which John calls “signs,” as Jesus threw the moneychangers from the temple. John’s gospel is particularly focused on the incarnation – Jesus as God in human flesh, as a sign of God’s presence, and on the signs that point us to that reality. John’s gospel begins with a focus on Jesus as “the Word made flesh,” Jesus as the light of the world, shining in the darkness. In the verses that lead up to today’s reading, a man named Nicodemus has come in the dark of night to talk to Jesus. They discuss how a person needs to experience a new birth in the Spirit, and Jesus continues with a reference to the deliverance of the Israelites, and how an effigy of a snake lifted up effected their healing. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our Psalm for today is a Psalm of thanksgiving, in which we are reminded of God’s healing and deliverance for all people. Let’s listen for signs of God’s goodness and steadfast love as we read Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

God’s word for God’s people.
Thanks be to God.

At Bible study on Wednesday as we dug into these scriptures, I told the women at the table that their job was to come up with a sermon title. We were about halfway through the morning when Beth said, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

It was perfect!
Those three words sum up these two readings completely.

However, I spent the rest of the week listening to Stevie Wonder and now at least two of you will have that song running through your heads all day – thanks for the earworm, pastor…

Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"

I want to talk about giving thanks today, but first I want to talk about why we give thanks. It comes from those three words: 

We start with the gospel reading, from the section called “the book of signs” in the gospel according to John. Jesus doesn’t do any miracles in this part; John is too busy weaving in layers of meaning for that.

Some of this text is so familiar that we all think we know what it means, and there are plenty of people who are quite sure that they know. It starts with this strange and rather creepy image of a snake on a pole, hearkening back to the wilderness where the Israelites wandered for forty years. They were complaining, as usual, and the story in Numbers says that God sent snakes among them. The snakes were biting people and they were dying. Needless to say, the people were unhappy about that. They asked Moses to pray to God to take the snakes away. So God told Moses to put an image of snake atop a pole and hold it up in front of the people, and they would be healed. God didn’t take the snakes away, but just healed the snakebite. The parallel Jesus is making, of course, is that he too would be lifted up, on the cross, and that those who were sick and dying could lift their eyes to him, and they would be healed. The trouble and conflict and sickness and sorrow would not vanish, but those who fix their eyes on Jesus would find healing.

Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, and a learned man, would have easily made the connection to the Moses story. Nicodemus didn’t catch on as quickly to Jesus’ discourse on salvation. Jesus uses the images of birth, of the spirit, and of darkness and light.

He talks of a new birth of the Spirit, a re-birth in Jesus, into a second life.
He uses the word for Spirit that means wind and breath and Spirit.
He talks of moving from darkness into light – a new awakening in a new dawn.

Nicodemus came to Jesus convinced that he was a sign from God,
and Jesus showed that he is not just A sign, but THE sign.
Nicodemus came to Jesus a full grown man,
and Jesus said he needed a new birth, a rebirth, sealed in God’s love.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, and Jesus invited him into the light
to be delivered from darkness into daylight.

Just like the song says, “signed, sealed, delivered.”

The same thing is happening in this Psalm of thanksgiving, but much of it is in the parts the lectionary verses leave out. In the verses of Psalm 107, we see how God’s signs work in the world, how God seals us in God’s love, and how God delivers humankind. So we’re going to do something that is a little bit unusual for Presbyterians. I want you to take out your Bibles and look up Psalm 107. If there is a kid nearby, help them, or have them help you. The book of Psalms is about the middle of the Bible. If you can’t find it, wait a sec for Wanda to call out the page number… act real casual, like, yeah, I knew that…. I wanted you to see the sort of people that God delivers.

Verse 4 - Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
Verse 6 - God did what? Yes! Delivered them from their distress.
So as verse eight says: Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,

Verse 10 – another group of people – those who sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons… But, verse 14, again, God brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder. So in verse 15, you see what they are called to do! 
They also: thank the Lord for his steadfast love,

Then we see in verse 17 that some were sick through their sinful ways, And THEY cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. So, if you are able, read verse 21 out loud with me: 
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”

Then in verse 23, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;” Fast forward through a terrible storm to verse 28: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress…” But see? in verse 29, “God made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” So verse 30 tells us “Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. So, read verse 31 out loud with me:
“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.”

The lost and hungry,
the oppressed and imprisoned,
the sick and distressed,
and the business people who are rocked by storms-
all of them, delivered from their distress by God.

And what are we to do, friends, we who have been signed, sealed and delivered?
verse 31 again: Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love!

It’s no secret, or shouldn’t be, that gratitude is good for us. One writer gives quite a list. Are you ready? It turns out that when you start and end each day with conscious and mindful gratitude, you get these benefits:
positive emotions, high empathy, better sleep, vastly improved health, fewer aches and pains, a more resilient nervous system, lower blood pressure, less cortisol and stress, better relationship quality, increased longevity and a host of other benefits.

All day long.

It’s all over the internet – psychology, education, medicine, business – everybody knows that being thankful is a good thing. What we know, in addition to that,
is WHO to thank!

We know that the sign of God’s steadfast love is Jesus.
We know that the seal of God’s love is the incarnation,
death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We know that we are delivered through the love of Jesus,
who faced down hatred and violence and injustice with love.

We know that we are signed, sealed and delivered.
So let our days begin and end with prayers of thanks
for signs of love and the seal of love and being delivered by love.
Let us thank the Lord for his steadfast love.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Glorious Things

John 2:13-22; Psalm 19
March 4, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

The event described in our gospel reading appears in all four gospels. The scene is known as “Jesus Cleansing the Temple.” In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, this event takes place right after Jesus enters Jerusalem in the last week of his life. In them, this event is the last straw, prompting the arrest of Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple right after his first sign, the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in John 2:13-22:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves,
"Take these things out of here!
Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."
The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?"
Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple,
and in three days I will raise it up."
The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction
for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?"
But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Today’s Psalm, number 19, was described by CS Lewis as the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.[1] The Psalmist celebrates the beauty of creation as it speaks of God’s glory, and of the beauty of God’s law. I encourage you to read this Psalm throughout this week in its entirety. For today, let’s sing Psalm 19.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me

Anna adored her little son. She was always with her boy, and she had a great influence on him. When her boy was big enough, Anna began to take him for walks in the meadows and fields, teaching him about the world around him. She encouraged his curiosity and his eager questions. She taught him what she knew of nature: the seasons, the plants and animals, and the sky.

Anna was a Pietist, and like many of her time, attended Sunday worship before heading out for a Sunday afternoon walk. In 18th century Prussia, such walks were as much spiritual as physical. So it was that her little boy, when he grew up, wrote these words that echo the 19th Psalm, words that were later etched upon his tombstone:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new
and increasing admiration and awe,
the more often and steadily we reflect upon them:
the starry heavens above ...
and the moral law within ...”

There is hardly a better summary of Psalm 19 than those words penned by Anna’s son, Immanuel Kant in his master work, Critique of Practical Reason.[2] Kant understood that we can know truth through beauty AND reason. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. What a glorious declaration they make.

The sun emerges every morning like a jubilant bridegroom and makes its way across the sky, a silent witness to God’s glory. “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” the Psalmist says. The night speaks in silence of the beauty of God. The glittering stars sing for joy of God’s glory. But “there is no speech…their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

The world witnesses to us of the beauty and glory of God.
The word witnesses to us the purity and joy of God’s laws.
Those words are sweeter than honey, more precious than gold.
The laws and commandments of God are beneficial to humans,
reviving us, making us wise, bringing us joy!

While Kant struggled with the relationship between reason and experience, the poet who gave us Psalm 19 had no such difficulty. Both inform us and delight us, the Psalmist seems to say. Or perhaps, as another poet echoed centuries later,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."[3]

Such a glorious thing – the beauty of God in both nature and the law!
Such elegant and beautiful expressions!
It sounds like just the thing until we remember that we live in a world where money changers are in the temple, and where those whose positions of power and authority can trump up charges against someone whom they fear and resent and have him publicly crucified.

Beauty is God’s truth, and God’s truth is beautiful, but that’s not our daily reality. There may not be actual money changers in our place of worship but we, like Jesus in his time, live in a broken world: where violence pervades our daily lives;
where deceit is the norm and indecency is glossed over;
where commerce and greed have become the golden calves;
where the needy and the stranger are dehumanized;
where the planet is trashed and climate science disregarded;
where love of God and love of neighbor are a distant dream, or a joke.

And yet we are called to lives that bring glory to God. Our shorter catechism, once memorized by every Presbyterian youth, begins by asking “What is the chief end of human beings?” and the answer is that our chief end, our reason for being, is to “glorify God and enjoy God forever.” But we are faltering and finite beings. Our sin is not an act, but a condition – we cannot not sin – we can’t be alive and not break God’s law.

What sort of glory can we give to God when we are so frail,
when that imprint of God’s glory seems so faint upon our world?

Obviously, this is not going to be accomplished simply by us being good.
Obeying the rules has value, but it hardly merits being called “glorious!”

The good news, of course, is contained and revealed in Jesus himself. When those around him asked for a sign, his answer demonstrated a new reality. They had always believed that the temple was a place, a building. It was the location where God’s people met God. Now, Jesus reveals that God’s people can meet God in human form – in him.

Now in Jesus, God defeats death and despair.
Jesus comes to teach us how to live in ways that bring glory to God –
not through our perfect behavior,
but through our delight in one another,
in this beautiful world,
in learning, and loving.

Jesus comes to fulfill God’s law
by lifting up the great commandment,
on which hang all the law and prophets.
Jesus comes in human form, offering us his very self
and making us the body of Christ.
He calls us in and sends us out –
not to be perfect people, but to be loving people,
who speak truth to power,
who love God’s law,
and who extend God’s grace to all people,
in the form of hospitality, welcome, ministry, and mercy.
Our very lives are in him, as his body.

What a prayer to offer to God – that we might glorify God
through obedience to that greatest commandment:
to love God with our whole selves, and to love others fully.

We might then come near to glorifying God
and enjoying God forever!

Our prayers, whether with words or in silence,
express our ever new and increasing admiration and awe,
the more often and steadily we reflect upon
the starry heavens above ... and the moral law within.

So we can pray along with the Psalmist, delighting in God’s law:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

[1] Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1958) 63

[2] Schönfeld, Martin and Thompson, Michael, "Kant's Philosophical Development", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = Accessed 3/3/18

[3] Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” accessed 3/3/18 at

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Secret Medicine

Mark 8:31-38, Psalm 22:23-31
February 25, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue in our gospel readings from the Gospel of Mark, another brisk rendering of a crucial exchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter, you’ll remember is the name that Jesus gave to Simon, Son of Zebedee, and the literal translation of that name from the Greek is “rock.” Such a name can be taken in more than one way. Perhaps Peter is indeed “solid as a rock” but there are times when he seems so thick headed that the name could be taken as a description of his intellect – just rock headed. I think that second meaning is what applies in this reading. Jesus’ frustration with Peter in this exchange is evident. Jesus is telling his followers what is going to happen to him, and why it matters. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our Psalm for today is the second half of Psalm 22. The first part of this Psalm is used on Good Friday, and begins with the familiar words that Jesus echoed on the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

However, although the Psalm begins in a cry of desolation, it ends in a song of praise.  Let’s join in that song as we pray Psalm 22 in word and song.

Psalm 22: 23-24

You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him,
all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

What Wondrous Love Is This, verse 1

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

What Wondrous Love Is This, verse 3 (To God and to the Lamb….)


To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

What Wondrous Love Is This, verse 4

God’s word for God’s people.
Thanks be to God.

Nobody likes to hear bad news.
Nobody wants to hear sad stories, painful stories, hard stories.

Some days it seems that if we want to feel happy, we are better off not knowing what’s on the news. Some weeks, ignorance really is bliss. Sometimes I think that we would all have happier lives if we just didn’t turn on the news any more.

In addition to all of the other bad news this week, Billy Graham died. He was ninety-nine years old, so it wasn’t a shock, but it is sad to see the passing of such a giant of the Christian world. I’m not a big fan of TV talk shows – don’t even have cable, but I saw on Youtube that Kathie Lee Gifford had given a heartfelt eulogy to Billy Graham. I’m not too familiar with Kathie Lee Gifford beyond knowing she’s a TV personality, but I had a lot of respect for Billy Graham.

His genius as an evangelist was unmatched, and he never fell prey to the immorality of many of his peers. He seemed pretty decent, and he was even able to apologize when he realized he had wronged someone. He wasn’t perfect, of course. and there were certainly some things he said that were regrettable, but it felt like the world lost a moral weight when he died.

Forgive me if I am repeating something you already heard – but Kathie Gifford said something that I thought was worth repeating. She said “I have a cure for the malignancy of the soul….and it’s Jesus.”

That’s an oversimplification, in many ways. But I don’t think she meant to say that you just say yes to Jesus and then all your troubles go away. I think she was saying that Jesus is a healer of souls.

As we know, following Jesus can be challenging. Jesus said it himself, in our Gospel reading: “if you want to be my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” The path Jesus had just described to Peter was not exactly a magical run through a dreamy meadow with flowers and unicorns and fluffy clouds. The journey to Jerusalem was a pathway to rejection, suffering, and death. It was a journey that would end with Jesus on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Nobody likes to hear bad news.

So you can easily understand why Peter didn’t want Jesus talking like that. He tried to get Jesus to stop, maybe hoping that if he stopped saying it, the future would be different – Jesus would do something else. Peter resisted following in the footsteps of Jesus. He believed that somehow he was the master of his fate, that his personal sovereignty outweighed the plans of God.

But the Psalmist – the psalmist is not so arrogant.
The Psalmist seems to say,
“When misery melts your bones, and pain persists beyond description, you just let go.”
You give up on your ideas, and your plans, and your ego.
You come to a place of feeling absolutely dependent upon God.

And in that place, where you have released all your attachments, where you have thrown yourself entirely on the mercy of God, you can pray like this Psalmist. You can pray in praise of the power and glory of God no longer contemplating your own loss and difficulty, but simply standing in awe of the God who tends to the afflicted, who fills the empty bellies of the poor, who saves all the people of all the nations. Not only does God’s power redeem the living, it also proclaims deliverance to those who have died, and those who have yet to be born!

So the Psalmist is not thankful for what God has done, not giving thanks for a state of misery. They are expressing praise and wonder at who God IS! This kind of praise of God emerges not from an idle wish, or a passive kind of lukewarm belief. Praise this robust, this heartfelt, can only come up from the depths of the heart that has been broken.

There was a saying being passed around last week that implied that school shootings happen because God isn’t present in schools. I understand the sentiment in that, but we believe that there is no place we can be that God is not present. And I want to say to you that where there is violence, God is present.

Where there is suffering, God is present.
Where there is death and heartbreak, God is present.
And God’s heart breaks right along with ours.

Nobody likes bad news.

But in the midst of it, in the middle of Lent, when on some days it all seems like bad news, we have a remedy. We have healing for our souls.

Back in the 13th century, the Persian poet Rumi wrote
“When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean.
There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend
is moving away from you
or coming back toward you.”

Secret medicine.

It’s the hope we have in Jesus –
hope that doesn’t make much sense to those who would divide us,
hope that doesn’t make much sense to those who tell us we are in charge.

That kind of hope is what lets us praise God 
even in the midst of winter,
even on a day filled with bad news,
even in times of suffering,
even when we feel hopeless.

Nobody likes bad news, but we are a people of hope.

That hope enables us to pray a prayer of praise even on days when we feel overwhelmed by the swirl of conflict and anger and violence around us.
That hope enables us to make our lives a prayer of praise when we are downcast.
That hope enables us to continue standing with the downtrodden, and lifting up the downhearted.
That hope helps us lift our eyes from the path and turn our attention away from ourselves. That hope shows us how to “be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that, and he more than anyone knew what it was to hope in the midst of despair.

When we are aware only of Christ, and following him, keeping our eyes fixed on him,
hope can rise and live in us because Christ dwells in us.
Then we can praise God, our sovereign.

That’s the secret medicine, the healing for a malignant soul.
This “hope does not depend on us, but it cannot do without us.”[1]

God’s strength enables us to suffer, knowing that God suffers with us.
God’s grace teaches us how to listen and love in a world that is shouting and hating.
God’s hope enables us to overcome our self-centeredness,  and our arrogant belief that we are in charge of the world.

Hope in God means that God is sovereign, and not the individual
not you, not me, not anyone who seems to have power in the world-
God alone is sovereign.

The good news is that this “secret medicine” is available to each of us,
to heal us so that we can face whatever news comes to us.

This secret medicine of hope
is the conviction that God’s love
is stronger than any human hatred,
and that God’s mercy is greater than any power of evil,
and that God’s presence is with us in every moment.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love.
Offer up your prayers of praise for who he is.
Take up your cross and set out to
follow that friend along the path where he leads.
That friend is Jesus,
and the hope he gives is our secret medicine.


[1] Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paths of Steadfast Love

Mark 1:9-15, Psalm 25:1-10
February 18, 2018, First Sunday in Lent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our gospel reading today is from Mark’s gospel. Typical of this gospel, the action is brisk. In the first eight verses of the first chapter, we’ve seen John the Baptist proclaiming that the promised one is coming. Now we see Jesus in action as he begins his ministry. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 1:9-15.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

It has been said that "to sing is to pray twice." In keeping with our theme of praying the Psalms this Lent, we will be singing the Psalm each week. Our reading is from Psalm 25:1-10

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

"To You, O Lord"

The word of God for the people of God. 
Thanks be to God.

Weeks ago, when I was still doing some thinking about Lent, Nan and I decided to order the beautiful artwork on the Psalms that you see on the bulletin cover. It came as part of a set, and we asked Emma to color them for us. As I looked over that packet of the Psalms in the Lectionary for Lent, it seemed that praying the Psalms would be a good focus for us this year. So we planned worship with a theme of praying the Psalms.

When I wrote the devotions for the newsletter, I tried to think of a brief phrase or sentence as the focus of each Psalm. I summed up today’s Psalm, number 25, as “the prayer of a student.” Little did I know that we would be coming to worship this week
praying for students,
praying with students,
praying for schools and teachers and staff and parents,
as we grieve yet another school shooting.

This may not be the sermon you expected to hear today.
This was not the sermon I thought I was going to preach.

For the first Sunday in Lent, I thought I was going to address the importance of prayers that lead us to give our very lives over to God, prayers that lift our souls up to God and let the Holy Spirit speak to us and teach us through all the hills and valleys of our journey. I was going to say something that led to this conclusion:

“Just as Jesus was pushed out into the wilderness,
still wet from his baptism
and with the blessing of God ringing in his ears,
so as we begin these 40 days of Lent,
we can trust our souls to the God who calls us beloved
who teaches us, and leads us, if we will listen and learn.”

Then I was going to say along with the Psalmist, “God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees.”

But it rings hollow, doesn’t it, in the stark reality of this week?

On Ash Wednesday, we remembered that we are finite. We remembered that all of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave, we sing Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! On February 14, this past Wednesday, people gave each other valentines, flowers and candy, and the barbershoppers sang their singing valentines. I joked that while other people were celebrating Valentine’s Day, I had to work and spend the day reminding people of their mortality.

On Wednesday, seventeen people died in another school shooting.
When I wrote “prayer of a student” as a summary of this Psalm, I imagined talking about the way in which we pray for God’s guidance, and then take time to listen. So our prayer would echo the Psalmist:

“Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

And then we would fall silent, waiting for God,
entrusting our lives to God, listening for God to teach us.

Now I think of the prayer of a student
as being something more like this tweet:

So this is not the sermon I planned to preach.

Once again, we are sending thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of inexplicable gun violence. Once again, a rage filled white American man has used a semi-automatic weapon to gun down innocent people. Once again, people are asking for some kind of legislative action. Once again, responsible, law-abiding gun owners are saying that there is no gun control legislation that is acceptable to them and nothing we can do to prevent such actions, unless it involves more guns.

Thoughts and prayers have become a bitter and meaningless meme to many people in these times, as so many scoff at the expression as an excuse for inaction. When families are wailing in grief, and children are terrified, and teachers are literally giving their lives for their students, thoughts and prayers alone may seem hollow, useless.

But that is not true for us, for those of us who follow Jesus.
Prayer for us is neither hollow nor useless, but necessary, imperative.
We naturally turn to prayer when we are grieving.
But we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
We naturally turn to prayer in times of trouble.
But we do not pray as those who have no hope!

We pray because we believe.
We pray because we need to talk with God.
We pray because we need to listen to God.
And we pray before we set out to act.
Those prayers are not useless.
For years most of us have known how prayer matters to us, how it changes us for the better. We know that our prayers change our hearts. But did you know that praying changes your brain? A researcher named Sara Lazar studied people who meditate – pray – and did MRIs to see how it affected their brains. It turns out that a half hour each day of prayer – meditating - changes and thickens the areas of the brain involved in focus, learning, memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion. Prayer and focused thinking such as meditation shrink the area of the brain involved in anxiety, fear, and stress. This is true whether you are a praying believer or a meditating unbeliever!

So regular prayer can lead to more empathy, less fear, and an increased ability to stay focused in difficult situations. When we are trembling in fear, or when we are confused, the regular practice of daily prayer can lead us in the way of truth, and teach us the path that we should follow.

One Christian writer, reflecting on thoughts and prayers, said,
“Since prayer aids in clear, calm, and empathetic thinking,
if we are going to respond well to complicated issues such as gun control,
prayer may be more helpful in leading us toward better policy solutions
than would an urgent, fretful, ill-considered response.”[2]

On Wednesday, we stepped out of our normal routines.
We stood silently while ashes were smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and we heard the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Wednesday, while declarations of love were shared, and flowers delivered and songs sung and sweethearts enjoyed a night out, the families of seventeen people took in the horror of their loss, and hundreds more trembled in relief that their children were alive.

On Wednesday, we began the forty-day journey of Lent, a time of preparation and prayer. 
For what do we pray, and for what do we prepare?

We prepare for action, to live as people of hope,
and to share that hope in the way we speak and think.
We prepare to offer our lives to God so that we can do God’s will.
We pray for wisdom, to be led in the way of righteousness,
so that we may use that wisdom in making good decisions,
and in asking our elected officials to act wisely.

We pray for God’s guidance, to lead us in the paths of steadfast love
so that we may love even those with whom we disagree.
We pray to find our center, so that we can be ready to act.

So Lent begins, and we begin with prayer.
We pray with energy, and with hope,
with empathy and compassion, and with open hearts.

Turns out that my original conclusion works after all.
“Just as Jesus was pushed out into the wilderness, still wet from his baptism and with the blessing of God ringing in his ears, so as we begin these 40 days of Lent, we can trust our souls to the God who calls us beloved who teaches us, and leads us, if we will listen and learn.”

“God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep God’s covenant and God’s decrees.”

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
Our prayers will show us the way to walk – in the paths of steadfast love.