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! 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

People of the Way

Luke 24:13-35
April 30, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

The Easter season continues with another post-resurrection story. This story comes from Luke’s gospel, and was probably written around the year 80, for the communities of faith that had formed around the stories of Jesus, the risen Lord. They are house churches, gatherings that meet on the first day of the week, to eat a meal together, to sing and pray and read the scriptures. Some are well-off, most are not; they are Jews and Gentiles, men and women. They did not see the risen Lord face to face, but Luke’s gospel, and this beautifully written story in particular, shows them – and us-- how they can encounter Jesus. Let’s listen for the good news of the gospel in Luke 24:13-35:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"
They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?"
He asked them, "What things?"

They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him."

Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying,

"Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over."
So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.
They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!"
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

It’s such a simple, elegant story – fewer than 500 words.
A straightforward tale of two nobodies on the road to nowhere.
Two people, one unnamed, walking along the way,
leaving Jerusalem on the first day of the week,
three days after Jesus was crucified.

They knew who Jesus was; he was the source of their hope.
But their hope had died when he died.
What was there to do but leave Jerusalem and go to Emmaus?

Their voices were low as they talked, muted by grief.
As they walked along the road,
they were joined on the way by a third traveler, a stranger.
“What are you discussing?” he wanted to know.
What’s the subject of such intense conversation?
They stood still, looking sad.

You can almost feel the heartbreak in that silence.
You know what it’s like, that moment when your grief
is interrupted by a question – what is it? what’s wrong?
They must have been surprised – that’s how they sound –
“Are you the only one who doesn’t know?”

So they told the stranger what had happened, what had caused their sorrow.
We had hoped, they said…we had hoped.

“How foolish you are…how slow of heart!” And then, as they walked along the way, the three of them, Jesus opened the word to them, interpreting the scriptures.
Then Jesus was going on, but they prevailed on him to stay.
"Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over."
So he went in to stay with them.

You know the rest of the story, don’t you?

How when he was at the table with them,
he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;
and he vanished from their sight. 

But they had seen him – they had seen him! 
The broken hearted, the slow of heart, 
the ones who could not see him, 
their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. 
Of course they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

It’s such a simple, elegant story – fewer than 500 words.
A straightforward tale of two nobodies on the road to nowhere.
Two people, one Cleopas, the other – who knows?—
walking along the way on the first day of the week.

To have heard this story for the first time – back in the first century –
what an experience that must have been!

There must have been some in the community who actually had seen him –
who had met Jesus, and talked to him, heard him preach.
Maybe there was someone who had been healed by him, blessed by him.
Perhaps there was someone there whose mother had carried them to Jesus,
who’d been taken in the savior’s arms, and held on his lap.
So they gathered with the others, on the first day of the week,
like Cleopas and his companion,
to share in the breaking of the bread, the prayers, and scripture.
They gathered with the expectation of meeting the risen Lord.

They were called “the People of the Way,” –
the way of Jesus, the crucified one, who rose from the dead.
It’s what we were, before we began to be called Christians –
people of the way – people who have hope.
See, that’s how it happens, when people meet Jesus on the road.

You know the story.

They had hoped, but they had not seen him,
so they walked along the road, their steps heavy with sadness.
They had hoped – they had hoped for things to be different –
for the promotion that was promised,
for the marriage to work,
for the addiction to be conquered,
for the diagnosis to be wrong,
for the prognosis to be better,
for the promise to be kept,
for the love to be returned.

They were broken hearted, and they stopped, looking sad,
when he came alongside them and asked them what was on their minds.

They were searching, fleeing that city of empire and death,
trying to go back home again,
thinking they’d be safe if they could just get away,
thinking things might make sense if they could only have some distance.
But home would never be the same,
and only Jesus could make sense of things for them.

It was the first day of the week,
and they were together, and they asked the stranger to stay,
to eat with them, and the scriptures were read and interpreted,
and then the table was set, and the bread was there,
and he took it and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them
and their eyes were opened,
and their hearts were broken open.

In their small act of hospitality, they opened the door to grace.
In their willingness to welcome the stranger, they met the Risen Lord.
In the simple gift of bread, they received the hope of new life.
And in the moment of recognition, they knew – they knew –
that they had to hurry back to the city –
to tell the others,
to share the good news:
our eyes have been opened!

It’s such a simple, elegant story – fewer than 500 words.
A straightforward tale of two nobodies on the road to nowhere.
Two people, one Cleopas, the other – maybe you?
Because now you know the way.

It’s a door we open by sharing in the prayers and the fellowship.
It’s a recognition that comes in the breaking of the bread.
We encounter the Risen Lord, and walk in his way.
It’s a way we make by walking,
walking together.
Not away from the trouble, away from the mess,
but into city, back to the struggle, back to the community.
All along that way our eyes are opened,
and when our eyes are opened we realize
that our work has new meaning,
that Jesus is present even in our pain,
that our relationships can be transformed,
that healing involves something more than a cure,
that God’s promises are certain,
and God’s love never fails.
We are people of the way – following in the way of Christ,
a bunch of nobodies on the way to nowhere.
It looks like a dusty road away from the city,
but it turns out that it takes you right back
to the heart of everything.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Blessing of Doubt

John 20:19-31
April 23, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As the Easter season continues, the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances continue. These stories have been told so many times that many of them can be referred to by a single word or phrase to identify them. This story, from John’s gospel, has come to be known as the story of “Doubting Thomas.”

Apparently, Thomas got stuck with that label sometime back in the 1600s and he hasn’t really escaped it yet. It’s a shame that he got that nickname, because it is really very unfair. If we can attune our hearts to listen, we can hear a powerful message of faith and trust in this story of Thomas.

Let’s listen for God’s good news for 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." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 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. 25 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.

Yesterday, all across our country, people marched for science.
Next week, in Washington DC, people will march for the climate.
If Thomas the Apostle were alive today, I think he would be marching with them. Maybe most of the disciples who followed Jesus would be there, too. Probably not Peter – he was the denier in the group! (Just kidding.)

If you think about science as a method, a form of learning, then questions and doubt are essential to that enterprise. After all, how does the scientific method work?

(Kids, listen for a minute – if you haven’t had this in school yet, you will, and if you’ve already had it, it is good review.) The scientific method is a five (well, six) step process.
1. First, make an observation. That means noticing something that seems interesting, or intriguing. Perhaps you notice that every Spring, the tulips bloom at different times.
2. Second, ask a question. If you see something that causes you to wonder, what questions arise for you about that observation? Why don’t the tulips bloom in the same week of the year each year? Could it be the temperature? Of the soil, or the air? Or some other factor?
3. Third, form a hypothesis, or testable explanation. Once you have a question in mind, state that question in a way that you can research to find an answer. What soil temperature is needed for the majority of tulips to bloom?
4. Step four, make a prediction based on the hypothesis. What do you think the answer or answers to your question might be? The average tulip blooms when the soil temperature reaches x degrees.
5. Fifth, you test the prediction. This is the actual scientific investigation – observe the tulip bulbs, maybe in the lab and the garden. Note the soil temperature at the same time or times each day. Notice when the tulips bloom. Record your results.
6. And there is a sixth step: iteration – repeat the steps! But use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

If we did this with tulips blooming in the spring, we’d learn that there is a genetic factor called Apetala 1 that functions like a switch, to make the flowers bloom. And we’d learn that the progression of warmer winters has changed how and when the flowers bloom, altering their patterns and the possibility of pollination, because the bees are flying before the flowers have bloomed.[1]

Then we would see a new pattern, and there would be new questions. One Orthodox priest describes the process like this:
“When scientists gather facts, they are at first uncoordinated.
Then the scientist gathers them together, and some kind of general picture emerges.
It seems integral. At this point, if [she or] he is a true scientist, they will pose a question to themselves: where are the cracks? I will search for a fact that will dismantle the integrity of my conception, since my conception is limited.”

This is the example set by Thomas. He has collected the facts before him, and is looking carefully at them. But his collection of facts, the whole collection, is not adequate. The whole is greater than the sum of all Thomas’s facts: it is deeper and broader and fuller than anyone can imagine.

Thomas only gets a mention in the other gospels, when Jesus calls him. But in John’s gospel, Thomas appears several times in crucial moments. His first starring role is in the 11th chapter of John, when Jesus gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is ill. But he doesn’t hurry back to Bethany where Lazarus lives. Even though he loves Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus delays his return for two more days. By then, Lazarus has died. Here’s what the gospel tells us:

“Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

And in one of those typical Johannine dialogues, Jesus answers in poetry:
“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

The disciples don’t get it, of course, but then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.
For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Jesus is making the journey back to Bethany, to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus is returning to Bethany, where he is in danger, so that the disciples will believe.
The rest of the disciples are worried – they tried to stone you, Lord. 
(And they might do it – and they might stone us too!)
But Thomas doesn’t waver, doesn’t protest. 
He simply said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 
That’s Thomas.

The second place we see Thomas prior to this story is in John 14, the beginning of what is known as the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. You’ve heard this scripture many times if you have been to funerals.

Jesus said to the disciples: “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?”

Do you see the pattern here? Thomas is not afraid to follow, AND he is not afraid to ask questions. Thomas, like a scientist of faith, collects the truths, arranges them into some kind of pattern, then asks questions about what he is seeing. When he does this, a new picture emerges, one he hadn’t seen before. It is deeper, broader, fuller, and more mysterious.

The same is true with each of us: we begin with our experience, and, imperfect though it may be, it is real for us. Then we begin to wonder – is my concept of God the truth?
Is this a reality, or just something somebody made up?

Our questions like that are a gift, a blessing, because they show us that we’ve outgrown our first understanding, and they show us that our knowledge is imperfect, that we need to learn and experience more, ask more questions. I’m very fond of the quote from St. Augustine of Hippo on this subject: “So what are we to say, brothers, about God? For if you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn’t God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God.” So as soon as we think we have the matter settled, we may trust that we are mistaken! 

That, too, is the blessing of doubt! But this questioning, this doubt that leads to investigation which only leads to more questions, this is not a methodology to dodge the demands that Jesus places on us! Kierkegaard has the answer for that one!

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? 
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?
Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.
Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”[2]

Jesus appears to the disciples, on the day of his resurrection. He comes into a locked room where they are hiding, and shows them his wounds, and gives them his peace, the peace he had promised them in his farewell discourse. He had died, and now he is back, alive, on the third day, just as he had told them.

Why wasn’t Thomas there?
Perhaps he was the only one with the courage to leave their hiding place. In any case, when Thomas returned, and Jesus returned, Thomas had questions, just as Peter and the other disciple had questioned Mary Magdalene a week earlier at the empty tomb. Thomas wanted to see, to experience for himself what they told him. 
Could it be true?
Could he really believe it?

Jesus returned, and stood in front of Thomas – “Touch my wounds,” he offered. But there is no indication that Thomas did so. He simply breathed the powerful affirmation of faith that comes from the intersection of faith and doubt, question and answer: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answers: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Then, as if the fourth wall is broken, the writer of John’s gospel turns to us, the narrator breaking into the narrative:

“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.”

Here is the choice:
We can close our hearts and minds to any investigations or discussions, insisting that no doubts are allowed, that we will not entertain any questions, that we are certain of our absolute understanding of the truth. And if we do we foreclose on the possibility of greater faith; we concede that our belief is so tenuous that the least little jostling will knock it down, like a badly built brick wall.

Or we can wonder, and look around the world, and ask our questions. If we do we will find that our faith is flexible, and strong, like a trampoline that will lift us up into higher and more joyful places, and we won’t be afraid to jump, or to ask our questions.

Here is the blessing – if we are willing to receive it. We find it at the intersection of seeing and believing, the crossroads of questions and answers, the meeting point of doubt and faith. We will return to this crossroad many times in our lives, if we are attentive and willing. Each time, we may experience something new, something deeper, higher, broader, than we have known before.

We will ask questions of that new experience, perhaps forming a new hypothesis which will lead us deeper into faith, perhaps finding a new pattern we had not yet seen.

Then we can join our voices, with all our doubts and questions, along the words of 1 Peter 1: 8-9:
“Although you have not seen him,
you love him; and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."



Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seeing What Is Not There

John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

In Sunday School last week, I cued up the video about Holy Week and Easter for the children to watch. One of the little boys said, “Every Easter, it’s the same story!”

Yep, he is right. Each of the four gospels gives an account of the empty tomb. In each of them, the particular theological emphasis of the gospel is demonstrated in how that first Easter morning is described. All four agree that it was the first day of the week. Matthew includes an earthquake, and guards fainting in fear. In Mark’s gospel, the women encounter an angel sitting in the open tomb. In Luke’s account, the women also encounter an angel who says, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

But in John’s gospel, the burial place is in a garden. It is early morning, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone. And only in John’s gospel does Jesus himself appear. Let’s listen for God’s good news for us this Easter morning in John 20:1-18:

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. 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.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 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.

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.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
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.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
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.’”

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.

As we think about Mary Magdalene, I think it is important to start out by saying that she was not a prostitute. She was unfairly described so by mistake a few hundred years ago. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. She loved him, and followed him, and was probably a patron who supported his ministry.

Mary Magdalene didn’t go to the tomb to see Jesus. She was not expecting to see Jesus.
She was perhaps thinking she would see his dead body, his pierced hands and feet, his bruised forehead, the flayed flesh of his back, where he had been whipped. She was perhaps thinking that she would find him there, wrapped in the grave cloths stained with blood, and she would lovingly tend to him.

Perhaps she was expecting to see that his body had been carried away, taken from this garden, from within this borrowed tomb. But she knew that he was dead, because she had been standing there, at the foot of the cross, with his mother, when he breathed his last.“It is finished,” he’d said. And then he had died.

Perhaps she only came to sit near the tomb, to weep, to sit in silence in the early morning in the garden, to pray, to remember. But she was not expecting to see Jesus himself.

Have you ever had that happen? -- not seeing what is right in front of you?
You know, you’re looking at something, but you can’t see it?

Some women say it is particularly common in children and husbands.
“Where’s the pickle relish?”
“In the fridge on the middle shelf, left side, right by the lunchmeat.”
“It’s not here.”
Exasperated sigh, as the mom/wife comes into the kitchen, where you are bent over peering at the middle shelf. She reaches right in front of you, picks up the pickle relish, gives you that look, and hands it to you.
“I didn’t see it!” you say, to her retreating back.

It happens to all of us – we don’t see what’s right in front of us. Interestingly, we also see what is not there. When we look at a picture or word that is incomplete, our brains fill in the blanks with the lines or colors.[1] Sometimes, a simple verbal cue can help us see what is there, even when the hint comes after the fleeting image!

I think that the gospel of John’s account of the empty tomb may be my favorite of the four. Each one has its interesting details, and its own theological slant. But this one, with Mary of Magdala alone at the tomb, there in the early morning twilight, just pierces my heart.

I think of her walking through the grass, wet with dew, in the gray dawn, heartbroken, coming to the tomb, alone. There’s something kind of holy about the early morning. The air seems crisp and clear; the birdsong seems brighter; there’s a stillness that makes you look around, and listen. I’m not an early riser, myself, so I’m rarely outside before dawn, unless it is for our monthly Men’s Prayer Breakfast. This past week at the Men’s Prayer Breakfast, the conversation turned to cemeteries.

We read this scripture from John’s gospels, and I was struck once again by this visit Mary made to the tomb. There are lots of very small cemeteries around here. Many of those cemeteries are overgrown and neglected, with grave stones toppled, weeds and grass waist high, fences down. But just as many are lovingly tended and cared for – like gardens - the gravestones upright, the grass cut, flowers along the fence row. W en you go to a cemetery, no matter what time of day it is, you have an expectation of what you will see there.

Most of us, when we are in a cemetery, know what we’re looking for. We look for familiar names on gravestones, or a particular grave. Lots of people are looking for ancestors, doing genealogical research.

I wonder what we are looking for when we come to Jesus’ tomb this bright Easter morning. I wonder what we do not see, even though it is right in front of us. I wonder what we see that is not there, because we have been primed, given some kind of hint or cue of what we ought to see, or hope to see.

Mary came to the garden in grief, expecting to see a dead body.
So when Jesus stood in front of her, she saw a gardener.
But it was not a gardener. It was Jesus. “Who are you looking for?” he asked her.
Jesus asked the same question in the first chapter of John’s gospel, when the first two disciples saw him. “What are you looking for?” he wanted to know.
"Rabbi!” they answered, and they followed him.
“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked Mary Magdalene.
Mary still saw the gardener.
Pleading with him, she begged him to tell her where the body was.
And then he spoke her name.
Jesus spoke her name and she answered, “Rabbi!”
Right in front of Mary Magdalene stood her risen Lord.
She was alone with him, there in the garden.
He walked with her, and he talked with her.
And then he told her to go, to go and tell the others.

Who are you looking for?

Every one of us comes to an Easter moment, when we have the opportunity to see what is not there: we may be expecting to find loss, sorrow, death and decay, but the body of Jesus is not in the tomb. Perhaps we expect to see judgment, or punishment. We might be expecting to see the long list of good deeds we must do. Maybe the realization comes slowly, rising like the bright morning sun. Maybe it comes in prayer, after long hours of struggle.

And then - we see what is not there:
What is not there is shame.
What is not there is isolation.
What is not there is manipulation, greed, empire.
What is not there is death.

Every one of us comes to an Easter moment, when can finally see what is right in front of us. We see, like Mary, that Jesus has been right there, right in front of us, all along – offering life and hope and joy. We stoop over and see the grave cloths, where he left them. The morning sun shines brightly in our eyes.

And then - we see what is right there:
What is there is grace.
What is there is community.
What is there is generosity, hope, patience.
What is there is life.

When that stone rolls from our hearts and the light of Easter dawns, we can, at last, see what is not there, and what is there. The “the old questions lie folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body.”[2]

Our Risen Lord is right in front of us – in this world,
at this table, in the bread that gives us life,
in the cup of mercy poured out,
in the love that never dies, but is always there
– for you, for me, for the world.

[1]“The Brain Doesn’t Like Visual Gaps and Fills Them In.” Vanderbilt University.

[2] From the poem, “The Answer” by R. S. Thomas, Anglican priest and poet.