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.




Sunday, February 11, 2018

Hallelujah, Anyway!

2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This first reading is from one of the books of history of the Hebrew Scriptures,
in which we see the stories of the Hebrew people as they develop
from a wandering tribal people to a nation unified by a covenant with God.

If you often mix up Elijah and Elisha, this text may make that worse,
since both of them are in it, and both of them are prophets of Israel.
I keep them straight by remembering that they appear alphabetically-
Elijah is the prophet that precedes Elisha.

Elijah is the mentor, leader, the one who called Elisha.
When Elijah him to be a prophet, Elisha was plowing in a field.
Elijah threw his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders, indicating his call,
and Elisha responded with intense commitment:
killing his ox and sacrificing it on the fire that he made with his plow. 
Let’s listen for the moment of glory when Elijah departs from Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1-12

1 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind,
Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.
2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.”
But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
So they went down to Bethel.
3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?"
And he said, "Yes, I know; keep silent."
4 Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho."
But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you."
So they came to Jericho.
5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha,
and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?"
And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent."
6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan."
But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." 
So the two of them went on.
7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them,
as they both were standing by the Jordan.
8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up,
and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other,
until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha,
Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”
Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”
10 He responded, "You have asked a hard thing;
yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you;
if not, it will not."
11 As they continued walking and talking,
a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them,
and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.
12 Elisha kept watching and crying out,
“Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”
But when he could no longer see him,
he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Our gospel reading today is the story known as the transfiguration. This story occurs at the exact midpoint of Mark’s gospel, halfway between Galilee and Jerusalem. It takes place on a mountaintop, where we catch a glimpse of God’s glory. Like a flashbulb, it captures an image of past, present and future all in one ecstatic moment that ends too soon. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 9:2-9
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John,
and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no one on earth could bleach them.
4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice,
"This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

is some of the most complex and dangerous magic
you will learn at Hogwarts.
Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back.
You have been warned."

If only we could have Professor Minerva McGonagall here with us,
to talk about this text, instead of me.
She taught Transfiguration, you know, at Hogwarts,
and more than once she saved Harry Potter from difficulty.
If only we could learn to conjure up a transfiguration!
If only we had magic wands to part the waters of the Jordan,
to call down a whirlwind and a chariot of fire!
If only we knew a magic spell
to turn our lives into something shimmering and beautiful
when we are halfway to Jerusalem.
But you can’t mess around with something
as complex and dangerous as transfiguration.
You can’t contain it, either, or save it for when you need it.
At least Elisha had some notion of what to expect,
even though he was in despair at the thought of saying farewell
to his beloved mentor, friend, and spiritual father.
In fact, it sounds like he was annoyingly forewarned –
the prophets of Bethel and Jericho wanted to make sure he knew:
"Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?"
"Yes, I know,” he said. “Enough about it.”

Even then, there was this stupendous moment of glory,
before there was the grief of recognition that he was now alone.
Elisha went on to be a great prophet, with the spirit of Elijah.
He boldly confronted wicked and treacherous kings,
alleviated the suffering of the poor,
called upon the powers of God to clean poisonous waters
and to cleanse General Naaman of his skin disease in the River Jordan.
He had truly received Elijah’s spirit, the spirit of a prophet.

But Peter and his friends couldn’t seem to grasp what was in store.
They had heard what Jesus was saying;
he told them where he was going; he said what was going to happen.
They just can’t wrap their heads around the idea
that Jesus’ glory is going to be demonstrated to them on another mountain,
in the vulnerability and suffering of the cross.

We’re midway through Mark’s gospel,
halfway between the baptism in the river Jordan
and the final breaths Jesus takes at Calvary.

The disciples have these expectations and hopes about Jesus,
and those hopes have made them unable to hear what he is telling them.
They haven’t yet understood that as they descend from this mountain,
they are now on the way through a long dark valley.
They think that what they have seen is a vision of a glorious future,
and it is, but not the kind of power and glory that they expect.

I don’t blame Peter one little bit for wanting to build some little houses
to shelter that transcendent moment up on that mountain.

The church’s observance of the Transfiguration
was originally a feast day in August.
The Reformers moved it to the Sunday between Epiphany and Lent
so that it would be observed in worship every year.
So here we are, in the in-between,
catching a glimpse of glory up on the mountain.
But we’re not staying here.
We can’t stay here.

We’re going down into the valley of the shadow of death.
Three days from now, on Ash Wednesday, I’ll be looking into your eyes
and rubbing ashes onto your forehead, and saying,
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Every time we come to a funeral, we’re reminded of that:
“All of us go down to the dust…”
And we act like we think that is a distant reality,
like the valley of the shadow of death is something impossibly far off.
We’re a bit like Elisha: “Yeah, I know. Be quiet.”

Most of us have some vague idea of a kind of equation with God,
thinking that if we can just get everything set right
that the future will all be all good from now on.
We’ve worked out a deal with God.
We’ll be good and nice and kind and nothing bad will happen
to us or to any of the people we love.
We’ll keep a clean house and leave good tips
and everyone will know we are good people.

We won’t be betrayed;
our kids won’t get picked on;
our jobs will last until we retire;
the roof of our house won’t fall in.
We’ll do the right thing,
and God will work everything out for us,
and every now and then there will be some razzle dazzle,
like some chariots of fire,
or some shiny moments on mountaintops.

But you know what?
That never was the bargain.

Last week I heard an interview with Kate Bowler
as she described being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at the age of 35:
“I think I was a lot more sure than I realized,” she said.
“Sure of what?” the interviewer asked.
“Well, maybe that I was the architect of my own life,
that I could overcome anything with a little pluck and determination….
“And prayer,” the interviewer added.
She laughed and said “I really thought like - I mean, God, you're great.
And my job is to be good. ...Yeah, we're making a deal, 
and I will be awesome, but you will be awesomer...
like, my life is like a bucket,
and I'm supposed to put all the things in the bucket,
and the whole purpose is to figure out
how to have as many good things co-existing at the same time.
And then when everything falls apart,
you totally have to switch imagination.
Like, maybe instead life is just vine to vine, and you're, like,
grabbing onto something,
and you were just hoping for dear life that it doesn't break.” 

Kate Bowler - Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved

Life is just vine to vine, mountaintop to mountaintop, valley to valley.
Not just our individual lives, but all around us.
There’s crime and misunderstanding, conflict, racism, meanness.
No matter how kind we are to some people,
they are still not going to be nicer to us.
No matter how hard we work, there will still be bad days on the job.
Transfiguration is complex and dangerous.
The promise is not that this shimmering, mystical moment will last forever.
The promise is that the Jesus who came back down the mountain,
who suffered and wept and prayed and was tormented and misunderstood – Jesus is with us!

As we go from vine to vine,
letting go of one thing and reaching out to the next,
Jesus is there with us!

We don’t have a special bargain with God
that exempts us from suffering or sorrow or trouble.
We don’t get a special cloak or a magic wand to ward off problems.
We don’t get carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

We do get a vision of what can be, what will be, after the next mountain.
We begin to understand, as someone once said,
“that suffering and disappointments and melancholy
are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity
but to mature and transfigure us.”[1]

So we can walk down into the valley of the shadow of death
and say, “Hallelujah anyway!”

That’s in the funeral liturgy!
“All of us go down to the dust,
yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
We don’t get a steady diet of happy-happy unicorns and rainbows.
We get the promise of peace that passes understanding.
We get to be transformed by the light of grace
that shines through the darkest night of despair and terror.

We do get a sense of what the power of love can do.
We do get a path to walk that leads to healing and hope.
We do get a kind of clarity, in that light on the mountain top,
and that light shines through the darkness of our most difficult days.

We receive the light of Christ,
like that candle we give at a baptism,
and we hear the voice of God,
speaking to us across the waters of the river Jordan,
calling to us in the blinding blaze of transfiguration,
"This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"
So no matter what comes next,
down in the valley of doubt or despair,
or on our way up to the Garden of Gethsemane,
we have been up on the mountain.
We have seen the true light,
and we can say with assurance and with joy:

Hallelujah anyway!
Hallelujah anyway!

[1] Hermann Hesse, Peter Camenzind, accessed at

Sunday, January 28, 2018

First and Foremost

Mark 1: 21-28; 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
January 28, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Ordinarily, when the scriptures are read in worship, the gospel reading would be the last one read. I guess we usually want to have Jesus to have the last word. But today, we are going to read the gospel first, because this Sunday, we want Jesus’ words to come first, and the words of the Apostle Paul to come second.

So our first reading comes from the first chapter of Mark, in which we see the first miracle Mark records, as Jesus heals a very ill man at the synagogue. Mark is, I think, less interested in the miraculous healing, and more interested in us understanding the identity and authority of Jesus. He places that statement of identity and authority in the mouth of an unclean spirit, right in the middle of this story, Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 1:21-28:

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!"
And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."
At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our second reading is from the letter of Paul to the church at Corinth. That congregation was a house church, a gathering of a diverse group formed around the year 40 – less than a decade after the resurrection! Paul’s letters address issues that have arisen in this congregation, as they learn to be this new creation, this new kind of people which has just begun to be called “Christian.” Let’s listen for God’s word to us in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13:

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge."
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something
does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one."
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. "Food will not bring us close to God."
We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?
So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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

Do you ever notice the sermon title?
It’s something that I put a lot of thought into, frequently the last thing I turn in on the order of worship. Many weeks, I’m getting a text from Amy as she tries to finish the slides: Sermon title?

Usually my sermon titles are meant to give you something to mull over, maybe a phrase or word with more than one meaning. Today, the title is pretty straightforward. “First and foremost” tells you exactly what we’re looking at: who is first, and what is foremost.

For those of you who are newer to this congregation, we have a running joke with the kids that came from the children’s time, that the right answer is always Jesus. There’s an old, old story about that. It seems a new young pastor was giving the children's message. He thought it would be good to have the children guess what he was thinking about, so they would discover the answer for themselves.

He said, “I'm going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is. This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)...
And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)...
And it jumps from branch to branch (pause)
and chatters and flips its tail when it's excited (pause)..."

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand.
"Well...," said the boy, "I’m pretty sure the answer must be Jesus...

but it sure does sound like a squirrel!"

So every now and then, we’ll ask a question, 
and one of the kids – or sometimes an adult! -- 
will shout, “Jesus!”

Do you know who is first?
Yep, Jesus.

The writer of the gospel of Mark would agree, that the answer is Jesus, the firstborn of all creation. Mark’s gospel wants us to meet and recognize Jesus as the Messiah. So what happens first, in the first chapter, after the first introduction, is that we see Jesus making his first visit to the synagogue, and the first miracle he does is to heal this man who is captive to evil.

And in this first scene, the unclean spirit recognizes Jesus right away! “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” All the onlookers recognize immediately that Jesus has authority, authority like they have never seen before.

He is the holy one of God.
This authority that Jesus has is the authority over everything that is wrong or broken in our world: broken relationships, divided churches, arrogance and pride, resentment and hatred. Jesus, the holy one of God, speaks, and even the unclean spirits obey. So, then, Jesus is first, in all things.

We next need to ask what is foremost.

For that, we turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, which was written around the year 50 AD, at least a decade before the gospel of Mark. Even though it was so far away and so long ago, you will recognize this congregation when I describe it.

This congregation in Corinth was an extremely diverse group of people who were constantly in the midst of struggle. It was almost as if every culture war that could be had was happening among the Corinthians.
They had so many differences!

Some of these new Christians were literally one-percenters: wealthy, high status Jewish converts, well-educated and well-off. They were competitive, aggressive, and tough. They liked to win, and they liked winners. They bristled against this idea of being servants to others.

Some of the new believers were out and out pagans, people with no religious background, and not a clue about living a Godly life, or worshiping in a temple or a house church or anywhere. Some were poor laborers who were literally hand to mouth – if they got some food, they ate it. They had gotten used to being excluded and pushed around, and now they were learning to live in community with people who looked just like those who had mistreated them.

So imagine – it shouldn’t be hard – a congregation
that is always fighting about something,
always divided into competing factions,
always having arguments about which sexual behavior is forbidden,
always pitting superior knowledge against simple faith,
always trying to reduce Christianity to a list of intellectual propositions
completely divorced from the daily realities of life and living.

Imagine a community that had lost sight of the importance of love.
Paul loved all of the people in this congregation. He had put great effort into guiding and teaching them how to follow in the way of Christ. It was in this letter to this congregation that he wrote those beautiful words about love – love is patient, love is kind… Love is foremost.

All of them, rich and poor, Jew and Greek, male or female – loved Jesus. But they didn’t seem to know how to love each other. They wanted to demonstrate their superior knowledge.
There’s nothing wrong with knowledge, but without love, knowledge puffs up.
It makes us arrogant, over-confident, and condescending.
So we can talk about love, and three different Greek words for it,
and how important it is…. but we don’t do it.

Love, on the other hand, love builds up.
It makes us kind, humble, and generous.
Love makes knowledge into wisdom.
Love tunes out the snark and hears the anxiety and frustration.
Love overlooks the gruff expression and see the intense emotion.
Love walks toward the mess and pitches in on the project.
Love opens the door so we can open our hearts to welcome the stranger.
Love speaks up for those who have been silenced.

Love takes a diverse, disparate, divergent bunch of people
and teaches them that the right answer is always Jesus.

Love puts Jesus first,
and sees others as Jesus sees us,
so that we can love those for whom Christ died,
not just in knowledge or in words, but in action.

Jesus first, love foremost.
Always the right answers.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Go Fish

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
January 21, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today comes from the Old Testament, a little book, tucked way in the back, among the minor prophets. Even though Jonah is a small book, it may be among the more familiar stories, even to people who aren’t religious. That’s because of the part about Jonah being swallowed by a big fish – familiarly called a whale, though that isn’t the term in the story. It’s also not exactly the point of the story.

Here’s a Cliff’s notes refresher. (Kids, Cliff’s notes were what we use before the internet, when we hadn’t read the book but needed to pretend like we had. They sold them at bookstores, little black and yellow booklets… not that I ever used them….anyway…)  Jonah, son of Amittai, is called by God to carry a message to Nineveh. He’s supposed to go tell that wicked city to repent, or God will smash them. But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. Not at all. So instead he goes to Joppah and catches a boat to Tarshish. That’s the opposite direction from Nineveh.

But there’s a problem.

The God of all creation doesn’t think much of Jonah’s travel plans, so God sends a terrible storm. The sailors are all terrified. They’re praying to every God they can think of, and tossing all the cargo off the ship in an effort to save it, and their lives. Jonah, meanwhile, is snoozing. The captain comes and wakes him, and tells him to get up and pray. Then the sailors and the captain figure out that this Jonah fellow is the source of their problem – it is HIS God that is angry!

So they follow Jonah’s instructions to toss him off the boat, the big fish swallows him, he sits there for three days to think about it, and then the fish vomits Jonah up on dry land,  and he decides to obey God and go to Nineveh. He delivers the message, and that’s where our part of the story begins. Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us in Jonah 3:1-5, 10:

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."
So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk.
And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

God’s word for God’s people.

Our gospel reading today is about another call, this time from Jesus, and it takes place in the first part of Mark’s gospel, right after Jesus is baptized and tempted, and right after Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is arrested by Herod. Let’s listen for Jesus calling disciples, and God’s word to us, in Mark 1:14-20:

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."
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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

Would anyone like to join me in confessing that they have never read Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick? Anyone?

It’s available online now, for free, or I’m sure you can still get Cliff’s notes. I’ve never managed to get all the way through it. Most of us know that like the book of Jonah, the book Moby Dick concerns a whale, but it is not about the whale. Indeed, Melville, in the ninth chapter, which is about as far as I’ve ever gotten, has an amazing sermon on the book of Jonah. And if I thought I could get 100% show of hands that you hadn’t read it or seen the movie, I’d use that sermon!

Melville knew his Bible, and he knew how to preach. At the beginning of the sermon, the preacher climbs up into a pulpit that looks like a boat, and proceeds to introduce the scripture reading this way: “Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God— never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves… isn’t that something?

Those men who followed Jesus, who dropped everything to go with him,
somehow knew that they were obeying God, didn’t they?

What must have gone through their minds?
Do you suppose that, like Jonah, they considered running the other direction?
Think of what they were giving up!

They were walking away from their livelihoods – from the family business.
The sons of Zebedee were at least prosperous enough to have hired hands.
They had their own boat, for goodness sake.

But immediately – so much in Mark’s gospel happens immediately! they dropped what they were doing, and followed Jesus. They followed with unhesitating, unquestioning obedience.

Unhesitating, unquestioning obedience – that’s not a popular concept for us. While in prior generations, that kind of obedience was a virtue, it is nowadays not something that we think highly of. Just consider what that kind of behavior has brought about. Consider a national leader who demands unconditional loyalty and defines that loyalty as obedience, toeing the line, with question. To violate that demand brings swift and harsh punishment. That leader regards anything other than 100% loyalty and obedience as betrayal, insubordination, and grounds for dismissal.

We’ve seen it in the not so distant past – in Germany, in the 1940s. It created an atmosphere of fear and oppression, and of fierce nationalism, and anyone who dared to speak against it was swiftly punished.

We see now, in hindsight, that that kind of obedience is not desirable. In fact, it was so dangerous and destructive that German soldiers now may freely disobey an order “If the order denies human dignity to the armed forces member or the order’s target, it must not be obeyed.”[1]

But here in these texts, we have a theme going –God calls Jonah, and Jonah disobeys, and suffers for it. Then Jonah obeys, and because of God’s mercy, the entire city of Nineveh is saved.

Jesus calls Peter and Andrew and James and John, and they get up and go. Because of God’s mercy in Jesus, the entire world is saved. The disciples will end up suffering for their obedience, but that is another story for another day.

We think obedience is complicated, but truly, it isn’t.
At least not where the living God is concerned.

In our everyday lives, we have to sift and sort and discern some things.
Not everything, of course.
We stop for stop signs; we read the assigned readings;
we pay for our groceries, we follow directions.
To follow God, to follow Jesus, to obey that calling, doesn’t require us to sift and sort.
It is nowhere near that complicated.
But even though it is simple, it is sometimes not easy.

To simply go where we are directed and do what we are told can be challenging, because we are directed to go out of our comfort zones, and to do something that isn’t at all easy –
to love the world the way God loves the world.

It is insufficient to simply believe as if your life depends on it,
when you do not live as if someone else’s belief depends on it.

The 19th century writer who penned our prelude pondering said it well:
“It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in [Jesus],
if you do not anything he tells you.” 

It’s all about obedience.
If we are called to go fish, we go fish,
and on the way, we walk as those who have been called by Jesus himself.

Because sometimes, if we are to obey God, we must disobey ourselves.
We must set aside our prejudices, our biases, and our fears.
We must release our resentments and grudges and pride.
We simply cast out our nets of love.

And here is the word of grace for us, because most of us are more like Jonah than James, John, Peter and Andrew. The word of grace is there in the gospel and in the story of Jonah.

That word is persistence – the overwhelming persistence of God’s love.

Because Jonah disobeyed, and he paid, but when he resisted, God persisted.
If you resist, God will persist.

If those first disciples had resisted, Jesus would have persisted.
The call of Jesus to go fish for people is never a one-time opportunity.
It is a persistent, loving call, more like a mother calling you to come in the house for supper
than a commanding officer ordering you to obey.

You see, Jesus does not care where you have been,
He is interested in where you are going.
And where he wants you to go is with him,
to obey the persistent, insistent, inexorable call
to follow in his footsteps, to love the world, to reach out in grace –
to leave your nets behind and to go fish for people,
and to share God’s persistent love with them.

Go fish.



Sunday, January 14, 2018

Before and After

1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1: 43-51
January 14, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee.
He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me."
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."
Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
Philip said to him, "Come and see."
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!"
Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?"
Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you."
Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

Yesterday, we had our annual officer training. We’re required, as Presbyterians, to have a time of education and training for the officers of the church – elders and deacons – and we’re required to have one meeting a year when the Session and Deacons meet together. We do that all at once, early in the year, so we can start the year off well. I always enjoy our annual officer training.

In our congregation, over the last 174 years, the work of church leadership has changed quite a bit. For example, it’s only been over the last forty years or so, that this congregation started having women in leadership. Before that, all church leadership was male. Then God called a couple of brave women, like Dessie Snavely, to serve on the session, and the congregation elected them. After that, it became routine for women to serve on the Session.

Before I came, called to be your pastor, there had never been a female head of staff in this church. After I was called, a female head of staff didn’t seem so strange. Well, I might seem strange, but the idea…you know….

Whenever God does something new like that, calling someone into service, there’s always a before and after. Before God called Samuel, things were not going well in the temple up at Shiloh. Eli, the high priest, was getting on in years, and wasn’t as spry as he once had been. He didn’t see well, and the work was getting harder. Eli had two sons that he’d hoped would step into the role of priest, but they were, frankly, just dreadful men. They regarded the temple as a sort of personal enrichment scheme, and they had no regard whatsoever for the holiness of their task.

Samuel was only a child, brought to the temple by his mother, dedicated to the service of God long before he could give any thought to it. So before God called Samuel, the future looked pretty bleak. Eli must have been wondering what in the world was going to happen, because those sons of his were not just disappointments – they held the temple worship in absolute contempt.

But AFTER God called Samuel, everything changed.
After God called Samuel, the future was bright.

Samuel couldn’t possibly have known the role he would play in the future of Israel. He couldn’t have imagined that he would anoint the first king of Israel, and the second – first Saul, and then King David. He didn’t know exactly what it was that God was asking him to do. Samuel only knew that Eli, whom he loved and trusted, had instructed him in how to answer the call of God.

Neither of them even realized at first that it was God!
It took God a few tries to get through to them.
But when at last Eli and Samuel could see the truth that night,
Samuel simply answered: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The characters in our gospel reading took a little while to answer, too. Jesus had already called Andrew and Peter, and then he called Philip. All Jesus said was “follow me,” and Philip was in. Not only that, but Philip went and found Nathanael. He was all excited!
“We found him! The one prophesied! Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth!”

Nathanael must have snorted!
Nazareth? Are you kidding me? Nazareth?

But when Nathanael and Jesus meet, Jesus recognizes Nathanael, in a way that had never happened before. And after Jesus says “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Philip is all in!

Funny how that happens.
Before you hear God’s voice, you’re asleep, you’re in the dark.
After you hear God’s voice, and you recognize the calling,
you are awake and alert and ready to hear what God has to say.

Before Jesus sees you, really sees you,
you’re not even sure if you really believe who he is.
After all, Nazareth is….well… I don’t want to say the word,
but certain people who live in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
might liken Nazareth to…well, a toilet.

Before you meet Jesus,
you might think that there are some people,
from some places,
who are not even worthy of the most basic human respect.

After you meet Jesus, you see who he is, and what he came for,
and you realize that loving God means loving others – all others,
After you meet Jesus, you follow him,
and there are things you are going to see
that defy the powers of imagination.
You turn from doubter to devotee, from agnostic to adherent.

Before, we don’t see and hear God’s work in the world.
After, we come and see, we see who Jesus is, and we hear God’s voice.

In a little while, we are going to ordain and install those who have been called to service in this congregation. Every year, a committee on nominations meets to discern who God might be calling to serve as Elders - members of the Session – who lead and govern, and as Deacons, those who provide nurture and care for the congregation.

Every year, they pick up the telephone and call those people whom they believe God has already called. Sometimes it is like Samuel – the phone call comes like a strange voice in the darkness. The person may not recognize that call as coming from God. Sometimes it is more like Philip – the voice of Jesus says, “Follow me,” and the person responds with Yes! And sometimes the process is more like Nathanael – the call comes, the person is invited to come and see, and they are reluctant, not sure they are called at all, and it takes a while.

In any case, there is always a before and after.
Before we are called, we have no idea what we can do.
Before we are called, we may have no idea of what we might do.
Before we are called, we are not certain that we are cut out for the job.

After we are called, if we answer,
we find out that we are given all sorts of abilities we didn’t know we had.
After we are called, if we answer,
we learn to participate in God’s vision of hope for the world.
After we are called, we see that we are just the person God wanted.

Most of us don’t get mystical experiences
of God speaking to us in the night.
Most of us just get a phone call, or an invitation, or a little nudge.
Many of us might have a hard time pinpointing the moment we met Jesus,
and he saw who we were, and he asked us to follow, and we did.

But every single one of us is called to God’s service, whether in the church or some other part of our lives, and every single one of us will be changed by that call,
and after we answer, nothing will be as it was before.

All we have to do is come and see.
All we have to do is lean forward into the darkness,
ready to follow without knowing where,
and say simply and boldly,

“Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”


Sunday, January 7, 2018


Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11
January 7, 2018
First Presbyterian Church
Christina Berry

On this day when we recall and celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we begin with the beginning, the first five verses of Genesis. In the ancient world, the conception of the way the world began was that God brought forth order from the watery chaos; as science teaches us today, that is pretty much how it all started - in the watery chaos, life began. Let’s listen for the beginning of it all in Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of Mark - the baptism of Jesus. Jesus begins his ministry by coming to his cousin, John the Baptizer, and in the moment Jesus comes up out of the water, we experience the presence of God, marking Jesus as God’s own. Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us in Mark 1:4-11:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 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."

The word of the Lord. 

Thanks be to God.

What an exciting morning this is!

We observe the baptism of Jesus, and we are baptizing three beloved people. The Baptism of Jesus began as a “Feast Day” in the church and became a special Sunday only in the 1950s. When the Catholic and Protestant churches started working together to create a three year cycle of Scripture readings, which only happened a few decades ago, this Sunday’s readings were decided.

Every year, churches around the world celebrate baptism this Sunday, and we are no exception. In fact we celebrate both sacraments this week - baptism and communion. In my confirmation classes, we define a sacrament as “an outward sign of an inward seal.”

I liked what Frederick Buechner said about sacraments:
“A sacrament is when something holy happens.
It is transparent time, time you can see through to something deep inside time.
Generally speaking, Protestants have two official sacraments (the Lord's Supper, Baptism) and Roman Catholics have these two plus five others (Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony). In other words, at such milestone moments as seeing a baby baptized or being baptized yourself, confessing your sins, getting married, dying, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.”

The unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.

These sacramental moments of our lives,
which may also happen at times outside of church or worship,
are times when time collapses,
and past, present and future come together.

Ends become beginnings, and beginnings become ends.

We know it instinctively, how, when something new begins, something old comes to an end. Baptism and communion are opportunities to experience that kind of new beginning. In the beginning, God moved across the face of the waters, bringing new life and light out of the chaotic swirling darkness. In baptism, we experience, through words and song and senses, this same new beginning.

At the table, when Jesus sat with his friends and broke bread, he began something new - a new covenant, a new life. That new life would come as a result of his death; an end which led to a new beginning. In a mysterious way, we are made new at the font, and we begin again every time we come to the table.

As humans, we crave those moments, those times when we see the unbearable preciousness and mystery of life. From time to time, someone who was baptized as an infant expresses to me the desire to be baptized again. That’s not because we think the first time didn’t work! It’s because we crave that ineffable, mysterious joy, that wondrous feeling of hearing God say to us, in our hearts,

“With you, I am well pleased.”

Today, as we baptize these beloved people, Ashtyn, Julianna, and David,
and as we joyfully welcome four new members into our community,
we who are baptized have the opportunity to re-experience that feeling.
You are invited, as we celebrate the sacraments,
to renew your own baptismal promises.
And you are invited as you come forward to receive communion
to come to the font, dip your fingers into the water,
and remember your baptism.

You are a child of the covenant; in you God is well pleased.
So remember your baptism, and give thanks,
and come to this table with thanksgiving,
with a heart filled with the unbearable preciousness and mystery of life,
and experience what God in Christ gives us every. Single. Day:

A new beginning.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

When You Get What’s Coming

This is the second in a series for Advent from a work in progress called "Prairie Liturgy."

Original artwork by Meg Rift, (C) 2017

Haggai 1:3 - 9, 2:6 – 9; Psalm 63:1 – 8; Luke 12: 35 – 40
December 10, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

The three scripture readings for today may seem at first to be disconnected. The first reading comes from almost the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. Haggai is a prophet of the era of about 520 BC, after the exiled Israelites have returned from Babylon. Haggai is distressed that the Israelites are more interested in restoring their own fortunes than they are in restoring the temple as a center of community life. The Israelites are interested in getting stuff for themselves, but what they don’t get is how meaningless that pursuit has become. Let’s listen for God’s word in the words of Haggai 1:3 - 9, 2:6 – 9:

Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying:
Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill;
you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. (2:6-9) For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

In the Psalm, the psalmist gets it – gets what Haggai was saying. This poet of Israel has but one desire – to be in communion with God. Let’s listen to the yearning for God expressed in Psalm 63:1 – 8:

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Our third reading comes from the gospel of Luke.
In it, Jesus reminds his friends of the importance of being ready.
While many of you might have heard this interpreted as a scary warning – “Jesus is coming back and boy, are you going to get it!” – it might serve us better to consider the importance of living each day in readiness for whatever comes. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Luke 12: 35 – 40

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

On the map of Advent, this second Sunday is a serious detour.
Last week we were okay with the waiting,
and next Sunday is joy Sunday, and Mary’s song, and the kids’ program.
But the traditional lessons for the second Sunday of Advent are bleak,
and to tell the truth, these alternative lessons we’ve heard are off the map.

Poor old Haggai is not getting through to the Israelites,
and you have to wonder if he had any idea that his message
would still not be getting through twenty five hundred years later.

Really, this message doesn’t even need any updating for us.
It sounds like a message about modern consumerism:
“you eat, but you never have enough;
you drink, but you never have your fill;
you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm;
and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”

It sounds like contemporary America, especially in December –
with all the marketing and commercials and sales pitches,
designed to make us want more, more, more.
Someone once said that consumer marketing has
“transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”
Constantly moving happiness machines,
always looking for the next thing that everyone wants to get.
If we can’t find the perfect gift, we get the popular one –
Billy the Big Mouth bass, or those blankets with sleeves, or onesies for adults.
But it is never enough, all the food and drink and clothing and gizmos, 
never enough to satisfy our souls, never enough to slake our thirst.

The Psalmist got it, what Haggai was saying –
our souls are hungry and thirsty,
not for cookies or eggnog, not for more stuff,
but for the divine, the transcendent.

That’s what we are waiting for.
That’s what many of us are seeking, hoping, waiting for.
That’s what Advent is all about – not just getting stuff,
but getting ready --preparing and waiting for transformation.

My friend Stephanie Anthony said once, in a sermon for Advent,
“Sometimes … it seems like we’re pretending [that]
we’re waiting for Jesus to come for the first time.”

She’s right , of course.

In spite of the scripture readings and the calls to be ready,
we focus putting up the tree and thinking on little baby Jesus.
We’re like Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights:" “Dear, tiny infant Jesus… “
When his wife reminds him that Jesus was a grown up man, he replies,
“I like the Christmas Jesus best and I'm saying grace.
When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus
or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

But that Jesus, the tiny infant Jesus, has already come.
Our waiting, our time of preparing, is for his return.
Because he’s already been here and we expect him to come back.
If, like me, you grew up hearing ominous stories
about Jesus sneaking back here to earth in order to punish and judge us,
that metaphor in Luke may sound scary.
Who yearns for an angry God to show up and smite them?
No wonder we want to stick with what Ricky Bobby’s
“Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus.”

But what if Jesus has already come back,
and the way he has returned is made manifest in us,
in the ways we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?
Then, our hunger and our thirst are for the promise of his kingdom,
to live out his love and justice.
In the coming of God in Jesus Christ,
the yoke of bondage is lifted from those who are oppressed,
the captives are set free,
and the hungry are fed.

Keeping our lamps lit, being ready for him,
means we are ready to get what’s coming to us –
to participate in the reign of Christ,
to work toward that day
when the treasure of all nations is within our grasp,
when hospitality and heart overcome hatred and homophobia,
when radical love overwhelms racism and rejection,
when empathy is more important than empire.
That’s what we’re working toward.

That’s what we’re waiting for.

Advent doesn’t mean waiting – literally, advent means “arrival!”
Jesus, the son of man, is coming, and has arrived,
not to condemn the world, not to punish the wicked,
but to welcome the stranger, bless the children, heal the hurting;
to tie a towel around his waist, and become a servant,
to welcome us into the heart of love,
to welcome us to his table.
That’s where the compass on our map is pointing – to the table
where our thirst is slaked, and our hunger is satisfied,
and we have all that we ever need.

That’s when we get what’s coming. 
Thanks be to God!