Sunday, March 18, 2018

Freely Given

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All day long.

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

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

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


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Glorious Things

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

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

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

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

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

Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Secret Medicine

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

Psalm 22: 23-24

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

What Wondrous Love Is This, verse 1

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

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


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

What Wondrous Love Is This, verse 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody likes to hear bad news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody likes bad news.

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

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

Secret medicine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paths of Steadfast Love

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

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

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

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

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

"To You, O Lord"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So this is not the sermon I planned to preach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.