Sunday, May 20, 2018

We Got Spirit

Pentecost May 20, 2018
Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-21
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Romans 8: 22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked,
“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—
in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

You may remember this story, because I’ve told it before, but it has been a while, and Nan says it’s worth retelling. At the end of third grade at Lincoln Elementary school, Mrs. Rose came around to visit us our classes to tell us about band and orchestra.

I wanted to play the drums.
Mother said no, no drums.
Definitely NO drums.

Then Mrs. Rose called my mom. “We have an oboe here,” she said, “But the reeds cost two or three dollars, and most families can’t afford that, Especially at the rate that fourth grade oboists break reeds.” So I became an oboist.

I grew to love playing the oboe, but I never learned to love playing in the band. Mostly because, during marching season, I had to go to every football game. During halftime, I had to march around and play the cymbals because you can’t march with an oboe. There I’d be, with the boys in the drumline, wearing my band uniform that was too big, and a cowboy hat that blew off frequently in the Kansas wind. I was required to twirl those cymbals when we played fight song after a touchdown, and of course twirled them at the end of the Star-Spangled Banner.

And what you need to know about those cymbals is that one of them was cracked.
Not a small crack, but a big one, right where the handle was.

Sometimes the handle would work around in that crack and slip out so that one cymbal would just drop to the ground. And there I’d be, with the handle in one hand, and over my head, in my other hand, one cymbal. The band director told me, and I believed him, that if that cymbal ever fell off while we were marching, that he expected to hear me yelling “CRASH” whenever the cymbals were supposed to sound.

I grew to hate football games, and I dreaded touchdowns.
I cringed when the cheerleaders would start up with their cheer:
"We got spirit, yes we do! We got spirit, how 'bout you?"

I knew that, inevitably, I would be called upon to crash those cymbals together and run the risk that one of them would fall apart, and there I’d be, holding one cymbal up in the air, yelling “CRASH!” I couldn’t understand what people got so worked up about; what made Gentra Abbey’s dad so mad he would cuss at the refs; why the cheerleaders would cry if our team lost a game; what made the other kids scream and yell,

"We got spirit, yes we do! We got spirit, how 'bout you?"

I was like those onlookers at Pentecost,
saying, “What is the matter with these people?
What are they so worked up about? Are they drunk?”
It’s a reasonable question, if you think about it.

Imagine going into town one Friday night, and as you drive by Roscoe Eades stadium, there’s a huge crowd gathered, thousands and thousands of people. You park and go on in to see what’s going on. In the stadium, instead of the Sterling Warriors, there’s this weird religious sect whose leader was recently executed for treason.

Like the Jews who were living in Jerusalem, they are all immigrants. They came to the city from many other countries, following this strange fellow. After the government had him executed, they claim he was resurrected, but you doubt that. They are a very peculiar, alien bunch of people. A lot of people are saying that these immigrants are not even human.

So you’re standing there watching them, and they start getting all worked up. There’s this noise like a wind and just when you’re expecting a tornado warning, flames appear over their heads, and they begin to speak in tongues.

You look at the guy standing next to you, a Guatemalan immigrant, and on the other side of him, a kid from Syria. There’s a little Mexican girl and her baby brother. There are people from Iraq and North Korea, and Russia; from Haiti, and El Salvador, and all over Africa. There’s a crowd of oddly dressed teenagers with blue hair and black clothes and what looks like fishing tackle in their eyebrows, lips and noses. You catch the eye of the Guatemalan fellow, and raise one eyebrow and smile. He smiles, and you smile back, and you both shake your heads.

But then, as you watch a guy steps forward from the group, their spokesman. He starts to tell the crowd what is going on. He tells of new signs and portents, of visions and dreams, dreams of a people who live in the Spirit of God, of people who love their neighbors and love their enemies, people who welcome the stranger, care for the needy, bind up the brokenhearted.

As you listen to his words, they start to make sense to you.
You start to feel hopeful.
You move closer, along with everyone else, and they are nodding in agreement
Now, you are a good person. You love your country and you are a little bit uneasy about these alien people. Recently someone told you that they are terrible people – murderers, animals. But this guy, this religious nut, what he is saying makes sense. Somehow, you have a new understanding. 

On the other side of the stadium, you see a person from your neighborhood, a person you have been mad at for years. Ever since the two of you voted on opposite sides of an issue you’ve never been able to talk with them without getting mad. The two of you haven’t spoken in a long time. You voted with the majority, and it seemed like they couldn’t get over losing. But now, something is happening. It’s like a wind blowing through the crowd while the religious fellow is preaching about visions and dreams.

Everybody is coming closer together and joining hands and singing. The blue haired teenagers with the fishing tackle faces have taken the hand of your neighbor and they are coming toward you, and you can’t remember why the disagreement seemed so important. So you embrace your neighbor, and the teenagers laugh and cry, and the children are dancing around, and later, you can’t even really describe what happened, but you know that you have been changed. That everything has changed.

It was like a wildfire went through your soul
and burned away all the worn out old stories,
the useless dead branches,
all the dried up clippings of old bitterness collecting there,
reduced all that resentment to ashes,
singed the edges of your certainty.

It was like a wind swept through your heart,
and blew out all the cobwebs and dust,
and all the curled up yellowed scraps of paper,
on which you had written notes to yourself about everything that was wrong.


The moment when the Spirit overcomes all divisions between people:
nationality, culture, class, gender, sexual orientation,
doctrine, denominations, who gets ordained and who doesn’t.
worship customs, how we dress,
how we serve communion, or to whom we serve it,
age, intellectual capacity, carpet and buildings and money.


When Phrygians sit down with Mesopotamians and Galileans,
Palestinians sit with Jews, Republicans with Democrats, natives with immigrants.
The Spirit breaks through the all the walls built by hatred,
and lands on the church,
crackling over our heads,
swirling around us,
between us,
among us,
within us.

Quite few years ago, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA appointed a task force to work out disagreements in the church. Probably more than any other group in our denomination’s history, that task force represented the same diversity of viewpoints as those we see at Pentecost. All the categories were there: liberal and conservative; evangelical and social gospel; gay and straight;, urban and rural; for and against; you name the category, they had one. It was a group that was practically guaranteed NOT to come to consensus.

But an amazing thing happened: they did.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, they did.
They came to new understandings of one another.
They were surprised by their discoveries:
The others – those people with whom they disagreed –were Christians!
Those other people acted like disciples:
They read the Bible! They prayed!
They cared deeply about the church!

The task force members decided to listen to one another, seeking to understand one another, rather than shout or vote each other down. What that task force eventually concluded is less important today than what happened among the people in that group.

It was the kind of Pentecost event we’ve been thinking about this morning.

Like those gathered on the day of Pentecost, they said, we NEED each other!
The task force discovered that we need all kinds of people, with all kinds of viewpoints. For the church’s mission and ministry to sound in the band The task force said that we need both cymbals, the right one and the left! They said, in effect, that one cymbal waving in the air and one voice yelling “CRASH” won’t do it.

We need them both, even if one of them is cracked.
We need both, even when we are clashing.
It takes two cymbals to sound in the marching band.

We need each other.
We need to stay together,
to sound together,
to work and play together,
and listen together for the voice of the Spirit
speaking to us in the rush of the wind.

Today as we celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates, and as we symbolically send them out into the world, we want to send them enfolded in our love, carrying our deepest hopes and dreams. Of course, we hope for their happiness and their success, for them to find joy in their continued studies and satisfaction in their work.

We pray that they will find one other special person to love as a partner for life. And we pray that the Holy Spirit, this Spirit of Pentecost, goes with them. We pray that the activity of the Spirit in their lives will demonstrate to the world that we are all in this together, arm in arm, working together for God’s realm on this earth. In spite of our disagreements, we are knit together by the Spirit.

We pray that as we watch these beloved people begin a new phase of their lives, they will hear our voices - shouting together, sometimes clashing, but mostly cheering each other on. We pray that they will find their own part on God’s big team, their own voice to speak God’s justice, and that they will know that we are behind them, with them, surrounding them, still together, still loving God and neighbor, still saying,

"We got Spirit, yes we do! We got Spirit, how 'bout you?!"


Monday, April 30, 2018

“Unless Someone Guides Me”

John 15:1-8, Acts 8:26-40
April 29, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

The gospel reading today comes from the farewell speech of Jesus, in which he reminds his followers of their relationship to him and to one another, and the life-giving connection that they share. It’s worth noting as Jesus reminds us of who he is, he shows us who we are, in relationship to him. We are the branches on the vine, where the fruit grows. The production of fruit depends on us as much as it does on him. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in John 15:1-8:

1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
4 Abide in me as I abide in you.
Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine,
neither can you unless you abide in me.
5 I am the vine, you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,
because apart from me you can do nothing.
6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers;
such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,
ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
8 My Father is glorified by this,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our reading from Acts as we continue our series is from Acts 8:26-40. It is the story a Greek-speaking Jew and a follower of Jesus meeting an Ethiopian eunuch and official in the Queen’s court, along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

A few things to remember as we hear this story:
First, in Jesus final words to the disciples, he told them, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” So the Holy Spirit is the unseen character in this story.

Second, since Philip has just appeared on stage, as it were, it’s worth knowing where he came from. In an earlier chapter of Acts, a problem arose about who would take care of the widows and orphans, particularly those of the Greek speaking Jews. The apostles did not want to neglect their teaching in favor of waiting on tables, so they appointed seven people to work as deacons, caring for those in need in the community. Philip was one of those seven deacons appointed. But just like the deacons of the church in our time, this was not some kind of second-string job. Philip had been in Samaria, preaching and baptizing there, and now, in this story, the Spirit speaks to him to move on. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Acts 8: 26-40:

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip,
"Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."
(This is a wilderness road.)
So he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace,
queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.
He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home;
seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it."
So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.
He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"
And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, 
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth. 
In his humiliation justice was denied him. 
Who can describe his generation? 
For his life is taken away from the earth."
The eunuch asked Philip, 
"About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, 
about himself or about someone else?" 
Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, 
he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 
As they were going along the road, 
they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 
"Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, 
went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away;
the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region,
he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.

In this powerful story, we find three characters:
Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Holy Spirit.
Philip and the Ethiopian have speaking parts, that we can hear as we read. The Holy Spirit has a speaking part, too, but we can only hear it if we listen very carefully. There are three stages to the story – the meeting, the scripture study, and the baptism. And the Ethiopian has three questions.

All the negative things that could have happened, don’t.
And all the positive things that happen are a lesson for us today,
spelled out with three characters, in three stages, and three questions.

This story comes from a time in the early formation of the church, when there really was not yet a church, not yet anything called Christianity. All of the people named in Acts were Jewish, either from birth or as converts. Those who were Jews from birth were already branches of the true vine; the others were converts or what was known as “God-fearers.” Converts, if they were male, were circumcised as part of their conversion. Those who did not would worship in the court of the Gentiles, and they were called “God-fearers.” They were faithful people who were not Jews, but who believed. Amid this mix of Jewish folks, this group of Jesus followers were “the people of the way.”

These early believers were almost feverish in their desire to share the good news. They were devoted to teaching and preaching and prayer and worship. Among them was Philip, a Hellenistic Jew called by the Holy Spirit to get out into the countryside. And he got up and went.

As he traveled, he came alongside a chariot.
Philip could hear the Ethiopian in the chariot reading a scroll –
everybody read out loud at that time –
and he wondered if the scripture made sense to the Ethiopian.
So Philip asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
And the Ethiopian answered with a question of his own, his first question:

"How can I, unless someone guides me?"

The reading was from Isaiah, a scroll that would have been particularly important to an Ethiopian and a eunuch. You see, in that time, the color of his skin was no barrier for this man – racism as we know it is a much more modern invention. According to the law, this eunuch was an outsider, unwelcome in the temple, even if he was a God-fearer. But in the scroll of Isaiah, this man could have read these words:

…do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)

Perhaps the Ethiopian wondered whether his own humiliation would end, and whether he too could be grafted onto the vine of Israel. Perhaps he wondered if the God of the covenant was for him, too. Philip was jogging alongside the chariot, talking to him, and the Holy Spirit, the other character in the story, was hard at work!

“Climb in,” says the Ethiopian.
“Sit here by me and help me make sense of this.”

And then he asked his second question,
“What does it mean? Who does Isaiah mean?”

As Philip guided him in understanding, 
the Ethiopian came to believe the good news of the gospel. 
So his third question was to the point and quite practical:
"Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

I don’t think I’ve ever met an Ethiopian eunuch.
I expect few of you have either.
But I’ve met a lot of people who want to follow Jesus,
and who have been made to feel like outsiders.
I’ll bet you have, too.

I’ve met a lot of people who try to read scripture and make sense of it, 
who are looking for God’s grace even though they’ve been clobbered 
with Bible verses taken out of context, people who are hunting in the Bible 
for some sign of God’s love.
I’ll bet you have, too.

I’ve met people of color who have been excluded, insulted and persecuted 
because they have a darker skin tone than the people around them.
I’ll bet you have, too.

I’ve met people who have been told in every single possible way,
“You are not welcome here.”
with words and actions and body language and insider language,
with dirty looks and narrowed eyes,
with anonymous poison pen letters and nasty social media posts.

And every single time that happens,
the body of Christ is wounded.

Every time that happens, the gospel is put to shame.

They may not be Ethiopian eunuchs, but they are all around us,
asking, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”
“What does this scripture mean?”
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Philip could have answered a hundred different ways.
“Pal,” he could have said, “You are a eunuch. You’re not like us.
I’ve got a Bible verse to prove that. It says you’re an outsider.
THAT prevents you from being baptized.”

Philip could have answered,
“You’ve got to quit that job, working for the queen.
You need to find something more Jesus-like.”

Philip could have said, “Look, you’re a rich and educated man.
You are a eunuch and an Ethiopian.
You’re not really our kind of people.”

But the Holy Spirit was there, too.

It’s the Holy Spirit who is always the third character in our one-on-one conversations, the Holy Spirit who prods us to speak to someone about the Scripture. It’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to be branches that bear fruit, and it’s the Holy Spirit who makes our fruit sweet, and attractive. 

The fruits of the Spirit that grow through us, the branches,
are love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Friends, those are the only fruits that others can see,
the fruits that let them taste and see that God is good.

Philip could have answered that Ethiopian eunuch in a hundred ways.
But the Holy Spirit was there, whispering in his ear.

When the Ethiopian asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip baptized him, and in that water,
all the fear and prejudice and suspicion was washed away,
and another person who’d been rejected and humiliated was welcomed,
and another person who’d been lost was found.

The Holy Spirit spoke to Philip three times.
The first two, you heard.

First there was “Get up and go toward the south to the road
that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."
The second was "Go over to this chariot and join it."
The third time the Holy Spirit spoke, you might not have heard it.

But listen!

“What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” the Ethiopian asked.

The Holy Spirit spoke a third time, and answered,
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”


Monday, April 23, 2018

By the Name

John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12
April 22, 2018
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Today’s gospel reading is from the poetic gospel of John. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the gospel of John does not give a chronological account of the life of Jesus. His deeply theological narrative shows Jesus to be the light of the world, he tells of the signs that point to Jesus as Messiah and point us to Jesus. In the reading for today, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, Jesus provides care, guidance, sustenance and safety. Let’s listen for the voice of the shepherd in John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father."

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles continues our learning about the development of the early church, in those uncertain days after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We talked last time about the sharing of the gathered community, and how they brought whatever was needed and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Now we hear how the disciples began the practice of preaching, of giving testimony, of sharing the good news, even as the women who went to the tomb came running back to tell the story! Our reading today requires a little bit of prologue to set it into context. You may remember that in the second chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes to the Jesus-followers that will become the church. In the third chapter, we see the apostles stepping out into the world to spread the news – to preach the gospel- to testify to the saving name of Jesus. Things are going well for them in the early days.

In a short time, the group expanded from a few dozen to a few hundred to thousands.
This makes the authorities nervous. The Romans who occupied the city of Jerusalem and who had executed Jesus were keeping a close eye on the Jews. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, did not want to distress their Roman occupiers. Just prior to the scene in today’s reading, Peter and John were on their way up to the temple when they encountered a man who could not walk, begging at the gate to the temple called the “Beautiful Gate.” Peter spoke to the man, telling him that they had no money to give, but could give healing in the name of Jesus. Peter reached out and took the man’s hand and said, “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man got up and went into the temple, walking and leaping and praising God.

People were accustomed to seeing this beggar at the gate and now they saw him dancing for joy, and they were amazed. Thousands believed what Peter and John were testifying about Jesus. But the Sadducees and the religious leaders were nervous, so they had Peter and John arrested. The two apostles spend the night in jail and are brought out into court in the morning to testify. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Acts 4:5-12

The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem,
with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander,
and all who were of the high-priestly family.
When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired,
"By what power or by what name did you do this?"
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them,

"Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today
because of a good deed done to someone who was sick
and are asked how this man has been healed,
let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel,
that this man is standing before you in good health
by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified,
whom God raised from the dead.
This Jesus is "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.'
There is salvation in no one else,
for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals
by which we must be saved."

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

A few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a fellow named Herostratus set fire to the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Tradition holds that he committed this heinous act on the same day that Alexander the Great was born, July 21, 356 BCE. The temple of Artemis was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Herostratus committed the arson in hopes of fame, but the authorities tortured him, executed him, and forbade anyone to mention his name on pain of death. The sentence was oblivion, later known as damnatio memoriae – Latin for “condemnation of memory” – erasing the name of the villain forever.

Obviously, it didn’t work, or we would not be telling this story today.

But the practice carried on until well into the third century of the common era. To erase a person’s name was to erase their legacy, to eliminate them from history, and obliterate what they had done. Conversely, when a ruler, like Julius Caesar, was considered to have been a great one, he was awarded apotheosis, became a god, and a cult was created in his name.The Roman Empire could award deification, make a man a god, or could determine oblivion, eliminating a man’s name and his memory. [1]

So when the leaders of the Sanhedrin ask Peter, “By what name did you do this?” it was not an insignificant question. And Peter’s reply was unequivocal - it was in the name of Jesus: “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”

Peter’s testimony is clear: we act and speak in the name of Jesus. Jesus was crucified, and he died, but the name of this Jesus Christ of Nazareth is not for forgotten: it is in his name that healing has come to this crippled beggar who sat crying for alms at the gate called “Beautiful.” Jesus was crucified, and he died, but God raised him from the dead and his name lives on. By his name, the blind see and the lame walk and the prisoner is set free.

Names are powerful.

When a person commits a terrible crime, like shooting people in a church, there is always a movement on social media to stop repeating that killer’s name.

And some names invoke immediate positive associations: Saint Francis…Abraham Lincoln…Abigail Adams… Florence Nightingale… That’s why company logos and corporate images and branding are so critically important to businesses. That’s why what we say and do in the world as Christians is so important – because we bear the name of Jesus.

The world around us is well-aware of the power of that name, but it might not be due to our good name as Christians. Almost half of the Americans who identify themselves as Christian don’t actually practice their beliefs in any observable way – that is, they do not pray, read scripture, attend worship or participate in church activities.[2]

Most unchurched people, especially younger people, consider Christians to be homophobic, hypocritical, judgmental and boring.[3] Boring. That one stings.

Our hurt feelings aside, the problem non-Christians have with Christianity does not seem to be with the name of Jesus. Their problem is with us.

The solution obviously is not simply shouting our message more loudly. Nor is the solution to somehow hammer our scriptures and practices into the public schools or the government at any level. Erecting public monuments to Christianity or blaming school shootings on the lack of prayer in schools only serves to further alienate people from Christianity. Using Christianity as a litmus test for political candidates has proven to be an unreliable strategy; for every Jimmy Carter there seems to be a Roy Moore.

Op-ed writer Rod Dreher, a conservative Christian, identifies a crisis in Christendom. In a piece in the New York Times, contemplating the support of evangelicals for the current president, Dreher said, “Too many of us are doubling down on the failed strategies that not only have failed to convert Americans but have also done little to halt the assimilation of Christians to secular norms and beliefs. [The current President] is not a solution to this cultural crisis, but rather a symptom of it.”[4]

Perhaps we need to be known as people of Jesus.
Perhaps we need to stop talking about Christianity and simply act like Jesus.
Perhaps we need to do less preaching and more reaching –
reaching out in love to those who are crippled
by poverty, addiction, rejection, or loneliness,
reaching out a hand and saying,
“In the name of Jesus, I give you what I have.”

If we, like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, follow the voice of the shepherd, his voice will be heard in our preaching and testimony, because our best sermons will be in the way we offer healing and hope, and the voice of Jesus will speak loudly through our loving actions.

Then when people want to know,
"By what power or by what name did you do this?"
We can answer boldly,
“By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”


[4] Dreher, Rod. “Trump Can’t Save American Christianity.” New York Times

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Learning to Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are the good old days.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Rian Dundon,

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Challenge of Easter

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

No, it was not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t over!
He came back!

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

They became fearless apostles.
Easter changed everything for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Freely Given

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All day long.

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

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

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