Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Dance

Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As with all major events, there are variances in the accounts. But one of the commonalities, in all the gospel accounts of that first Easter morning, is that it was the women who came to the tomb. They came because they were the ones who had stayed at the cross. They came because for three years they had followed, listened to, obeyed, supported, and loved this man. Probably it was they who had baked the bread, procured the wine, prepared the Passover meal. They came because it was their job to anoint the body with spices and oils. They came to the tomb, expecting to find a dead body. You have seen a dramatic depiction of that morning, based on the gospel of John. Now listen for the good news to you in this account from the gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verses 1 through 12.

Luke 24:1-12
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

It is easy to overlook, on a glorious Easter morning, the deeply personal nature of this story of resurrection. What a profound and moving event it must have been for them, for Mary Magdalene, for Joanna, for the other Mary, for Simon Peter. These are not just cardboard cutouts, created to move the story along. These were Jesus’ personal friends and disciples, people who had traveled with him, eating, working, sleeping alongside him, talking with him – not just lofty discussions that made it into Scripture, but simple, everyday conversations about where they were going to get lunch or whether or not they had time to make the next town by sundown.

So imagine going to visit the grave, two days after the funeral of your dearest and most beloved friend, and finding it empty. I think I can say with some assurance that your first thought would not be “Oh, how wonderful, my friend has risen from the dead!”

That’s not what Mary Magdalene, or Mary, or Joanna or Peter thought, either. Their first thought was about what had happened to the body. And I’d wager their next thoughts were about their friend, their Jesus. And he was their friend, not a story or a picture, but a real, living, breathing, flesh and blood presence in their lives.

Mary of Magdala, the woman whom Jesus healed, was the first to see Jesus alive. She is mentioned fourteen times in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene, by the way, got a bad rap as a woman of ill repute, due to a mistake made by Pope Gregory in the year 591. Pope Gregory confused her with two other Marys. The Catholic church corrected that, in a kind of low-key way, back in 1969. Magdalene was most likely a woman of some means, possibly a patron and supporter of Jesus’ ministry. Since she was the first to see the resurrected Lord, Jesus alive, she is known as the first of the Apostles, or the Apostle to the Apostles. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Because when Magadalene saw the tomb empty, she was crushed. We would be the same at a graveside, overcome by a flood of memories: recalling the time we laughed so hard our sides hurt, remembering weeping as one, whether from anger or sorrow, memories of meals together, and confidences shared. And some memories would be of ways in which we had failed, the times we had not shown up, the angry words we wish we could take back. But that moment passed for Magdalene, because the next thing that happened was confirmation: assurance beyond any doubt that Jesus was alive. She saw him for herself.

Imagine how we would experience such a rush of memories and sensations, such an overwhelming tide of emotion as we saw a beloved friend alive again. The scripture says there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Magdalene, at that tomb, discovered that the time for mourning and the time for dancing intersected in that moment. We can only imagine her confusion. We can only dream of her joy.

She immediately carried the good news to the others.
And they thought she was crazy.

Peter didn’t believe her, and he ran to the empty tomb, ran to see for himself. Can you imagine what he must have said to the other men, hiding back in Jerusalem in that empty room? What could he possibly have told them? He is risen! As he said! Alleluia!

This Easter is my fifth as pastor of First Presbyterian Church, and with each passing year it becomes more challenging to think of something new to say about Easter. I was joking with the folks who came out for the Maundy Thursday service that maybe I would just dust off an old sermon this year – they assured me that no one would be able to tell! I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not all that memorable, or what…

But frankly, those last four sermons aren’t all that different, because the story, the same amazing, joyful, compelling story, demands something more than a scholarly treatment of the gospel reading or a three points and a poem sermon. So, like preachers all over the world on Easter, I look for the spark that will inspire us, the flash of insight that will ignite our hearts, the moment of delight that will send us out to joyfully proclaim, as Mary of Magdala did: “I have seen the Lord!”

What I want is for us to dance out of church on Easter, to dance a happy dance, a jubilant jig, a fantastic fandango, a rapturous rumba! Have you seen the videos that go around the internet this time of year, the hundreds of brightly dressed dancers in Houston, or Sacramento, or Budapest or Paducah or Grand Rapids or Bern, Switzerland? They convey such ineffable joy! And they make you want to dance along with them!

The music they dance to is a song called “Rise Up” and the words are, in part:
“This is a celebration
We’re calling out to every nation to spread the word that Jesus is alive.
We’re people of His Kingdom
His resurrection is our Freedom for every heart, every tongue and every tribe.
We will dance with the One that shines brighter than the sun
We lift our eyes up and rise up. He will rise up!
He’s alive! He’s alive!”

They make you want to leap up in the air and shout, “I have seen the Lord!” Unfortunately, my dance skills are more like those of the little girl in another video who can’t seem to stay in first position. This requires putting your heels together to make your feet look like the letter V. The poor little girl tries so hard, but she just can’t do it. She loses her balance, she bends over and tries to force her feet back to a V.  The teacher tries to be reassuring –

“Don’t worry,” she says.  “It’s okay if your shoes aren’t doing it!”  All the other little dancers are following the teacher, holding their imaginary umbrellas, pretending to reach out for a raindrop, but she is still struggling to make her feet stay in the right place.

Do you ever have that feeling?
That you aren’t doing it right?
That Christians are supposed to be out there spreading the good news, and your shoes aren’t doing it?
Or that you need to be a better person before you can be a Christian, making better choices, being in the right position, and your shoes aren’t doing it?
Or that if you try to talk about your faith, it’s awkward and clumsy and you just feel gawky?

I want to say – it’s okay if your shoes aren’t doing it.
It’s okay if you are not out there shouting the Easter message to everyone, handing out Bibles and drumming up business for First Presbyterian Church. Maybe your shoes can do something else. 
Maybe they already do.

Because the Easter dance is not always easy to identify, and it is impossible to choreograph it the same way for everyone. The Easter dance is the way you, yourself, individually and personally, live out the Easter joy of resurrection, of new life, of restoration. But here’s the thing – and this is from an old sermon: Resurrection is not a spectator sport. It happens within us and among us and around us, and by our participation in Christ’s resurrection we are reborn as people of Easter joy.

So here’s my Easter hope for you, for me, for everyone:

May the bright sun of Easter morning dawn in us.
May the light of love break forth within us and around us and among us.
May ecstatic alleluias break forth from us.
May the joy of the Resurrection shine in us.
May the flowers of new life bloom in us.
May our tables be abundant with the bread of life.
May our cups overflow with the wine of mercy.
May our ears be open to words of life.
May our voices sing of hope and healing.
May our shoes move in the steps of the Risen Savior.
And “when we get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope we dance.”[1]

Oh, Lord, even when our shoes don’t want to do it, help us to dance!
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!

[1] Lee Ann Womack “I Hope You Dance”

Sunday, March 24, 2013


When Worlds Collide
Luke 19: 28-40
Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 19: 28-40
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, "The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Today is the day we remember what is often called “The Triumphal Entry” – Jesus entering Jerusalem on a lowly beast, surrounded by the shouts and cheers of the littlest and the least, who gathered with hope and joy to see the Messiah enter the holy city.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shouted.
“Hosanna! God saves!” they cried.

They threw their cloaks before him, and cut branches to lay in his path. 
A people oppressed and downtrodden, a people who had been waiting, breathless for hundreds of years, for God to fulfill God’s promise, now gathered at the city gates as the one who embodied all their hope entered in.

Old men wept to see him come; mothers with babes in arms held them up for a blessing; fathers spoke to their children, “Remember this, my child – remember that you were there on the day the Messiah came to save his people.”

We still celebrate with parades: returning heroes, commemorations of important days, holidays and homecomings. Standing there, on the sidewalk of the main street, watching the parade go past, there is something that makes the heart swell. In small towns, parades mark the significance of time, and place and people. Parades tell us something about ourselves: 
what we value, who we honor, which stories we want to tell again and again.

In Silver Lake, where I was pastor for three years, we had parades all the time. There’s a parade on St. Patrick’s Day that lasts about 5 minutes, another on Memorial Day, not much longer. I’m told that in Darwin, Minnesota, proud home of the world’s largest twine ball, the Darwin Days parade is so brief that when they’ve completed the route, they all just go around again, to make it last longer. The big parade in Silver Lake is during Pola-Czesky days, during which the town used to celebrate their Czech and Polish heritage. Nowadays it’s a three-day beer-soaked street dance complete with a lawn-tractor pull, a lip-synch contest, church food booths with fried cheese curds and pork chops, and toilet bowl races on Main Street.

The entire celebration leads up to the big parade. Everybody in town goes. 
They stake out their spots on the church lawn early in the morning, under the shade of a big chestnut tree, and applaud as the parade goes by. It begins with the American Legion honor guard, continues with the drum line and some antique tractors, and then come the floats: tractors pulling flatbed trailers on which are arrayed in all their glorious young beauty, the local festival queens from all the neighboring small towns. We have the Sausage Queen and her court, the Annandale Aquacade princesses, the Potato Queen, the County Dairy queens, the Cokato Corn Princesses – you get the idea.

Of course, there is also the reigning Pola-Czesky queen and her court, the candidates for coronation. After the parade, the visiting royalty wander around the tents and the food booths dressed in evening gowns and tiaras, eating corn dogs and cheese curds. I’m told they’re not allowed to have ketchup or mustard, lest their gowns be stained prior to their attendance at the Pola-Czesky coronation. It’s all about the coronation, after the parade.

I suppose that’s what the people lining that road to Jerusalem were thinking. This Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph and Mary, riding in on a donkey, was about to ascend to the throne.
He was going to set right all that had been wrong, overthrow the mighty and send the rich away empty, lift up the lowly and drive the occupying army out of the holy city.

But there was another parade entering the city that day. Crossan and  Borg, 
in their book, The Last Week, describe it:

“On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor 
of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers… Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city.
A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums, the swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” (p. 3)

Borg and Crossan go on to describe how this intersection of processions-- one peasant, one imperial -- depict an essential conflict between rival social orders and rival theologies. Jesus and the peasants usher in the kingdom of God as a counter-procession to Pilate’s display of the power of empire. 
It takes no great leap of imagination to see that this is happening still.

An unknown preacher from Birmingham leads demonstrations of non-violent resistance 
to racial discrimination, and is met with violent resistance 
in the form of clubs, and firehoses, and bullets.

Economic exploitation and greed collide with the limits of the free market, 
and a global financial meltdown occurs.

Military might and hubris slam hard against entrenched cultural mores 
and deeply imbedded resentments, 
and a grinding war of attrition sucks away resources, and lives.

Rampant greed and the insatiable hunger for the next great thing 
crash into mounting debt and the gnawing dissatisfaction of affluenza.

Religious conservatives who are certain of a literal interpretation of scripture 
run head-on into religious progressives who seek a more nuanced understanding.

Wills and wants and words collide in our relationships and wound us 
and those we love and live with.

When worlds collide, there are more losers than winners.
On the dusty road to Jerusalem, though, something else happens:

The palms give way to the passion.
Disappointment and disaster develop into deliverance.
Sorrow succumbs to salvation.
Fear is followed by freedom.
The kingdom of God is ushered in.
God’s way meets human ways, and instead of a train wreck, there is mercy.
In place of retribution there is restoration.
In lieu of damnation there is grace.

Pilate’s parade came into the city to suppress trouble, 
to enforce the law, uphold order and quell an uprising.
Jesus’ parade came into the city to support the weak, 
to fulfill the law, usher in a new order, and lift up the downtrodden.

We’re marching together in a parade today.
It begins with a procession of palms, and ends at the empty tomb.
On the way, on Maundy Thursday, we stop at the communion table.
There, we are called to remembrance. Lifting up the bread and cup together, 
we are reminded of what we value, who we honor, 
which stories we want to tell again and again.

 At this table, two worlds collide:
God’s kairos breaks into our chronos;
heaven and earth meet;
peace and justice embrace;
the church militant meets the church triumphant;
Christ’s humiliation intersects with his exaltation;
the hungry are fed, the thirsty drink,
and the one who traveled that dusty road to the cross 
welcomes us at the joyful feast.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest ! 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Real Rapture

Real Rapture
Revelation 19-22
March 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Revelation 21: 1-7
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Revelation 22: 1-7
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 6 And he said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place." 7 "See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."

I don’t know if you pay much attention to the prelude pondering or to the sermon title, but both of them today refer to the rapture. For the prelude pondering, I usually choose a particularly pithy saying, a quote or reflection that offers a certain angle on the theme of the day’s worship. And sometimes, I choose a bumper sticker. I chose this one, “I don’t believe in the rapture, but if I’m wrong, can I have your stuff?” because it is a witty answer to the popular bumper sticker, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” That latter bumper sticker, like all bumper sticker theology, has some issues.

Let’s talk about rapture for a minute. The word means ecstasy, being carried away, delighted. And since sometime in the mid-1800’s it has also meant something else. Merriam Webster online says it also means: “The final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time according to Christian theology.” Well, according to SOME Christian theology. Since 1830 or so. Never before that.

So saying that the rapture is a belief of Christian theology is like saying that polygamy is a practice of the Mormon faith. It HAS been a practice of some members of the Mormon faith, but it isn’t mainstream Mormon thought. That doesn’t stop people from thinking that the rapture is what all Christians believe, however. Any number of atheist discussion websites will demonstrate that – belief in the rapture is one of their favorite things to ridicule.

But we have to admit that the idea of the rapture has gained some serious traction in the last few decades, so it is worth looking at as we wrap up this study of the Book of Revelation. We have to go back in time a bit, not back to the Bible just yet, but to the first third of the 1800s. During that time, some new religious ideas were gaining popularity. One of them was what came to be known as dispensationalism, the belief that all of human time is divided into distinct dispensations by God, and that we are in the last dispensation before Jesus comes back.

This was a scheme of Biblical interpretation devised mainly by a fellow named John Nelson Darby. He figured out the dispensations, then went looking through the Bible for verses that supported his theory. And guess what? He found them. He worked up some connections between the Book of Daniel, 1st Thessalonians, Matthew 24, John 14, and the Book of Revelation, took each one out of context, put them together with each other, and, VOILA! the Rapture!

When Jesus comes back, according to this belief, he will come secretly, to take up all those who are believers, and carry them away – get that? – rapture, being carried away – to be with him in heaven, while on earth, literally, all hell breaks loose. In order for this to happen, Israel must be restored to her homeland, and a number of specific signs and portents must be fulfilled. Dispensationalists would have you believe that we are almost there.

The entire “Left Behind” series, which was and is wildly popular, grows out of that belief, and many people have taken it to be what all Christians must believe. In fact, until John Nelson Darby split the Plymouth Brethren Church with his teaching, and until the idea really got a foothold with the publication of Cyrus Scofield’s study Bible, no serious Christian thought this was true. For 1800 years. Eighteen hundred years.

Now, of course, the way popular media works, you’d think that the idea of the Rapture was mainstream Christian thought. Christians have always believed that Christ was coming back. We still do. We just don’t claim to have it figured out with that kind of precision, nor do we envision it the way that dispensationalists do.

But the earliest Christians, those who received this Book of Revelation in its original form as a letter of prophecy, were expecting Jesus any time. The Millerites, now known as Seventh Day Adventists, predicted the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus in 1843. That became known as the “Great Disappointment.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses have claimed a number of dates, including 1975, all of which turned out to be wrong. Every time there is a big marker in time, somebody predicts the end of the world. Bob had a visit from some religious group in December of 1999, wanting to know what he thought about God and Y2K. He said he thought God was probably Y2K compliant! More recently, we’ve had Harold Camping and the Mayan Calendar.

Now, whether you think Jesus is coming back next week or next century, it’s important to think about what that kind of “rapture” teaching means. What the rapture means is that Jesus would sneak back and take away certain people, leave everyone else here to suffer all kinds of war and plague and misery, then come back and collect everybody else, presumably those who had changed their minds about him, and of course all those who were already dead, and take them all to heaven. That’s pretty swell for those who make the first cut. Pretty horrible for little kids who live in abject terror of being left behind. I’ve shared with some of you that growing up with that belief meant that if I ever came home to an empty house, I would burst into tears, assuming that the rapture had taken place, and I was left behind. So, yeah, there’s a problem with that, I think.

Plus, I have a bit of a theological squabble with an image of Jesus as a vengeful, destructive force, who is going to speak and blow whole crowds of people to smithereens. But the bigger problem with the whole business is that it is not in the Bible! Nope, no rapture.
Not in there. Also, it sustains a vision of God as an angry, vengeful, destructive force (Did I say that? Yeah. No, not who God is!) who is just waiting for a chance to punish us. And then cast us into the lake of fire. Eternally. As I’ve said, it doesn’t make sense that we’d have 65 books in the Bible that tell us how God is faithful, and God’s steadfast love endures forever, and then have a 66th book that says, “Oh, surprise! Jesus is coming back, and boy are you all in trouble!” Frankly, I think if that had been God’s intention, we’d have all been cast into the lake of fire a long, long time ago.

The rapture scheme of thought makes Jesus a kind of failed Plan B, who has to come back and crush the opposition, since the first coming didn’t work out the way God had in mind.
So what DOES the Bible say about the end of time?
It’s right here, in the last chapters of Revelation, a vision so beautiful and so powerful,that it really does have a sense of rapture. I hope you’ve managed to read along through the Book of Revelation these last few weeks, because these final chapters are such a huge payoff, because these final chapters are so exquisite in their descriptions.

I chose just seven verses (get it – seven?) from two chapters to represent that beauty.
The first reading, from Chapter 21, depicts what one writer calls “a rapture in reverse” – not believers being taken up to heaven, but heaven coming to earth, like a bride coming down the aisle. And from that throne, where the Lamb rules with the words of his mouth, we hear this proclamation: "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

We hear again the pronouncement of Jesus Christ as Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Those words remind us of the very first chapter of Revelation, when we hear these words, and the promise that he is coming in the clouds, and every eye shall see him!
So the story is ending, not with people being taken up to heaven, but with heaven coming down to earth.

That is something to look forward to, not something to fear!
And there is something that gets left behind, that’s for certain!
What gets left behind is death.
What gets left behind is sin.
What gets left behind is all that is broken and sorrowful and painful.

The second reading I chose is from Chapter 22, another exquisite word picture of this new heaven and new earth. That new heaven and new earth are not somewhere else, but right here, God’s good creation restored: a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and they will reign forever and ever.

That tree has a purpose – life! And its leaves are for the healing of the nations.    
We’ve seen that tree before, you know. We saw it in Genesis, in the beautiful garden God made for people to live in. We saw it in the second chapter of Revelation, in those messages to the seven churches: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”

That is a joyful message of hope, hope in Jesus Christ, the lamb that was slain, and who was and is and is to come, who is coming, who is our one hope!

All of the assurances of God’s love, throughout scripture,
all of the calls to return to follow God,
all of the stories that Jesus told,
and the trials of living, all of the suffering, all of the grief,
all of the sorrow and sadness and sin
are about to be redeemed.

There is a tree growing up in that garden, a tree of life.
The story does not end in fire and brimstone and death and destruction any more than the story of Good Friday ends at the grave. The story ends in this shimmering vision, this glorious song, this dream of grace made real.
That’s worth getting carried away about.
That’s real rapture.