Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reorientation




June 30, 2013
Psalm 77: 1-2 and 10-20
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

1I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
10And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
13Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
14You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
16When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you,
they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
17The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.


Have you been acquainted with the night?
You know what the Psalmist felt like then. Desolate and alone, strung out, weary, reaching for God and not feeling anything. If you’ve ever felt such grief, such bitterness – that you could not sleep, so that you tossed on your bed, turning the pillow over and over, twisting the sheets, getting up and padding around the dark house, opening the refrigerator and looking in, as if the light in that box would somehow illumine your bleak soul— if you’ve ever felt that, you know what this Psalm is saying.

And you know what it feels like when you think God has forgotten you.
That’s the feeling – God used to remember me, used to know me and care about me.

But now, God has changed – turned away. As the gray light of dawn filters into your bedroom window,  you gaze in despair at the clock. How will you get up and get dressed and live this day?

Or maybe it wasn’t that dramatic for you. Maybe it was just one day you looked around at your surroundings which had always been just fine – a nice school or a decent job, a comfortable home, a family you loved all the time and could live with even in the worst times, maybe even a cat that you had at first only tolerated but came to love.

So you looked around at all this, and it was just fine yesterday, completely satisfactory, no complaints, and today, it looks….gray…bland…
school is boring and stupid and everyone is just trying to be popular,
the job is just a job, a lockstep of meaningless work that contributes nothing to the world,
home is just like everybody else’s,
and your family – they don’t get you, never have, and they don’t care, not really.

So you go look for something to distract you, Maybe what you find isn’t really very good for you, maybe it is unhealthy or immoral or just not worthwhile, but you tell yourself that you deserve it, because….because….because God has stopped listening to you, and you are sad and lonely and hurting and nobody cares…nobody cares…nobody cares.

After that you go for a walk down along the river.
And you try praying.
God? Are you listening?
Do you know what is going on down here, in my life? in this town, in this school, in the world? ARE YOU EVEN PAYING ATTENTION TO US? HELLO?

Somehow this seems wrong, to pray by yelling at God.
Even though everything is out of whack, there was a time when you could talk to God, you could say what was on your heart or in your head, and you felt sure God was listening.
It doesn’t seem right, really, to just vent to the Almighty, like you would to a friend about some minor irritation -- like the fact that nobody besides you can put the new roll of toilet paper on the roll, or that you are ALWAYS the one who has to set the trash out on Wednesday.

Not that what you are feeling is that minor, but still, this is God…God – the great I AM, the Creator, the Holy One. You don’t want to waste your airtime with little gripes.

But memory is persistent.
It digs at you with a sharp-pointed shovel, unearthing old resentments and leaving holes all over the place. Memory dings like a text alert and clangs like an alarm going off. It’s an instagram picture – remember this? remember this?

The Psalmist remembers too.
Apparently it is just a run of bad luck, says one translation, apparently just when I really need help, God has gone out of business. But the Psalm writer has not forgotten what God USED to do. And not only is this writer going to recount God’s power, but the voice of the Psalm shifts –   now we are no longer talking about God. We are talking TO God.

Listen:
“But I will remember the LORD's deeds; yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past. I will meditate on all your works; I will ponder your deeds. God, your way is holiness!
Who is as great a god as you, God?  You are the God who works wonders; you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples.  With your mighty arm you redeemed your people; redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph.”

As you walk along the river, pondering God and your life, you remember, too.
God was present in your life, and acting in mighty ways. You were there and the sun was shining and everybody was smiling. Everybody was smiling.

You remember what it was like, before this. There was a time when you could lay down and sleep and awaken refreshed and happy, a time when you offered up your prayers and you could almost see them, wafting into God’s presence like the fragrance of lilacs, rising like the smoke of candles, rippling in the sky like wisps of clouds in a sunset.

You remember all the times when God stepped in for you, maybe in ways you’d been unable to see at the time. Prayers in those times were different, hardly more than a breath:
wow!
thank you!
help me!
phew!
sheesh!

Now there’s this grief, this sadness, this emptiness, this loneliness. You walk along that river and look into the deep water, deep and gray and murky and hiding who knows what. You wonder if it is quiet there, under that water, quiet and peaceful, floating there, no sound, no pain, no more…no more anything. But you are not a Psalmist, nor a statistic, nor a country singer, and the weight of your sorrow is heavy, but not enough, not yet, not enough to sink you in that river.

And as you walk along, a storm blows up, a storm worthy of the Almighty, of King Lear’s shouting  “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drench'd our steeples, …”

That’s what the Psalmist recalled, seeing a storm like that one, only in the mind’s eye,  here’s how you did it, God:
“The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.”
Yes, Lord, that was how you did it.

And that storm, YOUR storm, as it rolls down the Rock River, that storm is Biblical in its proportions. You take shelter under a bridge, watching the torrents of rain blow across the arch of your shelter.

The lightning splits the sky and every crash of thunder sends a shiver through you. You’re too grown up and sophisticated to be afraid, aren’t you? And you know that God is not hurling down lightning bolts like some angry Greek god in mythology. But still, it is impressive. And a little bit scary. Scary because power like that could kill a person, a flood like that could overwhelm a kid, and those flashes of lightning could destroy a whole neighborhood. Scary because a woman could get caught in that and not find her way home. A man could get lost in that, could slip into the river and have a hard time getting out.

But you keep watching it, and you keep remembering, just like the Psalmist, and you keep remembering what God has done in your life. “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

And you remember that Jesus, the good shepherd who leads you, Jesus was acquainted with the night. He knew what it was to suffer, to plummet down to the depths of sorrow so deep that it seemed there was no bottom and no surface. You remember him drenched with sweat in that garden, how he suffered on that cross, how he lay dead and gray and buried in a stone-cold tomb.

And you remember that God is faithful,
and God delivered the people of Israel from slavery,
and God delivered the people of the world from sin,
and even though it is storming, you know the clouds will pass, scudding across the sky in a last exhalation of wind. And you know that beyond this bleak dark night there is life - LIFE!.
Beyond that tomb, there is Easter, and resurrection.

And you wait until the rain lets up, and you walk along the path by the river
waiting for the sun to break through, heading for home.
Amen.




Sunday, June 9, 2013

Power Switch


 

Luke 7:11-17
June 9, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Luke 7: 11-17

11 Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16 Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" 17 This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

 

 

I’m so glad to see this scripture come up in the lectionary, because it has this wonderful Greek verb in it, a word that has no direct translation in English, but is so descriptive that I wish we could adopt for our everyday use. The word is splagnizomai, (splang- nee-tso-my) and it describes how Jesus felt when he saw this woman. Luke doesn’t use the word very often. He used it in the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe the feeling that the Samaritan had – when he saw the man who had been beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road for dead. He felt this– splagnizomai – and stopped to help the man, to bind his wounds. He used it when he told another parable, too, the one about the boy who squandered his inheritance on riotous living, then came dragging up the road to ask if he could come home. When the father saw him – the father who had been waiting, watching for him – when the father saw his boy, Jesus said, he felt this --  “splagnizomai.

It is a powerful word.

It means a deep feeling of compassion, so deep that your bowels and innards move. It is an intense emotion – sympathy, and mercy, even pain, on behalf of another who is suffering.

Down South every now and then at a funeral, an elderly lady will say with tears in her eyes,
“Oh, honey, my heart just hurts for you.” That’s splagnizomai.

When we saw those Oklahoma neighborhoods in rubble, and the people racing to that school to see if their children were alive, -- splagnizomai.

When we saw the faces of those parents looking for their little ones outside the elementary school at Sandy Hook, --  splagnizomai.

When the news broke about the Boston Marathon bombings, and we watched the faces of those who were there, those who did not know what happened to their loved ones,
-- splagnizomai.

For a man to feel that way in Jesus’ world was a sign of weakness. Men especially, in Roman culture, were supposed to be invulnerable, impervious to such feelings as mercy and charity and compassion. A man is strong and powerful not supposed to feel this – not supposed to be tender hearted. But Jesus did.

He felt it for the mother, not her dead son, and he felt it because it knew what it meant, that the only son of a widow had died. It meant that she was at the margins of society, a woman with virtually nothing left to live for, and nothing left to live on. On top of the unspeakable grief of her loss, there was the unimaginable sorrow of her future. Even if she’d had any estate, any personal wealth, it would now belong to her nearest male relative, not to her. If there was land or money, a house or livestock, it would go to a brother-in-law, or a cousin, or an uncle of her husband. Not to her.

Maybe someone would take her in - - a sister, perhaps, with a generous husband, a brother.
Maybe not.

Jesus, as he passed this funeral procession, looked at her with great compassion. She didn’t say anything to him, or ask anything of him. She didn’t need to. He could see her pain, and he could feel it, too. He could see and feel all that she had lost, and would lose. “Do not weep,” he said to her. He touched the body, laying there, touched it and said “Young man, I say to you, rise” And he reached out and gave her boy back to her.

He was recognized immediately by the people as a great prophet. After they overcame their shock, they glorified God. They saw what he had done for the miracle it was, and they understood who he was and how he had raised the widow’s son through the power of the one true God.

 The one who held in his hands all the power of the universe, reached out to restore the life of one who had absolutely no power whatsoever. We can only imagine the joy of that mother, the amazement of that son. We can only hope that they thereafter treasured every day of their lives.

In fact, that is easier to imagine than what had come before. Contemplating the crushing grief of the loss of a child is not a place we can linger for long without some cost. For those who have lost a child, the place where that sorrow dwells is too tender, no matter how long it has been.

For those who have a child, of whatever age, it is a deep and abiding fear. For anyone, to have such a loss, to have a child taken from you, whether by death or estrangement or addiction or, God forbid, abduction, such a loss is unimaginable.

Others among us have known other losses, had things taken from us. That pain is also excruciating. We don’t carry those losses out into the streets, and no public ritual observance like a funeral marks the event, invites the sympathy of others, or offers any closure. The pain stays buried within us, the loss goes disregarded, at least by most people who know us. We weep privately, if we can even allow ourselves to think on it.

Perhaps it was a deep humiliation, a taking of dignity that can’t be restored.

Maybe it was a dream broken, shattered beyond repair.

Often it is a false sense of the world, a na├»ve belief that if we are kind and helpful, others will be kind to us. Very often, we cling to childish beliefs that being nice and doing good will result in a life that is nice and good. When trauma or loss or disasters happen, as they do to everyone in some way, we are shocked, as if we should somehow have been exempt. Then we wonder, “why did this happen to me?”

In our better moments, of course, we know that life is not fair, and that bad things happen. In our calmer moments, we can easily say that we trust in God, and that we know Jesus is with us, come what may. But when we are suffering, we are not looking in the direction of the one who has the power to raise us up. Our eyes are downcast, our thoughts turned inward. 

Still, Jesus comes down the road, sees the funeral procession and sees us,
brokenhearted, faltering, grieving,
struggling with loss or shame, 
weighed down by how we look or who we are,
by our name or race or class or station or condition,
puzzled by teasing and wounded by words,
abandoned by someone who said they would love us forever,
researching the diagnosis to see if there could possibly be a cure,
wondering how it happened, that our lives have come to such a pass.

Jesus sees us, and he feels compassion – splagnizomai.
And the power of the world to hurt us does not go away, but somehow, his being there with us, the love in his eyes, the quiet and knowing presence helps us to persevere. Jesus lifts us up from the dusty roadside. He takes us by the hand and says, “Do not weep.”

We remember that with him, all things are possible; with him, the blind can see, and the broken are restored, the lame walk, and those who were dead find life.

Because of him, we get up, we dry our tears, we take the hand of the person next to us, and we continue our journey.

Because of him, we understand that the kingdoms of this world, even the lives of those we love, may be temporary, but the kingdom of God is bigger, encompasses more, and lasts forever.

Because of him, we understand that the world’s evils, that principalities, that death and disaster and malignancies may take from us, but that we do not find our meaning in those losses.

We find our meaning in knowledge that there is a hope beyond today, that there is something bigger than our lives, that there is a power greater than all the earthly powers combined.

That hope, that something bigger, that power, is the eternal, cosmic existence of a love and grace so great, so all-consuming, so extravagant and forgiving, that there is no person who is out of its reach.

That power, switched on in us, gives us the power to walk in Jesus’ footsteps – healing, caring, visiting, raising up the lowly, and offering comfort to those who suffer.

It’s what he came for, came to that town where that widow-woman wept on the road to the cemetery, came to make the blind see and the lame walk and to bind up the broken hearted
and to show us what real power looks like, and to empower us to make the power switch in his name, so that we’d do the same, and everyone who sees us would see him, and say “God has looked favorably on us!"                             

That’s why he came!
Thanks be to God! 
Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

One Under Authority

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.


--Alice Walker



One Under Authority
Luke 7: 1-10
June 2, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 7: 1-10
1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go,' and he goes, and to another, "Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it." 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.




The healing of the Centurion’s slave is a story best paired with next week’s story, of the raising of the poor woman’s dead son, so as we contemplate this scripture, I want to invite you to keep in mind the story that comes next week. These two stories, both miracles of Jesus, present to us an elegant composition that compares and contrasts the meaning of authority and power. This week, the person appealing for help is a Roman officer in a position of power and authority. But still, he needs Jesus. He needs healing – not for himself, but for someone whom he loves: a servant – actually, a slave, a young man.

Next week, the person in need of Jesus is a widow, a person with absolutely no power, no authority. She needs what only Jesus can give – life – not for herself, but for her only son.
We will learn more about her next week, but do keep her in mind as you think about this week’s story.

Let’s start by considering who this Centurion is.
This 5th century description may help us see him better:
“A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright.”[1]

So the Centurion is an exemplar of the military man – an officer of the Roman legion.
He has both power and authority. We often use those terms interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. But they are not. Power is generally understood to be physical – it can get its way by force, or coercion. Power is nestled in with privilege, and in modern culture it can be unseen, – because it is not always overt coercion. But its effect is visible in the world we live in. Power works in our world through economic, or political channels, but at its base it works by force – if you do not obey, you will suffer pain, either physical, financial, or social.

Authority is best understood as the legitimate, accepted use of power. It is power with, or power for, rather than power over. It is the power of connection, of relationship. Superiors in the workplace who have authority have a right to give orders, and subordinates under that authority have an obligation to obey, because they have agreed to be in that relationship. The government has authority to regulate and enforce laws, and the governed consent to that, because we are in relationship, however tenuous that connection might seem. This is power derived from an agreement between the authority and the one under authority, not coercion or threat.  In families, and in churches, authority is lodged in certain people or groups, because the relationship includes that arrangement.

The sociologist and philosopher Max Weber distinguished types of authority:
            Rational legal authority depends on rules and laws. Modern governments and societies rely on this. The centurion had that kind of authority; Jesus did not.
            Traditional authority is based on customs, habits and social structures. The hereditary monarchy is an example of that sort of authority. The Queen of England has authority because she was born into the royal family, not because she has any particular claim on the allegiance of the people. Roman Caesars had that kind of authority.
            The third form of authority is charismatic authority It is “the gift of grace,” an authority received from God. We see it in contemporary culture when we regard someone, when we listen to them or follow them, not because of their government position or their status, but because of the quality of their character and the power of their spirit. We listen and follow because we love and respect them. It is this type of authority that we strive for in families, and in faith communities. It is this type of authority Jesus has. It is superior to both rational-legal and traditional authority, in that people are willing to accept and follow this authority even if it goes against tradition, rules and laws. That kind of authority relies on obedience not out of fear, but out of love and gratitude.

The Centurion has a bit of this charisma, apparently, because there are Jewish leaders who are willing to vouch for him. He is a man who understands the importance of relationships and connections, and the power of mutual concern more than coercion. Notice, he never actually speaks to Jesus face to face in the story – but others bring messages from him and serve as references for him. He is a man who understands the giving and obeying of orders, and the importance of structures of authority – the chain of command. He says it himself: “I also – like you are, Jesus – I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go,' and he goes, and to another, "Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this,' and the slave does it." Still, he does not simply demand that Jesus do his bidding – he deploys his influences and connections to seek Jesus’ favor in helping him.

The Centurion is a pagan, but he believes that Jesus can heal his slave boy. Even though he probably practices the Roman cultic sacrifices, he has faith in this Galilean Messiah. He sees that for all his power and authority, he needs Jesus. He is an insider in his world, a man of power and privilege, but he understands that in Jesus’ realm, he is an outsider. Nevertheless, he loves this slave boy so much that he is willing to send for a virtual nobody, a man powerless in the social schema of the day, but one whose authority he recognizes as analogous to his own.

And so, he sends his messengers to bring Jesus to heal the boy, then, perhaps not wanting Jesus to defile himself by entering the home of a pagan, he sends them a second time.
“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Jesus is amazed.
“Only speak the word!”
Jesus turns to the crowd around him and says,
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

And he does speak the work, and the servant is healed, and God’s power and authority are demonstrated. God’s power extends even to the suffering slave in the home of a centurion.
Jesus’ authority, which has its foundation in the grace of God, reaches over the head of officers, beyond governments, and past the realm of any earthly powers. Not only that, the healing love of Jesus comes even to one who has not explicitly followed him. That Centurion might not have known much about these people of the Way, but he knew one thing for certain – he needed Jesus. He needed grace.

The grace of God is extended without regard for the expressed faith of the recipient – that’s what grace is!  But power and authority are tricky things for us Christians, here in the 21st century, like they were for that Centurion. We think that because we have succeeded in our careers, or because we had the good fortune to be born into a particular class or race, or because we are Americans, or because we worked hard, or because we try to be good, that somehow we deserve some special treatment, or particular privilege.

But we are not exempt. We still need Jesus.
Our income or race or class or achievements or even our good deeds do not spare us when cancer comes, when the storms bear down, when death approaches, when a loved one is dying. Being a member of the dominant culture, or race, or political party, or even the dominant religion, does not give us any power or authority whatsoever over evil, over suffering, or over others. In fact, being Christians sets us at odds with the dominant culture; our faith in Jesus Christ leads us to confess our powerlessness.

The Centurion recognized that his power was useless when compared to the power and authority of Jesus, because when it came to ultimate concerns, like life and death, like the life of one whom he loved, the Centurion had to give up his privilege. He had to confess that he needed God’s healing grace through Jesus Christ. And that grace was available to him!

God’s grace recognizes us as the needy and helpless people we are, and heals us, whether or not we are worthy. Grace recognizes that we are powerless, and speaks the word of healing. When we are faced with matters of ultimate concern, like life and healing and wholeness and relationships, only the power of God’s grace and the authority of Jesus’ love hold sway.

And because of that, thanks be to God! – we can know what real power and authority are. We have power, through God’s grace, to lift up those who are downtrodden.  We have authority, through the name of Jesus, to live in love and compassion for others – not just our friends and family, but also our neighbors, and strangers, and enemies. Because Jesus can speak, and with a word, bring healing grace, we have the power and authority to open our arms in hospitality to everyone, not just those whom we think “deserve” to be cared for, but everyone, just as Jesus opened his arms to us, the undeserving, the proud and the humble, the mighty and the lowly, the young and the old, you and me.

Only say the word, Lord, and we shall be healed.
That word is grace, abundant, extravagant, and endless.
Thanks be to God that we are under that authority.
Thanks be to God that we need Jesus, and he is here for us, to speak the word.
Amen.




[1] Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted on Cotter, p. 114