Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humility: Mercy at the Margins

Luke 18: 9-14
October 27, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We’re now well into our season of Stewardship, this being the third of six Sundays during which we are paying particular attention to our Christian commitment, with an emphasis on the words that emerge from our Scripture readings that reveal and signify our faith in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Our first Sunday focused on gratitude as we heard the story of the one leper in ten, a Samaritan and a leper, thus doubly an outcast, who returned to thank Jesus for his healing, and was made whole by his faith. In this 18th chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are again listening as Jesus tells stories. He has told, as we heard last week, of a widow who was persistent in her pursuit of justice for her cause, and he talked about the need to be persistent in prayer, to pray always, and not lose heart. The one story wasn’t enough, however, and, typical of Luke’s attention to those on the margins, we have another story of an outcast. Let’s listen for God’s word for us today as Jesus tells this parable in Luke 18:9-14:

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is such a clever storyteller. He’s just told a parable about an unjust judge and poor widow woman, a woman at the margins of society, and how God will grant mercy to those who cry out for justice. In Luke’s account, he barely stops to take a breath before he goes on to tell a second parable, which we’ve usually called “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” We tend to see this story as a clear contrast in black and white: there’s the pompous, arrogant Pharisee who thinks he is all that and a bag of pita chips, and the humble, hangdog tax collector who only seeks God’s mercy.

Listen to this arrogant man:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Can you imagine such a prayer? “Oh Lord, we give you thanks that we are not like other people: politicians, drunkards, junkies, Muslims, Yankees fans, and people from Indiana…”

Who would PRAY such a thing? 
Who would SAY such things? 
Who would even THINK such things? 
Well, except the Yankees fan one… (I KID!)

Seriously, nobody even mildly self-aware would say such things. Just for the record, neither would a Pharisee. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were religious Jews who had kept the law and maintained the tradition during very difficult times. Their faithfulness had kept the people and the traditions alive. They were not all like this man, nor did Jesus intend to indicate that. Nobody would have expected a Pharisee to be such a Judgy McJudger.

Neither would anyone have expected a tax collector to enter the temple. Just as unlikely as the self-righteous Pharisee, is the humble tax collector, beating his chest and pleading for mercy. Tax collectors were basically independent contractors, in Jesus’ time. They had a certain amount of taxes they had to collect and hand over to the Romans. Anything they could get over and above that amount, by whatever methods they could get it,was theirs to keep. Their profit margin. And they got it by threats, extortion, and other unsavory means. They were like mafia thugs, demanding protection money…“Nice little fig orchard ya got here…shame if anything happened to it…”

So a tax collector coming to pray is just as unexpected as an arrogant Pharisee. But here they are, here in Jesus’ parable, and he makes it clear which one will be justified and which one will not. Pretty obvious.

Aren’t you glad we got an easy one this week – a nice slow pitch, right across the center of the plate: I’m sure glad we aren’t like that self-righteous Pharisee! I mean, we have plenty to be proud of, we can list a lot of accomplishments and good deeds we have done, but we would never be so arrogant, so conceited, so supercilious as this smug, self-important, bigheaded Pharisee.

But wait a minute…
This Pharisee, his prayer is all about himself. And as soon as the words of my prayer leave my mouth, thanking God that I am not like him, I’m doing the exact same thing. Accccck! I don’t want to be like that Pharisee!

Let’s be more like the humble tax collector, who asks only for God’s mercy. But wait – beating his chest and begging for mercy – that’s all this tax collector does. He’s not repentant. He’s not promising he’ll change. He just drops by the synagogue to pray and tell God he’s a worthless worm. He’s probably going to walk out of the synagogue and get back to work.  And who is it that goes home justified? Obviously, not the one who exalted himself. Of course not – it is the one who humbled himself.

I have a dear friend, a retired Presbyterian minister, who always wanted the chance to preach his final sermon, a sermon he had thought long and hard about, a sermon titled: “My great humility, and how I accomplished it.” The joke is so funny because he would never do it, which just goes to show how truly humble he really is, right?

Ohhhh, so that’s it…this simple little parable about pride and humility… it isn’t so simple after all. It’s a trap, this parable! This obvious choice – it is a trap!

I want to pause for a moment to talk about pride, guilt and shame. The kind of pride we are talking about here is not the justifiable pride that we take in a job well done. It is the pride of arrogance, of taking credit for success that is not ours to claim – thank you, God, that I am not… you can fill in the blank.

Guilt is the feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrong, whether real or imagined. It is the admission that we have done something wrong.

Shame, on the other hand is a painful feeling about oneself – the sense of humiliation, embarrassment, and worthlessness. A simple way to say it is that guilt is the sense that I’ve done something bad. Shame is the sense that I am something bad.

Often, arrogance and unwarranted pride like that demonstrated by the Pharisee is a cover-up for a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. And sometimes, the kind of humility demonstrated by the tax collector is a sham, a plea for mercy in hopes of escaping punishment. Shame and guilt and pride – all of them, as Jesus knew, plague us. When we are too smug and content, so sure of our own self-sufficiency, then grace and mercy have no meaning— and God has no meaning. We don’t even look for forgiveness. When we believe we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, our faith is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how Jesus gives us life, how people change, and how life flows.[1]

So the parable is not as simple as it seems.
It isn’t just a choice between pride or humility. Pride or humility -- as soon as we accept the obvious conclusion, the one that makes us announce we are glad not be like that, we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking too highly of ourselves. And if we choose humility, then we are proud of ourselves, and in danger of becoming self-righteous.

You want to know the secret – the release from this Gordian knot?
I will tell you the secret of this parable: It is not about us and our pride or our humility; neither of them really makes any difference to God. It is not about you. It is not about me. It is only about God – about who God is, about God’s mercy, about God’s grace.

The Pharisee came into the synagogue and recited an inventory of his good points, updating the Almighty on all that this Pharisee had done for God lately. The tax collector came into the synagogue and threw himself on the mercy of God, which is really the only place for any of us to start. And no matter where we do start, the place where we end up is in God’s grace and mercy. Our transformation begins the moment we stand in God’s presence, and give ourselves over to God’s grace. We confess that we are people in need of grace. But it still isn’t about our need or our humility – it is about God’s mercy.

Even if we are at rock bottom, utterly desperate, crying out for God, fully aware of our hopeless condition, entirely aware of our need for grace, it is God’s freedom, God’s action, and God’s initiative that lift us up. Through God’s grace, we begin to change, and in that process we begin to see ourselves as made in God’s image, utterly beloved for who we are. There’s a saying that God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way.  

Through God’s grace, we are justified – re-aligned, made right.
You know what justification is – you can see it on all kinds of printed material. When a document is left-justified, everything lines up on the left. Same thing – right justified, everything lines up on the right. Fully justified, it lines up on both left and right. When God in Christ fully justifies us, there is nobody left in the margins, nobody still marginalized. When we are fully justified, each one of us is encompassed within the body of Christ.

God’s mercy extends to the margins and beyond, and whether we are proud or humble, rich or poor, old or young, Cardinals or Cubs fans, even Yankees fans, God in mercy welcomes us. And those who were last in line come to the head of the line, and those who were brought low in the world will be lifted up, and those who are humbled will be exalted.

We come into the presence of Jesus bringing our pride and our guilt, bringing even our deepest shame, and he offers words of grace that pull us in from the margins and teach us the humility of those who have been loved and forgiven.

Thanks be to God for the Word!

Whether you are more like the Pharisee or more like the tax collector, this blessing is for you, for me, for each of us:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace,
to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.[2]

[1] Richard Rohr

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Persistence: When You Pray, Move Your Feet

When You Pray, Move Your Feet
Luke 18: 1-8
October 20, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that we are in our season of Stewardship, and that our particular emphasis this year is on words – words that count, words that matter, words that describe Christian commitment. We began last week with gratitude, and we continue this week with persistence. That word comes from the gospel story in Luke.

We’re well into the gospel of Luke with these stories, and Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He’ll be stopping through Jericho on the way, and en route, he is teaching, healing and telling stories. He has been telling his disciples about the kingdom of God, that kingdom which is coming and is already here. Now he has begun to compare those who are rich with those who are poor. Luke’s gospel pays particular attention to the people who are on the bottom – those who are without status, without means, without power. So through the lens of Luke’s stories about Jesus, we gain a clearer view of what has been called “the preferential option for the poor.”

In today’s reading, Jesus tells a story. And like most of his stories, it sounds simple, but it contains layers of meaning. Let’s listen for what God might have us learn in this story from Luke 18:1-8:
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Jesus chose a widow for the main character of this parable. To be a widow is to be a woman who has lost someone, to be named only as a widow is to be defined by that loss. Poet Donald Hall described that loss like this:
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.[1]

That’s the hard truth of loss, isn’t it? For a widow, the loss of her husband is a permanent, ongoing truth. For many widows, it is the loss of almost everything good.

Let’s talk about widows. Many of us, in spite of our numerous friendships with actual widows, carry a mental image of a widow in our heads. Say the word “widow” and what comes to mind? Someone like that that sweet little old lady in the Tweety Bird cartoons – a dear old soul in frumpy clothes, gray hair wrapped up in a bun, in a dusty parlor surrounded by tchotchke – collector’s plates and figurines and painted china and seventeen cats. Or, barring the cats, a yappy little dog with health problems.

The truth is far more interesting, and more varied. A widow in the real world may be just as active, and more engaged, than her younger, married counterparts. She may live on a shoestring, but she lives well, and often is active in the community, in volunteer work, and in the church. Sadly, in the United States, elderly widows are four times more likely to live below the poverty line than married elderly women. Globally, many widows in developing countries are in terrible circumstances. They are living in poverty, without access to health care or income, often homeless -- exiled from their homes and deprived of rights to property or even any legal recourse to claim inheritance, or support for their children.

In Jesus’ time on the earth, to be widowed was often to be in a terrible situation. Women could not work or inherit property, so that absent a caring family or supportive community or adult son, a woman could be forced to become a slave or a beggar – or worse. But the expectation regarding the care of widows was clear. God’s mercy to the Israelites when they were enslaved formed the foundation of the command to care for widows and orphans. Severe judgment was threatened for those who threatened widows, or those who neglected them.

In the 1st century early church, widows had a place of honor and respect. The widow was characterized as one whose piety leads her to continual prayer: “The real widow, left alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day."[2] Because she was alone, she could devote herself fully to God’s work. We encounter widows often in Luke’s Gospel: Anna, the widow who blessed the infant Jesus, “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” Jesus severely and roundly condemned those who “devour widow's houses” and he praised the widow who put two copper coins in the treasury. These widows were not just vulnerable victims in need of protection, they were strong, faithful women, devoted to prayer, serving God.

The widow in this parable Jesus told was obviously that kind of widow – even though the judge obviously cared nothing for what the Torah said about the requirement to support and provide for the widow. This widow, in this parable, was going to get justice for her case, whether the judge liked it or not.
Her pressing of her suit was relentless. She badgered the judge.
Day and night. Night and day. Grant me justice!
On and on and on and on and on…
In fact, in the Greek it is almost funny – she was “battering” the judge with her demands,
and he said she was “giving him a black eye” with her insistent demands.

The judge did not give in to the widow because of the merits of her case, though from the way Jesus told the story, we assume that her case did have merits. The judge gave in to the widow because she wore him down. If this unjust judge could be worn down by this insistent widow, how much more, Jesus said, God will hear our prayers for justice!

The thing is, we don’t have to wear God down. We don’t need to complain and nag and whine and natter at God. We only need to pray, to talk to God, to offer up our needs, our hopes, our concerns and our joys, offer them up. It isn’t a process whereby we drop in a prayer and out comes a new bike, as if God is some kind of cosmic vending machine, or a divine butler, standing nearby with a tray, awaiting our latest request.

It is a process of opening ourselves, persisting in faith and trust and hope – persisting in prayer. Because prayer changes things. Prayer doesn’t necessarily change God’s mind, as if God is just waiting for us to make a good case, or God is making hash marks on the wall , and when we get enough, BINGO! we get what we ask for.

Prayer changes people, and people change things.

When we are persistent in prayer, our prayers change. Our words are filtered and sifted through persistent prayer, until they become a call for righteousness, until the desire for God’s perfect justice emerges. Prayer changes us, as the essence and meaning of our prayers come to light, we find that the essence of our hearts is altered, and the prayers which began with our own wants, or which grew out of our badly concealed resentments, or which began with our desire for vengeance or satisfaction, our words are transformed through God’s grace. Our desires begin to conform to God’s mercy and righteousness.

But the change does not end there. Because as we are transformed by God and our wills conform to God’s will, we arise from prayer as changed people who can change people.
The African proverb says, “When you pray, move your feet.”

Persistent prayer makes for persistent people.
Persistent people take action in the world.
Persistent people care for those whom God loves –the littlest, the last, the lost, the least, and they do not give up. They pray – WE pray – for those who are hungry, and then we serve them food. We pray for those who are thirsty, and as we pray, we build the well, and bring them a cup of clean water. We pray for those who are oppressed, whether by poverty or pride, and we stand with them and speak up for justice. We pray for as much light and truth as we can bear, and then we rise to bear what light we can. We pray with words, and move in action, knowing that while our words may divide us, our action in the name of God can unite us.

Jesus ends his story with questions for his listeners. He asks, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”
We persist in prayer, trusting that God WILL grant justice, that the long arc of the universe bends toward justice. We persist in prayer, trusting that God’s timing is not our timing.
We persist in prayer, trusting that God’s power will empower us to get up on our feet and act, as people changed by God, to care for those in need, to change injustice, to work and live and speak the word, the word which comes to us in the Son of Man, the prince of peace and the Word made Flesh.

When you pray, move your feet. And God WILL grant justice.
The word is persistence – in prayer, in action, and in faith.
And when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.

[1] Donald Hall, “Distressed Haiku” Http://
[2] (1 Tim 5:5 NRSV; cf. 5:3-16)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gratitude: A Word of Thanks

Gratitude Scrabble Tiles Upcycled Sign

Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This Sunday, we begin our season of Stewardship. I’m always a little ambivalent about that term, “Stewardship Season,” because it somehow implies that stewardship is something we only pay attention to during the fall, something that needs to be taken care of before Advent and Christmas. That makes it seem that Stewardship, in spite of our protests to the contrary, is really only about the church’s annual pledge drive. And let’s be honest – we choose this time of year for the annual pledge drive, because it is important that we have that work done before Christmas. But Stewardship, as you well know, is about far more than Pledge Commitment Sunday, and about far more than simply money. Stewardship concerns all of life – how we use all of our resources – not just money, but time and talent, and how we as human beings care for the resources we have in our shared life community, nature, the oceans, air, water, food, and all of creation. We ourselves are resources, in fact, and we are called to be good stewards of ourselves, as well – stewards of our bodies, our health and well-being, and our hearts and souls. The stewardship of self and of soul is every bit as important as the stewardship of our checkbooks.

This year, our preaching and worship for stewardship will center on certain words – words about commitment to the Christian life, and about what those words mean for us in our daily lives, as stewards of our selves, and of the community we create with one another. The first of those words – the word for this week – is gratitude. Thankfulness.

Our scripture reading is a short story of healing and gratitude. Let’s consider the context of this brief story. We are in the 17th of 24 chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Way back in chapter 9, Jesus has set his face to go toward Jerusalem. By chapter 22, he is on his way to the cross. But for now, Jesus is on the road, and the route to Jerusalem that most of his people take would very deliberately stay away from Samaria. The Samaritans were different, foreign. They believed that their faith and their way of worship were superior. So a Galilean like Jesus would normally have detoured around Samaria, even though it was a much shorter journey to pass through that land. Now, here Jesus is, going through Samaria.

Imagine, if you will, that you want to go to Galena today, but you absolutely refuse to pass through Carroll County. Your choice then, is to go back to the East, then go north, and back to the west; or you can head west, cross the Mississippi, then cross back over to Galena from Dubuque. That’s the kind of detour people would take to avoid going through Samaria. And they traveled on foot. Nobody wanted to be near Samaria or Samaritans.And certainly, nobody wanted to be anywhere near any lepers. Nobody but Jesus, that is.

Let’s listen for what the Spirit is saying to us today as we read Luke 17: 11-19.
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

The whole story was so strange, he could hardly believe it himself. They had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth, heard about his teachings, and the way he healed people. They’d heard he was passing through, so they were watching for him. Jesus was certainly a different sort of healer. He was always touching unclean people, talking to unchaperoned women, sticking his fingers in people’s ears, rubbing his spit in their eyes, talking to dead people and telling them to get up. He touched people, lifted them to their feet. There were stories of some remote healing – for the official’s son, and for the woman’s daughter who had an evil spirit. But most of the time, he was pretty hands-on.

But this time it was different. Jesus did not even touch these lepers. They were walking along, near the border of Samaria, at the edge of the road where the dust faded into weeds. When they saw him enter this village, they called out to him. They hadn’t really discussed it among themselves – they weren’t friends, really, just thrown together by circumstance. Their skin conditions were different – some looked more like a rash, others like eczema or psoriasis, some might have actually had leprosy. It didn’t matter – they were outcasts, not allowed to enter town, no longer welcome in their own homes, forced to beg for scraps and handouts, just to survive.

It didn’t matter either, not really, who first called out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” But once one of them did, the other nine joined the chorus. Instead of shouting the warning cry of lepers, “Unclean! Unclean!” they cried out for mercy: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

It was hard to tell at first, and at that distance, whether Jesus was actually paying any attention. He was walking along in an intense discussion with his disciples. But then, he looked up, looked directly at them, and told them to go show themselves to the priest. They didn’t really understand, but they did what he said, because it would indicate that they were going for verification that they were healed. But he didn’t say that, nor did he touch them or say they were made well.

And as they went they were made clean. They were walking along, hopeful but not at all certain, going in hopes of a bill of clean health from the priests. As they headed away, they looked down at themselves, and looked at each other… they saw that… they were cured. Whatever skin condition they suffered from…gone. The isolation…ended. Their condition as outcasts…over.

They could go home. They could hug their wives. Embrace their mothers. They could tuck their children into bed at night, and get up and go to their work in the morning. They could go to worship and weddings and funerals, spend time with friends. They would no longer have to shout out the warning “UNCLEAN” as they approached someone on the road. Through his mercy and grace, Jesus restored their lives to them!

Certainly, every one of the ten of them recognized this. Certainly, every one of the ten of them realized what had happened. But only one came back. Only one turned around and ran back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. Only one returned to throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Only one said thank you – thank you for the gift of his life restored. And he was a Samaritan— an excluded, disdained, looked down on, rejected Samaritan. But he understood gratitude. He would spend the rest of his life remembering that day, that moment. He would spend the rest of his life saying thanks be to God.

For about the last ten years or so, researchers have been trying to understand gratitude.
There’s a professor at the University of California who does little else. He says gratitude has two key components: “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life. The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. …true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people— or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” The research shows that the daily, conscious practice of gratitude has great benefits for people, people of all ages. People who practice gratitude enjoy benefits that are physical, psychological, and social.
·         Stronger immune systems
·         Less bothered by aches and pains
·         Lower blood pressure
·         Exercise more and take better care of their health
·         Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking.
·         Higher levels of positive emotions
·         More alert, alive, and awake
·         More joy and pleasure
·         More optimism and happiness
·         More helpful, generous, and compassionate
·         More forgiving
·         More outgoing
·         Feel less lonely and isolated. [1]
The research indicated that all it takes to cultivate thankfulness are a few simple routines, like counting your blessings every day, or keeping  a list of things you are thankful for in a gratitude journal, or, as was suggested in the weekly devotionals in our church newsletter, make a gratitude jar, and keep adding items to it. Interestingly, people of faith are more grateful, and the more grateful a person becomes, the more likely they are to embrace faith. People who are both faithful and grateful are happier.

Another group of researchers in Pennsylvania tested a variety of practices to see if they made depressed people any happier, and if that effect lasted at all. One of the most effective practices, they found, was for people to “write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.” This seemingly small act not only had a huge impact on happiness, it lasted for a whole month![2]

Long before Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, or Robert Emmons at UC Davis – this Samaritan, a leper healed by Jesus got it, without a Ph.D or a tenured faculty position, or any research at all. The experience of being healed moved one man, one out of ten, to come back and say thank you. And Jesus didn’t just say, “You’re welcome.” He knew there was more to it than that. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.

The grateful man was cured, and now he was healed, not only able to return to community, but made whole, restored. That’s what research is catching up to: the practice of gratitude restores us. The word for the week is gratitude, a central characteristic of our faith. We are stewards of thankfulness. Jesus might just as well have said: “Get up and go on your way; your gratitude has made you well.”

Thankfulness gives us a way of seeing the world that changes everything –how we live, the choices we make, the way we treat others. It makes us more generous, more contented, less envious. It makes us more faithful. It makes us well.
Through Jesus Christ, it heals us and makes us whole.
Thanks be to God!


Sunday, October 6, 2013

One Lord, One Faith, One Table (Table Manners)

One Lord, One Faith, One Table
1 Corinthians 10: 16-17, 27-31
October 6, 2013, World Communion Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 
28 But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 
29 I mean the other's conscience, not your own.
For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience? 
30 If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

Maybe I should have a name-that-sermon contest more often.
The last time I did it, a few weeks back, several folks said that looking for a title helped them listen better! You don’t have to come up with a title this week, though you can if you want, but I do think that I have a better one than the one in the bulletin: “Table Manners.” You see what you think.

As you probably know by now, today is World Communion Sunday, a celebration that originated at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh way back in 1933. The practice was adopted by what was then the United Presbyterian Church – the Northern church at the time, in 1936, and was adopted by what is now the National Council of Churches in 1940. So World Communion Sunday is in our Presbyterian DNA, as it were. World Communion Sunday has been around for as long as our building – ninety years, this year! -- and the practice of the Lord’s Supper has been a part of the church for as long as there has been a church.

When we celebrate this sacrament, we celebrate the essential joy of the Lord’s Supper, the best symbol we have of God’s abundance, love, and grace. When we celebrate this day, we celebrate the eternal unity of Christ’s church, the community made one in Christ Jesus, just as many grains make one bread and many grapes make one cup.

Jesus talked about grains and grapes fairly often, and he was fond of using them as metaphors for our lives. He said that he was the vine, and we are the branches. He said that unless a grain falls to the ground and dies, it can’t become the seed of new life and a bountiful harvest. There are so many layers of meaning in communion, then, that we mostly just have to pick one to focus on, and acknowledge that what we say is incomplete.

The Apostle Paul, addressing table fellowship in this letter to the church at Corinth, does just that. His attention is on our table manners. Many of us, if not most of us, learned manners at the family dinner table. The supper table was where we caught up on the news of the day, shared information, tattled on each other, encountered new foods, and had our behavior shaped as members of a family.

My family was unique even in the sixties in that we had almost every meal together at the kitchen table. Even then, the demands of work and multiple schedules were changing the family. Dinner was no longer a gathering time –  people began to eat different meals at different times, when sports and jobs and plans permitted. Kids didn’t have to learn to cook anymore, they only had to learn to work the microwave.

But back then, in many good and important ways, families like ours did some of their best work at the supper table. And we learned some important rules.
  • Wash your hands before you come to the table.
  • Pray before you eat.
  • Break your bread before you eat it.
  • Cut your meat – don’t stab the whole piece with your fork and eat like a caveman.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Even if you do not like broccoli, you must take some and eat it.
  • You cannot hide broccoli in a glass of milk.
  • Broccoli drenched with milk tastes awful.
  • Even the dog does not like broccoli.
  • Don’t spit your broccoli out on your plate.

This was all very important information, mother said, because someday you are going to be at table with someone else, and you need to know how to behave properly, so as not to offend them. If you are invited to a meal with a friend, you must eat what is served. You may not turn up your nose, or ask “what IS that?” or attempt to give your food to the dog, if there is one, or hide it under the rim of your plate. You may not spit food out.  Even if it is broccoli. Even if it is calves’ liver.

I think I’ve shared with you before that one of the nicest things a little friend ever did for me was to eat an entire slab of dry overcooked liver off my plate, sneaking bite after bite when her mother wasn’t looking. Greater love has no kid than this…

The issue that Paul is addressing in the second part of our reading is similar, but much more serious. Not unlike today, but for different reasons, people sitting down at the dinner table wanted to know where the meat came from. Had it been sacrificed to idols? Was it offered up to pagan gods?

Paul has spent a good bit of this letter describing Christian freedom – the truth that just as God freed the people of Israel from slavery to Egypt, God in Christ has freed us from slavery to sin. Because we have this freedom, lots of things that used to be forbidden are no longer any big deal – like meat offered to idols. BUT our freedom has its limits!

This was serious business then, and may be even more serious now. Our freedom is limited by conscience – the conscience of others. This is not political, constitutionally guaranteed freedom, not the freedom of worldly governments and powers. As Christians, when our exercise of freedom infringes on the conscience of another, when our free expression wounds the body, we are called to limit that freedom, so as not to offend, so as not to create an embarrassing moral dilemma for a brother or sister!

Paul is saying that there is no problem of conscience with eating meat sacrificed to idols, unless doing so offends those at the table with you. And if you are offended by the prospect of eating that meat, and the person serving you is not, it is like that darn calves’ liver –  you are supposed to politely take it and eat it and NOT SAY ANYTHING!

So we come to this table, this bountiful, generous table, spilling over with good things, with foods from every place, bread from every land, foods both familiar and strange, comforting and challenging. We come to this table to receive the bread and the cup, but also to be received as a member of Christ’s body, the church. We come to remember and also to be re-membered – to be put back together.

It is no accident that our Peacemaking Offering is brought to the table on this Sunday when we envision all the world coming to the feast. The heart of peacemaking is that our first concern is for the other, that our actions and words are focused on loving our neighbor, and that our faith in Jesus Christ, the host at this table, commands us not only to love our neighbor, but to love our enemies. In a time when people are divided over politics and policy, when conversations disintegrate into rhetoric and sound bites, when positions are taken and compromise is seen as capitulation, when individuals suffer loss because of a group’s desire to WIN, we as Christians are called to a higher charge:

To love as Christ loved, in order to bring glory to God.

So this feast Christ has spread for us is both a gift and a challenge.
We gather symbolically at this table with the great communion of saints.
We gather symbolically at this table with all of our ecumenical partners.
We gather symbolically at this table even with those who do not welcome us!
And here there is plenty for all, and everyone is bid a welcome, even if they disagree with us, even if they do not like us, even if we do not like them, even if we think they are dead wrong.

Because the driving force of our lives, the purpose of our community, the most powerful law we have been given, and the widest freedom we can imagine all spring from one source: Jesus Christ. In him we are commanded to love and to live for God’s glory. We obey that commandment when we love one another, when we love our neighbors, when we love even our enemies, and we fulfill that purpose when we gather at the bountiful and varied feast given to us by the love of God in Christ Jesus, welcoming all who would come and blessing even those who do not partake.

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
It is just good table manners.
Thanks be to God!