Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rewinding the Year with Scripture and Song


The festivals and seasons of the Christian year (or liturgical calendar) offer a way to order the annual life of the church according to the life of Christ and the events of salvation history. Maybe the liturgical year it is something you have noticed, and wondered about, or maybe it is something that you’ve never paid much attention to. But we cycle through seasons of the year inside the church, just like outside. This Sunday, which is Christ the King Sunday, marks the end of the church year, and next Sunday is the beginning of the new year: the first Sunday of Advent. To mark this change, and to perhaps help us to experience the liturgical year more deeply, this worship service is shaped like the church year – in rewind! You’ll see, as we move through worship, that we will have readings and music that lift up a particular day or Season. You will notice that some seasons focus more on certain texts or ideas. So have fun with this, see what new things you can learn, and enjoy the service as we rewind the church year and get ready for the new year! 

(Note to readers: much of this information came from the website of the PC(USA) -   
For the children's time, we talked about the seasons and how they change, and each child received a bookmark decorated with ribbons of green, purple, red and white. Our table, as you can see above, was adorned with stoles of the seasons. Each of the four readers wore a stole as well, and the stoles corresponded to the season they discussed.  All songs come from the Presbyterian Hymnal.)

Christ the King

At the conclusion of the Christian year, the church gives thanks and praise for sovereignty of Christ, who is Lord of all creation and is coming again in glory to reign (see Revelation 1:4-8). Its color is WHITE, the color we use for celebrations – weddings, the Lord’s Supper, and funerals. The scripture readings and music are those which lift up the reign of Jesus Christ over all of creation and the church. This festival is celebrated on the last Sunday of the Christian year, a week before the season of Advent begins.

Call to Worship        Colossians 1:15-20
Leader: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.
People:  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Leader: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
ALL: Let us worship God!

Opening Song:                      Come Christians Join to Sing

Ordinary Time
Ordinary time is actually two different seasons – the period between Christmas and Lent, and the period between Pentecost and Advent. The term “ordinary time” may sound like it refers to something that is everyday and uninteresting, but it is actually a term referring to “ordinal” or numbered Sundays. Usually the scriptures and music in this season focus on the stories of Jesus and the Epistles of the New Testament. The color for ordinary time is GREEN unless it is pre-empted by a special day or ceremony.

Matthew 4: 18-23
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Song:                                                         Amen, Amen


Pentecost is the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit descending in a mighty rush of wind and flame to inspire the church’s proclamation of Christ’s rising and to empower its mission and ministry to the world. Easter is a season of 50 days ending at Pentecost, because it is based on the ancient Jewish festival of the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot. The Festival of Weeks later came to be called Pentecost (“50th day”) by Greek speaking Jews. The color of Pentecost is RED. On Pentecost we sing and celebrate the Holy Spirit, and we read scripture about the Holy Spirit, such as this one from Romans 8, our call to confession.

Call to Confession   Romans 8: 26-27
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 

Prayer of Confession (sung): Spirit

Silent prayers

Assurance of Pardon      Romans 8: 28-31
Leader: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 

People: What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! Thanks be to God.

Easter: The Resurrection

Easter isn’t just a Sunday — it’s a season. One day out of 365 is hardly sufficient to celebrate the great mystery of our faith — that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Easter lasts seven weeks, spanning the 50 days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday.
The season of Easter is intended to be a joyful time for celebrating the presence of the risen Christ in the church. During this season, the scriptures focus on the resurrection of Jesus, and on the post-resurrection events described in the Gospels. It’s appropriate to sing Easter hymns throughout the season. The color for Easter is white – the color of celebration.

Matthew 28:1-8
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, "He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Easter song:                          Jesus Christ is Risen Today

The season of Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and self-examination in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord at Easter. It is a period of 40 days — like the flood of Genesis, Moses’ sojourn at Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Jonah’s call to Ninevah to repent and Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. Sundays are not counted in this reckoning of the time, because every Lord’s Day is a celebration of the resurrection. In the early church, Lent was a time of preparation for the celebration of baptism at the Easter Vigil. In many communities of faith it remains a time to equip and nurture candidates for baptism and confirmation and to reflect deeply on the theme of baptismal discipleship. The scriptures during this time help us to reflect on our discipleship and to accompany Christ on his journey to the cross. The color for Lent is purple, the color of penitence.

Matthew 20: 17-28
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised." Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?"They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." 

Lenten Song:                                    What Wondrous Love

There is no better response to the wondrous love of God expressed in Jesus Christ than to offer our gifts – our time and talent, and our offerings. Let us bring our offerings to God.

Prayer of Dedication


Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence in the world in Jesus Christ. In particular, we celebrate the revelation of God’s promise and purpose to the nations of the world. The magi came from the East to worship to the Christ child, and God’s covenant of grace is extended to all who believe the good news of Christ Jesus. The symbolism of light reminds of the star that guided the magi, and of the bright dawning of God’s self-revelation in Christ. Epiphany hymns and scripture tell of the visit of the magi to see Jesus, and its color is white.

Matthew 2: 1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Epiphany Songs:                                     We Three Kings  

The Season of Christmas extends for 12 days – from Christmas Day to Epiphany. Since at least the fourth century in Rome, Christians celebrate the incarnation and nativity of Jesus Christ on December 25. The season between December 25 and January 6 (Epiphany) has become an occasion for the church to celebrate and give thanks for the arrival of God’s Word made flesh which even death could not extinguish. Its color is white.

Matthew 1: 18-23
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

Christmas Song:                               Joy to the World


Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” During the season of Advent, we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and watch with expectant hope for his coming again. In its historical origins, the season of Advent was patterned after the season of Lent, a six-week period of penitence and preparation for Easter. The four weeks of Advent present an opportunity for communal discernment and personal examination, as the church prepares to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord and looks with hope for Christ’s return. Scripture and songs focus our attention on prophecy and preparation. The color for Advent is purple, the color of penitence.
This year, our observance of Advent will focus on the prophecy of the Messiah from the book of Isaiah, and the many names and descriptions of the Savior. Our celebration of Advent each will lift up a different aspect of the prophecy and fulfillment we find in Jesus Christ.

Closing Song:                                    Prepare the Way



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Community: Flesh and Blood

Community: Flesh and Blood
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

If you were here last week, you’ll recall that the Thessalonians, the people of Thessalonica who received this letter, were one of the early churches. Thessaloniki, as it was originally called before the Romans took it over, was a walled city, founded in the second century before Christ, and named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was an important city for ocean-going ships, and its deep harbor, built by the Romans, was used until the 18th century.[1] It was also an early outpost of Christianity.

Also important to remember is that this letter was written to the church probably around the year 52-54, so the Gospels were not yet extant. That means that the early church in Thessalonica was composed of people gathering in homes to worship on the Lord’s day. They were operating from what they had learned from the Hebrew Scriptures, our “Old Testament,” but their Bible, as well as oral tradition of the stories of Jesus. Their other significant source of guidance was what they received in letters.

One more reminder about this reading – the people of this Christian community are having some troubles. One of them is that there is a belief among them that the Day of the Lord has already come. And there is apparently another group who believes that Jesus is coming back any minute. Since they believe that, they have stopped contributing to the church, stopped doing their work, and they are causing problems. Big problems.

Let’s listen for God’s word to our Christian community today:
6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Our word for today, our final Sunday of Stewardship Season, is community.
Since we’ve been talking about words for several weeks now, I want to start by unpacking that word, “community.” Probably we have some shared understanding of what community is, or what community should be. Probably we also have some very divergent definitions of community.
To quote Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride:” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, let’s start with a definition from Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  whose book Life Together is, in my opinion and that of many others the best possible writing on Christian community. Bonhoeffer said that Christian community is characterized by Christ! No surprise, I suppose – but the emphasis, the first emphasis, is on Jesus Christ – on what makes a Christian community Christian. Normally I avoid long quotes in sermons, but I think this is worth hearing:

“Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.
This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ.
The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.” [2]

Our first definition of community is not geographic, or even denominational, but spiritual: we are a community only through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our connection point. Notice, it is not “our belief in Jesus Christ” that makes us community. It is he, himself, that makes us community. But community, now and in the church in Thessalonica, is composed of flesh and blood – of actual people, who have actual lives.

And actual people with actual lives will have divisions, from time to time. Real flesh and blood people – even Christians – don’t always agree. So then, what is going on in this first century Christian community that is cause for this warning from the apostle who writes to them?

As I said earlier, there is division over whether the Day of the Lord has come, and there are some who believe that Jesus will come back at any moment. They are using this belief to justify their idleness. Although it has been used that way, this is NOT, I repeat NOT a scripture that lets us off the hook for feeding those who are hungry. Jesus was very clear about what he intended for us to do about hunger. This is an admonition to those people in this Christian community.

In fact, the writer of this letter does a kind of a pun, in the Greek. To describe those who are working,  he uses the word ergazomai,  from the root word ergon - that’s the basis of our word ergonomics, that describes objects designed for work. Then, to describe those who are not working he uses the word periergazomai - they are literally, “working around” So they not only are not busy, they are busybodies!

They are not just not working, they are working mischief. And this is not acceptable.

The final verse of the reading sums up what is acceptable: Do not grow weary in doing what is right. Do not grow weary in doing what is right.

It is all too easy to grow weary in doing what is right. For one thing, we are busy people.
We have jobs, and volunteer work, and families. Some of us have children to raise, others have aging parents to care for. All of us have demands on our time, our resources, and our energy. Sometimes, just looking at our calendars makes us grow weary.

For another thing, it is often quite difficult to figure out “what is right” and whether we are the person who ought to do it.

Should we help the person who is begging on the street? Or is that just enabling them?

Do we create more programs that give away food and necessities?
Or does it just create unhealthy dependency?

Is it better to take a group of people to do a little bit of work for a week or should we send a check to a disaster aid agency?

Do we insist that the kids must get up and get dressed and come to church, or are we just going to end up with young adults who hate church?

I wish I could give you a bunch of clear cut answers to these dilemmas, but the truth is, we each have to answer those questions for ourselves, based on the particular circumstances with which we are faced.

We don’t have easy answers. But we do have community, the community formed for us in Jesus Christ. And we do have the guiding principles that help us to know what Jesus would have us do – those words which have been our focus:

  •         Gratitude: thanksgiving to God for all that we have been given.
  •          Persistence: we are confident to pray, and to persist in our prayers for others, because we know that God loves us.
  •          Humility: we do not think of ourselves more highly than others; instead we put others ahead of ourselves.
  •          Reconciliation: we are always willing to offer forgiveness and to seek reconciliation – not only with one another but with those outside our community.
  •          Justice: we seek justice for those who are oppressed, and work together toward restorative justice for all the world.
  •          Community: we are the body of Christ, who is the head. All we do is because of him, and for him, and the glory of God.

In the 1600s, a man called Nicholas Herman, gazing at a tree made barren by winter, understood in a flash of revelation that the tree was awaiting a resurrection that would come with the spring, “grasped deeply the extravagance of God's grace”[3]

From that moment, Nicholas felt a deep and unending love for God. He was poor, poor enough to first join the army, where he knew he would have three meals a day, and where he knew he would have a place to sleep. After some time working as a footman, at the age of 25, he entered a monastery in Paris.

He was not a learned man, so he was assigned to the monastery kitchen. He wasn’t a chef.
He washed dishes, swept the floors, and peeled potatoes. Mountains of potatoes.

He took the name Brother Lawrence, and he became a center of the monastery community – the person to whom the brothers came for advice, for consolation, for prayer and spiritual guidance. He was not idle, not a busy body, but exemplified the heart of Christian community: the willingness to give himself wholly to God.

He said: “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done,  if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work;  afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”[4]

The center of our community is Jesus Christ, and the core of our stewardship is commitment to him so that all that we do, all that we earn, all of our talents, belong to him, and we give them gladly, freely, joyfully. We do not grow weary in doing what is right, because Jesus Christ himself, a flesh and blood human, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, is the foundation and formation and the continuation of our community.

We have received everything through him; our stewardship – in every part of our lives -  is how we thank him. As Brother Lawrence observed, it is “quicker and easier just to do our common business  wholly for the love of him”[5]

Thanks be to God for this community formed by Christ, to bring glory to God!

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

[4] The Practice of the Presence of God” Brother Lawrence
[5] ibid

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Justice: A Word for Anxious Christians

Justice: A Word for Anxious Christians

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
November 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

2 Thessalonians 1-5, 13-15
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

What do you suppose is the biggest challenge the Christian church faces today?
Think about that for a minute.
How about the Presbyterian church? How about THIS church?

Here are some of the issues raised by some well-known church folk:
Thom Ranier, the CEO of Lifeway Christian publishing house did an informal survey of pastors. He asked them about challenges they face. They answered with twelve major problems – apathy, staff issues, finding and keeping volunteers, not enough time, getting buy-in from members, resistance from the older generation, the need for money, the insistence of church members to hold on to traditions at any cost, criticism, leadership needs, majoring in minors – I can’t resist sharing this detail on this issue: “We spent an hour in our last business conference discussing the fonts in our bulletins." And finally, for pastors, one of the biggest issues is the lack of true friends.

Another Christian speaker said the single biggest challenge facing the church today is “the insane busyness of Western culture.” He said, and I quote, “We load our schedules too much, and what happens is, we try to squeeze the mission of the church into what is already a too busy schedule.”[1]

If you spend just a few minutes on an internet search for the biggest challenges facing churches today, you’ll find a lot more stuff like this. There are Presbyterians who believe that our stance on abortion, or gay marriage, or the Middle East, or gun violence, or a few other issues, are the biggest issues facing us as a denomination. There are concerns among church folk about older people getting mad at parents of little kids who are noisy in worship, and the challenge of trying to introduce new music, and the extreme pain and agony of deficit budgets and church fights over what color the walls should be painted.

I confess to you that when I first asked myself this question, my answer was:
“Anxiety – the biggest issue facing the church is anxiety.”

I admit it – it has been an anxious week for me personally. We never thought we would lose Derry Beer, and it has hit us hard – a sad and shocking loss. When I am tired and grieving, I get anxious. I don’t mean a little bit, I mean my anxiety flops around all over the place like a fish pulled out of a stream. I get anxious about my calendar, about whether I have enough postage stamps, about conflicts I once had with people I haven’t seen for thirty years, about what to wear day-after-tomorrow, and where I put my black shoes – which, as you know, are never where they are supposed to be!

This week, particularly, my anxiety got really ramped up because the nominating committee had its second meeting, and not many people could come to the first meeting, or the second meeting, and we’re having a hard time hearing the word yes from people we think would be good leaders on the Session. Let me stop for just a minute here and say, to those people who have been asked and said “no,” this is not a brazen attempt to shame you into changing your mind.  I’m confident that God is calling people to lead our congregation, and we just haven’t figured out who they are yet, or we haven’t asked in the right way. Or we haven’t resorted to brazen attempts to shame you. 

But do you notice anything about these lists of issues facing the church?
Do you notice how self-oriented they sound?
Thom Rainier points out, “It appears that many of our churches in America are not effective conduits of the gospel because the members spend so much energy concerned about their own needs and preferences.”[2]

The people of the church in Thessalonica were anxious, to be sure. But they were not anxious about children’s sports or membership numbers or nominations or busy-ness or critics or money. They were anxious about two very serious issues. One was a concern that there was someone saying that the day of the Lord had already come – that somehow Christ had already returned, perhaps, and they had missed it. The other was a very genuine concern about the persecution of Christians.

I want to be crystal clear here that when I talk about persecution, I am not talking about a bad tempered atheist mocking them as they assembled for choir practice. I am not talking about the clerk at the local fruit market refusing to wish them a Merry Christmas (they didn’t celebrate Christmas in the first century, so that was a non-starter). I’m not even talking about a government edict prohibiting Christian prayers at the opening of a village meeting. I’m talking about torture, imprisonment, and death. Now that is a challenge to be worried about.

I heard recently that a pastor in a nearby town believes that Christians are being persecuted right here in Illinois, right here in Sterling and Rock Falls. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s discomfort – he feels what he feels, but really! persecution? There ARE, in fact, Christians being persecuted for their beliefs, in other parts of the world, even now. But I’d hardly say that we here at First Presbyterian Church, or anywhere in the United States, are being persecuted for our faith. But the Christians in first century Thessalonica apparently were, and they were in great distress.

This scripture is very challenging to read and understand, given that it is set in a milieu so long ago and far away from our experiences. It is particularly challenging because we know that these letters, letters to the church at Thessalonica, were written BEFORE the gospels were written down. In fact, if we were to put the books of the Bible in the order they were written, First Thessalonians would be the first book of the New Testament. There was no Christian Church; there was no centrally organized structure; there was no history or tradition to draw from. There was simply this amazing, compelling story of this man called Jesus, who had come from Galilee and spent three years teaching and healing  and calling people to new life, who had been turned over to the Roman authorities in Jerusalem, when everyone was gathered there for the Passover feast.

There was this amazing, compelling story of this man called Jesus, crucified on a garbage heap between two thieves, taken down and carried to a borrowed tomb. There was this amazing, compelling story of this man called Jesus, who rose again from the dead after three days, spoke to his disciples, ate with them, showed them his wounds, told them to love each other, told them to love their neighbors, told them to love their enemies, told them to love. He told them not to worry. Then, he promised to return, and ascended into heaven. That was it – that was what they had.

And they were willing to give their lives for that amazing compelling story.
And so, this letter has only that amazing compelling story to work from.
That, and the promise that God has given, over and over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, and in the words of Jesus, repeated by those who followed him: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. It is in the Bible about sixty times – that four-word phrase.

And the reason we should not be afraid, even in the face of all the issues facing the Christian church, even in the face of all the issues we might face right here in this church, the reason we should not be afraid is the promise of God’s justice. The Day of the Lord is coming.

The promise of God’s justice is the promise of restoration – a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness prevails over evil. The promise of God’s justice is the promise that love wins. So stand firm, and hold fast. Stand firm in your faith which rests on God’s loving-kindness, on the promise of God’s justice-love
which lifts up the fallen,
binds up the broken hearted,
sets right the broken systems of this world,
and, at the last, triumphs over evil.

Hold fast to the truth of God’s justice-love and do not be afraid.
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, hold fast to the word – the word written in Scripture, the word revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, who stands with you, who rose from the dead, and who will come again in glory who set this table and bids each one of us to come.

This day of the Lord which has yet to be revealed will bring final justice and in the meantime, God asks but one thing from you – you. God asks you to give yourself over – not to be tortured, imprisoned or killed, but to give your heart and soul and strength and mind to God’s world -- for justice.

To give yourself and all that you are to this amazing compelling story, a story which is retold again and again and again at this table, where we remember, in the bread and the cup, the exquisite justice of God – the offering of self in eternal love, for those who have done nothing to deserve it.

Do not be afraid.
Stand firm and hold fast.
Christ is at work in the world.

Thanks be to God!

Benediction – 2 Thessalonians 3: 15-17
So then, brothers and sisters,
stand firm and hold fast to the traditions
that you were taught by us,
either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,
who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope,
comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

[1] Paul Tripp interview, Austin Stone Counseling Center
[2] Thom Ranier

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Gospel Non-Sense

Preached at the ordination of Abby Mohaupt at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, California.

Matthew 25:31-46
November 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto

Matthew 25:31-46
 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'  Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'  And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'  Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Years ago, a friend gave me a refrigerator magnet with a picture of Jesus on it. On the magnet were the words: Jesus is coming. Look busy. My friend gave me this magnet as a kind of elbow-to-the-ribs joking reminder of our shared history in the world of dispensationalists. If you are a good Presbyterian, living here in the rarified air of Palo Alto, you may not have been exposed to this kind of thinking, but believe me, it is widespread.

The short definition of dispensationalism is that it is a belief in “the rapture,” the second coming of Jesus that will take believing Christians away. This rapture will be followed by a time of terrible tribulation, war and pestilence for those who have been – are you ready? – LEFT BEHIND!  Jesus is coming back. And he is pissed. (Abby said I could say that here.)

That’s what I learned as a child, growing up in Dodge City, Kansas. Jesus is coming back to catch us up into the sky, and he will sneak up on us like a thief, when we are busy doing something rotten, like dropping ants into an ant-lion’s hole, or leaving our Bible on the floor, or sassing our teacher, or cheating on our income taxes, or drinking, smoking, dancing or watching a movie, and the trumpet will sound and we will be caught up into the air in the twinkling of an eye. If we aren’t left behind. To suffer. Yes, Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me…

You can imagine what it must have been like for me as a child to come home to our normally noisy house – I have five siblings -- in which there was always someone practicing the cello or piano or trumpet, always someone arguing or reading out loud or shouting from upstairs, always someone looking for a lost shoe or yelling at some kid to get their coat on and get out the door, for Pete’s sake, we are late for your dentist appointment. If that is what home sounds like, to enter an empty, quiet house can only mean one thing: the rapture. And there I was, left behind.

Either way, stay or go, the next big event will be the tribulation, followed by the great white throne judgment. We will all be gathered up to stand in front of this great big white throne, and I suppose the ones who got raptured will be there in special party outfits, while those of us who didn’t memorize our Bible verses like we were told will be in sackcloth pants and itchy hair shirts. And then, Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. The righteous will go to heaven, and the unrighteous will go to hell.

That is, if you are saved by grace through faith, born again, you will go to be with Jesus. In heaven. If you are not, you won’t. You will go to hell, directly to hell. End of story… It has sent many a fundamentalist child running to the PC(USA).

There was a serious problem with dispensationalist logic  – if you can call it that – and it comes right from the Bible. From the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter, verses 31-46.
It’s a problem for Presbyterians, too. Because, let’s face it, this prophetic event Jesus describes doesn’t square with most of what we understand him to have said. It certainly doesn’t square with our Reformed understanding of God’s grace. Nor does it square with our understanding from the Hebrew scriptures that God is sovereign, God is merciful,
and that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Nor does it square with the rest of New Testament, especially Paul’s writings. It is right there in Ephesians 2: 8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Jesus pulls the rug out from under our theology in this text. He’s come into Jerusalem.
It’s the last week of his life on earth. He has been busy, the way Matthew depicts him, busy with apocalyptic parables – the fig tree, the talents, the bridesmaids, all of them aimed at letting us know that God’s reign is near at hand, but the day of Christ’s coming is unknown – unpredictable – unmanageable. You won’t see it coming. But when it does, you had better be ready. Because you will have to give an accounting of yourself. To Jesus. And it is not going to be pretty.

Because the people who thought they had it knocked, those of us who thought we were righteous, the ones who had already packed their carry-ons, gone through security and were waiting at the gate? Unh-unh. They were surprised, in the scene Jesus imagined.

Wait a minute, Jesus! Is this some kind of trick? We never saw you like that – we just don’t think of you that way. Sure, we saw the kid at the bus station, looking scared, asking for change. But he certainly didn’t look like you. And we saw the people lined up at the food pantry, and that young woman who uses her Cal-Fresh card at the market. But we didn’t see you. Never heard about you being in the hospital, or in prison either. Sure, we heard the cries for help, but we questioned their authenticity.

But look here, Jesus – maybe we didn’t recognize you, but you know us! We are nice people. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. We give to the United Way, and we buy Girl Scout cookies. We had our children baptized, and we brought them to church any Sunday that they weren’t busy at a soccer tournament or SAT prep. Jesus, surely you recognize us?

But Matthew’s Jesus has said “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,'  will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” Jesus doesn’t seem to recognize the ones whose faith is only in words. They are the goats.

And the sheep? The people who were just living ethical lives, unaware that they were doing God’s will? The people just feeding the hungry and clothing the naked unaware that they were feeding and clothing Jesus himself? Jesus flings open the gates to paradise for them, rolls out the welcome mat, and they are just as baffled as the goats. This is just gospel non-sense.

This story will not fit our logical understanding of how God operates. We understand ourselves to be people who have responded to God’s grace by offering ourselves in ministry – ministry to the least of these. We know that our good works are a product, not a cause, of God’s grace. It seems like a nonsensical reversal, this story – an eschatological prophecy that is not even a parable, really -- more like a simile. It is imaginative language, rather than descriptive. Surely Jesus really didn’t mean it like that. But while it is not meant to be taken literally, it certainly needs to be taken seriously.

This story is a prophecy -- cosmological, political, and symbolic. It is cosmological in that it will not submit itself to simplistic thinking. Because God’s salvation story is bigger than a mathematical equation -- of grace plus repentance plus good works equals eternal life. Trying to reduce it to that is like claiming that knowledge of all the building blocks of life makes us able to create that life. We can map the human genome, but we don’t know what makes the wood frog, frozen solid, come back to life and mate in the spring. Every spring.[1]

This story is political, as well. It is political in the way that many otherwise kindhearted people do not like. There is no means testing, in this story. There are merely people: hungry, thirsty, strangers – naked, sick, and in prison. There is simply the preferential option for the poor, without regard to whether or not they are deserving. We don’t even know whether those people said thank you after they ate,  whether they straightened up when they were paroled, or whether they went and found work when they got well.

When I hear this story, I’m reminded of my dad, who grew up poor, one of nine children of an abusive alcoholic father. Dad and his brothers and sisters had nothing when they were children – if they earned a little money, their father would take it. If their mother managed to get some dishes, their father would break them in a drunken rage. They scrounged up the parts to put together a bicycle, and their father ran over it. When the little kids began to cry, he backed up and ran over it again.

My dad was a sucker for kids who were disadvantaged. He’d take Christmas gifts to them, give their dads jobs, help them out with gym shoes and car repairs and school activity fees.
One time, my brothers, both attorneys like my dad, got worried about a young man dad was helping. They were afraid he’d go out to my parents’ secluded country place looking for a handout, and that he’d harm my mother or father. Dad scoffed at their concerns, so my brothers took a different tack. “Dad!” they said. “He is just going to take advantage of your generosity.” Dad laughed and said, “Well of course he is!”And that was the end of the conversation.

This care for the poor, whom Jesus loves, the least of his brothers and sisters, is a requirement of Christian life. I think it may be safe to say it is THE requirement of Christian life. Making sure that hungry people have food and the captives are freed is justified not by the promise of eternal reward but also by the fact that generosity and kindness are rewarding in and of themselves.

Finally this story is symbolic, not in a one-to-one allegorical way, but in a larger and more existential sense. These sheep, deemed righteous by their kindness to Jesus, whom they did not recognize, were clearly not acting out of any explicit faith commitment. They were not giving a cup of cold water to a disciple in Jesus’ name. They were simply giving a cup of cold water. They did not hold a Thanksgiving dinner at the church in Jesus name. They just fed hungry people. They were not arguing propositional truths or adopting creeds. They just sat with the sick, and visited prisoners. They demonstrated, by their actions, the Son of Man, the human one, could be found outside the walls of the church as well as inside.

And just as Matthew warned that no one can know the hour or the time when Jesus will come again, none of us can schedule the moment when we will have the opportunity to meet Jesus’ brothers and sisters. But here’s the thing: we may not be able to see Jesus – we may only see human beings, in need. They may not be people we know, or like, or want to hang around with. They may not meet any of our criteria of eligibility.

But our care for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned is necessary, because Jesus said we should. Here’s what he said: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The two are inseparable.

In a short while, we are going to gather together as the church to ordain Abby Mohaupt, our sister in Christ, to the office of teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA. It was Abby who selected this text, and I’m persuaded that she didn’t choose it simply in order to occupy my time. In fact, I’m convinced that she chose it because it goes to the heart of the gospel, the non-sense and illogic of grace.

We are going to ask Abby if she will be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people. We will ask her, on behalf of the whole church of Jesus Christ, “in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”

Because our call to follow Jesus is grounded in more than intellectual assent. Our ministry is more than sincerely receiving and adopting the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. After the receiving and adopting and believing, we act. And sometimes, we act before the receiving and adopting and believing. In fact, that scripture I quoted earlier, about being saved by grace, through faith – there’s more to it.

Here’s Ephesians 2: 8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. And here’s the next verse, verse ten: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Our way of life – feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting, caring. Because Jesus said we should.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these  who are members of my family, you did it to me.