Saturday, December 27, 2014

Soul Support

Luke 2:22-40
December 28, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 2:22-40

The Gospel of Luke is structured as a biography of Jesus and follows the literary conventions of the time. As you might expect then, after the prologue, we have the birth narrative, which you heard on Christmas Eve, then the stories of infancy and childhood, which foreshadow the life of Jesus as an adult. Aside from Matthew’s account of the visitation of the Magi and the slaughter of the innocents, Luke’s gospel is the only one that includes any stories of Jesus from his infancy and childhood. Listen for God’s word to you in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verse 22-40.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Those of you who were with us on Christmas Eve will probably always remember it because of our special guest – a bat. He flew in before the service began and swooped around the sanctuary, then we didn’t see him for a while. I was hoping that the bat had taken advantage of the escape we offered by opening one of the windows up there.

But if he did fly out of one of the windows, he must have decided it was not where he wanted to be, because right as we began communion, that bat started swooping around the sanctuary again. He was diving down low toward the pews this time, and I was impressed that the congregation managed only to flinch, and not scream, as we waited for the bat to land.

He eventually did so and wasn’t seen again until after the service. After you all left, I wanted get rid of the bat -- permanently. So, in order to make sure he wouldn’t come back, I caught him, baptized him, confirmed him, and let him fly out the door. Now he won’t be in the building again until Easter.

I think that’s pretty funny but it is only funny because anyone who has been around church much knows that there is more than a kernel of truth to it. One of the more pernicious side effects of Christianity having become the civic religion of the United States in the last century is that baptism and church membership, once a powerful and potentially risky decision, has become for many people a pleasant but fairly meaningless tradition. Worse, for many more people, baptism and church membership, are mere empty rituals, not only devoid of meaning but actually superstitious nonsense.

It is an odd and sad truth that whenever Christianity is the ascendant religion in a country, fully supported by the majority of people and the government, the individual Christian’s commitment and faithful observance and the church itself, seem to be sapped of any strength and power. If you don’t believe me, review your history of Western Civilization, or visit churches in Switzerland.

The paradoxically good news in that reality is that the less we are truly a “Christian nation” the more we can take seriously our own faith commitment. After all, there is no social stigma whatsoever for a child who is not baptized or an adult who is virtually unchurched. There is no community critique of those who do not go to church, even those who are members of a congregation! So any active effort that people make to connect to the to the faith community and to participate in the expressions of our faith commitment may be taken to be sincere and genuine. Given all that, I’m overjoyed when couples ask to be married in church, and when they bring their children to be baptized.

I think we all understand that the world has changed since the 20th century. We know that family mobility and the demands of careers have changed how families interact with faith communities. Regular church attendance, once defined as attending almost every Sunday, is now defined by most people as attending about once a month. So we hope that when couples come to us for their wedding, or a baptism, that they will connect with church, but we know it won’t be like it was in the old days.

Since we have the privilege of baptizing young Alexander today, the little vignette we’ve heard this morning from Luke’s gospel is rich with meaning for us as a faith community, In this story we get to see the convergence of two expressions of faith.

Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents, are models of commitment, faithful to the covenant and observant of Jewish law. The law of Torah commanded that a woman who had given birth needed to be ritually purified in the temple by bringing a sacrifice of two doves.

The law of Torah also commanded that the firstborn son is dedicated to the Lord, to God. That child belongs to God. One practice was that the parents would bring the child to the temple and literally hand him over to God. Then, they would offer five shekels to redeem him, to get him back![1]

Mary and Joseph brought the sacrifice of two doves, for Mary. But they made no redemption offering. Jesus belonged to God, they knew even then. Their presentation of him demonstrated that knowledge.

Those two people at the temple, Simeon and Anna, are also models of faith and commitment. Simeon’s blessing of both Jesus and his parents, and his oracle that in this baby there will be salvation, light and glory, are an outpouring of the joy he feels. He was drawn to the temple by the Spirit, and he has been waiting all of his life for this moment. Now, Simeon holds in his arms the salvation of the nations, the light of the world, the glory of God.

But then Simeon adds a less than joyful prophecy –through this child, there will be some who rise and others who fall. There will be those who oppose him. And Mary, his mother, Mary’s heart will be pierced by this. It is a prophecy no mother would want to hear.

Anna, too, has been waiting, serving, and praying for so many years. She echoes the blessing that Simeon has offered, praising God for the gift of holding this child, the redemption of all of Israel. Mary and Joseph, understandably, were amazed. Even with all the unexpected and surprising things they had seen, they were not expecting that!

The scriptures close this episode with this line: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

Here is where this story, I think, becomes most poignant to us today. Isn’t that what we wish for every child? We want every child to grow, and become strong, and be filled with wisdom. We want every child to feel and know that the favor of God is upon him or her.

When we baptize Alexander in a few minutes, in some ways we re-enact this story. Now, I can pretty much assure you that Alexander is probably not going to be burdened with the kind of expectations that Jesus was! He is very special and much loved, but not the savior of the world. But when we baptize him, we are making the same kinds of promises to him and for him.

In baptism, we saying certain things to Alexander and about Alexander. We are saying to him, before he can even understand fully what it means, that he belongs to God. We are saying to him that we will do everything in our power to make sure that he will grow, and become strong, and filled with wisdom. We are saying to him that we are intent on sharing our faith with him and teaching him to know and love God, who loves him already. We are blessing him, as Anna and Simeon blessed the infant Jesus. And we are blessing his parents too.

We are also making promises about this baby. As a congregation, representing all Christian congregations everywhere, we promise God and Alexander’s parents that we will support and nurture him and them as they endeavor to raise him in the light of God’s grace. And Elizabeth and Christopher are promising their son, the church, and God that they will do so, and will make every effort to keep these pledges. It is not a thing to be taken lightly, to make this sort of promise to a child, to one another, and to God.

We are saying, along with all of this baby’s family, that we want him, and all our children, to have a life that is not only happy, but also to have a life that is meaningful. We want him, and all our children, to know the joy of participation in a faithful community, to reap the unseen rewards of charity and generosity, to build the courage gained in a struggle for justice, to experience the simple peace that comes from knowing that we are loved, unconditionally, eternally, and without regard to merit.

We promise to be Alexander’s soul support.
We know that there will be challenges, for every life has them;
and when those challenges come, we will be rooting for him.
We know that there will be moments when others oppose him even though he is in the right,
for it always happens; and when it does, we will be on his side.

We know that there will be times when he is judged;
we promise that if we should ever appraise him, love will be the measure we use.
A time will likely come when he struggles with belief, or with faith;
we promise that in those times, we will believe and trust on his behalf.
We know that as he grows, he may go far away from us and if he does, we will go with him;
whenever he comes back to us, we promise that he will be welcomed home.
We know that we cannot protect him or his parents from everything.
We can, however, assure him, in this ritual and in our prayers and actions,
that no matter what he does, in all his days on this earth, he will be loved.
We pledge and affirm to this child, and to his parents, as we pledge and affirm to one another and to God, that what we offer, in every way we can offer it, is to be soul support,
a life-giving community demonstrating faith, joy, and love of neighbor;
teaching him above all and in every moment, an unshakeable love for our loving and merciful God.

[1] In another tradition in the book of Numbers 3:11-13; 8:16-18, the Levites (a tribe of Israel) take the place of the firstborn.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Surprise of Love

Ruth 4; Luke 2: 8-16
December 21, 2014, Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Ruth 4
1 Meanwhile, Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there. Just then, the redeemer about whom Boaz had spoken was passing by. He said, "Sir, come over here and sit down." So he turned aside and sat down. 2 Then he took ten men from the town's elders and said, "Sit down here." And they sat down. 3 Boaz said to the redeemer, "Naomi, who has returned from the field of Moab, is selling the portion of the field that belonged to our brother Elimelech. 4 I thought that I should let you know and say, ‘Buy it, in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.' If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you won't redeem it, tell me so that I may know. There isn't anyone to redeem it except you, and I'm next in line after you." He replied, "I will redeem it." 5 Then Boaz said, "On the day when you buy the field from Naomi, you also buy Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead man, in order to preserve the dead man's name for his inheritance." 6 But the redeemer replied, "Then I can't redeem it for myself, without risking damage to my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself. You can have my right of redemption, because I'm unable to act as redeemer." 7 In Israel, in former times, this was the practice regarding redemption and exchange to confirm any such matter: a man would take off his sandal and give it to the other person. This was the process of making a transaction binding in Israel.
8 Then the redeemer said to Boaz, "Buy it for yourself," and he took off his sandal. 9 Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, "Today you are witnesses that I've bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10 And also Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, I've bought to be my wife, to preserve the dead man's name for his inheritance so that the name of the dead man might not be cut off from his brothers or from the gate of his hometown—today you are witnesses." 11 Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, "We are witnesses. May the LORD grant that the woman who is coming into your household be like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you be fertile in Ephrathah and may you preserve a name in Bethlehem. 12 And may your household be like the household of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the children that the LORD will give you from this young woman."
13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. He was intimate with her, the LORD let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi, "May the LORD be blessed, who today hasn't left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. 15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She's better for you than seven sons." 16 Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. 17 The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They called his name Obed. He became Jesse's father and David's grandfather. 18 These are the generations of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron,
19 Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 21 Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, 22 Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

Luke 2:8-16
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Friday night, the worship team had our annual Christmas celebration. It’s a wonderful time that we share – the opportunity to be together just for the purpose of being together – no rehearsal, or planning, or work of any sort – just sharing in good food and fun and conversation. Well, okay, we also have some good wine.

Anyway, this year Bob and I had the fun of hosting, and it was a great time. After everyone had gotten something to eat, we had a music exchange, which was fun, and then we got to visiting. Somehow, we started sharing how the various couples in the group had met. It was fun, and often funny, to hear those stories. And one thing that struck me was how often the stories involved something unexpected.

Not one couple who shared their story that night expected that they would end up married to each other! Not that it doesn’t happen – I know there are some of you who were meant for each other, who met and knew this person was the one even as children. But so often, there is a surprising or unexpected aspect to love stories.

The love story in Ruth is that way. Certainly, nobody in the first three chapters of this book thought that the return to Bethlehem would result in a marriage. Nobody could have imagined that Ruth would marry Boaz, Naomi’s distant relative, or that they would have a son who would be the grandfather of King David. Nobody would have imagined that Ruth, this foreigner, would be named in the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. It’s the stuff of novels and romantic movies! Who’d have thought that this bitter hunger that Naomi had would be fed with such generosity and love? Who’d have believed it? It all came about in the most unexpected way.

The first chapter, the first Sunday of Advent, we met Naomi, a widow from Bethlehem, living in Moab with her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, both also widowed after Naomi’s two sons had died. Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem and tries to turn Ruth and Orpah back to their homes. But Ruth won’t go. She returns to a place she has never been, and provides a sense of hope to the despairing Naomi. In the second chapter, Ruth gathers grain in the fields, following the reapers, and does so in peace, thanks to Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. In addition to hope, she brings peace and plenty to Naomi. In the third chapter, Ruth seeks out Boaz on the threshing floor, and there he promises, before the morning breaks, to find Naomi’s nearest kinsman, and redeem the family farm.

In this fourth chapter, Boaz, observant of custom and law, seeks out the kinsman and makes the formal offer – there is a piece of land to be redeemed, and this relative has first right of refusal. At first the kinsman says he will take the property, redeem it in the family name. But then Boaz tells him, “Oh, by the way, Ruth comes with the deal. You’d need to marry her.” It isn’t really explicit in the text, but certainly Boaz knew exactly what he was doing, making this kinsman an offer he was sure to refuse!

Every chapter of this story contained a plot twist, and this chapter is no different, for at the end of the tale we find out that this marriage generated not only hope and peace and joy and love, it also results in a child, Obed, the joy of Naomi’s old age, the grandfather of David, the king of all Israel, and the ancestor of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, of the house of David. It is a story filled with word play, with reversals and surprises – turning and returning, covering and uncovering, loss and redemption, bitterness turned to sweetness.

Through it all, God’s lovingkindness and steadfast love endure.

Similarly, the appearance of the angel to shepherds, for any reason, was a complete surprise to everyone. It was particularly surprising that the angel was announcing the birth of the Messiah – to shepherds! The children’s program had it right – they weren’t expecting that!

One of the favorite lines in that script last week, according what I overheard from certain small people, was when the angels heard that the Prince of Heaven was to be born in a stable. They were shocked! They answered: “In A STABLE? Surrounded by animals? Filled with hay? Filled with poop?”[Shout out here to the boys who joined in on this line during the actual sermon!]

What on earth could God be thinking? And then, if you recall, just like the account in the Bible, the angels came to sing of Christ’s birth, not to kings and presidents, but to shepherds, because, like the script said, “Those dudes could do with some cheering up."

Our beloved nativity scenes show Baby Jesus surrounded by clean respectable people. Mary is all tidied up so you’d hardly know that she’d just been in labor. The shepherds and sheep look freshly washed, the barn and manger like someone came through with a broom and a liberal dose of Murphy’s Oil Soap. You’d think that Jesus just appeared there, all swaddled up and fragrant with that sweet milky baby aroma, placed gently in the manger after everything was cleaned up.

But God doesn’t work like that, waiting to enter into our lives once we have everything all tidied up. God doesn’t postpone loving us until after we’ve done the right thing, as Ruth did, or after we’ve come to adore Jesus like the shepherds. No, the surprise of God’s love is that we aren’t expecting it, and, if we are honest, we sometimes have a little trouble believing it.

It isn’t that we don’t want to believe it – after all, what a great thing, that someone loves us just because we are alive! But our experience teaches us that this really isn’t very probable.

We can talk about loving each other unconditionally, but truly, most of us can think of SOME condition in which we could stop loving another human being.

But God’s love isn’t like that. It isn’t based on what we do, or who we are, or where we live. God’s love story with us is all about the unexpected. The birth of Jesus breaks into our worlds, messy and disorganized, unprepared as we may be. Jesus comes to us in an unexpected way, to unexpected places, Jesus shows up among the lowly, the humble and the outcast.

Jesus shows up in places that are, well, filled with straw and poop and disrespectable people. Maybe we’d rather not think it about it quite that way. We are, after all, nice folks.

We clean up our houses before company comes over. We get out the good china and put clean sheets on the guest bed. We would rather not have anyone see or know about the disreputable or untidy parts of our lives, or even of our past. When Jesus shows up, we would prefer that he not see the grime, not smell anything stinky.

But God doesn’t usually come by way of the front door. God shows up in our lives in surprising ways in unexpected places and circumstances. The grandmother of King David was a Moabite woman. Her husband was the son of a Canaanite woman, a prostitute. From the House of David came Jesus, who was born to a peasant woman in an obscure village, and whose birth was announced to men who were literally outside – outside of the socially acceptable world, outside of the norm, outsiders in every way.

It may be surprising, the way God turns up, not at the center to tidy up the living room, but at the fringes, to disrupt our comfortable lives. Jesus comes, Immanuel, God with us, comes to uncover what is least acceptable about us and then redeem it through love, love that is surprising, unexpected and undeserved.

There’s an old Christmas carol, written by the same poet who wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Christina Rossetti describes that unexpected love –

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

In a few days, we’ll gather here again to hear once again how love came down at Christmas.
May we once again be delighted and surprised, in reverent awe and unspeakable joy at the surprise and wonder of this love which comes, and may it be born anew in each of us.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Peace, Plain and Simple

The Gleaners, Jules Breton

Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet

Ruth 2, Matthew 1:18-25
December 7, 2014, Second Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry
Ruth Meets Boaz

2 Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”3 So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4 Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 5 Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” 6 The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”[a]

8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 May the Lordreward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” 13 Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied.19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.”[b] 21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” 23 So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.

As I was working on the sermon early Thursday morning, I opened a new tab on my internet browser to look for a quote about peace at a site called “Inward/Outward. Not finding exactly what I wanted, I went on to another part of my work. Sometime in that process, I looked back up at my browser tabs. That tab for Inward Outward said, “You searched for peace.” You searched for peace. Yes, yes I did.

Peace is the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, and we’ve heard two stories that may seem a fair distance from that theme. After all, Ruth gleaning in the fields and Joseph being visited by an angel – the two stories don’t even go together well, much less illustrate what we typically imagine when we think of peace. We should have doves and peace marchers, anti-war demonstrations, peace treaties and peacemakers and peacekeepers.

A peasant woman from Moab in an obscure Palestinian village, in a story that dates to 500 BC, and an equally common fellow in that same village 500 years later – what have these stories to do with peace? These are not peaceful stories. Disaster lurks at the edges of both narratives. In the first tale, the potential for disaster, for violence, for misery, comes from sources external to Ruth. In the second, the story of Joseph, the potential for disaster, violence and even death, rests within Joseph’s heart. In both, the power and wisdom of God and of God’s faithful people are the instruments of peace, plain and simple.

If you remember the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, Ruth has allied herself with Naomi. Where you go, I will you. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God. Ruth, the foreigner, the immigrant, the vulnerable widow, returned with her mother in law to Bethlehem. At the end of last week’s story, there was this simple sentence: They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Because they are penniless and in need of food, Ruth asks if she can glean in the fields. Given permission by Naomi, she goes into the barley fields to glean – to pick up the stalks of grain that are left behind by the reapers. In our dining room at home, we have an antique print of Ruth, gleaning in the fields. Ruth is lovely, serene, a peaceful countenance in a pastoral setting. It is reminiscent of the work of Jules Breton, or Jean Francois Millet, two famous painters of French peasants, whose names you may not know but whose works would be familiar to you. Their renderings of gleaners from the mid-1800s are romantic and beautiful. The subjects take on a luminous and heroic appearance, strong, muscular men and women, bending over to pick up the golden stalks of grain in the slanting sun at close of day.

In this case, art does not imitate life. The reality of Ruth’s work of gleaning was anything but romantic. “Gleaners came from the ranks of the poorest, landless peasants, and often were made up of the weakest members of society – women, children, the elderly and the handicapped. The gleaners followed the harvesters to salvage for their families the last kernels of grain missed by the reapers. This was backbreaking, tedious labor – scrounging for tiny morsels of grain amidst the dirt of the earth. Gleaning was often what stood between the peasant and starvation.”[1] While the poor did this work for a bit of bread, they were watched over by the owner’s employees, in Bible times, and guarded carefully by soldiers in later centuries. They were free to glean – but they could not take anything that had not fallen to the ground.

The law of Moses, God’s commandments, instructed faithful Hebrews to be sure to leave something for gleaners. It was their livelihood, all they had. There was no social safety net, no food pantry, no place for the needy to turn. So this is the work Ruth is doing, at the close of day. Not only is the work physically demanding, the location makes the worker vulnerable, especially if that worker is female. Like many young women in our own time, Ruth was not safe, out in the world on her own. She had to rely on someone other than herself for safety and for peace.

In our chancel drama, Naomi refers to the possibility that Ruth would be “bothered” if she went to a field other than Boaz’s. In more modern translations that conversation is more explicit. “The Message,” puts it this way - Namoi says to Ruth: “You'll be safe in the company of his young women; no danger now of being raped in some stranger's field”

For Ruth, a vulnerable immigrant in a strange new world, doing what she could to find sustenance for herself and Naomi, peace came because her kinsman Boaz offered protection and support. No matter what Ruth’s inner state was, no matter how much peace she had in her heart, for true peace, she had to rely on the encircling care of community and kin. For her daily bread, Naomi relied on Ruth’s willingness to provide. Ruth, in turn, counted on the generosity and kindness of her kinsman, Boaz.

Joseph, on the other hand, had inner turmoil to deal with. He was engaged to Mary, part of a legal contractual agreement that bound them together with the same ties as marriage. This was a covenanted relationship, the betrothal. And Mary was pregnant. Not by him.

Couples couldn’t just break up and give the ring back, like today. They would have to divorce to end the engagement. Like Boaz, Joseph was a righteous man, who followed the law of God. His range of options regarding Mary were fairly limited - if Mary had been unfaithful to him, and all the evidence pointed to that, the law gave him two options – divorce her, or stone her to death. His plan was to quietly divorce Mary.

Joseph went to sleep, stomach churning, mind racing. That is, until the angel came. Matthew’s telling of the tale is spare and terse. This is his only reference to the birth of Jesus. There are no shepherds, no innkeeper, no angel choirs, no oxen. This story we told the children is all Matthew has to say about baby Jesus. He starts with “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place.” He tells of the angel’s visit, then closes with this: “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn't have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.”

End of story.
(This is why on Christmas Eve we use the reading from Luke!)

Joseph really was between a rock and a hard place. Neither of the options before him was good. But then came this angel, a vision in a dream, to give him counsel, and to give him the unexpected news that the baby Mary would bear would be the long-awaited Messiah – the anointed one. This baby would be Immanuel – God with us. This baby would be Jesus – the Lord saves!

So Joseph did what God commanded. Imagine the sense of peace he must have had, once he had made the decision – the decision to obey God, and to protect Mary in her vulnerable situation.

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, 500 BC, Boaz has become aware of Ruth. The lovely part of this story is when Boaz discovers who Ruth is; he makes sure that she is protected and provided for. He insures that she will be safe, and that she will take home plenty of grain. She takes home about a bushel, an unexpectedly large amount for a gleaner. That must have been when Naomi came up with a plan.

We’re going to take a quick peek ahead to the next chapter, while the children are busy upstairs, because it is one of the PG (or R) rated sections of the Bible. The third chapter of Ruth is full of double entendre, euphemisms, and puns. You won’t hear about this in next week’s sermon, with the children’s program and all, but I do recommend that you find Ruth, chapter three this week and read it.

Depending on how you read it, it may be one of the racier parts of the Bible. It is suggestive, to say the least; it’s adult material. After hearing of Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, dress up, put on some nice perfume, and go down to the threshing floor at night. Ruth was to lie down next to Boaz, who presumably had spent the evening celebrating and toasting to the harvest. Ruth does what Naomi says, finds Boaz, and, the scripture says, “Uncovers his feet.” The playful innuendo of the language suggests that Ruth uncovered… uncovered more than just Boaz’s feet. And then, Ruth asks Boaz to spread his cloak over the both of them. And she spends the night there. With him. Under the cloak.

With his…feet… uncovered.

Suffice it to say that in the morning, before dawn, Boaz woke Ruth up and told her to hurry up and get home before anyone saw her and realized she’d spent the night with him. And the actions of the story will eventually lead to Boaz’s offer to claim his place as the kinsman redeemer. We’ll take up that thread of the story week after next.

For now, let’s go back to that barley field. In spite of the vast distance of time between now and then, some things are the same. In many places in the world, it still is unsafe for a single young woman to go out alone. Just this past week a friend of mine lamented, “Why is it that an adult single woman cannot stop into a gas station convenience store without being propositioned by some random man inviting himself to follow her home?”

Then, as now, if this adult single woman is assaulted, the first question many people would ask is “Why was she alone? What was she wearing? What was she doing there?” as if somehow her presence or her dress or her behavior justifies an assault.

It isn’t just young women who are vulnerable. Across our country, people are marching in the streets, and arguing in kitchens, and meeting in churches, trying to sort out what is going on in a country where young black men are vulnerable to such an extent that their parents routinely give them “the talk” about what to do in an encounter with the police. And many, when an unarmed black youngster is shot down in the street, struggle to take in the reality that young African Americans are more vulnerable than their white counterparts.

It’s tempting to descend into the world of political debate, of policy and crime. But we follow the Prince of Peace, not the gods of this world. We follow Immanuel, “God with us” who offers not only personal peace, like Joseph knew, but the larger reality of genuine peace, beyond ourselves. God with us means that we are also called to be channels of peace: for the immigrant, the outcast, the vulnerable, the other.

Ruth, seemingly alone, out there in the barley field at dusk, was kept safe. Of course, the God of peace was with her. But it was because of the protection of her kinsman Boaz, because of the generous wisdom of Naomi, that Ruth could gather grain for bread in peace, could stop and draw a dipper of water in peace, could rest in the shade in peace. She found her security not in pepper spray or self-defense classes, not in staying home with all the doors locked, but in the support and care of a kinsman redeemer, a caring mother-in-law, an adopted faith community.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that we will never be victimized or vulnerable. There is far too much violence and evil in the world for that claim to hold. But we can be assured that we are called to be among the people in this world who help to make safe places for the vulnerable.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that we will never be hungry. There are many faithful people in this world who do without. But we can be assured that we who follow Jesus are called to share our bread with the hungry, to not take every last kernel of grain, to leave some of our ample resources for the poor.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is not the assurance that there will never be war, that there will always be unicorns and rainbows. There is too much lust for power, too much hatred in the world, to be so clappy-happy and blind to the presence of evil and greed.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is the assurance that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, that the bread of life is always available to anyone who hungers for it, that anyone who thirsts may come and drink living water, that anyone who is weary can come to Jesus, and that we can point the way to this table, to this peace.

The promise of the Prince of Peace is that even in dark, sleepless nights of confusion we can trust that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that in Bethlehem, God is working God’s purpose out, and the one who is to be born, who lives within us and among us, is the Anointed One, God with us, through whom the Lord saves us, the wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, the Prince of Peace.

I told you at the beginning of the sermon about my web browser, the tab that said, “You searched for peace.” I did search for peace, as has everyone who ever yearned for peace that passes understanding, the peace of Christ we pray for, the peace we work for. Through Christ, through the promise in Bethlehem, we can find peace. It is in following Christ that we find that peace, plain and simple, and it is through each one of us that Christ’s peace will spread through the earth. The poet Lao Tzu said it this way:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

Let the Prince of Peace come, in all his unexpected glory, and let all who search for peace, find it in him.



Sunday, November 30, 2014

Something to Look Forward To

Luke 1:5-25; Ruth 1
November 30. 2104
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Ruth, Chaper 1

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there. But Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband. Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the LORD had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah. Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, "Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the LORD deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the LORD provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband."

Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. But they replied to her, "No, instead we will return with you, to your people." Naomi replied, "Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the LORD's will has come out against me."

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, "Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law."

But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you."

When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it. So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem. When they arrived at Bethlehem, the whole town was excited on account of them, and the women of the town asked, "Can this be Naomi?" She replied to them, "Don't call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?"

Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her from the territory of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Luke 1: 5-25
During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord's commandments and regulations.  They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old.

One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord's sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.

An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord's eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old."

The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in God's presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn't believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen."

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn't speak. When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home.

Afterward, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept to herself for five months, saying, "This is the Lord's doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people."

You have to wonder how Naomi could have had any hope at all, even the hope of returning home. They’d hoped, she and Elimelech, for a better life in Moab. They were immigrants, fleeing the famine, hoping for a better life in a new land. Their hometown, Bethlehem, had always been a place of plenty. The very name means “house of bread.” Moving to the foreign land of Baal worshipers must have been difficult. They’d hoped, the two of them, for prosperity in Moab, for themselves and their sons, even in such a strange culture. They’d hoped for grandchildren, after their sons married, hoped for children who would be faithful sons of the covenant, carrying on the family name.

But there were not children at all. And now their sons were dead. But even in Moab, Naomi still trusted the God of Israel. She still believed in home, in Bethlehem. Naomi cared for her daughters in law, cared enough to set them free and send them home to hope for another marriage, while they were still young enough to bear children. There was no point in them staying with her – no hope for them with a widow woman who would go back to Bethlehem and throw herself on the mercy of whatever kinsman might take her in.

I will return to Bethlehem, she told Ruth and Orpah. You should return to your fathers and mothers. I am returning home, and you should go home as well. Orpah obeyed. But Ruth stayed. Please, do not make me leave you, she said. Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, she said. Your God will be my God. Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, to return to a place she had never actually been.

When they arrived at Bethlehem, the women of the town asked, “Can this be Naomi?” But she was no longer Naomi, no longer the woman whose name means “pleasant.” She was now Mara, which means “bitter.”

It is hard to imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth might have retained any real hope. They were getting on in years, and still no children. But he wasn’t heartbroken, not in despair. He had his vocation, both from his own family line and through Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. The priests served in groups in the temple, two weeks out of each year. And each time, one of them was chosen by lots to go into the holy of holies, the inner altar. On this day, Zechariah had been the chosen one. It was a once in a lifetime event, a privilege he had waited for, hoped for. He took the incense into the sanctuary.

That was when it happened. The angel appeared suddenly, unexpectedly. But who would expect an angel, after all? The angel said that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a baby, and that they would name him John, and he would be a joy and delight, great in the Lord's eyes, filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. The angel said that this baby would turn Israelites back to the Lord their God, would go forth before the Lord, would be equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. This baby, the angel said, will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, would turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zechariah was unsure.
This was impossible!
“I am old,” he said.
“I am Gabriel,” the angel replied.
Zechariah could not even tell what had happened to him, there in the holy of holies, could not tell what the angel had said. But before long, unexpectedly, Elizabeth was expecting.

Hope – the traditional focus for the first Sunday of Advent. We await the coming of the Christ child, the extraordinary story of God taking human form, coming to bring hope, to bring redemption. Which of us has reason to hope, in these dark days?

Just look around us:
The protests in Ferguson, turning violent and destructive, in reaction to the violent death of a young African American man. Now there’s the sad story that Michael Brown’s church in Ferguson was burned to the ground. Forty three students disappeared in Mexico, probably dead, victims of a criminal conspiracy that involved public officials. Five dead and thirty three wounded in a suicide attack in Kabul. Radical Islamic fundamentalists beheading captive Americans. In Jerusalem, where Zechariah served at the temple all those years ago, four Israelis shot dead at worship in the synagogue. In Bethlehem, where Naomi returned with Ruth, the Israeli army blocked tunnels that connect villages to Bethlehem, causing concerns that it was another step in Israel's plans to annex the area, stoking frustrations and blocking access to schools, hospitals, friends and families. Violence is increasingly common in the area with religious Jewish settlers "torching" olive trees and hassling residents.[1]

With news like this coming in every day, who could feel hopeful? 
What kind of future can we possibly expect? 
How can anyone among us hold out any hope for the days to come?

We could, like Naomi, sink into despair, call ourselves bitter, not pleasant. We could, like Zechariah, argue with God’s messenger, explain carefully how this promised hope is simply impossible.

But wait. 


It is Advent, a season of waiting. I knew a little girl once, (she’s a grown woman now) a child whose life was difficult, sometimes chaotic. Things at home were troubled; her father was an addict, unreliable, violent. They were barely getting by, and there were so many things they needed. But she would ask her mom, when things were bleak, “Mom, what do I have to look forward to?”

And her mom would get out the calendar – there’s your party at school, she’d say, or your birthday, or Christmas. You’re invited to go bowling next week, or we’re going out for milkshakes – whatever small positive events she could find, until her little girl could smile again. Because that child knew that she could make it, could get by, as long as she had something to look forward to –something to wait for; something to hope for.

Hope is the belief that something better is going to happen.
Hope is the belief that there IS something to look forward to, something better coming.

Naomi had reason to feel bitter, to be sure. Life had dealt her a long series of blows, hard blows – famine, immigration, widowhood, losing both sons, no grandchildren. She was penniless and far from home. But there was Ruth, Ruth, whose name means “friend.” Ruth’s friendship to Naomi was more than casual. Ruth was willing, because of her love for Naomi, to turn from her beliefs and adopt the faith of Naomi, the God of Israel. Ruth’s lovingkindness, her willingness to turn away from Moab, and turn toward a place where she would be a foreigner, was the first small glimmer of light, there in Naomi’s dark despair. That love and trust was a hint of hope for a future for them both, women alone in what was, quite literally, a no-man’s land- widows, displaced, refugees, without protection. But what Ruth sensed, somehow, in that place in-between, was that the God of Israel, and her mother in law’s faith, would not let them down. There was something, something to look forward to. Because Ruth could hope, there might be hope for Naomi.

We can be fairly certain, the way the story is told, that Elizabeth and Zechariah had long since given up any hope of ever having a child. Who knows whether Zechariah found a way to tell Elizabeth what the angel had said? We can be fairly sure, though, that both of them knew the prophecies, knew that no prophets had arisen in the land since the time of Malachi. They’d have known the prophecies in Micah, that said: “As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah's forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; he will become one of peace.” (Micah 5: 2-5) This unexpected pregnancy, no doubt so surprising to them both, marked a turning of the people, a hope that they would return to God, even as Naomi returned to Bethlehem. 

Now in this in-between time, not yet Christmas, but Advent, a time of waiting and penitence, a time of preparation, we too turn toward Bethlehem. We turn toward Bethlehem, as did Naomi and Ruth, looking for hope.

But it is only the first chapter.
The barley harvest is not yet completed.
There is still more to the story.

As we wait with Zechariah, we hear faintly the voice of the angel, telling us of the one that will be born, who will prepare the way for the Messiah. But the birth of John the Baptist is still yet to come. Zechariah is mute, and Elizabeth has not delivered. 
There is still more to the story.

So, we wait.
Things may look bleak today, but there is still more to the story.
Christ is at work in the world and we await his coming.
God is here, in the already and the not yet.

So we wait, not idly, not silently.
We wait, because the one who is coming has not yet arrived.
We are not idle, because there is work to be done to prepare for his coming.
We are not silent, because there is good news to share.
good news of hope for everyone in this weary old world.

We have hope, and God has promised us that hope does not disappoint.
We have hope because Christ has come, and is coming again.
We have hope that redemption will happen, for God has promised it.
We have hope because we have one another,
We wait in hope, live in hope, pray in hope, sing in hope.
It is the hope of salvation, and glory and peace,
because God calls us back toward Bethlehem,
to return to God,
to trust God’s promise,
to love God’s world.

The hope of the world is coming.
And that is something to look forward to.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

This Generation

1 Timothy 6: 17-19
November 23, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we complete our stewardship season this year, and prepare to dedicate our pledges, the selected Scripture reading is pretty short. It comes from the book of 1st Timothy, a letter to the church that was presumed to have been written by Paul, but was probably actually from a later writer. First and Second Timothy and Titus are often neglected books, in part for the directives about women which, taken in a modern context, are restrictive and oppressive. But the books were written to help churches order their lives. These books are source material for much of the way churches now organize and govern themselves. So this brief directive near the end of 1st Timothy comes in a larger context, a set of instructions about how to be church in this generation.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us today from 1 Timothy 6:17-19

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. 

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Since our stewardship theme this year was “Generations of Generosity” I thought it might be helpful for us, as we look at these verses, to review the generations we considered in the past few weeks. One of the underlying ideas for this series was that all of our stories make up the generations of generosity that characterize our church. So we have been attending to the stories of God’s word, and our own stories.

We started with that story of the supplies for the temple, “Heaps and Plenty.” You remember that? I will never forget it. It was the first and only time I’ve ever seen a congregation cheer for that under-appreciated character from the book of Chronicles – Hezekiah! Yeah, let’s give it up for Hezekiah! He was the Old Testament leader who cleaned up a rundown temple, straightened up the teaching, restored order and made sure that the people supported their place of worship. Like the people of Hezekiah’s faith community, we’ve cleaned the building up and spruced up our surroundings. And like the people of Hezekiah’s time, we’re called once again to bring the first fruits – the first and best of everything we have – in gratitude to God.

The next story we had came from the book of First Kings, the story of Elijah, on the run from Jezebel. Elijah lived by the wadi and was fed by ravens until the drought dried up the stream. So he went to Zarephath, in Sidon, as God commanded. There, God’s prophet was cared for by a widow who was down to the last of her oil and meal. She was ready to cook one small cake, feed herself and her son, and then lie down and die. Elijah came to her asking for some bread, which she baked for him, and the oil did not run out, nor the meal, and they ate and were sustained until the drought had ended.

It’s a compelling story of God’s provision, a story Jesus quoted to remind the people how God uses all kinds of people with whatever they have. Since it was our anniversary celebration, we also heard some of the stories of our generations. All of our own stories of our congregation are, after all, pieces of that bigger story. So we recalled that service on November 4, 1844, when union services were held, each family bringing its own candle to light the church. Each family from every part of town, from other denominations, brought their own small light, until the whole sanctuary was aglow. The following Sunday, the story was about a later generation, and another widow, during the time of Christ. Jesus watched as rich people put large sums into the treasury, and as a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, everything she had, all she had to live on.

We heard the stories of two other widows, from our generation, who gave all that they had on behalf of others. We reflected on the small change the widow brought, and the need for small change in each of us. We continued last week with a story Jesus told, a parable, a story intended to make us think and reflect. Do you remember – it was about the owner of a vineyard who hired people through the day, then paid them all the same. We rejoiced in the reality that God is not fair, and God does not give us what we deserve.

Now we come to this passage in first Timothy, a tiny excerpt from a letter to the young church, giving order and direction to them, even as Hezekiah ordered the temple all those hundreds of years before. This address is not to those whom we would consider the one percent. They are wealthy beyond our wildest imaginings. These words are aimed at people who are rich compared to most others in the world, people with ample resources who have the freedom to make decisions about how they will use those resources, people who are comfortably well off, people like us.

Well, actually, people like us if you mean the generations up to and including the baby boom. The generation born during and just after the Depression in the 1930s were certainly upwardly mobile, after the severe privations of their childhood. This generation –my generation – the baby boomers - are those born after World War II up to about 1965. We’re the big bulge in the population charts. We’re the big bulge in everything – schools, colleges, jobs, and now Social Security and Medicare recipients. We’re the ones who have that song – “Talking “Bout My Generation.” We are more likely than any generation before to exceed our parents in wealth and upward mobility.[1]

But after that, if we talk about this generation as Generation X - those born between 1965 and 1980, we find people with higher family income, but less wealth.[2] That’s because their debt, on average, is six times higher than that of their parents. And for those born after 1980, the Millenials, the financial future is even more uncertain. So when we talk about “generations of generosity” we have to consider that each generation’s generosity looks different.

Jesus talked about his own generation, and not kindly. He called them a generation of vipers, a wicked and corrupt generation. Our text addresses the generation after that – the people in the first century church, people of moderate means. You’ll notice that the reading does not direct church members to sell everything they have and give the money to the poor. “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,”

The wealth of a generation, in God’s kingdom, is the wealth of good works, sharing and generosity. The writer of this text understood the culture and beliefs of that generation. They were surrounded by Stoics and Cynics – the philosophical schools, not the traits named after them! Those philosophers taught that contentment and simplicity were high virtues. They cautioned against greed and social climbing. In the same way, the young church, newly formed and finding its way, cautioned its members against acquisitiveness, or miserliness.

This teaching was more purposeful than those Stoics and Cynics, because it came with a reason, two reasons, actually - a rationale greater even than the common good. Our true wealth is in generosity and good works and sharing, the writer of Timothy says, first for the future - the treasure of a good foundation for the future; second for the present – that we may take hold of the life that really is life. Generation after generation, the layers of righteousness accumulate. Sure, there are some sad and even tragic stories in the history of Christianity.

But the aim, the core, has ever been the same, for faithful people, in whatever generation. For Hezekiah, it was a blessing for the people as they piled up gifts and heaped up their gratitude, a blessing for today, and for the future generations. Like them, we know that because God who is so generous, and God in Christ has given so much to us, it is easy to give our time, our lives, our gifts, and our love.

For Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, generosity was a testament to the assurance of God’s provision. What little the widow had, she shared with God’s prophet, and it became plenty, enough to sustain them. The same truth sustains us, in this congregation, where all our individual lights gather to set the world aglow. We bring our pledges today, and whenever we give to our church, for the future generations, those Presbyterians who are yet to come, yet to be part of this congregation.

And like the widow who gave her all, we bring our pledges knowing that we will receive much more than we give: a small increase in our generosity results in a big increase in our joy; a small increase in our budget means a big increase in what we do for others; a small increase in pledges leads to a big increase in our love.

We bring these gifts in gratitude for God’s grace and justice. We do not bring our gifts to show off, or to curry God’s favor. We bring from our hearts, whatever we can give, trusting that God will use them to restore what was broken, to fill what is empty, to find what was lost and bring it home rejoicing.

We bring our gifts for the work of the church in this time, for this people, and for ourselves, that we may store up treasure in heaven so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.

We bring our pledges with hopes for the future, hopes that through the power of God, this church will stand for generations yet to come, as a testimony to the grace and mercy and love of Christ for all time and for all people, now and forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen!



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Unfair Justice

Matthew 20:1-16
November 16, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Matthew 20: 1-16

1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

It just isn’t fair.

There’s no other way to say it. It isn’t fair that someone who works from sunup to six pm gets a day’s wage, and someone who works one hour gets the same wage. That isn’t fair. Maybe you can make a case for the people who came to work at nine in the morning. That’s still a pretty good day’s work, maybe worth a day’s pay. Maybe even the people who came to work at noon, and worked until six.

The people who heard this story, when Jesus first told it, would have identified most strongly with the workers who started early. They’d have known that a denarion, a day’s pay for a laborer, was just barely enough for living another day – enough to eat, to get by. There was no such thing as the eight-hour day; no 40 hour weeks. You started working when the sun came up and stopped when it was supper time. So after you had put in twelve hours in the hot sun, you’d be understandably put out that someone who worked one hour was getting exactly the same pay as you.

“Dangit!” you’d think – “I should have slept in, had some breakfast, done some washing, then started work this afternoon.” It isn’t fair that an employer would pay everyone the same, no matter when they started working. Jesus knew it when he told the story.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells this story to the disciples just after a young man has come to him asking “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come and follow him. The young man went away grieving, and Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples are troubled by this. Who then can be saved? they ask Jesus. He tells them that all things are possible with God. Then Peter, still working this out, says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

And then he tells them this story.

They’ve asked a sincere question of him – “What’s in it for us?”
And he has answered with this parable.

Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. It’s like this, he says, or like this other thing. The young man wants to know what good deed he has to do in exchange for eternal life. Peter wants to know what he and the other disciples are going to get in exchange for all they have given up, in payment for all they have done for him. The disciples have been with him from the first; they came with him right when he called them, and they’ve stuck with him. They haven’t had a day off or a vacation from following him. They’ve left their homes and families and gone with him wherever he went. They’d like some assurance that the work they are doing is worth something. They’d like to know that their sacrifices matter. They’d like to know that this kingdom of God he keeps saying is at hand really is going to materialize.

They haven’t yet grasped what is more apparent to us now, in retrospect, about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom. Jesus keeps talking about it, but they can’t quite make sense of it. Is the kingdom at hand, here, now? Or is about to be realized, when he takes over in Jerusalem, throws out the Roman occupiers, and establishes himself on David’s throne? Or is it a kingdom still to come, far off, in the afterlife, in actual heaven? What the disciples haven’t understood is that the kingdom is here and now, whenever and wherever people do the will of God. And the kingdom is also future, on that day when there is a new heaven and a new earth, when God redeems and renews all creation.

So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” they pay close attention, but it doesn’t make any sense to them.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out to hire workers. Landowners don’t go out to hire workers for their vineyards. They send their stewards – their managers. When they go hire workers, they get all they need and then they’re done. They don’t keep going back to the market place, picking up losers and sluggards and sinners, bringing them all back to work in the vineyard without paying any attention to the time. Landowners don’t pay everyone the same – at least not landowners who are fair! A fair man would give a greater reward to those who work more, and a lesser reward to those who do less.

If God were fair, everybody would be rewarded, according to the number of good deeds they do. Then we could go ask Jesus, like the young man in the story, “How good do I have to be, to be part of the kingdom of God? What kind of work do I need to do to earn salvation from you? How much do I need to give, or give up, to know the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answered him and told him to give up everything. And that isn’t fair either.

Because God isn’t fair.
God is just.
And God’s justice isn’t like human justice.

A few years ago, I read a story about a woman whose son was murdered. Her boy was only twenty, his killer only sixteen. It was a street fight, and at the end of it, her son, her only son, was dead. The boy who killed him was tried as an adult. He went to prison. Justice was served, she thought. “He was an animal. He deserved to be caged,” she said at his sentencing. ‘If my son would have taken your life for the same reason you said you took his, I would expect him to have to pay the costs. So I expect you to have to pay the costs.’”[1]

But the mother was a Christian, and after some years, she went to visit the boy who killed her son. He didn’t want to see her at first, didn’t want to look again into the face of the grieving woman he had seen in court. Didn’t want to face the reality of her grief. But Mary persisted. And eventually, O’Shea met with Mary. She said that forgiveness was necessary, that it did not diminish what he had done. Eventually, O’Shea came to think of Mary as the mother he had not had. And Mary began to think of O’Shea as a son. When he was released from prison, Mary helped him find an apartment. Next door to her. He looks out for her, now that she is retired from her job as a teacher’s aide. And she looks out for him.

What struck me about this story, as I read it online again this week, were the comments that people made. Most of them, like you’d expect, said, “What a wonderful story.” Many of them said, “I could never do that.”

But some of them said, “What is wrong with her? How could she do that?”
How could anyone forgive the person who killed their only son?
How could she love someone who did that?
How could she reward him by helping him that way?

Of course we know what is wrong with her. She met the one who said “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” The one who said “love your enemies and pray for those who curse you.” She met the God who is not fair, but whose justice restores the broken heart. She met the one who, when asked, “What’s in it for me?” answered, “Everything. Everything is in it for you.” She met the God who is not fair, who does not give everyone what they deserve, or reward us according to our merit.

The owner of the vineyard goes out to seek workers, and if they are willing to come, the Lord of the harvest will pay them – not according to what they deserve, but according to his own generosity. It just isn’t fair.

It makes no sense whatsoever, unless you know something about the mind of God.
It isn’t fair that God would love us just because we are alive. It isn’t fair that Jesus would heal and restore the sick and the broken. It isn’t fair that the worst, most horrible, heinous sinner in the world receives at God’s throne of justice the same grace and mercy as the best Christian you’ve ever met. God’s justice doesn’t take us to court, determine our guilt or innocence, then either punish us or let us go.

God’s justice restores what was broken,
fills what is empty,
finds what was lost,
and rejoices.

God’s justice looks at a world of wayward, self-centered people and says, “I think I’ll come and be one of them.” God’s justice in Jesus Christ proclaims release to the captive, sight for the blind, healing for the sick, rest for the weary. And when those blind, sick, restless people killed God’s son, God’s justice offered forgiveness, offered love, offered life. Not for what they had done, not for what they could do, but simply out of grace and love.

What are you going to do with a God like that?
What kind of gifts can you offer a God who gives everything?
Just your time, maybe.
Just your life, maybe.
Just your love, maybe.
And it will never be enough.
It is just not fair.

And thanks be to God for that.



Sunday, November 9, 2014

Small Change

Mark 12:38-44
November 9, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This third Sunday of our Stewardship Season, we continue to explore the Generations of Generosity in our faith history. Last week, we were in the Old Testament, as the widow of Zarephath shared the last of her meal and oil with the prophet Elijah, and through God’s provision, she did not run out. We saw how what we bring, though it be only a little, can be made into plenty by God’s mighty power.

This week, we hear about yet another widow who gives her all. But this is a different widow, in a different context and a different generation. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the last time, riding into town on the back of a donkey to shouts of “hosanna!” And before long he will be arrested and executed. He has been challenging the leaders with his actions and his words. Just before this widow comes to give her offering, Jesus says:

"Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

And then comes this widow, a faithful Jew, who brings her offering to the temple as Jesus watches. Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in the gospel of Mark, chapter 12:40-44:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When I preach a familiar story like this one, I go back to my old sermons, to make sure I don’t repeat myself, and to find anything that bears repeating. Turns out you’ve heard this story before -- in 2009, and 2012.

In both sermons, I shared stories of generous widows in our day and age. One was about Doris, who was sent to Kenya by her tiny Presbyterian church, a trip made on donations and fund-raisers, money raised at church bake sales and car-washes. On her last day in Kenya, Doris gave her last $10 to the church offering, the $10 she had been saving in her billfold – her “mad money” stashed away for an emergency reserve. (1)

The other story was of Oseola McCarty, an elderly widow who lived in poverty, who made her living as a washer woman. She had saved every penny she could from the time she left 6th grade and began working. When she made out her will, her banker gave her ten dimes, representing 100 percent of her estate, and asked her to use the dimes to show him what percentages she wanted to give, and to whom. She slid the dimes around the banker’s desk, putting aside one dime – a tithe- for her church, one dime for each of her three living relatives, and six dimes for scholarships to Southern Mississippi University. That sixty percent of the widow woman’s estate amounted to $150,000. Seeing her generosity, others gave more, and even Ted Turner chipped in a billion dollars.(2)

I wanted to remind you of those widows, because this story so easily becomes a distant fable, so far removed from us that even placing it in its larger context doesn’t help us relate to it. You thought last week’s widow of Zarephath story was far-fetched? This widow has two coins. All the money she has to her name. And she has just dropped them in the church treasury. Donated them to the general fund, undesignated, unrestricted.

Jesus has been warning those who will hear him about the fancy proud folk who dress nice and pray loud, who make a big show of their giving, those who donate a large, beautiful object to be on display, and put a plaque on it to remind everyone of their generosity. I’m not talking about memorial gifts, I’m talking about show-off giving. We don’t see much of that around here, but I’ve been in churches where everything in the building bears a brass plaque – the furniture, the pictures, the computer, the desk, even the vacuum cleaner! You halfway expect that if the preacher turns around you’ll see a plaque stuck to her backside.

“This preacher paid in memory of Great-Aunt Ethel.”

Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about plaques, or designated gifts. But he has a lot to say about people’s intentions in giving. Because as usual, Jesus is worried more about the inward than the outward. And as we look at this story of the widow and her two small coins, it will help us to know what was happening before and after this vignette. As I mentioned, in Mark’s gospel, in this 12th chapter, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the last time. He entered to shouts of “hosanna!” and before long, he will hear shouts of “crucify him!”

So we are seeing here his final actions. We are hearing him say the things that pushed the authorities to arrest him. He has thrown the money changers from the temple. He has argued about the resurrection and the life to come. He has skillfully avoided entrapment in the question about paying taxes, taking a coin with Caesar’s image and saying, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” And he has answered a very sincere question about the greatest commandment. A scribe who had been listening to him teach approached and asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Obviously, there are scribes, and then there are scribes, because just a few verses later, Jesus is warning the disciples to beware of the scribes, the highly religious and righteous men, with their very long robes and their very long prayers, and their public displays of benevolence.

Then comes this widow with her offering. And she raises some questions for us.
Had they devoured her house, cheated her out of her meager wealth?
Why was one so poor not being cared for by the religious community?
Was she at the same point of despair as the widow we read about last week,
who planned to use up the last of her resource and then wait for death?
Was she looked down upon because of her poverty?

It has ever been true, apparently, that some people equate wealth with God’s approval, and assume that those who are rich are deserving of their wealth. In fact, surveys of wealthy people show that they believe they are rich because they deserve to be. They can’t say why, but obviously they have a lot of money because they are better than all the rest of us. The corollary assumption then, is that those who are in poverty are morally inferior, don’t work hard enough, or are simply wasteful. They are poor because they deserve to be poor.

That’s a mite harsh position to take, but it has its advantages. It frees you from any responsibility to those who are less fortunate. You don’t need to care for them, or be generous toward them. Because if they are poor, it’s their own fault. Too bad for them. That attitude, prevalent as it is, runs contrary to God’s will and to every teaching in the entire Bible. If we are indeed the Christian nation that so many people say we are, we would do well to show the kind of generosity to the poor that the scriptures command. Not out of duty, nor out of superiority, but out of love. If we can’t whomp up enough love for the actual people in poverty, maybe we can care for them because we love God. And because Jesus told us to.

I think that’s why this widow with her two coins, and those other widows, Doris and Osceola, capture our imaginations so powerfully. Not the quantity of their gifts– two coins, ten bucks, $150,000— but the intention of their generosity. Their gifts were motivated by a powerful love of God, and given with gratitude and joy. Two copper coins is small change nowadays even as it was then. For most of us, $10 is not all that much to give. And for a rich guy like Ted Turner, $150,000 probably doesn’t seem like much. It’s all about our perspective, isn’t it?

And when it comes to giving to our church, most of us could use a small change to our perspective. Most of us – I certainly do – have at least a little struggle as we consider our pledges. We think that a small change in what we give couldn’t possibly make that much difference. We might pray that God will make a small change in our hearts, so that we can be more generous, more easily. Maybe we hope for a small change in our personal finances so that we feel more comfortable as we make our pledge.

But God isn’t keeping score with money, nor is God rewarding some people with wealth and punishing others with poverty. God keeps pouring out blessings and lavishing love on us, rejoicing with us in every small change we can make in the world through our faithfulness.

So I hope you’ll join me in praying for small change this year – and for big changes, too:
a small increase in our generosity, and a big increase in our joy in giving;
a small increase in our budget, and a big increase in what we do for others;
a small increase in pledges, and a big increase in our love –
for God, for neighbor,
for this world so much in need of change.
Thanks be to God for small change.


(1) Laurie McKnight, personal correspondence, 2009.