Monday, January 13, 2014

River Water

Isaiah 42:5-9, Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Isaiah 42:5-9
5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew’s gospel is primarily concerned with answering a central question of Christianity: who is this Jesus? For Matthew, the question is the hinge of faith – who do you say Jesus is? So this gospeller starts out his account of Jesus with a genealogy, establishing the lineage. The second chapter of Matthew gives the account of the magis’ visit and the murderous King Herod’s plan to kill the child, prompting the holy family to flee to Egypt. It’s almost like a reversal of the Moses story, when he led the people out of slavery in Egypt, into the promised land. Except in Matthew’s story, the direction is reversed. Instead of running from a murderous Pharaoh, out of Egypt, the Holy Family runs from a death-dealing king, into Egypt. Then, abruptly, Jesus is an adult, and he is on his way to the river Jordan. It is there that we find him in today’s scripture reading, there with his cousin, John, and a crowd of John’s followers.

Matthew 3: 13-17
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 
16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Jordan River, where this scene is set, is now a tourist attraction in the Holy Land. There are signs pointing to the place where it is presumed Jesus was baptized. There are other signs along the paved, elevated concrete path along the Jordan – signs that say “Going down to the water is forbidden.” Apparently, farther down river, signs indicate that the water is polluted. When you follow that paved path, at the tourist site, you come to a place where there are stone steps down to the water, and platforms that allow you to wade out a bit.

There are stanchions and fences stuck down into the river, so if you want to be baptized there is a designated, fenced off area for it. The water is clean at that point, kept clean for baptisms. Further down river, the water is used by Israel, Syria and Jordan, all of whom pump wastewater back into the River Jordan. At times, even the baptism site has been too polluted to allow people in. Much of the aquatic life, once rich and varied, is gone. The water level has declined precipitously, which has further damaged the biodiversity of the area.

A once fertile valley from Dan in the North to Beersheba in the South, the Jordan river flows into the Sea of Galilee, and ends at the Dead Sea. Jordan was the river crossed by the people of Israel, when they finally crossed over into the promised land. And Jordan was the river where John the Baptist went to preach and baptize.

Matthew doesn’t spend a lot of time introducing him – the writer assumes we know who he is. We won’t hear much more about John the Baptist in Matthew, at all, except for his imprisonment, a brief dialogue by messenger with Jesus, - are you the one that is to come? and then the news of John’s beheading by Herod Antipas, the son of the King Herod who tried to murder Jesus. When Jesus heard about John’s death, he tried to go away to be alone for a time. We can only imagine his grief.

But that is all still in the future. Now we are at the River Jordan, and here is John the Baptist, looking wild-eyed in his animal skins, standing in the river chest-deep, preaching and prophesying. You may recall that John and Jesus are related  - cousins of some sort. John is slightly older, but according to Luke’s version, not by much. Their first “meeting” was when their mothers, both pregnant, met.

We don’t have any other gospel accounts of them being together, but it is hard to imagine that they were not. You know how it is, family get-togethers, meals, worship. It’s nice to think of them this way, cousins, nearly the same age, playing, laughing, running around, helping with the chores, leaving the table as soon as they were excused to go play hide and seek in the dusk, to pick up toads and chase the girls with them, or sit by a fire and eavesdrop on the men. Think of them at temple, sitting together with the women, listening one minute and the next minute suppressing their giggles over some little-boy joke. Later, when they were older, look at them bending over the scrolls, puzzling out the Hebrew, talking earnestly with the rabbi.

But boys grow up, and like a river, they run in their own direction, now slowing in a lazy curve, now rushing down a rocky incline. John went his own way, understood himself as the one preparing the way.  "I baptize you with water for repentance,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Then came Jesus, down to the river to be baptized.
Don’t you wonder what else transpired, there on the banks of the Jordan?
Did John see his cousin, and come wading out to embrace him?
Was there conversation first – how are you? how is your mother?
Did the people gathered there murmur amongst themselves? “That’s Mary’s son, Jesus. John’s mother is her cousin Elizabeth. There’s going to be a family squabble now.” 

There was disagreement, it turns out, but not a squabble. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John protested. But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” And John consented.

I wonder if Jesus took off his sandals, before he went into the water. And I wonder if John untied them, and carried them gently to a flat rock on the bank. Then, there they were, John wet and wild-eyed, Jesus, trusting, quiet as a child at rest, in his cousin’s arms.

As Jesus’ head went underwater, the sounds above the surface would have been muffled.  He’d have felt his cousin’s strong hand gripping his shoulder, warm compared to the cool caress of water on his skin.  And if, while he was underwater, Jesus felt anything – a rush of feeling, a sudden jolting presence, we cannot say.  If he heard, underwater, the sharp clap of stone on stone, the jangling reverberations of what was yet to come, we do not know. If he knew, at that second, who he was and what he was to do, if he knew, we do not know. 

He went underwater, into that murky, weightless world, with shafts of sunlight filtering in all around, little fish and ferns floating past. And then he burst back out above the surface, taking a deep sobbing breath, turning to face John, both of them hearing the voice “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” both of them knowing that everything, everything had changed.

If you’ve ever been swimming or fishing in a river, you know that the current can be swift, swift enough to take you off your feet and carry you along for a good ways. For baptizing, they’d have wanted a wide spot, not too deep, without too much current, and without  mud at the bottom – preferably rock, or sand. It would help to have space on the banks for people to stand, so a clearing on the shore would be best.

River water is moving, all the time if the river is healthy, so it is called “living water.”
It was in this living water that Jesus came to be baptized. River waters, from the beginning of human life on the planet, have been sources of life – not just providing water for drinking and washing, but providing natural borders between countries and tribes, creating habitat for aquatic and amphibious animals, and giving us a way to get from one place to another and to transport our goods along with us.

The waters of baptism do the same. They cleanse us, refresh us, and set us apart to call us holy and beloved. They create a boundary-- between the old way of life and the new kingdom. The waters of baptism provided a habitat for a new life. They create a space for our lives to connect to others, and carry us along on the current of Christian life. And at the end of our days, the water is poured back into the font, closing the circle of life, making our baptism complete.

Living water, river water, is powerful and sometimes dangerous. The force of moving water can dislodge boulders, uproot trees, submerge entire towns, wash away bridges, and carve into the earth such magnificent wonders as the Grand Canyon. Just so, the waters of baptism dislodge us from our old ways, uproot our selfishness and our belief in our own power, submerge self, wash away sin, and carve into our world a new pathway, beautiful, splashed with color. The waters of baptism shape deep channels of grace into our hearts of stone.

Recently, biologists and conservation scientists have learned how to determine biodiversity in a river simply by testing the water for the presence of traces of DNA.[1] There are apparently markers in the water itself of various species. For us, it operates in reverse – not traces of us in the water, but traces of the river water in us, exhibited by the way we speak, think, and act. You can detect that river water sometimes just by watching a person, observing kindness, mercy, humility and love in their lives.

Other times the river water speaks quietly within us, revealing God’s loving presence, brushing against our foreheads as softly as a dove’s wing, speaking into the silence of our souls the words that drench us with longing and joy: you are my beloved.
You are beloved.

That’s what the river water says – that’s what baptism promises.
You are beloved.
That’s what is true.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Journey of the Magi" byStefano de Giovanni Sassetta

January 5, 2014
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2: 1-12
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Isaiah 60:1-6
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 
2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 
3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 
4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. 
5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Matthew 2:1-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 '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.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 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." 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

For many people, Christmas is over. They’ve cleaned up the pine needles, put away the decorations, stowed the gifts, snuffed the candles, and returned the sweater that didn’t fit.
Maybe you have done the same. But as you probably know, Christmas is not a day, but 12 days, a season, and the season actually doesn’t end until tomorrow. Tomorrow, the 12th day of Christmas, is Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the visit of the magi.

You may have noticed that our Christmas program didn’t have three wise men, or three wise anybodies in it, and even though we sing the song, “We Three Kings” we don’t really know how many there were – just that they brought three gifts. Sometimes when we hear this story, we focus on the star, the astrological sign that brought the magi to Jesus.

This time, let’s think about the journeys in this story.

The first journey we know about was the journey that Mary and Joseph made, the journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Even though Bethlehem was really important in the Christmas story, we really don’t hear much more about it after that. We just know that it is the center of the house of David, and so the family lineage is validated. The second journey was probably not a long one – maybe to a relative’s home? because when the Magi arrived, the family was in a house. The third journey is this one we just heard – the Magi coming from far lands, to see this child who is born the king of the Jews. The fourth journey is the Magi’s journey home – home by another way.

Beyond this text, the next journey is, again, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, on the run as refugees, heading to Egypt, to escape King Herod. They stay there until it is safe to go home, and they then journey back to Nazareth, their hometown.

Since we are in Matthew’s gospel, and not Luke’s, the story of Jesus’ early days is different.
No shepherds here, only genealogy and signs and symbols, because Matthew is establishing Jesus’ connection to prophecies of  the Old Testament. And in Matthew’s stories of journeys, Jesus is a traveler, but he is mainly the destination. This story of the Magi leaves out a lot of details, but there is much to be learned from their journey.

First, it’s clear from their statements that they came to find Jesus through magic and astrology – not the sort of path we’d expect. Perhaps we can be mindful of this as we contemplate the various spiritual paths taken by those outside the church. As we reach out to them, let’s be respectful of their journeys. We believe that the journey is ultimately to Christ, but we cannot presume to limit God’s grace. Since we believe in the promise that Christ is redeeming all of creation, we can trust that God’s roadmap is more complex than we imagine.

Second, they were sidetracked by their assumptions. The magi went to Herod’s palace first, assuming they would find a king there. They thought they knew what a king would look like, and they were quite certain that there were certain places he would be found. Instead, they went to a humble home, to see an ordinary looking child with peasant parents. That child would grow up to b e a man who welcomed children, who ate with sinners and prostitutes, who welcomed the unwelcome and included the outcast. Maybe it’s worth examining our own assumptions about Jesus, about who he would be with and where he may be found.

Third, they brought gifts of enormous value – the gifts suitable for royalty. I wonder how our own offerings would compare to the gold, frankincense and myrrh they offered. The 17th century sermon of Lancelot Andrewes summed up that offering. He said  “We can worship God but three ways:  we have but three things to worship Him withal.
1. The soul He hath inspired; 2. the body He hath ordained us; 3. and the worldly goods He hath vouchsafed to bless us withal. We to worship Him with all, seeing there is but one reason for all.”[1]

Fourth, we do not know what they were feeling, or what made them make their journey to Jesus. We do not know what detours they took, or what fears they faced. This we do know:
When they arrived, they were overwhelmed by his presence. They were changed by him,
No matter where they went from then on, they were changed, the passports of their lives indelibly stamped with the experience of seeing God. And they went home by another road.

My favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote the poem, “Journey of the Magi,” when he was thirty nine years old, shortly after he converted to Christianity. His poem reflects his own journey to Christ, and ends with these words:

“This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”[2]

Each one of us makes this journey to Christ, beckoned by the vision God sends, called by a deep longing to see him, to know him, and to be known by him. Today we continue on our journeys, in a new year, but with the same assurance that those who seek him will find him.

We continue on our journeys, with all the same uncertainties, with all the detours and mistaken assumptions, to offer what we have and who we are: body, soul, and material wealth. We come to him, and we worship, and we are changed, forever and for good, so that when we go, we go by another road, a road that will lead us home, where our restless hearts will rest in him. Thanks be to God for each and every journey to Christ. 


[1] SERMONS OF THE NATIVITY. PREACHED UPON CHRISTMAS-DAY, 1622. Preached before King James, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCXXII. Transcribed by Dr Marianne Dorman
AD 2001  Accessed January 1, 2014

Christmas Eve Meditation

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2: 1-20
December 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

When you came in this evening, I hope you noticed the nativity sets on display. They’re out there in the narthex, the big room out there beyond the sanctuary. They’re on the tables, and on the shelves, all sorts of nativity sets from all different homes.

Did you have a nativity set in your home, when you were growing up? (It’s okay, nothing bad will happen if you nod or raise your hand.) Do you have one on display in your home now? I have a LOT of nativity sets. A collection of them. I didn’t mean to collect them. It just happened.

There is a website that every December posts weird nativity sets – homemade clay mangers, badly carved wooden holy families, nativity sets from all kinds of places.
But they are not lovely. They’re just weird. Like, they’re made up of dogs, or bears, or ducks, or cowboys and cowgirls. Or  they’re made of meat. I don’t collect those.

My favorite sets are not necessarily the most beautiful. This little one was made in Mexico – just a little tiny holy family, a gift to me from a friend who is from India – so it’s very multicultural. One set I really like is this one – the cloth stable with the stuffed people and the little wooden manger. It’s a nativity set that kids can handle, and play with, without anyone getting nervous that they will break something.

The first year I owned this set, I was children’s ministry staff at a big church. The kids were setting up the stable for Advent, and they placed Mary and Joseph a few feet away from the stable, planning to move them closer each week. But something wasn’t right…………they conferred. Kids are realists, you know. They like to get things right. Then one of them said, “Mary is supposed to be pregnant.” Somebody else grabbed baby Jesus and tucked him up under Mary’s robe. Mary looked nine months pregnant then, uncomfortable, unsteady as she rocked back on her little cloth heels, probably pretty much like she really felt.

I think we enjoy nativity sets because they help to make Christmas real. They’re real enough - enough like us to make us smile, and feel sentimental. Then we wrap them back up and pop them away in a box until next Christmas. Of course if we think about it, we know that the whole event couldn’t REALLY have looked like our nativity sets.

We know that the holy family was not a blue-eyed fair skinned trio, all clean and well-dressed. The creators of my little Mexican nativity knew that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were not really Maria and Jose and Jesus. The people who make Peruvian nativities, with llamas, don’t actually believe that there was a llama at the place of Jesus birth.

Another thing we know isn’t true, but is really part of our story, is that Jesus probably wasn’t born in a barn, not a barn like we know it today. Even though it makes such a good joke. You’ve heard that – the boy Jesus heads out of the house and Mary yells, “Jesus, shut the door! Were you born in a barn?”

The story is so familiar that we don’t really think much about the reality of it. When I hear the Christmas story, I like to hear it from the King James Version, because it is the poetic language of the grand story that I know.

Like nativity sets, though, the King James, for all its beauty, doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. For instance, we don’t know how long Joseph and Mary were actually in Bethlehem before the baby was due. Even though we picture Mary on the verge of going into labor as they looked for a place to stay, she probably didn’t make that arduous journey of eighty miles when she was that far along. And there’s no donkey in the Bible story. Really, not at all, I double checked.

But there is one detail that we’ve gotten wrong for such a long time, and the real story is so much better! We’ve had it wrong because the men who translated the King James Version took the Greek words and interpreted them into common English words the common English of the time.
So here’s Luke 2, verse 7:  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And that last word is “kataluma,” the word that got translated as  “inn.”[1] is the one that has thrown us off. It’s not a bed and breakfast, or a hotel or hostel, a kataluma – it’s really a guest room. So Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, probably to a relative’s home. You know how that is – lots of family comes to town, you crowd them in wherever you can.
But the guest room was taken.

So they had to stay in another part of the house - the part of the house where the animals were kept. In houses of the time, there was a sleeping room, where everyone slept. The other room was the stable, where the animals slept. Not a barn, not a separate building.
More like the front hall, only with animals in it. It would be warm, in that room. There would be family nearby, which would be helpful, if you are far from your mom and having your first baby.

There would be someone there to check on you, reassure you while you were in labor, bring you something to eat, maybe some clean cloths for swaddling the baby. Much better than being alone, out in a barn far away from the house, in the dark, and without anyone to help you. 

I love knowing this, love having Jesus be born right there in the house. It lets me keep my childhood pictures, and my nativity sets, with the cow and the donkey and the straw, but it brings Jesus right inside, right where he needs to be. Up close. Warm. Personal. Alive.

Because all too often, I think, we prefer to keep the little baby Jesus figure of the nativity set, small and safe and distant, out there in the barn. We wrap him up in tissue paper after Christmas, and we put him away and we don’t really pay much attention to Jesus again until Easter.

But here he is, now, all snuggly and warm, right here in the house. He is here in the house, and he didn’t stay a sweet snuggly little baby. He grew up, to be a teacher, and a healer, and a lover of humankind to such an extent that he was willing to go to the cross, suffer a humiliating death, and lie in a tomb for three days. He loves us so much that he conquered death and rose again. And on that last night, before he was betrayed and handed over, he gave us a great gift, a gift that, like this nativity set, helps us understand.

He gave us communion, a way to remember him, to taste and see his goodness, to make him real and present to us. He came that night so long ago, an infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes. And he was real, and he was alive, and he was in the house. Not far off, apart from the people, but close – with them, for them, in humanity and love, even as he comes to us tonight, in this manger, and at this table, with us, for us, in humanity and love. May we welcome him into our homes, into our hearts, into our lives.