Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sensing the Glory of God: The Scent of Love

Matthew 26: 1-13
March 30, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This is the fourth Sunday in our Lenten series, “Sensing the Glory of God.” This week we focus on the sense of smell. It was perhaps the sense that was easiest to think of a text for, because this story came to mind immediately. But it took a while to think through how to talk about smell, a very powerful sense.

Our sense of smell is so critical to our functioning – to taste, to memory, even to our ability to discern when there is danger. But there are also smells that we laugh and joke about – unpleasant smells, usually. And we didn’t want to find ourselves inviting all of you to start thinking about how Jesus smelled, or smells!

I don’t know about you, but when we start talking about smell, I think of  pleasant aromas like bread baking, or flowers, or English lavender soap. But I also think about Pepe le Peux, the cartoon skunk, and spoiled milk, and diaper pails. So, now that we maybe have skunks and sour milk out of the way, let’s engage all of our senses as we listen to the gospel.

This 26th chapter of Matthew finds us in Bethany, at the home of a leper. Five chapters back, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Now he is in the last week of his life. He’s been teaching them in parables, telling stories like he does. And now we will hear of the plot to kill him. When next we gather for worship, we’ll be at the last supper with Jesus. The time is drawing near when Jesus will be arrested. Listen for God’s word to us, and breathe in the fragrance of the anointing oil in Matthew 26: 1-13.

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 
2 "You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." 
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4 and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people." 
6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 
8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, "Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor." 
10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman?
She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." 

What, for you, is the fragrance of love?

Perhaps it is one of these things:
bread baking, soup on the stove,
your grandmother’s soft perfume, deep in the folds of her scarf,
your father’s pipe tobacco,
your baby, just out of the bath, diapered and powdered, ready for bed,
your wife’s hairspray,
your husband’s aftershave,
a child in from play, smelling of grass and summer…

For me it is the smell of homemade fudge, the recipe from the Hershey’s cocoa can, cooking on the stove. My father was the candy cook in our house, and for special occasions, like Christmas, he would make fudge. Using only the best ingredients – all butter, no margarine, evaporated milk, to make it richer, he would cook the fudge to the exact right stage, then beat it by hand to aerate it.

Sometimes he’d take it out on the back porch, in the winter’s cold, where he’d put a towel on his lap because the pan was still hot, and he’d beat the fudge smooth, smooth in the cool air. When we were older, and we’d come home for a visit, Dad would make a batch of fudge. Just because we were there. With him and mother. The aroma of chocolate filled the house, and it smelled like love.

What does devotion smell like?
Is it spicy, or sweet? Flowery? Citrusy?
When Jesus came to the house of Simon the Leper, perhaps love smelled like a whole mix of things – men crowded into a tiny house, food cooking on an open fire, dust and sweat and wine. But for a moment, when that woman broke open her alabaster jar, and poured that oil out on Jesus’ head, the way you anoint a king, for a moment, as the scent of that oil filled the room, that was the scent of love. It was the fragrance of devotion, a devotion that foreshadowed Jesus’ death. It was the scent of a great gift, of sacrifice. It was the aroma of grace.

Throughout the scriptures, both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, there is a description of offerings to God – as fragrant offerings. In the days of Exodus, an offering at the altar included fragrant incense. And St. Paul, in Ephesians five, carries that image forward as he considers another offering: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” he says, “and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Scientists tell us that the sense of smell is far more refined than we ever knew. Research had said that the number of smells we can distinguish is about 10,000. More recently, research has increased that number to about a trillion. That’s right, a trillion.

Your sense of smell is the most sensitive of all your senses, and the one most linked to emotional memory. About three fourths of our emotions are triggered by smells – smells are linked to pleasure, well-being, emotion and memory. Hotel chains have signature smells –  the lobby of a Sheraton has a different fragrance than that of a Westin.  The first of all our senses to develop, even before we are born, is smell.[1] Our nose knows, as they say.

An interesting thing about smell is that it is invisible, just molecules floating in the air.
You can’t see a smell – you can only experience it. But when an aroma is strong, it can pull us in close. And when a stink is powerful, it can push us away in a hurry.

Have you ever thought about what neglect smells like? What carelessness, or meanness, or prejudice smell like? I think we can sense such things, even if we can’t identify them. We sense them the way a horse can smell incompetence in a rider, and the way a dog can smell fear.

When I was a Christian educator, I ran across a quote from an early educator, from the 19th century, when Sunday Schools were set up to educate poor factory children. They came to Sunday school because they worked the other six days of the week. They came to learn to read, because they couldn’t go to school. This educator commented, about these children, “The odor of the house is in their garments.” And it is still true today, and it is true of us as well. Maybe not the odor of cooked cabbage, or spoiled food, or wood smoke or unwashed coats. But the odor of our house is in our garments – whether it is the aroma of superiority and judgment or the scent of grace and forgiveness and love.

There’s a little village in France, in Provence, that is considered to be the perfume capital of the world. For hundreds of years, this village has been making perfumes from flowers. They supply the fragrance for about 2/3 of France’s natural aromas. This village is the home of a perfume museum, and every year they have a parade, which features floats with young women throwing flowers into the crowd. Everyone is soaked by the perfume of the flowers.[2] Even today, after hundreds of years and the development of synthetic perfumes, around 3500 people are employed in the making of perfumes there. It is said that if you are in the streets around five o’ clock, when the bell rings to signal the end of the work day at the factory, the workers head for home. As they pour out into their separate streets,
the town is permeated with the scent of lavender.

Like those workers in Provence, we, the people of God, when we leave the church and go out into the world, carry the fragrance of love with us. Our community should be permeated with the love and grace we absorb in our life together here in church. The odor of this house is in our very garments! Christ gave himself as an offering for us, fragrant to God, and calls us to offer ourselves as well –  fragrant offerings, acceptable to God.

So what does love smell like?
It has the sweet aroma of a woman who brings an expensive oil to anoint her Lord.
Love smells like the crayons and markers our church bought for a school.
Love smells like gravy on biscuits down at Loaves and Fishes,
like a hearty supper taken to the PADS shelter,
like bean soup mix given away to anyone who wants it.

Love can smell like cookies, too, and like a potluck dinner,
like flowers given for the glory of God,
like apple juice served to the Vacation Bible School kids,
like the soil turned up in a community garden,
like coats and blankets given to those who are cold.

But most of all, love smells like humility, and generosity and hospitality.
Love smells like the bread and cup, like the water in the font.
Love smells, well, it smells like church.
Like us.


Sensory Prayer – Breathing in Love

Close your eyes and sit as still as you comfortably can. Pay attention to your breathing.
As you breathe in, pray this silent prayer: Come, Lord Jesus
As you breathe out, pray this phrase: teach me to love.

Sit quietly and repeat the phrases in your mind for several minutes. Allow the prayer to take on the shape of your breathing, so that the words flow with your every breath.
Now let the prayer phrases move in and out with the rhythm of your breathing.

When the woman came to anoint Jesus, she brought an alabaster jar of valuable and fragrant oil. Her gift was beautiful, for it was a gift of deep love. When she opened the jar, the scent filled the room. All who were present, with every breath they took, could sense the aroma of her devotion, the fragrance of her love.

She did not count the cost of her gift; she was not ashamed of her history; she only knew that her love moved her to action. To be in his presence was a treasure beyond words. She anointed Jesus for his burial, and she most certainly knew of his resurrection. She understood that his death was not the end, but his love, our love, would never end.
The fragrance filled the room.

“Come Lord Jesus, teach me to love.”

Carry the prayer with you throughout the day, throughout the week, through your whole life long. Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sensing the Glory of God: Mended Vessels

Matthew 9:18-30a
March 23, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we enter this third week of Lent we continue our series, “Sensing the Glory of God.” We’ve been looking at stories in the gospel of Matthew through the lens of our five senses. I hope you’ll take a few minutes today to look at the display in the narthex of  the items people have shared that reflect God’s glory, that demonstrate hope, abundance and courage.

This week, our sensory focus is on touch – specifically, the touch of Jesus. Our scripture reading calls our attention to three different healing stories of Jesus from the 9th chapter of Matthew, verses 18-30. Let’s open ourselves to the healing touch of Jesus as we listen to these stories:

18 While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live." 19 And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

20 Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, 21 for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well." 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well.

23 When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, 24 he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. 25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. 26 And the report of this spread throughout that district.

27 As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" 28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" They said to him, "Yes, Lord." 29 Then he touched their eyes and said, "According to your faith let it be done to you." 30 And their eyes were opened.

The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa had a beautiful tea bowl. When Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s tea bowl broke, he did not simply throw it away. In the 15th century, such a thing would have been unthinkable. Japanese tea ceremonies are not just about pouring and drinking tea; they are elegant and beautiful rituals of manners, of hospitality. So Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent the bowl away to have it repaired.

When the bowl was returned, it was repaired, but it was no longer beautiful. It was in one piece, but was disfigured by ugly metal staples that held it together. Ashikaga was disgusted and looked for a more pleasing way to repair the bowl. Eventually, he hit upon a solution: he added gold to resin, and filled in the cracks with gold. Not only was the tea bowl stronger, it was more beautiful than it had been before.[1] The art of this kind of repair is called kintsukuroi – to repair with gold. 

A woman came to Jesus, a woman who wanted to be healed. She did not intend to ask anything of him, but she pushed through the crowds, just to touch the hem of his garment. She touched the fringe of his cloak, and she was made well. After long years of suffering, just one touch healed her. She could return to her family, her community, to full life.

Jesus continued on his way and went to the bedside of a child who had died, a little girl. He said she was not dead, but only sleeping. They laughed at him. She had died, and the funeral was about to begin. But Jesus wouldn’t accept their point of view. He brushed past the crowds and went to the child. He took her by the hand, and told her to get up. She got up, and she was well, and she was strong, and she was alive. His touch restored her to life.

And as he left that home, two blind men approached. Take away our blindness, they asked. Restore our sight. Do you believe that I am able to do this, he asked them? Yes, Lord, they answered. He touched their eyes, and their sight was restored. One touch, and they could see, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

The touch of God in our lives – to heal, to restore, to transform -- like the touch of a potter’s hands on clay. The prophet Isaiah said, speaking to God, “We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand.” In 2nd Corinthians, chapter 4, the Apostle Paul carries the image further: “… we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

It’s an interesting thought, this idea that we are clay, shaped by God. Potters have to prepare clay, -- it’s called wedging -- to remove air bubbles, to mix it properly, to get the moisture content properly dispersed. The clay must be cut and rejoined, slammed down onto a table, pressed and turned. It’s a little like kneading bread dough – and it takes a lot of wedging – 75 to 100 times – to get clay into shape. Then, the potter rolls the clay repeatedly. Only then is the clay shaped into a vessel.

I rather like the idea of that touch of Jesus, like a potter, shaping and smoothing us, taking away the rough edges, mending the cracks and broken places with gentle, healing hands. Jesus was never afraid to touch people – even though the purity codes prohibited it- a man should not touch a woman who was not his wife, and touching the sick made a person ritually unclean. Touching the body of one who was dead was forbidden. But Jesus touched people, laid his hands on them, leaned down and held out a hand, lifted people up. He touched people particularly when he healed them.

The sensory experience of touch was somehow part of healing. This is true even now – medical and mental health professionals frequently emphasize the significance of appropriate healing touch. It isn’t anything unusual –massage, reiki, reflexology – all of them deploy the sense of touch in ways intended to be healing, or at least helpful.

Human touch is powerful –  so important that babies who don’t receive it can actually die, so crucial to well-being that many nursing home workers  are now trained in ways to appropriately and regularly touch residents, to hold their hands or rub their backs, to gently stroke their arms. Those of us whose work includes visiting the sick are taught the importance of taking a hand, or offering a gentle touch on the shoulder.

Of course, there are some kinds of touch that are hurtful, exploitive, unwelcome. But the touch of Jesus is never that, never as punishment, never as pain. It is the touch that heals and revives, that refreshes our vision, and reassures us. That touch also shapes us, forms us into something – someone new.

The touch of God is the touch of the potter’s hands.
It is the touch of the potter that makes a clay vessel beautiful.
It is the will of the potter that makes a clay vessel useful.
It is the skill of the potter to restore that makes a clay vessel whole.

From time to time we get dinged and chipped and maybe cracked up a bit by life. Maybe we overestimate our strength, maybe we misuse our bodies, and maybe there is nothing wrong that we have done, but something, somehow, cracks, something breaks, something comes apart. The touch of Jesus puts us back together.  The potter’s hands smooth the broken places and fill them with gold, to make us even more beautiful than before. Kintsukuroi – repaired with gold. 

As you came into the sanctuary this morning, you were given a small bag of clay.
That clay is just a small lump, not much to look at. Maybe that is where you have been, maybe it is where you are. Maybe you’ve never felt like a formless lump of clay, but it could be that someday you will – There may be things in your life that can’t be put back together, at least not in this life. Maybe you have felt, or feel now, like a broken vessel, a shard, in pieces.

We are clay vessels, fragile, easily damaged.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, and from the healing touch of the master’s hand, our broken places shine like gold. “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God  in the face of Jesus Christ.”

God’s touch can put us back together,  mending us, restoring us, making us stronger at the broken places,  healed,  golden,  beautiful, more beautiful for having been broken: mended vessels,  touched by Jesus, to show the glory of God.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sensing the Glory of God: Look Here! 6:22-34

March 16, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Jesus: The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!  No one can serve two masters;
You: Why not?
Jesus: Because a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You: I don't know if I agree with that or not. It seems overstated.
Jesus: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.
You: Seriously? Isn't your advice a little naïve? I do need to plan ahead and know where my next meal is coming from and make sure my family is clothed.
Jesus: "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"
You: Yes, when you put it that way, but . . .
Jesus: Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
You: Yes, but . . .
Jesus: Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
You: No, I guess not, but . . .
Jesus: And why do you worry about clothing?
You: Well, because I need to be appropriately dressed for various occasions and at least try to be somewhat up to date.
Jesus: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
You: Why do you keep making these nature analogies? Those are flowers. I'm a person.
Jesus: If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith?
You: It would be nice to think so, but don't you think worry serves a useful function sometimes?
Jesus: It is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'"
You: All right. I get that you're not going to budge on the worry issue. But tell me this: what am I to do with all that mental free time I used to spend worrying?
Jesus: Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

Adapted from

What do you worry about?
My family has a story about an elderly relative who fretted and worried all the time. When asked what she worried about, she said,
“Well, I worry about you kids, and the grandkids. Then I worry about the weather. I worry about what I see on the news, about all the trouble in the world. I worry about what will happen if I run out of money before I run out of life.”
She went on and on.
Finally, someone asked, “Well, when you’ve worried about all that, then what do you worry about?”
“I worry about foreigners coming over here and buying up all the farmland.”

Most of us don’t worry to quite that extent, but probably all of us worry at some time or another. I really identified with the dialogue we heard in the scripture reading. I think I’ve said something very close to that -- I do need to plan ahead, et cetera, et cetera. I think I’ve tried to justify my worrying, maybe even more than once. I expect you probably have, too.

When we talked about worrying at Bible study this week, a couple of people said worrying is their job – if nobody else is going to worry, they have to worry FOR them! I know, I know, Jesus said not to worry. He said not to worry about your body or your life, or what you will eat or what you will wear. But that was then – back in the first century, before life got so complicated. Back then, you could wander around the Galilean countryside preaching, and apparently people would feed you and give you a place to sleep.

And Jesus didn’t have a Session to answer to, or committee night, or Lenten programs, or a car that needed an oil change. He didn’t have to figure out a grocery list and a menu that was nutritionally sound and still appealing. Plus I bet he wore the same outfit every day, and nobody ever commented on it.

So, I want to make a case for worry today.
Here’s the case for worrying, made by expert worriers:
1. Worry prepares us for bad things that might happen, like a marriage falling apart, or a terminal illness, or a terrible financial situation, or a natural disaster. We need to worry. That way, when something horrible happens, we aren’t caught off-guard. We can even say, “I knew this would happen!”
2. Worry prevents bad things from actually happening.  If we would all just worry enough, we could control the future! If I worry about a plane crash and call the airline five times whenever my spouse takes a trip, I can actually prevent a catastrophe. My worry keeps that plane aloft.
3. If we worry about something long enough, we can actually solve it. Usually, if we can dwell on something, ruminate, lose sleep over it, we can make it all better, can’t we?
4. Worrying about people we love is proof of our love for them. So we should make an effort to focus on fretting and agonizing about the people we care most about. It would probably be really heartwarming to them, too, if we call them five or six times a day to express our worry. They will appreciate our concern as an expression of love.[1]

That’s four solid reasons for worrying.
I rest my case.

Of course we know that none of these justifications for worry make any sense at all.
We know that there isn’t any real benefit to worrying, and there are certain real problems associated with chronic worrying. It is obvious that worrying doesn’t prepare us, doesn’t control our environment, doesn’t solve problems, and doesn’t prove our love for others.

So what is it that makes us worry in spite of all that? And how do we STOP worrying?
Jesus demonstrates the depth of his eternal divine wisdom by answering that. But he does it in a roundabout way. Rather than give a lecture on the detrimental effects of worry, he points to his surroundings. I always imagine him in a beautiful meadow as he says these words:

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Jesus’ example answers those four justifications for worry like this:
1. Worry does not prepare us for bad things that might happen, but instead distracts us from seeing and appreciating the good and beautiful.
2. Worry does not prevent bad things from actually happening. We don’t have that kind of control, any more than the birds or flowers can control their environment. God is in charge.
Not us.
3. If I worry about something long enough, I can actually solve it – it just isn’t true. Worrying is not the same as problem solving, and in fact probably prevents problem solving, because it overwhelms the senses, making it impossible for us to see a solution.
4. Worrying about people we love does not prove our love. It might even annoy the people we love.

On the subject of worry, Winston Churchill said, “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”

Isn’t it the truth?
So, what should we do?

Instead of incessant worrying and hand-wringing, Jesus asks us to simply use our eyes, look around us, and see what God is doing in the world. Jesus asks us to quit ginning up catastrophes, or imagining the worst, or worrying about material things. He shows us the beauty of the lilies, the carefree soaring of the birds, and says, “Look here! Look!”

And then, what Jesus says anticipates the findings of psychological research that would come two thousand years later. What he says illustrates the simple truth that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In other words, if you place your priorities on God’s kingdom, and give your attention to things of eternal value, your mental and spiritual energy will be directed away from worry, and toward hope, toward love, toward beauty.
The eyes of your heart will see God’s glory.

Seriously, I looked this up –people worry less when their values and priorities are on relationships, a better world, personal growth – something beyond themselves. They are happier and less anxious. People whose priorities are on wealth, success, popularity, control of others—whose values are more about self – those people worry more, and are more anxious and depressed.

If we are directing our energy and attention toward seeing the beautiful and good, toward the kingdom of God, and toward God’s righteousness, we are less likely to be fretful about our shoes or the lunch menu. The simple truth that Jesus makes so plain is that worry distracts our vision from what is important, what is eternal, and saps our energy for God’s work.

Freedom from worry comes from fixing our eyes on Jesus, who promises loving care for us.
We can serve the master of self, of wealth, of the world, which says, “I gotta have a better car, a better position, more money, I gotta get ahead I gotta get ahead I gotta get ahead…” or we can serve the Lord of Love,  the Prince of Peace, the kingdom of God. We can focus on self, or we can focus on God. But we can only serve one master.

“Don’t worry!” Jesus says. “Look around you!” Look! Look here!
In Jesus Christ, God shows us infinite redeeming love.
In Jesus Christ, in his life and death and resurrection,
God demonstrates that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us!

Look here!
When we focus on Jesus, we behold his glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. When our vision is directed beyond ourselves and our immediate desires, we can see the kingdom that Jesus said is already here. When we fix our vision on God and God’s kingdom, we get a glimpse of God’s glory.

Look here!
Here is a meadow where birds swoop in carefree abandon over flowering fields that are arrayed in glorious colors. Here is a garden with a river whose springs make glad the heart, a rich and bountiful world, creation brimming with glory.

Look here!
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. 

Look here!
All around us, God is making beautiful things, bringing light out of darkness, life out of chaos, and hope from the cold ground of the tomb. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Seek first the kingdom of God; look for God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Look around you. Look to Jesus. And you will see God’s glory.



Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sensing the Glory of God: The Sound of Glory

Matthew 8:18-34
March 9. 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

As you probably have discovered by now, our Lenten theme for this year is “Sensing the Glory of God.” Rather than deny our senses, as so often the season of fasting might imply, we are celebrating this Lent how our five senses draw us closer to God, in moments of daylight and darkness. To that end, we’ll be focusing our attention, through our five senses, on stories from the gospel of Matthew. We are starting with the sense of hearing, and we’ve chosen this episode that is full of sounds, sounds of all sorts. Normally, we have the scripture reading up on the screen, and many of us read and follow along as the scripture is read. This week, I invite you to close your eyes and simply listen carefully. Listen especially for what sounds you hear—voices, noises, all types of sounds. Listen! for God’s word to us today in Matthew 8: 18-34:            

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!"

And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.

They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?"

When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, "What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, "If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine." And he said to them, "Go!" So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs.

Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

What did you hear, in these two stories?
Did you hear the yearning in the voices of those who spoke to Jesus? the authority with which he answered them?
Did you hear the waves slapping against the boat? the wind shrieking in their ears,  the dull thud of feet on the wooden boat as they scrambled to secure the sails?
Did you hear the desperation in the voice of the disciples, crying “Lord, save us!”? and the eerie calm that followed Jesus’ command?

Did you hear the wonder in their voices as they asked,  “What sort of man is this?” and could you make out what they were saying as they murmured, when they got off the boat in that place of tombs,  where demonic forces possessed two men?

Could you hear the faint hope in the malevolent voices of the possessed men? Was there a hint of irony or humor when Jesus granted their request, and sent them into a herd of swine?

Do you know what it would sound like, a herd of swine tearing down a hillside, and splashing into the sea, squealing and grunting in porcine terror? And lastly, could you hear the footsteps as the swineherders ran to town, perhaps in fear for what the owner of the pigs would say, and certainly in awe of what they had just seen.

Did you make out the uncertainty in the voices of the spokespersons who led the townspeople, the firm yet fearful request that he get out of town?

We are trained, from earliest childhood, to listen. From our first days, loving parents lean into our cribs, eager to hear us babble, to laugh, to form the first words, which they dutifully record in our baby books. At least that’s the case for most firstborns among us – the farther along the line we get, the less likely anyone is to jot that down! Younger sibling issues aside, in most families, baby’s first words are a milestone.

Then the words come faster – who is that? what does the doggy say? what sound does a duck make? can you say bye-bye?

Somewhere down the line, after we have demonstrated that we are acquiring language, the emphasis shifts for most children from talking to listening: Put that down. Don’t touch. Get in the car. I’ve already told you. Listen to your teacher. Soon enough, we are encouraged to filter out certain sounds. Why don’t you listen?  Turn off that music and pay attention to what I am saying. Don’t listen to that kid – he will only get you in trouble. Ignore that child – she is just trying to get a rise out of you. Don’t mind the thunder, just go to sleep.

Eventually, it becomes difficult to know whether to listen or ignore, whether we are hearing sound, or merely noise, whether we should tune in or turn away. We even stop listening to ourselves. We begin to think that saying a thing is as good as doing it. We stop listening for the voice of God. We approach Jesus with our half-intended promises: “I’ll follow you anywhere. “But first, let me take care of some personal matters.”

We get into the boat with him, all of us, ready to venture out, his people, but when the storms hit, when the noise is deafening around us, when the rain dribbles and then trickles and then gushes through the leaky roof, and the church seems to be gasping its last, splashing uselessly, drowning in its own history, we scream in helpless anxiety:
“Lord! Save us! We are perishing!”

We barely hear him rebuke the storm, and in the silence that follows, we are uncomfortable. Still, we are with him, crossing over to the other side, where we meet the unfamiliar, the unusual, the unlike us sort of people. In uneasy quiet we plod after him into the cemetery. We hear the screams of these fierce people, the inhuman sounds they make, and we see how very different, how frightening they are. We step back, stumbling over each other to make a retreat.

Who among us does not want to go back to the boat, back to the other side, back to the familiar past? Jesus speaks again, calming yet another storm, a storm that rages in human hearts. He casts it away with a word of authority, only one word: GO! And then, because we are so frail, so hard of hearing, we do not hear God’s glory in that sound. We only hear the squealing of swine splashing in the sea. Our thoughts turn to property – pigs, not people – and we hear our hearts pounding in our ears as the townspeople gather to send Jesus away.

How deaf we are!  Not because we cannot hear, not because we need hearing aids, but because our ears have tuned out the words of Jesus. We choose not to listen when his call places demands on us – on our time, on our loyalty, on the limits of our love. Our fear drowns out his calming voice when our frail boat is rocked by raging winds. Not only the wind and waves obey his voice, but the forces of evil, that drive men mad, are stilled at one word from him. He speaks, and the sound of his voice is NOT like that of an angel. It is a voice of power and authority, that commands chaos and destroys the worst demons of our imaginings.

Perhaps we resist hearing his voice because we know that to hear him would mean to decide, to follow, to turn away from self and toward that boat that awaits us, to take away from these safe and satisfied shores, away from these familiar places and people and toward the strange and unknown. We are frightened.  We want him to save us. We know we are perishing. But we are not sure that we want to go where he is leading. But listen!

This voice of authority is the same voice that spoke the world into being, the voice that echoed across the face of the deep and said, “Let there be light.”

This voice of power that calls us is the same voice that spoke to Moses, saying “I am who I am. I shall be who I shall be. It is the voice that called to Abraham and Sarah, promising the impossible, the laughable, the covenant.

You can hear the voice that called the prophets, that promised redemption, even from slavery, even in the face of faithlessness, the voice that called the people back, saying “Come home. I love you.”

Do you hear him? a baby crying in the night, a child reading in the temple, a son speaking to his mother?

You can hear him telling stories, hear his healing voice, hear him teaching love, hear him saying “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” His glory is everywhere to be heard for those who have ears, ringing through death’s dark valleys, echoing from the mountaintops, speaking gently in the darkness, and in the cooing of the turtledove, the giggling of children, the singing of his church, the soothing murmur of voices in prayer and work and worship.

All around us, Jesus Christ is at work in the world, and the sound of glory can be heard by all who have ears, by all who will listen. 


Monday, March 3, 2014

Mountain and Valley

Matthew 17:1-9, Psalm 23
March 2, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

A mountain top experience. Christians love that phrase. We like to use it to describe a moment or an hour, a time in which we felt amazed, transfixed, transformed. If we were mystics, we would describe it as ecstasy – spiritual ecstasy. I expect that is what Peter and James and John knew in that moment: ecstasy, unspeakable joy, ineffable feelings that welled up in their hearts and filled them and surrounded them and made everything brighter and clearer and larger than life.

The theological term is theophany – an appearance of God! If that word reminds you of the word epiphany, you are onto something. Epiphany, the season that is just ending as we move toward Lent, is a sudden, striking manifestation – a realization. In fact, Epiphany as it is celebrated in the Western church is actually called Theophany in the Eastern church. It is “the revelation of God the son as a human being in Jesus Christ.” That’s a pretty succinct description of this text. So let’s listen to this experience – this mountaintop experience, as it is described in Matthew’s gospel, the seventeenth chapter, verses 1-9.

Matt 17:1-9                                   
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. " 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid. " 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

This scripture is rich with imagery, the imagery of wonder, and awe…the imagery of God’s transcendence and might, God’s glory and power. The disciples were not afraid when they saw the glorious vision, they were not afraid when they saw Moses and Elijah. They were afraid when they heard the voice of God. When they heard the voice of God, they fell to their faces and they were terrified. They’d have stayed there, too, if they hadn’t felt the hand of Jesus, if they hadn’t heard his voice, saying “Get up and do not be afraid.”

It was at once terrifying and exhilarating, joyful and fearful. A mountaintop experience. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we somehow privilege this “mountaintop experience,” as something much to be desired? There are a lot of people who don’t think folks are really Christians unless they’ve had and can describe some kind of awesome and ecstatic encounter with the living Christ.

So there’s this kind of belief that a mountaintop experience is almost a spiritual necessity, but also something that must necessarily be left behind. You can’t go around in ecstasy all the time, right? It’s like falling in love – that crazydreamyshiny delight –can’t do that all the time – it is exhausting. But somehow, we seem to start thinking that this experience of transcendence is only for special occasions, or reserved for the select few, like a designer gown worn for the red carpet on Oscars night. Not for every day, and not for everyone. And we somehow start to believe that this particular kind of experience of God’s presence is the best, most enviable, sought-after moment. God’s glory and transcendence, made manifest in Jesus, only happens on mountaintops, we think, only in mountaintop moments. As if we can’t have that kind of transformative experience any other way, or in any place other than a mountaintop, or in the midst of other kinds of circumstances.

And when we hear God’s voice, like the disciples, we are so overwhelmed that we fall to our faces in awe. Maybe that is all true. But maybe something else is true, too. Our other reading for today is the 23rd Psalm. We haven’t heard it yet this morning, except in the choir anthem, but most of us know it fairly well. Nowadays, we hear it most often at funerals, or at the graveside. It is a beautiful poem, full of images rich with comfort, with love, with God’s presence. Many of us, when we hear the 23rd Psalm, think of Jesus, the good shepherd, walking with us, speaking to us, leading us beside still waters, showing us the green pastures, leading us through the valley of the shadow of death. I’m going to read it now.  You can say it along with me if you want – it is a Psalm that feels good to say. 

The LORD is my shepherd ; I shall not want.  
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: 
he leadeth me beside the still waters.  
He restoreth my soul: 
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.  
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou  preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies : thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever .

Let’s just let those words soak in for a bit…. It is beautiful, isn’t it? God leading us beside still waters, to green pastures. God taking us by the hand, guiding us in the paths of righteousness. This is a God who is immanent, physically present, human, with us! This is not a voice thundering on the mountaintop. This is a gentle hand on the shoulder, helping us up as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. This is Jesus, touching the disciples, saying “Get up.  Do not be afraid.” And this is a theophany too! This is an experience of the revelation of God’s glory. Anyone who has walked the valley of the shadow of death can tell you that.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, activist and theologian, was raised in an agnostic household.   Her family was not religious in the least. But as a young adult, she had several experiences of religious ecstasy, much like we would imagine the disciples had on that mountain. Weil knew what it was to have an ecstatic revelation of the presence of God. But she also wrote about theophany in the midst of suffering –not on the mountaintop, but in the valley. Here is what she said about suffering and adversity:

“The man to whom such a thing happens has no part in the operation.  He struggles like a butterfly pinned alive into an album.  But through all the horror he can continue to want to love.  … For the greatest suffering, so long as it does not cause the soul to faint, does not touch the acquiescent part of the soul, consenting to a right direction. …He whose soul remains ever turned toward God, though the nail pierces, he finds himself nailed to the very center of the universe.  It is the true center; it is not in the middle; it is beyond space and time; it is God.  In a dimension that does not belong to space, that is not time, that is indeed quite a different dimension, this nail has pierced cleanly through all creation, through the thickness of the screen separating the soul from God. In this marvelous dimension, the soul…can cross the totality of space and time and come into the very presence of God. It is at the intersection of creation and its Creator.  This point of intersection is the point of intersection of the arms of the Cross.”[1]

The presence of God is at the intersection of creation and creator, and the point of intersection is at the center of the cross. As we end this season of epiphany, of revelation, we begin the season of Lent, a time of reflection, preparation, and contemplation. 

Like Advent, the season of Lent prepares us to encounter God in Christ –
the dazzling and resplendent God of all the ages,
whose word brought mountains into being
and whose very breath can shatter every atom into oblivion;
the gentle and nurturing God of all mercy,
whose word calms stormy seas
and whose silent suffering breaks through the shackles of our sin;
the squalling infant and the defiant peacemaker,
the gentle shepherd and the cornerstone.

Whether we meet him on the mountaintop, shining like the sun, with garments white as snow, or we encounter him in the darkest night of our soul, gentle as a shepherd, anointing us with oil, he is the same God, the one God of all creation, the foundation of our faith, the beloved son of God. It is he who takes us up to the mountaintop.

It is he who leads us through death’s dark valley. It is he who prepares a table for us, even in the presence of those who were once our enemies. It is his hand we feel on our shoulder, and it is his voice we hear, speaking to us, a voice that we know because we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. It is he who says to us, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”


[1] This quote was accessed at and is from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Love of God and Affliction” in Simone Weil, Awaiting God (Abbotsford, BC: Fresh Wind Press, 2012).