Monday, May 26, 2014

Never Alone

John 14: 15-21
May 25, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Reader 1: Another reading from the Gospel of John?

Reader 2: You sound as though there is something wrong with that?

Reader 1: Well, Jesus seems more humble in the other Gospels.

John makes him seems more dignified and sedate, and I don't like that as much.

Reader 2: Perhaps that was because the Gospel of John was written much later. It makes me think that maybe we have also gradually made Jesus more aloof or superior. John pictures him, not as biography, but expressing his own faith.

Reader 1: Another thing about this - the way it is written it seems that only those who follow Jesus are loved by God, and I believe that God loves everyone.

Reader 2: More probably, it suggests that those who follow Jesus will be the ones who are more aware of God's love.

Reader 1: One more thing - I think the message is not that God will give us a trouble-free life, but that "We are not alone" - God will be with us throughout life, even in times of trouble.

Reader 2: I would agree with you on that. Now - let's share the reading, as John has Jesus explain, in John 14:15-21[1]
”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. ”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Whenever I hear this scripture, two stories come to mind. The first is a joke, because, well, that’s how I am. Two little boys are out playing on Sunday morning, and a friendly Baptist lady invites them to Sunday School. They have a great time, until the very last moment when the preacher comes and asks the children,
“Have you found Jesus?”
The children are silent, and the preacher asks again, louder this time.
This time, the preacher looks right at the two little boys.
He asks them again, directly, “HAVE YOU FOUND JESUS?”
The two little fellows run home, terrified.
When their mother asks them why they are so upset, the older boy answers,
“Apparently Jesus is missing, and they think we know where he is!”

The second story that comes to mind is more serious – from Martin Luther King, Jr.
Late one night, King received a threatening phone call, telling him, in very ugly terms, that if he did not stop his work for racial justice, his life and the life of his family were in danger. King said that as he sat at his kitchen table, the thought came to him: “You can't call on Daddy now, you can't call on Mama. You've got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.”

King began to pray. He prayed for courage, for strength, for guidance.
And he heard a voice saying, “… stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. 
Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”

Then King said, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
No never alone. No never alone.
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."[2]

You know, we are a people of stories – the covenant story, the justice story, the liberation story, the gospel story. We are a people of God’s story: God’s extravagant love, God’s endless grace. Through it all, our story is the story of God’s abiding presence.

It would be easy, in these days between Easter and Pentecost, to think that story is ended, that it ended with Jesus’ resurrection.
Sometimes we act as if it is all over: Jesus has left the building.
Sometimes we act as if belief is the whole story: Jesus was born, died, was raised, and I believe. All settled.
Sometimes we act as if the story is ours and ours alone, that if we personally, individually, have “found Jesus” that’s the end of it.

But God has more in store for us.
And that’s the back story, the big story, in which we find our story.

Jesus said these words as a part of what is known as “The Farewell Discourse.”
Before he died, before he went to the cross, before he was raised, he gave these promises to his followers. The Farewell Discourse begins at chapter fourteen of John and continues through chapter seventeen, after which Jesus is arrested and crucified. Jesus is preparing them, preparing us, to live in him, in relationship with him, even when he is not physically present in the world.

Next week, we’ll hear the end of this farewell, in which Jesus prays for the disciples – prays for US! I encourage you this week to read those four chapters – chapters fourteen through seventeen of the Gospel of John, as if they were written as a personal farewell. And more than that, I encourage you to join me in hearing these words again as not only a farewell but also as our marching orders – sending us out with specific and clear direction.

It is in this farewell discourse that we hear not only the promise of the Spirit, but also the promises of power, and love, and courage:
  • When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.” (John 14: 3-4)
  • When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:14)
  • Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. (John 14:27)
  • You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. (John 15:16)
  • I’ve said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)
Above all, woven throughout these four chapters, are the promises of God’s presence, the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. These promises are not addressed to you, singular, as an individual Christian. These promises are addressed to you, plural – y’all --us- the gathered community. These instructions are not addressed to you, singular, as an individual. They are addressed to you, plural – y’all -- us- the gathered community. The presence of Jesus is among us through the Holy Spirit.

We are not orphans!
We are not alone!
Christ is still at work in the world!

The proof of this is love -- the central feature of Jesus’ message. That love is beyond all telling. That love is what makes Jesus present even in his absence. Love God, love one another, love your enemies, love the world. Nobody needs to feel alone or unloved.

The Holy Spirit promised of God will reveal the love of God – through us!
The call to live in love and justice is addressed to US:
Love enacted makes God visible even to those for whom faith is beyond reach.
God’s Spirit enables us to speak to those who have not encountered that love.
Jesus’ love enables us to speak up for those who most need to know mercy.
And God is still not finished! Because the life in the Holy Spirit that we live here and now is only a foretaste of the life in Christ that we will know in the there and then. The story is not over.

Jesus is not missing!
We know exactly where he is!
He is living in us and among us through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and every act of hospitality,
every embrace of welcome,
every deed of kindness,
every word of hope,
every step toward greater faithfulness,
every courageous stance for justice,
is a testament to the truth that we are not orphans,
we are not alone.

We are never alone,
for God is with us,
love is with us,
and that is how we live – every moment of our lives.

We are never alone.
Never alone.


[1] Introduction adapted from a Reader’s Theater by Marilyn McDonald

[2] From “Receiving the Call” at Call.aspx?p=2#qt19huSZxifwK6de.99

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Church Rocks!

1 Peter 2: 2-10
May 18, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Today’s scripture is from first Peter, one of the letters known as “general epistles.” That means it was written to churches in general, not to a specific church. In this case, the epistle, or letter, was written to churches across a vast expanse of time and geography, because the wisdom contained in it still speaks to the church today – here in Sterling, in the 21st century. The book of First Peter emphasizes the difference that Christ makes in our lives – contrasting what we once were to what we are now. This text serves as a reminder to us, the baptized, of what it means to live as Christ’s own people, both in our personal lives, and as the gathered community – the church. Listen for God’s word to us today in 1 Peter 2: 2-10

2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” 8and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a  people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

There’s a story that is often told in management textbooks about a man who was walking in the countryside one day. He happened upon a building site where three people were all working vigorously. Two were stonecutters; the third was an old woman, sweeping.
The traveler stopped and asked what they were doing.
The first stonecutter answered, “I am making a living.”
The traveler proffered his question to the second stonecutter.
He didn’t look up, but kept on hammering while he said “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.”
Then our traveler turned to the old woman with her broom.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
The old woman paused, set down her broom, and looked toward the heavens.
With a visionary gleam in her eye she said,
“I am building a cathedral to the glory of almighty God.”

It’s a parable that rings true for us today, one that this extended metaphor of stones brought to mind. Of course, our text imagines us as stones, not as stonecutters.
What could it mean to be a living stone?

We know that the term “living water” referred to water that was moving, to water in brooks and rivers, rather than still water, in lakes or ponds. Living water has a current.
Living stones, apart from the odd plant form of the same name, don’t exist. One way to think about this image is to remember that by the time of this epistle, the temple t Jerusalem had been destroyed. So there was no great stone edifice in which God’s people gathered to worship. They themselves had become the structure for worship; they themselves were the temple. That is still true today.

We say it easily – the church is not a building, the church is people. It’s easy for us to say, more challenging for us to live. Especially around here, the church building often demands more attention than the church members! So maybe let’s look at those workers for a moment, as we think of ourselves as stones.

Three people, working alongside one another for the same purpose.
Three people, all with three different descriptions of their work.
The differences, of course, are apparent. The first stonecutter is doing a day’s work for a day’s pay. The purpose of his work does not matter to him. He is cutting stone. End of story. The second stonecutter is striving to be the best. He is working for his own purposes. He believes … in quality and results. He measures himself against others.

The focus of the stonecutters on their task blinds them to the larger purpose, to the interconnectedness of human kind, of societies and of economies. They both fail to see that if there were no community building a cathedral, there would be no stones to cut.[1]

The old woman, humbly sweeping, sees far beyond the simple task at hand. Her work is part of a larger undertaking. She builds a physical and a spiritual dwelling. Her work reaches to the heavens, transcending the earthbound. Her work transcends time as well, for cathedrals are built not in months or even years, but over centuries.  When it comes to cathedrals, and to churches, a lifetime of our hard work may make only a small contribution to a structure that unites past and future, connects humans across generations, and joins our efforts to purposes far beyond ourselves.

That is what makes us living stones – that purpose far beyond our selves, the purposes of God to build this temple of living, breathing stones. It is Christ who makes us the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the gathered people of the church. 

Today as we gather at the font to baptize Derek Brall, and as we express our appreciation of the volunteers who are building THIS church, we recognize that what we are doing is for a purpose greater than this congregation, this time and this place. We acknowledge that it is God’s doing, in fact – God in Christ has called us and gathered us to be the church, gifted us to offer the work of our hands and the devotion of our hearts.

God in Christ calls us to the font, and God receives our efforts and transforms us from what we once were into what we are becoming. We acknowledge that the end results of our efforts may never be seen by us; even as we baptize Derek, knowing that we may never see him fulfill God’s claim on his life, for it may take place long after many of us have joined the church triumphant.

This seemingly simple act, with a humble pitcher of water, has implications far beyond this moment and this congregation. In the same way, our offerings to the church, whether in work or wealth, are gifts to the future, to God’s purposes, to a vision beyond our selves.  

So we are, indeed, living stones, a spiritual house for the Spirit of God to dwell. In our baptism and in our lives together, God is shaping us into a cathedral – a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

We have a purpose that reaches far beyond this time and place, so that every job, no matter how small or menial proclaims the goodness of God; every worker, young or old, is a living stone; every prayer is the mortar that holds the church together, so that we may proclaim the mighty acts of God!

Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people.
Our lives rest upon the firm foundation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
We are church rocks!
And because of each one of you, our church rocks!
Thanks be to God that we are living stones!

[1]  Adapted from a speech by Harvard president Drew Faust on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Harvard Business School, quoted in Three Stonecutters, The Future of Business Education, Harvard Magazine October 15, 2008. accessed May 16, 2014.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Those Who Are Being Saved

Acts 2:42-47

May 11, 2014

First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

Christina Berry

Did you know that churches have “mystery shoppers” nowadays? Yep, you can find websites that publish church ratings. The mystery guest rates the church on friendliness, the sermon, the music, how they felt, and what happened after the service. Imagine reading a review of this church – it would be five out of five stars, wouldn’t it? The church you are about to hear about was very highly rated by the author of Luke-Acts. This congregation was among the first Christian communities. This comes right after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit roared into their lives like wind and fire. Jesus has died, and been raised, and gone back to heaven, and now the people are Easter people. A new church has been born. Listen to a review of the early church in Acts 2: 42-47.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. 47 And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Did you know that two thirds of Americans surveyed report that they do not feel satisfied with their friendships? They feel their friendships are not deep enough, strong enough. They don’t care anymore about high-school standards of popularity, about who is attractive or can help them get ahead. They don’t even care if their friends share their religious or political beliefs. They just want genuine, caring friendships with people they can count on. They report that they lack a sense of connection with people who are good and decent, friends who really like them, people who will be there in a crisis, people who are fun to be with.[1] People yearn for community, for connection, for deep friendship. And two-thirds of them don’t have it! Put this information in your pocket for a minute and let’s take a closer look at scripture.

They devoted themselves, the Bible says, “to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This earliest church, the people of the Jesus way, were Easter people. They were a resurrection community. They were gathered together as followers of the Risen Lord, and they became a fellowship – the Greek word (you’ve probably heard it) is “koinonia.” It means “common life.” And they DEVOTED themselves to that koinonia. This was no casual commitment. It was complete and total dedication. They were disciples, in the true sense of that word, -- they were devoted.

They were devoted first, the text says, to the study of God’s word, to teaching. To Sunday School! They were dedicated to Bible study, to listening and learning – not just on the Lord’s Day, but on ordinary days.

Second, they devoted themselves to fellowship – the common life. In that fellowship, they held much in common, but no individual was common – each one, as now, is unique and gifted and called to specific service.[2] The Holy Spirit had come upon them – upon ALL of them, not just a select few. And each on had something to share, something to give, something to receive. That’s what the Easter community does. It is how we live.

Third, they dedicated themselves to the breaking of bread – not only the shared bread and cup of the communion table, but the family table of regular meals, where they shared their joys and sorrows, where they laughed and wept together, where they learned how to be together, and how to put up with each other! Most of them had families, had separate lives, and they broke bread at home as well, but the connection they gave themselves to was the family of faith, their brothers and sisters in Christ, who, in his death and resurrection, had made them his family.

Fourth, they were committed to prayer. Their prayers were not occasional pious-sounding recitations for public events or special occasions, like Thanksgiving prayers to show off for Grandma. They were fanatical about prayers – praying with and for each other. They shared their prayers and they shared their lives – they even shared their possessions, when needed. Their hearts were glad and generous. And day by day, the scripture says, God added to their number “those who were being saved.”

There are some Christians who understand salvation as a one-time event. They have a one-dimensional understanding of God’s salvation in Christ, and they have a formula you have to follow. They figure you “get saved” and that’s it. A lot of them then want to make sure everyone knows that THEY are saved and others are NOT. They are going to heaven. You, on the other hand, are going to hell.

I had an Uncle, Uncle Glen, who was one of those Christians. Every year at the family reunion, he’d clap his big hand on our little shoulders and peer down into our terrified little faces and say “Are you saved?” I wish I had known then the answer that I know now. When someone asks me now “When were you saved?” My answer is, “Every day. Every single day.” Because while Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later are once and for all acts of saving grace for everyone, our salvation as individuals is a process, a process that we work out in community, with other believers. From the first days of creation, when God looked at all that God had made and said that it was good, God also said, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” The triune God, a god of relationships, knew that we need each other. You can be a Christian in isolation, but you can’t be a very good one.

Part of the process of being saved is learning to live together in community, in learning, in fellowship, in service, at the table, in prayer, and in common life. We don’t become Christian by putting our name on a membership roll or by making a pledge, or by paying our per capita, although all of those are signs of commitment. We are becoming Christians when we come together, gathered by the Risen Lord, into a community of faith that shares a common life. Together.

Oh –one other item – about that research on friendships that I mentioned: One of the things they discovered is that people who attend [religious] services once a week or more are twice as likely to express complete satisfaction with their friendships as those who seldom or never attend services. More than TWICE as likely to express complete satisfaction with friendships.[3] God had it right at creation, and God in Christ has had it right ever since: the community of faith is where we learn, grow, serve, and become joyful. The community of faith provides friends in Christ, a satisfaction and peace that are beyond our ability to create on our own. That’s who this text describes – friends in Christ, people who are happy together, Christians who are day by day being saved! -- welcoming, loving, working things out together, breaking bread. Everyone together, everyone included. Nobody left out.

Someone once asked Carl Sandburg, the famous poet and Lincoln biographer, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” Do you know what his answer was? I’m sure you can think of some ugly words, words that denote violence or brutality, words of hate. Carl Sandburg said the ugliest word in our language is this: “exclusive.” Exclusive – that which is restricted, and does not admit others. Scott Peck said this about exclusion, in his book about community: “Groups that exclude others because they are poor or doubters or divorced or sinners or of some different race or nationality are not communities; they are cliques— actually defensive bastions against community.”[4]

There is no such thing as an exclusive community – no such thing as an exclusive church – that is a contradiction in terms. If it is exclusive, it cannot be community! The resurrection community - the church, is not, and cannot be, exclusive. The Easter koinonia welcomes everyone, without exception and without reservation. If you were to listen only to the so-called “Christian” rhetoric on TV and radio, you would not imagine that these verses are even in the Bible. So many of today’s self-identified Christians base their identity on who they exclude. They practice their faith as an elite enclave, and attribute their success to their own efforts. They are competitive, corporate, capitalist cultures that are far removed from this Easter people of the second chapter of Acts. We can be guilty of this ourselves. We may expect our congregation to grow with more people who look like us. We may think that people who join us should already believe as we do. We may try to measure ourselves by a corporate model of success – what do the numbers look like? what’s the balance sheet? what’s our reserve cash account? how many members? how many new members this year? how many children? how many youth? what’s the average worship attendance? None of that is mentioned in the book of Acts, except the number of people who were being saved – brought to God through the witness of the church of Jesus Christ.

In the May newsletter, the devotional for this week invited you to think about two things you can do in your life that would be like this early gathering of Christians. Think about two things you can do, and devote yourself to those two actions. And then, in that same devotional, the wondering question was: How do you think it would be if we lived like the people in this scripture? Would we look like this resurrection community – if you could lift off the roof and see inside the church? Would we be devoted to studying God’s word, to learning, to breaking bread and fellowship, to prayer, to caring for those in need? I think we look like that a lot of the time, but not all the time. But that’s the ideal to which we are called.

And here’s the good news, people of God. Day by day, we are being saved, and God is adding to our number those who are being saved. We may not always feel that way, and we may never see those whose lives are changed through our witness. But we have the promise of the risen Lord – “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” We were made to be together, a faithful community working toward God’s kingdom, working toward God’s purposes. God has promised us, in Isaiah: “the word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

People of God, day by day, we are being formed into a community, a koinonia, in teaching and learning, in fellowship and breaking bread, in generosity and gladness, in prayer and in purpose, by the one who came as God with us, who lived with us and taught us to live, who died for us and defeated death, who rose again and dwells within us as the church making us an Easter people, a community of resurrection, in which day by day, we are those who are being saved.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Lifeboat Report, 2013, downloaded from Accessed 050914

[2] Gary L Carver, “Acts 2:42-47” Review and Expositor, 87 (1990)

[3] The Lifeboat Report, 2013 downloaded from Accessed 050914

[4] M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, p. 6