Monday, July 28, 2014

Community Matters

July 27, 2014

Community Vacation Bible School Worship

We gathered for worship with five other churches to celebrate our third community Vacation Bible School. Our VBS program this year was "Workshop of Wonders from Cokesbury.

The top attendance day, we had 94 children!
The week was wonderful, entertaining and exhausting!

Worship was exciting, inspiring, and fun!
Sauk Valley Gazette picture:

The children led us in singing, we celebrated communion together, and enjoyed the fellowship. The scripture presentation was the story of Esther, led by Nannette Pashon, Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church. I followed up with these brief comments:

Did you like that story?
Me too. It is a favorite of many.
It has all the elements of a good melodrama – a beautiful and smart woman, a good-hearted and wise man, a powerful king, and a totally despicable bad guy. That makes the story fun to hear, fun to read. Something interesting about the book of Esther is that nowhere in it is the name of God mentioned. But we see how faithfulness and commitment motivate Esther and Mordecai, and how a lust for power and control motivate Haman. That is a good lesson to learn.

Another important lesson from this book is Esther’s courage to do the right thing, not for herself, but for her people.Esther honors community and the greater good even at risk of her own life! Few of us can honestly say that we would do the same – risk our lives on behalf of another, or on behalf of a whole group of people, most of whom we don’t even know. It requires setting aside our own personal desires on behalf of something greater than ourselves.That kind of commitment is what propels our community VBS leaders.

I’m sure you are aware that all six of the churches are pretty different – different styles of worship, different kinds of leadership, even some different beliefs. But what we demonstrate in this collaborative effort on behalf of our community is that we are ONE CHURCH – not six, just one, for this one week.

Just one church.

The Apostle Paul sums that up in Ephesians 4 - “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

We live that out during Community VBS –and we hope that the children feel that one-ness. Even the littlest ones - as they wait for others to be served first, or practice sharing, or learn to play together nicely, and the big kids, too, and the grown-ups – we hope and pray that everyone feels that one-ness and the presence of God’s Spirit moving among us and within us.

I know I can speak for everyone when I say that’s our commitment – to invite children, and each other, and each one of you, into a space where we joyfully experience our unity in Christ. We’re not like Esther – we are not risking our lives for this.

But every person who donates and teaches and cooks and leads and shows up and brings kids and prays for us is a demonstration of that commitment to something greater, something more important than a single congregation or denomination, or a single person’s plans.

Our commitment is not to our individual churches.
Our commitment is to Jesus - the one who actually did give his life for us, who taught us how to love our neighbor, and even taught us to love our enemies.He is the one who gathers our congregations together, who gives us life and vision and hope. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

May each one of us continue to hear his voice, to love and know him more, and give thanks and praise to our wonderful God. Thanks be to God for the gift of community!


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Something Greater

Matthew 12:1-13
July 20, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

For the last couple of weeks in Bible study we’ve been contemplating the gift of the Sabbath –a time of rest, renewal, refreshment –a time for prayer and worship, for family and relaxation. If you read the July newsletter you’ll remember that in August, we are taking a month of Sabbath, beginning after worship on August 3.We want to encourage each person in the congregation to find time for prayer and blessing, recreation, reflection, rest, and limits to work. For some of us, this will be easy; for others, like me, it will be a challenge. This scripture we are about to read demonstrates that challenge.

Jesus has promised that those who follow him will find rest, and will take on a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light. But his opponents challenge him, argue with almost everything he says and does, because he is a threat – he is upsetting the status quo. To them, this story is just one more example of Jesus’ resistance to the rules and his outrageous flouting of their customs and traditions. In their eyes, he can do nothing right. This scripture is really two stories – one about plucking grain on the Sabbath, the other about healing on the Sabbath. In the end, it is less about obeying rules than it is a reflection on Jesus’ teaching - -that a transcendent ethic of love trumps the rules. Let’s listen for Jesus’ teaching about something greater in Matthew 12:1-13.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath;
his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.
When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him,
“Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
But if you had known what this means,
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
He left that place and entered their synagogue;
a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him,
“Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.
He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?
How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!
So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.

This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

There is a lot we don’t know about Jesus. One of my favorite songwriters, John Prine, wrote a ballad about the life of Jesus between the age of 12 and 30. The song is pretty irreverent and funny – it’s called “Jesus, the Missing Years.” In one verse, a fellow asks Jesus, "What you gonna be when you grow up?" Jesus said, "God" Then Jesus says, “They're gonna kill me, Mama…”[1]

We don’t really know for sure what Jesus usually did on Sabbath days – like so much of his life, we can only speculate. We can be reasonably sure that he did observe the fourth commandment. It’s important, too, to remember that we don’t know everything about the Pharisees. They are certainly not wholehearted followers of Jesus, but they also raise important questions. And it is helpful to remember that they were not all stalking Jesus, like little clusters of 1st century secret agents, crouching in the wheat fields, just waiting for him to slip up. They were asking legitimate questions, and engaging in the kind of debate that the Jewish tradition honors – opinions and interpretations offered, and sometimes – often, actually – hotly debated, without a final resolution.

The Gospels are not daily journals, specifying what Jesus had for breakfast or the details of every day – the weather, who was there, a joke he told. The Gospels were written with a purpose – to reveal something about Jesus to us, and thereby to reveal something about God. In the same way, the gift of the law was given to God’s people in order to draw them closer to God.

The Pharisees had a point, you see – a fair and reasonable point. Sabbath was a gift from God, a day to be set apart and honored. The law of Sabbath observance was a subject of great discussion, and even all the scholars of the time were not in agreement. But there was a prohibition against work, on that point they were clear, and these Pharisees, at least, had a valid question to raise.

After all, the disciples knew what day it was. They knew the day before that the next day was the Sabbath. They knew they were going to be hungry – happens every day. Did they think that they were exempt from the law, just because they were with Jesus? Who did he think he was?

Jesus’ response to their challenge addressed that question first, before the finer points of the law against working on the Sabbath, or whether plucking grain constituted work. Who did he think he was? Jesus’ answer made that abundantly clear. By citing the story of King David, from 1 Samuel 21, Jesus draws a parallel between himself and David. David’s survival was crucial to God’s plan for Israel, so he was permitted to eat the sacramental bread of the temple. Even more so, then, Jesus’ need for food, for sustenance, would trump the extreme legalism of these Pharisees. In a word, Jesus established a precedent.

But he was not content with that justification alone. There was a still larger argument – something greater. What could be greater than the temple? What could possibly be more important than Torah, the law? Jesus makes it plain with another reference to the scriptures – Hosea 6:6. That verse in the New Revised Standard Version says:
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

So it then would logically follow that when Jesus left the wheat fields and went into the synagogue – still on the Sabbath, mind you-- that he would answer their challenge again, in the same way. They presented him with a man whose hand was withered. Who knows whether the man was there already, or if they went out somewhere and rounded him up, in order to continue the debate. Jesus didn’t hesitate long – just long enough to remind them of the law of love. You wouldn’t leave your sheep to die in a pit would you? And isn’t a human life of greater importance than a sheep? And then he offered healing, and the man was restored.

Jesus didn’t disregard the Sabbath observance. It’s clear that he went to the temple, he remembered the Sabbath, he obeyed the fourth commandment. For all that we don’t know about Jesus, we know that. He did not revoke the law, but obeyed a higher law, the foundation of all the laws, and the greatest commandment. And this story is included in the Gospel accounts for a reason – to hold up to us the question of how to honor the Lord’s day.

Just as they disputed the issue then, we are faced with this dilemma in our time:
the challenge of balancing obedience to God’s laws, with continually seeking that “something greater” of which Jesus spoke.

Many people tend to lean harder into sacrifice than mercy, into the letter of the law rather than the law of love. Even though those particular Pharisees have retired from law enforcement, there are many, many more who would take their place, who will put judgment ahead of something greater, who will insist that laws be enforced regardless of context, regardless of the ripple of consequence. Our world is filled with people who know what is best for everyone else, and many Christians are chief among them, ready to sacrifice human life in order to win a legal argument.

This is bigger than a simple argument about Sabbath keeping.
Whether we are struggling with the humanitarian crisis of refugee children at our country’s borders, or the grievous violence in the middle east, we are called to look to something greater. When death is the consequence of disobedience for four Palestinian children whose crime was to go out and play on the beach, we have to look to something greater than rules and enforcement.

We are called, always, first and foremost, to the law of love,
to “mercy and not sacrifice,”
to the great commandment to love neighbor,
to love each other,
to love even our enemies.

Jesus did not say, “I have come to add to the burdens of humans, with more rules and expectations, so that you may all judge those who fail to live up to your standards.”
He said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. The rest that God offers in Sabbath is not only rest for the body, but also rest for the soul, and rest for the mind, and rest from efforts to control the world around us, or to control the behavior and actions of others.

Jesus never said, “I have come that you might know all the rules and obey them all perfectly.” He said “I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly”

To know that this one who came to give us life is also Lord of the Sabbath is to know that with all the pain and brokenness with all the violence and sorrow with all the rejection and exclusion in the world, even with all that, God is still at work in the world.

God is still God, and we are still God’s people.

Even when we are anxious or afraid, weighted down with the worries of this world, we are invited to rest in God’s presence, to trust in that universal love that is God. In so doing, we can receive sustenance and offer healing, responding to God’s call to love, to work alongside Jesus in building that kingdom, keeping our eyes fixed on him, and making all our striving not on our own desires, but upon mercy, steadfast love, upon something greater.

May we rest in God’s presence,
trust in God’s love,
and live in God’s light.


[1] John Prine - Jesus The Missing Years Lyrics

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Yoke of Freedom

Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue this week in the gospel of Matthew, with some of the most winsome and grace-filled words of Jesus. Countless people have found assurance and peace in these words. But before we begin to read in Matthew, let’s first go back to the book of Exodus, the 32nd and 33rd chapters. You probably remember that the book of Exodus is about exactly that – the exodus of the Israelite people out of Egypt and into the promised land, out of slavery and into freedom. On the journey, God gives the people the law, including the ten commandments, the fourth of which is “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” However, there was a bit of time between their exodus from Egypt and their entry into Canaan – forty years, to be exact. During that time, the people are in the wilderness, led by Moses.

Moses meets with God, who appears as a pillar of cloud in “the tent of meeting,” where, Exodus 33 says, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In one of those conversations, Moses says to God, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.” And God says, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” “I will give you rest,” God said, speaking as one speaks to a friend. Let’s keep in mind that promise from the second book of the Old Testament as we listen for the promise in the New Testament. At the beginning of Chapter 11 in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been scolding the crowd for their failure to repent and their unkind reception of his messengers. Then, he stops, and changes tone.

Let’s listen for God’s word in Matthew 11: 25-30
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Sometimes, the contemporary images Jesus used in his speeches may not work well for the 21st century. Unless you are involved in a primitive form of agriculture or transport, or have traveled in developing countries, you probably have never seen a yoke except in a museum. If your images of yokes are like mine, the heavy wooden bowed structures across the necks of beasts of burden, you may need a new image, or some unpacking of this yoke of which Jesus speaks. In fact, if you look in the thesaurus for synonyms of the word, you get words like burden, and bondage.

I confess that the yoke of oppression comes to my mind, the yoke of slavery spoken of in songs of freedom by those enslaved. Who wants to take on a yoke, even from Jesus? Sure, he says it is light, but you know there are all these rules, all these expectations, all these requirements of what you must do or say. At least, that is a common and popular understanding: following Jesus means following rules. 

But as I investigated the use of yokes, I realized that they can be something other than burdensome. A yoke distributes weight, whether it is between two animals or across the shoulders of one individual. With a yoke balancing and distributing the load, the work is easier, the heaviness eased, the burden lightened. With this yoke he mentions, Jesus is offering, as God did to Moses, the holy rest we find only in his presence. Jesus is not offering a new kind of work, but a new kind of rest.

But we are a people who believe in work, in carrying our own load – pulling our weight.. Too often we think we are accepting the offer Jesus makes, taking his yoke upon us, when we are actually just imposing another weight on ourselves. We think we are casting our cares on him when we actually are adding to our cares with religious work. Other times, we say we have let Jesus take our burdens, but when Jesus doesn’t seem to be acting fast enough, or in the way we want, or in a way we can control, we all too willingly take them up again. There is an old story about a young man driving a wagon along a country road. Up ahead, he sees an elderly farmer carrying a heavy bag of feed on his shoulders. As he comes alongside the old man, he stops and offers him a ride, saying, “your load is so heavy – why not let me take it in my wagon."  The elderly man accepts, and climbs into the wagon, but as they continue on the road, the young driver hears him groaning with effort. He turns to look, and sees that the elderly farmer has gotten into the wagon, but the heavy burden he carried is still on his shoulders!

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says,  “and I will give you rest”

This text is so familiar to many of us, but the imagery is so unfamiliar, that I think it may be helpful to hear how The Message, a Bible translation by Eugene Peterson, paraphrases Jesus’ words in verses 28-30. It isn’t long, so have a listen:

28 "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. 29 Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. 30Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

I love that phrase – “the unforced rhythms of grace.” It conjures up a beautiful child dancing in a meadow of wildflowers; a young hawk circling lazily in the summer sky; a child, falling asleep in her mother’s arms, unafraid, peaceful. Jesus invites us into this space with him, a space unburdened by the demands of religion, free of the constraints of expectations, performance reviews, productivity reports, time sheets. Jesus calls us into this life of unforced rhythms, lived freely, and lightly.

Moses asked God, “Show me your ways,” and God offered Moses rest, rest that could be found in the presence of God, God offered liberation from slave labor and a new freedom in obedience to God’s commands. Jesus offers us, too, freedom from slavery to the world with a yoke of freedom that balances the burdens of life by evenly distributing the weight, carried between us and among us and with him. He makes the load light, the burden easy.

Jesus offers us rest in him, the rest that restores us, the rest that we yearn for, the very true rest we need so desperately and fight so frantically. Jesus invites us to come, to sit, to rest and be renewed. In a moment, we will come to the table for the Lord’s supper, where we receive a taste of that rest, and a foretaste of the banquet he has prepared for our final rest.

When I think of the invitation to this table, in the context of these words of Jesus, I see children racing into the kitchen from their games, jostling one another for a place, for a sandwich, for a cold drink.

When I hear Jesus calling us to come to him, to his table, I hear harvesters coming in from the fields, washing face and hands sighing with satisfaction as they take their seats at the table- tired, hungry, but fully at rest from their labors.

When Jesus says, “Come to me,” I smell the fragrance of pies baking and turkey roasting for a family gathering at a welcoming table.

I can feel the gentle swing of the hammock on a lazy July afternoon, and I know that Jesus is offering something we can receive only from him: a life lived freely and lightly, in the unforced rhythms of grace, bearing the yoke of freedom which only he can give, and which he carries for us when we cannot bear it alone.

Thanks be to God for holy rest.
Thanks be to God for the yoke of freedom.