Sunday, August 31, 2014

Five Simple Sabbath Practices


Genesis 2: 1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Practice – Remembering Sabbath
To begin remembering Sabbath, I invite you into a simple exercise that may help you today to remember the Sabbath, and to be more deeply in touch with God in prayer, in practice, and in daily living. Leave your eyes open and breathe normally. As you breathe in, I will say, “remember the Sabbath” and as you breathe out, I will say, “and keep it holy.” You may want to repeat these words silently with me.

This is a practice of Sabbath rest, taking ten deep breaths, letting thoughts come and go. For the next ten breaths, your task is to focus all your attention on your breathing. If you have trouble just letting thoughts come and go, think of them as fish swimming past, or birds flying by, or kids running and playing. Just let your thoughts wander, with no focus or attention to past or future. Give your attention to your breathing. There is no goal here – you can’t fail, you can only experience it. You can use this exercise any time to restore your mind to the present moment and to restore your mind to clarity and peace.


Matthew 14: 19-23 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

Practice: Giving and Receiving Blessing

2. Blessing—Six Ways to Bless Someone

As followers of Jesus, our call is to join him in blessing others. Try one of these six simple ways to bless someone.
  1. Invite someone to share a meal with you.
  2. Pay for the car behind you at a toll stop or drive-through.
  3. Write a note of appreciation to someone.
  4. Pray for someone without telling them.
  5. Compliment a stranger.
  6. Smile for no reason.


Psalm 8: 1-9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Practice: Playfulness

We were made to delight—to take delight in the world and to delight one another, to know joy and laughter and play. Below are some simple games to invite you to play:

Use your playful imagination as you look at this shape.

Is it an animal? Do you see a face?

What would happen if you added a line, or color, or features?

Genesis 1:26-27 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Practice: Honoring the Body

As those who understand ourselves to be made in the image of God, we honor our bodies as much as our spirits. For this practice, simply pay attention to your body for the next minute or so. Pay attention the feeling of air on your skin for 10-60 seconds. Attend to how your clothing feels. Mentally scan your body, from head to toe. Notice any sensations of discomfort or tension, and see if you can soften them. Pay attention to sensations of comfort. Simply sit for a few seconds and pay attention to your body.

Rest and Peace
Mark 4:39-41 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Practice: Resting in God’s presence

Finger Labyrinth

The labyrinth was originally devised as a way for people to take a spiritual pilgrimage by walking a set path. It is not a maze, but a path that leads to the center and back out. A labyrinth can be a way to pray, to contemplate a problem, to meditate, and to rest.

For more on the finger labyrinth, see

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Jesus Slept

Mark 4:35-41
August 24, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

As our reading begins, the disciples and the crowds have just heard Jesus' parables of the kingdom. He has told them a parable of a sower planting seeds, and a parable about how the tiny mustard seed grows into a huge plant. The crowds who have come to see him are so large that Jesus has climbed into a boat, using it as his platform and his pulpit. Now it is evening on that day, and he says to his disciples, "Let us go across to the other side."

This act of crossing the water is emblematic of other crossings. As they are crossing the Sea of Galilee, they are also crossing over into Gentile territory, crossing boundaries. There, they they will be met immediately by a man possessed by a legion of demons rushing at them from the tombs. The next crossing in chapter five will take them into encounters with the silent desperation of a hemorrhaging woman and the chaotic grief of a household in which a little girl has died.”[1] In Mark’s gospel, as we travel alongside Jesus and the disciples, we also find ourselves crossing over into a new kind of understanding. We are crossing over into a new kingdom, in which we encounter Jesus as the son of God, whose journey will take him to the cross.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”
And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.
He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
And they were filled with great awe and said to one another,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

This is our fourth Sunday of the month of Sabbath.
This week we turn our attention to the notion of Sabbath as a time of rest, a day of peace in which we are free from anxiety, a day of calm. For many of us, the day of rest and peace is Sunday. I remember thinking Sundays were pretty nice days when I was a kid. At the First Missionary Church, there were three main events on Sunday. Sunday School was at 9:45; church service was at 11:00. Then we’d go home and have Sunday dinner. Sometimes we would go to the lake, or to visit friends. Maybe Dad would play ball with us, or we’d get a Monopoly game going. Sunday nights, the teens had Youth Fellowship, the adults had Bible Study, and the little kids had Sunshine Makers. And after that, we had Sunday night service. That was our church schedule every Sunday – year round.

This story from the gospel of Mark was a great favorite of ours at Sunshine Makers.
Mrs. Voth or Mrs. Schmidt would tell the story using the flannelboard. Do you remember flannel board stories? They were a great, low-tech way to tell a story. The board itself was a poster size board, covered with flannel. Some of the fancy sets had backgrounds printed on the flannel, like a temple, or pastures and fields, or, in this case, a sea with waves. There were paper cutout figures that seemed to magically stick to the board. For the story of how Jesus calmed the sea, there was a boat, a few disciples, some big waves to add to the drama, and, of course, Jesus.

There were two figures of Jesus for the story.
One was Jesus reclining, fast asleep.
The other was Jesus standing, arms wide, to speak to the storm.

The cutout of Jesus asleep looked very peaceful.
The cutout of Jesus standing did a lot of work in our flannelboard stories.
I was pretty sure that the cutout of Jesus speaking to the storm was the same picture that we had seen when Jesus preached to the people and when Jesus healed the little girl, AND when Jesus told parables and when he said, “Come unto me.” In every other story, Jesus was busy. But the picture of Jesus asleep was only in this story.

In this story, he stood on the bow of the boat, calmed the storm, and then asked the disciples, “What are you all so scared of? Don’t you have any faith?”

It was an exciting story. The disciples were experienced with boats, having been fishermen.
And they were used to being on the Sea of Galilee. But this must have been a terrible storm, with waves big enough to nearly swamp the boat, and the winds shrieking around them in the darkness. You could feel the water drops hitting your face like pebbles, hard, and the wind plastering your wet robe to your legs, whipping your hair around in your face, snatching your voice right out of your mouth.

You could imagine yourself splashing into the water, like Jonah tossed over the side of the boat in the storm, but there would be no big fish to swallow you up and save you. You would only be swallowed up by the waves, and they would wash over you, into your nose and mouth, and you knew you would just sink down and down and down.

We would lean forward in our little wooden chairs, scooching them across the concrete floor, anxiously waiting to find out what was going to happen. There was Jesus, in the stern, sound asleep, his holy head on a pillow. Out like a light.

How could Jesus be asleep?! at a time like this?!
The disciples would scream in terror,
“We’re all going to die! Don’t you even care?”

Then Jesus would wake up, shake his head a little bit, entirely calm, and the standing up Jesus would speak to the wind and the waves: “Cut that out! Quiet down!”
Even the wind and the waves knew they were in trouble if they didn’t obey Jesus.

Everything would quiet down, and then Mrs. Voth would say,
“Now children, you should have faith, and trust in Jesus.”
I’m sure there was more to the lesson than that, but that’s the part I recall.
That, and Jesus, asleep.
It seemed to me that the better lesson might be:
1. Do not go out across the sea of Galilee at night in a small boat.
2. If you do, make sure Jesus is in the boat with you. Awake, if possible.

Years later, I understand this story in a very different way.
I’ve been in some storms myself, not on the Sea of Galilee, or any sea, actually. You’ve been there, too, when you feel as if the waves of life are knocking you over every time you get up, when life’s challenges seem to sweep you underwater, into an ocean of troubles, in over your head. We’ve most of us known how waves of grief keep washing over us until we are sure we will drown.

And I remember that in those times, I’ve thought, because that’s what we all tend to think, that the way to get through the storm was to work harder, to bear down, to paddle like crazy. And sometimes, when life gets tough, that’s what we have to do. Sometimes, you just paddle as hard as you can to keep from getting swamped. But other times, more work is not the solution. More work, more activity, more stuff, more possessions, might help us to bind our anxiety for a period of time – maybe a few hours, or a day or two, or until night.

But when the storms come, those possessions can weigh us down. And storms don’t stop happening, and our need for rest grows along with our anxiety, until we find ourselves shouting at God, “Can’t you see we are perishing?”

And there is Jesus, sleeping peacefully in the back of the boat.

Maybe the reason we see him like that, snoozing away while the disciples panic, is to remind us that a crucial part of inner peace is deep rest. Maybe seeing Jesus asleep is a reminder that even amidst the tempests, we still need time for rest and renewal. And maybe we just need to remember that Jesus is in the boat.

There isn’t any way to prevent storms. We can’t change the weather, and we can’t ward off every challenge in life. But we can remember that Jesus is with us in the boat. Over the tempest and the noise of all the storms, he speaks to us an abiding word of peace. Even the wind and waves listen to him and obey him. And when he needs rest, he sleeps.

Sabbath time, whether it is a day or a moment, after a night on a stormy sea, or on Sunday afternoon after worship, Sabbath time is a time of rest, of calm, when Jesus speaks to all the storms.

May we hear his voice in our own storms.
And may we remember that he is in the boat, saying “Peace. Be still.”


For our response to the sermon, we did this guided imagery:

Sit comfortably, feet on the floor and hands in your lap
Listen to your breathing.
Imagine your are in a place where you feel peaceful, wherever that is for you.
As you sit, someone comes to sit beside you. It is Jesus. He knows you. He sees you fully.
He knows every part of you, your griefs, your fears, your troubles and your joys.
He is present with you. As you sit with him, gather up all of your fears, feelings of anxiety, grief, anger, anything that keeps you from rest.
Give them to him – he is ready and willing to take them.
He takes them without question
As you sit with him, remember that anxiety is a liar, that faith is stronger than fear, that God is with you in every moment.
Meditate on this Scripture (Psalm 107: 23-30):
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits' end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.

Sit with this peace for a moment. Continue to breathe and feel this peace and rest. Hold it lightly, so that you can remember how it feels, and reclaim that feeling whenever you need it.

[1] Meda Stamper, commentary on the lectionary gospel reading for 2012,

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Beautiful Body

Genesis 1:26- 27
August 17, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

I wonder if it has occurred to you how very countercultural this emphasis on Sabbath is!

One of the books I’ve been reading in preparation for these sermons is the book “Sabbath as Resistance” by Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann’s premise is that observing Sabbath is saying no to the cultural pressure that traps and enslaves so many of us. He discusses, in one section, how the commandment to keep the day holy and to provide rest not only for self but also for servants, slaves, and beasts is essentially a statement of equality – when all are equally at rest. Brueggemann says,

“Not all are equal in production…
Not all are equal in consumption…
In a society defined by production and consumption, there are huge gradations of performance, and therefore, of worth and significance.”[1] But, Brueggemann says, on the Sabbath, we are made equal. As created beings, in the eyes of God, we have been made as equals, and every human being is made in the image of God.

Listen to the reminder of this truth at the end of the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis, verses 26-27: Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

If you have ever considered what it means to be created in the image of God, you may have spent a good bit of thought on the spiritual nature of that truth. To be created in God’s image, indeed, is to have free will, to have the ability to reason, to create, and most of all, to be in relationship with others. To be created in the image of God is to be a reflection of God’s spirit. But God, in Christ, is also embodied – the Word incarnate – fully human and fully divine. We see in the incarnation, in the fact that Immanuel, God with us, that God honors bodies – because God, in Jesus, has a body. So, to be created in God’s image means, also, to have a body.

It will come as no surprise to you that the Christian tradition has a long streak of being “anti-body.” Many generations of Christians have been instructed that the body is bad, that our flesh is inherently sinful, that the spiritual is good and the flesh is bad. Countless well-intentioned Christian teachers have told us that we need to revile our bodies, or at least ignore them, and attend to our souls. These teachings would have us believe that our bodily desires and functions are earthly, and that bodily pleasure is at the very least next door to sin, if not its roommate.

During the Renaissance, artists took delight in the beauty of the human form, and sculpture and painting celebrated the beauty of the body, particularly the male form, as in the statue of David. But in the mid-sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent decreed that “lasciviousness be avoided,”[2] prompting Pope Innocent to send out a worker with a chisel and fig leaves, and later a well-intentioned Pope Clement had fig-leaves mass produced to cover up the naked statues in the Vatican.[3] As recently as this past year, in my native Kansas, the American Family Association began a campaign to remove a statue, a work of art, from a 300 acre arboretum outside of Kansas City because that statue was a sculpture of a partially nude woman.

Then there is an advertising industry that constantly assaults us with information about our imperfections, in order to entice us to buy products or services to overcome them.
What, after all, does the consumer culture tell us about ourselves?
We are too fat or too thin – we need to diet or bulk up.
We don’t smell good enough – we need perfume, or Axe body spray.
We have hair where we don’t want it, and we don’t have hair where we do.
That hair, by the way, is too curly or too straight, probably the wrong color or the wrong length or not smooth, silky or manageable enough.
We need more new clothes, and jewelry and shoes.
We need makeup to make our faces look better, and nail polish to make our fingers and toes look better.

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these things.
Well, except for Axe body spray, which should be banned, or at least have its use rationed.
There is nothing wrong with nail polish or hair color, or nice clothes or pretty shoes.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a healthy weight, and look good.
Let me repeat: there is nothing inherently wrong with pretty shoes!

What goes wrong is when these sales pitches work to make us buy things because they make us feel less than adequate. We don’t feel pretty – we think we are unappealing, even ugly. We become so persuaded by these messages that we forget that we were made in the image of God, made to reflect God’s goodness and creative power.

In his incarnation, Jesus honored the human body, and in honoring our own bodies, we honor God. St. Paul says the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and compares the church itself to a body, of which Christ is the head. In describing the importance of love for those who are married, Paul enjoins husbands to love their wives as much as they love their own bodies! He says, “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.”

We encounter these metaphors over and over, telling us that we are loved, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that we are beautiful, and made in the image of God. Since we are made in the image of God, and God called creation good, good, good, good, good, very good – that last is from the day God made humankind – it naturally follows that our bodies, too, are good, and beautiful, and worthy of being honored and cared for.

God’s loving message contradicts the shouts of advertising, speaking against the all too common sense of shame or discomfort we have about our own bodies. To observe Sabbath is to acknowledge the importance of our bodies, and to provide for our physical selves the same kind of rest and renewal that we want for our spiritual selves.

In Jewish families, the Sabbath observance, after the candles are lit, begins with a leisurely and enjoyable meal – unhurried, pleasurable. In our own homes, honoring our bodies may take many different forms. Sabbath might mean taking a nap, or lounging in a hammock, or spending an afternoon in the bathtub. It might involve a strenuous game of tennis, played simply for enjoyment, or a massage, just because it feels so very good.

Sabbath as resistance makes space for us to resist the negative voices around us.
Brueggemann says, “On the Sabbath:
You do not have to do more.
You do not have to sell more.
You do not have to control more.
You do not have to know more.
You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
You do not have to score more.”

Sabbath as acknowledging that we are made in the image of God, creates the space and time for us to reflect – to reflect God’s love for all of creation, including every person, and to reflect on the gift of a day of rest.

For our Sabbath moment today, as we consider this beautiful truth, listen to this poem by Mary Oliver. Simply let the words wash over you, like a cleansing rain, and rejoice in the gift of your life, your breath, your body, this day.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


[1] Brueggemann, Walter, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, WJK, Louisville, 2014, p. 40



Sunday, August 10, 2014

God’s Garden

Genesis 2; Psalm 8
August 10, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This is the second in our series of Sundays in our Sabbath month, in which we are focusing on simple practices to remember the Sabbath. In our worship, various people are sharing their reflections, we are engaging in some experiential spiritual practices, and our music has been selected from the requested songs turned in last month by those who worship with us. Songs selected for this Sunday include “Morning Has Broken,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art.” Sabbath practices are adapted from various resources.

Sabbath Practice: Recreation

Sabbath walk: for 30 minutes, walk slowly and silently, preferably outside in nature. If you are drawn to a leaf, a color, a stone, the fragrance of grass, the feel of the breeze or the sounds of birds or children at play, pause, take it in. Do not hurry. There is no place to go, and there is no goal. Simply take in whatever is around you. At the end of 30 minutes, notice what has happened to your spirit, your body, and your sense of time.

Set aside time for play, for enjoying your children, spouse or friends. Let this be “purposeless play” for simple enjoyment, whether it is a board game, a ballgame, or simply play with imagination, stories and laughter.
--adapted from Sabbath, by Wayne Muller

Our first reading, from the second chapter of Genesis, is actually the prologue to the story of the fall of humanity. We hear it this morning to remind us not of our frailty and finitude, but to remind us that life began in a garden where God spoke with Adam, where God walked with humans in the cool of the day. These verses help us to imagine the beauty of creation, and anticipate our own re-creation in the beauty of the world. Listen for God’s word in Genesis 2: 8-15

8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.
11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.
13 The name of the second river is Gihon;
it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush.
14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.
And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Following this reading, a member of our church, Audrey Nesbitt, shared her reflections on experiencing Sabbath moments in the garden – as a child, and in the gardens of her home as an adult.

Our second reading is the first hymn of praise in the 150 Psalms, Psalm 8.
This Psalm is rich in imagery and in theology, especially for such a short Psalm.
There is a lot that can be said about this song, but for today, simply listen to the beauty of the poetry that reflects the glory of creation, and our place in it:

1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

There was a metal sign my grandmother’s garden, now in my mother’s garden.
It says, “The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth.
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.”[1]

I am not a gardener, by any stretch of the imagination. Bob was relieved to get here in time to save his tomato plants from my neglect. But I enjoy being in a garden, and the flowers and plants. I especially like finding a shady spot to sit and read, surrounded by all the beauty and life of growing things. I do feel God’s presence in a garden, as long as I am not trying to garden!

One of the essential meanings of Sabbath is the idea of re-creation and recreation. Whether or not you are a gardener, nearly everyone has had the experience of re-creation, when involved in some activity that brings you delight.

For the last few years, that kind of re-creating experience, in which we lose track of time and become completely absorbed in something, has been called “flow.” Here’s one definition:

“In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task, although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.”[2]

Another way to describe this re-creating delight, is “living in the moment” – being present and focused on here and now. This is a perfect description of Sabbath time, even Sabbath moments. In them, we are enjoying recreation and re-creation, being made anew in the delight of the moment, without worry about what work must be done tomorrow, or what happened yesterday.

The wonderful poet Thich Nhat Hanh says it like this:
Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle.
The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment,
to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
… It is not a matter of faith;
it is a matter of practice.[3]

Our suggested Sabbath practices for this week are designed to help us do this- to be out in nature, to immerse ourselves in the present moment, to simply BE, in the world, in play, in recreation, and in re-creation. In some ways, Sabbath itself is the garden created for our joy, for our living. I encourage you, in the next few moments, to simply sit quietly and allow yourself to experience this present moment.

Listen to your breath.
Pay attention to your body – to your arms and legs, your skin, how it feels.
Look around you, at the windows, or the faces, or your hands, without evaluating, without critique, but simply with appreciation for what is.
If you see dust on the pew, simply notice and be conscious of it.
If you hear sounds, think of them as the song of the universe.
Just sit for a moment and enjoy the gift of being alive, here and now.

Introduction to “In The Garden”

The song we are about to sing is an old hymn, dating back to 1912. It has seen waves of great popularity, and has also been criticized for its sentimentality. Over the last few decades, it has somehow become known as a “funeral song.” But it is anything but that! It is a song of re-creation, and resurrection.

The man who wrote the hymn, C. Austin Miles, was a photographer. One day, in his darkroom, he read from his favorite book and chapter, John 20. In that chapter, Mary meets the risen Christ in the garden, and mistakes him, at first, for the gardener. The hymn writer, as he read this story, said, “It was though I was in a trance, as I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord and cried, ‘Rabboni!’ I rested my hands on the open Bible, as I stared at the light blue wall.”

The writer then saw a vision of John, Peter, Mary and Jesus. He concludes by saying,
“I awakened in sunlight, gripping my Bible with my muscles tense, and nerves vibrating, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the lyrics exactly as it is sung today. That same evening, I wrote the tune.”[4]

I invite you to stay seated, and to open yourselves to the presence of the Risen Christ, as we sing, “In the Garden.”

[1] Dorothy Frances Gurney, “God’s Garden.” accessed 080914
[2] Flow (psychology) Wikipedia entry, accessed 080914

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Daily Blessings

Mark 1:35 Matthew 14:13-21
August 3, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we enter into this Sabbath month, a time of rest and renewal, it is appropriate to begin with a focus on prayer. This morning as we reflect on Scripture and come to the Lord’s Table, we’ll attend to prayer, in its many forms, and particularly to prayers as blessings. In these two readings, one just a short verse, the other a familiar story, we have two demonstrations of prayer.

You’ll recall perhaps that the gospel of Mark, the first written but second in the canon, jumps right into the life of Jesus, starting with his baptism. No manger, no shepherds, just the adult Jesus going straight to the river Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John, the Baptizer, a wild-eyed evangelist who has been proclaiming the imminent coming of the Messiah.

So in this first chapter of Mark, Jesus goes down to the river, is baptized, goes through forty days of temptation in the wilderness, calls the disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals the sick at Simon’s house, and he becomes very popular. There are crowds gathered around the doorway, trying to get to him. Then, before we are even out of the first chapter, we see this verse, Mark 1:35:

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

But Jesus doesn’t stay there long – right away the disciples hunt him down and they say, “Everyone is searching for you!” And off they go to proclaim the message of God’s love for all people.

Now, for our second reading, the longer of the two, from the Gospel of Matthew, let’s set the scene. Jesus is well into his ministry, and his cousin John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod, for saying out loud that Herod should not have stolen his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias was, in the interesting way of families then, both Herod’s sister in law, AND his niece. And his wife.

Anyway, Herod threw himself a big birthday party, and for entertainment, he asked his daughter to do a solo dance, for which, he promised, she could have whatever she asked. Advised by her mother, the dancing daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Herod was afraid of an uprising if he executed John, but, he had given his word…
John’s disciples came and got his body and buried it, and went to tell Jesus. And that’s where our reading begins, in Matthew 14:13-21

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."
19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Let’s sit for a moment, out on the grassy hills, and consider this story. Jesus has been trying to find some time and some quiet, far from the madding crowd, trying to find some space to pray, to be still, and probably to experience this fresh grief of the loss of his cousin and friend. He has to get in a boat go to the other side of the lake to do this, but even there, they find him. As in the first reading, everyone is searching for him.

I know this feeling – probably everyone knows this feeling – the sense that you just. can’t. catch. a. break. Mothers of toddlers know this feeling; workers and professionals of all types know it: teachers know it; kids even experience this – this feeling of wanting to scream – “Will everyone just leave me alone for a little while?”

Jesus wants to pray, those deep silent prayers without words, maybe just aching sadness, or longing, maybe just to catch up to himself. We can imagine that he might simply want to sit still in the gathering dawn, and experience God’s presence, know God’s peace.

It’s a bit different from the prayers we speak and read and hear in worship. More like meditation, this quiet time apart, just to be still.

But Jesus was compelled to come back, back to the crowds. And when he saw them, he had great compassion on them, so he turned his energy toward healing them, teaching them, being present with them, even in his grief.

As evening came, people were getting hungry. And rather than send them away, Jesus does this amazing act, and his actions are a foreshadowing of what he will do at table, later on in the gospel story, on the night when he is betrayed, when he breaks the bread and offers the cup.

He takes, he blesses, he breaks, and he gives.

This is a different kind of prayer altogether. It’s normal for us, at meal time, to “ask a blessing,” but usually we don’t pay a lot of attention to what that might mean. For many of us, myself included, asking a blessing at a meal, or saying grace, has become a perfunctory task that we do without thinking.

But think about it – saying “GRACE” – that word grace - charis remember that little Greek lesson? Charis means grace, and eucharist means thanksgiving. Grace – charis, is at the very heart of gratitude - the eucharist. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it – says grace! – and in that blessing, it is multiplied, made into more than enough.

In the same way, when we pray, when we ask for blessing – whatever we bring is magnified and enhanced by the presence of Jesus. When we pray, even if it is not a meal, we speak grace – grace to others, grace to ourselves, grace to the world.

The third century theologian and martyr, Origen, said that when we pray, we let Jesus pray in us, and let his peace dwell in us, his love emanate from us.

For some people, that takes the shape of meditation, being still and silent, and letting all the clutter and clatter of life sift away like silt, until we are centered.

For others that may mean visualizing, or naming, a person, holding them in the light, focusing our positive energy.

Some may kneel in solitude; others shape their prayers in song or music.

In a short while, as we prepare to receive communion, we’ll say a form of grace, too, in the Eucharistic prayer. After the service, you’ll receive a Sabbath pondering, about prayer, to reflect upon through the week. And in the bulletin, there is a suggested Sabbath practice.

The practice for this week is blessing, and I invite you to try it with me now. You may pause at this initially, thinking that blessing another person is a practice reserved for ministers, for a priest, perhaps. But in the Reformed tradition, you are all priests, all ministers, and so you are especially qualified to offer blessings.

We’ll start with something simple. Think of a person who needs a blessing. Perhaps it is a loved one, perhaps a child or a family member. Maybe it is someone with whom you’ve had a conflict, even an enemy. Maybe it is a public figure or a politician– God knows there are plenty of them right now who could use a blessing.

Close your eyes. Imagine the person – see their face.
Now, imagine light and love and grace surrounding them.
If you want to add words, repeat silently,
“Grace and peace to you. May God bless you richly.”

Now turn to a person near you. Reach out – if you are comfortable with it, take that person’s hand, and offer this Gaelic blessing – you can repeat it after me:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ, of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.[1]

I invite you to feel this deep peace as you come to the table, to carry it with you as you leave this place, to hold it in your hand and in your heart as a Sabbath blessing, a Sabbath peace to keep you through each day, so that Christ may pray in you, and your blessings may breathe grace and love to the world around you.


[1] Gaelic Blessing, from the composition by John Rutter. Words adapted “from an old Gaelic rune.” Accessed 08/02/14.