Sunday, October 26, 2014

Heaps and Plenty

2 Chronicles 31: 4-12
October 26, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

4 He commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, so that they might devote themselves to the law of the Lord. 5 As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. 6 The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the Lord their God, and laid them in heaps. 7 In the third month they began to pile up the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month. 8 When Hezekiah and the officials came and saw the heaps, they blessed the Lord and his people Israel. 9 Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps. 10 The chief priest Azariah, who was of the house of Zadok, answered him, "Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the Lord has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over." 11 Then Hezekiah commanded them to prepare store-chambers in the house of the Lord; and they prepared them. 12 Faithfully they brought in the contributions, the tithes and the dedicated things.

Today is an exciting day! Not only is it the Lord’s Day, it is also the first Sunday of our Stewardship Season, and the last Sunday before our 170th anniversary celebration, it is also Reformation Sunday! Isn’t that THRILLING?! I know that like me, you are bubbling over with delight as you think about that fateful day, almost 500 years ago, October 31, 1517. A young monk named Martin brought his list of 95 issues with the church, ninety five issues in sore need of reform, ninety five things that needed to change, and he nailed them to the door of the church at Wittenburg. BAM! Changed the world forever. Eventually.

After Luther came John Calvin, and after him John Knox, and before too many generations had passed, the Reformation had spread from Europe to Scotland, and John Knox was working out the details of how the Presbyterian church would be organized. Decently and in order. I can see that you can barely contain yourselves.

Well, okay, here’s another thing to get excited about: our 170th anniversary! Since 1844 this congregation has been active in ministry in Sterling. We were the first reformed congregation in this town, and like the Presbyterian slogan – reformed and always being reformed, we have been agents of change for 170 years. We’ve changed people, and we’ve changed the world in small ways and big ways. ….But that is for next Sunday.

Maybe you can work up some enthusiasm for the books of First and Second Chronicles. I tell ya, there is some good stuff in those books. If you want, open your pew Bible and take a look at First Chronicles. It’s on page 360. Really, it’s okay – I know we’re Presbyterians, but it is really okay to open a Bible during worship!

Check it out – this is a great story here – First Chronicles chapter 1:

1 Adam, Seth, Enosh; 2 Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; 3 Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech;  4 Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

…okay, skip a few verses, maybe it gets better…

8 The descendants of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan.
9 The descendants of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. 10 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first to be a mighty one on the earth…..

Well, maybe you had to be there…

Okay, here’s something to get really, really excited about – Hezekiah!
Yay, let’s give it up for HEZEKIAH!

Hezekiah was a reformer, too, it turns out. He didn’t have 95 theses, or a Catholic church to push against. He didn’t have a printing press – that movable type press to print his reforms would have come in handy. But it was 700 BC, and Gutenberg wouldn’t introduce that technology for another couple thousand years. Hezekiah, in fact, didn’t have much to work with at all. He had inherited a kingdom that had once been enormous. Under his ancestor King David, Israel to the north and Judah to the south had been brought together as one kingdom. But over time, things had gone wrong, and the once-united Northern and Southern kingdoms had split. Hezekiah’s kingdom consisted of Judah, under constant threat from the Assyrians. His uneasy alliance with Egypt had brought him no advantage.

Worship at the temple was in disastrous shape. Over time, the building had gotten run down. The symbols and reminders of the past had become objects of worship in and of themselves. The people had forgotten who they were. Nobody obeyed the old forms and standards of giving. The priests and Levites charged with running the temple and leading worship were so neglected that they could barely survive. The temple was shabby, the people discouraged, and everything was disorganized.

Hezekiah came in and said, “This place needs to be put in order.” (I think he may have been the first Presbyterian.) Hezekiah cleansed and renovated the temple. He made sure there were systems in place to get things done that needed doing. Then he set about reforming stewardship. You can’t run a worshiping community on faith alone. There has to be some money coming in to keep the oil in the lamps, to keep the holy places cleaned up and in good repair. The priests can’t live on love – there has to be enough coming in to keep body and soul together. If they are devoting themselves to the law of the Lord, they need to be supported by the worshiping community.

Things haven’t changed all that much since Hezekiah’s time. Over the generations from 700 BC until now, some things stay the same. Church staff still need to be paid, church bills still must be paid, attention must be paid to worship and the space for worship. Like the temple then, the church now is always in need of support, always in need of maintenance, always in need of reformation. That’s hard work.

It is thrilling to see what extraordinary things God is doing here. But it can also be exhausting. If you look around this congregation, this building, this town, you can easily see that it isn’t the place it once was. There aren’t as many people in town; there aren’t as many Presbyterians. Millionaire benefactors are in short supply! There isn’t as much as there used to be – resources are not as abundant as they once were.

Like the people of Hezekiah’s faith community, we’ve cleaned the building up and spruced up our surroundings. And like the people of Hezekiah’s time, we’re called once again to bring the first fruits – the first and best of everything we have – in gratitude to God.

So it is an exciting day - reformation is exciting!

We know it from history, and we know it from our own experiences of witnessing change and new hope, new opportunities for mission, new co-workers in Christ joining us, new groups in our building and in our community, sharing ministry with other Christians.

Our motto, “reformed, always being reformed,” speaks to both the excitement and the exhaustion. We can get really enthusiastic about changes, and we are always in need of reform.

But sometimes, moving into the future is just plain tiring. We might experience resistance, or suspicion or rejection from our neighbors. We might experience resistance and suspicion within our own hearts. We may need to rethink our ministries, ministries that we once loved. We may need to confess that simply having done something in the past is not sufficient reason to keep on doing it into the future. We may need to reform our approach to worship, or to our work tasks.[1]

We may need God to re-shape our perspectives, or our attitudes, or our stewardship, to transform our hearts once again. Somehow, we have to strike a balance between change and stability. We have to be always looking for the balance between celebration and self-congratulation. And we have to constantly remind ourselves that all reformation, every transformation, like every good gift we have been given, comes from God, and not from us.

Even as we struggle to maintain that balance, we remember that it is Christ who is at work in us and in the world!

It isn’t all up to us.

One of the foundational ideas of the Reformation is that we are saved by grace through faith, not by anything we do, or by our particular status in the world, nor by how much money we bring. Our transformation, our personal reformation, comes through Jesus Christ. Our renovations of our church building, our participation in new ministries, our contributions to ongoing ministry, and even our occasional decisions to let go of some things that no longer work, all of these have one true source, and that’s God.

Reformation is not something we do. Being reformed is not just something we add to our resume, not just another accomplishment. And change and transformation are not projects we undertake so that God will like us more. Our faithfulness is not accomplished in order to win God’s favor. We are not putting good works and pledges into God’s big vending machine expecting a big payoff of prosperity on earth and reward in heaven. We offer ourselves and our gifts in gratitude for God’s faithfulness over the generations, and in our own generations.

That’s not to say that there aren’t rewards for us, just like there were for the faithful people of Hezekiah’s time. They found that in their giving, they were blessed, even as the recipients were blessed. They found deep joy in generosity, and through their faithfulness, their faith was increased. It’s a paradoxical truth, that the more we give to God, the richer we feel. The more we bless others with generosity, the more we feel blessed.

The bulletin insert for today asks us to think about the people sitting with us in church. It reminds us that the gifts people bring represent their stories and sacrifices. And it says, “All of your stories together make up the generations of generosity that characterize your church.”

As I have helped prepare for our anniversary celebration, I’ve been reading stories of some of the early Presbyterians who came to this place, who established homes and businesses, and who built this church. They were ordinary people, with stories to tell, and they were the beginning of the generations of this church. We stand on their shoulders, just as they stood on the shoulders of those who came before, their ancestors, who had the courage to leave their homes in Germany or Switzerland or Scotland or Ireland and come to this country to make a new life. And we stand on the shoulders of those generations of people going back to First Chronicles and before. Those names we heard: Adam, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth….Hezekiah- they are all as much our ancestors in faith as the names in our own history: Galt, Pennington, Ward, Johnston, Manahan.

So we have a lot to celebrate, this Reformation Sunday!
Reformation is not just a day in history. It is a way of life that looks back to the generations that went before, and looks ahead to the generations that are yet to come; it is a way of life that stands on the firm foundation of the past while constantly seeking a vision for the future. From our history we have learned that the generosity of generations accumulates, like the gifts brought to the temple by the people of Hezekiah’s time, until there are heaps and heaps, plenty and abundance, blessing God and blessing the people as they pile up gifts and heap up gratitude, for today, and for the future, so that generations from now, this church will stand as a testimony to the grace and mercy and love of God in this time, for this people, and for all time, for all people, until that day when Christ returns to claim us as his people. Thanks be to God!


[1] Karoline Lewis

Monday, October 20, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 6

The Empty Church
Philippians 2:1-11
October 19, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling Il
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church,
Greetings from the church at Philippi.

Our city was founded by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, about 350 years before the time of Christ. We were once the site of a strategic garrison, and a royal mint. During the Roman civil war, Philippi was the place where Mark Antony and Octavian caught up to Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. After that war, our town became a popular retirement city for Roman soldiers. Philippi was populated mostly by Romans and Greeks.

Paul first visited our city on his early missionary journeys, when the Holy Spirit came to him in a dream and told him to come to Macedonia. Even though Paul was arrested during his very first visit to us, he loved us and wrote to us with deep affection and joy.

This scripture provides an ethic that describes how we are to live—lives of Christlike humility, for the glory of God in Jesus Christ. It contains one of the earliest and most beautiful hymns to Jesus. Listen for God’s word to the church, and to you, in this part of our letter called Philippians chapter 2, verses one through eleven.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

With this letter, we are wrapping up our series on the epistles, those living letters from the first century that still serve to inform us today. Up to now, every letter we have looked at was written in order to address a problem or conflict in the congregation. This letter, and particularly this part of the letter, was written to encourage those faithful Christians at Philippi to keep on doing what they were doing, to keep on being faithful.

Paul starts the letter in his customary form, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The next lines are an expression of praise and gratitude, demonstrating the love and trust that Paul has for this congregation. You have heard these words many times, because we use them in this congregation for recognition of volunteers, and in our thanksgiving prayers: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

That opening preface sets the tone for a letter filled with joy and affection. Paul LOVES this congregation. And they love him. If there had been a first century version of Hallmark, they’ve have created a month for “pastor appreciation” and sold a TON of cards in Philippi. If there had been a “congregation appreciation” card available, Paul couldn’t have purchased one, because he was in prison. So he wrote this letter to them, this letter of encouragement and joy.

In this second chapter, which, you remember, is an artificial division, since actual letters don’t have chapters and verses, Paul refers back to the end of the first chapter, where he reminds them to continue to be faithful to the gospel. He is not chiding them, not scolding them – this letter does not have tickets for a guilt trip enclosed. Instead, he is sending a word of encouragement to use “the most unused resource in the church: who the members are and what they already know.”[1]

This section of the letter hinges on that tiny Greek word, EI. Paul uses it four times:

IF there is any encouragement in Christ,
IF there is any comfort in love,
IF there any sharing in the Spirit,
IF there is any affection and compassion…

EI in Greek can have different meanings – it can be used conditionally in both negative and positive ways: “if I were king, but I am not” “if I were your friend, and I am” We use the word IF to express something that is not – “IF only I were the queen of the world,” But Paul uses IF not to question whether there is encouragement, love, sharing and compassion, but to affirm it. In this regard, we could say that EI means not IF, but SINCE.

SINCE there encouragement in Christ,
SINCE there is comfort in love,
SINCE there sharing in the Spirit,
SINCE there is affection and compassion,

Paul wants the church at Philippi to continue “thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.” It is plenty to consider, how a community can continue in attitudes of unity, love, concord and sympathy. Paul calls on the church at Philippi, and the church here and now in Sterling, to have the mind of Christ, who emptied himself.

Yes, have THAT mind in yourselves.
Have THAT orientation in your congregation.
Be an empty church.

Be a church that opens its doors not only so that others may come in,
but in order to go out to the world.
Be a church that opens its heart, not only to receive the love of God in Christ Jesus,
but in order to give and share that love with all people, everywhere.
Be a church that seeks not to fill the pews but to fill what is empty –
hungry stomachs, needs in the community and the world, hands reaching out for hope.
The letter speaks in the imperative: Do this, obey this command.
And do it not for yourself, not for your selfish considerations, not for your own glory, not so that you get your picture on the front page of the Gazette, not so that everybody in town knows your name, not so that you can fill up the pews on Sunday morning.

Do this for the joy of it.
Do this because Christ commands it.
Do this because we are called, over and over, to love God and love neighbor,
and to live lives that evince that love
in every place,
in every moment,
in every action.

In worship this morning, you received a letter, written by hand and sealed with a wax seal. This letter is to you, one of God’s own people, claimed by Christ. The worship team prepared this letter for you as a reminder of our call not only as individual Christians but as the community of faith.

We hope that you will open it, keep it,
look at it, read it again and again.
We hope that this letter will help us to become an empty church,
a church that empties itself of pride so that it can be filled with compassion,
a church that empties out every Sunday
in order to go into the world and fill it with good things,
a church that renders to no one evil for evil;
strengthens the fainthearted; supports the weak;
helps the afflicted; honors everyone…”

It is plenty to consider, and easier said than done.
In fact, it is too hard to undertake, too much to ask.
Except – except!
if we adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus,
the attitude expressed in this early and glorious hymn to Christ,
still sung today by Christians around the world,
an orientation that looks toward Christ, and Christ alone.
He was humiliated in order that he could be exalted.
He became as one despised and rejected, an object of humiliation,
so that we could know what true forgiveness is.
He went down to the grave so that we could be raised to life.
He tasted death so that we might live.
He laid down his life so that he could take it up again.
He gave himself so that we know true grace and generosity.
He emptied himself so that we could be filled.

Therefore, the song continues,
“Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This is our purpose, and our call: to be an empty church.
To God alone be the glory.


[1] Craddock, Fred. Interpretation Commentary Series, Philippians, John Knox Press, 1985, p. 36

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 5

Outside the Box
Ephesians 3:14-21
October 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Nannette Pashon and Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church,
Greetings from the churches of Ephesus!
We were a collection of congregations in Asia minor. This letter came to us from an early Christian teacher who wrote in Paul’s name, to instruct the church in how to live in unity with Christ and with one another. It was written for all churches, not just to address one single congregation with its particular issues. We’re glad we can share this letter with you, as it was meant to be shared.

The Epistle to the Ephesians speaks to the church’s need to understand itself as an expression of God’s love in Christ Jesus, built on the foundation of that love, supported by grace, and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. So we, along with you, were called to build up the body of Christ. As this body of Christ, brought from death into new life, we are to live as thankful people, imitators of Christ, faithful and generous. “Live as children of light,” the letter says. The closing chapter suggests that God’s people are to be dressed in “the full armor of God,” -- not for violent battle, but for “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

This epistle is filled with instruction and encouragement to help us live as the church, the body of Christ, gathered by Christ, and living in the light of Christ. And the promise is that we will see that God’s power at work within us can bring about more than we could ever ask or even imagine! Listen, as we did so very long ago, to this beautiful prayer for the church from Ephesians 3:14-21:

14 This is why I kneel before the Father. 15 Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him. 16 I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. 17 I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, 18 I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. 19 I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God. 20 Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; 21 glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

When someone starts praying for you, and you are present, it can leave you feeling a little bit self-conscious. That's exactly how I felt when you all prayed for me and our family during my dad's battle with cancer. Overhearing someone pray for you can also leave you feeling inspired. And I know that's true, that's also how I felt each and every time I heard you pray for me. Probably, that was the intention of this beautiful prayer for the church – to leave those who heard it feeling inspired.

The last few weeks, the letters we’ve been reading have been addressed primarily to Jewish people who had become Christian. This letter was more likely addressed to Gentile Christians, people who had never been Jewish, but were so compelled by the message of Jesus that they formed communities of faith to put his teaching into practice.

Perhaps they had observed some other kind of religious practice, but this was a whole new thing – a teacher who said to love your enemies, a teacher who described outcasts and sinners as God’s beloved. No longer did you need to figure out how to please some angry god; you only needed to turn your life over to this God who loved the world enough to come in human form, to live and teach among the common people, and to die and be raised again to life.

Of course, when you form a faith community, you tend to model it on something that already exists, on some kind of practice or group that has an established process. So these early Christians turned to the practices of the Jews, modeling their worship after them, and shaping their common life on the teachings of this Jewish Messiah who apparently had come not just for Jews but for every person in the world.

So they gathered, probably in someone’s home, and they sang Psalms, and they prayed, and they broke bread and shared the cup, remembering at table what Jesus had said, working out their lives as people of the way, and anticipating his return, as he had promised. But when you are doing something new, there’s always a danger that you’ll be tempted to throw out a lot of babies with a lot of bathwater. There is always the temptation to reject whatever is old and embrace whatever is the newest big thing. And there’s always the temptation to think that the future is up to you.

These early Gentile Christians, secure in their welcome to God’s household, got a little bit ahead of themselves, like arrogant teenagers who know better than their parents. They had rejected the strict observance of the law, and replaced it with a casual moral code that wasn’t exactly good for them or for this new thing called Christianity. Let’s just say that there was some theological eye-rolling going on.

They were trying to invent themselves, to create a community that celebrated and followed Christ, that worshiped one God and welcomed all people, a faithful community that would become the church. They needed to overhear a prayer that pointed their attention in the right direction – toward God, and away from self. And they needed to be reminded that the church wasn’t their invention, but the creation of God in Christ. Working through them, God could create something that was beyond anything they could even visualize – more than they could ever ask or imagine.

This prayer, so full of love and encouragement, was the basis for the rest of the letter. The rest of the letter sets them straight about the vocation of the church, the conduct of Christians in the church, in the family, and in relationships, and the centrality of Christ in all of those areas. Christ is at work in the life of the individual believer; Christ calls believers together to be the church, and through Christ’s church, the Holy Spirit is at work in the world. This prayer was like a loving hug that makes the rest of the lecture easier to hear.

It is easy to see why this letter to the church was copied, treasured, why it was read and re-read then and is still read and studied today. In every age, the church has faced times when it struggles to renew itself, when some Christians want to throw out the old and bring in the new, and others want only to keep everything the way it has always been.

In times of social upheaval, in periods of uncertainty, in cycles of economic downturn, this odd collection of humans called the church has always been challenged to hold realism in tension with faith, to hold itself together when forces seem to be tearing it apart, to balance respect for the past with the need to move forward to the future.

In this congregation’s history, not too far back, we faced a crisis when the mill closed, when the whole town seemed to be falling apart, when everything we had known was changing. That hit pretty close to home in my house. On the afternoon of May 18th 2001, Tim was at our nephew Brandon’s sectional track meet in Rock Island. I was playing in our backyard with the girls. The phone rang and when I answered, Tim's boss, Larry See, asked to speak with him. I told Larry where Tim was and wondered if there was a problem at work that he needed to speak to him about. Larry said no and I asked if I could take a message.

Larry paused and said nooo, at that point I jokingly said, “Unless you’re calling to tell him that the Mill is closing.” Sometimes my sense of humor is a little misplaced. Larry quietly said “Nan.....” and then I knew. I know it's hard to believe, but we didn't have cell phones back then. I spent the rest of the night waiting to tell my husband, the father of our three daughters, the main bread winner, that our lives were about to change. When he came home I met him at the door and told him we needed to talk.

You should have seen the look on his face. The last time I met him at the door saying those words, they were followed by the news of our unexpected third pregnancy.

After the initial shock, we set to the task of looking for a new job. We were lucky, in a few months Tim accepted a position at Raynor. Other Mill employees took a deep breath and decided what to do next. For some that meant newfound jobs, others went back to school and found new careers. The closing of Northwestern Steel & Wire was a blow to our community and many businesses in the area also suffered. Churches and civic organizations quickly realized they needed to help. They had to lift families up in prayer. And think outside of the box as they helped people find ways to support themselves and their families. As a result we adapted, community spirit kicked in, people pulled together, they worked hard and accepted every opportunity given to them.

Not so terribly long ago, we came together to vote on whether or not to leave this building, to try to build something new in hopes that we could turn things around. It hasn’t been all that long ago that we as a congregation had to face the reality of decline. We saw the finances dwindling; we saw the membership numbers falling; we saw the church members aging; we saw the building having problem after problem. We thought we might be coming to the end.

But God had other plans. Because God is a God of surprises. And even on our best days, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. This God who came to us in Christ Jesus, has been doing unexpected things from the very beginning. – walking with humanity in the cool of the day; calling inept and faulty people to affirm the covenant, putting unqualified people into leadership positions, choosing fickle and faithless tribes to build a new nation.

Of all the ways for God to pass along the message of unconditional love, why would humans, with all their arrogance and selfishness, be the way? Wouldn’t you think that a church made up of us would be the least effective? We humans are so inconsistent! We tend to be selfish, and vain, and undependable. But here we are, still at the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street. Who could’ve imagined that?

God is a God of surprises, and God continues to do more than we could ask or imagine. Who could have imagined that we, First Presbyterian Church, would have developed this way of worship that embraces styles and cultures, and welcomes all sorts of people, making space for new ideas alongside the old? Who could have imagined that this old building, which at one point more than half of us were ready to leave, would now be abuzz with people every day of the week? Certainly, none of us could have imagined that our congregation would be instrumental in beginning two new local ministries.

We had a story about ourselves, one that said we were stuck, and couldn’t go forward, because all the numbers were going down, down, down. But God had other ideas. God’s story for us is about being a place, right here on the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street, where people are welcomed, and workers are sent out. We are about to launch a community ministry providing food for children who are food insecure to take home from school on the weekends. We are about to begin the process of creating a safe space for respite care, a place where home caregivers can bring a loved one once a week, just for a day to get that much needed break – a haircut, a nap, a trip to the grocery store, a cup of coffee with friends.

And neither of these are Presbyterian programs, neither of these are efforts invented by us, for our satisfaction. They are God’s inventions, callings to us and to a wide cross-section of our community, calling Christians and non-believers alike, to do something that not one of us could have imagined alone.

A paraphrase of the Scripture in Ephesians three, the part that comes right before this prayer, sounds like it applies to us, right now, in this congregation: “Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels! All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. When we trust in him, we're free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go.”

Because working through Christ’s church, God is doing new and amazing things, always moving us to live and act and think outside the box, to do more than we could ever ask or imagine.

To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 4

Fruitful Living
Galatians 5:16-25
October 5, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Clay pots. Clothing. Now fruit. The apostle Paul seems to really like metaphors. If you don’t remember that term from school, or if you haven’t learned that word yet, “Metaphor is a form of thought that occurs when we use one word to mean another word.”[1] A metaphor stands in for something else in a poetic way, like saying “Jesus is my rock,” or “My teacher is a real dragon,” or “My best friend is totally a chicken” Unless your best friend actually is a chicken, of the clucking, egg-laying, feathered variety.

So – metaphors – Paul really likes them. Remember, he’s the one who said we are the body of Christ. He like sports metaphors, too – running a race, competition, and objects - military armor, buildings. Jesus used metaphors, too – lots of them. In that day and time, the choice of metaphor was different from what we might say. Jesus and Paul used terms and imagery that were familiar to people – grains of wheat, the vine and the branches, a great and luxurious banquet.

Metaphor can capture the imagination in a way that direct speech might not. But it can also go astray, if we aren’t careful! If I mention apples this morning, some of you will think fruit and others of you will think of phones, laptops and music players. I’m going to do that, mention apples, and trust that you will think of fruit. Because today’s metaphor is all fruit, no technology.

And as you heard, this scripture concerns the fruit of the Spirit. Paul is using this metaphor in a powerful way, since in this letter one of the issues he addresses is the question of who is part of the church and who is not. The first big controversy Christians faced was whether or not a person had to be Jewish in order to become Christian.

Paul has addressed this issue before. In the letter to the Romans, he used a metaphor of branches grafted onto trees, saying that these Gentile believers were the wild branches that had been grafted onto the cultivated tree of Israel. The art of grafting branches from one tree to another was well known in the first century, and had been around since at least 300 years before the time of Christ.[2] Grafting lets you have more than one variety of fruit on the same tree. You can graft branches and have several kinds of apple, all on one tree. Paul asserted that Gentiles don’t need to become Jewish to become Christian, but the question remains for them, how do we know who is Christian, then? And what rule guides our lives, if it is not the Mosaic law of Torah?

Paul is very clear – there is one gospel, and that is Christ, crucified and risen. Those who have followed Jesus will be known not by the outward signs and symbols of the observance of the law, but by the fruit they bear. Just like you can tell an apple tree by the apples hanging on it, you can identify where the Holy Spirit has been by these fruits listed in Galatians chapter five.

An interesting thing about fruit trees: even though you can graft branches onto a tree, it takes an entire tree to grow the fruit. You can’t grow an apple very well with just a branch full of blossoms. You need soil, and pruning, and rain and weather. And if you want a fruit tree to produce, it takes time, and changing seasons – not just the warmth of spring and the heat of summer, but the chill of autumn and winter’s snow.

You may already know that a fruit tree produces fruit for a purpose. That crisp red apple, so sweet and tasty, is not a random happening. That apple is there on the tree so that you – you and all sorts of animals – will want to eat it. It is beautiful and appealing so that some creature will pick the apple, eat it, and leave the seeds somewhere where they might have a chance to grow, to make a new apple tree.

And that tree, in its time, will grow apples of its own, and the apple tree will continue for generation after generation. When the tree bears love and peace, joy, patience, kindness… those who are hungry for such things will accept them, and a seed can be planted – a seed that can create a place for love to grow. It is all about the survival of the species.

Or in our story, with our tree of faith, it is all about the passing on of the Christian faith, growing fruit, planting seeds, handing on that love that grew in us. And we’ll just stretch this metaphor a little bit more before it breaks apart. The tree in Paul’s metaphor is not just you or me or one person. He’s not talking about individual works, but about the character of community. So the fruit of the Spirit is not works, though actions might make visible such things as love or joy or peace. But the fruit of the Spirit is a list of character traits, akin to the Roman virtues, traits that make it clear that we belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ and no other.

These are not heroic, unheard of qualities, but the attributes of our particular kind of life:
· love: the ability to care for another as deeply as we do for God and self;
· joy: the abiding quality of happiness and gratitude in every circumstance;
· peace: a peace which passes understanding, that blesses those who curse us and prays for enemies, forgiving and reaching out;
· patience, that blessed quality that is the basis of forbearance, patience that lets differences be so that connection can thrive;
· kindness: the ability to speak truth in love, to offer acceptance to all;
· goodness: the true righteousness that only God can give – not just good-deed doing but walking in goodness;
· faithfulness: fidelity to our Lord and Savior, unswerving loyalty to love;
· gentleness: non-violence, in soul and mind and body, a way of being peace in the world,
· self-control: perhaps the most challenging – the ability to manage our own feelings and desires, acknowledging every part of ourselves and choosing how we will act.

That fruit is borne not only by individual branches, but by the whole body of believers, the entire tree, as it were, all the branches.[3] Let’s face it, not one of us can bear all of these fruits all the time. Most of us can manage some of them most of the time, but who, really, can produce, on a daily basis, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? That’s why we need the church, the whole church. Not just our congregation, but Christ’s church worldwide.

None of us, as individual branches, can bear all that fruit. But all of us, as the tree, can do it, because the Holy Spirit is within us and around us, these fruits can grow. And when they do, may those who are near us know us by our fruits, and may those who hunger for love taste and see that God is good.


[1] Jennifer L. Lord. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 41