Sunday, November 30, 2014

Something to Look Forward To

Luke 1:5-25; Ruth 1
November 30. 2104
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Ruth, Chaper 1

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there. But Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband. Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the LORD had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah. Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, "Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the LORD deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the LORD provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband."

Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. But they replied to her, "No, instead we will return with you, to your people." Naomi replied, "Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the LORD's will has come out against me."

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, "Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law."

But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you."

When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it. So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem. When they arrived at Bethlehem, the whole town was excited on account of them, and the women of the town asked, "Can this be Naomi?" She replied to them, "Don't call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?"

Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her from the territory of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Luke 1: 5-25
During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord's commandments and regulations.  They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old.

One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord's sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.

An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord's eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old."

The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in God's presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn't believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen."

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn't speak. When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home.

Afterward, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept to herself for five months, saying, "This is the Lord's doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people."

You have to wonder how Naomi could have had any hope at all, even the hope of returning home. They’d hoped, she and Elimelech, for a better life in Moab. They were immigrants, fleeing the famine, hoping for a better life in a new land. Their hometown, Bethlehem, had always been a place of plenty. The very name means “house of bread.” Moving to the foreign land of Baal worshipers must have been difficult. They’d hoped, the two of them, for prosperity in Moab, for themselves and their sons, even in such a strange culture. They’d hoped for grandchildren, after their sons married, hoped for children who would be faithful sons of the covenant, carrying on the family name.

But there were not children at all. And now their sons were dead. But even in Moab, Naomi still trusted the God of Israel. She still believed in home, in Bethlehem. Naomi cared for her daughters in law, cared enough to set them free and send them home to hope for another marriage, while they were still young enough to bear children. There was no point in them staying with her – no hope for them with a widow woman who would go back to Bethlehem and throw herself on the mercy of whatever kinsman might take her in.

I will return to Bethlehem, she told Ruth and Orpah. You should return to your fathers and mothers. I am returning home, and you should go home as well. Orpah obeyed. But Ruth stayed. Please, do not make me leave you, she said. Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, she said. Your God will be my God. Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, to return to a place she had never actually been.

When they arrived at Bethlehem, the women of the town asked, “Can this be Naomi?” But she was no longer Naomi, no longer the woman whose name means “pleasant.” She was now Mara, which means “bitter.”

It is hard to imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth might have retained any real hope. They were getting on in years, and still no children. But he wasn’t heartbroken, not in despair. He had his vocation, both from his own family line and through Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. The priests served in groups in the temple, two weeks out of each year. And each time, one of them was chosen by lots to go into the holy of holies, the inner altar. On this day, Zechariah had been the chosen one. It was a once in a lifetime event, a privilege he had waited for, hoped for. He took the incense into the sanctuary.

That was when it happened. The angel appeared suddenly, unexpectedly. But who would expect an angel, after all? The angel said that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a baby, and that they would name him John, and he would be a joy and delight, great in the Lord's eyes, filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. The angel said that this baby would turn Israelites back to the Lord their God, would go forth before the Lord, would be equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. This baby, the angel said, will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, would turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zechariah was unsure.
This was impossible!
“I am old,” he said.
“I am Gabriel,” the angel replied.
Zechariah could not even tell what had happened to him, there in the holy of holies, could not tell what the angel had said. But before long, unexpectedly, Elizabeth was expecting.

Hope – the traditional focus for the first Sunday of Advent. We await the coming of the Christ child, the extraordinary story of God taking human form, coming to bring hope, to bring redemption. Which of us has reason to hope, in these dark days?

Just look around us:
The protests in Ferguson, turning violent and destructive, in reaction to the violent death of a young African American man. Now there’s the sad story that Michael Brown’s church in Ferguson was burned to the ground. Forty three students disappeared in Mexico, probably dead, victims of a criminal conspiracy that involved public officials. Five dead and thirty three wounded in a suicide attack in Kabul. Radical Islamic fundamentalists beheading captive Americans. In Jerusalem, where Zechariah served at the temple all those years ago, four Israelis shot dead at worship in the synagogue. In Bethlehem, where Naomi returned with Ruth, the Israeli army blocked tunnels that connect villages to Bethlehem, causing concerns that it was another step in Israel's plans to annex the area, stoking frustrations and blocking access to schools, hospitals, friends and families. Violence is increasingly common in the area with religious Jewish settlers "torching" olive trees and hassling residents.[1]

With news like this coming in every day, who could feel hopeful? 
What kind of future can we possibly expect? 
How can anyone among us hold out any hope for the days to come?

We could, like Naomi, sink into despair, call ourselves bitter, not pleasant. We could, like Zechariah, argue with God’s messenger, explain carefully how this promised hope is simply impossible.

But wait. 


It is Advent, a season of waiting. I knew a little girl once, (she’s a grown woman now) a child whose life was difficult, sometimes chaotic. Things at home were troubled; her father was an addict, unreliable, violent. They were barely getting by, and there were so many things they needed. But she would ask her mom, when things were bleak, “Mom, what do I have to look forward to?”

And her mom would get out the calendar – there’s your party at school, she’d say, or your birthday, or Christmas. You’re invited to go bowling next week, or we’re going out for milkshakes – whatever small positive events she could find, until her little girl could smile again. Because that child knew that she could make it, could get by, as long as she had something to look forward to –something to wait for; something to hope for.

Hope is the belief that something better is going to happen.
Hope is the belief that there IS something to look forward to, something better coming.

Naomi had reason to feel bitter, to be sure. Life had dealt her a long series of blows, hard blows – famine, immigration, widowhood, losing both sons, no grandchildren. She was penniless and far from home. But there was Ruth, Ruth, whose name means “friend.” Ruth’s friendship to Naomi was more than casual. Ruth was willing, because of her love for Naomi, to turn from her beliefs and adopt the faith of Naomi, the God of Israel. Ruth’s lovingkindness, her willingness to turn away from Moab, and turn toward a place where she would be a foreigner, was the first small glimmer of light, there in Naomi’s dark despair. That love and trust was a hint of hope for a future for them both, women alone in what was, quite literally, a no-man’s land- widows, displaced, refugees, without protection. But what Ruth sensed, somehow, in that place in-between, was that the God of Israel, and her mother in law’s faith, would not let them down. There was something, something to look forward to. Because Ruth could hope, there might be hope for Naomi.

We can be fairly certain, the way the story is told, that Elizabeth and Zechariah had long since given up any hope of ever having a child. Who knows whether Zechariah found a way to tell Elizabeth what the angel had said? We can be fairly sure, though, that both of them knew the prophecies, knew that no prophets had arisen in the land since the time of Malachi. They’d have known the prophecies in Micah, that said: “As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah's forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; he will become one of peace.” (Micah 5: 2-5) This unexpected pregnancy, no doubt so surprising to them both, marked a turning of the people, a hope that they would return to God, even as Naomi returned to Bethlehem. 

Now in this in-between time, not yet Christmas, but Advent, a time of waiting and penitence, a time of preparation, we too turn toward Bethlehem. We turn toward Bethlehem, as did Naomi and Ruth, looking for hope.

But it is only the first chapter.
The barley harvest is not yet completed.
There is still more to the story.

As we wait with Zechariah, we hear faintly the voice of the angel, telling us of the one that will be born, who will prepare the way for the Messiah. But the birth of John the Baptist is still yet to come. Zechariah is mute, and Elizabeth has not delivered. 
There is still more to the story.

So, we wait.
Things may look bleak today, but there is still more to the story.
Christ is at work in the world and we await his coming.
God is here, in the already and the not yet.

So we wait, not idly, not silently.
We wait, because the one who is coming has not yet arrived.
We are not idle, because there is work to be done to prepare for his coming.
We are not silent, because there is good news to share.
good news of hope for everyone in this weary old world.

We have hope, and God has promised us that hope does not disappoint.
We have hope because Christ has come, and is coming again.
We have hope that redemption will happen, for God has promised it.
We have hope because we have one another,
We wait in hope, live in hope, pray in hope, sing in hope.
It is the hope of salvation, and glory and peace,
because God calls us back toward Bethlehem,
to return to God,
to trust God’s promise,
to love God’s world.

The hope of the world is coming.
And that is something to look forward to.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

This Generation

1 Timothy 6: 17-19
November 23, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we complete our stewardship season this year, and prepare to dedicate our pledges, the selected Scripture reading is pretty short. It comes from the book of 1st Timothy, a letter to the church that was presumed to have been written by Paul, but was probably actually from a later writer. First and Second Timothy and Titus are often neglected books, in part for the directives about women which, taken in a modern context, are restrictive and oppressive. But the books were written to help churches order their lives. These books are source material for much of the way churches now organize and govern themselves. So this brief directive near the end of 1st Timothy comes in a larger context, a set of instructions about how to be church in this generation.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us today from 1 Timothy 6:17-19

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. 

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

Since our stewardship theme this year was “Generations of Generosity” I thought it might be helpful for us, as we look at these verses, to review the generations we considered in the past few weeks. One of the underlying ideas for this series was that all of our stories make up the generations of generosity that characterize our church. So we have been attending to the stories of God’s word, and our own stories.

We started with that story of the supplies for the temple, “Heaps and Plenty.” You remember that? I will never forget it. It was the first and only time I’ve ever seen a congregation cheer for that under-appreciated character from the book of Chronicles – Hezekiah! Yeah, let’s give it up for Hezekiah! He was the Old Testament leader who cleaned up a rundown temple, straightened up the teaching, restored order and made sure that the people supported their place of worship. 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.

The next story we had came from the book of First Kings, the story of Elijah, on the run from Jezebel. Elijah lived by the wadi and was fed by ravens until the drought dried up the stream. So he went to Zarephath, in Sidon, as God commanded. There, God’s prophet was cared for by a widow who was down to the last of her oil and meal. She was ready to cook one small cake, feed herself and her son, and then lie down and die. Elijah came to her asking for some bread, which she baked for him, and the oil did not run out, nor the meal, and they ate and were sustained until the drought had ended.

It’s a compelling story of God’s provision, a story Jesus quoted to remind the people how God uses all kinds of people with whatever they have. Since it was our anniversary celebration, we also heard some of the stories of our generations. All of our own stories of our congregation are, after all, pieces of that bigger story. So we recalled that service on November 4, 1844, when union services were held, each family bringing its own candle to light the church. Each family from every part of town, from other denominations, brought their own small light, until the whole sanctuary was aglow. The following Sunday, the story was about a later generation, and another widow, during the time of Christ. Jesus watched as rich people put large sums into the treasury, and as a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, everything she had, all she had to live on.

We heard the stories of two other widows, from our generation, who gave all that they had on behalf of others. We reflected on the small change the widow brought, and the need for small change in each of us. We continued last week with a story Jesus told, a parable, a story intended to make us think and reflect. Do you remember – it was about the owner of a vineyard who hired people through the day, then paid them all the same. We rejoiced in the reality that God is not fair, and God does not give us what we deserve.

Now we come to this passage in first Timothy, a tiny excerpt from a letter to the young church, giving order and direction to them, even as Hezekiah ordered the temple all those hundreds of years before. This address is not to those whom we would consider the one percent. They are wealthy beyond our wildest imaginings. These words are aimed at people who are rich compared to most others in the world, people with ample resources who have the freedom to make decisions about how they will use those resources, people who are comfortably well off, people like us.

Well, actually, people like us if you mean the generations up to and including the baby boom. The generation born during and just after the Depression in the 1930s were certainly upwardly mobile, after the severe privations of their childhood. This generation –my generation – the baby boomers - are those born after World War II up to about 1965. We’re the big bulge in the population charts. We’re the big bulge in everything – schools, colleges, jobs, and now Social Security and Medicare recipients. We’re the ones who have that song – “Talking “Bout My Generation.” We are more likely than any generation before to exceed our parents in wealth and upward mobility.[1]

But after that, if we talk about this generation as Generation X - those born between 1965 and 1980, we find people with higher family income, but less wealth.[2] That’s because their debt, on average, is six times higher than that of their parents. And for those born after 1980, the Millenials, the financial future is even more uncertain. So when we talk about “generations of generosity” we have to consider that each generation’s generosity looks different.

Jesus talked about his own generation, and not kindly. He called them a generation of vipers, a wicked and corrupt generation. Our text addresses the generation after that – the people in the first century church, people of moderate means. You’ll notice that the reading does not direct church members to sell everything they have and give the money to the poor. “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,”

The wealth of a generation, in God’s kingdom, is the wealth of good works, sharing and generosity. The writer of this text understood the culture and beliefs of that generation. They were surrounded by Stoics and Cynics – the philosophical schools, not the traits named after them! Those philosophers taught that contentment and simplicity were high virtues. They cautioned against greed and social climbing. In the same way, the young church, newly formed and finding its way, cautioned its members against acquisitiveness, or miserliness.

This teaching was more purposeful than those Stoics and Cynics, because it came with a reason, two reasons, actually - a rationale greater even than the common good. Our true wealth is in generosity and good works and sharing, the writer of Timothy says, first for the future - the treasure of a good foundation for the future; second for the present – that we may take hold of the life that really is life. Generation after generation, the layers of righteousness accumulate. Sure, there are some sad and even tragic stories in the history of Christianity.

But the aim, the core, has ever been the same, for faithful people, in whatever generation. For Hezekiah, it was a blessing for the people as they piled up gifts and heaped up their gratitude, a blessing for today, and for the future generations. Like them, we know that because God who is so generous, and God in Christ has given so much to us, it is easy to give our time, our lives, our gifts, and our love.

For Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, generosity was a testament to the assurance of God’s provision. What little the widow had, she shared with God’s prophet, and it became plenty, enough to sustain them. The same truth sustains us, in this congregation, where all our individual lights gather to set the world aglow. We bring our pledges today, and whenever we give to our church, for the future generations, those Presbyterians who are yet to come, yet to be part of this congregation.

And like the widow who gave her all, we bring our pledges knowing that we will receive much more than we give: a small increase in our generosity results in a big increase in our joy; a small increase in our budget means a big increase in what we do for others; a small increase in pledges leads to a big increase in our love.

We bring these gifts in gratitude for God’s grace and justice. We do not bring our gifts to show off, or to curry God’s favor. We bring from our hearts, whatever we can give, trusting that God will use them to restore what was broken, to fill what is empty, to find what was lost and bring it home rejoicing.

We bring our gifts for the work of the church in this time, for this people, and for ourselves, that we may store up treasure in heaven so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.

We bring our pledges with hopes for the future, hopes that through the power of God, this church will stand for generations yet to come, as a testimony to the grace and mercy and love of Christ for all time and for all people, now and forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen!



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Unfair Justice

Matthew 20:1-16
November 16, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Matthew 20: 1-16

1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, "Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard.' 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9 When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

It just isn’t fair.

There’s no other way to say it. It isn’t fair that someone who works from sunup to six pm gets a day’s wage, and someone who works one hour gets the same wage. That isn’t fair. Maybe you can make a case for the people who came to work at nine in the morning. That’s still a pretty good day’s work, maybe worth a day’s pay. Maybe even the people who came to work at noon, and worked until six.

The people who heard this story, when Jesus first told it, would have identified most strongly with the workers who started early. They’d have known that a denarion, a day’s pay for a laborer, was just barely enough for living another day – enough to eat, to get by. There was no such thing as the eight-hour day; no 40 hour weeks. You started working when the sun came up and stopped when it was supper time. So after you had put in twelve hours in the hot sun, you’d be understandably put out that someone who worked one hour was getting exactly the same pay as you.

“Dangit!” you’d think – “I should have slept in, had some breakfast, done some washing, then started work this afternoon.” It isn’t fair that an employer would pay everyone the same, no matter when they started working. Jesus knew it when he told the story.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells this story to the disciples just after a young man has come to him asking “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come and follow him. The young man went away grieving, and Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples are troubled by this. Who then can be saved? they ask Jesus. He tells them that all things are possible with God. Then Peter, still working this out, says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

And then he tells them this story.

They’ve asked a sincere question of him – “What’s in it for us?”
And he has answered with this parable.

Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. It’s like this, he says, or like this other thing. The young man wants to know what good deed he has to do in exchange for eternal life. Peter wants to know what he and the other disciples are going to get in exchange for all they have given up, in payment for all they have done for him. The disciples have been with him from the first; they came with him right when he called them, and they’ve stuck with him. They haven’t had a day off or a vacation from following him. They’ve left their homes and families and gone with him wherever he went. They’d like some assurance that the work they are doing is worth something. They’d like to know that their sacrifices matter. They’d like to know that this kingdom of God he keeps saying is at hand really is going to materialize.

They haven’t yet grasped what is more apparent to us now, in retrospect, about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom. Jesus keeps talking about it, but they can’t quite make sense of it. Is the kingdom at hand, here, now? Or is about to be realized, when he takes over in Jerusalem, throws out the Roman occupiers, and establishes himself on David’s throne? Or is it a kingdom still to come, far off, in the afterlife, in actual heaven? What the disciples haven’t understood is that the kingdom is here and now, whenever and wherever people do the will of God. And the kingdom is also future, on that day when there is a new heaven and a new earth, when God redeems and renews all creation.

So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” they pay close attention, but it doesn’t make any sense to them.

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out to hire workers. Landowners don’t go out to hire workers for their vineyards. They send their stewards – their managers. When they go hire workers, they get all they need and then they’re done. They don’t keep going back to the market place, picking up losers and sluggards and sinners, bringing them all back to work in the vineyard without paying any attention to the time. Landowners don’t pay everyone the same – at least not landowners who are fair! A fair man would give a greater reward to those who work more, and a lesser reward to those who do less.

If God were fair, everybody would be rewarded, according to the number of good deeds they do. Then we could go ask Jesus, like the young man in the story, “How good do I have to be, to be part of the kingdom of God? What kind of work do I need to do to earn salvation from you? How much do I need to give, or give up, to know the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answered him and told him to give up everything. And that isn’t fair either.

Because God isn’t fair.
God is just.
And God’s justice isn’t like human justice.

A few years ago, I read a story about a woman whose son was murdered. Her boy was only twenty, his killer only sixteen. It was a street fight, and at the end of it, her son, her only son, was dead. The boy who killed him was tried as an adult. He went to prison. Justice was served, she thought. “He was an animal. He deserved to be caged,” she said at his sentencing. ‘If my son would have taken your life for the same reason you said you took his, I would expect him to have to pay the costs. So I expect you to have to pay the costs.’”[1]

But the mother was a Christian, and after some years, she went to visit the boy who killed her son. He didn’t want to see her at first, didn’t want to look again into the face of the grieving woman he had seen in court. Didn’t want to face the reality of her grief. But Mary persisted. And eventually, O’Shea met with Mary. She said that forgiveness was necessary, that it did not diminish what he had done. Eventually, O’Shea came to think of Mary as the mother he had not had. And Mary began to think of O’Shea as a son. When he was released from prison, Mary helped him find an apartment. Next door to her. He looks out for her, now that she is retired from her job as a teacher’s aide. And she looks out for him.

What struck me about this story, as I read it online again this week, were the comments that people made. Most of them, like you’d expect, said, “What a wonderful story.” Many of them said, “I could never do that.”

But some of them said, “What is wrong with her? How could she do that?”
How could anyone forgive the person who killed their only son?
How could she love someone who did that?
How could she reward him by helping him that way?

Of course we know what is wrong with her. She met the one who said “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” The one who said “love your enemies and pray for those who curse you.” She met the God who is not fair, but whose justice restores the broken heart. She met the one who, when asked, “What’s in it for me?” answered, “Everything. Everything is in it for you.” She met the God who is not fair, who does not give everyone what they deserve, or reward us according to our merit.

The owner of the vineyard goes out to seek workers, and if they are willing to come, the Lord of the harvest will pay them – not according to what they deserve, but according to his own generosity. It just isn’t fair.

It makes no sense whatsoever, unless you know something about the mind of God.
It isn’t fair that God would love us just because we are alive. It isn’t fair that Jesus would heal and restore the sick and the broken. It isn’t fair that the worst, most horrible, heinous sinner in the world receives at God’s throne of justice the same grace and mercy as the best Christian you’ve ever met. God’s justice doesn’t take us to court, determine our guilt or innocence, then either punish us or let us go.

God’s justice restores what was broken,
fills what is empty,
finds what was lost,
and rejoices.

God’s justice looks at a world of wayward, self-centered people and says, “I think I’ll come and be one of them.” God’s justice in Jesus Christ proclaims release to the captive, sight for the blind, healing for the sick, rest for the weary. And when those blind, sick, restless people killed God’s son, God’s justice offered forgiveness, offered love, offered life. Not for what they had done, not for what they could do, but simply out of grace and love.

What are you going to do with a God like that?
What kind of gifts can you offer a God who gives everything?
Just your time, maybe.
Just your life, maybe.
Just your love, maybe.
And it will never be enough.
It is just not fair.

And thanks be to God for that.



Sunday, November 9, 2014

Small Change

Mark 12:38-44
November 9, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This third Sunday of our Stewardship Season, we continue to explore the Generations of Generosity in our faith history. Last week, we were in the Old Testament, as the widow of Zarephath shared the last of her meal and oil with the prophet Elijah, and through God’s provision, she did not run out. We saw how what we bring, though it be only a little, can be made into plenty by God’s mighty power.

This week, we hear about yet another widow who gives her all. But this is a different widow, in a different context and a different generation. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the last time, riding into town on the back of a donkey to shouts of “hosanna!” And before long he will be arrested and executed. He has been challenging the leaders with his actions and his words. Just before this widow comes to give her offering, Jesus says:

"Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

And then comes this widow, a faithful Jew, who brings her offering to the temple as Jesus watches. Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in the gospel of Mark, chapter 12:40-44:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

When I preach a familiar story like this one, I go back to my old sermons, to make sure I don’t repeat myself, and to find anything that bears repeating. Turns out you’ve heard this story before -- in 2009, and 2012.

In both sermons, I shared stories of generous widows in our day and age. One was about Doris, who was sent to Kenya by her tiny Presbyterian church, a trip made on donations and fund-raisers, money raised at church bake sales and car-washes. On her last day in Kenya, Doris gave her last $10 to the church offering, the $10 she had been saving in her billfold – her “mad money” stashed away for an emergency reserve. (1)

The other story was of Oseola McCarty, an elderly widow who lived in poverty, who made her living as a washer woman. She had saved every penny she could from the time she left 6th grade and began working. When she made out her will, her banker gave her ten dimes, representing 100 percent of her estate, and asked her to use the dimes to show him what percentages she wanted to give, and to whom. She slid the dimes around the banker’s desk, putting aside one dime – a tithe- for her church, one dime for each of her three living relatives, and six dimes for scholarships to Southern Mississippi University. That sixty percent of the widow woman’s estate amounted to $150,000. Seeing her generosity, others gave more, and even Ted Turner chipped in a billion dollars.(2)

I wanted to remind you of those widows, because this story so easily becomes a distant fable, so far removed from us that even placing it in its larger context doesn’t help us relate to it. You thought last week’s widow of Zarephath story was far-fetched? This widow has two coins. All the money she has to her name. And she has just dropped them in the church treasury. Donated them to the general fund, undesignated, unrestricted.

Jesus has been warning those who will hear him about the fancy proud folk who dress nice and pray loud, who make a big show of their giving, those who donate a large, beautiful object to be on display, and put a plaque on it to remind everyone of their generosity. I’m not talking about memorial gifts, I’m talking about show-off giving. We don’t see much of that around here, but I’ve been in churches where everything in the building bears a brass plaque – the furniture, the pictures, the computer, the desk, even the vacuum cleaner! You halfway expect that if the preacher turns around you’ll see a plaque stuck to her backside.

“This preacher paid in memory of Great-Aunt Ethel.”

Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about plaques, or designated gifts. But he has a lot to say about people’s intentions in giving. Because as usual, Jesus is worried more about the inward than the outward. And as we look at this story of the widow and her two small coins, it will help us to know what was happening before and after this vignette. As I mentioned, in Mark’s gospel, in this 12th chapter, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the last time. He entered to shouts of “hosanna!” and before long, he will hear shouts of “crucify him!”

So we are seeing here his final actions. We are hearing him say the things that pushed the authorities to arrest him. He has thrown the money changers from the temple. He has argued about the resurrection and the life to come. He has skillfully avoided entrapment in the question about paying taxes, taking a coin with Caesar’s image and saying, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” And he has answered a very sincere question about the greatest commandment. A scribe who had been listening to him teach approached and asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Obviously, there are scribes, and then there are scribes, because just a few verses later, Jesus is warning the disciples to beware of the scribes, the highly religious and righteous men, with their very long robes and their very long prayers, and their public displays of benevolence.

Then comes this widow with her offering. And she raises some questions for us.
Had they devoured her house, cheated her out of her meager wealth?
Why was one so poor not being cared for by the religious community?
Was she at the same point of despair as the widow we read about last week,
who planned to use up the last of her resource and then wait for death?
Was she looked down upon because of her poverty?

It has ever been true, apparently, that some people equate wealth with God’s approval, and assume that those who are rich are deserving of their wealth. In fact, surveys of wealthy people show that they believe they are rich because they deserve to be. They can’t say why, but obviously they have a lot of money because they are better than all the rest of us. The corollary assumption then, is that those who are in poverty are morally inferior, don’t work hard enough, or are simply wasteful. They are poor because they deserve to be poor.

That’s a mite harsh position to take, but it has its advantages. It frees you from any responsibility to those who are less fortunate. You don’t need to care for them, or be generous toward them. Because if they are poor, it’s their own fault. Too bad for them. That attitude, prevalent as it is, runs contrary to God’s will and to every teaching in the entire Bible. If we are indeed the Christian nation that so many people say we are, we would do well to show the kind of generosity to the poor that the scriptures command. Not out of duty, nor out of superiority, but out of love. If we can’t whomp up enough love for the actual people in poverty, maybe we can care for them because we love God. And because Jesus told us to.

I think that’s why this widow with her two coins, and those other widows, Doris and Osceola, capture our imaginations so powerfully. Not the quantity of their gifts– two coins, ten bucks, $150,000— but the intention of their generosity. Their gifts were motivated by a powerful love of God, and given with gratitude and joy. Two copper coins is small change nowadays even as it was then. For most of us, $10 is not all that much to give. And for a rich guy like Ted Turner, $150,000 probably doesn’t seem like much. It’s all about our perspective, isn’t it?

And when it comes to giving to our church, most of us could use a small change to our perspective. Most of us – I certainly do – have at least a little struggle as we consider our pledges. We think that a small change in what we give couldn’t possibly make that much difference. We might pray that God will make a small change in our hearts, so that we can be more generous, more easily. Maybe we hope for a small change in our personal finances so that we feel more comfortable as we make our pledge.

But God isn’t keeping score with money, nor is God rewarding some people with wealth and punishing others with poverty. God keeps pouring out blessings and lavishing love on us, rejoicing with us in every small change we can make in the world through our faithfulness.

So I hope you’ll join me in praying for small change this year – and for big changes, too:
a small increase in our generosity, and a big increase in our joy in giving;
a small increase in our budget, and a big increase in what we do for others;
a small increase in pledges, and a big increase in our love –
for God, for neighbor,
for this world so much in need of change.
Thanks be to God for small change.


(1) Laurie McKnight, personal correspondence, 2009.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Only a Little

November 2, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

1 Kings 17:1-16

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. " The word of the Lord came to him, saying, "Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there. "

So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you. " So he set out and went to Zarephath.

When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand."

But she said, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth."

She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

Elijah the Tishbite, prophet from Gilead, is not exactly a ladies’ man. Ahab, the king, has taken a wife who is a worshiper of Baal, and has turned to worshiping Baal himself. Baal, when given sufficient sacrifices and offerings, is the maker of rain. But the God of Israel has sent Elijah to speak to Ahab. Elijah has pronounced that there will be no more rain in the land until God says so - not only no rain, but not even any dew. So much for Baal giving rain. It is going to be a very dry season.

Jezebel calls her minions and tells them to round up the livestock and find them some water, so they will not die. Later in First Kings, we find out that Jezebel is so infuriated by Elijah that she calls her minions and tells them to round up the prophets, and have them all killed. So you can imagine where Elijah is on Jezebel’s list. He has to leave Sidon, so he crosses the Jordan, going away from the promised land, and goes out into the wilderness.

He finds there a wadi, a deep, rocky ravine with a brook running through it, and there the ravens feed him and he has water to drink. Not optimal, but it beats execution at the hands of Jezebel. Then the wadi dries up, and God tells him to head into town, into Zarephath, in Sidon, where God has commanded a widow to feed him. Already, things are not making sense.

Who wants to rely on an isolated brook for water in a time of drought?
Who wants to have food brought to them by birds who eat carrion?
-- birds that are unclean according to the law of Moses?
Who wants to rely on a widow, who, being without a husband to support her,
and unable by law to have inherited anything, is destitute by definition?
How can you count on God for provision and support under these circumstances?
And why is God choosing these ridiculous sources to provide?

But it is almost formulaic – God speaks to someone, tells them to do something that makes no sense, and they do it! So Elijah leaves the dried up wadi and the raven cafĂ©, and heads toward the town of Zarephath. We’re not told how he knew which widow to hit up, but he gets to town and sees a woman gathering sticks. He asks for water and she goes to bring it to him, and then he adds, “could you bring some bread, as long as you’re going?”

Umm…. what?

It’s hard to know if she had thought through her plan, and this was the first time she had spoken of it out loud, or if it simply came to her as she answered him. But her plan was grim and sad – cook the last bit of meal she had, feed her son and herself, and then lie down and wait to die. The sticks she was gathering were for the fire, the last cooking fire she intended to make, for the last bread she intended to eat. She had only a little, not enough to share. But Elijah said, “Don’t be afraid. You can go ahead with your plan, but first, make a little bit of bread for me. ”

And then he made this peculiar promise: the meal won’t run out, and the jar of oil won’t empty until the drought is over. That’s an extraordinary promise. It’s hard to imagine why she would believe such a promise, from a foreign prophet representing a foreign God. Everyone knew that Baal would send the rains, when he was through being displeased with the people. Maybe she figured it didn’t matter – maybe she thought that she and her son would starve one way or the other, sooner or later. Maybe if you don’t have much, such decisions are simpler. Maybe when you have only a little, you naturally find it easier to share with someone who has nothing.

It’s also hard to figure why the God of Israel would send the prophet Elijah all the way to Zarephath in Sidon, to a foreign woman, rather than to an Israelite. In any case, the promise of Elijah’s God proves true, the oil and the meal do not run out, and the widow and her son survive.

Now, the easy thing for me to do at this point, and maybe the obvious direction to go, is to point out to you that if this widow on the brink of death can give the last tiny bit of meal and oil she has to a prophet from another country, then surely you all can increase your pledges to this church for 2015. Because, seriously, you won’t starve to death.

Then the easy thing for you to do, and maybe the obvious thing, is to smile and nod and say “good sermon, pastor” and have a piece of cake, and then on the way home, say, “That’s the way it is with churches – they just want your money. ”So let’s not do all that, ‘kay? Because doing the easy and the obvious is no fun anyway.

And I know you might have thought this story is about the widow and her son, or about the prophet Elijah and his tangle with the wicked Jezebel. But… I don’t know if the widow of Zarephath is really our model here. Yes, she shared generously out of the little she had. But maybe the relevant piece for us is that she shared without hesitation.

Maybe because we have so much, we lack that ready spirit. Maybe because we have been blessed so richly, rather than give all we can, we want to give only a little. And maybe some of us are giving enough to God to feel it, and we feel that even the most we can give is only a little.

But this story is not about them. It’s a story that is bigger, and better, than any individual story. It’s a story that stretches across generations, across centuries, millennia, even. Your story, and this congregation’s story, and this town’s story are all pieces of that bigger story.

Our congregation’s history of God’s provision began in 1844. The 1908 history of Whiteside county puts it this way: “For once the staid Calvinists seem to have got ahead of the lively Arminians, for … although the circuit rider was early on the ground and occupied on alternate 'Sabbaths the courthouse, the Presbyterians were the first to secure a local habitation and a name; the church was organized with ten members on Nov. 4, 1844: John and Maria Galt, Eliza Wilson, Mary Wallace. J. C. Woodburn, with Mary and Jane, W. H. Cole, Carlisle and Jane Mason.”

It’s interesting to see how our story is told by a historian looking back just sixty four years – writing history at a time when some of the participants were still living to tell their stories. For example: “When Mr. Stebbins was installed as the first pastor, he received the munificent allowance of $200 from the general board of the church and an equal amount in pork, potatoes, and similar dainties from the people”

Fortunately, the compensation for pastors these days exceeds $200 plus pork and potatoes! I can’t imagine what the other dainties were! But the writer goes on, and this is fascinating, and I think relevant for us today, about the installation service of the first pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sterling: “Before his [Reverend Stebbins’] installation, union services were held by the Baptists and members of other churches, each family bringing its own candle. ”

Can you imagine, then, in the early evening of November 4, 1844, 170 years ago, the families coming to the union service, families from every part of town, from other denominations, coming into the new church, each family bringing its own candle?! Each family bringing only a little light, until the whole sanctuary was aglow. each bringing only a little. Maybe that’s something to learn from the widow of Zarephath.

But maybe, just possibly, this story is about how God provides for us, in times of trouble, in times when all of life seems dry and parched, in times when a last meal and a quiet death seem like the only choice we have. God provides for us in unlikely ways, with unexpected strange birds bringing us meat and bread, with strangers who become hosts, with a meal that goes on and never runs out, with the oil running down over our heads and into our collars, anointing us with love that never stops flowing.

And as Jesus pointed out, in his first sermon at the temple, God could have chosen all sorts of people to use, but God chose this unlikely woman, a pagan and a stranger, as the focus of extravagant grace.

This table is a reflection of God’s mercy and provision,
a place where whatever we have becomes plenty, and whatever we share is enough;
a place where all the saints of every generation gather with us
to share in this cup and this bread;
a place where God’s love in Christ Jesus is poured out and never ends,
where the body of Christ gathers to remember and to be re-membered,
where all our broken-ness and separation are mended and healed and made whole;
where all our tiny little candlelights gather to set the world aglow;
where all our gifts, even if they are only a little, are made one in Jesus Christ,

We can give everything, everything, everything, and in comparison to God’s profligate, extravagant generosity, when we bring it, it will seem to us only a little.

Thanks be to God for this generous gift of life and word and provision.
To God alone be the glory!