Sunday, December 6, 2015

Blessed Among Women: The Song of Mary

Luke 1:46-55
December 6, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Luke 1:46-55
Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

You have to wonder how she could sing.

If we look at Mary, and really look closely; if we listen to Mary, and really listen closely; we have to wonder how she could sing at all. She must have been frightened and confused.

She must have wondered how she could possibly do what was asked of her. She must also have thought about the consequences, consequences that were unavoidable. It was hardly an occasion for singing.

This situation was not like our contemporary context, nor was it like any modern day story, even in the 1800s or the Victorian era. She was betrothed, to be sure, and probably most people would assume that she was pregnant by Joseph. She would not be sent to a home for unwed mothers, or pressured to give up the baby for adoption. She would simply be assumed to be expecting a child with her fiancé, Joseph. There would not be judgment for her on that score. Except for Joseph. But that would be risk enough to stop any singing.

Outside her immediate context, Mary’s world was no less troubling. Her homeland was occupied by a violent, warring empire an empire that used coercion, oppression, and torture as regular tools for controlling the populace. In Mary’s country, the government was run by those whose self interest trumped any concern for the common good, let alone any care for the poor or lowly. Her social status was very low – she was a Jew; she was female; she was young.

Essentially, Mary was powerless. The people in charge, the people who had privilege and advantage, were not likely to give up their power. The people with wealth and power were going to continue to press their advantage without concern for the poor and powerless. How, then, could Mary sing? How could she sing this song glorifying God, this song of rejoicing, this prophetic hymn of God’s power to turn the world upside-down?

With the events of recent days filling our minds and the grim sense of inevitability that now seems to come along with the news, with the frequency of gun violence and terror in our world, not just across the ocean but in our own communities, how do we sing?

How do we sing?

How do we pray?

You may have seen the headline this week on the cover of the New York Daily News:
“God Isn’t Fixing This.”

Wherever you stand politically, whatever your position on gun control, whoever you support for a presidential bid, that headline is a cry of despair: God isn’t fixing this.

As Christians, a people whose first response to tragedy is prayer, we may react strongly to the implication that our prayers are useless. As Christians we believe that our prayers, and our songs, and our faith, are the very foundation of our lives. But there it is, staring at us in huge black and white letters: God isn’t fixing this.

You can imagine that Mary and her people must have felt that way. They knew their scripture and their history. They knew the promise of God’s covenant, that they would always be God’s chosen people, that they would have a homeland, that they would know God’s favor. The promise was contingent, of course, on their faithfulness.

Mary knew that things did not go well for her people when they strayed from God’s commandments. She knew that God’s desire for them was to live with justice and mercy.

God had commanded them to care for the needy, welcome the foreigner and the outsider, to deal fairly with neighbors and strangers alike. Mary knew that God’s ideal for humanity was to live in harmony with one another and with all of creation. And surely Mary knew that this ideal was far from the reality of her life. How, then, could she sing?

And especially, how could she sing THIS song, this song of God’s power and might?
How could she magnify the Lord and rejoice in God her savior?
This song that Mary sang is so powerful, so revolutionary – how did she dare to sing it?
How could she possibly believe that God’s power would overcome the oppression, the grief, the violence, of her world?

“God has shown strength with his arm;
scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

She not only sang it, she sang it as if it had already happened!

It may seem somewhat outside our tradition, to think of Mary as a prophet, to venerate her like our Catholic brothers and sisters do. We don’t generally think of Mary except at Christmas time, and when we do think of her, we see her meek and mild, in her lovely blue, gazing at her sweet baby in the manger.

But Mary plays a huge role in our faith and in our salvation story. She is known in Christian theology as “theo-tokos,” the God-bearer. She not only answered God, “Let it be with me according to your will,” she actively participated in God’s mission of salvation.

She was a God-bearer. She carried the infant Jesus in her womb, nursed him at her breast, and raised him in her faith. And then she sent him out into the world, giving him as freely as any gift has ever been given, sending him out to a broken, violent, hostile world. And somehow, she did this with a song on her lips, the same lips that must have kissed his sweet baby toes. She could not keep from singing.

Although we are not called, as Mary was, to give birth in a literal sense, we, too, are called to be God-bearers. In this season of Advent, as we consider the gift of Jesus and what it means in our lives, we focus our attention on four themes that to some may seem ridiculous in this day and age: hope, peace, joy and love.

The world may ask how we can feel hopeful, when so much seems hopelessly out of control. The world may laugh at our words of peace, when it seems that only violence will keep us safe. The world may scoff at our joy in an event of 2000 years past, joy in a savior who seems to them to be a useless relic. The world may simply take advantage of our obedience to the call to love, thinking that we are chumps as we turn the other cheek, pray for them who hurt us, bless those who curse us, love those who would reject us, love enemies and friends alike.

In fact, there is no better time than this to sing, no better song to sing than the songs of our faith. In 1869, Robert Lowry published a little song in a book called “Bright Jewels for the Sunday School.” It has been sung over and over again over the years since, and it expresses the deepest Christian hope and peace. Perhaps you recognize these words:

“My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet , tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that that rock I'm clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?”[1]

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Certainly, the world we live in may no longer hear the song of Mary, nor sing the song she taught us. Certainly, the world we live in may be too cynical to sing any song of hope or peace or joy or love. But we are God-bearers, we people who follow Jesus.

In this season, we are pregnant with hope, and we sing of Christ being born anew in us and through us. In this season, even with the conflict and violence that surround us, we are people who can speak of peace. We are a people who sing, for to sing is to pray twice.

Mary, mother of Jesus, was blessed among women, and because she was blessed, she could sing, even in the face of adversity. We, too, can sing of God’s graciousness, even in this frightened, hurting, and broken world. We can sing because of the gift that comes to us in this season, the gift of life, the gift of a savior, the gift of Jesus.

God IS fixing this.
We are the candles of peace lighting up the dark night of war.
We are the voices of peace ringing out into the stillness of death.
We are God-bearers.
How can we keep from singing?


[1] Robert Lowry in the 1869 song book, Bright Jewels for the Sunday School.

The Song of Zechariah

Luke 1:67-79
November 29, 2015, Advent 1
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

If you have ever waited for something –
a day to come, a friend to arrive, a phone call with the diagnosis –
if you have ever waited a long time,
waited to the point of despair,
if you have ever waited until you are about to give up,
you know how Zechariah felt.

Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah.
He was a righteous man.
He had served God faithfully since he was young.
For many years, he and his wife Elizabeth had served God,
and for many years, they had prayed for a child.
For many years, they had waited.
It was a prayer that had gone unanswered until it was too late.

They were elderly.
There was no child.

Zechariah was a good priest, a man of God.
But all of his life, he had been waiting,
waiting for a son that never would come,
waiting for a Messiah that had never arrived,
waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

The waiting had ended, but it had been replaced by a sense of despair.
Zechariah had taught the people as well as he could,
tried to lead them in the ways of righteousness and God’s law.
But the chosen people were not following God’s path as they should.
They had lost any sense of eagerness about God’s promises.
It seemed that they, too had stopped waiting, stopped hoping for a Savior,
just as he and Elizabeth has stopped hoping for a son.

Zechariah surely had observed how often people did the wrongs
they had promised not to do.
He surely had seen that the good they could do,
the good they promised to do, that they were not doing.
But Zechariah, the good pastor, continued to serve faithfully,
He offered up the incense,
and with the fragrant smoke,
his prayers lifted toward his faithful and loving God.

And then it happened.

He was terrified when the angel appeared.
But the angel said to him,
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.
You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
He must never drink wine or strong drink;
even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous,
to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’

Zechariah said to the angel,
“How will I know that this is so?
For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God,
and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
But now, because you did not believe my words,
which will be fulfilled in their time,
you will become mute, unable to speak,
until the day these things occur.”

And that was what happened.

If you’ve ever waited for something,
waited to the point of despair, of hopelessness,
you know how Zechariah must have felt.
It was too much to believe.
He was literally speechless.
How frustrating – to have such good news to share, and not be able to speak!
It would be torture for some of us!
Zechariah was unable to tell Elizabeth about answered prayers,
unable to tell her about the angel’s announcement,
unable to tell her that their son! their SON!
would be the one to prepare the way for the Messiah.
For nine long months, he would wait again.
But this time, he would wait with hope.
Zechariah must have felt the hope growing in his heart
the way the baby was growing in Elizabeth’s body.

For nine long months, Zechariah composed his song.
For nine months, until John’s circumcision,
that melody would be running through Zechariah’s mind.
It was a song born of waiting,
a song born of despair that turned to hope.
If you have ever waited,
waited in despair that turned to hope,
waited to share news that you could not tell,
waited for joy that you had thought would never come,
waited for delight to be yours,
you know what it was like for Zechariah and Elizabeth and their people.

When the waiting is done,
when the hope is fulfilled,
when the joy is real,
when the despair is vanquished,
tears fill your eyes,
you choke up,
you laugh and cry at the same time,
and when words come,
they are a song of praise and gratitude!

Just as it was in Zechariah’s lifetime,
the people of the world, the people of every nation, tribe and language
wait for a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

But we do not wait without hope!
We do not wait in despair!
Advent is a time of waiting, but we can sing, too!
When Zechariah’s tongue was loosed, he declared the message boldly!
It is the same message for us to declare!
It is the same song for us to sing,
to join our voices once again with hope, with assurance:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
It is a song of repentance and a song of hope,
a song of thanksgiving to the God of the covenant,
the God who keeps promises.
It is our song --
the song of our hearts,
a song of hope fulfilled.
It is our song, and we join our voices in hope
as we await the coming of the promised one,
the savior of the world - Christ the Lord.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Found Faithful in All

Colossians 3:12-17
November 22, 2105
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Colossians 3:12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Every now and then, I think I am very clever, and then I discover that the Holy Spirit is much more clever than I imagine. 

Last week, I was away in Dallas for a wedding. Like many young couples, they are people whose beliefs could fairly be called secular theism. That is, they believe in God as a transcendent force in the universe, and they are not against any particular belief, but they do not practice a particular religion. All that being said, it was important to them to have a wedding that included an explicit religious element. The bride is a Texan through and through, and so is the groom, except that his parents were born in Iran. They included a Persian tradition in their wedding, alongside the scripture and prayer that characterize Christian weddings. And the scripture they chose was this text, from Colossians.

So, you may be wondering, what does a wedding sermon have to do with a Stewardship sermon? Especially a stewardship sermon on pledge commitment Sunday?

A colleague of mine – call her Pastor Pleasant –told me about a wedding in which the couple planned to write their own vows. Fine, Pastor Pleasant said, but I need to see them before the wedding. Bride complied, but by the day of the wedding, the groom had not.

Pastor Pleasant finds the groom a few hours before the wedding and asks for the vows he has written. He has not written them yet, says Groom. He isn’t sure what to say.

Pastor Pleasant sighs, smiles, and says “You need to express your love for the bride,
and pledge to her your lifelong commitment.”

Groom sighs, smiles, and says, “Pastor Pleasant, my parents raised me to keep my promises.
They said that I should always keep my word, no matter what. And I’m not sure I can keep that kind of promise to Bride.”

Pastor Pleasant smiles again and says, “Then do you want to tell her, or should I tell her,
that you aren’t getting married today?”

I’m happy to tell you that Groom saw the light, and the wedding happened.

I think that in stewardship, as in marriage, the word “commitment” is the key. At a wedding, the two people pledge lifelong commitment. They promise that they will stay together no matter what. You know the vows – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. They end those vows with “so long as we both shall live.”

In the old days, Pastors would intone how marriage is a sacred commitment, “a holy ordinance, not to be taken lightly.” This is certainly the kind of commitment we look for in a marriage. It is a reflection of the commitment we make in the Christian life. It is, I hope, the level of commitment that we have to God in Christ. This text from Colossians describes to us what commitment looks like.

The first part of today’s scripture reading is like a poem, a practical but beautiful metaphor that offers us the image of an attitude wardrobe. It tells us not only what to wear to church, but what to wear to life! It is quite an ensemble:

Compassion –to empathize and share in one another’s sorrows and joys.
Kindness – which includes generosity in giving of time and gifts and money.
Lowliness –learning to live with humility toward each other,
and being able to admit that you might possibly be wrong.
Patience – the wisdom to wait, to keep silent,
and hold onto your temper, or your excellent solution to the problem.
Forgiveness – the wisdom to forgive, to reconcile, to let go of hurts,
and not keep a list of every wrong.
And above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
But the writer isn’t finished yet.
This commitment to be found faithful in every aspect of life is total.

AND let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.

AND be thankful.

AND let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;

AND teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;

AND with gratitude in your hearts
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

AND whatever you do, in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

This is absolute commitment – being found faithful in all. We are told to give our entire selves – every feeling, every thought, every action, every word – to God, in gratitude. We are asked to live like saints, to act like Jesus, with one hundred percent commitment to the Christian life. How many can testify that they do that? Anyone? I certainly can’t.

But truthfully, how many of us who are married thought we could really come through on those lifelong vows? Whether we are married or not, I think we’d agree that everyone falls short of their promises sometimes. I confess I always love Bob, but there are moments…

The same is true of our Christian commitment.
We make the promise so that we can live into it, live up to it, and keep at it. Stewardship is one part of that commitment. Commitment is a big thing, not to be taken lightly. You’ve heard that old line about the difference between involvement and commitment? Think about ham and eggs. When it comes to ham and eggs, the chicken is involved. The pig – he’s committed!

At the beginning of every wedding I officiate, I make a little speech about the covenant of marriage. Here is part of it, but I am going to substitute the word commitment:

“Contracts have escape clauses for non-performance – commitments ask us to keep on being committed to someone who may be tired, or angry, or sick, or downright aggravating, even when we are tired or angry or sick or aggravating. We keep our promises, even on days when the other person does not seem to be giving back their fair share. We pledge our commitment and promise it forever.”

The pledges we make as Christians, to God, to Jesus, and to one another, are just as serious – more serious, really, than the commitments we make in marriage. We promise fidelity – faithfulness, as long as we live. We promise to keep our commitments in every circumstance, richer, poorer, better, worse, sickness, health…

To be found faithful, we keep our commitments, with compassion and kindness and generosity and above all, love. We forgive, even when sometimes people are downright aggravating. Not that anybody here is ever downright aggravating, but you get my drift!

We make a pledge, like we make vows, out of love, and gratitude.

Sometimes we have to grow into it, other times it is easy. One thing I can tell you, from my own experience, is that stewardship takes practice. Maybe we start out just tossing a few bucks in the plate, you know, whenever.

Then we get a little more thoughtful, and we plan it – we give ten or twenty or fifty dollars
every time we are in church. One day, a light bulb goes off— hey, Christ’s work continues even when I’m out of town! So we give a regular amount on a regular basis.

Turns out it doesn’t hurt all that much.
Turns out, we like singing in the choir, going to Bible study,
helping in mission projects, even – GASP!- going to meetings!
Turns out over time, it actually feels pretty good.
Turns out, maybe we can do even better, give a bit more.
Turns out, we are fully committed.

Turns out, we learn how to be found faithful in all things.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, may we always be fully committed,
found faithful in all things. And may everything we do, whether in word or deed,
be done in the name of the Lord, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Found Faithful in Little

Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

It is the last week of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. He has gone into Jerusalem, welcomed with shouts of “Hosanna!” Now, he is continuing his work, teaching and healing, observing the life of the city and the religious people around him. As we’ve heard in the last few weeks, Jesus has had several confrontations with the religious authorities. Then, just last week, we heard about a friendly and respectful dialogue with one of them, a scribe, a teacher of the law. Now, Jesus and his disciples are in the synagogue, and he is watching people come and go. When they leave the synagogue, their next conversation will be this:

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” That will come much later, the destruction of the temple, but it is worth bearing it in mind as we listen for God’s word to us today in Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “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.”

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.”

It was stewardship Sunday at the small town church, and people were giving their testimonies. One after another people stood up to share stories of God’s faithfulness, and to share stories of generosity.

Finally, a man stood, a home town boy who had made good. “I’m a millionaire,” the boastful parishioner testified, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I can still remember the turning point in my faith, like it was yesterday: I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I had only a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give all I had to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.”

The congregation applauded, and as he took his seat a little old lady stood up, looked directly at the man, and said, “I dare you to do it again!”

I know you’ve heard that story before, but I do love telling it! In the context of this scripture you’ve heard today, the rich man is more comparable to the scribes who devour widows’ houses than to the widow woman herself. Or perhaps, when he gave that one dollar, he was like the poor widow, but when he gave that testimony, he was more like the unscrupulous scribes.

I have here two tiny coins, two actual lepta, copper coins from the 1st century. These are the same coins that are in this story – the smallest denomination of coins in existence at the time. Their value at the time was very small, but more than a penny of our time. The modern value of a lepta, relative to the standard day’s wage of a denarius could be compared to a few dollars in modern money – less than even an hour’s wage – not enough to buy much.[1]

These little coins date back to the first century, when there was no uniform coinage system in Jerusalem. These coins would have been used primarily, perhaps exclusively, by Jews. As I look at them I like to think about whose hands touched them then.

Could it have been someone who saw and spoke to Jesus?
Could it have been one of the disciples, even Jesus himself?
I wonder what they were used for – to purchase a dove for a sacrifice?
To give to the treasury? To be saved for some future giving plan?
These tiny coins have very little weight, but they did have value.

The two coins could easily represent the two parts of the great commandment – love of God, and love of others. I’ve begun to think of these coins as representing two aspects of stewardship: faithfulness and trust. Loving God is an act faith; loving others is an act of trust. The first part of this story demonstrates the opposite of those two aspects. The scribes Jesus condemns are those who are not faithful, and certainly are not trustworthy.

You can certainly think of contemporary examples, those in our time who like to be seen, those well-dressed, powerful religious figures, who like to be invited to political gatherings and rub elbows with politicians, who are the featured speakers at big events, and who arrive in chauffeur-driven limousines, and fly home in their personal jets. They like to offer lengthy prayers on behalf of the rich, and be invited to their luxurious homes. They wear custom suits, and they travel in grand style.

Back in April, the televangelist Creflo Dollar put out a call to his supporters. It seems he needed a new jet. A sixty-five million dollar jet. To share the gospel, of course. It is certainly not for me to decide, but you have to wonder if that’s the sort of thing Jesus was talking about when he said, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” I can assure you that in this congregation, we don’t have to worry about whether or not the pastor needs a jet. Truth is, I hardly even use up my mileage reimbursement!

Not much has changed, since Jesus gave this warning – there are still unscrupulous religious leaders who will use their power and status to enrich themselves rather than for the glory of God. They may sincerely believe, but are they good stewards? Are they faithful and trustworthy?

In comes this widow, this woman who has so little. She has so little, but she gives it all.
She has only two coins, two small copper coins. But she give them both – all she has.
We joked in Bible study that perhaps she only intended to put in one coin, but her hand slipped and she accidentally dropped in both of them!

I think her gift was an act of faith and trust. Her faith was in the promise of God – that God would not abandon the covenant. Remember, her gift was not an act of Christian faith, because no such thing existed. She was giving to the God of Israel, the God of the covenant, who promised that she would be cared for. She demonstrated her faith in God, and her trust that her community would follow God’s commandment to care for the widow and the orphan.

The first coin, the coin of faith, represents love and devotion to God, our faith in God’s providence and provision for us. For one who is found faithful, making a sacrificial gift is closer to the original meaning of sacrifice – to perform an act that is sacred – to do or make something holy. Our gifts of faith are not sacred in and of themselves; they are made holy in the giving. When we offer that first coin, the coin of faith, God makes it holy.

The second coin, the coin of trust, represents trust in God and in others, a love of others that rests in our faith. Maybe it is the one that is most difficult to let go of. The first coin was faith – given freely. But the second coin, giving that was an act of deep trust. This widow could give all she had, her entire substance, because she could trust in the community of faith that surrounded her, and she knew her trust would not be disappointed. It was no risk, really, no sacrifice at all, because God had commanded that widows and orphans were to be cared for.

Most of us don’t really like to talk about sacrificial giving when it comes to our stewardship pledges for the church. In fact, most of us like sacrifice best when someone else does it! We nod approvingly at this story of the widow, and we applaud Mother Teresa, or the story of any person who gives up a brilliant career in order to serve the needy. But truthfully, it is more comfortable to watch someone else do the giving.

Oh, we don’t say that! We want to be found faithful in our giving, in the way we use our money, our time and our talents. We don’t want to be stingy.

But we also …don’t….want…to give up….that second coin…

Maybe we are struggling with our faith, not sure about God,
maybe not quite willing to give that gift of gratitude and love.
Maybe we are struggling with our trust, not sure about our community,
maybe not quite certain that our gifts will be used well.

Maybe we tell ourselves that our money is going to be used to help people who don’t deserve it. We miss out on the truth that it was never our money anyway! So we try to find good reasons to hold back one of those coins, to hold back on that pledge increase,

to wait and see…

And by holding on, we lose out. We lose out on the joyful freedom of faith and trust, on the delight of seeing our small gifts multiplied into big actions. When we try to hold on tightly to our material blessings, we have to let go of the joy of generosity! When we freely let go of our gifts, in faith and trust, we learn how to hold on to gratitude and joy.

The way we learn the joy of generosity is by giving. The way we learn to be faithful is by faithful actions. The way we learn to trust is by trusting. It may start small – perhaps with pledging for the first time, or by a small monthly increase in the pledge you’ve already been making. Perhaps it is a small percentage increase, or a gradual increase. Maybe the first coin was easy, the second coin not so much. Each one of us must make that decision with God’s help. What we pray, no matter what our gifts, is that we will be found faithful – and that God will take our gifts, given in love and devotion, given in faith and trust, and make them holy. May we each be found faithful in even the smallest of gifts.


[1] Rousseau, John, Jesus and His World, an Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary. p 56.

Accessed online at googlebooks, 11/7/2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints (and All Sinners)

Mark 12: 28-34
November 1, 2015, All Saints Day
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Even though today is All Saints Day, and there are certain traditional scriptures for that observance, we are still in the gospel of Mark, following Jesus around Galilee and Judea.
Now, Mark’s gospel has brought us to Jerusalem, on the last Tuesday before the crucifixion.

Here we are, in the twelfth chapter of Mark – after what seemed like forever in the tenth chapter. The eleventh chapter brought Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem, where he was greeted by crowds laying their cloaks on the road in front of him, shouting Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

In the past few weeks’ readings, Jesus has run into some opponents, people who want to trap him, to find a way to charge him with a crime, to discredit him. Now, he meets a scribe who has a very different attitude, someone who is impressed by what he has heard, and genuinely wants to be in dialogue with this Jesus of Nazareth. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 12: 28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another,
and seeing that he answered them well, he 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.”

After that no one dared to ask him any question.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

All Saints Day!

I love this day!

In Bible Study on Wednesday, we named some saints we knew of – St. Francis, St. Anne, St. Joseph and St. Mary. After we got started, we came up with quite a list, and we even knew a lot of stories about those saints. Most of us, when we think of Saints, with a capital S, think of those so designated by the Roman Catholic church. Few of us know a lot about saints, particularly those more recently elevated to sainthood. But we know the old standards.

St. Francis, for example – hard to not know that name these days, what with Pope Francis.
Saint Francis – the one in the twelfth century, not the pope! was the son of a wealthy silk merchant who gave up his wealth and comfort for a life of poverty. He eventually formed a monastic order that lives on today – the Franciscans. I’m sure you already know that when a person enters a Roman Catholic religious order, he or she takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Franciscans take an additional fourth vow, of charity.

The other word for charity is love – agape, the love St. Paul describes in First Corinthians 13, when he says “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I have a dear friend who is a Franciscan nun. The mother house and center of her order is in Rochester, Minnesota. That order was founded back in 1877 when 25 women religious came to Rochester from Joliet to establish a new community. They were mostly teachers, but after a devastating tornado hit the area in 1883, the good sisters began to provide medical care for victims of the storm. They saw that there was a need for health care, so Mother Alfred began to pursue a doctor to come to Rochester and run a hospital that the sisters would build. The doctor was reluctant, but a persistent nun can be hard to turn down. So in the 1880s the doctor relented and came to Rochester. His name was Dr. William Mayo. Dr. Mayo and his sons are honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal church. They’re not Saints, exactly, not with a capital ‘s’ but they’re right up there!

We Presbyterians have an interesting relationship with sainthood. We honor many people with the title of saint – particularly the apostles – St. John and St. Paul, for example. Of course, we love St. Andrew, with his Scotland and Presbyterian connections. And we find the Roman Catholic Saints quite handy – St. Joseph for selling a house, St. Anthony for lost items. We Presbyterians don’t actually name anyone to the role, nor do we always add everyone canonized by the Roman Catholic church, or omit those who didn’t make the cut.

I’m quite fond of St. Christina the Astonishing, who is not an actual saint but venerated in Belgium. She did all the things you’d expect of a saint – she was holy, and devoted to God, and generous with the poor and needy. She also tended to fly up to the church ceiling from time to time, just to get away from the stench of the sinful people around her! Hence, the astonishing…

Actually, in our tradition, we consider all the baptized to be saints of God, following the Apostle Paul’s designation of us as the saints. So each one of us could add the title “saint” in front of our names. Try that on for a minute, in your head…. Sound good?

Oh, I’m not a saint, you might be saying. But if you think about what makes a saint, maybe you are. You don’t have to be astonishing! The definition of a saint is someone who is holy, someone who is devoted to God, and someone who is generous. In short, someone who follows the great commandment Jesus spoke about.

You were wondering when I was going to get to that, weren’t you?
See, most of the time we think of saints as being better than the rest of us, holier, more churchy, reading the Bible all the time, maybe living in a tiny gray cell and only coming out to go to church – every day! or to heal the sick and feed the poor. But that lets us off the hook too easily, doesn’t it? If the saints are like that, and we are not saints, then we don’t have to worry, or try very hard either.

We know, deep down, that we are all sinners.
We know, deep down, that we are not saints.
But maybe we are more saintly than we think.
Maybe we understand that better than we know.
Maybe we are kind of like the scribe in this story.

This scribe approaches Jesus and listens, and he feels drawn to this teacher.
Even though most of the other scribes don’t agree with Jesus, THIS scribe doesn’t want to argue. He is not trying to pick a fight. He wants a dialogue with this strange teacher. So he asks a question about the law, a sincere question. What is the greatest commandment?

The scribe and Jesus both know that there are a lot of commandments. Most Jews agree that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, contains 613 laws. Over the years, a lot of people have tried to sort those out, put them into categories, make them more manageable.

Some of the categories of laws are seasons, diet, marriage, employees, courts, prophecy, clothing, taxes, the temple and the king. Some Christians divide the law into categories that they say still pertain, and other categories that they ignore. In fact, most Christians do this.

Even though God’s law forbids it, I eat shrimp, for example.
And bacon. 
I eat bacon.

So the question of the most important commandment is significant to us even now, just as it was to that scribe. “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus knows that the scribe knows the law, just as he does.
The question is not one of order, but of weight, of consequence.
And when Jesus answers, he gives not one response, but two.

The first law he names is from the Shema – the law recited at every morning and evening prayer service in the synagogue – Deuteronomy 6:4
“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your might.
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children,
and you shall speak of them
when you sit at home,
and when you walk along the way,
and when you lie down and when you rise up.
And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand,
and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Love the Lord your God.
Love God so much that you talk about that love all the time, and you talk about your devotion to God with your children, and you wear that love for God like a garment, or a tattoo.

That’s part one – complete love and devotion to God.
No argument there – not from anyone!
But Jesus is not finished.
He adds the second part, from Leviticus 19:18.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The scribe is absolutely in agreement, and in fact he elaborates on the answer –
Not only is this the greatest law, but devotion to God and love of others, he says, are “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

More important than temple worship,
more important than sacrifices,
more important than dietary laws,
more important than laws about marriage,
more important than everything:
love God, and love your neighbor.

Bam. Mic drop.

When Jesus links love of God to, "Love of neighbor," he has elevated the concern for the welfare of one's neighbors above all other duties and obligations, including - gasp! - religious ones.[1] On one commandment hang all the law and prophets. Love God, love your neighbor. Above all else.

Yesterday, October 31, was Reformation Day - the 498th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed those 95 these to the door of the church at Wittenberg. The Geneva Bible, published in the 16th century, was the Bible of the Reformation, the Bible brought by the Puritans and Presbyterians who came to these shores seeking religious freedom. It was, parenthetically, the Bible that prompted King James to get his own authorized version, because the Geneva Bible was, he said, "partial, untrue, seditious,and savouring of dangerous and traitorous conceits.”[2]

It contained notes from the great saints of the Reformation – John Calvin, John Knox, Miles Coverdale. In the Geneva Bible, there is a note on this story from Mark. It says “Sacrifices and outward worship never pleased God unless we first did the things which we owe to God and our neighbours.”[3]

Sacrifices and outward worship never pleased God 
unless we first did the things which we owe to God and our neighbours.

What makes a saint?
Not church going.
Not outward piety.
Not our feeble efforts at goodness.
What makes us saints is not what we do, but what God does.

God loves us.
And because God loves us, God extends grace to us.
Most of us freely acknowledge that we are sinners.
Few of us would call ourselves saints.
But through the love and grace of God, we are made holy
and as a response to God’s grace, 
we give to God with our love and devotion.

We do so by following God’s law, in acts of generosity, holiness, and love.
Just like a saint.
Just like a sinner, redeemed by love.
Just like Jesus said.

If you can get this, really get it,
deep down in your bones,
you are not far from the kingdom of God.

Maybe you’re a saint.

Thanks be to God!


[1] [1] David Ewart,


[3] Geneva Notes

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

Mark 10: 46-52
October 25, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We continue today with the final reading from the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark. The central figure in the reading is a blind man. He cannot see, but he has a vision of being healed, and is willing to cry out for mercy to Jesus. The folk around want him to be quiet, but he won’t keep quiet. It is Bartimaeus’ initiative that opens the story, and Jesus respects him in this: “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks.

Bartimaeus: Reader’s Theater on Mark 10:46-52

Narrator: They came to Jericho.

People: Sound effects – crowd noises, a busy roadway, talking, horses, murmuring

Narrator: As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say,

Bart: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Narrator: Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

People: Hush! Be quiet! Bartimaeus, shut your yap! Stop shouting!

Narrator: but he cried out even more loudly,

Bart: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Narrator: Jesus stood still and said,

Jesus: Call him here.

Narrator: And they called the blind man, saying to him,

People: Take heart! Get up, he is calling you! Bartimaus, Jesus is calling you!

Narrator: So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

Jesus: What do you want me to do for you?:

Bart: My teacher, let me see again.

Jesus: Go; your faith has made you well.

Narrator: Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

People: Sounds of amazement, ooh, ahh

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

We heard it last week, when the two disciples approached Jesus, looking for a favor – to be the favorites, to be special. We hear it in similar form when we walk into a retail establishment – What can I do for you? How can I help you?

But I’ve jumped ahead, haven’t I – to the middle of the story.
Let’s start back at the beginning. We have been walking along with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He has been on the way throughout the last several chapters of Mark, and on the way he has told the disciples three times that when they get there, he will be arrested and executed, but will rise again on the third day. And all along the way the disciples have been unable to see what he is showing them. They are annoyingly blind to his identity and to his purpose.

We who are watching from afar, having already read the end of the story, we can see what is going to happen. But they have not yet gotten there. Jesus knows where he is going and what he is doing but those who are traveling with him cannot see it.

They have come through the town of Jericho, a town famous in Biblical history for the battle that was won there. The battle of Jericho was the first conquest made in the land of Canaan. The armies of Israel were told to surround the city and march around it with the ark of the covenant, blowing trumpets, six times for six days in a row. On the seventh day, they were told, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city.” And when they did, the walls came tumbling down.

The blind man outside the walls of Jericho had no such restrictions. He began to shout as soon as he heard Jesus come near. He was not the least bit shy about yelling loudly, even though the people around him tried to silence him. In his shouting, for the first time in this gospel Jesus is identified as the “son of David,” the promised one of Israel. The blind son of Timaeus somehow can see that this is the son of David.

Bartimaeus knows what he wants – and loudly says so:
“Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

While those around him may believe, may recognize Jesus, for some reason they want Bartimaeus to keep quiet. But he will not – this blind man sees his chance, and he is going to speak out loudly! At least, after Jesus notices and hears him, the crowd encourages the blind beggar. It doesn’t take much – Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, comes to Jesus.

He throws off his cloak, which is the one thing he owns that has any value, and he leaves his old life behind. He is not reluctant – he springs up! and comes to Jesus. If ever there was an enthusiastic participant in a come to Jesus meeting, Bartimaeus is it!

His faith gives him confidence to come to Jesus. He gives voice to his hope, and Jesus responds. Bartimaeus’ shouting and calling out for mercy, however unpopular it is with the people around him, is an act of faith, a statement of belief.

Jesus, of course, has the vision to truly see this blind man,
and in his mercy and love, asks him:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man answers simply, “My teacher, let me see again.”

And as you heard, Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

The blind man regained his sight, but he did not go – he followed Jesus on the way. On the way, of course, to Jerusalem, where others would call out to the son of David, and throw their cloaks down in front of him as he rode into the city on the back of a donkey.

Today is the day in the church year when we observe Reformation Day.
The actual date is October 31, All Hallows Eve, 1517, and it is the date on which Martin Luther gave voice to his faith and began what became the Protestant Reformation. The date – October 31, 1517, is one of the few that I insist our confirmation students memorize. It is the date when Martin Luther is believed to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg.

Martin Luther was loudly protesting the practice of selling indulgences – offering forgiveness of sins for a price – so a person of wealth could give money to the church in exchange for forgiveness of sins. The money was going for a good cause – to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But while it was a good cause, it was not a good practice. The equivalent modern practice would be to promise people that their financial gifts to a capital campaign would mean the purchase of their salvation.

It seems obvious to us now, that God’s intent for us is to repent, and that God’s salvation for us comes by grace through faith. But when Martin Luther said it, nearly five hundred years ago, the people around him wanted to hush him up. The Roman Catholic church declared him a heretic and commanded him to be silent. But he would not stop speaking, and because Luther was willing to shout out, the Reformation began and the Protestant church was born. The very foundation of that change was one person speaking out, willing to claim God’s grace, even though others objected.

The saddest part of his story is that Martin Luther’s last sermon was attended by about five people, and he died believing he had failed. The final events of his life blinded him to the message of grace and faith he had so boldly and loudly declared.[1]

In mercy and grace, Jesus asked the blind man, and asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?"

Like the crowd on the road to Jericho, 
we need to be healed of our attempts to silence those who cry out.

Like the blind man, each one of us needs to be healed. We need to be healed of our blindness to the plight of others; we need to be healed of our lack of vision; we need to be healed of our hesitance to speak.

The good news of the gospel is that the teacher, the son of David, coming down the road toward us, and he wants to heal us, to lead us, and to transform and re-form our hearts.

The good news is that there are those around us who will say “Get up! Take heart! He is calling you!”

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus continues to call us to him, asking us “What do you want me to do for you?” It is entirely a question of grace, from the one who reaches out to us with healing, the son of David, who calls us along the way and who promises us and that our faith can make us whole.

When we have known that grace, when we have been reformed by that grace,
we joyfully, willingly, and gratefully turn to Jesus and ask him, with humble hearts,

“Jesus, Teacher, what do you now want us to do for you?”


[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, October 21, 2012

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Left and Right

Mark 10:35-45
October 18, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Some of you may be aware that much of the time, our scripture selections follow a list of suggested readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. That is a three year cycle of readings selected by an international committee called “The Consultation on Common Texts.” This cycle of readings allows for a church that follows it to cover most of the Bible over a three year period. Sometimes, the readings pair up an Old Testament reading with a gospel reading, and other times there are readings from the epistles. Every week there is a Psalm. Many churches that follow the lectionary use all of the readings every Sunday. In our worship, when we are following the lectionary, we generally use only one or two of the readings.

We tend to follow the lectionary during the school year, because in Christian Education the children and youth can then be studying and learning from the same scripture lessons we use in worship. It literally keeps us all on the same page. In today’s reading we are continuing with the Gospel of Mark, and we are in the 10th chapter AGAIN as we have been for several weeks and as we will be again next week! But for some reason, the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose to leave out the verses that come between last week’s reading and this one! I’m going to include them, because with them, this story makes a lot more sense.

If you remember, all through this tenth chapter, Jesus has been on the road with the disciples. What you may not know or remember is that they are on the road to Jerusalem. If you read the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting, the tenth chapter would be the place where you begin to get a deep sense of foreboding. This tenth chapter would be the place where you would begin to realize that this journey to Jerusalem will be the last trip Jesus makes. In the very next chapter, chapter eleven, Jesus and the twelve disciples have arrived in Jerusalem, and they are untying a donkey and he is getting ready to ride into town in a parade. If that sounds like Palm Sunday, that’s because it is.

So they have been making their way to Jerusalem, and they’ve stopped a time or two for some controversy with the religious leaders, and they’ve done some preaching and healing.

And what is crucial about the part that gets left out, the part I’m going to read to you,
is that this is the THIRD time Jesus has told them this, in Mark 10:32-34

"They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again."

This little episode is called a “passion prediction” -- the THIRD one.
Each of the prior two times, they have responded with an argument! This is important, for reasons that will become clear shortly. Listen now, for God’s word to you, in today’s gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Mark 10:35-45.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him,
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
And they said to him,
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,
or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
They replied, “We are able.”
Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink;
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant,
but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.
So Jesus called them and said to them,
“You know that among the Gentiles
those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them,
and their great ones are tyrants over them.
But it is not so among you;
but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

You can see why tempers would start to fray at this point. The tension has been building for a while now. They have been traveling – walking, mind you –for several days. They have left homes, families, familiar routines, daily occupations. They have given up everything to follow Jesus, which is what they said when they protested in last week’s story. Twice before, Jesus has told them that he is going to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and that after three days, he will rise again.

The first time he told them was in Mark, chapter eight. Jesus had just fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread. He told them quite openly that he would be arrested and killed, but after three days he would rise again. Peter didn’t like this -- tried to get him to hush. Jesus answered and said “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The second time Jesus made this prediction, they were passing through Galilee, right after the transfiguration on the mountaintop, and after another miraculous healing. This time, the disciples respond by getting into an argument. They argue among themselves about who is the greatest. That was when Jesus answered them saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he set a little child among them and said “whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.” That was in chapter nine.

So, now, I’m getting really exasperated with them, because here in chapter ten, he has told them a third time, and they STILL DON’T GET IT! I don’t know how much time elapses between chapters eight, nine, and the last part of chapter ten, but it can’t have taken them years and years to pass through Galilee and across the Jordan into Judea and up to Jerusalem. Seriously – how many times does he have to tell them this?

What must have been infuriating for Jesus is that once again, after he tells them this awful and wonderful future, they start arguing about who is the top dog! I mean, REALLY!

And they are like children, asking a parent – “Will you give us what we ask?”
Jesus isn’t falling for that! He asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
(Spoiler alert – he is going to ask the blind man the same thing, next week.)

What do you want me to do for you?

Do they want a double portion of his spirit?
Do they want him to bless them?
Do they need a clarification on a fine point of the law?
Do they need a stone turned to bread, or loved one to be healed?

They want to know, “Jesus, when you are in your glory, can we be on your right and your left?” Do we get places of honor, like prime minister and secretary of state?

Can you imagine that scene? Makes me want to scream at them: “Are you not listening?”
Jesus, however he may have been feeling, does not yell at them. Instead, he asks them if they think they can drink from the cup he is about to receive. Yes, sure, yep, oh yeah, Jesus, we are SO up for that. You betcha.

In my less noble moments, I wish Jesus had answered them “Yes! As a matter of fact, after we get to Jerusalem and I get taken to the palace, you can certainly be on my right and my left.” Because you know who ended up on the right side and the left side of Jesus, when he came into his glory. But Jesus is not angry. He is able to explain it to them once again.

The other ten disciples, however, are angry, thinking that James and John have budged the line, and tried to get ahead of them. If only they had been listening! Who would crowd ahead of someone else in order to be persecuted, in order to be flogged and spit on, and crucified? Nobody wants to be at the head of that line! Nobody even wants to be IN that line!

But with infinite love, and endless patience, Jesus tries again to make them understand, tries again a third time to let them know what it would mean to be on the right and the left of him: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like much fun at all, does it?
Who would want to be on the right and left of that?

In the run up to the 2016 election, we’ve been hearing an awful lot about the right and left.
Conservative, right-leaning Christians would have you believe that there is no such thing as a liberal Christian. And liberal, left-leaning Christians would shout just as loudly that the conservative, right-wing Christians are not Christian at all.

But in Jesus’ definition, right and left mean something else altogether. In the life of a disciple of Jesus, it all ends up at Golgotha. So whether you want to be on the right or the left, following Jesus means that somehow, you end up on a cross.

Most of us have a long way to go before we would have the courage to die with him.
For most of us, the cruciform life is more about the other things within us that need to die –selfishness, arrogance, pride, ambition, greed. If our politics are informed by our faith, by following Jesus, the meaning of left and right will change. If we are listening to Jesus, and not what someone says the Bible says (even if that someone is me) we’ll have different definitions of glory and honor.

In Jesus’ definition, to be his disciple means that you aren’t on the right or left, but right there in the center, with him. Following him is a cruciform life – that is, life in the shape of a cross. Following Jesus is not about climbing to the top of the mountain, and looking down on everyone else from your pinnacle of success. Following Jesus is about climbing up the hill called Golgotha, and giving your very life as a sacrifice.

Drinking from the cup he offers, that cup of the new covenant, is to care more about loving than being loved, to be concerned more about forgiving than being forgiven. To be baptized with him is to be willing to die with him, and to be raised with him. To live like him is to serve like him. When we follow Jesus, we walk with him to the cross at calvary, serve like him to the least of all,
share like him,
give like him,
love like him.

Whether your politics lean left or right, your life belongs to Jesus,
the one who is at the center, who came not to be served, but to serve.
Thanks be to God.


Sunday, October 4, 2015


Mark 10:2-16
October 4, 2015, World Communion Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This scripture is actually two stories in three scenes: controversy, at home, and blessing the children. Jesus has left Caparnaum and crossed the Jordan into Judea. The Pharisees, teachers of the law, confront him and ask him to answer question regarding divorce. They try to put him in a corner by asking him to interpret scripture and say something that will create trouble for him. If he answers one way, he is in conflict with Jewish laws on divorce; if he answers another way, he is in conflict with Roman laws on divorce. Either way, it is just three chapters back that Jesus learned of the execution by beheading of his cousin John the Baptist. John’s crime was criticism of Herod for marrying Herodias, who had divorced Herod’s brother in order to marry Herod. In any case, the teachers challenge Jesus, and instead of debating, he turns the conversation on end. Then at home, he discusses the matter with the disciples. Perhaps the disciples were still upset about what they had heard, when they turned the children away – but Jesus will not permit it. He indignantly insists that they let the children come. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 10:2-16.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There’s an old joke about a guy who asks a rabbi,
“Rabbi, why do Jews always answer a question with another question?”
The rabbi says, “Why do you ask?”
The rabbi Jesus is doing just that at the outset of this story.
The Pharisees ask a question about divorce, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
and Jesus answers with another question – “What did Moses command?”
They know the law, so they recite it. Of course, Jesus knows the law, too.
And everyone on the scene knows that the Pharisees are not asking Jesus
for information about the law of Moses.
They know it and he knows they know it.

Jesus won’t take the bait. Instead, he turns the conversation around. They want to talk about the law, and he starts talking about their hearts. They want to address a matter of interpretation of the law; he wants to talk about God’s deepest desire for humans – loving, covenant relationship. And that is what he is getting at later, in the second conversation, at home with the disciples. The disciples have asked about the subject, and Jesus again turns to the matter of covenant. He is not making new laws about marriage and divorce; he is talking about the effects of a broken covenant on the human heart.

In both Jewish and Roman law of the time, the men had most of the power.
For Jewish couples, only the man could file for divorce.
He did so by presenting a document to his wife notifying her of the divorce.
He could do so for just about any reason.

For Roman couples, marriage and divorce alike were simply a matter of making a statement in front of seven witnesses. You say you are married, you’re married – or, more likely, your parents would say you are getting married, at least for the first marriage.

Marriages were arranged to consolidate wealth and improve status. Roman women were generally married off in their early teens. Roman men usually married the first time in their mid-twenties. For Roman citizens - and only citizens could marry – to get a divorce, you just said it was so. No paperwork involved, no lawsuits. Women had slightly more independence, but only if they had money.

In both cases, Jewish or Roman, women and children were vulnerable. In Roman households, a newborn had to be accepted by the father. If he did not claim the child, it was left to die of exposure. In Jewish households, the relationship was not so harsh, but the high mortality rate of young children was such that parents did not get terribly attached to infants.

In either culture, children could be given away, or sold as servants or slaves.
There were no custody battles – children belonged to their fathers, and wives belonged to their husbands. A divorce would leave both wives and children in extremely precarious situations.

So, typical of Jesus, he privileges relationship and humanity over law and rules.
He declines to enter into a squabble about the interpretation of the law.
He is not attempting to anticipate modern jurisprudence,
nor is he making a blanket pronouncement about who may or may not marry.
Above all, this is not a proof-text for what some people call “biblical divorce.”

Instead, Jesus addresses God’s intention for marriage –
to establish a loving, intimate covenant that offers shelter, safety, security and joy
for both people, and their children, if they have them.
It is a covenant of love that protects the most vulnerable.
In taking this view of marriage,
Jesus goes outside the lines once again,
taking the discussion outside of the realm of the Mosaic law,
and moving it into the heart of the matter –
intimate relationships grounded in the creative love of God.

In our culture nowadays, there are many voices speaking about marriage. There are many who claim to have the absolute correct interpretation of scripture; they speak with the authority of one who is God’s own prophet. Often, those loud voices want to confine their discussion to the marriages of other people, not to their OWN choices about relationships.

And all too often, those voices raised with such volume and self-appointed authority have very little to say about divorce, or about troubled marriages, or those made vulnerable in a divorce.

Jesus understood that when a marriage comes apart, things get broken.
Hearts are broken, homes are broken, promises are broken.
In many cases, crockery is broken.
And in some cases, bones get broken.

People are broken. Jesus knew that.

And so he speaks not to the law, which was broken as well, but to the hearts of men and women. Intimate relationships are grounded in the creative love of God. The family is created in order to shelter and nurture that love.

It is only natural, then, that in the next scene, Jesus reaches out to the children.
Parents are bringing their children to him. They want their children to be blessed.
The disciples, who never quite seem to catch on in Mark’s gospel,
try to stop them – they tell them to go away.

Did you see any of the videos of the children coming up to Pope Francis,
on his recent visit? how the security guards tried to stop them,
but Francis reached out to them, took them in his arms, and blessed them?
It was like that, only better.

Because Jesus knows that we are broken people,
and so he takes us into his loving hands, and blesses us.
On this World Communion Sunday, Jesus sees also
that the world is broken, broken and in need of blessing.
He knows that even in our best efforts at loving relationship,
we fall short –
we struggle to love as we ought,
we lose sight of our promises,
we fail to be partners who are kind, patient, and faithful.

Jesus sees how we fail to bless children –
how children around our broken world
are left alone, hungry, begging, enslaved.
Jesus sees children kidnapped and turned into child soldiers or child brides.
He sees children shot down in their school rooms,
and grieving at the gravesides of their parents.

Jesus sees children who have been abandoned or abused,
and he sees their broken hearts and broken dreams.
It makes him indignant.

He grieves with them; he grieves with us.
But he does not merely grieve, he is not merely outraged.
His heart breaks too.

So he reaches out to us, to welcome us, to take us in his arms and bless us.
He reaches out to welcome us to his table. For this is where Jesus binds up the brokenhearted. This is where Jesus takes what is broken – our world, our relationships, our lives, our promises, and our covenants.

Jesus invites us to this table, and when we come,
all of us, from north and south and east and west, to join the joyful feast,
he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to us. 
What is broken becomes whole.
He pours out the cup, and in it we drink of the new covenant.
The stranger becomes the welcome guest. The many become one.
The saints gather here, the sinners gather here,
and in this breaking, blessing and giving
we are renewed and restored,
our brokenness healed in the bread that is broken,
our emptiness filled by the cup that is poured,
in the blessing that is freely given –
for you, for me, for all of us,
for the world, for all time.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Best We Can Do

James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-41
September 27, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

The letter of James is one of the most practical portions of Scripture. There are several “James” in the New Testament, including, of course, Jesus‘ brother. We have no direct indication of which James is behind the letter, or whether someone is writing under James’ name and in his style of thought! We do know that it is written in beautiful Greek, and that James was felt to be so well known in the Church that he needed no introduction. In this letter, the early Christians are invited to rely on and help each other, with the conviction that prayer will make a difference. Let us listen to his advice and encouragement, in James 5:13-20:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray.
Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.
The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up;
and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
Therefore confess your sins to one another,
and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a human being like us,
and he prayed fervently that it might not rain,
and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.
Then he prayed again,
and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
My brothers and sisters,
if anyone among you wanders from the truth
and is brought back by another,
you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering
will save the sinner’s soul from death
and will cover a multitude of sins.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus rebukes the disciples, whose sense of exclusivity has prompted them to try to correct someone who was acting in Jesus’ name. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 9: 38-41

John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

There is something about prayer, something that both inspires and intimidates us.

When something terrible happens, the grim diagnosis, the wildfire, the tsunami, whether literal or figurative, we often say, “The best we can do right now is pray.”

When we are faced with a difficult decision, and we don’t have all the facts; when we are in conflict and there seems to be no resolution, someone says, “The best we can do right now is pray.”

Even people who do not profess any faith, people for whom prayer seems difficult, if not silly, will find themselves cornered by life, stymied by a problem, and they, too, will say, “The best we can do right now is pray.”

Listen to this personal story of how prayer came into one man’s life:

I stumbled through my month in treatment much as I had done the first time, just ticking off the days, hoping that something would change in me without me having to do much about it. Then one day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me, and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected.

The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair. At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no idea who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with.

Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and getting down on my knees, I surrendered.

Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.

From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night to express my gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking me why I do all of this, I will tell you … because it works, as simple as that.

In all this time that I have been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. …. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.[1]

Sometimes, the best we can do is pray.
So we pray.
Mostly we pray in silence.
Sometimes we pray out loud.

You know, often I share something in sermons about research or studies or psychology, something about real life application of scripture. On the subject of prayer, I have some very good new research, from Wednesday’s Bible study. It appears from my research that about 75-80% of all Presbyterians when asked to pray out loud, break into a cold sweat.

Most of us, apparently, are pretty certain that if we attempted to pray out loud, we would faint dead away on the spot. We also have some kind of belief that when we pray aloud, those who are present might be critiquing our prayer.

Maybe we are like those disciples in the verses from Mark, who ran across someone who was speaking and acting in the name of Jesus, but not doing it the way they thought it should be done. You know, implicit in that story is the disciples’ sense of superiority, the sense that they’ve got it right, and these other people don’t. So maybe we tend to look at others and think, “You’re not doing it right!” And because we do that, we assume that others are thinking the same thing about us! “You’re not doing it right!”

Perhaps there is just an inner critic living in each of our heads who says that to us – “You’re not doing it right.” And so we keep our prayers to ourselves, as if sharing them out loud would be the end of us. Some people are so reticent about their prayer concerns that they won’t even say them out loud – at some churches there are cards, or a book, that you write your prayer concerns in. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is something about prayer, the prayers we offer together, out loud, that strengthens our faith. That’s why we share our joys and concerns most weeks, and that’s why we respond in unison –“thanks be to God” or “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Often, the prayers we make out loud become encouragement to those who hear us.
Always, God hears our prayers, whether they are spoken, or offered up in silence.

This passage on prayer from the book of James is particularly about petitions – the prayers we make for ourselves, and intercessions– the prayers that we make on behalf of others. The cover of your bulletin today is an example of what author Sybil MacBeth calls “praying in color” – a kind of doodle that focuses thoughts into a prayer. This particular image is for intercessory prayer –MacBeth suggests by starting with your name for God written on one of the leaves, then writing the names of those for whom you pray on the other leaves. You can also use it for your own prayers, today and any day.

Praying in color template

Of course, there is no requirement that you pray with a crayon in your hand. But there is a Biblical commandment that we should pray. Jesus instructs us to pray or talks about prayer more than 40 times in the four gospels. In the rest of the New Testament, praying and prayer is mentioned over 100 times. Jesus gave us a model for prayer in “The Lord’s Prayer” which we pray together often. Thousands of books have been written on the subject of prayer - how to do it, and when and what to pray for.

But I really think that we can’t do it wrong.
When we lift up our voices in prayer to God,
we speak aloud the hopes of many hearts.

When we sing praise to God,
we offer up the joyful adoration of all of creation.

When we confess our failures and ask for forgiveness,
we join all our brothers and sisters in acknowledging our brokenness.

When we plead for healing on behalf of our beloved family and friends,
our words echo in the universe and reverberate with goodness.

When we speak to God the desires of our hearts,
we open ourselves to peace, to grace, and to joy.

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

Prayer is powerful.
Prayer is effective.

It is, indeed, the best we can do.

Thanks be to God.



Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Who Is Welcome

Mark 9:30-37
September 20, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Leader: We are so much like the early disciples! We want God to know how hard we work. We want to be praised and recognized for our efforts and successes. And we want God to pass over our failures as though they were inconsequential. When Jesus heard his disciples arguing, he responded that they should be ready for service rather than adulation. And then he placed a small child in their midst; a child with no guile, no pretense. May God help us to reach out to others, not with thought of importance or gain, but in love and compassion; truly caring for each one we meet. When we have done this, we will have truly given our hearts and our service to our Lord. Let’s listen for God’s word to us as we read responsively Mark 9:30-37

Leader: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them,

People: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Leader: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them,

People: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Leader: But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them,

People:“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Leader: Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,

People: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Leader: The word of the Lord.

People: Thanks be to God.

We’re well into Mark’s gospel now, in the ninth chapter.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.
He has already stirred up all kinds of trouble.
He has gotten into some arguments with the religious leaders.
In his teachings and his actions, Jesus has gone way outside the lines.
Jesus is vulnerable now, and powerless.

He has demonstrated that he has the power of God, but he does not have any political power, none of the status of this world. He has predicted his imminent death and resurrection. He has tried and tried to get these disciples of his to understand him, to understand his mission, his teachings. I cannot imagine what Jesus must have felt when he would tell them what was going to happen, that he was going to die, and they would answer him like they did in this scripture reading.

He says, “I’m going to be killed” and they get scared. Then they wonder which one of them is greatest. Can you imagine! It’s as if a parent said to the family, “I’m going to die,” and the family begins to argue about who gets what part of the estate. It’s as you’d told a friend about your terminal diagnosis, and the friend’s reaction is to start scheming about how to get your job, or your house, or your husband or your wife.

They were afraid!
They didn’t want to ask him about that prediction of his death and resurrection. So they came up with another topic – themselves! and who of them had the most status, the most power. When he tells them about what is going to happen to him, they are terrified.

Jesus asks them, “Hey, what were you talking about back there?”
"Well…..” He sits down, tells them to huddle up. Time for a lesson, boys.
Jesus picks up this little child, and sets the child in the midst of them. You’ve seen the pictures, the sweet little toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap, surrounded by the humbled disciples.

Isn’t this a sweet image? What a nice scene – so reassuring, to know that we are doing what Jesus said. Because we welcome children, little ones. We do, just like Jesus said. It must make Jesus so happy, to see how nice we are to kids. Sweet.

Except that is not the scene, nor is it the image, nor is being nice the message. As usual, Jesus goes outside the lines, and his lesson is not what we expect. It isn’t as if children were out just randomly walking around with the disciples. We know that the disciples had left their families behind. They were itinerant, going from place to place –no way to raise a child. And while children in the first century had nowhere near the status they do now, they were still loved by their parents. Parents didn’t just leave them to run wild in the streets of Capernaum. Most children would have been at home, doing chores, or with a tutor or learning a trade, or with other family members. In any case, the child was a symbol, standing in for all sorts of other people.

We know this is not just a story about being nice to little kids because later there IS a story about Jesus welcoming children, and about how he blessed them. This is not that story. This story about who is welcome. So when the disciples are all assembled, Jesus says, “If you want to be first, you need to be last of all.”

Give up the place where you ALWAYS sit, and leave the back rows for visitors and latecomers! Give up your spot at the head of the line. Trade it for the end of the line.
Or go outside the line altogether, and give up your place of privilege in this world.
Trade it for humility. Give up your comfortable position. Be ready to serve, to be a slave to others. Give up your some of your comfort to live more simply so that others in this world may simply live.

Jesus set this child among them- who knows where the child came from –and he said “Welcoming this one is welcoming me. Welcoming me is welcoming God.”

Serve the beggar.
Be a slave to the vulnerable.
Welcome the lowliest.
Go beyond the lines of convention and common sense.

Unfortunately, like those disciples, we want to make this story easier. We want to make this about us, so we’ve already changed the subject!

Oh, we welcome children! We do, Jesus!
No worries! We got this!
We welcome new people in worship, too.
We have greeters! And we are nice.

If somebody comes in this building on Sunday morning, we really do welcome them.
See, if we can keep the message small, keep it about how nice we are, we don’t have to think too hard about it. But Jesus never lets us off the hook that easily. Just like he challenged the religious authorities of his time, he challenges us to think more deeply. With this child in the midst of them, Jesus is demonstrating that human value is not in power or status.

This child has no status, no power, no net worth. This child is vulnerable. That child was a stand in for a whole huge group of people –the global population of nobodies.

Who is welcome?
Those who look like us?
Those who speak our language?
Those who think like us and act like us?
Do they have to come to our worship service?
Will we extend welcome to those who are not interested in church?

If Jesus were here now,
he might put a Syrian child in the midst of us,
or a Guatemalan child,
or a Mexican laborer,
or a young African American man with saggy pants and a hoody.

Then he would say,
“Whoever welcomes THIS child of God welcomes me.
And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

But it’s scary.
It is!
What if… you fill in the blank….
What if….
It is scary because we understand that what Jesus said is true –he was going to die and rise again. There is no resurrection without a grave. And we want to stand far away from that grave. We don’t want to die to ourselves, or die to power or status, or die at all, for that matter.

Jesus welcomes all, and he does it in the shadow of the cross.
He showed us who is welcome, Jesus did.
He showed us how to be the servant of all,
how to take the last place in line,
how to leave the seat of honor for someone else.

He showed us how to give – not just out of our excess,
but to give of our very selves, to give generously and excessively.
He showed us by giving his life, by being a servant.
Jesus came, he said, not to be served, but to serve,
and he does that in forgiving us
and welcoming us into the presence of God.

Our power is not in our value, and our value is not in our power. 
Our value comes from the truth that we are precious children of God, 
redeemed by a merciful savior.

Your banker won’t do that for you.
Your coach or teacher or yoga instructor can’t give you that.
Your biggest fans or a thousand friends don’t tell you that.
You can’t get that from your mom,
or from a beautiful sunset, or a walk in the woods.
You get that in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus showed us that we are who is welcome.
That’s where our real power lies;
that’s where real status comes from.
Our power is to be servants, as Christ became a servant.
Once we were slaves to sin, but now we are set free in Christ Jesus.
Once we were dead, but now we are alive!
Because God has been merciful, we show mercy.
Because we have been blessed, we bless.
Because we have been welcomed, we welcome.
To be forgiven without condition,
loved with open arms
redeemed without reservation,
and called to a life of service –
that’s what it means to be one who is welcome.