Friday, January 9, 2015

The Undertoad

Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11
January 11, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading this week takes us back to the beginning again. Last week we reflected on that beginning; we recognized that Christ was present from the beginning as light and Word. Now, we hear once again how a creating God spoke a word over the primordial waters. This is not the glassy sea of Revelation, silent and calm. This is turbulent chaos, swirling and dangerous waters. The Spirit of God hovers over the water, the voice of God thundered over the water, and when God spoke, the first day came into being. Listen for God’s word in

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Our gospel reading for today invokes another beginning, the start of Jesus’ public ministry. As you have observed, Mark’s gospel does not bother with birth or childhood stories. Instead, it wades into the River Jordan, pulling us along into the water as Jesus is baptized. His baptism, like ours, marks the beginning of a life of obedient ministry, sharing the good news of God’s love for all people. Listen, as God’s beloved sons and daughters, to God’s word for you in

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

One of the best novels of the 20th century, in my opinion
was John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.”
There was a movie, too, starring Robin Williams, and it was good,
but like most good books, the book was better.

Garp, the main character of the novel, has two sons, Duncan and Walt.
There is a lot to the story, but this little piece has stayed in my memory:
“When Walt was old enough to venture near the water,
Duncan said to him – as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan –
‘Watch out for the undertow.’
Walt retreated, respectfully.
And for three summers Walt was warned about the undertow. …
‘The undertow is bad today.’
‘The undertow is strong today.’
‘The undertow is wicked today.’
…And for years Walt reached out for it.
From the first, when he asked what it could do to you,
he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea.
It could suck you under and drown you and drag you away.
It was Walt’s fourth summer at Dog’s Head Harbor, …
when Garp and Helen and Duncan observed Walt watching the sea.
He stood ankle-deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves,
without taking a step, for the longest time.
The family went down to the water’s edge to have a word with him.
‘What are you doing, Walt?’ Helen asked.
‘What are you looking for, dummy?’ Duncan asked him.
‘I’m trying to see the Under Toad,’ Walt said.
‘The what?’ said Garp.
‘The Under Toad,’ Walt said. ‘I’m trying to see it. How big is it?
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath;
they realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad,
lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea.
The terrible Under Toad.”

When I told the worship team my sermon title for today, they just stared at me.
And not politely!
No really, they asked me what on earth this story has to do with baptism.
Or with Jesus.
Or with ordination and installation of officers, which we are doing today after the sermon.
Samantha sent an email to double check – “Undertoad? The sermon title?”
After all, what has the undertoad, or the undertow got to do with baptism?

Every baptism I’ve been a part of, including my own, has been in a church. My own baptism took place when I was twelve.Wearing a heavy white robe, I walked down steps into a font the size of a stock tank, behind the choir loft,with a landscape of the River Jordan behind it. I told the congregation that I had decided to follow Jesus.The preacher dunked me all the way down under the water, three times.I emerged soaking wet. There was no question that I had been baptized. But once I got dried off, I am not sure there was any sure way to tell that I was a baptized Christian.

Most Presbyterian baptism ceremonies are at a font, like ours, with a relatively small amount of water. It is nice clean water, usually kind of warm,so as not to startle the baby too much.
There is no current in there, no waves, no gravel or sand, no tide.
No undertoad.
Nothing unsafe.

At least not literally.
A lot of people would tell you that at their baptism, nothing really happened.
It’s just symbolic, baptism is. Isn’t it?

When Jesus was baptized, the heavens were torn apart,and the Spirit descended like a dove. And God’s voice was heard, saying “This is my beloved.”

When we are baptized, we generally don’t experience anything quite like that.
It is just a little clean water, on our heads, at the font.
We’re not being pulled in by the undertoad!
We are strong, we stand firm, we hold our ground.
We can’t go swimming around in the ocean, can’t let ourselves be pulled unresisting into all that. Because we are busy – we have lives to live, families, jobs, vacations, calendars.
You can’t just go off willy nilly wherever the current of a river takes you.
Usually, we won’t let the undertow take us.

When the moment of decision comes, whether it is a conversation at work or a phone call from the nominating committee, or a quiet little tug at our hearts in the worship service, we don’t give ourselves over to it. We’re not religious fanatics, after all.

Like little Walt, we stay in the shallow water, ever watchful of the undertoad.
Staying on shore is actually safer, but if we must be baptized, 
we’ll settle for that little bowl over there.

But these are dangerous waters, the waters of baptism.
The undertow is there, even in that bowl.
The current of the waters of baptism is there, and it is strong,
and it will pull us out into the sea if we will let it.
If you’ve ever actually experienced it,
you know that the undertoad can be subtle, even sneaky.

When you wade in a little bit, maybe come to Bible Study, or offer to serve on a committee, or attend the Lenten programs on Wednesday night,you wade in just a little bit,and the next thing you know, you’re engaging a friend in a lively discussion of faith, or even inviting that friend to come to church,

The waves lap at your ankles,and you think, 
“Well, this is kind of nice. Refreshing!
I might walk in a little deeper.”
And then you are saying yes to the nominating committee
when they call and ask you to serve on Session or the Board of Deacons.
Maybe then, the undertoad grabs you, and before you know it, 
you are in what my mother calls “the arena of public Christianity.”

Presbyterians believe that in our baptism,
every single one of us is called into Christian service.
That takes different shapes at different stages of our lives.

Very small children may serve God simply with their joyful presence.
If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing their little faces
when they are fully engaged in worship or prayer or singing,
you know what I mean.
Older children serve God
in their daily lives with kindness and caring,
by helping in the home and in the church.
Their eagerness to light the candles or take up the offering,
to greet and welcome others,
and to participate in the life of the church
is a model for all of us.
Our youth are active participants in the life of the congregation too –
serving in so many ways that we don’t even realize.
We’ve sent them on mission trips and out to do service,
and they are busy in this building on Sunday,
and the rest of the week they are great representatives of our church.

And you know, because you are here,
that there are so many adults who are serving in so many various ways.
We have a visible demonstration of that service today
as we ordain and install our officers,
but these are just the visible baptized Christians –
they are not the ONLY ones called and ordained to service.

When we gathered this morning,
our call to worship and prayer of confession
reminded us of our baptism.
We brought the glass stones to the font as an expression of our faith.
When we leave here today, we march back out into that cold winter,
and into the sometimes messy, chaotic swirl of modern life.
But the undertoad is there, too,
that inexorable pull to follow Jesus,
to draw near to God’s heart,
to swim in the waters of grace.
The current is strong, and it will pull us out into the sea,
but it will not drown us!
Instead we will be drenched in joy,
showered with blessings, splashed with delight,
and washed in the refreshing, eternal waters of renewal.
Let the waters of your baptism flow over you
as a daily reminder that you are God’s beloved and precious child.
You belong to God.
Don’t worry about the undertoad.


Sunday, January 4, 2015


John 1:1-18
January 4, 2015
First Presbyterian Church,
Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This first Sunday of the new year, we begin with the first chapter of John. The fourth gospel is different in style, substance and tone from the other three. Matthew, Mark and Luke are synoptic gospels – they look together at the life of Christ, chronologically. John, however, describes the life of Christ in terms of cosmology – a poetic, earth-changing event that cannot be described in everyday language. Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism. Luke begins with the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. Matthew’s gospel begins with genealogy of Jesus, going all the way back to Abraham. And John? John’s gospel goes even farther back, back to the very beginning. Even the opening words hearken back to Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning.”

John wants to be very sure that we understand that Jesus is co-eternal with God. So, just as in the beginning, God spoke a word and there was light, in the beginning, the Word was, and is. And through this Word made flesh, through Jesus, the light of God has come into the world. To say that “the word was God” may sound confusing. A clearer translation would say, “What God is, the Word is.” So listen for God’s word and God’s light to you this morning in a reading from the first chapter of John, verses 1-18.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' ") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year? I looked up some data on resolutions and found some surprising facts. More than half of people surveyed make resolutions, and nearly half make them every year. I looked up the top 10 resolutions for 2014, and here they are, counting backwards from 10 to 1:

10. Spend More Time with Family
9. Fall in Love
8. Help Others in Their Dreams
7. Quit Smoking
6. Learn Something Exciting
5. Stay Fit and Healthy
4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
3. Spend Less, Save More
2. Get Organized
And the number one resolution for 2014 –you can guess what it is:
1. Lose Weight

Interestingly, they say that people who make resolutions are TEN times more likely to achieve something than those who don’t. But of those who made resolutions in 2014, only EIGHT percent kept their resolutions and achieved their goals.[1]

Given those facts, maybe we should turn our attention to a different sort of resolution. Perhaps we could think of resolution in terms of clarity, such as the resolution of an image. Perhaps we can think of resolution in terms of finality, such as the resolution of a paradox or difficulty. In either one of these uses of the word both literal and figurative, the presence of light is a crucial factor. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. I read recently about a paradox in physics that has to do with literal light. It seems that the darkness of the night sky is taken as a proof that the universe is finite and ever-expanding. To oversimplify the issue, if the universe were indeed infinite, there would be no darkness. This is because in an infinite universe, the endless number of stars would be endlessly shining and they would overcome the darkness of space entirely.[2]

Instead, the light shines in darkness. In fact, were it not for darkness, we could not appreciate light. A lit candle on a sunny day is barely visible. The light does NOT dispel all the darkness, but only illuminates it, giving us the clarity to distinguish between the shadows of the night and the light of day. Christ’s light shines, but the darkness remains. It is only with that light shining that we can find resolution – literally and figuratively --both of our vision and of our difficulties.

Thinking literally, we only see clearly if we have sufficient light. Light not only illumines the space around us, it resolves murky shapes and outlines, giving us clarity, even if there is darkness everywhere else. Light is not so important when we are in familiar territory – most of us can find our way through our own homes in the darkness, without the need to turn on a light. But light is critical when we are in a place that is new or unknown. When we are sleeping in a new place and get up in the night, we need light to find our way. When we walk in the wilderness at night, we need a lantern to light our path. When we are in an unfamiliar city, and it grows dark, we seek out the lighted places, where we feel safer.

Thinking figuratively, consider how often we describe problem solving in terms of light – And then, it dawned on me! I saw the light! A light bulb went off in my head! That’s a bright idea!

John’s gospel is using this image of light as both a literal and figurative way to describe the person of Jesus. John the Baptist – not John the Gospeller – came into the world to point the way to the light, but he himself was not the light. John the Gospeller is intent on dispelling the darkness of disbelief with the dawning of the light of Christ.

There was, at the time the gospel was written, a troubling belief that has arisen and persisted over and over again in the many generations since. This belief system, called Gnosticism, is much less complicated than its name implies. If you listen carefully to a description, I am sure you will recognize it in its modern form.

Gnosticism takes four major positions that differ from our understanding. First, it suggests that what we need is more knowledge – not a savior, but more knowledge. This special knowledge is available, but not to everyone. It comes only to a few special people who have been empowered by this knowledge revealed to them. So Christianity becomes a kind of AP spirituality class, in which we just need to learn more wise and mystical things about God in order to become more spiritual people. There is nothing wrong with learning wise and mystical things about God. The trouble comes when the accomplishment of it is something WE do. The trouble with that is that it eliminates the central truth that we are a people in need of saving, and that salvation comes by grace.

From God. Not us. Not me. Not you. God.

Connected to that reliance on self in this belief system is an intense focus on the inner self, to the disregard of the Christian community and other believers. Salvation, or connection with God, is a personal and internal event. So, we hear, from those who profess to be “spiritual but not religious,” “I don’t need church or religion – I connect to God in the forest…” or on the couch, or the golf course, or at the lake. Trouble is, if there actually is any connecting to God going on there, it takes place personally and internally, which is, as Tom Long says, “on a very small stage.” In other words, Jesus did come for you, but he didn’t come JUST for you, and the only way you are going to really connect with the bigness of God’s activity in the world is by participating with other human beings in that experience.

The third facet of this belief system is that it rejects the physical – bodies, buildings, the visible and the material. Yes, you are a spiritual being, but you are not ONLY a spiritual being. You are a physical being, with a body, moving around in physical space. AND SO WAS JESUS! That is what is so stunning, so overwhelming, so unbelievable about the incarnation – the Word made flesh – flesh! coming into the world – GOD WITH US!

So in spite of the Gnostic impulse – and we all have it, Jesus came into the world in a real human body. And so do we – our lives are not just spiritual, but physical – we live in this place, deal with these people, make decisions about real money and furniture and politics and food. We are embodied Christians. We sleep and eat and sweat and argue and sigh and dream. And so did Jesus. Jesus came in a human body, not a disembodied spirit floating around the earth, never having to deal with hunger or thirst or fatigue or frustration. He was God, eternal and embodied grace, and he was human – he drooled in his sleep and had bad breath sometimes and when he got up in the morning his hair stuck out all over. Or something like that. And he still is – God AND human, embodied grace. With fingernails.

The fourth element of Gnosticism is a focus on the present and a poverty of eschatological hope. If it is all about the spiritual, and all about me, then there is no need to wait for God’s time, no hope of any ultimate resolution in the universe. Sometimes, in the dark night of our souls, the only light that shines is the light of hope, the expectation of a light that eventually will outshine every false flame. Sometimes the light in the darkness is not visible, but it is there, like a sunrise that is about to happen. Sometimes the best light we have is the anticipation of that new heaven and new earth, of a time that will come when God will set everything right. It is a vision of the hope of eternal life, the promise that there is more than merely this life. That hope is also firmly rooted in the promise of the light shining in the darkness of this night, the light which came for all people, the light which enlightens everyone.

The magi followed a star to come to the presence of the Christ child. They could only see it because it was night. We too seek the light that shines in the darkness, the light that brings resolution, clarity, and hope. Perhaps this year, as we look toward that light, we would do well to look as well toward that Word. 

Christ is the word made flesh; 
Christ is the light that shines, the light that has come into the world and is yet to come. 
Christ is the light that will provide resolution – of the paradoxes of our lives and of all the creation. Christ is the light that brings clarity, illumination, and will one day provide resolution of all that has gone awry since that time when he walked in the garden in the cool of the day. 
He is light and word and hope, and we have seen his glory! 

Thanks be to God!