Sunday, May 31, 2015

Heresy and Humility

Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

How big is God?
If you were going to put God in a box, how big would it be?
It would have to be bigger than the biggest flat rate Priority Mail box.
Bigger than a refrigerator box.
Bigger than the Post Office, actually.
Bigger than this sanctuary.

In Isaiah’s vision, God is so big that only the hem of God’s robe fits in the sanctuary.
The bigness of God, the enormity of God’s presence, is beyond any thought our minds can contain. We need a combination of imagination and awe to encounter it, and when we do, we are at a loss for words, overcome with humility. There is simply more than we can take in.

This bigness, this overwhelming expanse of God calls to mind the experience of many a first-time visitor to the United States. Often, the tourist from Japan or Norway arrives in New York City, and, having seen the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, then asks, “Tomorrow, can we drive over to Dallas, Texas?”

A man from Lebanon told the story of his grandmother’s visit one summer. Remember, Grandma's reference for distance was Lebanon, You can drive the length of that country in a day. After Grandma arrived at his home in Seattle, he asked her,
“Grandma, is there anywhere in particular you would like to visit?”
His grandmother replied, "I'd like go to to Washington, DC."
"Okay, Grandma. Let me buy some plane tickets."
"No, let's drive."
"You want to drive all the way to Washington, DC?
Here, let me show you on a map how far away it is."
Grandma replied, "Let's do it."
The man said, "Okay, Grandma, we're going on a road trip!"
So the family packed up the car, and set out early one morning. The first day, they had made it as far as Idaho, and stopped for the night.
Grandma asked, "Is this Washington, DC?"
"No, Grandma. Washington, DC is still very far away.
Here, let me show you on the map where we are." Grandma was unconvinced.
“If you'd only stop and ask for directions, we would have been there by now.”[1]

We humans, finite beings that we are, tend to measure by our own frame of reference.
Isaiah is overwhelmed by the enormity of God. He stands in a presence so vast that the temple cannot contain it. God is so big that there is space in that holy temple only for the bottom edge of God’s robe. Isaiah is speechless, small, humbled.

By God’s grace, even now we can experience this. In worship, as we encounter that overwhelming largeness, that inexpressible presence. Even as our hearts swell and our souls thrill to the embrace, we feel small, humble, unworthy.

We cry out with Isaiah, “We are a people of unclean lips!”
It’s a baffling and overpowering experience.
At the end of it all, Isaiah can only say,
“Hineni!” Here I am!

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday of the church year that the Lectionary texts are pointed to preaching about a specific doctrine of the Christian church. Lots of preachers – including me -- avoid that challenge by taking a vacation or choosing another text.

Because the Trinity is complex. The Trinity is mysterious.

The Trinity, is ….well, it’s big.

There’s no way to talk about it without using imagery and metaphor. We can chart the trinity in diagrams, but they are merely ink on paper. I can show you a map of the Trinity, but you won’t know its vastness until you start traveling into it and experience it. One way to do that is through imagination – encountering holiness through art or music or poetry. Another is through metaphor and story. The Gospel reading in today’s Lectionary comes from the Gospel of John, the third chapter, verses 1-21. Rather than clarify the idea of the Trinity with logic, this story introduces more images and metaphors.

It’s the story of Nicodemus, coming to Jesus at night.
Nicodemus is a leader in the synagogue, a Pharisee, a man of influence.
He comes to Jesus, recognizing that Jesus is a man sent from God.
Jesus says to Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above.
And Nicodemus is puzzled. How can this be – born from above?
So Jesus uses a metaphor of birth – water and spirit.
He says to Nicodemus:
“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Who knows what Nicodemus made of this?
Jesus continues, contrasting the things of earth and the things of heaven,
describing how the son was begotten from the love of God,
to bring life to all people,
to let God’s grace be born in them.

It is a conversation full of symbols and metaphor.
There are signs and symbols, but Jesus’ words are not a road map to heaven.
Jesus’ words point to God, a God big and glorious who fills the heavens. a God free and strong to blow like the wind, wherever it chooses, a God so close and intimate, that we are birthed and healed in the only begotten son. Such conversations require poetry and metaphor, especially when we are talking about something like the Trinity.

It seems that almost any symbol we choose to represent it turns out to be a heresy.
If we represent the Trinity as water, ice, and steam, we fall into the heresy of modalism –
that God is just one, but in three forms. If we represent the Trinity as an apple – core, peel and flesh, or an egg –shell, white, and yolk, we commit the heresy of partialism, that none of the three are God unless all of them are together. If we try to describe God the Father as the main identity, with the Holy Spirit as God’s partner and Jesus Christ as a human brought into the divine scheme, we’ve committed the heresy of adoptionism.

In our efforts to talk logically about how big God really is, big enough to be three persons but still one God, we hit a dead end. Trying to make sense of mystery takes us right off the map. Even when we simply say what we believe about the Trinity as it is expressed in the Athanasian creed, we can lose our way. This creed, rarely used in the Western church, was attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria The story goes that Athanasius composed the statement while he was in exile, and then gifted the creed to Pope Julius, in order to demonstrate that he was an orthodox believer. However, the story is questionable, and probably whoever did write it put Athanasius' name on it so the statement would have more credibility.

In any case, it is as clear a statement as can be made about the Trinity.
And even it sounds a bit circular and confusing. (Let me reassure you however, that our struggles with the doctrine of the trinity are probably not going to be a source of eternal perishing because these words are simply an effort to describe the indescribable.) We use this language of neither blending or dividing, to speak of mystery. We talk of co-eternality, of distinct beings who are still one, as if these terms make sense, but the Trinity is really a mystery. We describe one uncreated being who is still three distinct beings in an effort to get our minds around this huge, uncontainable God.

We speak of birth, of water and spirit of angels with six wings singing “holy, holy, holy” to express that which cannot be expressed. This God in three persons is bigger than our language.

This indescribable, uncontainable God
comes to us as a gurgling infant
and in the flame and fire of Pentecost,
and as an unreachable being soaring above us beyond our grasp.

God is one, and three, a relationship and a love supreme.
God in community, the holy in one,
is an uncreated, immeasurable, almighty love.

Our God is love -- love that dances in relationship with the beloved –
Father, Son, Holy Spirit, whirling around each other,
hands joined in a glorious dance.

The Trinity is love that sits at table with bread and wine,
leaning in toward each other, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,
savoring the sweetness of the cup, the delectable bread.

The triune God is love that opens its circle to invite us in,
lifts us spinning and laughing in the dance.
This God is love that sets a table for us,
fills our plates with good things and bids us eat.

This glorious, uncreated, dancing, party-throwing God
fills the room and fills our hearts with awe,
to make us joyful in our living,
to make us generous in hospitality,
to make us humble in our claims,
to make us alive, fully alive,

Holy, holy, holy!

Thanks be to God for the Trinity!



Saturday, May 23, 2015

One Language

Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-15
Pentecost, May 24, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Genesis 11:1-9
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Acts 2:1-15
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

I hate wind. I do. I really, really do.

It is part of my identity to hate wind.
I grew up in the windiest town in the country. There are windier places in the United States, but for velocity and frequency, Dodge City Kansas is the real windy city. That wind blows. All. The. Time.

Wind isn’t good for much.
It kicks up the dust in dry places – and Dodge City is dry.
It blows in open windows and throws papers around the room.
It blows over outdoor decorations, and plants, and knocks down branches.
It blows your car door shut on you, when you are trying to get out or in.
It whips open the storm door and breaks the hinges.
It blows dirt in your face, whips up allergens, and will blow rain sideways.
It will snatch paper out of your hands and send you on a crazy chase.

At its worst, wind is not just wind, but a tornado. Windstorms can turn to tornadoes and obliterate entire towns. In the path of strong wind, as we have recently observed, trees get uprooted, homes are destroyed, lives are lost and belongings get scattered across the countryside, miles and miles away from their owners.


I hate the disruption and disorder,
the chaos, the undoing of what I have done,
whether it is my hair or a stack of paperwork.

That wind of Pentecost, that Holy Spirit wind. It was like that.
It blew in with a roar and a rush and completely disrupted and rearranged everything. There they were, all the nations, living in Jerusalem, gathered for the festival to celebrate Shavuot, the annual celebration of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. They were gathered together in one place, but they were not one people. The writer of Acts takes great pains to tell us that.

They had not ever been one people.
They were scattered like the babbling builders of the tower of Babel, separated by language, by customs, by location, by allegiances. They had adjusted, living in Jerusalem.

They learned the common language, the language of business, of trade. But they were a nation divided, and each held to their native dialect, the mother tongue of their region or their home country.

This was no mere question of potato or po-tah-to.
It was not a simple difference of whether they said potluck or covered dish dinner or pitch in or bring-a-plate. This was a serious, visceral, fundamental division that would not go away. The language they spoke was a symbol of who they were, a mark of their identity, their tribe, and their loyalty.

Now, in blows the Holy Spirit,
in a rush of wind,
whirling around their thoughts
and unjumbling their language
and lifting up their ideas
and setting their hearts aflame.

From a proliferation of languages, there were only the tongues of fire.
From an ordered hierarchy of status and culture and country there was now only one message. From a Babel of diverse races and cultures and ethnicities, there was now one people. Their differences did not disappear. Their languages did not meld into Esperanto or a common tongue. Their countries of origin, their politics, their ethnicity, their families – none of them were changed.

But their hearts!
Oh, their hearts!
Their hearts were set aflame by the Spirit.
Their hearts were swirled and unsettled by that wind.
Their hearts were burning with passion,
fed by the wind,
whipped up into a frenzy of love.
And for that moment,
and from that moment,
they were one people.
The fire. The wind. The water.

Come, now, Holy Spirit, and blow through our church!
Come, now, Holy Spirit, and blow through our lives!
Set our hearts aflame!
Swirl and unsettled our settled convictions!
Let our hearts burn with passion for your gospel!
Let your winds blow until we too are whipped into a frenzy of love.
Make us one people, with allegiance only to our God,
not our politics or positions or predispositions or even our convictions,
but to our God –
God our creator,
Jesus Christ our redeemer,
the Spirit, our comforter!

Come, Holy Spirit, make us one holy circle,
our hands joined by our own will,
our hearts joined by your power.
Make us one people, with allegiance to
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
and one language, one love.

Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Breath of God

Ezekiel 37:1-14
May 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

It is really hard to imagine the plight of the Israelites in the years nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. Except for the poorest among them, they had been deported from their homes. They had lost everything – their houses, their children, their families; their faith, their temple, their God; their homeland, their culture, their songs, their story. How could they sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?

They sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. It seemed that God had abandoned them, or had been defeated by a more powerful deity. They were bitter, full of hatred and the lust for revenge. Even if they could go home, everything they cherished was gone. They might as well be dead. They were nothing but dry bones – no life, no breath, no hope. And then, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

It’s a frightening vision.
Maybe that’s why the song, “Dem Bones” composed by James Weldon Johnson,
sticks in our heads so well.You remember the joyful rhythm of the words –

“Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the shin bone”

Delta Rhythm Boys sing "Dry Bones"

Those are much easier to contemplate than the actual vision Ezekiel encounters by the power of the Spirit. He is taken by the Spirit and transported to this valley, this valley of dry bones. Spread out before him is a battlefield, scattered with the bones of the fallen.They have lain so long that they are dried up, picked bare of flesh and sinew by carrion-eating birds, dried in the blazing sun of that valley.

Desolation – absolute desolation.
Can these bones live?
Of course they can’t.
They are dead.
It is a bitter, wretched scene.
There is no hope, no flesh and blood, no breath, no life.

But Ezekiel does not say this.
Ezekiel says, simply,
“O Lord God, you know.”
Who knows how he said it –
“O Lord God, ……you know?”
“O Lord God, you know.”

In any case, God does indeed know that these bones can live.
Ezekiel obeys God and speaks to the bones –
“Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

The bones come together, but there is still no life.
They are bodies now, not just bones, but they are dead. There is no breath in them.
Again, Ezekiel does as God commands,calling the breath from the four winds.
The Spirit breathes, and the bones live.
The breath of God blows into the valley, and there is life."
"And they lived, and stood on their feet."
It’s the battle scene run in reverse, the bodies of the slain regaining their sinew, their lungs filling with air, they rise from the dust and live, a vast multitude.

We’ve been talking and thinking this month about the work of the Holy Spirit, the unseen wind of God who sighs through our prayers and prays alongside us, blowing where it will. The Spirit, "ruach" in Hebrew, wind, breath, sigh, the motion of air as a breeze, an unseen power.The Spirit, ruach, feminine in both Hebrew and Greek, is often characterized as the female aspect of the Trinity, a wind that blows where she will, the woman wisdom running through the town, a dove descending with peace, soaring on the wind, bringing God’s presence.

In the Christian tradition, we have a long history of this understanding of the Spirit as breath, as wind, as air, surrounding us, filling us, moving us, unseen and powerful, in every place and circumstance, God’s presence within us and through us.

We can’t live without air – we have to breathe.We Christians often forget the power and presence of the Spirit.And as Western Christians, as Americans,we are only recently reclaiming the ancient practices of breath prayers, of breathing as a form of prayer, breathing as a path of worship, as a way of resting in God.

In other traditions, breathing itself is a central and centering practice.In Yoga, in Buddhist meditation, in Eastern traditions, this breath of the Spirit  revives the dry bones and calls people to life.The focus on breathing centers the human spirit, allowing the holy spirit, the ruach, to flow freely in us and through us.

A few years ago, a research team found that emotions were associated with distinct patterns of breathing. When “ participants felt anxious or afraid, they breathed more quickly and shallowly, and when they felt happy, they breathed slowly and fully.”[1]

In a follow-up researchers told people to breathe with the patterns that were connected to various to emotions. As you might imagine, the people began to feel the feelings that corresponded to the breathing –
if they breathed like anxious people, they felt anxious;
if they breathed like calm and happy people, they felt calm and happy.

The study reports that “After participating in a 6-day workshop, veterans who said they had felt “dead” since returning from Iraq said they felt alive again. It’s an amazing and wonderful thing – the natural corollary to us “taking a deep breath” when we need to calm ourselves.

Lest you think I have wandered off to some netherworld of belief, let me remind you of the hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God” It dates to the late 1800s and recalls this movement of the Holy Spirit as breath, wind, movement, the ruach.The Oxford educated minister who wrote it drew upon the Biblical witness from Genesis and the gospel of John. 

In Genesis, the Lord God breathed the breath of life into Adam, and he became a living being. In John, echoing Genesis, the risen Lord appeared to the disciples, saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even, so send I you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

So this idea of breathing in the breath of God is as old as our recorded scripture.
Breathe on me, breath of God.
Do you remember the words?

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

As we prepare our hearts and minds and lives for the extraordinary events and the season of Pentecost, I want to invite you to consider this breath, this Spirit, this ruach.

Ezekiel stood in the valley of the dry bones,surrounded by death and desolation, hopeless, cut off. God asked the prophet, “Can these bones live?” Through the power of the Spirit, ruach, the wind and breath of God, even the dry bones live.

Where there was a battle scene, there is resurrection.
Where there was death, there is life.
Where there was terror and desolation, the Spirit breathes peace and hope.

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a simple exercise in breathing, and I invite you to try it with me now today, and then, “when you are just going about your daily tasks, pause every now and then and pay attention to your breath.”

Sit comfortably.
Close your eyes if possible.
Gently focus your attention on your breathing.
Don’t worry about deepening or controlling it in any way…just notice.
As your breathe in, say to yourself “I am breathing in.”
As you breathe out, say to yourself “I am breathing out.”
Continue for one minute.[2]

We’ll modify it slightly –
as we breathe in, we will say to ourselves,
“Breathe on me”
and as we breath out, we will say to ourselves,
“Breath of God.”

We’ll try this for one minute, and then we’ll sing together the song, “Breathe.”

I encourage you to continue the practice at home, 
inviting God’s Holy Spirit to breathe in you, with you, and through you.


Sunday, May 10, 2015


John 15: 9-17
May 10, 2015
Prairie Dell Presbyterian Church, Shannon, IL
Christina Berry

John 15:9-17
9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

BFF. You know what that stands for, right? Best friends forever.

It’s a term that wasn’t around when I was a kid – BFF. We just had friends, and best friends. And occasionally, ex-friends. Nowadays we have work friends, and club friends, gym friends, casual friends, church friends, school friends … and of course, Facebook friends. I have over 500, which sounds like a lot until you know that a pastor colleague of mine lists over a thousand friends. How can someone have a thousand friends – really? Friends? I don’t even know how I can have 500, but I assure you, I have some kind of connection with each one of them.

Friendship is being re-defined by social networking, and by technology. It used to be that when you didn’t want to be friends any more, you had to figure out how to kind of “break up” with someone. Now you can cut off “friends” on FB by “unfriending” them. How many of you had a BEST friend growing up? Keep your hands up. Now, how many of you are still friends with that best friend?

I read some research this week that said about every seven years we have a 50% turnover in friendships. So on average, by the time seven years have passed, half of our friends are no longer our friends. It seems that it must be a rare thing to have a BFF.

I recently got back in touch with my two best friends from childhood, Jan and Terri. Jan lived out in the country, on a dairy farm. We met at church, when we were newborns. Cradle buddies, our moms called us. Jan and I sat together at church, every Sunday morning and night, and every Wednesday night. We spent Sunday afternoons at each other’s houses. Her parents would swat me when I misbehaved, just like mine did, and I helped her gather the eggs, feed the calves, take milk to the cats. We drifted apart in our teens, but kept in touch through our moms.

Terri lived across the street, in a little brown rental house. We played together almost every day, at her house, because her mom wouldn’t let her cross the street. We made up our own secret words, and made up silly games, and climbed up in the mulberry tree, and screamed whenever we heard sirens, and played circus on her swing set. We went to the same school until Terri moved away. I went to her 7th birthday party, and didn’t see her again until Junior High.

When I re-connected with these two friends, I had two vastly different responses. Jan said warmly “…Those were the good old days. Thanks so much for touching base with me. It means so much.” When I got in touch with Terri, I said “Terri! My BFF when we were 5!” Terri’s response? “Tina?! We didn't know what bff's were at that age!!” Here’s the thing: I thought we did.

When I was five, Jan and Terri were my best friends forever. But things change as we grow older. When we were in high school, we found out how fleeting friendship could be, how fickle friends could be, how painful it was to be isolated, how costly it could be to be popular. We learned how freeing it could be if you were not one of the chosen ones. Since those days, most of us have learned about the ways in which we are friends in spaces and times, how we are friends for seasons, and not forever, often temporarily, and sometimes not for better. And sometimes, it turns out, we find friendships that last our whole lives long.

Throughout our lives, we learn how important friendships are, how friends shape, sustain and strengthen our lives. It is our friends who love us just as we are, who know us thoroughly and like us anyway, who will call us to account, and remember our stories, and encourage us. It is our friends who know our heartsongs, and sing them back to us when we forget them.

When Jesus calls the disciples friends, he isn’t just tossing that word out like Facebook friends do. Jesus is talking about the rare, maybe nearly impossible kind of friendship that really does last forever. There are several important points about friendship in this text.

First, to be a friend of Jesus means to be loved and chosen. The dramatic definition of love given in John 15:13, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, describes friendship that is rooted in the life-giving event of his death, in which Jesus becomes not king but servant. There’s an old saying, “You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.” Just in case we have some notion that friendship with Jesus is a result of our decision, our choice, Jesus pointedly dispels it: “You did not choose me but I chose you”

In that time, faithful Jews who wished to learn the Torah sought out a rabbi whose teaching they would follow. They not only listened to him, they traveled with him, ate with him, shared their lives with him, and obeyed his every command. But the choice was theirs. Jesus reverses the order. The decision is his. He chooses his followers.

So we are not consumers of Christianity, casually hanging out with our buddy Jesus until someone more interesting comes along. We are not in a position to dictate when and where we will act like friends. We are not in a position to demand or expect something from Jesus that will meet our needs. We are chosen—to produce, to bear fruit, fruit that is not of our making, but from the true vine.

Perhaps most comforting, since we are not the ones who do the choosing, we can’t “unfriend” Jesus. Our fears and failures, our betrayals and neglect do not shake the hand that sustains us. Jesus won’t drop us, won’t casually brush us off, won’t stop returning our calls.

Second, we learn that to be a friend of Jesus means intimacy: to know and be known. Close friendships don’t ask their friends to be someone else. When Jesus chooses us to follow him, he is not setting us up to try to be something we are not. When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John, he simply called them to follow. Jesus didn’t give them a list of skills and characteristics they had to live up to, or point out their deficiencies and drawbacks, and tell them to work on them. Jesus actually called them to use their strengths as fishermen, but to use them in a new way. That’s the same way that Jesus calls us.

We are not expected to spend our lives figuring out the gap between who we are and who we are supposed to be, struggling to close the gap, and finding ourselves always, always inadequate to the task. When Jesus calls us, as individuals and as a congregation, he is calling us to be MORE of who we are, not less!

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says:
“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks— we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” Palmer tells the Hasidic tale of an old man, Rabbi Zusya, who said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?'”[1]

That being said, Jesus choosing us as friends does ask something of us – he asks us to live up to that choice, to be faithful, truthful, loyal. He asks us to live up to his friendship. Jesus said, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” That kind of knowledge of one another assumes the very deepest level of trust. It’s a given for most of us, I think, that we know we can trust in Jesus. So the question arises, as it must, in a true friendship, whether Jesus can also trust us?

It has been said of this friendship with Jesus: “As our God he knows every fiber of the being which he has made; as our Savior he knows every instant in the past in which we have swerved from his obedience; but, as our friend, he waits for us to tell him.”[2]

It’s important for us to be trustworthy friends of Jesus, because the third point of this text is this: To be a friend of Jesus means to keep his commandments. His commandment, over and over and over, is to love. To love as he has loved. 
To love God.
To love one another.
To love our neighbors.
To love our enemies.

John’s Gospel repeatedly speaks of love as a commandment, not exactly in keeping with our contemporary notions of love and friendship. But this love is not just because we feel like it. We are called to love as Jesus loved, and to do it because he told us to! To be connected to others in loving relationships is to be connected to God. And conversely, to be alienated from others is a form of alienation from God. 

There isn’t a handbook for abiding in love, no diagram for living that demonstrates a life of joy. There are no step-by-step instructions to obey the great commandment. But we do have a text, a message, a love letter we can open any time we want to read it over again. And we have this friend, this loving friend who chose us, who knows us and loves us just the way we are, and who makes only one request of us, commands us but one task.

Here is what he commands:
Be my friend.
Make me happy.
Make you happy.
Abide in my love.
Love one another as I have loved you.
He’s our best friend. 

And he wants us to live like that.


[1]Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

[2] Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914)

Sunday, May 3, 2015


Spirit Filled
Romans 8:22-31
May 3, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

For this month, as we anticipate Pentecost Sunday, we will be looking at the suggested texts for that Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary. If you follow the devotional guide in the newsletter, that lists the texts and some suggested devotions for the week, you know that our scripture for this week is Romans 8:22-31. I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Book of Romans for Christians and Christian thought. Romans was the book of the Bible that moved St. Augustine to abandon his wicked ways and turn to Christ. Romans was the book of the Bible that inspired Martin Luther to write and post his 95 theses and thus begin the Reformation. Romans was the book that gave John Wesley “a heart strangely warmed” as he read it, and led him to a deeper faith that became Methodism.” And in the 20th century, Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans revolutionized theological thinking in the reformed churches. 

In Romans, the Apostle Paul sorts out many tricky doctrines and ideas. He contrasts law and grace, human and divine, evil and righteousness, life and death, and does so in a way that captures not only the intellect but also the imagination. Paul uses many images and metaphors in this book, and this scripture is no exception.

At the beginning of chapter 8, we hear the basis of the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Through the Spirit, God has set us free, and through the Spirit, we are adopted as God’s children. The imagery of adoption and birth is carried through this chapter. As with those awaiting a birth, the entire creation waits with eager longing for this new life promised in Christ. All of creation is pregnant, as it were, groaning in labor. But the suffering of labor will prove worthwhile, because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Listen for God’s word to you now in these “pregnant words” of Romans 8:22-31:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

This is a very noisy scripture. So much moaning, groaning and sighing – sounds of labor and delivery – not only creation, but we too, groaning in labor pains. The Holy Spirit groans with us, like a spiritual midwife, and we groan with creation, anxiously awaiting this new birth that God promises. That image of the Holy Spirit indwelling us is crucial to our understanding of the work of the Spirit. We learn more about that in the next verses about prayer and the Holy Spirit. The section begins with the word “likewise” – “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Likewise – in the same way that we in creation groan, and that the new creation groans in us, the Spirit sighs within us and we, wordless, sigh in prayer. It’s like a Lamaze coach, this Holy Spirit – breathing with us – sighing within us, interceding for us, praying with us and in us and for us when we do not know how, when words fail us.

Sighing is a strange and interesting human phenomenon.
When you sigh, there is a lot going on – more than we imagine. 
Try it – sigh with me - take in a deep breath and let it out like a sigh. 

Most of the time when we sigh, it is a sign of frustration or negative emotion – a sigh is a sign that there is something wrong. And most people, hearing someone sigh, interpret it that way. You’ve experienced that, right? You sigh, maybe not even consciously aware of it, and someone asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Psychologists say sighing in general is a signal of an unexpressed feeling, most commonly exasperation. It could also be anger. Or depression. Or anxiety, irritation, disgust, resignation, dismay, impatience or exhaustion.”[1] But a sigh is also a reset mechanism –when we are highly stressed, the sigh, a deep release of breath, relaxes the air pockets in our lungs and gives us a sense of relief. Hence, sighing with relief. And sighing with frustration, and sighing as a sign of giving up.

There is another kind of sigh – the sigh of love and longing. The 18th century poet and musician Christian Schubart even assigned it a musical key – C minor! “All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key”[2]

Maybe they are all there, all those meanings, in the sighs of the Spirit within us. There are moments, sometimes hours and days, even weeks, in our lives, when we do not know how to pray. Not that we have lost our memories of how to say the words of a prayer. I’ve found that even in the most severe stages of illness or dementia, most people who know the Lord’s Prayer can still say it. Not knowing how to pray describes those times when we have no words.

Those are the moments when we most need to pray, and when we cannot, because our prayers are inexpressible, ineffable – longing, and love and surrender. I’ve experienced several of those moments this past week. As I watched the heartbreaking footage coming out of Baltimore, the desperation and fear and anger and violence left me speechless. We saw, too, the devastation in Nepal, entire villages flattened, loved ones lost, lives utterly destroyed. It calls for sighs, for what else can be said? It is then that the Holy Spirit, surrounding us and indwelling us, prays in us and with us and for us.

We Presbyterians are not given to great displays of spirituality. We can barely lift up our hands in worship, much less express the presence of the Holy Spirit in the ways that some of our Christian sisters and brothers do in dancing and shaking and speaking in tongues.

Still, that Spirit is with us, teaching us and guiding us pulling us in with magnetic love to promise us that all things work together for good in the great and grand scheme of God’s universe. The sighs and prayers of the Spirit draw us into the will of God, that great circle of love that encompasses our lives, that surrounds the entire cosmos.

For we know that this will of God, the purpose of God, to which we are called and in which we pray, is this encircling love of God and neighbor, the love of every part of creation, the earth and all that is in it. It is this for which we pray, when we do not have the words. It is this for which we sigh, when we do not know what to say. It is then that the Spirit prays within us, interceding for us in that great and speechless prayer of the heart of God.


[1] Smith, Lynn, “It Turns Out Sighs Matter”