Sunday, August 30, 2015


Words: Hawk Nelson

James 3: 1-12
August 30, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This is the third week of our series on the Book of James, and for two weeks we’ve had our attention focused on right action –first, with being doers of the word, and not merely hearers, then with the powerful statement on good works of hospitality and justice, and how actions speak louder than words. Those were hard texts to hear, and to wrestle with. Many people are much more comfortable with an easier kind of faith, the kind that lets us check the boxes on a list of beliefs but doesn’t ask much of us in our day to day lives.

You will be glad to know that the text this week does NOT afflict us with any emphasis on our actions and deeds, no, not at all. It DOES afflict us with something just as challenging –the way we use our words.

Many of us have heard the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Anyone who has ever been called a name knows that is simply not true.

This scripture calls our attention to the power of words, and how they can wound, cause trouble, or even destruction. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in James, chapter 3, verses 1-12

My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity.
Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder.
In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.

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

At first blush, when we hear these words from James, we may want to argue with them.
O, come on, James! First you tell us to be good listeners, and then to show that we were listening by getting busy doing good works. Now you turn around and scold us for our words.

This is strong talk about our talk.
Nearly everyone who can talk has at least once stuck their foot in their mouth. I used to get in trouble in school all the time, for talking. People said I was mouthy. One of the kids shared last week that he gets in trouble for talking in school but it is usually because someone else is talking to him. With me, it was usually me doing the talking. Sometimes it was just news to share, sometimes it was telling someone the answer. Or I would come up with something witty, that I couldn’t keep to myself. I cracked me up! But my teachers didn’t appreciate my humor. So I would have to write one hundred times, “I will not talk in class.”

I still get in trouble sometimes, when I engage my mouth before my brain is in gear.
Have you ever created trouble by something you said? I don’t mean just an embarrassment. I mean real trouble, like somebody getting written up at work, or two people getting in an argument because of what you said, or being accused of slander. There are plenty of examples of this in the news, especially if you count the magazines at the Kroger checkout line as news. Certain politicians, or aspiring politicians come to mind, but that is too easy.

This week I ran across a chilling story about a young man who died by suicide, and when his death was investigated, it was discovered that his girlfriend had been urging him to do it. The story is tragic, and it must be devastating for the parents of that boy to learn that someone had encouraged him toward self-destruction, sending him text messages saying, “Do it. It’s now or never.”[1]

Words are powerful.
Anyone who has been verbally abused, or bullied, can testify to that truth.
Anyone who has been a victim of malicious gossip would agree.
So why do we have such trouble taming the tongue? It’s so small – like the bit in a bridle or the rudder on a ship, but it can do big damage. I don’t think James is talking about embarrassing slips of the tongue. I don’t think he is addressing the casual remark that hurts someone’s feelings. It would appear that his lecture is about the kind of mean-spirited talk that damages reputations, undermines leadership, or leads students astray.

Another item in the news this week was about teachers being investigated and sometimes fired for assigning certain books to read, or addressing certain issues, books or issues that made students uncomfortable. These stories were not about fourth graders, or even high schoolers, but about college professors who have been asked to avoid certain topics or works of literature, or even certain words. Apparently some people want to go to college for four years without ever learning any new ideas, or having their opinions challenged.

That’s not what James is getting at, when he talks about the special responsibility of teachers. He’s gesturing to the singular influence that teachers have, especially Christian teachers and leaders. As Christians, we are responsible to a higher standard of speech, especially those of us called to more mouthy vocations. As Christian community, we are called to a higher standard of care for one another –prayer concerns, for example, should not be occasion for snooping, but for sincere interest and concern, and response.

But sometimes, it is hard to know if we are concerned or merely curious.
And it is hard to know when it is okay to share information about other people.
The line between sharing and gossip is sometimes hard to see.

An interesting little word, gossip – did you know that it’s original meaning was religious?
Yep – “gossip” was originally “godsib” – from the words God, and sib, meaning relative.
Godsib, or gossip, was “a person related to one in God.” Like godparents. Or a brother or sister in Christ. God-sib. It was someone close enough to share your life, close enough to talk to. Later, the term was used for the women who attended a woman giving birth.

They would gather to deliver the baby, and kick the men out of the house. It was women talking, so, unfortunately, because of that, gossip eventually got the connotation of “idle or malicious talk.”

Idle gossip, backbiting, and unkind talk is lethal to a church. But we all know how important talk is in the church. We are all about words – talk and song and prayer are central to our worship. The author of James was a man of letters – a man of words, a teacher – an educated person who wrote in elegant Greek, and his background in Hebrew scripture is abundantly clear in this reading.

In Jewish law and tradition, the law we read in Leviticus, it is a violation to speak about another person – to gossip. It is a sin to have an “evil tongue” – to speak ill of another person, even if it is true. In Jewish law and tradition, the person who listens to gossip is just as bad as the person who speaks it. It has been said that disparaging speech kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. In fact, it is regarded as wrong to speak of another person, even if it is not hurtful, even if it is not a secret, even if the person would tell whatever it is if asked.

But there are exceptions, and here is where the original meaning come in. The exceptions are in cases where the sharing is for the other’s protection, to keep them from being injured, or cheated.[2] If, for example, someone is entering into a business partnership, or planning a marriage, and you know the prospective partner is untrustworthy or dishonest, you are obliged to share that information. When you know of a need, and you share it with a trusted person, a person who can help, you are doing right to share that information.

That’s when it is no longer “gossip” but “God-sib” –an act of community and care, the sharing of a beloved brother or sister. That’s what James calls us – MY brothers and sisters.

Words are powerful.
They name things.
They create worlds.
They are more than just sounds –
words perform, promise, move, heal and comfort.
Words said at a wedding seal the covenant promises of a couple’s love.
Words said at the font bring us into the family of God.
Words said at the table connect us with the communion of all the saints.
Words bring us into relationship – they make us brothers and sisters in Christ.
When our words are those of “God-sibs” they have the power to heal and to uphold.

One writer says that we are stewards of our words – we are entrusted with the use and care of every word we say. She says, “Our task as stewards of the word begins and ends in love. Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love.”[3]

Jesus said, “It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” We are blessed beyond telling by the Word of God, the Word made flesh, in whom we live and move and have our being. So let your words reflect the abundance of your heart. In this family of faith, let us be God-sibs, who find the words of abundance, warm them in our hands, and offer them to God and to one another, in love.

[2] Wenig, Margaret Moers. “Sacred Speech — Sacred Communities” The Reconstructionist, Fall 2002, pp 41-57
[3] McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, p. 23

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Working Faith

James 2:1-17
August 23, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue with our series on the book of James this week remembering that this brief epistle is primarily intended as a moral lecture for its recipients. James is not terribly concerned with doctrine or right belief, but with practice – right action. He makes it a special point to instruct his readers to make their Christian faith not just talk but action.

We heard last week that idea expressed as being doers, not merely hearers. This chapter addresses an issue central to Christian morality: the treatment of the poor. Today’s reading is in three sections, all of them linked by a warning not to show partiality, not to discriminate based on wealth or poverty.

In the first section, James suggests again that discrimination is not compatible with faith. In the second section he points out that showing special honor to the rich and discriminating against the poor dishonors them. In the third section, he makes it clear that showing this kind of partiality is sin and a violation of God’s law. In James, failing to provide for the poor “undermines the ethos of the entire community.” Those who claim faith without works have a faith that is dead. Let’s listen for God’s word in James 2:1-17:

James 2:1-17 CEB
My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?

My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?

You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker. In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom.

There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment. My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

If you are following any of the news about the ever-growing field of Republican presidential hopefuls, and if you happen to be Presbyterian, you probably heard last month about Donald Trump’s comments in Iowa. He was there to speak at a very conservative Republican gathering, the Family Leadership Summit. This group is not only politically conservative, they are also religiously conservative, so it was only natural that there would be a question about Christian faith.

Moderator Frank Luntz asked Trump whether he has ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions. "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so," [Trump answered]. "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't."

Trump said that while he hasn't asked God for forgiveness, he does participate in Holy Communion. "When I drink my little wine – which is about the only wine I drink – and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed," he said. "I think in terms of 'let's go on and let's make it right.'"[1]

Trump had earlier said that people were surprised to find out he is Presbyterian; many Presbyterians were surprised by that. Naturally, this came up at lunch after church that week. Someone asked me, “Would you want Donald Trump to join our church?”
I answered, “Sure, if he will tithe!”

Seriously, though, it is a question worth asking. If a well-known public figure pulled up at 410 Second Avenue this morning, and walked into the church to worship with us, what welcome would we offer? Would we all want to shake his or her hand? Would we want to find her or him the best place to sit? Would our welcome be any different than the welcome we extend to any new person who walks in that door? I daresay it might.

If the writer of the book of James were here, he’d say, “See, THAT’S what I’m talking about!” The particular population that James is concerned with is the poor. In the time this letter was written, that would have been most of the church. To be Christian was not mainstream, not high status. It could cost you your job, your family, or even your life. In our time, that is not the case; in fact, the opposite is the case, so much so that every politician who aspires to office had better be ready to answer questions about his or her belief, and so far, every President we have ever have has been at least nominally Christian.

So what if Donald Trump came to church and right behind him, the lady who cleans the rooms at Super 8 came in? Or the guy who does odd jobs over on the other side of town? This scripture tells us that our welcome and care for them should show no partiality – unless it is partiality for the poor one. This scripture actually says that God prefers the poor.

Those are hard words to hear. Because we are in a different time and context. We are not the poor; we are the privileged. We are in a time and context when many of us are challenged by the divisions in our society many of us are struggling to understand our place in this world. Many of us are struggling with understanding our place of privilege particularly white privilege, and what that means.

We want to understand what that means in terms of our faith, and James is making it harder for us. I wish he would stop it. Remember I told you last week that Martin Luther didn’t like the book of James, that he called it “an epistle of straw”? I’m thinking I’m going with Martin on that one. Because it is hard.

It is hard to listen to these words and to let them take hold of us. After all, we didn’t create our own privilege and status. The nature of privilege and status is that they are conveyed without effort. We’re born into them. We are born into a family in particular time and location and historical era. We are born a certain gender, a certain skin color, in a particular geographic area. We don’t control whether we were born into a rich white family in Dallas or a poor black family in Ferguson.
Or Nairobi.
Or Mumbai.
We don’t control that.

We can’t be held personally responsible for institutional structures that have maintained our privileged positions over time. Can we?
We are not racists, right?
We are not high class rich people who look down on others, right?

James challenges us to take a closer look at ourselves, not just at our beliefs, but at what we do. Jesus did something similar, in the 19th chapter of the gospel of Matthew. A man came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
So the young man asked, “Which ones?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’
Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

You notice that when Jesus named the commandments, he only mentioned commandments five through ten, the ones that have to do with our relationships with others? Then he added the great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

James echoes Jesus, and he calls it “the royal law.” Did you hear it? Verse eight: “You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Working faith is hard work. It demands something from us, and sometimes what it demands is uncomfortable. It makes us squirm. See, I’d like to believe that my position in life is something I deserve. I’d like to believe that I earned it.

There’s research to explain this. Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in fundamental identities.[2]

“People hold essentialist beliefs about generally biological categories such as gender, race, and sexuality, as well as about more cultural ones such as nationality, religion, and political orientation. Essentialism leads to stereotyping, prejudice, and a disinclination to mingle with outsiders.

Kraus and Keltner found this to be true: “If you’re doing well, you believe success comes to those who deserve it, and those of lower status must not deserve it.” Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class, the more strongly they believed success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it.”[3]

In other words, if I am successful, it is because of who I am and what I’ve done.
And those who are poor, it is because they don’t deserve to be well off.

We all get what we deserve, right?

God loves me because I’m lovable.
I will go to heaven if I’m good.
God especially loves people who are well off and hard working.

Of course, this is patently untrue.
The gospel tells us this, over and over.

Jesus made it clear,
Paul reiterated it, James echoes it.
We don’t get what we deserve.
It’s all grace.

We are indebted, not to mortgage companies and car payments and student loans, but to grace, the grace of God. God’s grace looks past what we deserve, which is exactly nothing – and substitutes mercy in place of judgment.

If we are spiritually rich, it is the wealth of mercy that we have received. If we are spiritually stingy, it is because we have not recognized that mercy and extended it to every single person we meet. And if we are materially well-off, and we are, working faith calls us to share generously with others, not only in welcome and hospitality, not only in care for the poor, but also in grace and mercy and hope.

Because we have been forgiven, we forgive.
Because we have been loved, we love.
Because we have been dealt with generously, we are generous.
Because we have been welcome, we are welcoming.
Because we have been shown mercy, we are merciful.
May God grant that it be so, and that our faith will be working faith.





Sunday, August 16, 2015


James 1:17-27
August 16, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

School starts tomorrow here in Sterling; every household that contains children or teachers is acutely aware of that. I predict that in some classroom on Monday, somebody will say,
“You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.”

That saying was coined by Epictetus, about two thousand years ago. James picked up on it for this first chapter of this wise book. Even though we officially concluded our study of wisdom literature last week, we are actually continuing with wisdom literature this week as we begin a short series on the New Testament book of James. The book of James is one of the “general epistles” or letters, it is not actually a letter in any true sense of the word. There is no particular addressee other than “the twelve tribes in the dispersion” which is pretty much everybody at the time.

There are no personal greetings or comments about particular issues, no location of a congregation. It may be useful to think of this letter as an open letter to Christians, addressed to all of us, and to each one of us— kind of like a newsletter. But this newsletter contains very specific teachings, like “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” These teachings are not like the Apostle Paul’s letters about doctrine. Those tell us how we ought to believe, how we ought to be. The teaching in James are about what we ought to do. In fact, James uses the imperative voice – DO IT! – about sixty times! This book is more like the list of chores hung on your refrigerator than it is the daily devotional on your coffee table.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in James 1:17-27

James 1:17-27 Common English Bible
17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn't produce God's righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you. 22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don't do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don't listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

26 If those who claim devotion to God don't control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The book of James is historically a controversial book of the Bible – it almost didn’t make it into the Bible. Martin Luther hated it, and called it “an epistle of straw.” But it is packed with wisdom – it is like a little vitamin pill with 100 percent of our daily required wisdom.

It is a little book crammed with a lot of truth about living the Christian life, in practical, daily ways. There is very little in this book that would call an unbeliever to follow Jesus; the epistle of James was clearly written to the baptized community.

This reading today is bookended by verses about giving.
That may not be obvious, but keep in mind that verse 17 tells us where all good gifts come from, and verse 27 tells us what we should do in grateful response to those gifts. The part that is in between tells us that our Christian life is about more than belief, more than just being baptized or talking about Jesus. True devotion to God, to following Jesus, is not just hearing God’s word; it is about what we DO.

That’s a tricky thing to say, which is why Martin Luther didn’t like James. We rely, as reformed and Protestant Christians, on the promise of grace, on the assurance that God’s love for us does not depend on our good works. However, the evidence of our commitment to God becomes visible in our good works.

The old saying, “actions speak louder than words” rings true here. There are a hundred ways to say that, and it has been said over and over again over the centuries. Jesus told a story to highlight this truth, a story about a man with two sons. Here’s what he said in Matthew 21:

28 “What do you think?
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said,
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.
30 The father went to the second and said the same;
and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.
31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”

You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to know the answer to that question.

As obvious as it is, we Christians are all too often guilty of the glib talk that is not supported by our action. It is up to each one of us to take a good look in the mirror, and to make sure that our actions match our stated beliefs. Hardly anything brings more shame to the gospel of Christ than Christians who shout loudly about their good friend Jesus and act as if they never heard a word of what he said.

It is serious business, to commit our lives to Jesus of Nazareth, and to live the way he taught us. It sounds simple, but it is never easy. And our neighbors are watching us, to see if our actions match our words.

You’ve probably heard this story, but it is such a good illustration that I had to share it:

An honest man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard.
Suddenly, the light turned yellow in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman hit the brakes, and then she hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration and cursing the man because she missed her chance to get through the intersection.

While she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the serious face of a police officer. The officer ordered her to get out of her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger-printed, and photographed, and then placed in a holding cell.

After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, "I'm very sorry for this mistake.
You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him.
I noticed the 'Choose Life' license plate holder,
the 'What Would Jesus Do?' bumper sticker,
the 'Follow Me to Sunday School' bumper sticker,
and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk.

Naturally, I assumed you must have stolen the car!"

The crucial point here though, is not that others are making judgments about Christianity based on our behavior, although that is probably the case, and it is worthwhile to remember it. But even though that is really important, the crucial point here in James is that God is watching us. And while God cares very much about our hearts, about our thoughts and feelings and moral principles, it would seem that God cares JUST as much about our actions.

The mirror into which we are to look, then, is God’s law, the law of love of God and neighbor that shows us our failings and directs us in right paths. The great Scottish preacher and writer George MacDonald, whose novels had a profound effect on C.S. Lewis, put it better than anyone I know of.

He said that if you want to be a disciple of Jesus,
“Get up, and do something the master tells you; so make yourself his disciple at once.
Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not anything he tells you. If you can think of nothing he ever said as having had an atom of influence on your doing or not doing, you have too good ground to consider yourself no disciple of his.”
“[Jesus]knows that you can try, and that in your trying and failing he will be able to help you, until at length you shall do the will of God even as he does it himself. “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation.”[1]

Sometimes, according to James, doing the will of God means keeping our mouths shut.
Sometimes it means listening without answering back –
even when we have the perfect snappy comeback.
Sometimes it means keeping control of our tempers.
Sometimes it means not pointing out that someone else is wrong.
Sometimes, our actions may be what we choose NOT to do,
rather than some positive choice of a good deed.

And many times, it may mean just that –
choosing to do something that is good and right and just,
for no other reason than that Jesus told us to!
Always, that choice of action should be directed toward those who are in need,
toward those who are poor,
toward those who are lonely,
toward those who are hurting.
It isn’t an either/or proposition –
to do Christ’s work or to be Christ’s disciples,
to be Christians or to do Christ’s work,
we are called to both hear AND do God’s word,
to do-be-do-be-do-be-do! 



Sunday, August 9, 2015

Turn, Turn, Turn!

Pete Seeger and Judy Collins sing "Turn, Turn, Turn"
(this is almost as good as the version we heard in worship this morning)

Ecclesiastes 2: 18 to 3:1-8
August 9, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

As we conclude our series on wisdom and our examination of some texts from the “wisdom literature” of the Bible, we look today at Ecclesiastes 2: 18 to 3:1-8. Most dictionaries define wisdom as the ability to discern what is good and right and true, coupled with the ability to judge – to discern – the best course of action, and then to follow it.

In this post-modern era, there is considerable debate about whether things like wisdom, truth, and beauty actually exist, or whether they are human constructs – things we just made up, and ideas that we can remake whenever we want.

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and if you recall, when Jesus was brought before Pilate to be judged, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” The preacher in Ecclesiastes is contemplating these big questions, and part of his thinking is to consider the meaning of time.

Let’s listen for God’s wisdom in Ecclesiastes, beginning in chapter two, verse 18, and continuing on to the beautiful and familiar poem of chapter three, verses one through eight.

Ecclesiastes 2: 18 to 3:1-8

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?

Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.
This also is vanity.

So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.
This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

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

A couple of months ago, Bob gave me a new watch. I’ll show it to you after the service – it is a plain black round face, and all the numbers that would go around the dial are jumbled together at the bottom of the face of the watch.

At the top it says, “Oh, who cares? I’m late anyways!”

Like many people, I struggle sometimes with the passage of time, with running late, or being “on time.” It isn’t that I don’t care, and certainly not that I want to keep people waiting. It is just that in my head, time moves at a different pace than it does in the actual world. Lots of people have that issue – no matter how often we check the clock, we don’t know what time it is, or we don’t give ourselves enough time to get somewhere, or we don’t have enough time to get things done. If we were to post our relationship status with time, we’d say, “it’s complicated.”

The preacher poet in Ecclesiastes, Quoholeth, recognizes this difficulty. But he has observed, as have physicists, poets and philosophers, that time has its own rhythm, turning like a wheel that never touches the road. It “spins, but it does not move.”[1]

What Quoholeth also recognizes is that time is not just a human construct. Quoholeth sees, without the benefit of Newtonian physics, that there are certain laws that govern life. He sees that time is an observable phenomenon, not just something we made up. There is a right time for everything.

Humans invented clocks sometime around 2000 BCE, with sundials and water clocks. We didn’t invent time, we just came up with a way to measure it. But the preacher in Ecclesiastes is more interested in time’s effect on us, and on how time measures us. We’ve confronted the reality that much of our striving, much of our sense of our own importance, is really nothing but vanity.

Now, we turn to look at this wheel of time. Of the fourteen pairs in this poem of times and seasons, only the time to be born and the time to die are outside of our control. Everything else on the list is up to us to decide – is it the right time?

Some of the choices are easier than others – we know when to plant seeds, and when to pick a tomato. We know that funerals are times for weeping and mourning, while weddings, unless you have some emotional issues, are times for celebration and rejoicing. We know we aren’t supposed to start laughing in the middle of a lecture from a teacher or parent, and we know it isn’t appropriate to start weeping in the checkout aisle of Kroger.

Of all the different ways to understand wisdom, this, perhaps, is the most challenging. If there is a time for every purpose under heaven, how are we to know when that is? Is there ever a right time to kill? Is there ever a good time for war? Just exactly when is a good time to hate?

Hardly anyone chooses a time to kill or hate or make war – but in every life people face such realities. Quoholeth’s wisdom about times and purposes is to observe and describe them, the way scientists and anthropologists observe and describe natural phenomenon and cultural customs. He sees the wheel of time turn, turn, turn, and he does not try to stop or change its rotation.

The preacher understands that wisdom sometimes means acceptance; he doesn’t take the changing times and seasons personally, nor does he think that every moment and action is pre-determined. We are not puppets – we have free will. And even with our free will and agency, we are not in charge of everything. We have to let go of our desire to control it all.

When we think of it that way, we also have to let go of beliefs about God that say God is ordaining every moment and determining every purpose. If we don’t, we are left with the impossible dilemma of a loving God who has ordained hatred and killing. God has ultimate freedom, but God is love, and God does not violate God’s own character.

The wheel of time turns, and the wheel has many spokes. Each spoke is one of life’s many experiences – good and bad, joyful and tearful. No life is comprised totally of harvest, of laughter, of dancing and love; every life has times of labor, of sorrow, of mourning, of alienation. Each event and experience comes in its own time, and God can make it beautiful.

The wheel of time turns. We can’t go back, only forward. The wheel of time is turning “dependably, steadily, repeatedly, and completely…” With each turning of a day, a week, a month or year, there are overwhelming joys and sorrows, sweet memories and bitter disappointments, clear paths and confusing journeys. All of these are part of life, to be received as they come and relished if possible.

To live wisely, to tell the time and the turning, we ponder and we protest; we howl with grief and with laughter. We mark and measure the time, and time marks and measures us. We see the wheel turn, turn, turn, and the seasons go round and it is wise to value the gift of whatever time we are given.

To live wisely in the turning of this wheel means knowing what time it is –
whether it is time to throw away stones, or gather stones together.

The order of the universe, the turning of the seasons, is an invitation to wisdom. The rocky way and the lazy river are both gifts, journeys of equal value; possibilities and the limitations are part of the turning.

We learn as much wisdom from the difficult choices and sleepless nights as we do from obvious decisions and bright sunny mornings. In our conflicts and arguments, we learn peacemaking, and how to get along. In grief over death, we learn to appreciate life.

Wisdom comes in the form of life's experiences offered in their various seasons.
As we watch the wheel of time turn, turn, turn,
we learn the wisdom of both wonder and waiting,
until that day when time is no more,
and the seasons are no more,
and there is no more losing or weeping or death or hating,
but only discovery and joy, life and love,
forever more.


[1] Brisson, E. Carson, Interpretation, “Between Text and Sermon” July, 2001, p. 294

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Glimmer of God

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18
August 2, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we continue in our series on wisdom, we move now to the book of Ecclesiastes. The original name for this book is “Qoholeth,” the preacher. Though the book is attributed to King Solomon, it is uncertain who authored it. In the Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes is the scroll that is read during the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the feast of booths. The Jewish website says that “Kohelet shakes our contentment with the reminder that mundane accomplishments are fleeting and empty. Even at the close of the harvest, we must seek real achievement and fulfillment. Sukkot itself demonstrates this theme by the commandment to live in temporary dwellings. We move outside our home, which provides a sense of permanence and comfort, and instead dwell in a flimsy hut. This recalls the transience of physicality, as does the book of Kohelet.”1

Starting out in the first chapter and the first verse of Ecclesiastes, we may have the impression that the central message in this book is that we might as well abandon hope, because all is vanity. And indeed, that is how the preacher begins!

But there is another possibility. There is the possibility that we might take something else from this text – something that simultaneously reminds us of our smallness and draws our gaze toward God’s bigness. Maybe what is vanity is what is about us, and what is not vanity or futility is what is not about us, but about God.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us today from Ecclesiastes 1:1-18

1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,
13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom
all that is done under heaven;
it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.
14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun;
and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, "I have acquired great wisdom,
surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me;
and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge."
17 And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.
I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

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

Every week when I prepare the handouts for the Wednesday morning Bible study,
I look for images that will help convey the message of the scripture we are studying.
Sometimes those images are maps, sometimes they are beautiful works of art, and other times they are just funny.

This week I found a cartoon – a line drawing of an odd-looking fellow who is wearing a t-shirt and drinking a cup of coffee. On the fellow’s shirt it says:

“You’ve spent an infinity years not being born yet
and you will spend another infinity years being dead.
Finish your cereal and go outside.”

To me, it seemed that was a perfect summary of this scripture – life is fleeting; you are not even a blip on the screen of the world; no matter what you do, you will not be remembered; nothing anyone does makes any real difference in the grand scheme of things.

Finish your cereal and go outside.

When you go outside,
you will see what Qoholet sees :
the world turns round and round,
the wind blows and blows,
the sun makes its circuit,
the rivers flow to the sea.
Round and round and round it all goes, day after day,
and what does it all mean?


All is vanity.

We are born and we die, and the world continues to turn on its axis. Generations rise and fall, and the rivers continue to run to the sea. We toil and build, and time erodes it all until it is only memories. Even the memories will be blown away on the wind. Your life has no more significance than the tiny seed of a dandelion blown away in a tiny puff of breath.

It is all more wearisome than one can express.
Chasing after wind.
Vanity of vanities.

Well, then.
Is that it?
Life is difficult, then you die?
Not only do your works not matter, after a few years they won’t even be remembered. It’s a human dilemma, and it is not new. If there is anything new under the sun, our recognition of our smallness is not new.

About four thousand years ago, long before any of the Biblical story was written down, in Mesopotamia, an ancient near East culture preserved the story of Gilgamesh. It is a great story, full of adventure and insights into the human condition. In the Gilgamesh epic, the story of a great flood is told, predating Noah by hundreds of years. But the central tale of the epic is that of Gilgamesh, a demi-god and king, who goes out from his life of privilege and hedonism to seek greater meaning.

I will leave it to you to read all of that tale, but I want to lift up to you another image from the Gilgamesh epic– something a little more than “finish your cereal and go outside.” The story begins with King Gilgamesh inside his great city, Uruk. The narrator describes the great wall around the city, built by the forced labor of Gilgamesh’s people. The walls gleam like copper. On them are inscribed the mighty deeds of Gilgamesh. They are a monument to him and to his power. But Gilgamesh is not happy, and so he goes on a quest.

We don’t have time for details, but suffice it to say that he goes outside the walls, and discovers what is truly important and powerful in the world –friendship, love, wisdom, and the reality of death. It is in his realization of his own mortality that Gilgamesh recognizes the central wisdom echoed by Qoholeth- there is nothing new under the sun.

We humans are not that powerful.
We build walls to keep out that which we regard as the enemy:
sorrow, strangers, grief, loss, uncertainty, weakness,
but it is only when we go outside of those walls that we learn life’s meaning:

We learn that Nature is oblivious to us,
and the cycles of the earth go on without our help.
Our presence outside can damage the world,
but it cannot stop the daily rebirth of the new dawn,
nor the winds which blow where they will.

The only lasting monuments we can build are intangible:
love for another human being,
faithfulness to God and one another,
the endless gift of generosity,
the delight of living a life of gratitude.
Death is inevitable, but it is not the end of everything,
and even though humans die, humanity lives on.

Above all of this, the preacher says, God is sovereign, laying before us these beautiful cycles of the natural world. In spite of our wars and conflicts, in spite of our violence and our destructive nature, in spite of our endless toil, God’s creation continues in its daily rhythms.

The morning sun rises, and in the evening it sets.
The tides roll in and then out.
The planets spin out in space,
and among all the silent stars and moons and asteroids,
among all the heavenly bodies,
we live on this third planet from the sun!

We are alive!

The city of Uruk, kingdom of Gilgamesh, is long gone, but the wall where Gilgamesh inscribed his mighty deeds, may still be seen, in excavated remnants. The story it tells echoes through the centuries to the preacher, Qoholeth, who repeats the wisdom learned so many years before: There is nothing new under the sun. You are very small, and God is very big.You are not in charge, and you do not control the world.

But this is not cause for despair!

Rather, this is the basis for delight –for all around us the world offers up joy; and for each one of us who will take it, God gives wisdom, and peace, and grace. Beyond the walls of our small selves, beyond the walls of our pride and will, there is a world of delight. Beyond the walls of our finitude, beyond the walls we build to protect ourselves from hurt or conflict or powerlessness, there is the glorious humility of being vulnerable.

The poet Rumi said,
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.”

The preacher says, in chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy…”

Finish your cereal and go outside – 
glimmers of God await you there.