Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Found Faithful in All

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

Colossians 3:12-17

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

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND be thankful.

AND let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;

AND teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 9, 2015

Found Faithful in Little

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

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

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

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

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

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them,

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to wait and see…

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

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


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

Accessed online at googlebooks, 11/7/2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints (and All Sinners)

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

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

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

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

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another,
and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him,
“Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

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

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

After that no one dared to ask him any question.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

All Saints Day!

I love this day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bam. Mic drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you’re a saint.

Thanks be to God!


[1] [1] David Ewart, www.holytextures.com


[2] http://www.reformedreader.org/gbn/en.htm

[3] Geneva Notes ccel.org