Monday, December 26, 2016

The Spirit of Christmas

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2016, Christmas Eve
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

These past four weeks, we’ve been contemplating the story of Scrooge alongside the story of Christmas – the gifts of peace, hope, love and joy. Both of these stories are familiar, and both have much to teach us. So tonight we will consider the tale of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and we will hear again the story of the birth of Jesus.

Let’s start with the fictional character – Ebenezer Scrooge. He was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” And one night he was visited by four ghosts – his old partner Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Each one of these spirits has something important to show Scrooge. And because of what he sees, Scrooge is transformed. He goes from “Bah! Humbug!” to “God bless us everyone!”

We know Scrooge – we’ve all met a Scrooge or two. Maybe we wondered how he was so successful, maybe wondered if she ever smiled or had a compassionate moment. Maybe you had business dealings with him, and wondered how he could be so cruel. Maybe you yourself have been that sort of person. But Scrooge, as you know, did not stay as he was.

The Ghost of Christmas past appeared first to Scrooge. Taken by the spirit to see once again exactly how his life had been, Scrooge had his heart broken again and again as he saw the visions of his past. When he saw himself as a boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends,”
Scrooge wept.

The second spirit to appear to Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present. The spirit showed Scrooge the sadness of the world around him, especially the poverty and ignorance of so many people. Scrooge realized how difficult life was for his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and regretted that he himself had made that life more difficult. He saw Cratchit’s sweet son, Tiny Tim, and again wept.

The final spirit, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, showed Scrooge a future of grief and death – of Scrooge himself, and of Tiny Tim. It was all too much for Ebenezer Scrooge. He begged the spirit – “Is there time? Can I change this future?” Of course, you know the story – on Christmas day, Scrooge awoke a changed man – determined to be a better man, filled with hope, and peace, and love and joy.

The ghosts that Scrooge encountered in A Christmas Carol challenged his view of the world, of himself, and of time. No longer did he see the world as hostile; no longer did he live in fear, and no longer did he believe that his past determined his future.

That is a fictional story, a faint shadow of the true story, the true Christmas carol of the angels who sang at Jesus’ birth. The coming of Jesus, Immanuel – God with us transforms the world, the soul, and time.

No longer is the world a chaotic and hostile place;
no longer is the soul a lonely competitor, scrambling to gain a foothold;
no longer is time an enemy, stealing our lives away.

Now the world is not so cold;
now the soul can sing for joy,
now God’s creative inbreaking
has simultaneously collapsed and expanded all time into eternity.

This is the miracle of Christmas.
In Jesus Christ, past, present and future come together as one.
In Christ, the God who was and is and is to come becomes real to us.

We experience this powerfully at the communion table, where we meet Christ in the present and the past and future. In our remembrance, we transcend the chronology of past, present and future.

As we gather here tonight, we too may sense around us the spirits of Christmases past – and we remember. Our remembering is a sacred and moving thing. It is a profound element of our faith. The Israelites were commanded to remember –
how God had made a covenant with them,
how God had delivered them from slavery,
how God had been faithful to them, even in their darkest hours.

Jesus commanded his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
So we come to this table as a people of memory. We light our candles in hope and remembrance. God’s love reignites the flame, and our small flickering candles are remembrances shining in the dark night.

The light of the past shines not only in memory, but here and now and into the days that are still to come. For our faith is based on more than simply a recounting of past stories. Our faith takes place in the here and now, in our own stories. Jesus came for us, for the littlest, the last, the least. In Jesus, we learn what love means, and how to put that love into action. Jesus calls each one of us to now, today, lead with love, to live with love.

What Jesus teaches us, and then asks of us -- is sustained love, continued mercy, persistent care. What Jesus teaches us, and then asks of us, is “to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step out in the name of love.”[1]

In the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the past of the entire world is changed as powerfully as the present. And because of that birth, the future is changed forever.

Now, there is hope.
Now there can be peace.
Now we can love.
Now we know true joy.

The words of the story are the same every year; it is our response, the change it evokes in us, that make Christmas a time of transformation.

The story itself does not changes, but it changes us.
We relive the present; we change the past; we remember the future.

At the end of the visit of the third spirit, Scrooge promises: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Friends, tonight the Spirit of Christmas visits us, but it is not just tonight.
Perhaps we will feel it most powerfully tonight,
as we receive communion,
as we sing the Christmas carols that our hearts know so well,
as we watch the flickering light of candles fill the darkened sanctuary.

But it need not stay here; it need not end here.
The spirit of Christmas is the abiding presence of the living Christ.
And that spirit is always with us, even to the end of time.

As we listen once again to the Christmas story,
as we hear the angels sing that first Christmas Carol,
as we come to Christ’s table
and as we light the candles,
may the spirit of God shine brightly in your heart.
May you know Christ’s transforming presence,
and may you feel his hope, peace, love and joy not only in this moment,
but in every moment of every day of your life.

And may God bless us, every one.


Luke 2

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,  ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[1] Cornel West

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remembering the Future

Revelation 1:4; Luke 4:18-19; Romans 8:4b-17
December 18, 2016
First Presbyterian Church Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We have three brief readings today, all from the New Testament. Fittingly for the theme of worship today, we begin with the end, a single verse from the first chapter of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. As you know, we Presbyterians understand this book not as a prediction of rapture and the end times, but as a prophecy and promise of the return of Christ, bringing not tribulation and Armageddon but a new heaven and a new earth. This particular verse calls to our attention the eternal past, present and future of Christ. Now that you’ve heard an introduction five times longer than the actual scripture, listen for the word of the Lord in

Revelation 1:4:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.

The second reading is from Luke’s gospel, a brief excerpt from a sermon Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue. The sermon was well received until Jesus added that the scripture, which quotes the prophet Isaiah, was fulfilled in him. Listen for the past fulfilled and future hope in

Luke 4:18-19
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Our third reading lifts up the role of the Spirit in creating a Christian life that is based in joyful obedience – a life without fear.

Romans 8: 4b-17
So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s [offspring.] You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as God’s children.

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

While the other spirits who visited Scrooge were somehow appealing, this spirit of the future is grim and dark – indistinguishable from the night around it. Dickens writes:
“When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded. He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
‘I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?’ said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.
Scrooge was terrified, but he understood that his fear could teach him something.
‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.
But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?’

The spirit does not speak, but takes Scrooge to see the future.
What Scrooge sees is a series of very sad scenes:
He sees the aftermath of his own death, and the indifference of others to it.
He sees the Cratchit household, in grief over the death of Tiny Tim.
His fear turns to sorrow, and then to hope. Perhaps the fear that Scrooge feels has been with him all along- not a reaction to the visit of the spirits, but a lifelong fear that he has nursed with anger and fed with resentment. That fear had become his abiding friend, sheltering him from further pain, steadfast, always with him. His fear has kept him safe.

Aristotle said that “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”[1] 
We’ve all been afraid, haven’t we? We’ve all had those moments when fear blocks us from seeing, when it casts a dark shadow over all our hopes. Like the ghost of Christmas yet to come, our fear becomes indistinguishable from the night that surrounds it.

Fear brings past and future into the present, and not in a good way. Fear collapses time – every related bad memory comes to mind, and every potential future evil becomes real in the here and now. That’s why scripture is so full of injunctions to fear not. That’s why the perfect love of Christ casts out fear. But simply telling us not to be afraid is not likely to dispel all fear. Courage requires something more than mere reassurance.

When the past haunts us and the future terrifies us, the present becomes a very, very uncomfortable place to be. Fortunately, God’s view of time is not the same as ours. One of the most wonderfully compelling ideas of theology is that God is sovereign over all creation, including over time. The late Dr. Lonnie Kliever, professor of philosophy and religion, offers this explanation of the distinction between human time – kronos – and God’s time - kairos.

“Kronos … from which we take our word chronology… is sequential time.
Kronos is the time of clocks and calendars; it can be quantified and measured.
Kronos is linear, moving .. out of the determinate past
toward the determined future, and has no freedom. …
Kairos is circular, dancing back and forth, here and there,
without beginning or ending, and knows no boundaries.
Kronos is mechanistic and deterministic,
time that is ruled by the dead hand of the past.
Kronos devours us with remorseless certainty.
Kronos turns life into stone.
Kairos is creative and serendipitous.
Kairos is time that is energized by the living dream of the future
and presents us with unlimited possibility.
Kairos turns fate into destiny.” [2]

The ghosts that Scrooge encounters in A Christmas Carol challenge his view of time – the determinate chronology – with a more divine perspective of time – God’s creative inbreaking. This is the miracle of Christmas. In Christ, the God who was and is and is to come becomes real to us. In the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the past of the entire world is changed as powerfully as the present. And because of that birth, the future is changed forever. The coming of Jesus happens in kairos, in the fullness of time.

Ephesians 1 says that in Christ, the mystery of God’s will is made known to us:
“in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.”

We can experience this most powerfully at the communion table, where we meet Christ in the present and the past and future. In the divine liturgy of the Orthodox Church, there is a moment prior to the celebration of the eucharist when the deacon says: “It is kairos – time – to begin the service of the Lord.”

In our remembrance, in that kairos moment, we transcend the chronology of past, present and future. Kairos is sacred time, circular time, holy time, when God breaks into our linear sequence of events. We relive the present; we change the past; we remember the future.

Kliever says it well: “We are not helpless to tip the balance in the direction of kairos over kronos. We can temper our fear and our fixation on sequential time. We can deepen our quest and our experiences of numinous time. In such synchronicity of kronos and kairos lies our deepest consolation and our steepest aspiration.”[3]

Where God’s presence is felt and recognized,
God’s kairos can break through our fear and surprise us with joy.

The final ghost’s visit in A Christmas Carol begins with fear, as Scrooge comes to term with his own eventual death.
‘Spirit!’ [Scrooge] cried, tight clutching at its robe,‘Hear me. I am not the man I was.
I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.
Why show me this, if I am past all hope?’”

By the time Scrooge learns what the spirit has to teach him, he is changed – his fear has turned to anticipation, even to joy! His fear – of death, of loss, of pain – has been transformed to joy for he recognizes that his future can change! He is not beyond redemption! He can live a life of joyful purpose!

Scrooge joyfully, exuberantly promises:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

True to his word, when Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning, he is positively giddy with joy. His delight is no temporary state, Dickens takes pain to tell us, but he is a completely changed man. The miracle of God’s inbreaking with the numinous – with kairos into our linear and practical chronos is that in Christ, God is truly with us, truly present.

In the presence of Christ, time collapses; fear is banished; selfishness evaporates ; love becomes a verb. In the presence of Christ we remember our future, and we become co-workers with Jesus to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In the presence of Christ, we know true and unending joy.
The miracle has just begun in YOU!
God Bless us Every One!


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Keep Your Eyes Open

Deuteronomy 15: 7-11
Matthew 2: 1-18
December 11, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture readings for today may be a bit unexpected, given the joyful time we’ve just had with our children’s program. The first reading is from Deuteronomy, the “second law,” that is, the second giving of the law to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. This reading comes from a section of Deuteronomy that is about “regulations concerning the sacred division of time.” That cycle includes observance of Sabbath, the giving of the tithe, the remission of debts, the manumission of slaves, and the care of those who are poor. Let’s listen for God’s word in Deuteronomy 15:7-11, from the Common English Bible:

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. But watch yourself! Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as, “The seventh year is coming—the year of debt cancellation”—so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything. If you do that, they will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. No, give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.

Our gospel reading is a difficult reading, a story of ego and power and violence that ends in grief But it is also a story of promise, of love, for it reminds us that the child Jesus was a refugee, whose family fled a violent regime, and whose life reversed the story of humanity.

God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt, now Jesus returns to Egypt as a place of refuge. Let’s listen for God’s story of redemption in Matthew 2: 1-18:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

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

Christmas is for children.
That’s what people say, don’t they?
And it is! We all enjoy seeing our children’s faces light up, the delight in their eyes when they see the decorations, the excitement in their voices, the wonderful way they share the good news of Jesus in their program. We enjoy decorating for them, shopping for them, taking them to see Santa. But if Christmas really is for children, we need to look up from our own families and ask, “Which children?”

This Sunday, our emphasis for Advent is love. In our drama and video, we see Scrooge visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who insists that Scrooge look, eyes wide open, at the reality of his time. Toward the end of this chapter, Dickens writes that the ghost says to Scrooge:

“’Look here.’ From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and girl.
Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them.
‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. …

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words.
“Are there no workhouses?”

It was Dickens’ intention, in writing his books, including A Christmas Carol, to call attention to the plight of the poor, particularly women and children. The Ghost of Christmas Present as Dickens presents him shows Scrooge and us how Christmas was in those days, and how Christmas could be in this day.

After the publication of A Christmas Carol, Lord Francis Jeffrey, austere editor of the Edinburgh Review, (and of course, a good Presbyterian!) wrote:
“Blessings on your kind heart... you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom.”

Christmas is for children.
We can see children all around us, if we keep our eyes open.
This past year, we were transfixed by tragic news images of children:
a stunned and bloody little boy in an ambulance in Aleppo
malnourished children playing in the rubble of Yemen,
the haunted face of a little girl outside a tent in a Greek refugee camp,
the traumatized children fleeing from the attack in Istanbul.

Our eyes were opened to the suffering of children far away. In those little faces, we can see the humanity that Jesus came to redeem. We can hear the voices of those who are hungry, naked, lonely. But we do not have to travel halfway around the globe to see them. We can see, right here in our community, the children of poverty and ignorance that the Ghost of Christmas Present showed to Scrooge.

Nearly one fourth of children in Sterling live in poverty. More than two thirds of them are in single parent households and the single parent is female.[1] There are those who, like Herod, would like to instill in us a sense of fear of those children and their families, whether they are in Syria, or in refugee camps, or in homeless shelters or the poorer neighborhoods of our own city.

There are those who would like for us to be afraid of the stranger, to worry that responding to their need will take away from us. There are those who would like for us to look suspiciously on those in need, or who would have us tell them to simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if they have no boots at all. But the spirit of Christmas is not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love.

In this season of giving, many of us feel moved to help children. We want to make sure that they enjoy Christmas with a tree, some gifts, a good meal, a warm coat. This is truly loving.

Although this desire to help may be stronger during the Christmas season, Jesus asks us to keep our eyes open, all year ‘round, to see the need around us and respond.

He came as an infant, born in squalor, and his family fled for their lives. The child born in Bethlehem asks more of us than seasonal impulses of generosity accompanied by Christmas Carols. The child who comes to us at Christmas calls us to keep our eyes open, to look around us and truly see. What Jesus asks of us is sustained love, continued mercy, persistent care.

Whether it is someone marginalized by poverty, by race, by national origin or religion, we are all called to see and respond to that need. The good news of Christmas is that this child who comes to us has shown us how we can do this. In Jesus, we learn what love means, how love without action is mere sentiment, Someone has said that “justice is what love looks like in public.”[2] Dickens understood that how the world worked in those days did not necessarily mean that injustice, poverty and ignorance should be allowed to persist in his day.

Scripture has taught us, from those days of the past to this day of the present, that the call to love God and love neighbor is what persists. In this season of peace, hope, love and joy, Jesus calls each one of us to lead with love, to save people by serving people. “To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step out in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”[3]

The Herods of this day want you to be afraid.
Jesus simply wants us to keep our eyes open for every opportunity to love.

“The miracle has just begun in YOU! 
God Bless us Every One!”


[3] Cornel West

Monday, December 5, 2016


Isaiah 9:2, 6; Luke 2: 8-14
December 4, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Again today we hear scripture of prophecy and fulfillment. The prophet Isaiah assures the people that the light of God will break through the darkness of their time, and that the source of that inbreaking will be a child who is the light of the world. In the gospel reading, we hear the familiar story of the shepherds, living out in the fields with their sheep, whose dark night is illuminated by the appearance of an angel – a messenger from God. Of course, they were terrified. But the angel, as angels do, reminds them not to be afraid, because the message from God is a message of hope, of light in the darkness, of an event that will change everything, even the way we understand and interpret our past. Let’s listen for the good news of prophecy and fulfillment in Isaiah and Luke.

Isaiah 9: 2, 6
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. . . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.

Luke 2: 8-14 (CEB)
Nearby, shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Remembrance of the past.
If you took a literature class in college, you’ll recall that one of the great works of literature was by Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past.” That is, it was called that until a new translation, about twenty years ago, called it “In Search of Lost Time.”

Remembrance of the past. 
 The contemporary poet Rebecca Hazelton begins her poem, “Book of Memory” with this: 
“In my seeing there was a blank and he filled that blank
with words, there were words for darkness which made it lift,
there were words for cover which ripped them off,
there were legs that crossed and hearts that crossed,
promises red and read, and the pluck of banjo had a name
for that twang, and the way he called the world into notice, 
that had a word, too.”[1]

Remembrance of the past.
It’s the very substance of history – taking a long hard look at the past, trying to make sense of it, to see what lessons can be learned from it. In the same way, only on a personal level, remembrance is the stuff that most traditional psychotherapy is made of – remembering what has happened to you, thinking about how it affected you, and reframing it to make sense in your life now. Therapy can be a bit scary – actually it can be downright terrifying. When I was a therapist I sometimes saw clients who quit coming rather than recall and confront the darkness of their past. They did not want to shine a light on it; they wanted to simply make it go away, or to make it something different, or to justify their behavior, or simply to forget. Because they were afraid of what they might see.

Sometimes, we think, we would prefer amnesia to the pain of memory. It will come as no surprise to you to hear that remembrance is central to our Christian faith, as well. In scripture, we are told repeatedly “Do not be afraid.” And we are also told repeatedly, “Do not forget. Remember.”

The Israelites were commanded to remember –
how God had made a covenant with them,
how God had delivered them from slavery,
how God had been faithful to them, even in their darkest hours.
Jesus commanded his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

But remembering can be painful and frightening. It certainly was for Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas past appeared to him, a strange and changing spirit with a bright light that shone out from it, glimmering in the dark night. Scrooge did not have the luxury of relying on his own faulty memories, but was taken by the spirit to see once again exactly how his life had been. He had his heart broken again and again as he saw the visions of his past. He saw himself as a boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends.” Scrooge wept, then said to the spirit, “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all."

The spirit showed Scrooge the joyful Christmas celebration given by his old boss, Mr. Fezziwig, who invited all his employees to a party, spending his own money on food, drink and dance for them. Although it was not a great expense, Scrooge observed regretfully,
“The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Observing Scrooge, the Ghost asks, “What is the matter?”
“Nothing particular," said Scrooge.
“Something, I think?" the Ghost insisted.
“No," said Scrooge, "No. I should like to be able to say a word or two
to my clerk [Bob Cratchit] just now! That's all."

Then Scrooge sees the woman he did not marry, the life he might have had. It is too much for him, too painful. The grief, the regret, the sorrow, and the shame of remembering overwhelm him. Begging the spirit to take him home, Scrooge struggles with the ghost, trying to cover up the light which emanates from it, pressing down on the spirit’s cap to cover the brightness. “But though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it.”

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. On them, a light has shined.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
It is the light of hope.

It can be hard to find that hope, when we are sitting in the darkness. It can be hard to find hope when the candle of life is snuffed out by someone or something that has taken away our power and agency. It can be hard to find hope when we remember the sad truth of history, or look around us and see that people are not good, or kind, or loving. It can be hard to once again light a candle of hope when events make us feel hopeless about the present, or the future. Remembering can lead us to despair.

But remembrance has a significant place in the Christian faith, and particularly at the communion table. We say, “And so, in remembrance of your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.” It’s called “anamnesis,” in theological talk, and you may recognize the root word for “amnesia” in there. It is not just “not forgetting,” not even mere remembering, but in that moment of anamnesis, we bring the past into the present, as we participate in the holy mystery of the Eucharist.

In that moment, and as we come to the table, we come remembering the past, with all of its joys and sorrows. We bring those joys and those sorrows, our regrets and our pride, our whole selves, to this table, and in the light of Christ, all of them are redeemed.

As we come to this table, we come as a people of memory.
The light of the past shines not only in our remembrance, but in our presence.
As we come to this table, we come as a people of hope.
Circumstances beyond our control, events and their consequences,
humans and their inhumanity – all of these may extinguish our light.
But God’s love reignites the flame, and our small flickering candles are remembrances.

This season, this story, this table, remind us that no matter how bleak the past, no matter how dark the night, no matter how deep our distress, the light of hope still shines.
It shines in us, and in words of grace.
It shines in us, and in our acts of courage.
It shines in us, and in our songs of hope.
“Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.
Your savior is born!”

The light shines. For you.
The miracle has just begun.
God Bless us Every One!”


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Making Change

Isaiah 9:6-7, Luke 1: 46-47, 52-55
November 27, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading is a part of the scripture you hear nearly every Christmas Eve, from the prophet Isaiah. In these two verses we hear the prophecy of the promised child. “Three times in the book of Isaiah a child is a sign of a new era of prosperity, the ‘God with us’ pronouncement of Isaiah 7:10-17. The child is used as a symbol three times in Isaiah 11:1-10. The shoot of Jesse begins and ends the unit. The same chapter paints a picture of peaceable kingdom, where a child shall lead them. Isaiah 9 likewise announces a new era,. The sign of this new era will be a child.”[1] Let’s listen for how this child will change everything in Isaiah 9:6-7

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Our gospel reading is heard every year during Advent. In the first chapter of Luke, “the archangel Gabriel has extended his astounding invitation. Mary has given her astonishing yes. … She flees: toward her kinswoman, toward refuge, toward sanctuary. In the home of Elizabeth, … Mary finds what she most needs. Elizabeth gathers and enfolds her. Welcomes her. Blesses her. In response to Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary sings. And how she sings! She sings of a God who brings down the powerful, who lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things. Strangely, wonderfully, Mary sings of a God who not only will do these things, but who has done these things. She sings as if God has already accomplished the redemption and restoration of the world.[2] Let’s listen to her song of the way God is making change in Luke 1:46-47, 52-55:

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

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

You know Scrooge, don’t you? Let me introduce him to you, in Charles Dickens’ own words.
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.”

Yes, you know him, even if you have never read Dickens’ book. Perhaps you don’t know how this story goes. But here is how it begins: “Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve —old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. The door of Scrooge's counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, [Bob Cratchit] who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. "A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice.
It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, [Fred].
"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

Of course he would say that, Scrooge would. Of what earthly use is the story of Christmas to a man like that?! In his world, when the visitors come to ask for his contributions for the poor, he offers not blessing but curse: “I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: prisons, workhouses, the treadmill and the poor law. They cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

I looked up these establishments, which Scrooge supported with his taxes. The treadmill was a horrifying proposition. Prisoners were forced to step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. (Hence the eventual name treadmill.) They worked in grueling 8-hour shifts, climbing the equivalent of 7,200 feet. The exertion, combined with poor diets, often led to injury and illness …, In 1824, prison guard James Hardie credited the device with taming New York’s more defiant inmates. He wrote that it was the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”[3]

The poor laws to which Scrooge refers provided relief for the poor, but only under certain stringent conditions. “the poor were housed in workhouses, clothed and fed –[ minimally]. Children who entered the workhouse would receive some schooling. In return for this care, all workhouse paupers would have to work for several hours each day…. [they were not paid] The poor themselves hated and feared the threat of the workhouse so much that there were riots in northern towns.”[4] People would rather die than go to such places.

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” 

Of what earthly use is the birth of Jesus to a man like that? Why should he care about another child born into poverty? He was too consumed with counting his money to consider giving it. He was too wrapped up in himself to consider wrapping a gift. He said it himself: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas,' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Bah humbug!

If we are honest, there have been moments during every Advent, when we have said, or at least thought it: “Bah! Humbug! Not one more charitable appeal, not one more activity, not one more request for donations! I’ve got enough to do, with buying and wrapping gifts, caring for my family. There’s no excuse for people who won’t take care of themselves. Why don’t they lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps? They’re simply taking advantage of others!”

Maybe you’ve never been that Scroogy, But there are plenty of Scrooges in our world.
You’ve met Scrooge, somewhere in your life, perhaps you shook his hand and admired him for his skill in business, perhaps you wondered what was the secret of his wealth. Perhaps you worked for him, and wondered what would ever please him enough to give you a raise.Perhaps you had business dealings with him, and walked away shaking your head, wondering how he could be so cruel.

Scrooge is still alive and well. Some things never change.
In the coming weeks, as we hear again the story of Scrooge,
it will be the same story with the same events and the same ending.
The story once told does not change.

We also will hear again the story of the birth of Jesus. It is not, however, a static story, unless we fail to participate in it. Then it is as much a fable or fairy tale as anything Dickens wrote. The words of the story are the same every year; it is our response, the change it evokes in us, that make Christmas a time of transformation. The story itself does not changes, but it changes us.

We hear the words of Isaiah and perhaps we hear Handel’s Messiah: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. We don’t stop to regard those words as anything more than music, never thinking much about what it means that this babe in the manger is wonderful, mighty, everlasting, the prince of peace. This sweet little baby is all that? He is going to do all that? Yes, the prophet assures us. “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”

Mary’s song affirms this, not only in the future, but right now! God is not simply going to do this, but in the birth of this child, it is already accomplished: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Oh, really? That has already happened?
That’s not what the world looks like. That’s not what Scrooge’s economy looks like.
In his world, it is “Every man for himself” even as the carolers sing, “God bless you merry gentlemen” Bah, humbug! you say?

But God’s story, God’s Christmas carol, says otherwise. God’s Christmas carol strengthens us and empowers us to change and to bring about change for others, to bring Mary’s song into reality: to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things.

Columnist Michael Gerson says, “Christianity teaches that everyone broken, sick and lonely – everyone beneath our notice or beneath our contempt – is, somehow, Christ among us. ‘Those people’ are also ‘our people.’ We show [them] civility and respect, not because the men and women who share our path always deserve it or return it, but because they bear a divine image that can never be completely erased. No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in the repeal of the Golden Rule.”[5] This Prince of Peace who comes to us as a tiny infant is God-with-us, “disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth,” according to Dorothy Day.

Through Christ in us, as we participate in the incarnation,
God takes the sorrow of this wounded world and turns it into joy.

Through Christ in us,
God takes those broken on the treadmill of poverty and restores them to wholeness.

Through Christ in us,
God lifts up the lowly, binds up the broken-hearted, speaks peace to violence.

The prophet sang of God’s change-making, from captivity and war to freedom and peace. Mary sang of our change-making God, who makes wholeness from what is broken, who restores the fortunes of those who have nothing, who rescues us from bondage and sets us free. This is the message of Christmas, the song of peace, the song of the world.

As you came into the sanctuary for worship today, you were given a small bell on a card.
Keep one of these cards, and take another for a friend. We encourage you to put this bell on your keychain, or your coat, as a reminder of the peace of Christ, ringing out across the universe, to waken us to our own transformation, 
making change in our hearts, 
making change in our homes,
making change in our community, 
making change in our world.

The miracle has just begun…in YOU…for the sake of the world.
God bless us, every one.


[5] Gerson, Michael. “Evangelical disquiet contrasts with season of hope” Washington Post, 11/23/16

All the Fullness of God

Colossians 1:11-20
November 20, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year,Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ Sunday, and the last Sunday of our annual stewardship season,AND most of us are looking forward to Thanksgiving this Thursday. It’s fitting that all these events converge in this way, because two of the central ideas of Christian stewardship in the Presbyterian and reformed tradition are gratitude for everything in our lives and the lordship of Jesus Christ over all of our lives.

Our scripture is from the epistle to the Colossians, from the Apostle Paul to a church founded by his student Epaphras.The reading begins with loving encouragement to these new Christians,words that ground them firmly in faith and hope,and call them to endurance, commitment, and love of Christ. There follows one of the most beautiful and joyful Christ hymns in all of scripture, a song that expresses not only a high Christology but also a transcendent beauty and glory.
Let’s listen for the glory of God as it is expressed in Colossians 1:11-20.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,  so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

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

Sometimes crafting a sermon feels like I’ve been given three completely disparate objects,say, a thimble, a piece of chicken liver, and a postcard of a sloth, and told that I’m to make something coherent of them.But days like today are just the opposite of that.The convergence of events liturgical, political, local and global along with the scriptures for today, invite us into some beautiful and faithful insights.Today we worship both in spirit and in action as we consider how to be thankful, to acknowledge Christ as our King, and to commit our pledges to God.

Just as the scripture reading for today begins with Thanksgiving, so will we.We Americans know how to be grateful, even if we don’t always show it. We know the importance of gratitude, in our relationships, and in our business exchanges whether with professionals or waitresses or clerks in retail stores.We know how important it is to say “thank you” and it is equally important in our faith. The Apostle Paul models that gratitude in many ways in his letters. He opens this letter to the Colossians by saying,

“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints”

In the scripture you’ve heard this morning, Paul offers prayers for the church.He prays that they may “be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” Gratitude is foundational to our faith and our commitment. Thanksgiving is part of who we are, as well as a holiday.

On Thursday, most of America will gather for a Thanksgiving feast. In our gatherings at the table, we recall the year 1621, when the Wampanoag Indians dined with pilgrims. Those Pilgrims were thankful to have survived the winter in the new world. It’s the stuff of all those adorable kindergarten dramas, with kids in cardboard pilgrim hats or brown paper bag Indian costumes.Long before President Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated each November, American Thanksgiving observances were held.

After the Revolutionary War, this newly independent country observed a day of thanksgiving in celebration of the nation’s hard-won independence from the British King. That’s the last time anyone in this country had a king. We’re suspicious of kings, we Americans. Unlike the Israelites who kept asking God for a king, we’d just as soon not have one. 

We don’t care much for those who seem to have gotten money and power on the backs of others, through exploitation or coercion.We like visiting royal homes and castles in faraway places. but we aren’t comfortable with contemporary kings and their 24 karat gilded palaces.

We like seeing the British royal family on the cover of People magazine, but we don’t want any of them reigning over us. Kings have power; kings have wealth; kings lord it over others.  Kings use force and will say or do anything to get their way. We don’t care much for that sort of leader.

We just don’t like kings.
Except our king.

He teaches us that the quest for wealth and power is empty and futile, and instead tells us to store up treasure in heaven. He guides us away from the urge to wield power for our own gain and into servant leadership for the purpose of helping others. He never lived in a palace – in fact he never had a house at all. His birth was not heralded by anyone but the lowly and few wise foreigners. His power is the power of love; his wealth is an abundance of grace; his desire is not his own will, but the will of God.

Our king was unjustly tried for blasphemy and sedition, and was hung on a cross between two thieves, one on his right and one on his left, at a place that is called The Skull.Our king did not swear out revenge against those who tormented him.He said “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Those watching scoffed at him, and mocked him.

They said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
They hung an inscription over him that said “This is the King of the Jews.”

When one of those two criminals asked him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he did not answer with anger or hatred or judgment or revenge, but he replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." He died on that cross, but the grave could not hold him. Death had no power over him, because he is the firstborn of the dead, and sovereign over all of life and death.

He is not some stone God demanding sacrifice or burnt offerings;
he is God-with-us, God for us.

He is not a tiny Jesus dwelling in the confines of your heart,
he is the transcendent God who invites us into his heart.

He is not an earthly king who comes to visit his subjects
expecting us to provide him with food and lodging and entertainment.

He is the host who invites us to his table,
and feeds us on his very body and blood, giving us life.

He held nothing back but gave his all, for all the world, and for you, and for me.
In Christ is creation and its redemption.

In Christ is the reconciliation of all things –
conflicts, politics, principalities and problems.

Christ is the beginning, middle and the end of all,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.

Our stewardship pledges are a grateful response to this reality. When we make our pledges in support of the mission and ministry of this church, we do well to ask ourselves, “Does this allow Christ to have first place?”  If there is some other purpose or project that takes first place, we do well to ask that God reorder our lives to suit God’s holy purpose. When we pledge our commitment to God with our financial support we do well to remember that we serve the ruler of the universe.

We do well to consider that in him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He was before all and in all and in him all things hold together. He is the image of God, firstborn of creation, who walked in the garden in the cool of the day. His power is over all things, and he is the head of the body, the church.Neither thrones nor dominions nor rulers nor powers have any authority over him. As we bring our pledge commitments to God,as we gather this week in Thanksgiving as a free people,
we acknowledge that we have but one sovereign.

This Jesus is our king, to whom we owe everything.
This is our king, the one to whom we swear our fealty,
the one to whom we commit our lives, ourselves and all that we have.
Thanks be to God that Christ is our king!


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Weary

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 13, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This second letter to the Thessalonians was written sometime around 50 AD. Although this letter is attributed to the Apostle Paul, it is questionable whether or not he was the actual author. In any case, the letter carries with it much of the character of Paul who founded that church, and loved the people.

The letter is to the church at Thessalonica, a thriving seaport in Macedonia. It was, like all of Christianity at the time, a new, young congregation. All the overlays of interpretation, tradition, custom and theology had not yet accrued to these new Christians. There was virtually no history, no structure, no organization. There was, however, the expectation that Jesus was coming back. Soon. He had promised he would, and they thought it would be in their lifetime. Because of that, some of the community there had decided to stop working. These were not people who were disabled – they had just stopped trying. This letter speaks to that issue, lifting up work as a part of our Christian life, an expression of stewardship, a witness to our faith, and a form of service to God and to our neighbors. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Second Thessalonians 3:6-13

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to keep away from believers who are living in idleness
and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us;
we were not idle when we were with you,
8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it;
but with toil and labor we worked night and day,
so that we might not burden any of you.
9 This was not because we do not have that right,
but in order to give you an example to imitate.
10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command:
Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness,
mere busybodies, not doing any work.
12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ
to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

“Jesus is coming soon. Hopefully before the election.”
Did you all see that sign, down the street? I thought it was funny.

It’s natural, when times are tough, to look to be rescued.
It’s normal, when we’re under stress, to hope for a savior to come soon.
It’s nothing new. When people got worried about Y2K, they started talking about the second coming of Christ. I heard of at least one person who maxed out all her credit cards, thinking she would be raptured and wouldn’t have to pay her bills. When January 2, 2000, arrived, I kind of felt sorry for her.

One of the ideas that Presbyterians reject is the idea of the rapture, the idea that Jesus is coming back to take Christians to heaven, and then let the entire globe descend into warfare: Armageddon. The Thessalonians didn’t believe in the idea of the rapture, either, since no Christians at all believed that for the first 1840 years of Christianity. One of the many problems with that belief in “rapture theology” is that the interpretations have to keep changing as times change. When I was a kid, during the cold war, the two “sides” in the prophesied war were understood to be the United States and the USSR. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’m not sure what the story is now.

The Thessalonians had no such belief, no expectation of “the rapture.” But in that time and place, less than 20 years after the resurrection, they expected that Jesus would be returning very soon.
So, why bother to work? 

Why raise sheep you would never shear, or a cow you’d never milk? 
Why build a house you would never live in? 
Why plant seeds and cultivate a garden you would never harvest? 
Why plant a tree that you would not be around to enjoy?
Why, indeed?
I have to confess, there is some appeal in this way of thinking. If I knew for sure that Jesus was coming back, say, next Thursday, I would not spend my time mopping the kitchen floor. Not that I was going to do that anyway… Seriously, though, if you knew the end of the world was coming in a few days, would you spend those days pulling weeds? Would you go to meetings, or volunteer, or do the laundry? Would you go to work? Would you have even voted? Would you even care who won the presidential election?

At the men’s prayer breakfast on Thursday, (sorry for the re-run, guys!) I shared some thoughts from Dr. Jim Denison. He is a Southern Baptist conservative from Texas. I get a daily email commentary from him on the news and Christianity. We are pretty far apart politically and theologically, but I think it is important to hear thoughtful voices and opinions that are not necessarily from my own perspective. In other words, I don’t want to live in an echo chamber. I read his posts because he is a Southern Baptist conservative from Texas!

Denison suggests that there are four categories of response to the election:

  • “One: You are elated. You're convinced that God answered your prayers and sent Mr. Trump to lead our nation in this perilous hour. 
  • Two: You are glad but not elated. You were put off by Mr. Trump's personal issues but you agreed with him regarding the Supreme Court, abortion, religious liberty, and other social issues. 
  • Three: You're discouraged. While you were troubled by some of Mrs. Clinton's personal issues, you wish she had won. Now you're worried about racial divisions in our country and Mr. Trump's promises to deport illegal immigrants, ban Muslims, rescind trade deals, and build a wall with Mexico. 
  • Four: You're in despair. You were certain that Mrs. Clinton would not only be president but be a great president. You believed in her credentials and preparation for office and fear that Mr. Trump will be a terrible president.”[1]

I think that’s probably a fair summary of where most people might land. I guess Dr. Denison left out a fifth category – those who just wish Jesus would hurry up and come back.Now!

But wherever you are on the political and theological spectrum, if you are Christian, you have one central, singular responsibility. Like those Thessalonian Christians in the year 53, we do not have the luxury of idleness. Whether we are elated, glad, discouraged or despairing, we cannot let ourselves grow weary of doing what is right. Even if we think Jesus’ return is imminent, this afternoon, or tomorrow, we are not free to abandon our work.

We are still called to the vocations we were given in our baptism. We are still called to the faithful exercise of our gifts for the glory of God. Now, when we had this conversation in Bible study and asked the women there to share together the significance of their work. We asked three questions, questions I’d encourage you to contemplate:

How is my work a form of stewardship?
How does my daily work serve God and my neighbor?
How does the way in which I do my work make a witness to others?

There were lots of answers like “Well, I don’t actually DO any work for God.” Interestingly, all of the people who said that were quickly contradicted by the observations of others, who could easily make a long list of their faithful Christian service.

Every year around this time, we turn our attention to stewardship; specifically, we turn our attention to our financial stewardship of the church. When we talk about stewardship, we include all forms of it – care of the environment, continued care for the congregation, and the giving back to God of our time, our talent, and our money. It comes as no surprise that our work is a form of that stewardship.

The daily tasks we undertake, whether we are employed or volunteers, whether or work is in our home, our church or our community, that work is a form of stewardship, a form of giving to God by serving others, a form of witness to the transforming power of God’s grace.

And we don’t have the option of stopping. We are told “do not be weary in doing what is right.” The same is true of our financial stewardship. There is no point at which we are permitted to say, “I’ve done enough.” We can’t retire from Christianity, from the world, from service, from giving! Someone has said that you can retire from a job, because you chose to work. But you can’t retire from a vocation, because you were chosen for that work.

Fortunately, that work, that giving, can be joyful, life-giving, and fulfilling, because we are a part of the communion of saints. Because we have each other, we do not grow weary in doing what is right. This is why we are called the “communion of saints.” In Christ, we have union and communion with one another and with God.

Our Protestant tradition is rich with affirmation of this communion of saints. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “the communion of saints" means: “First, that believers, all and every one, as members of Christ, have part in him and in all his treasures and gifts. Secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts, readily and cheerfully, for the advantage and welfare of other members.” For John Calvin, that communion of saints is a community of heart and soul, a diversity of graces and gifts.

There are 3 significant ways in which the communion of saints is formed.
First, we live faithfully in the present moment. That’s the saint part. We know what that means: love God and neighbor. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. Bring glory to God by word and deed. 

Second, we continue to live faithfully as "brothers and sisters." That’s the communion part. Our Christian life, and our continued energy for stewardship, are a community concern – a family affair. “where family members contribute their efforts to the good of the whole and where no one ‘burdens’ others with his or her own work.”[2] That family of faith, this community, is also where we find support, where we receive encouragement, where we hear the voices of those who reflect our faithfulness back to us when we cannot see the importance or value of our efforts. Here, we are loved. Here we find companions for our life journey. Here we are formed, taught, and strengthened to live out our callings.

Third, being formed into the communion of saints means that we have the privilege and responsibility of passing the faith on to the generations of Christians that are yet to come. Our stewardship is not just about taking care of this year’s deficit, or even fulfilling next year’s expenses. Our financial stewardship of this congregation is an investment in our children, in the future of this congregation, and our unique contributions to this community in which we live.

Ultimately, the foundation and context of all of this is Jesus Christ, who has called each one of us to faithful living, made us into a faithful community, and in whose grace we pass on this faith.

For us, here and now, the church militant,
the communion of saints is this band of believers,
claimed and called in our baptism,
graced by God with varied gifts,
empowered by the Spirit to proclaim that grace,
strengthened by one another to love God and love our neighbors.

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all,
and especially for those of the family of faith.

We are the communion of saints.
We are not weary of doing what is right.
We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
We work for the glory of God and the good of others.
We hope for the future and those who will come after us.
We are saints alive!

Thanks be to God!

[2] Weaver, Dorothy Jean, “2 Thessalonians 3:6-15” Interpretation, October 2007

Saints Alive

2 Corinthians 8:1-5
November 6, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture reading today comes from Paul’s second letter to the churches of Corinth. Paul had an intense relationship with the Corinthians. He loved them, cared deeply for them, and wanted them to grow in their faith. But there had been disappointments in his ministry with them. They tended to be attracted to other preachers who seemed more glamorous. They didn’t always listen to his teaching. But Paul was intent on helping the members of the church in Corinth live as disciples of the living Christ. This part of the letter concerns the collection that Paul is taking up for the Christian in Jerusalem who are in deep poverty. Earlier in his letters, Paul has instructed the Corinthians about taking up a collection when they gather for worship on the Lord’s day. Now, Paul encourages them to offer their best in support of the church. Paul’s hope and prayer for those Christians was that they would live fully into the overwhelming grace of God. This passage concerns God’s grace and its many levels and layers of meaning, but it is the preamble to a beautiful sermon about the effects of that grace on our lives. Let’s listen for God’s word of grace in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5.

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I was doing some stewardship research last week and ran across something I have never seen before. At least I thought I had never seen this before. It was an advice page for fundraising for non-profits, particularly churches. The title of the article was, “Are You Beating the Competition?”[1] It was about how non-profits are competing for the donor dollar, and how important it is to have a competitive edge with potential givers.

See, there are lots of non-profit and charitable organizations who want your money – now, or later. You get those mailings – from your college alumni association, from the Heart Association, the CGH Health Foundation, United Way. They send you a glossy brochure, or a constant contact email, and a slick fund appeal that tells you why you should support them.

And then you get your letter and pledge card from the stewardship committee of First Presbyterian Church. This year, you not only got a letter and a pledge card, but also your very own Flat Calvin. Printed on card stock. In color. Now, THAT is a competitive edge in church stewardship, amiright?

The Apostle Paul was writing to encourage the saints in Corinth to give generously to the saints in Jerusalem, so he tries a competitive approach. Paul isn’t competing against some other church. He’s trying to inspire the competitive spirit of the Corinthians, trying to get them to outdo the Macedonians. Paul just figures these folks in Corinth are so eager to outdo each other that surely they will want to outdo the Christians in Macedonia. He had earlier made a similar kind of speech to the Macedonians, about how eager the Corinthians were to contribute.

It was, you know, kind of a pennant race of financial stewardship. That might be an interesting way to approach this season – set up teams, and brackets, with pledge-offs instead of playoffs. There’s actually fun group online that holds a March Madness for saints – you choose your saints and your brackets, then see how they do.

Fortunately for me, that is not how financial stewardship works. It never has – even in the first century, there was just a letter, encouraging the saints to be eager in giving. No catchy stewardship slogan. No Flat Calvin, of course.

The Macedonians’ generosity surprised Paul, I think. After all, the Macedonians have suffered and struggled. They are in extreme poverty, but even so, they are joyful. They are in a severe ordeal of affliction, but overflowing in generosity. In fact, Paul writes, these Macedonians, in spite of their troubles, are jostling each other out of the way to get their pledge cards turned in. They are so eager to give that they can hardly wait for the offering plates. They were so anxious to be generous that they BEGGED for the chance to give!

Wow, Paul says to the Corinthians, betcha can’t outdo that!
Then he goes on to say even more:

“Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge,
in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—
so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
I do not say this as a command,
but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.
For you know the generous act of of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Well now, there’s a competitive edge – an appeal to gratitude: your gratitude to God, for God’s gracious acts in Jesus Christ, who was willing to give everything – everything! – on your behalf. Paul is essentially asking Christians to be imitators of Christ, and thereby be models of Christian stewardship. If we are anywhere near as generous as Christ, we will excel in our zeal, and our generosity.

You don’t see that in your United Way letter. You don’t. And here’s why.
Your giving to the cancer society or the museum or the children’s fund or the United Way are motivated by a decision you make. Perhaps you may be thankful for some care or service those agencies gave you; but more than likely you are simply compassionate toward others. They will send you a thank you letter, and maybe some address labels. They are competing for your donations along with every other non-profit, and they are reaching out with requests to every person they can.

In the case of our church, you, the members, are the only constituents we have. We don’t send out a pledge letter to everyone in the county, nor do we buy mailing lists from marketing companies. We don’t send you premium prizes, greeting cards, or address labels. Your gifts and pledges to the church are, we hope, motivated by your knowledge of the love God has made for you. We’re not trying to calculate what our competitive edge might be. First Presbyterian Church doesn’t have a marketing distinctive as a church. We don’t have any tote bags or coffee mugs or stickers for you. Your gifts won’t get you in the platinum circle. I’m not even going to compare you to the Presbyterians over in Dixon.

Well, I guess we do have one edge over all the other competitors for your gift.
You know what it is, right? It’s grace.

That word grace appears ten times in this chapter of second Corinthians. It gets translated as divine favor, good will, generosity, privilege, gift. The Greek word is “charis.” Grace is undeserved favor. Grace is all gift. Grace is generosity, and gratitude, and thanksgiving.
All that in one word: Charis. Grace

The trouble with grace is, I can’t hold it out to you as a reward.
You don’t get grace for being generous.
You don’t get grace for being good.
You don’t get grace for being active in the church.
You don’t get grace for being in worship.
You just get grace for being.

Just being.

Grace is plentiful, and it is costly, but not to those who receive it. Our pledges to the church’s ministry are a response to that grace. We can’t possibly give in proportion to that which we have received. We can give in proportion to those gifts we each have: the singer can give voice, the cook can bring food, the encourager can give words of hope. And each one of us can give according to our financial means. The Apostle Paul advised those in the church in Corinth if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has- not according to what one does not have. … it is a question of a fair balance:

“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” The gifts we bring – in any amount, whether the Biblical starting point of ten percent of all we have, or some other amount of offering – the gifts we bring should be given in proportion to our gratitude, and as a joyful thanksgiving offering to God.

Gratitude and generosity are all a response to grace.

Those of you who have traveled in the Southern United States are surely familiar with the restaurant chain called Waffle House. It’s a destination for many travelers, a place to stop on the road. It’s open 24 hours a day and the menu includes all kinds of food, but for most people, breakfast is the meal to eat at Waffle House. There’s an added attraction in that often, the waitresses call you “hon.” The story goes that a traveler from the north, a Yankee, stopped at Waffle House for breakfast. The Yankee ordered a hearty breakfast of eggs, biscuits, gravy and sausage. When the waitress brought the plate, it included an additional item – a white, creamy substance that looked like Cream of Wheat, topped with butter. The Yankee looked over the plate and signaled the waitress to come back.

She came, coffee pot in hand. “Yes, hon?”
The Yankee pointed to the unexpected food on the plate. “What is that?”
In surprise, the waitress said, “Well, honey, that’s grits!”
“I didn’t order grits,” the traveler said.
“Oh, honey,” the waitress answered. “You don’t order grits. They just come.”

Grace, like grits, just comes.
Friends, through God’s grace, we are saints alive.
With each sunrise, we rise, gifted with a new day.
With each breath, and every heartbeat, our bodies signify the gift of our lives.
In every drop of rain or flickering campfire, we can see nature’s beauty.
In every interaction with one another, we have the opportunity to care.
Every prayer can open our hearts to God’s abiding presence; every song of praise can join our voices with the music of the spheres. There will come a day for each one of us when our eyes will not see and our hearts will be stilled, when we join the saints and angels in the church triumphant. But now, today, we are saints alive, blessed beyond measure.

So we give ourselves to God in gratitude, to live as saints in the light of God’s grace.
As we come to this table,
we come from many different places and circumstances.
We come as weary travelers, pausing along the road for meal.
We come as children of the same family, to a meal of celebration.
We come knowing that we are welcome,
that this bread and this cup are for us.
We come in joyful trust to receive all that God offers.
We come to receive the bread of life, the cup of grace.
We do not have to ask, or beg, or wait, or plead.
God’s grace, like grits, just comes.
It just comes.

Thanks be to God!


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Accidental Saints

Luke 19:1-10
All Saints and Stewardship Kickoff
October 30, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we come to this reading in Luke 19:1-10, Jesus is nearing Jerusalem for the final week of his life. On his way into the city of Jericho, Jesus healed a blind man who called out to him, “Jesus, son of David! Have mercy on me!” Now as Jesus passes through Jericho, he encounters another man in need of mercy: a chief tax collector by the name of Zacchaeus.

Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus Was A Wee Little Man
(Veggie Tales Version)

It isn’t easy being a person of small stature. I should know. There are a million jokes about short people – like, “You have to hand it to short people. They can’t reach it for themselves.”

Especially when there is a parade, or a stage show, and a crowd has gathered, it is tough to be short. If you are a child, they might let you move up to the front. But when you are the chief tax collector, and the crowd is gathering to see Jesus, you are at a distinct disadvantage. Being short has always been a disadvantage, especially for men. And being short was a disadvantage for Zacchaeus. He was an outcast. Lowdown. Smallminded.

Everybody looked down on Zacchaeus. Literally and figuratively.

As a contracted tax collector, he’d have been in the position of legally extorting money from his own people. The chief tax collector would buy the tax collecting contract from the authorities, then hope to make a profit on whatever tolls, taxes and tariffs his employees could bring in. So you can see how people might have hated him. They considered him a traitor.

Now this economic oppressor and tormentor of the common folk, this scoundrel, is climbing up in a tree. How very undignified. How funny! They’d have found it comical, and not in a friendly way. It’s always refreshing to have a laugh on the bad guy, and Zacchaeus definitely starts out as the villain in this story.

We don’t have his whole biography. We don’t know if there was a Mrs. Zacchaeus or little Zacchaeus kids. We just know that Zacchaeus is Jewish, that he is a chief tax collector, that his is rich, and that he is short.

And that he wanted to see Jesus.
He really wanted to see Jesus.

At the risk of his dignity, at the risk of being laughed at, at the risk of public embarrassment, he climbed that tree. That’s how badly he wanted to see Jesus.

What do you suppose he hoped would happen? What was he looking for? Whatever his thoughts were, he could never have expected what happened. Because when Zacchaeus saw Jesus, Jesus saw him.

Jesus SAW him.
Jesus spoke to him.

Jesus looked right at him, up in that tree, and spoke directly to him.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Wait. What?

Zacchaeus was probably as surprised as the rest of the people there. Jesus had just invited himself to dinner at the home of the chief tax collector. Jesus is always doing that, you know, inviting himself in, and at the most unexpected times, with the most surprising people. It’s how accidental saints get made.

See, nobody would have mistaken Mr. Zacchaeus, Chief Tax Collector, for a friend of Jesus, let alone a saint. Everybody knows that saints are good people, people who do all the right things in all the right ways. They are irritatingly, endlessly, annoyingly nice. They practically have halos, they are so good. Saints are like clergy -- missionaries, ministers, priests… right? Well, no.

Truth is, most of us clergy types are less good than a lot of people; some of us figure a call to ministry was the only way God could save us! Our job is not to BE saints, our job is to equip the saints, to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Saints are just ordinary people, like Zacchaeus. Like you who are sitting here right now.

At some point in your life, someone was a like a sycamore tree for you, lifting you up above the crowded world just high enough to see Jesus. Or maybe that hasn’t actually happened for you yet; maybe you haven’t gotten that glimpse of Jesus that changes people. And maybe you are like a sycamore tree for someone else, or you have been, and you have given someone the chance to see Jesus, and to meet him face to face.

When we do catch that glimpse of Jesus, and meet his eye, we are transformed. It may not be immediately visible. We don’t get any taller or prettier or smarter. But if you see Jesus, and he sees you, and he invites himself to your house, which he will, because he is always doing that sort of thing, he will sit down at table and eat with you, and when you connect with him, you will be changed from the inside out.

That’s what happened to Zacchaeus. He came down out of that tree, into the presence of the Son of Man, and he just stood there and said “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”’ And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house…”

That’s what happens when Jesus comes to your house – transformation. Transformed people are generous people. They are saints, not dead statue saints but living saints, saints alive. Today we begin our annual stewardship emphasis season, but you who are here know that we are always called to stewardship, always called to give generously of ourselves, giving our time, our talent, and our financial resources.

The mission and ministry of this church depend on the saints, on the willingness of the saints to be transformed, to be generous. The theme of this year’s pledge campaign is “Saints Alive!” and it is especially appropriate to begin our stewardship emphasis with an observance of All Saints Day, and with a fellowship meal together. In a few moments, we are going to have a time of remembering some of our saints, some of the people whose presence and love lifted us up so that we could see Jesus, so that we could be seen by Jesus and know how God sees us, how God loves us. Those saints gone on to join the church triumphant, and we miss them, and today we remember them and speak their names.

In a few minutes, we’ll have a chance to name those saints, those beloved, flawed, wonderful people who, like us, were accidental saints. I stole the title of this sermon from a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber. She sees all of us as accidental saints, and I agree with her. She says: “Without higher-quality material to work with, God resorts to working through us for others and upon us through others. Those are some weirdly restorative, disconcerting shenanigans to be caught up in: God forcing God’s people to see themselves as God sees them, to do stuff they know they are incapable of doing, so that God might make use of them, and make them to be both humble recipients and generous givers of grace, so that they may be part of  God’s big project on earth, so that they themselves might find unexpected joy through surprising situations.”[1]

That’s what happened to Zacchaeus –
he saw himself – maybe just for a second! - as God sees him.

When that happens, we are both humble recipients and generous givers,
people who can give more than we thought we had,
people who can forgive more than we expected we could,
people who can take part in God’s project wholeheartedly,
people who can rise above our current limitations,
people who can attain a stature we never imagined,
people who are surprisingly, unexpectedly, because of Jesus,
accidental saints.

Thanks be to God!


For Those Who Walked With Us Jan Richardson
For those who walked with us, this is a prayer.
For those who have gone ahead, this is a blessing.
For those who touched and tended us,
who lingered with us while they lived,
this is a thanksgiving.

For those who journey still with us
in the shadows of awareness,
in the crevices of memory,
in the landscape of our dreams,
this is a benediction.


God of the ages: We praise you for all your servants who have done justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with you.
We praise you for apostles and martyrs and saints of every time and place, who in life and death have witnessed to your truth and love.
We praise you, O God, for all those who answered your call to preach the Good News of the Gospel and to administer your Sacraments of grace and love, and for those who devoted their lives to teaching your Word.
We praise you, O God, for those who showed compassion to the least, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and offering mercy and forgiveness to those who have gone astray.
We praise you, O God, and we especially honor the memory of those individuals of this congregation who have lived among us and shared their faith in personal ways, who have finished the race and now live eternally in your presence. We honor the memory of those who have graced our lives at other times and in other ways - those whose names we lift up before you. In particular, we lift up before you with gratitude and thanksgiving….

(here, people may name those whom they remember on this day)

Hear our prayers, O God.
For all the saints from whom their labors rest, we praise you, O God.
We praise you and we thank you in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People