Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Genesis 15:5-12, 18 Luke 13:31-35
February 21, 2016, Second Sunday of Lent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

On this second Sunday of Lent, we are invited to feast on the faithfulness of God’s promises. In both Old and New Testaments, we see stories that point our attention to the unstoppable mercy and love of God, who acts in our lives with boundless mercy.

Our Genesis reading tells us about a conversation between Abraham and God. Abraham has heard God’s promises, but at this point in the story, he has not seen the fulfillment of the covenant. He is still Abram, not Abraham; his wife is still Sarai, not Sarah, and they still do not have a son and heir.

He is questioning whether God intends to keep the promises of the covenant, and he dares to ask whether God is going to be faithful. First, God told him to gather up his goods and his wife and his herds and go to a new country. And he did. Then God told him to wait and he would have a son. Abram has been waiting. So far, nothing has happened. He asks again, and God answers. Let’s listen for God’s voice in Genesis 15:5-12, 18

God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

God said to Abraham “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” Abraham asked “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” God said to Abraham “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abraham did as God asked, and brought all these. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Nile river in Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

In the New Testament reading, Jesus has attracted the attention of Herod. This is not Herod the great, but his son, Herod Antipas, the puppet governor who moves when Rome pulls the strings. Herod Antipas is not a man to trifle with – he is the ruler who had John the Baptist beheaded. But Jesus is not frightened by Herod, nor does he answer back with threats or insults. He simply tells the Pharisees who have come to warn him that he will continue in his work until his time has come. Then he will go up to Jerusalem for the final time. Let’s listen for the voice of Jesus in Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

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

Sometimes, you have to wonder what God is thinking. Really, don’t you?
Abraham certainly did. God had made these promises, promises about a son, an heir, an impossible promise to a couple old enough to be grandparents. Abraham believed, he did.
Still, he was starting to wonder. Does God keep God’s promises? Is God faithful?

So he asked. Lord, how do I know you are going to keep your promises? God has shown him the stars – numberless, distant, beyond counting. You’ve seen it – you’ve looked up at the night sky on a clear moonless night. The stars scattered in the darkness like diamonds thrown across velvet. Beautiful, that sight.

But Abraham had been promised a son. One son. And he did not have a son.
Still, he trusted God. Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness. 

We know, as Abraham would know, that God’s promise would be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah would have a son, a son called Isaac, who would be the father of the twins Jacob and Esau; and Jacob would be the father of twelve sons – the twelve tribes of Israel. God’s covenant promises to the people of Israel continued. There was liberation from slavery in Egypt. There was the promised land. There were judges, a king and a kingdom, and at last, in Jerusalem, a temple. It was that temple to which Jesus and his family traveled, when he was a child. It was that temple where the high priests offered the sacrifices, where Jesus would turn over the tables of the money changers. It was Jerusalem, the city of David, the capital of the kingdom after north and south were united under King David.

In this particular story in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is not in Jerusalem, but still in Galilee. Matthew’s gospel places this story toward the end, when Jesus is about to be arrested. Whenever it happened, it is a powerful and poignant story.

The image on the front of the bulletin is of a mosaic based on this text. The mosaic itself is on the front of an altar in a church in Jerusalem. It sits atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city. The church is called “Dominus Flevit,” Latin for “The Lord wept.” The best description I have ever read of this church and this mosaic come from the great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Here is what she says about it:

“Perhaps this is where the heavenly Jerusalem hovers over the earthly one, until the time comes for the two to meet? … on the front of the altar is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.”[1]

As Barbara Brown Taylor points out, the hen never did gather the chicks under her wings.
The chicks were not willing. They would not come. The fox, somehow, looked like a better bet.

You have to wonder what Jesus was thinking – using this image of a mother hen and chicks.
Why not the Lion of Judah? Why not the eagle? Why not a might king?
Why, of all things, a chicken?
Herod is a fox, to be sure – sly and deadly, not to be trusted. 
And certainly, if there is a fox on the prowl, the last thing anyone would want to be is a chicken. 

Not that I have anything against chickens. People who keep chickens know that they have complex social orders. Chickens can apparently keep track of numbers up to five, and they are able to navigate according to the sun. Chickens can be taught to perform some clever tricks, as well. When I was a child, at an arcade down the street, there was a chicken who could play the piano. Sort of. So, chickens are not quite as silly and frivolous as we might think.

But, really. God as a chicken?
And not a rooster, mind you. Not a rooster who will fly at you pecking and clawing.
A hen, gathering her baby chicks under her wings. She doesn’t have any natural defenses.
Especially not against that fox.

There is a fox out there, ranging around, licking its chops. Wily and smart, that fox wants us to believe that we are safer if we will put ourselves in his care. All we have to do is listen to what he is telling us – that we are not safe unless we comply with his direction, that our well-being depends on his protection. I’ll build a wall, he says, I’ll keep you safe, I’ll make everything all right. That fox wants us to distrust everyone else, to think of ourselves and only ourselves. That fox wants us to be afraid.

Of course, you know what happens, when the chickens get near the fox. Jesus knew, too.
He does not react with defensiveness or anger or insult. Jesus does not return evil for evil.
Jesus says, “You go tell that fox what I am doing. I am healing and casting out evil spirits. My work will be finished on the third day. Jesus says, “You go tell that fox that my love is unstoppable. You go tell that fox that threats and terror will not keep me from doing what I have promised. Jesus says, “The day will come when you see me and you will say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

“You tell that fox that if he wants my babies, he will have to kill me first.”

Jesus does not want us to be afraid. Jesus does not want us to run, scattering like chickens when the shadow of a predator falls across our path. Jesus weeps, weeps with desire to gather us together, a motherly protector, spreading his wings out to gather us in.

Everyone who loves another human being knows this feeling, this lament of loving someone so much, and knowing that you cannot protect them, cannot save them from themselves, cannot restore their health, cannot manage their life, cannot stop the addiction or the depression.

You know that feeling.
It’s all you can do - standing there with arms open wide.
You keep standing, waiting, knowing that it is up to them to come closer.
It makes you completely vulnerable, standing there like that.

The love of God is like that – speaking like a voice in the night,
shining through the darkness like stars in the skies.
spread out like wings of peace and promise,
offering shelter to all who will come,
giving solace to all who seek it
waiting, yearning, to surround us with love.

It’s unstoppable, that love.
even with the fox sneaking around at night,
even with the tiny chicks scattering in fear,
even with that mother hen clucking furiously.
It’s ready to die to save us from that fox.

That’s what happens, you know.
He dies - the one who comes in the name of the Lord
Of course he does.
That fox gets him in the end.

But the promise continues.
The love lives on.
The covenant returns again and again,
like the stars flickering on every night at dusk.
It’s the new covenant, the feast of faithfulness,
the promise that gathers us together at the table,
that waits for us to come,
that welcomes us,
that yearns for us,
that loves us.

All of us.
All the time.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor “As A Hen Gathers Her Brood”

Milk and Honey, Bread and Stones

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading on this first Sunday of Lent is from Deuteronomy, a retelling of the laws God gave on the Mount of Revelation, Mount Sinai. Here we see Moses, near the end of his ministry, as he warns the Israelites not to become complacent in the promised land they are about to enter. They will cross the Jordan into Canaan, but Moses will not go with them. So he calls them to remember their history, and to celebrate God’s grace in leading them to this land, to celebrate with thanksgiving and bringing their best gifts.

The story lifts up the central meaning of stewardship: offering to God the first returns of our labor as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and as a symbol of the dedication of ourselves and all our possessions to God. There is special mention of the care for the priestly tribe of Levites, landless servants of God, and the “sojourner“ perhaps, in today’s terms, “refugee.”

Let’s listen to his message in Deuteronomy 26: 1–11
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

The Gospel tells of Jesus’ temptation. Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan River. He immediately heads to the wilderness, the place where prophets and mystics go for inspiration or refuge. Jesus fasts and prays for forty days, and Satan, the adversary, turns up to offer other options. But Jesus rejects each in turn. Let’s listen for God’s word in Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This past Wednesday, as we gathered for the imposition of ashes, and prepared ourselves for this season, I had the privilege of offering ashes to all kinds of different people. My friend Peg and I were at Air Play early in the morning, then at the chapel at CGH in the afternoon. We saw some friends, and some complete strangers, some people who knew exactly what Ash Wednesday is, and some others who had no idea, but still were interested in having ashes on their foreheads, and in having prayers offered for them.

Then of course, we had our service here. There’s something very powerful about this act of rubbing ash on our foreheads. The ash is a little bit gritty, no matter how fine it is, and there is an oily feel to it. There is a kind of spiritual connection, even intimacy, in the ritual. We Presbyterians are sometimes a little uncomfortable with rituals. We can be a bit stuffy, even austere, and maybe too wordy. And maybe we rely too much on words.

It feels safer, doesn’t it, to stick to talking about spiritual things? Personally, I would rather discuss temptation, sin and repentance from a distant and clinical perspective. Most of us prefer not to spend too much time thinking about our own death, or about the eventual death of those we love. But Lent reminds us that we are finite, and that we make mistakes, and that we sometimes need to repent and seek forgiveness.

To be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, is to be reminded that we don’t have all the time in the world to repent. We don’t have all the time in the world to forgive or seek forgiveness. Death comes for each of us eventually. I was thinking about repentance the other day, and I was trying to remember the first time I was consciously repentant, truly sorry for having failed.

It was a simple thing – I was about five, and my mother asked me to watch the baby for just a few minutes – just a few minutes! Mom walked out of the room and I stood there staring at my baby sister. She was just laying there, on the bed, not doing anything. I think I watched her for about thirty seconds, before I turned around and looked at a book. It was a big book of splendid pictures of the birds of North America. While I stood there entranced with the beautiful birds, my baby sister rolled off the bed onto the floor, exactly the way my mother had said she would IF I DID NOT WATCH HER!

I felt terrible. I’d had ONE job – watch the baby! – and I failed to do it. My baby sister, of course, when she rolled off the bed, started crying loudly, and I started crying too. To tell the truth, I was not worried about my sister, who was fine. I wasn’t worried about being punished. I was truly repentant. I felt terrible about letting my mother down.

It’s a small event, not much in the grand scheme of life. There have been many, many moments of repentance since then that matter much more, as I’m sure you can imagine.

I hope that you can say the same of yourself – that as you look back across your life, no matter how old you are, you can identify and remember experiences of genuine repentance.

We may try to persuade ourselves that penitence, feeling truly sorry for our wrong-doing or our failure to do something, is an old-fashioned and outdated concept, unnecessary, really, in a culture that emphasizes self-esteem and the “faux-pology.”

But as the Israelites learned, turning away from self and toward God, turning away from wrong-doing and toward obedience, is a crucial part of our human journey. It took time for them to turn toward the God of the covenant – two generations! – before they entered Canaan land. And the Promised Land was always there, always the promise – God had not taken it away from them. Now, they were about to receive it – about to cross the Jordan River and walk into the land of milk and honey.

This was not because of any particular action they had performed, not because they’d finally gotten the formula right to please God, not even because they’d finally become completely obedient to God. I think it was because they were at last ready to receive the milk and honey, and to value their freedom and their new home for all that it meant to them. They were finally ready to leave the wilderness and receive the blessing. Moses would not go with them, though he had led them to this point. But he wanted them to remember and to re-tell their story, to never forget.

It is a story that resonates with all people in some way:
Homeless and wandering, they moved to another place, where they were strangers.
They suffered in body, mind and spirit so they cried out to God for redemption.
God redeemed them and set them free, and brought them to a new place, 
a place of peace, a place of bounty, and a place of thanksgiving.

It’s not an accident that Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy while he was in his own wilderness. Jesus was precise and nimble in responding to that temptation, that hissing voice that offered bodily satisfaction in bread, that appealed to ego, holding out the power of empire, that insinuated that he needed to provide proof of God’s provision for him.

It must have been tempting, the appeal to self – satisfaction, to self-aggrandizement, to self-serving. Isn’t it always?

Our very nature is to rely on self: our own wisdom, our own desires, our own plans. And God’s very nature is to keep calling us out of the wilderness of self and back to the Promised Land, back to the covenant, back to the milk and honey, back to the table of plenty.

In this Lenten season, as we contemplate repentance, we turn away from that which is harmful, and set our path toward that which is good. Our repentance is not some empty, tragic drama of tearing our hair and beating our chests, but a recognition that we have failed to live up to God’s best for us.

We have turned away toward something that looked attractive and lost sight of God’s claim of love. We have been lost and alone, out in the wilderness, and we have known what it is to be a stranger. We have known what it is to suffer, in body, mind and spirit and we have cried out to God for redemption.

Through Christ, who was tempted but knew no sin, God has redeemed us and set us free, and brought us to a new place, a place of peace, a place of bounty, and a place of thanksgiving. We turn to God, ready to be led out of the wilderness, ready to be broken open so that we may release our past and receive God’s gifts, to trade our stones for bread.

We are dust. We are mortal. We don’t have all the time in the world. But in Jesus Christ we receive eternity. Through him, we have life. He invites us into this new way of being, Turning away from self and toward him, toward life that honors God and loves neighbor, that focuses us on something greater than ourselves and joins us into one body. Through Jesus we receive the strength and light we need to accomplish all that he asks.

And through the gifts of the font and the table, we see our lives in a new way. Time collapses here at this table, for here, our past wilderness, present joy, and future hope collide into one moment of grace, when we are lifted up by the Spirit into the presence of Christ. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Someday, each one of us will die. But today, we are alive.

Today, we are on our way to the promised land.
Today, there is bread, there is a cup, and there is this community.
Today, through Christ, we are forgiven.
Today, through Christ, we are set free.
Today, we come to the feast.
Thanks be to God for the feast!

Thanks be to God!


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Homecoming King

This is the final installment of a series on the early life of Jesus.
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:21-30
February 7, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today comes from Jeremiah -- the prophet, not the bullfrog!
Jeremiah describes the event of his calling by God, while he was young and feeling unprepared for the work God had set before him. Let’s listen for God’s call in

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

The gospel reading for this week follows directly on the scene from last week’s reading. Jesus is in his hometown and has gone to the synagogue, as was his custom. He reads from the scroll of Isaiah, the prophecy of the one who will free the captives, give sight to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lords favor. After he sits down he announces “this scripture is fulfilled today in your hearing.” All eyes are on him, and they seem to approve. But then he goes on. Let’s listen for God at work in the word in

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Leader: The word of God for the people of God.
People: Thanks be to God.

You can’t go home again, the writer said. Anyone who has tried it knows that is both true and not true, especially those of us who come from small towns. You can go home again in many ways – you can go home to your parents’ house, if they are still there. You can return to the familiar landscapes of your childhood, if they are still there, You can go home in your memory, in reminiscing with those who were there with you. But you can’t go back to the days of your youth, and you can’t ever really escape your past – the hometown folks will remember – and whether you were a hero or a zero or a middling kind of kid, plenty of people will still see you that way, even when you are middle aged.

Maybe the young Jeremiah knew that on some level. Maybe Jeremiah didn’t really want to go down the road God was pointing out to him. Perhaps he had dreamed of being a farmer, or of growing olives, or of being a craftsman. It’s hard to see yourself as a prophet when you are young – not really a job most people consider when they are choosing a college major. We know that there were moments when Jesus was reluctant to claim fully the calling which God had given to him – he plainly asked God, “Take this cup from me!”

Who knows whether Jesus wanted to even go home to Nazareth?
Who knows whether he even wanted to go preach in the synagogue?
Maybe he’d have preferred to get an apartment in Jerusalem, take a gap year after his baptism and temptation, look around a little bit and consider his options.
But here he was, back at home, doing what God had called him to do.

Some of you know that this year, my high school class is celebrating our fortieth reunion. I haven’t been to one of our reunions in twenty years, and this year, I’m helping to organize it. I’m helping find people who were in my class, even those who didn’t graduate. Some of them don’t really want to be found. Some of them we are not sure we want to find. Some of them, when we find them, tell us in no uncertain terms, to leave them alone. Others are delighted to hear from us. Some of us are kind of nervous about going back to our hometown, back among the people who knew us at that time of our lives. We got the heck out of Dodge as soon as we could, and while we go back to visit family, we’re not so sure we want to see all our high school classmates.

The high school years are a mixed bag for most people. I think there are classmates of mine who look back on that time as a time of great happiness and exploration, of fun and freedom. They enjoy sharing their memories of the band trip to Pasadena, and even of the fundraising work they did to get there. They remember their classmates, the crazy pranks they played, the fun they had at football or basketball games. They are really excited about our plans for everyone to go to a Friday night football game together. That seems especially true of those folks who were the popular crowd, the athletes, the cheerleaders, the drill team, the class officers.

The large middle group - most of us – what one of my friends calls “the nobodies”- maybe not so much. We had a different experience. We may recall the fun and the delight, but we also remember the times we were excluded, the places we didn’t go, the friends we had, and then suddenly didn’t have.

At the other end of the spectrum were those who were well known, but maybe not well liked. They were the troublemakers, the people left out, the pot-stirrers, the kids who shook up the status quo or fought outright against it. They protested unfair rules, some of them,or went to – or even organized – demonstrations against wars or pollution. They might have gone to a football game, but only to circulate a petition. Others of them just broke the rules – if there was a rule, they broke it. Those were the kids who, when their names came up in the faculty lounge, teachers shook their heads and made those noises people make – mmmm, rrrrrrr ooooooohhhhh. They were the kids that if YOUR kid took up with them, you’d be concerned, maybe even warn your kids.

Who knows what kind of kid Jesus was – we know he was without sin, but did he speak up for justice and stick up for the underdog? Was he in with the in crowd, or was he a voice for the outsider? My guess is that he would not have been the quarterback for Team Nazareth.

My guess is that as a teenager, he didn’t get invited to the popular kids’ parties anymore than he did as an adult. He hung around with the outsiders.

I think it is safe to assume that he wasn’t the most popular boy at Hebrew school. I think it is also safe to assume that he was not teacher’s pet – at the age of twelve, he was challenging and questioning teachers, and amazing them. The people of Nazareth were amazed, too, when they heard him. So Jesus comes back, the hometown boy, the smart kid, and he teaches in the synagogue – he reads the scroll of Isaiah about freedom to the captive, sight to the blind, the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he sits down.

They like this. The hometown boy makes good with the home crowd. “Way to preach, Jesus!” But he isn’t finished yet. He could’ve just left it there, but this is Jesus, the son of God, the Messiah. He goes on to say “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Well. Hmmmm.

At first, they spoke well of him. At first, they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. But then they remembered who he was. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He answered them: "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" You want to see me do some signs, don’t you? You want some proof, don’t you? And though he does not say it outright, the implication is that he is not going to do tricks to prove something to them.

This hometown boy is not going to try to live up to the expectations of the hometown crowd. That was not the Nazareth Main Street booster speech they were expecting. The director of the Nazareth Chamber of Commerce drew a line through Jesus’ name on the brochure she was writing about famous people from Nazareth. The committee that was going to restore his boyhood home and give tours disbanded right there on the spot. The leader of the synagogue was regretting that he had asked Jesus to keynote that day. But Jesus wasn’t finished yet.

He said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.” Now, not all of us remember that story, but those folks at First Synagogue of Nazareth did. The prophet Elijah, on the run from a murderous king, during a famine, sought help from a woman with a young son, a widow who was destitute, planning to eat her last cake and die. But Elijah, the prophet of the God of Israel, came to HER. She was not one of them, not one of God’s chosen people, not a daughter of the covenant. You can almost hear the gasps in the crowd gathered there.

And Jesus still isn’t done yet! He is stirring them up, overturning their assumptions that he has come for them, to care for them and minister to them and them alone. He gives them another example from the scripture: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." The SYRIAN! God cleansed Naaman the Syrian, but not those Israelite lepers! The SYRIAN? Really? Now they are bristling.

Why is Jesus bringing up the Syrians during worship? He’s a hometown boy, and he should be glad to be here, he should feel honored that he was asked to speak. Why is Jesus getting all political? Why is he stirring things up with this kind of talk? What is Jesus getting at?

He is saying that his ministry is to the Jews, to God’s people, but it is not JUST to the Jews, not JUST for the sons of daughters of the covenant. The people are outraged. Who does this kid think he is?

That’s the trouble with trying to make Jesus the homecoming king. He just won’t conform to our expectations. He is never mainstream. And whatever side we are on, we think Jesus is going to join us, but Jesus is always on the side of the outsider.

We want to elect Jesus as president of the booster club, make him our spokesperson for our point of view, or our politics, or our judgments. But he won’t do that – he won’t wear the crown we want to give him, the high school homecoming king or the prom king. We want Jesus to fluff us up and make us feel better about everything, and he wants to talk about starving widows and children at the brink of death. He wants to talk about Syria and the people there. I think if he were here, preaching this morning, he would show us clips from the drone video of Homs, Syria, with its streets of bombed out buildings, the rubble and devastation going on for block after block after block.

We might not like that, sitting here on a Sunday morning, with the young people leading worship, and our Scouts here with us. It would make us uncomfortable. Not much different from back then. “All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

But this is Jesus, not some aging quarterback or fading cheerleader. He passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Presumably, the disciples went with him, probably wiping their brows with relief.

It isn’t always easy or popular, following Jesus, or following God’s call. The hometown crowd may not be very impressed by it. The wonder of it, the joy of it, is that none of us have to try to get elected, or be popular, or be the homecoming king or queen.

We already have a Homecoming King, and his name is Jesus,
the one who feeds us at his table, giving us the strength to act in his name.

We already have a Homecoming King, and his name is Jesus, 
the one whose team will ultimately win the day, 
and whose goal is righteousness, and justice and truth.

We already have a Homecoming King, and his name is Jesus. 
His love is from everlasting to everlasting,
and his grace and mercy extend to all people.

God’s playbook, our Bible, calls us to speak up for the outsider. "Now I have put my words in your mouth,” God says. And the voice of God that calls us, the voice of Jesus whom we follow, says to us

“Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you.”
“Do not say ‘I am only a girl’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you.”
"Do not say I am just a kid from Sterling, for you can do what I ask!"
"You shall speak whatever I command you."
“Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

And when it comes time to return the presence of God with all the saints and angels, we can trust that Jesus will be there to welcome us home, and to give us that robe and crown that really matter, for that final homecoming, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Thanks be to God that Jesus is our Homecoming King! 


Learning By Heart

This is the second in a brief series on the early life of Jesus.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21
January 31, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our Old Testament reading today comes from the book of Nehemiah. You may remember that this is a book of history, and Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king of Persia. Because he is in a position of trust, the king sends him to Jerusalem to lead the Israelites in rebuilding their city. After the long years of exile, they are finding themselves again, and re-establishing their identity as God’s covenant people. The lessons they had learned and forgotten have been re-learned in the rebuilding of the walls of the city. Now they gather around their beloved Torah, the word of God, and Ezra reads the scripture and interprets it to them. The people are overcome with emotion as they hear the word. Let’s listen with that same attentive delight for God’s word to us in

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.

3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

In our New Testament reading, we continue in Luke’s gospel sometime after we left off when we saw the boy Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. In Luke’s story, Jesus had suffered temptation in the wilderness and returned to his hometown.

It is the Sabbath day, so he goes to the little synagogue in Nazareth. That’s not the big fancy temple, but more like a little country church, with simple stone benches, and a rough wooden table for rolling out the scrolls. Jesus would have been a familiar face in the synagogue, because it was his custom to attend and to participate in worship. Let’s listen for God’s word in

Luke 4:14-21

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

In the Christian churches of Africa, and in many churches here in the United States, the reading of the gospel is preceded by a joyful procession. In parts of Africa, the gospel book, specially bound in a bright cover, is carried into the sanctuary in a clay jar, accompanied by singing and dancing! This is the gospel! Alleluia!

In the synagogue, when the Torah scrolls are removed for the Sabbath service, the congregation sings joyfully in thanksgiving for God’s word, and people reach out to touch the scroll with a prayer book or with the corner of a prayer shawl.

In some congregations, it is the custom to stand for the gospel reading.And in many, many churches, the reading is accompanied by words of praise. Like the people in these stories from scripture, the people of today welcome the reading of God’s word, and respond to it with thanksgiving.The words speak to their hearts, to the very core of their being.

Let’s journey in our imagination to the times of Nehemiah,and join the people there as the scroll is unrolled before them. Their time of exile was long and painful. For years they had lived far from their homeland, in a place that was foreign to them – none of the familiar foods, or customs, or people were there. They were surrounded by a dominant culture that did not follow their God, and they had gradually slipped into despair or resignation. They had not left their homes gladly or willingly –
they left because war and violence pushed them away, and there was nowhere to go but to Persia.

But now! Now they were home!
And beneath the rubble of the devastated wall of the city,they saw the remnants of their heart’s true home, Jerusalem. In Jerusalem was the temple, the holy dwelling place for God, the symbol of God’s covenant promises to make them a great nation.

So they rebuilt the wall, and they put their backs into it,and they put their hearts into it. Oh, to be home, to see the scroll unrolled, to hear God’s word read to them once again, to have the priest Ezra interpret the word to them – they wept for pure joy.

Imagine what that would be like for us.
Imagine being torn away from our homes, no longer able to come and worship here, prevented from sitting in these pews, looking around at those familiar windows, seeing those faces that once sat here with us so long ago, whose memories live with us here.

Imagine that we then came home! 
Would we stand as the word was opened to us?
Would we listen with misty eyes?
Would we lift up our hands and shout, “AMEN! AMEN!”?

Now, let’s leap forward in time to the first century, away from Jerusalem to the little town of Nazareth. It’s no big deal, just a little farm town, with just one synagogue, the one everybody goes to – the rich and poor, men and women, the proud and the lowly, Mary and Joseph, and their boy, Jesus.

We don’t know much for certain about the boyhood of Jesus.We know that he was raised in Nazareth, and that his parents made sure he could read the scrolls, He must have been a thoughtful and inquisitive child – the story of him being left behind in Jerusalem, talking and questioning the temple leaders when he was only twelve years old tells us that.

Some of the stories about him as he grew up, more legend the gospel, tell of him helping his mother by bringing water,even though the jug had broken, and helping his father in the carpentry shop, by stretching out a piece of wood that was cut too short. The legend is that when Jesus saved Joseph’s day with that miracle, Joseph said, “Blessed am I for God gave me this boy.”

We can easily imagine the quiet conversations held by adults in Nazareth as they watched this unusual boy grow to manhood. Maybe they saw that he was destined for greatness.Maybe they shook their heads and said, “What a peculiar child.” Maybe they discounted the stories about him as just talk. In any case, now he is a man, and he is filled with the power of the Spirit. He is a man, and the word is spreading about him, even to Nazareth. We can assume that the reports that spread through the surrounding country are of the things that he is doing, and what he is saying. He was being praised by everyone.

And now, here he is in Nazareth, where they know him.
Now, here is this young man,
the boy they had seen running to the well,
the boy who had skinned his knees and cried,
who had struggled to learn the Hebrew alphabet,
then proudly recited the letters he had learned,
the boy who had studied Torah and learned it by heart.

They know his family,
they know his history,
and maybe they think they know who he is.

Like Ezra, he unrolls the scroll.
Like Ezra, he begins to read.
Here are the words he read to them:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME,
because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent ME to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

You could hear a pin drop.
This was the prophecy, the promise of redemption, of good news, of liberation, of the year of Jubilee when debts were forgiven and slaves set free. They did not jump up and lift up their hands and shout “AMEN! AMEN!"

They watched as he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant.
They watched as he went back to his usual place.
They watched as he sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he said "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Could it be? Could it really be true?
After all the years in exile, they had come back to Israel.
They had rebuilt their homes and cultivated the land.
They had wept as yet another conquering army marched into their country.
They had suffered with bent backs and bowed spirits as the Roman occupiers wielded their power over them. Now he spoke into the rubble of their lives:

It’s me. God has anointed me, sent me. I am the fulfillment. It’s ME.
All the promises they had held close in their hearts, all the waiting…
Here he comes, the Spirit of the Lord upon him,
here he comes to open the scripture to us,
to give back to us the words we know by heart,
the promises we did not dare to believe.

Are you far from home, and lost?
Are you looking for a shepherd to guide you?
It’s me, he says.

Does your life look like rubble, torn apart by conflict?
Are you looking for some peace?
It’s me, he says.

Have you been blinded by the culture around you,
by the advertising and the sales pitches,
been blinded to what is worthwhile,
blinded to what is worth jumping up on your feet and shouting AMEN about?
Do you need someone to help you see what really matters?
It’s me, he says.

Are you burdened by guilt or shame or regret?
Do you need forgiveness, a friend to help you see a better way?
It’s me, he says.

Are you sick and looking for a healer?
Are you rich in things and poor in your soul?
Do you need someone to put your heart right?
It’s me, he says.

When the people came to the temple and opened the scroll,
what they heard was the word of God,
the word they had learned by heart, then forgotten,
as they turned toward other words,
or had their hearts broken by other loves,
or had their hearts hardened by hard times.
But the word was there, all along.
When the people came to the temple and Jesus opened the scroll,
what they saw was the word of God,
the word long promised, the word made flesh,
the one who shouts freedom to the captives,
who mends what is broken,
who proclaims jubilee to the weary world.

If you want to hear the word, and see the word,
and stand up and shout hallelujah, amen!
now would be the time, because he is here, he is here with us right now,
and if you want to know what grace looks like,
and sounds like, and feels like, “It’s me,” he says.


Fathers and Sons

This is the first sermon in a short series about the early life of Jesus. 
Jesus: The Missing Years 

Luke 2:21-42
January 24, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our gospel reading today is from the gospel of Luke, one of the few stories we have about the early life of Jesus, and the only story in which we see Jesus as a child, speaking and acting on his own. After his birth, we read that the family was warned to get out of town, because King Herod was looking for them, and killing every child under the age of two in an effort to kill Jesus and eliminate the threat he posed. The family lived in Egypt for a time, then returned to the hometown of Mary and Joseph, where they presumably lived permanently from then on. It was the custom of every faithful Jew who could do so to “go up” to Jerusalem at Passover, to worship in the temple. That’s what we find Mary and Joseph doing in this story from scripture, and this is where we get a glimpse of the young Jesus.

Please pray with me as we prepare our hearts for God’s word.

God our helper, by your Holy Spirit, open our minds that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may be led into your truth and taught your will, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

What stories are told about you as a child? Who tells them?
Do you recall the events that surround those stories?
Do you ever argue with the veracity of them?

Depending on your parents and siblings, those stories may be heartwarming, or heartbreaking. And they may or may not be exactly true. Where famous people are concerned, especially in the time of Jesus, the stories of their childhood are matters of great importance.

Probably all of us of a certain age heard the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, then confessing to his father “I cannot tell a lie.” It is a great story. However, it is not true. At least it is not literally true –not a really truly happened piece of history like Washington crossing the Delaware. But the story of little George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing to his father has value as a story, even if not as history. The story has value because it tells us something about how people understood the moral character of our country’s first president.

This little vignette of Jesus at the temple serves the same function, but has even greater value because most Christians – scholars and everyday people, believe that it is both history and theology, a story that is factually true AND spiritually true. While it is the only story in the Bible about Jesus as a child, it is not the only story that exists. There are numerous old manuscripts that tell stories of Jesus. They call themselves gospels, but for reasons that will be obvious, they were not included in the Bible we now use.

One such manuscript is “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” It is full of stories of Jesus as a little boy, from toddlerhood on, and to our modern ears, it is very, very strange. These are not cute stories about an adorable little toddler Jesus walking across the water in the bathtub while his mother tries to bathe him. They are not little moral tales like George Washington and the cherry tree. They are stories that would have demonstrated two things to the people of Jesus’s time:

One, that he was indeed a god, a superhuman who could do magic, and who was above the law in terms of human behavior.

Two, that as he grew and developed, he learned self-control, wisdom, and how to control his superpowers and use them for good.

So, in the infancy gospels, we encounter stories of the young child Jesus who makes sparrows out of clay, then turns them into real birds. And when a neighbor boy messes up the water Jesus is using to form the clay, Jesus speaks and strikes the boy down with an illness. In other stories, Jesus gets put out with a teacher he doesn’t like, and the teacher is struck dead with a word from him. At one point in the story, the neighbors drop by the house and ask Mary and Joseph to move to another town. As Jesus grows and develops in these stories, he is less likely to kill the neighbors.

In one of the stories, a neighbor boy falls off a roof, and the adults accuse Jesus of pushing the boy off the roof. Jesus brings the boy back to life, but only so that the boy can testify that he fell, and that Jesus had not pushed him.

These are strange stories, unbelievable, but at the time they seemed believable. Although the show Jesus in a very negative light, they served a purpose. There is a popular series of books that I know the kids can tell you more about, the Percy Jackson series. The first book tells how Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood. The camp is like a Hogwarts school for demigods, the children of gods and humans. Turns out Percy’s real father is Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Percy is accused of having stolen Zeus' master lightning bolt. But he is innocent of the crime, and so Percy, with a satyr named Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase, a daughter of Athena, sets off on a journey to the underworld. The three go on this quest, facing numerous mythological monsters on the way, to recover Zeus’s lightning bolt from the real thief, and save the mortal world from destruction. The stories of Percy Jackson and his companions show us how a hero is formed –how at first he does not understand his true identity,but as he matures and gains experience,he takes on the mantle of both power and responsibility.

It isn’t surprising that such stories would have been concocted about Jesus. We have questions about him, about his childhood. What was he like, as a little boy? Did he know his true identity from the beginning? When did his mother and father tell him the story of his birth? Most of the time, we Christians, when we think about Jesus, slip into thinking about him not as fully human and fully divine, but as one or the other.

We think of him as a little angel boy, floating six inches off the ground, already doing miracles and speaking great important truths, already preaching and healing. But that removes his humanity. And if he was not human, he could not have been who he said he was. If Jesus were only God playacting, his life, death and resurrection mean nothing. When we think of Jesus as only divine, we erase his humanity, the part that redeems us –because what difference would it make for us that he was raised from the dead? Of course he was! All gods are immortal!

If we understand that Jesus is fully divine AND fully human we can come closer to that amazing truth that he was not just pretending to be like us, but he was and STILL IS God with us in every way –that he took on everything that it meant to be human: the need to eat, to sleep, to cry.

He had to learn to walk, to fall down and get back up.
He had to learn to talk, to feed himself, and how to share with the other kids.
Jesus is human, and so he knows us thoroughly, the minor indigestion and the real suffering
that every human knows. Jesus was human –suffering, grieving, dying, loving, knowing disappointment, and joy, laughing at jokes and learning how to read.

We don’t know when it was that he became aware that he was also divine.
Perhaps, as some storytellers describe it, the truth dawned on him gradually as he studied the scripture and prayed. Maybe his mother and Joseph gently shared stories with him until he understood for himself. Maybe he wasn’t even sure of it until he was baptized and the sky was torn open and the dove descended and the voice of God spoke to call him beloved.

Or maybe it happened that day in the temple. I think maybe Mary and Joseph waited until he was around twelve and then they told him, because he had reached the age to grasp the full implications of the story. So when they went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, maybe Jesus had those words ringing in his ears, and maybe he wanted to draw closer to this Heavenly Father, the one who had blessed him and gifted him, and who had given him a mother in Mary and a father in Joseph, who had fashioned and made him a bar mitzvah, a son of the covenant.

So Jesus, unthinking as twelve year old boys often are, not intending to be disobedient, but simply drawn to the place where his heart, mind and spirit were nourished and would flourish, went back to the temple. He went to his Father’s house, to listen, to learn, to understand. And when Mary and Joseph found him, much to their relief, I am sure, he went home with them, to his father and mother’s house, to listen and learn and understand still more.

Here’s how I think his mother Mary would have told the story, as she unwrapped the frankincense and myrrh, and maybe what was left of the gold. Here’s what I think she might have said, and even though we are not as he was, he is as we are, so these words are for us, today, now:

Child, you know how much you are loved.
From the very moment you were born, you were special.
You’ve been surrounded from birth love, and you have received some amazing gifts
through the generosity of the people who love you, and by the grace of God.

The gifts – the material things - that were given you as a baby, they are not the real gifts.
The real gifts are those that are a part of you:
your loving heart, a heart that will break when you see the suffering in this world;
your caring hands, hands that will reach out to heal, to hold the suffering in your arms,
to touch the sadness and the beauty in the world around you;
your eyes, that see that sadness and beauty,
and look beyond the surface to the deep truths of our lives,
eyes that see the path of wisdom and walk it without stumbling;
your mind, your bright intellect, that will help you to understand scripture,
your spirit, that comes from God and knows you are beloved,
and because of that wants to help others see that they too are beloved.

We are so blessed that you are our child, that you have come into this world to connect us more fully to God. Beloved, you must remember this –your life is big, and not small, and your life has a divine purpose.

Whatever you do on a daily basis, know that you were put here to walk in God’s light,
to share God’s love, to be generous with your gifts, and to learn to be human, fully human.
You are loved and chosen, claimed and called, so each day, may you increase in wisdom
and in human and divine favor. Thanks be to God! Thanks be to God! Thanks be to God!