Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Same Gift

John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18
April 24. 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Both of our readings today mark important turning points – for followers of Jesus, and in the life of the church. As I mentioned last week, the church we are talking about did not even exist during the time of the gospels, when Jesus was on the earth. Christianity was only beginning to develop in the Book of Acts, when those who believed in the risen Lord began to meet in homes early in the morning on the first day of the week. Like the sudden conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, these events changed everything – everything – about what people understood themselves to be as followers of Jesus. Our first reading, from John’s gospel, takes place at the Last Supper, when Jesus is celebrating Passover with the disciples. Judas has just left the room, to complete his betrayal of Jesus. And now, Jesus gives a new commandment, new to these faithful men and women who have left everything to follow him.

Let’s listen for God’s inclusive word in John 13:31-35

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, "Where I am going, you cannot come.' 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The good news of the gospel. Thanks be to God.

In our second reading, we are again in the book of Acts, and traveling with Peter in the region of Lydda and Joppa. Peter has had an astonishing experience with a Gentile, described in complete detail in chapter 10. Now he has been called on the carpet by the leadership who are in Judea. They have asked for an explanation of Peter’s audacious hospitality to a Roman centurion, a Gentile named Cornelius. They’ve asked, as the Pharisees asked Jesus, what he is up to, welcoming unclean people and eating unclean food. Let’s listen for Peter’s explanation in Acts 11:1-18

1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"

4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, "By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, "Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Do you remember watching “I Love Lucy” with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz?
It was such a fun television series. Every week, Lucy would get up to something crazy and hilarious, usually hiding it from her husband Ricky, played by her real-life husband, the Cuban musician and actor Desi Arnaz. Every week, Lucy would do something crazy, and when Desi would find out, he say, “Okay, Luuuuuu-ceeeeeeee! Start esplaining!”

In a way, that is what is happening here in the eleventh chapter of Acts. Peter has been asked for an explanation of his decision to accept the hospitality of a Roman centurion who asked him to come to his home. Peter has violated two important and central prohibitions of his people – you don’t eat unclean food, and you don’t eat with unclean people.

Just as his opposition asked of Jesus, “Who is this man who welcomes sinners and eats with them?” Peter’s colleagues, the leaders of this new religious movement, want an answer to their question, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

In other words, “You got some splainin’ to do!”

I think it is important to say that this was a reasonable question. There was a lot at stake for them in these early days of the church. Whenever a new movement is beginning to define itself, it is crucial to sort out its identity. Were they primarily a Jewish movement, and was this message of Christ only for them? After all, Jesus was a Jewish man, one of their own, observant and well-versed in scripture. He knew the law and the dietary restrictions, and the rules of who and what was clean or unclean. So it was an important question: “Whose church IS this, anyway?”

The question has not gone away, not for two thousand years. It has been asked about every kind of person that anyone ever considered to be an outsider. Whose church is it? And who is not welcome? What right does Peter have to extend that kind of welcome, especially to, of ALL people, a Roman soldier?!

There is something inside each one of us that wants to keep the best for ourselves,
that wants to shut the door behind us once we get in,
that wants some group or person to look down on, or blame,
that wants to draw dividing lines and separate “us” from “them.”
It is part of being human, of being flawed and sinful.

We all have it, and then we get together in groups, like the church, and the lines in the sand start getting carved in stone. We start to sound like fourth-grade girls in a backyard clubhouse: “It’s our church. We founded it. We get to say who can be in it.”

The newborn church had to struggle with this.
They had to pray about it and discuss it.
Perhaps the reason the Spirit led Peter and not Paul, the new convert,
to this moment was that Peter was a long-time trusted disciple.
In any case, when the request came to him, Peter responded with love,
in an act of hospitality as generous as the invitation that was issued to him.

Peter asked, “If then God gave them the same gift
that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I that I could hinder God?"

After all, Jesus had picked grain on the Sabbath.
He had sat down at table with all sorts of people,
and had welcomed Samaritans and tax collectors and pagans.

And Peter had not just gone off willy-nilly, baptizing Gentiles;
he’d been led by a vision, a dream, by the Holy Spirit.
And so had Cornelius.

The scripture tell us that when the Christians in Judea they heard this, they were silenced.
And then – then they praised God! They did not split away from one another and form two new churches, saying, “Those people are apostate and we want to be pure.”

They praised God!

And that’s the good news in this story.

This church belongs to Christ. 
All churches belong to Christ.
Christ is the head of the church.
Not me, not you, not the Session, not General Assembly, not the pope.

Jesus is the one who is the judge.
Not me, not you, not the pastor down the street, not the pope.

And this head of our church is a different sort of rabbi,
a teacher who emphasized God’s love,
and who commanded his followers to love one another,
to love their neighbors, and to even love their enemies!

Bless those who curse you, he said, and pray for those who abuse you.
Love one another – this is how everyone will know you are my disciples, he told them 
– he said it was a new commandment. 
Not just a suggestion, but A NEW COMMANDMENT!

Jesus had shown them that the law was not abolished –in fact he had come to fulfill the law – but that the law of love, the great commandment, was the first law. It was the same gift then, for the Jews and the Gentiles. It is the same gift now, for all people. This great commandment is who we are. It is the core of our identity as Christians.

Peter asked, “If then God gave them the same gift
that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I that I could hinder God?"

Who was he indeed, and who are we?

We are people who have received the gift of God,
people called to follow Jesus,
called to live like Jesus,
called to love like Jesus.
That’s who we are.

“Then God has given even to the ______________ (you fill in the blank!) 
the repentance that leads to life.”

They praised God,
and we praise God,
that we have all received the same gift,
of life
of love
of Christ
of the church.

Thanks be to God!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Alive in Christ

Alive in Christ
Acts 9:36-43
April 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Last week, we began a series on the book of Acts, a series which will continue until we celebrate Pentecost on May 15. You heard about a change of plan for a fellow named Saul, a sudden and radical event that changed Saul from a persecutor of Christians to a missionary of the gospel. The Book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles, describes for us the events of the early church.The Christians of the first century were still working out what that meant, to be Christian. The events of that time – the healings, the missionary journeys of Paul, the Jerusalem council, the travels of the apostles,
and the response to their message – shaped how they understood the message of Jesus.

The Acts of the Apostles depict for us a community of faith whose identity is being shaped as the community forms.There was no Book of Order, no precedent, no plan. This is on the job training, for everyone in those early Christian communities. As their identity was formed, as they told the stories
and described the miracles and talked over what it all meant, the identity of the church was also being formed. In Acts, we read about the development of the church we now know – its confessions, its community, its convictions and its conflicts. In short, the stories in the book of Acts tell us who we are.

The story we will hear today is crucial for several reasons. First, it tells of a miraculous healing – actually, a resuscitation – by Peter, of an early Christian disciple, a woman named Dorcas, or Tabitha.
Second, it gives us a sense of the closely connected community of the house congregations that made up the church. Third, it shows us that from the very outset, women played an enormously significant role in the church. Finally, we see a portrait of faith.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Acts 9:36-43:
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

It has been said that the book of Acts 
“weaves together different narrative strands 
of the church’s mission to the end of the earth. 
If Peter’s story is the warp of Acts, then Paul’s is its weft.” 
(New Interpreter's Commentary on the Book of Acts) 

Both men are crucial to the development of the early church, 
and while they operate in different places, 
they do so with the same authority and power.

So as Saul heads of into his future as the Apostle Paul,
the story turns to Peter’s mission beyond Jerusalem.
As we looked at this text in Bible study, the question arose
whether Peter or the other apostles raised anyone else from the dead?
I looked into it, and found only one other instance
of a miraculous resuscitation, also in the book of Acts, by the Apostle Paul.
That is the story of Eutychus, an unfortunate young believer
who fell to his death from a third story window.
Eutychus was attending an evening church meeting in a house church,
and Paul’s sermon was so long that he fell asleep and fell out the window.
Paul brought poor dear Eutychus back to life, a talent I do not have.
This is why we modern pastors keep a close eye on sermon length…

Okay, back to Dorcas.

She was, clearly, a valued member of the church,
the only woman named as a disciple in the New Testament,
an active and vital force for ministry in the church of Joppa.
I used this text yesterday as we laid our beloved Nonis to rest.

We know what they were feeling, don’t we?
They couldn’t believe Dorcas was gone.
She touched lives. She ministered to people. She cared for the poor.
She listened to people, listened intently as they shared their sorrows,
laughed with them when they told a cute story
about their children or grandchildren.

What were they going to do without her?

We suffer from the same sadness and anxiety today,
in this church and in THE church,
as the beloved older generation passes away
and we do not see the younger disciples that are going to replace them.
You can see it right here, in our own congregation –
fewer people, fewer resources, a deficit budget…We can’t ignore it.

For years, Christian churches have thrived
on the reliable and generous members who bring their gifts,
who share their talents,
who give of themselves in every way possible.
And the simple fact is that every church, pretty much,
has fewer and fewer of those disciples.
In our own case, the challenge is compounded by a history
of relying on income from our endowment to make up the annual deficit.
With interest rates in the fractions of a single digit,
that income is no longer coming in.
We can’t touch the principle,
so even though we have half a million dollars on the balance sheet,
we are already running a deficit for the first quarter of this year.

So what do we do?

Do we fire the preacher and let whoever is left take turns preaching?
Do we quit repairing the building or mowing the lawn,
kick out all the community groups, cut expenses to the bone,
auction off the communion ware on e-bay, sell the organ and all the pianos,
and just keep coming here for one hour a week until the last funeral?

In other words, do we direct all our energy to self-preservation?
Do we declare that the church, or this congregation,
is on its deathbed, and lay it out for burial?

Or do we believe in resurrection?
I think we do!

Friends, I submit to you today, on this fourth Sunday of Easter,
that the fact that we are here, week after week,
is evidence of the truth of resurrection.
God is not finished with us yet,
and we have not yet finished the work that Jesus called us to do
in this community, as his disciples.
I don’t know what all the answers are going to turn out to be,
but we are called, as followers of Jesus, to get up, and keep going.
Dorcas was a disciple.
Her friends, the widow ladies, and all the saints, men and women,
were devastated, grieving at their loss.
Dorcas lay dead, and they sent for Peter.
The weeping women showed Peter the tunics and robes,
the prayer blankets and baby layettes, the scarves and shawls she had made.
Peter saw the amazing ministry she was doing,
the way she, as a disciple, was leading them in mission,
and he said, “Nope. Not dead yet. Get up.
You are not done yet!”

And what happened?
“This became known throughout Joppa,
and many believed in the Lord.”

I can promise you that God is not going to let the church die.
Whether or not our congregation continues for another 170 years,
whether or not the church of the future
looks anything like the church of today,
Christ is not going to permit his church to waste away
or languish, barely breathing, on life support.

We are alive in Christ – it is who we are!
We DO believe in resurrection.
We are raised to new life, to a new life as disciples.

Because this is who we are – you can see it by what we do.
We are, like Dorcas, people who perform acts of mercy
and acts of caring and acts of ministry
every single day.

Yesterday I shared a story that Nonis told me years ago.
She said that when she was a little girl she was at church –
I don’t know if it was at Vacation Bible School, or at her Sunday School –
the minister called her to the front of the church,
stood her on a stool so that everyone could see her.
He pointed to Nonis and said to everyone, “This is a disciple.”
She was a disciple. And so are we all.

Just as Peter, through the power of God, called Dorcas back to life,
Christ is raising the church to life,
saying “Get up! You are not dead yet! There is still much to do!
We are alive in Christ, called to new life, and new ways of living
to ministry and mission, perhaps in ways we have not imagined,
with people we have not yet met,
with resources we have yet to recognize.

And this will become known throughout Sterling,
and many will believe in the Lord,
and they, too, will be alive in Christ.
Thanks be to God!


Friday, April 8, 2016

We Have Come to Believe

1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 24: 1-12
March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Corinth was a religiously diverse colony of Rome, a city whose reputation was one of wealth without culture and diversity without sophistication. The early church there reflected the city – a few very wealthy and influential people, a wide diversity of backgrounds, with Jews, Greeks, Roman freedmen and immigrants making up the bulk of the congregation. But it was only the rich who had sufficient space and resources to host the house church gatherings, and it was only the wealthy who could leave off work early enough to come and eat the best food and drink most of the wine of the communal meal before the poor working stiffs arrived. You can imagine that sometimes resentment and conflict that would arise. We know that the church at Corinth had many struggles, which occasioned Paul’s letters and visits. But we also know that as one of the earliest Christian congregations, they were held together by a core belief, the faith in the risen Christ. Paul reminds them of this, the central doctrine that made this new community of believers come to be called “Christians.”

Let’s listen for God’s word in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,
of the good news that I proclaimed to you,
which you in turn received, in which also you stand,
through which also you are being saved,
if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—
unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time,
most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace toward me has not been in vain.
On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—
though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Whether then it was I or they,
so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Our Gospel reading for this Easter morning is the account from Luke that affirms what Paul’s letter addresses – that Jesus was not dead, but raised. The gospel tells us of the women going to anoint the body of Jesus and finding the tomb empty, just as Jesus had told them. When the women go and report this to the rest of the disciples, they are not taken seriously – at least at first. But straightaway, Peter runs to the tomb to check out their story, and sees the truth that Jesus is not there, in fact has been resurrected. This is the truth of Easter, the story we have come here to tell and celebrate, and truth that we, too, have come to believe.

Let’s listen for God’s truth in Luke 24: 1-12
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb,
taking the spices that they had prepared.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they went in, they did not find the body.
While they were perplexed about this,
suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground,
but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you,
while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified,
and on the third day rise again.”
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb,
they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James,
and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb;
stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves;
then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

The women who came to the empty tomb that morning had not come to see the Risen Lord. They had come to anoint a dead body, the body of a beloved friend, the body they had not been able to prepare for burial. He had died a horrifying, humiliating death, unjustly executed for blasphemy and sedition, crucified on a stinking heap of garbage between two thieves, and buried in a borrowed tomb.

They had come with spices, to anoint the body. They had not come to see a living Jesus. They had not come to believe. When Peter went running, frantic, to the tomb, he was not coming to see an empty tomb. He was coming to disprove what he thought was an idle tale, the fantasy of some unreliable women. He had not come to believe.

But they did come to believe.
They did – the women, Peter, and all the disciples. The early Christians of the church in Corinth, those who had been brought to faith by the Apostle Paul, even they needed some reminding of what they had come to believe. Like Paul did in his letter to the Corinthians, we keep on telling the story, even now, and especially today. We tell it because it is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection. We tell it because we are Easter people, and we have come to believe.

Have you come to believe, today?
Karl Barth, who was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, perhaps the greatest, and certainly one of the best known, Karl Barth said that we Christians come to church on Sunday with one question in our hearts, a question we may be fearful to ask out loud, a question on which hangs all of our faith and our trust in God, a question that we must answer for ourselves over and over again: IS IT TRUE?

“When people come to church,” Barth asked, is it not the case that “they consciously or unconsciously leave behind them cherry tree, symphony, state, daily work, and other things, as possibilities somehow exhausted?” Barth says we come in the expectation that God is indeed present. Barth says we want to know the answer to this question: Is it true?—"and” he says, “not some other answer which beats around the bush.”

So here it is, Easter morning, and I’m assuming that you also, as I do, believe that the answer is here, in this story – that it IS true, as Paul said “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” and that he appeared people after his resurrection, and that he is alive and at work in the world even now.

If the question is “Is it true?” the answer is “YES!”
Trouble is, things have changed. The church has changed a lot since the first century, and even more in the twenty-first century. Barth imagined that people leave behind homes and work, woods and sports, daily life and symphony concerts, and come to church to seek God’s presence. But the reality is more the reverse – people are forsaking church in favor of home or work, or the woods or sports, or symphony concerts. and they do not come to church to seek God’s presence.

In fact, for many people, church is the LAST place they would come if they wanted to experience the living Christ. There are lots of reasons for this new reality, and there are lots of people in my line of work who bemoan the statistics. Regular church attendance for most people is once or twice a month. I confess, I’d like it if more people were in church on any given Sunday. It makes the whole thing more lively and fun. I’d like it if all of you were here every Sunday, in fact.

But that’s not the point of all this – that you come to church. The point of all this is that you come to believe. I think you are here because you want to believe in resurrection. But even Peter didn’t believe it at first. He had to have someone come and tell him, and he had to see for himself. Jesus appeared to people over and over, after he was raised from death. When he first came to the disciples, Thomas wasn’t there, and he actually asked Jesus, when he saw him, to show him his wounds.

We all need someone, sometimes to point out what is true, what is beautiful, to pass on to us what is of first importance, so that we, too, can come to believe.

It’s like parents who show call their children to the window to see a sunset,
or teachers who take their students to an art museum,
or friends who tell you a story,
or bring you a beautiful flower, or a picture, or a quilt.
Sometimes you need some to show you, or remind you,
so that you may come to believe.

If I could take you to the window right now,
I’d show you how Christ is at work in our community,
in the hands of those who feed the hungry, with a daily breakfast,
with a weekend food bag, with a hot meal and a place to sleep.

If we could take a field trip today,
I’d take you to the island of Lesbos, 
where church groups stand watch all night 
for small boats coming in the darkness from the sea.
We would travel to refugee camps around the globe where Christians
young and old offer food, and medical care, and clothing and comfort.

If I could bring you a picture,
I’d show you pictures of my friends who are chaplains –
of Craig, in the Air Force, ministering to men and women
who are far from home, people of every faith tradition and no faith at all,
and I’d show you a picture of Sharon,
whose mother was the ninth person to be shot dead
at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston,
and who ministers not only to people at Parkland Hospital in Dallas,
but also travels the country to speak out against gun violence.

If I could tell you a story of resurrection,
I’d tell you the countless stories of men and women
whose lives were turned around from addiction,
by an encounter with the living Lord of Easter.
I’d tell you about my friends – more than one!
whose cancer was stage four and is now gone,
whose lives continue in service to God.

And I would tell you so many stories of those who were not cured,
but who are healed in death, and who breathed their last
with a song of praise and thanksgiving on their lips,
because they knew the truth in the terrible beauty of their death.

It is true.
Christ is alive and at work in the world.

We affirm it every time we repeat the Apostles’ Creed.
We affirm it when we proclaim the mystery of our faith
in the communion prayers:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It is true.
Christ is alive and at work in the world.

We see it in every act of mercy,
we hear it in every song of praise,
we encounter it in the profound silence of prayer
and in the astonishing beauty of nature.

It is true.
We can see it in lives changed,
hearts renewed,
minds enlightened,
songs raised,
in others, to be sure,
but also in ourselves.

We have come to worship, yes.
We have come to sing the songs of Easter, yes.
We have come to be with our families, we have come to be with our community, we have come to receive the bread and the cup at Christ’s table. 

But most of all, we have come to answer that question: IS IT TRUE?
and we have come to meet the risen Christ, to answer YES.
We have come to believe.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.