Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Song of Hope

Psalm 96: 1-4; Lamentations 3:21-25
May 29, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We have two readings today, both from the Hebrew scriptures. Both are songs of hope.
Our first reading is a song of joy and praise for our great and glorious God: Psalm 96: 1-4

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The second scripture selection is from the book of Lamentations. That’s an Old Testament book of only five chapters. It rarely shows up in worship, rarely gets preached. It is a book that is exactly what its name describes: a series of laments. The reading is from the middle of the book, and the basis for the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

(You can hear a great rendition of that song here:

Let’s listen for the poetry of lament and the song of hope in Lamentations 3:21-25:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

God moves in mysterious ways, the saying goes.
Those of us who preach every Sunday sometimes discover that those mysterious ways accrue to our benefit, when we sit down to write a sermon. That happened this week. When I selected these scriptures for today, I did it thinking something like this, “Let’s see….May 29 is the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. That’s usually a low attendance Sunday – so many people traveling, so much going on. Maybe we can have a service with a lot of singing – lots of favorite hymns, maybe even more music than preaching. People like that. So I’ll pick some texts that lend themselves to a musical sort of Sunday.”

Psalm 96 was an obvious choice, and it was the Psalm in the Revised Common Lectionary for today. Lamentations 3 was less obvious, but more familiar than the rest of the book. But then I began to think about Memorial Day, and its importance in our collective lives.

In spite of the fact that Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day, a solemn remembrance of the war dead after the Civil War, it has become for many of us simply a day to cook out, a day to go to the lake, to have a picnic with the family. It seemed that some mention ought to be made of the observance. And here’s where the Holy Spirit got to work, I think, because these texts I chose are going to lead us there.

The opening words of Psalm 96 are a favorite among church musicians:“Sing to the Lord a NEW song!” We might quote the Psalm when we want to encourage church goers to learn some new music, to sing something other than all the familiar hymns. In reality, the ninety-sixth Psalm was an assertion of the need to sing even in the face of war and oppression. Singing praise to the glory and power of God above all other gods must have been hard for a people who had seen so much trouble – enslaved in Egypt, embattled in their homeland, exiled in Babylon.

Sing to the Lord a new song?
How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?
How do we declare the glory of God to the nations when we have been defeated in battle?
Because God is greatly to be praised, says the Psalm.
All the other gods are merely idols.
Not our God.
Our God is to be revered above all.

There’s a similar sort of turn in the reading from Lamentations. You don’t hear a lot of sermons from Lamentations. Because it is … lamentations. Most of us would rather not sing songs of lament. Maybe a new song, but not a new lament. The first two chapters of Lamentations are narrated by a poetic voice who is called “daughter Zion,” representing the Israelite people. The book begins with a mournful description of a devastated battleground:

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!... all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, .. her children have gone away, captives before the foe….the enemy has prevailed.”

The second chapter continues in the voice of daughter Zion, the devastated princess, mourning her utter defeat. In the third chapter, the narrator’s voice changes. Instead of a grieving woman, it is the voice of strong man. It is the voice of a soldier. He, too, speaks of defeat and desolation. He is a prisoner of war. Enemy forces have not just conquered him; he is utterly crushed.

But then, this brief section from about the middle of the book suggests that even in a time of grief, there is hope – hope in the God who created the universe. It’s a hope that a soldier needs to cling to – the hope that we must cling to, the hope that people centuries ago were clinging to: the hope in God, the trust that God is faithful, the promise that God’s love is steadfast and eternal.

There was a time, I think, when many people placed that kind of trust in their government, or at least in some of their government. I’d venture to guess that fewer people nowadays feel hopeful about the elected leaders of this country. Though it may seem that way, it isn’t a new thing. When World War 1 began in 1914, it was called “The War to End All Wars.” People in Europe and the United States believed that it would be just that.

Four years and nine million deaths later, a disillusioned people looked across the landscape of Europe and lamented. “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people…”

The celebration of duty, of bravery, of virtue, seemed hollow.
What had it all been for?
The problems they had set out to solve still loomed large, as World War II would demonstrate so brutally. How could they possibly make sense of this devastation?

The poets and the musicians, like the Psalmist and the lamenting soldier, gave voice to their feelings. Benjamin Britten, Maurice Ravel, and Charles Ives, to name a few, offered up new music – perhaps not to the Lord, and mostly more as requiems than rejoicing.

But Ravel wrote six lighthearted pieces for solo piano, in memory of six friends.
When criticized for writing such sprightly and reflective music as memorials,
he said, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Canadian poet John McCrae wrote the immortal poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
You have probably heard at least the opening lines of that poem:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.”

William Butler Yeats wrote his grim and powerful poem
“The Second Coming,”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

These were new songs, indeed, but they were songs of lament, of desolation, of despair.
How could they sing the songs of Zion?

The previous decades of peace and prosperity,
the optimism that had carried them along,
all gone.
All gone.

But there were some in that era, even as there are some in this era,
who placed their hope in something greater than earthly powers.

Although the Americans entered the war in 1917, it was not until June of 1918 that General John Pershing’s forces arrived at the Western Front. Just a few days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had called for a day of prayer and fasting on May 30, 1918.

Pershing’s forces assembled at the little French town of Chateau Thierry, where the initial battle was won in just three days. The battle of Belleau Wood which followed lasted for three weeks. But it was that decisive battle that turned the tide of the war and let to the eventual victory of the allied forces and the armistice in November of that year.

The world would never be the same, after that war.
But the unchanging love of God continued.

The optimism of the Western powers would never be what it had been,
but hope in God’s faithfulness could not be extinguished.

The poet Mary Gray wrote, in 1919, a poem about that battle,
a poem called Belleau Hill:

O WINDS that mourn the dead on Belleau Hill,
Cease wailing: blow a trumpet for the free
Who gave their lives for love of liberty.
O wind, shout forth their praise from Belleau Hill!

O STARS, shining upon the cross so still
That marks the summit and the battle’s end,
Light up our sky, that we may still defend
The hill he won, and all his hopes fulfil!

O FLOWERS that climb the top of Belleau Hill,
Give to my dead hopes life, and to them bring
The colors of the young returning Spring—
The faith that lives, the love no death can kill![1]

May we, as we observe this Memorial Day, continue to sing songs of hope.
May we remember and honor the dead,
and may we never glorify war, nor elevate flag above faith,
but continue to place our hope in God alone.

The church in Chateau Thierry in France stands out as a living memorial to the Americans who gave their lives for freedom.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Rock, Paper, Scissors

A Trinity Sunday sermon
Psalm 8; Proverbs 8: 22-31; John 16: 12-15
May 22, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Today is Trinity Sunday.
It is the only Sunday on the church calendar that addresses a doctrine rather than an event.If you are familiar, which many of you are by now, with the church year, we start with Advent, move on to Christmas and Epiphany, then Lent and Easter, and fifty days later, Pentecost.

But on this Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Trinity – a doctrine of the universal church. Not all who fall under the appellation of Christian are believers in the Trinity, and for some people, that makes them “not Christian.” Mormons, for example, believe in Father, Son and Holy Ghost, “united in purpose and separate in person.”[1] Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, nor do Christian Scientists.

But for the last several centuries –actually since the year 451, the year of the council of Chalcedon, the vast majority of Christians believe in the classic doctrine: God in three persons, without division, separation, change or confusion.

God is Christ is the Holy Spirit, all three are one.
And God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all three separate.
The words sound simple, don’t they?

The fact remains, however, that this doctrine is not easily explained. As you review Christian history, in fact, the struggle to understand the relationship among God, Christ and Spirit has led to some of the greatest heresies. Somehow, trying to put into words the mystery of the Trinity paints theologians into a corner.

It’s like that old game: “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”
Do you know how to play that?
Let’s try it – just in case you have forgotten.

Which is greater – the rock, the paper, or the scissors?
It depends, doesn’t it?
The three elements are interconnected but separate, individual but indivisible.
Keep that in mind for the next few minutes.

This morning, as we once again encounter the Trinity, I want to approach our Scripture readings in a different way. Rather than read all three of them, then preach about them,

I want to read and then unpack each one, then see if we can step a little bit closer into that mystery we call the Trinity. Each of these scriptures is poetic, not a logical presentation of facts as much as a metaphorical telling of wonder. And, rather than the usual order of “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” we will approach the Trinity in this order: God, Spirit, Christ.”

Our first scripture, Psalm 8, invites us into the awe and wonder of God, creator, sovereign, author of love. The psalmist addresses God directly, in a song of praise:

Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The word of the Lord.

So there’s our first element – the “rock,” if you will, of the Trinity. God, the sovereign, ruling over all of creation with power and love, creating us and every living thing, majestic, glorious, almighty – AND in relationship to humanity. God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.


Our next scripture is from Proverbs, in which we encounter another person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew, the Spirit is called ruach, wind or breath. In Greek, she is called Sophia – wisdom. Here is how wisdom, Sophia, speaks, in Proverbs 8: 22-31.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills,
I was brought forth— when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

The word of the Lord.

Last week, we encountered the Holy Spirit as wind and fire, a powerful force that swept through the lives of the disciples at Pentecost. Here, we meet this playful, delight-filled Spirit, dancing into creation, swirling in the new-made water and skies, singing and rejoicing and taking delight in us. Again, the Spirit, like God, creating in love, and in relationship to humanity. The Spirit was there before the beginning, co-eternal with God,the master builder and the child at play. In the rock, paper, scissors analogy, here’s the paper.

Our third scripture comes from the gospel of John. If you recall, the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are narrative stories, in chronological order, of the life of Christ.
John, however, takes a more poetic slant, starting out with that beautiful scripture,

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.”

With a beginning like that, it only stands to reason that the Christ of John’s gospel will be almost mystical in his discourse. Let’s listen now, as Jesus speaks to the disciples in John 16:12-15

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;
for he will not speak on his own,
but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
All that the Father has is mine.
For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus.

So in this third scripture, in this poetic language, comes Jesus, the Christ, affirmed throughout the gospels as the only begotten son of God, the one sent from God who is God; fully human and fully divine, the word made flesh. Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary. Or, as the Nicene Creed says:

“the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.”

We have encountered God, and Spirit – rock and paper, in our analogy.
Here is the third person – Jesus – scissors.

Which is greater – rock, paper or scissors?
Are they separate? Yes.
But in the game, they are connected, and equal.
It’s the same truth as the Trinity.

Throughout the centuries, many a thoughtful Christian has attempted to come up with analogies for the Trinity, and all of them fail – the minute they are examined, they become apparent as heresy. Take a favorite – water: liquid, of course, but as ice, a solid and as steam, a vapor. Sounds like a good analogy, but the molecular structure of water remains the same in each of its forms. In other words, ice is still water, not a separate substance. So ice, water, and steam cannot be in relationship to one another. And the same water cannot be liquid, ice, and vapor all at the same time. See? The analogy just falls apart.

Of course, so does “rock, paper, scissors” but for different reasons.
Unless we explore the amazing world of physics and quantum theory.

Did you know that in the field of quantum theory, scientific research has been done on “rock, paper, scissors?” It’s more than any of us want to get into very deeply in the next few minutes, but suffice it to say that this simple game tells us much about complexity, interaction, and interrelatedness. The term that mathematicians and physicists use is “contextuality.” The simpler way to say that is that in a game of rock, paper, scissors, with two players, the two players are actually just one entity, two parts of one whole, and their behavior depends on one another. “Indeed,” they say, “whether one of the players wins or loses depends essentially on what the other player does.”[2]

That makes sense to us, right?

It gets even more amazing when we explore what physicists call “quantum entanglement.”
Quantum entanglement tells us that some particles are so connected that they cannot be described independently.[3] They can only be made sense of in relation to each other. So any change in one of the entangled particles produces a corresponding change in the other particles, even when they are separated by great distances.

And, even more spooky (that’s Einstein’s word!) us that the very act of measuring that change alters the action and relationship of the particles! In theological terms, we call that “inter-penetration, or the perichoretic relationship of the Trinity.

Those are just fancy ways of saying that the three persons of the Trinity are really three separate entities, but they are the same substance, and they are always entangled and connected with each other. Perichoresis is just a fifty cent word for “dancing around” and the image of the Trinity is that of Father, Son and Spirit in an eternal, connected creative dance. One theologian calls this “the entangled Trinity.”

“When we look for origins, we find Creator.
But we are not always looking for origins.
Sometimes we are looking for forgiveness and for hope.
We are looking for ‘good news’ (gospel),
and the early Christian community
found this present in Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one of God.
If the divine is entangled, that is, interrelated and interdependent…
then the same entangled divine reality
can be experienced as incarnation, not just origination. …
Finally, the community also experienced, within the community itself,
the sustaining spirit, the ‘Comforter,’ the ‘creative Spirit,’
as the ongoing presence of the divine within the midst of the community.”[4]

In all these, “the same God” was at work.
So what difference does it make that the Trinity is three in one and also one God in three persons? What’s so great about this idea that we’d devote and entire Sunday to it?

Put simply, it means that we are not alone. The entangled trinity of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer draws us into the entanglement of love. Drawn into the dance of the creator God, we are also drawn into the dance of the grace of Christ, and the community of the Holy Spirit.

We are inseparable. Interconnected. Entangled.

The actions of one affect the actions of all others.

As partners in the eternal connection of the trinity,
we are always entangled with God and with one another.

All that we are belongs to God
and all that God has is ours.

God is for us, and with us, and in us.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Love, Lover, Beloved.

Rock, Paper, Scissors.

You, me, the world.

Thanks be to God for this entangling truth.


[2] Diederik Aerts , Jan Broekaert, Marek Czachor, Maciej Kuna , Barry Sinervo and Sandro Sozzo.
“Quantum structure in competing lizard communities” Ecological Modeling, Volume 1, 2014, pp 38-51
[4] Simmons, Ernest L. The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology Fortress Press, 2014 pp. 152-3

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Must I Do?

This is the last sermon in our series on the Acts of the Apostles: Who We Are.

John 17:20-23; Acts 16:16-34
May 8, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

I mentioned last week that these chapters of John’s Gospel we’ve been looking at are part of what is called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Last week the content of that discourse was essentially instructions about what the disciples were supposed to do after Jesus had left them. In this reading, there are no more instructions or assurances or commandments or suggestions. Jesus is simply praying for the disciples. By extension, Jesus is also praying for us. Let’s listen to his prayer in John 17:20-23

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

The word of God for the people of God.

In our second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we are still with Paul and Silas, in the town of Philippi, in Eastern Europe. Today’s Scripture passage continues the story from last week. It is really a series of stories, linked together by themes of slavery, freedom and salvation. Our story begins in the public square of the town of Philippi. In last week’s scripture, Paul met Lydia at “the place of prayer.” Now he and Silas have met, apparently more than once, a very annoying woman! If you have ever known anyone who seems to attract controversy, you may have a sense of what it was like to travel with Paul. Let’s listen for the narrative in Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days.

But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.

But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

There is so much going on in these verses that it is almost like watching a movie plot unfold. If our movie were about slavery and freedom, we’d first call attention to the slave girl, contrasting her emancipation from the evil spirit that ruled her, with her continued slavery to those who owned her and used her.

Then we’d move our camera lens to the owners of the slave girl, enslaved to their money making scheme to such an extent that they bring charges against Paul and Silas. They are completely captive to their greed. They can’t exactly charge them with healing the slave girl, so, like any good movie villain, they bring false and trumped up charges.

Our next scene would be the townspeople stirred up against Paul and Silas, captive to the sin and violence that inhabits every human soul. Paul and Silas are then literally imprisoned. When the earthquake sets them free, we see clearly that they are not held by the chains, because their hearts and souls are captive to Jesus Christ. The jailer somehow recognizes this, and sees his need for salvation.

In fact, the jailer, in his despair, seems to be the only one who realizes what is going on.
He is the one who asks the central question: What must I do to be saved?

This would be the climax of our movie plot – the question on which everything turns. But we are church-goers, and not movie-makers, so our thoughts of course turn to the Christian view of salvation. What must I do to be saved? Paul and Silas answer “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Like they did with Lydia, they speak a word of hope. And, as happened with Lydia, their message was welcomed, probably received with great relief. When their message is welcomed, they too are welcomed, with hospitality at the jailer’s home. The jailer’s gratitude is expressed in his care for them, feeding them and binding up their wounds. And he and all his household are baptized.

It’s easy to see in this story who is free and who is not. It may not be as easy to distinguish who is saved and who is not. The woman healed of the evil spirit – is she saved? from what?
She is still enslaved.

Are Paul and Silas saved?
Not from the beatings – the punishment for their act of healing.
Not from prison – the sentence for the unfounded charges.
Still, even in the darkness of a prison cell, they sing songs of praise to God.
They are saved from imprisonment, but when their chains fall away, they do not leave the jail. 
Instead, they stay, and bring salvation to the jailer.

For most of us, the word salvation brings to mind a personal salvation – a story like that of the jailer, who believes, and is saved. There are multiple Biblical perspectives of salvation –
there is the personal – God saves me;
the corporate – God saves a people;
the global – God is saving the world.

And there are multiple Biblical perspectives on how salvation happens –
in a moment of individual belief;
as an ongoing process – “you who are being saved,” Paul says the epistles,
as a continuing action of God through the Holy Spirit for the world.

Our Bible study material a few years ago illustrated salvation with the story of Emmanuel Kelly, a performer on the British TV show, the X Factor. That show is one of those talent shows, like “The Voice” and “American Idol.” Emmanuel Kelly came onto the stage a few years ago, a slight, dark-haired and olive skinned young man whose undeveloped arms and uneven gait drew questioning looks from the judges.

Emmanuel told the viewers how he had been rescued by his mother from an orphanage in Iraq. Emmanuel and his brother, who also has undeveloped limbs as a result of chemical warfare, were left at the orphanage in a cardboard box. They were taken from the orphanage to Australia for medical care by a woman named Moira Kelly, who later adopted them both. Emmanuel wowed the judges and viewers with his performance.

Our Bible study material asked: In what ways is Emmanuel’s story one of salvation?
But I wanted to know more about this woman, Emmanuel’s mother, the woman who adopted two sons, both of them with serious disabilities, from a war-torn country.

Turns out she’s a story in and of herself.

Here’s some of the Wikipedia entry on this amazing mother: as an 8-year-old, she saw a documentary film about Mother Teresa and decided she wanted to be an aid worker

As a primary school student in Carlton, she would climb the fence of her school to help feed the children at the special school next door. After high school, she completed a course to be a special education teaching assistant then trained as a lay missionary and completed a course to be a probation officer with young offenders. She was a "house mother" at an Aboriginal mission.

Next, she sold her car to finance her airfare, and left for Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa's mission. She remained in India with Mother Teresa for six months. She returned the following year to continue working with Mother Teresa. She continued her work with young people in the United States, in the Bronx, and then went to work in a refugee camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina, opening two pharmacies, starting a free mobile dental health care clinic, starting a home care program, organizing the emergency medical evacuation of patients to hospitals overseas, and developing education and recreation programs.

Later, Kelly she set up the non-profit organization Children First Foundation. The foundation facilitated medical treatment for children in developing countries. It was in that capacity that Moira Kelly brought Emmanuel and his brother back from Iraq. She’s received multiple awards and international recognition for her work. But her son didn’t mention any of that in his interviews. Emmanuel Kelly talked about how his mother loved him, cared for him, encouraged him, and helped him believe in himself. And she’s his mum – she told him that even if he is a big time X Factor singer, he still has to clean his room.

Moira Kelly is a practicing Christian, a woman whose life is grounded in her faith, whose purpose and meaning emerge from her Christianity. She, too, is a person who has received salvation. Moira Kelly is not loved by God because she does these things. She does these things because she is loved by God. Her work on behalf of others is not done so that God will save her. Her works are because God has already saved her.

Emmanuel loves her because she is his mother, not because she is an internationally recognized humanitarian. She loves her son because he is her son, not because he made it onto a television show, or even because he cleans his room!

Like the jailer, we may ask, “What must I do?” Paul and Silas answer, “Simply believe.”
Salvation comes easily, as a gift of freedom. Our appropriate response is gratitude and hospitality, sharing blessings with others, caring for those who are in need,
offering the same salvation that we have received.

Not because of who they are, but because of who we are. 


Sunday, May 1, 2016

An Open Heart

John 14: 23-29, Acts 16:9-15
May 1, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our gospel reading is a part of what is known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse” a long parting speech that was probably originally more a dialogue than the monologue it looks like in John’s gospel. In any case, Jesus is giving some assurances, and some instructions, to his disciples before he takes his leave from them. You can imagine it like a very loving parent, about to leave the kids on their own, making sure they know how to handle things, reminding them of the important stuff, and reassuring them that they will be just fine. The question that precedes this particular section is in John 14:22, when Judas, not Iscariot, but the other Judas, asks Jesus, “‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Let’s listen for Jesus’ answer in John 14:23-29.

23 Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. 25 "I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Our second reading is yet another story from the book of Acts, and we are now once again tracing the journey of the Apostle Paul. We’ll leave Peter in Judea for a while and travel with Paul toward the Roman colony in Macedonia, in the town of Philippi. Here, Paul encounters Lydia, a God-fearing gentile, probably Greek, who is the leader of a group that has gathered to pray. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Acts 16:9-15.

9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Did you know that this week, starting tomorrow,
is teacher appreciation week?

I have to admit that I didn’t even know there was such a thing,
much less when it was, until I started looking for some teacher stories.
I was looking for teacher stories because I was thinking about this encounter
between the Apostle Paul and this woman, Lydia,
down by the river where Lydia gathered with other women to pray.
This story usually is labeled in Bibles
with the heading “The Conversion of Lydia.”
And I suppose that is one way to see it.

It’s a pretty vague outline, really, not too much of a narrative.
We get a little travelogue from Paul,
and a little geography lesson,
and then just three verses about Paul and this woman, Lydia.
There is apparently no synagogue in Philippi,
or Paul would likely have gone there.
So he goes down to the river, supposing he will find a place of prayer.
He sits down and talks with the women, particularly with Lydia.

We can only imagine what the conversation was,
but we can pretty well guess
that it must have been profound and life-changing,
because it culminated in Lydia and all her household being baptized,
and in Lydia insisting that Paul come and stay with her.
It isn’t that hard to guess, in fact, given what we know about Paul,
and what we can conjecture about Lydia.
She was a Gentile, probably Greek, but she was a God-fearer,
someone who was connected to or interested in the Jewish tradition.
She was clearly a leader, a woman of some means, head of a household.
She must have been a thoughtful and intelligent woman.
And she was a person who was willing to listen and learn.

Amy and I were talking this past week about teaching and learning,
and a piece we heard on the radio on the Dunning- Kruger effect.
That’s the term for when incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent.
Or, to put it more bluntly, the Dunning-Kruger effect
is when you are too dumb to know how dumb you are.
The study showed that, for a given skill, incompetent people:
  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill.[1]

As any of you who have ever taught surely know,
the hardest people to teach
are the ones who think they don’t need to be taught.

I expect most of us have displayed the Dunning-Kruger effect at least once,
but generally I’ve found that Presbyterians are pretty teachable.
We’ve found that if we don’t overestimate our knowledge,
we can learn an awful lot.
When we don’t think we already know everything, we can listen better.

Certainly, in our story from Acts,
Lydia was ready to learn and change.
Even though she was already a leader, she was also a spiritual seeker,
open to listening eagerly to Paul.
There’s that mention – in verse 14 – that the Lord opened her heart.
And so the heading is the Bible “The conversion of Lydia” is a good one.
But I think Paul was also open to listening carefully to Lydia.
And that’s where I think the Holy Spirit comes into the story.

In Jesus’ farewell discourse,
he explains that God is revealed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit,
and that love and peace are ours as a gift.
When hearts are open, love and peace can flow in,
and it is the Spirit that opens hearts.

Paul must have sat with Lydia with his heart open,
ready to hear her, to know her, and to be heard and known.
I think Paul sat down with Lydia and talked, with an open heart.
That’s the basis of sharing faith,
of testifying, if you don’t mind that word –
an open heart.

I mentioned that it is teacher appreciation week.
If you think about teaching, and teachers you’ve appreciated,
you’ll probably think of a teacher with an open heart –
someone who was just as interested in you as a person
as they were in the subject – whether it was geometry or Western Civilization.

An open heart is what makes the space for genuine conversation about faith.
Talking about our faith is simply bearing witness
to what God has done in our lives.

Sharing our faith is simply having a genuine conversation
with someone we care about
on the topic of something that matters to us and to them.

We don’t need a three point sermon,
or a list of doctrinal truths to read through.
We just need our own lives, maybe some little moment that happened today,
when we sensed God’s love, or God’s presence.

We’re not required to have a testimony of a blinding light out of nowhere
smacking us down in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day,
followed by the audible voice of God calling our names.
We just need our own lives, maybe some little moment that happened today,
when we sensed God’s peace coming as a gift,
and we knew that we have never been alone.
We don’t have to have a story that reads like a lurid crime novel
that ends at the altar with confession and miraculous transformation.
We just need our own lives,
maybe some little moment that happened today,
a little short story about something God has done for us.

I ran across this the other day in a magazine called “Outreach.”
It struck me that when we teach and learn,
when we sit down to talk together like Paul did with Lydia,
when the Holy Spirit opens our hearts,
it’s kind of like this.

If you read the entire thing,
it is a good way to talk yourself out of ever sharing
your own faith story or your own God sightings with anyone.

Just my luck, he’s coming this way.
Today is the day I promised I would

tell him about my beliefs.
Wait. Does my breath stink?

Someone would have told me, right?
Maybe I should wait. I’m not sure

how to do this. Smile. Don’t stare.
I’m staring. Help me,

Jesus, to say the right words.
Oh, here he comes back. Yep, he

changed direction. So nervous!
Stop sweating and grinning! You’re holding

your breath. And sweating.
Maybe I should wait. It’s not like his

life depends on this.

But it isn’t that complicated.
I’m fairly sure that very few people come to a life of faith
in response to a learned theological discourse
on the person and work of Jesus.

I’m fairly sure that most people come to a life of faith
in response to a person – or persons –
who demonstrate the love and peace that Jesus gives,
who live with an open heart,
with space for love to flow out AND in.

Our identity in Christ is shaped by God through the Holy Spirit,
who is teaching us everything – if we are willing to open our hearts.
So that’s who we are – people with open hearts,
open to learning as well as teaching,
to listening as well as speaking,
to sharing that love we have received,
that deep peace – that shalom, with the world.

With actual people.

People with open hearts, willing to speak and to listen.
That’s who we are.
Just tell someone how Jesus changed your life.
Just tell someone how Jesus changed your life.
Just tell someone how Jesus changed your life.