Sunday, October 30, 2016

Accidental Saints

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

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

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

Zacchaeus Was A Wee Little Man
(Veggie Tales Version)

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

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

Everybody looked down on Zacchaeus. Literally and figuratively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus SAW him.
Jesus spoke to him.

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

Wait. What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!


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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Who Do You Think You Are?

Luke 18:9-14
October 23, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This past Friday, Bob and I found a series on Netflix called “Black Mirror.” It’s a kind of modern day “Twilight Zone” – a television series that puts a scary twist on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Every one of the plots involves something about modern technology, particularly smart phones, the internet, and social media. The plot twists are not as predictable as the old Rod Serling shows, and the story lines are scarier, because they are more like our real lives, only frightening.

The episode we watched was about a young woman who lives in a world that is utterly and completely dominated by social networking. Everyone has a smart phone, and everyone is constantly rating everyone, the way you would rate a movie, or a restaurant or a B&B. People upvote you at work, or at a party, and the more stars you get, the higher your status goes. The closer you get to a five star rating, the better everything in your life becomes – better friends, better cars, better airline seats, a better job, even a better house in a better neighborhood.

Trailer for "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror on Netflix

If you get too many bad ratings, you lose your job, you lose all your friends, and eventually you become a complete social outcast. In the program, a young woman who is striving to improve her social ratings realizes through a series of terrible experiences that she is striving for all the wrong things in life. Ridiculous, of course, complete fantasy… except for the multiple ways in which it is very, very real.

Think Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Uber. Your status on those applications relies on the ratings you get. Someone writes a 140 character tweet, puts it out on Twitter, then waits to see if it trends – becomes popular. Snapchat awards a score based on the number of snaps you send. People who use the Uber ride sharing service rate their drivers. That seems fair, but did you know that Uber drivers rate passengers, too? Even on Ebay, too many bad ratings can get you kicked out.

On Facebook, a friend posts a picture, then counts how many people like it. For organizations on Facebook, like a business, or churches like us, the number of likes a page gets improves that page’s prominence. You can actually pay to “boost” a post. There are services you can pay that get people to like your page. They don’t really like it – they don’t care about it at all. But it looks impressive.

Unfortunately, all that social comparison on Facebook can be the source of dissatisfaction, even depression. Last year, Forbes magazine published an article about how comparing ourselves to others leads to unhappiness. It’s a shame that Pharisee didn’t know that, right? If he’d had the Internet, maybe he could have avoided the last 20 centuries of disapproval.

Of course, it’s just a story, this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told it to make a point. Last week, we heard the parable of the persistent widow, a reminder to persist in prayer, and to persist in the pursuit of justice. The scripture says that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Okay, Jesus, point taken. Comparing ourselves to others, and regarding ourselves highly while holding others in contempt, is wrong. We get it.

The point of the story, then, is not to be like the Pharisee, but to be like the tax collector. But we are not like the Pharisee, right? We don’t look on others with contempt. None of us would stand up in church in front of everyone and brag about how righteous we are. We don’t compare ourselves to other people. And we don’t depend on the approval of others. We don’t base our sense of self worth on the number of likes we get. Our happiness does not depend on how many people follow us on Twitter.

Phew! Good thing we aren’t like that Pharisee! Oh darn. Wait.
The minute we say that, we’ve done exactly what we aren’t supposed to do!
See what Jesus did right there? Like most of his parables, this one puts us in a bind.

That Pharisee? He really was a good man. He was careful to do what was right, to treat others fairly, to be faithful to his wife, generous to others, obedient to God. He is a guy we’d be glad to have join our church! He’s the kind of church member most pastors would want to have in droves!

And that tax collector? He was not a nice fellow. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time weren’t hated because they collected taxes. They were hated because they were extortionists. They contracted with the local or regional authorities to collect taxes, then kept whatever additional money they could get out of people. They were rich, at least richer than most people, but they were despised. They were held in contempt. He is probably not the kind of fellow you’d want to have sit next to you in church. Nobody really wants to be like the tax collector!

So, as you hear this parable, who do you think you are?
Are you that good Pharisee, pleased with yourself and ready to report to God what a good guy you are? Or are you that contemptible tax collector, misusing vulnerable people and then asking for God’s mercy?

The famous 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, “Comparisons are swords with two edges, which cut both ways.” This parable, too, is a sword with two edges, and it cuts both ways.

So if you think this story is about you, you are probably too vain.
If you don’t think this story is about you, you are probably too proud.
This story is about all of us, and the posture we take before God.
And this story is about God.

When we gather for worship and pray together our prayer of confession, there are times when we read the prayer and say the words, but secretly we are thinking that the confession has nothing to do with us. We imagine that we’ve done pretty well this week. Deep down, we may be saying, "Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I'm an honorable person.”[1]

Or we may be thinking that we can just say a quick prayer and wipe the slate clean, without any real change of heart. In either case, prayers for ourselves, whether self-deprecating or self congratulatory, come dangerously close to self-exaltation.

In the evangelical church tradition in which I grew up, there is a practice of sharing personal testimonies. When done well, a testimony can be a powerful story of faith, a personal sharing of God’s work in your life. But there is a dark side to the testimony, one that many evangelical Christians call the “bragimony.” The online dictionary of Christianese defines a bragimony as “a testimony that has slipped into the fast lane without using its turn signal. A bragimony is less of a story of what God has done and more of a story about the good things the Christian himself or herself has done.”[2]

By that definition, the Pharisee’s prayer is a bragimony. On the flip side, I’ve heard what sounds like a negative bragimony, too. That’s when the person testifying shares every terrible thing they have done, every sin and failing, in excruciating Technicolor detail.

When we live our lives on a rating system, seeking the approval of others, seeking status or fame or popularity, we can end up sounding like that Pharisee. When we spend too much time comparing ourselves to others, whether favorably or unfavorable, we can end up depressed and despairing.[3]

When we live as if God is watching every move and upvoting us for heaven, or downvoting us for eternal damnation, our lives become an agony of calculations, and we become entirely focused on ourselves.

So the parable asks us this question: who do you think you are?
And at the end, although obliquely, it gives us an answer.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t tell these stories as morality tales. If he had wanted to just teach us to be nice and moral people, he could have done so with a lot less trouble. Jesus didn’t need to die and go to the grave for us to be nice. Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again in order to demonstrate God’s mercy.

The one who went down to his house justified was the one whose posture before God was one of repentance. His stance in prayer was humble, fully reliant on God’s mercy. His view of himself was clear and honest. But God’s mercy was not granted to him because of that. God’s mercy was granted to the tax collector because of who God is.

The humbling and the exaltation of self are not the final word. The free gift of God’s mercy is. God is not waiting for us to report on our exceptional piety, nor is God checking out our ratings, likes, and upvotes on social media. God is persistently, relentlessly, lovingly granting mercy. God in Christ has given us that mercy, regardless of our social status, regardless of our social media ratings, regardless of our popularity or the high acclaim of other people.

Who do you think you are?
If you think that you are a righteous person, made so by your own act of will or the great humility you have achieved, if you think that you are good by right of the good deeds you did yesterday, you have missed the point of Jesus’ parable.

Who do you think you are?
If you think that you are a worthless person, made so by your bad choices or by the humiliation dealt to you by others, if you think that you are irredeemable and unlovable by right of the terrible things you’ve done, you have also missed the point of Jesus’ parable.

Who do you think you are?
It has been said that hurt people hurt people. Wounded people wound others. People who feel contemptible hold others in contempt. I think it is also true that forgiven people forgive people. Loved people love people. Knowing whose we are makes us who we are.

Who do you think you are?
Let’s let the third chapter of Titus remind us of who we are: We “ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit was poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by grace, we became heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Who do you think you are?
You are a sinner, saved by grace.
You are a precious, beautiful, beloved child of God.
You are loved beyond measure, simply for the fact that you are alive.
You are forgiven, set free, made glorious by God’s boundless mercy.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Thanks be to God!



Sunday, October 16, 2016


Luke 18:1-8
October 16, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we continue in Luke’s gospel with today’s reading, we hear yet another of Jesus’ parables. Jesus is still on the road to Jerusalem in this chapter, but we aren’t certain exactly where it is that he tells this story. This section of Luke deals with Jesus’ teaching about the rich and poor, the privileged and the disadvantaged, the oppressed and the tyrant.

In this particular parable, Jesus has been teaching the disciples about faith and prayer, and it seems at first that this story concerns that. But there is more to this parable than meets the eye, as usual. What starts as a simple story about prayer turns out to be a complex teaching about faith, persistence, and a Christian ethic of active resistance to injustice. Let’s listen together for God’s word in Luke 18: 1-8

1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?
8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

A river cuts through rock.
Water drips on a stone until there is a hole, then a split, then a canyon.
This woman! what an annoyance to this judge!
Like water on stone, drip, drip, drip, drip.

Imagine, she kept coming and knocking on his door, day after day after day.
I wonder if sometimes he pretended nobody was home.
Knock knock. Nobody home!
Knock knock. Who’s there?
Grant me justice against my opponent!

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.
It would be funny like the Youtube videos of little kids trying to persuade their parents to give them a donut, or a cupcake, trying to make a case for themselves:

“Mom, mom, mom, mom.”
“I’m hungry. I din’t have no donuts. I only had rice and beans.”
“Listen, Linda, listen to me. Linda, honey, listen” a toddler goes on and on.
He is relentless.

Mateo Wants a Cupcake

But this is a serious matter.

The judge is unfit for his office.
The widow is seeking justice against her opponent.
Maybe her opponent has denied that the widow even has a claim.
Maybe he said she was lying.
Maybe he accused her of making it all up to discredit him.
The judge just wants her to go away.

But she will. Not. Stop.

The writer James Michener said
“Character is what you do on the third and forth tries.”
The widow in this story keeps trying.
She won’t be intimidated.
She won’t be denied.
She will have justice.

For most of us, a story about a judge and justice conjures up images of courtrooms and juries and lawyers and witness stands. This story, however, is set in a time when the judge was bound not by the laws of the land but by the law of Moses. Judges are instructed in Deuteronomy 1:

"Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God's" (Deut 1:16-17 NRSV).

The judge's solemn duty was to declare God’s judgment and to establish just dealings among people in the covenant community. It was common for there to be disputes involving widows, since a widow could not inherit her husband’s estate. When her husband died, his wealth or property or other assets would pass to the man’s sons or brothers. The book of Deuteronomy also sets out the duty of all the people to care for the widow and the orphan, to provide for those most in need.

That kind of compassion for those who were poor, or alone, was crucial in a time when there were no government programs: no Social Security, no pensions, no Medicare or Medicaid. The social safety net relied entirely on the compassion of God’s people who fulfilled their duty to God by treating the most vulnerable with mercy. If a widow were being mistreated, she would naturally go to a judge, and while we don’t know what this widow’s complaint might have been, we can assume that her adversary was not obeying God’s command.

Her opponent was not just or fair or merciful. Neither was the judge. But this woman is not going to silently accept her plight; she is nothing if not persistent. Her constant pleas eventually wear the judge down, until at last he grants the widow justice – not because it is the right thing to do, but simply because he is tired of hearing from her! She wins her suit because she has hounded and badgered the judge.

It may be hard to imagine such a scene in our world, where the court system is thoroughly defined and regulated. Maybe it is important with this parable to attend to the larger issue – not a judge and a court, but the issue of persistence in seeking justice, insistence on justice.

So, what is Jesus saying?

Are we supposed to badger God with incessant prayers until we get what we want?
It is certainly true that the scriptures tell us to pray without ceasing.
And if God is indeed a good judge, whose grace and mercy endure,
then certainly God will hear our prayers and grant us justice.

But somehow the idea of praying to simply wear God down
doesn’t really seem to be Jesus’ point.

Or maybe Jesus means to contrast the good and just God, our heavenly judge, with this bad and unjust earthly judge, a selfish man who even grants justice only because he is thinking of himself!

But God’s justice restores and redeems. God’s grace means that we don’t get what is fair. 
Because of grace, we don’t get what we deserve, but something far better.

So what if by the time Jesus gets to the end of this parable, he’s put that little twist in the story that takes away our easy answers? What if this parable has layers of meaning that make us really think, that lead us to not only think, but also to speak, to act?

It would be JUST LIKE JESUS to do that, wouldn’t it?

Jesus told this parable so that we would not lose heart.
Yes, it is an encouragement to pray.
Yes, it is a comparison of divine justice to earthly justice.
And yes, it is a push to stand up and take action for justice.

According to scripture, God’s justice is equated with God’s righteousness. Even in cases where there is punishment for wrongdoing, “the goal of the punishment is not to maintain some abstract cosmic balance, but to put right what has gone wrong, to protect the community, and to restore the integrity of its life and its relationship with God. Justice is satisfied by the restoration of peace to relationships, not by the pain of punishment per se.”[1]

To restore peace, to restore integrity, to restore relationship… imagine the pursuit of justice that involves restoration! This is not just holding hands and singing kum-by-yah – this is an approach that starts with accountability, taking responsibility, and acting in ways that bring about the restoration of peace, integrity, relationship. This will require both persistence and resistance.

As Christians, we start with prayer – not simply begging or badgering God, but listening for God to speak to us, to lead us, to guide us. As one person said, “keep praying until your baptism is complete.”

As we pray, we listen, too, for the voices of those who have suffered, as our Brief Statement of Faith says, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

Having heard those voices, we, like the persistent widow, can pray, listen,
and then stand and work for justice.

In 1942, Ralph Lazo was a student at Belmont High School. When he heard that his Japanese American friends were being forcibly relocated to an internment camp at Manzanar for the duration of World War II, this Mexican American teenager joined them on the train platform. And then he went with them.

And stayed.
For two years.
He was seventeen years old.

For two years, Ralph Lazo literally took a stand against injustice. He was the only non-Japanese American, not a spouse or family member, who voluntarily relocated to the internment camps. He stayed until he was inducted into the US Army, where he won the bronze star for bravery and helped to liberate the Philippines.

That’s the kind of persistence we are talking about.
That’s the kind of resistance to injustice Jesus was talking about.

Admittedly, this parable challenges us to ask ourselves some hard questions. This parable may make us uncomfortable, in the same way that the current political climate makes us uncomfortable. As Christians, whatever our politics, we are called to resist injustice. But we do not stand alone, even if we feel alone. We are the recipients of a legacy of hopeful courage, a gift from God, that helps us to not only pray, but also to listen, to speak and to act on behalf of those who, like the widow, are victims of injustice.

Too often, their voices have been silenced.
Too often, children who have been victimized
have been threatened with violence if they speak up.
Too often, people of color have been dismissed
when they have pointed out the devastating impact of racism.
Too often, women who are victims of sexual assault
have been disregarded when they told their stories,
or frightened into silence not only during the assault but afterward.
Too often, people who have been rejected, disregarded, and mistreated
because of a perceived difference – sexual orientation, politics, national origin, religion –
have also had their troubles ignored because they are so different, so foreign, so “not like us.”

Because we have not experienced that kind of rejection, or because we have not personally observed it, we don’t really want to hear it. It’s easier to dismiss the claims, to close our ears and our hearts. It’s easier to turn away, easier to pretend we aren’t home, easier to pretend we don’t hear the knocking on our door.

People of God, restorative justice asks us to respond – not like this unjust judge, who grudgingly gives in, although that is better than nothing! Restorative justice asks us to listen, to repent where it is called for, to pray without ceasing, and then to stand up and speak up.

Jesus asks us to listen to that knock-knock on the doors of our lives, listen, 
and answer, “Who’s there?”

When the hungry cry out for food,
when the lonely ask for friendship,
when the victim asks for help,
when the downtrodden cry out for justice,
Jesus calls us, you and me, to go to the door and answer.

He’s there at the door with them.

He wants to know the answer to his question:
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

May God quickly grant justice,
and may we persist in listening and responding
to that insistent knock-knock on the doors of our hearts.


[1]Chris Marshall “Divine Justice as Restorative Justice,” Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics

Sunday, October 9, 2016

One in Ten

Luke 17:11-19
October 9, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling Il
Christina Berry

In our story today, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. In Luke’s gospel, the journey to Jerusalem starts in chapter nine, and ends at the cross, so it is like a gospel travelogue. In Bible study on Wednesday, when we looked at the reading, we also looked at the map of the region at that time. Galilee, where Jesus had been, is due north of Samaria. Samaria is due north of Judea, where Jerusalem is. 

Most travelers on their way to Jerusalem from parts north, Jesus included, skirted around the region of Samaria on their journey. They avoided Samaria like we’d avoid a neighborhood where every resident was our enemy. There wasn’t anything particularly terrible or different about Samaria itself. It was the Samaritans they wanted to avoid. The Samaritans had close historical and religious ties to the Jews, and in fact some were descended from the tribes of Israel.

But they also had Babylonians and Medes in their ancestry. And they had opposed the rebuilding of the temple back in the day. The Samaritans had their own temple, not the one in Jerusalem. So Jesus and the disciples are on the road, trying to avoid the Samaritans, and they run into a group of people with leprosy, also a group to be avoided. Actually, according to Mosaic law, the lepers were supposed to avoid them. They were supposed to keep their distance, shouting, “Unclean! Unclean” to anyone who might be approaching. Let’s join Jesus on the road to Jerusalem when he meets the outcasts in Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’
When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’
And as they went, they were made clean.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’
Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

It was a terrible, terrible thing to be a leper in the first century. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is curable nowadays, but then it was not. What’s more, back then, all kinds of skin problems were called leprosy. Any number of them could get you cast out of your family, town, temple. Leviticus spells out all the requirements in excruciating detail. There were all kinds of skin issues that could make you an outcast. Basically, you could end up in a leper colony due to a bad case of eczema.

When I was in seminary, there were two sets of seminary housing. One set was on campus, in what was called the “fertile crescent,” because of the numbers of new babies born to the couples who lived there. Another set of apartments, about half a block away from campus, were called “the Leper Colony.” That was where I lived, and I resented the term. In fact I tried hard to convince people not to call it that. Besides being disrespectful to people who actually suffered from leprosy, it made us feel like outcasts! And in some small ways, we were outcasts, over there on 30th street. There would be parties and cookouts in campus housing to which we were not invited. But it was nothing like – not at ALL like – being an actual outcast.

The leper in the first century was required to wear rags, to have messy hair (I know, but that’s what Leviticus says!) to live away from the rest of the people, far from the common camp, to warn others away with shouts of “unclean!” and not to come near regular people.

There seem to be outcasts like that in every era of history. In India, although it has been outlawed, the caste system relegated an entire group of people, by an accident of birth, to the untouchable caste. They were subjugated, economically deprived, and persecuted. Australia was colonized by prisoners who were exiled there, expelled from England for various crimes. Some of those petty criminals were also sent to America! France sent a number of their criminals to Louisiana. The Puritans might also be seen as outcasts.

In more recent history, we can find lots of examples of outcasts. Just look around at any place where any group of people is pushed out of the main stream of society. Before the fair housing act, many a person of color was prevented from renting or buying in white neighborhoods. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, before we knew what AIDS was, many people were exiled from families, from jobs, from housing, and sadly, even from churches. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, there were places where anyone who looked like they might be Muslim were unwelcome, chased out of town, so to speak.

Even now, there are groups of people who want to exclude other entire religions from this country. Even now, there are people who would like to expel people who are of certain national origins. If you can imagine the rancor and suspicion and outright hatred that some people feel toward those groups, you can imagine the rancor and suspicion and outright hatred that a lot of people in the first century had toward Samaritans. They felt completely justified in it – just like some Southerners still feel toward us Yankees.

The story in Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us one way or another, but it seems reasonable to think that Jesus’ disciples and followers were with him on the road, since they seemed to always be with him. Can’t you just hear what they were thinking?!

“Really, Jesus?! REALLY?”
“Um, Jesus. It’s lepers. That’s catching.
We were okay with you healing the blind guy and talking to the woman who touched your robe, but those problems aren’t contagious. Now you are putting us in danger!”

We don’t know what they thought.
We don’t know what they said.
But we know what those ten people with leprosy said: “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!”

Only in Luke do people call Jesus “Master!” and except for this story, only disciples called Jesus their master. They ask for mercy. They ask for mercy, and somehow, without even touching them, Jesus grants them mercy. He sends them to show themselves to the priest, to show the priest that they are healed the final step that someone makes before rejoining community, before changing their status from outcast to friend, from Godforsaken to blessed.

The story tells us that the healing happened “as they went” so we imagine that their skin cleared up in front of their very eyes. Any one of us would be hurrying to get to the priest, hurrying to be pronounced clean, hurrying to rejoin our families and friends. But one – one of the ten – turned back. In spite of the instructions he had been given, he turned back. He came running back to Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice” and threw himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet. And he said that most important prayer of all. He said “thank you.”

In those two simple words, this one man, the one of the ten, acknowledge not only his healing, but the source of that healing. In those two simple words, he demonstrated a faith that few of us have. In those two simple words, he showed that he knew what Jesus had done.

I think that Jesus was smiling when he asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’

I think he was asking in order to be heard by the disciples – especially the part about the man being a foreigner. Then Jesus said to the man, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ The literal translation of that can be: “Your faith has saved you.” But it wasn’t his faith that healed him. Jesus healed him!

And the other nine, who headed off down the road, they were still healed, still saved from lives of exile and poverty and loneliness. Was it is his gratitude, then? Was that was saved him? I think it was both.

There are practical reasons for gratitude, of course – studies show that even people who are seriously ill can improve their well being by daily focusing on the things for which they are grateful. One way to be happier is to take a few minutes each day to be more thankful.

But the word for thanksgiving that is used in this text is more than a psychological expression of thanks, more than a brainwave. The word is eucharistein, from the same root word as eucharist – meaning thanksgiving, the term we often use for communion. In the middle of that word “eucharist” is the word “charis” – gift, or grace. To give thanks to God is an act of faithfulness, an expression of our communion with Christ.

One commentator says: One might almost say, in fact, that “faith” and “gratitude” are two words for the same thing: to practice gratitude is to practice faith. If faith is not something we have, but something we do— something we live—then in living we express our complete trust in God. How then can we not practice gratitude, when we know that God, the giver of all good gifts, holds all of life in providential hands?  When we practice gratitude, we find that faith is given in abundance, pressed down and overflowing.[1] 

So, like that tenth leper, like that one in ten, we are called to lives in which our faith is indistinguishable from our gratitude. The healing we receive happens along the way, and we may not see it right off. The healing we receive restores us to community, even though it may take us a while to get there. The healing we receive is a gift from God, and the appropriate response is “Thank you!”

Like the ten, we have been blessed to meet Jesus on the road. When we meet him we find that Jesus values faith and trust over blind obedience. After all, the 10th leper disobeyed Jesus when he returned to him!
When we meet him, we find healing,
regardless of how much faith we express.
When we meet him, we find that he moves between the borders,
among the outcasts and the downtrodden, in order to rescue people.
When we meet him we find that his mercy extends to all people.
He can work miracles at a distance for people who will never know him at all.
His grace extends to the ten lepers, to the one who returned,
to the world, to each one of us.

Thanks be to God!


[1] Kimberly Bracken Long, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word commentary on Luke 17:11-19

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Faith Rekindled

2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 2, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture reading today is from the Second Letter to Timothy, a part of what are called the “pastoral epistles” – First and Second Timothy, and Titus. Timothy is the grandson of Lois and the son of Eunice, both of them converts to Christianity due to the influence and preaching of the Apostle Paul. Paul has known Timothy since he was a child, and feels like a spiritual father to him. The pastoral letters have been attributed to the Apostle Paul, and much of their content sounds like him, but the authorship is uncertain. In any case, the love and encouragement in these letters shines through.

The writer instructs Timothy to boldly share the gospel, with courage, and to continue in his Christian journey, a journey from suffering to ultimate glory. Let’s listen for God’s voice in these encouraging words from 2 Timothy 1:1-14.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved child: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I am grateful to God - whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did – when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.

This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.

Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Ronald Reagan once famously said,
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

That’s a laudable statement of the importance of freedom. I want to paraphrase President Reagan’s words this morning, for Christians:
“Christianity is never more than one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be taught, lived, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in a time when Christianity was a force for peace in the world.”

Even in Timothy’s time, Christianity was only one generation from extinction. From Lois to Eunice to Timothy, the faith was taught and passed on. But it was not always easy, as this letter makes clear. The writer wants to embolden Timothy to rekindle his faith, to be unafraid to share the gospel, unashamed to talk about his faith. It seems apparent that there was some risk involved in that for Timothy, even as there had been for his mentor, Paul. To confess Christianity in that time, to share one’s testimony, could have meant isolation, suffering, torture, sometimes death. You can see why Timothy might have been anxious, reluctant, even ashamed. You can see why he might not want to speak up about Jesus.

It’s a little more difficult – actually, a LOT more difficult, to understand why anyone in this day and age might be afraid to share their own faith stories. After all, there are no lions at our coliseum, waiting to tear us to bit. There’s no threat of torture or death for being Christian. But whether or not it is understandable, it is true that most mainline Christians are unwilling to talk about their Christian lives. Maybe we are afraid of ridicule – of sounding like some kind of street-corner preacher like the one in that that bad old joke –

The preacher approaches a man on the street and asks,
“Sir, will you make a decision for Christ?”
Flustered, the man replies, “Why, can’t he make his own decisions?”

Maybe part of the reason that is that we haven’t taken time to think about it. But it isn’t a complicated topic. In this scripture, we’ve got one of the best elevator speeches we could find:

Our faith is in Christ “who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

The modern version of that might sound more like this:
“I’ve put my faith in Christ, who called me in my baptism, whose grace means that I am loved not for what I do but in spite of the worst thing I have ever done. Because I trust in that grace and love, I can share it with others, loving my neighbors, even my enemies, speaking truth to power, working for peace and speaking up for justice.”

Most of us can agree to that, right?
Well, there must be another reason – some reason why we are silent…
Can it be that we are ashamed?
Not of Jesus, but of our own ignorance?

Maybe we worry that if we share something about our Christian life, someone will ask us a hard question about doctrine, or theology, a question we don’t know how to answer. Some of those people in those evangelical churches are so sharp and they know all this scripture and doctrine. It’s embarrassing!

One Presbyterian puts it this way:
“Suppose you say to someone, ‘I go to the Presbyterian church, would you like to come with me some time?’ and they ask, ‘Do you subscribe to the Athanasian Creed or the Nicene Creed?’ Or ‘which version of the Bible do you use?’ What if they ask you a question and you don't know the answer? I have to admit, I hate that feeling. I hate being put on the spot and not being prepared.”[1]

I agree with him. I hate that feeling, too.
Here’s the reality, though: We are one generation away from extinction.
Christians are not born; they’re made.

In a time when fewer and fewer people have a faith connection, but more and more people are seeking a place to belong, perhaps we are uniquely positioned to reach out in our community. Even if it makes us a teency bit uncomfortable. Maybe its worth thinking about the ways in which we excitedly share any of the other good things in our lives.

How many of you know where I like to go for coffee? Yep, Air Play Sports. I’m down there about once a week at least. How do you know that? Because I talk about it! I GO there! I post about it on Facebook! I bring their scones to church, and I invite other people to go to Air Play with me.

And when I talk about Air Play, nobody asks me about the ingredients in the scones.
Nobody has ever wanted to know HOW they make the coffee I like so much.
Nobody asks me why coffee matters to me more than tea, or soda pop.
Nobody ever asks me what to wear or where to sit or what to order.
And they don’t make fun of me for drinking coffee at a disc golf store!
The people I invite almost invariably come with me, because at the very least they are curious to see this place that I am so worked up about.

Those of you who like gardening, or cooking, or dining at Orom, or wine – you’re not afraid to talk about those things. So, as the scripture says, “Do not be ashamed of testimony about our Lord!” If you can share a recipe or how to grow tomatoes or choose a cabernet, surely you can share a story of what God in Christ has done for you in your life, or what the scripture means to you, or how much you loved the choir anthem or the communion service. That’s not so hard, is it?

On a bigger scale, each one of us can join with all the church worldwide to speak up and stand up for peace and justice. There is so much trouble and pain in our world, so much suffering. On this World Communion Sunday, we gather with Christians around the globe to be fed at Christ’s table.

For us, this is not only a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for us in the past, but also a joyful celebration of our present blessings, and a look to the future, a foretaste of a joy that is yet to come. Today is also the Sunday when we in the Presbyterian Church collect the offering for Peace and Global Witness, anticipating that day when Christ gathers us in a new heaven and a new earth.

This week, the Presbyterian Church’s Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns published a letter, a call to action. The letter includes a number of areas where Presbyterians can join other Christians in advocacy and action. It concludes with this paragraph:

“We urge our church and all of its members but especially those who are white to join us in breaking silence. Commit with us to raise our collective voice not just to proclaim the good news of God’s grace but to call out injustice, to call out the forces that threaten to tear us apart with xenophobic, racist, and islamophobic rhetoric. May we have the courage.”

May we have the courage.

We come to this table today with Christians far and near, from east and west and north and south, and we come to be strengthened, nourished, restored, fed.

If we are feeling weak, uncertain,
here in this place we can be confident and reassured.

If we are feeling lonely, isolated,
here we are welcomed and connected in one global community.

If we are feeling ineffectual, helpless,
here God’s strength and power will energize us.

If the flames of our faith are flickering out, here at this table, the light of Christ shines.

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

May we know and share the love of God.
May we embrace and wisely wield the power of our faith.
May we have courage to live with faith rekindled.


[1]Willadsen, Tom “Tell Your Story” at