Sunday, November 27, 2016

Making Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

All the Fullness of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Weary

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

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

Saints Alive

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

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

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

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just being.

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

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

Gratitude and generosity are all a response to grace.

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!