Sunday, December 10, 2017

When You Get What’s Coming

This is the second in a series for Advent from a work in progress called "Prairie Liturgy."

Original artwork by Meg Rift, (C) 2017

Haggai 1:3 - 9, 2:6 – 9; Psalm 63:1 – 8; Luke 12: 35 – 40
December 10, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

The three scripture readings for today may seem at first to be disconnected. The first reading comes from almost the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. Haggai is a prophet of the era of about 520 BC, after the exiled Israelites have returned from Babylon. Haggai is distressed that the Israelites are more interested in restoring their own fortunes than they are in restoring the temple as a center of community life. The Israelites are interested in getting stuff for themselves, but what they don’t get is how meaningless that pursuit has become. Let’s listen for God’s word in the words of Haggai 1:3 - 9, 2:6 – 9:

Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying:
Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill;
you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared.
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. (2:6-9) For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

In the Psalm, the psalmist gets it – gets what Haggai was saying. This poet of Israel has but one desire – to be in communion with God. Let’s listen to the yearning for God expressed in Psalm 63:1 – 8:

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Our third reading comes from the gospel of Luke.
In it, Jesus reminds his friends of the importance of being ready.
While many of you might have heard this interpreted as a scary warning – “Jesus is coming back and boy, are you going to get it!” – it might serve us better to consider the importance of living each day in readiness for whatever comes. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Luke 12: 35 – 40

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

On the map of Advent, this second Sunday is a serious detour.
Last week we were okay with the waiting,
and next Sunday is joy Sunday, and Mary’s song, and the kids’ program.
But the traditional lessons for the second Sunday of Advent are bleak,
and to tell the truth, these alternative lessons we’ve heard are off the map.

Poor old Haggai is not getting through to the Israelites,
and you have to wonder if he had any idea that his message
would still not be getting through twenty five hundred years later.

Really, this message doesn’t even need any updating for us.
It sounds like a message about modern consumerism:
“you eat, but you never have enough;
you drink, but you never have your fill;
you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm;
and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”

It sounds like contemporary America, especially in December –
with all the marketing and commercials and sales pitches,
designed to make us want more, more, more.
Someone once said that consumer marketing has
“transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines.”
Constantly moving happiness machines,
always looking for the next thing that everyone wants to get.
If we can’t find the perfect gift, we get the popular one –
Billy the Big Mouth bass, or those blankets with sleeves, or onesies for adults.
But it is never enough, all the food and drink and clothing and gizmos, 
never enough to satisfy our souls, never enough to slake our thirst.

The Psalmist got it, what Haggai was saying –
our souls are hungry and thirsty,
not for cookies or eggnog, not for more stuff,
but for the divine, the transcendent.

That’s what we are waiting for.
That’s what many of us are seeking, hoping, waiting for.
That’s what Advent is all about – not just getting stuff,
but getting ready --preparing and waiting for transformation.

My friend Stephanie Anthony said once, in a sermon for Advent,
“Sometimes … it seems like we’re pretending [that]
we’re waiting for Jesus to come for the first time.”

She’s right , of course.

In spite of the scripture readings and the calls to be ready,
we focus putting up the tree and thinking on little baby Jesus.
We’re like Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights:" “Dear, tiny infant Jesus… “
When his wife reminds him that Jesus was a grown up man, he replies,
“I like the Christmas Jesus best and I'm saying grace.
When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus
or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

But that Jesus, the tiny infant Jesus, has already come.
Our waiting, our time of preparing, is for his return.
Because he’s already been here and we expect him to come back.
If, like me, you grew up hearing ominous stories
about Jesus sneaking back here to earth in order to punish and judge us,
that metaphor in Luke may sound scary.
Who yearns for an angry God to show up and smite them?
No wonder we want to stick with what Ricky Bobby’s
“Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus.”

But what if Jesus has already come back,
and the way he has returned is made manifest in us,
in the ways we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?
Then, our hunger and our thirst are for the promise of his kingdom,
to live out his love and justice.
In the coming of God in Jesus Christ,
the yoke of bondage is lifted from those who are oppressed,
the captives are set free,
and the hungry are fed.

Keeping our lamps lit, being ready for him,
means we are ready to get what’s coming to us –
to participate in the reign of Christ,
to work toward that day
when the treasure of all nations is within our grasp,
when hospitality and heart overcome hatred and homophobia,
when radical love overwhelms racism and rejection,
when empathy is more important than empire.
That’s what we’re working toward.

That’s what we’re waiting for.

Advent doesn’t mean waiting – literally, advent means “arrival!”
Jesus, the son of man, is coming, and has arrived,
not to condemn the world, not to punish the wicked,
but to welcome the stranger, bless the children, heal the hurting;
to tie a towel around his waist, and become a servant,
to welcome us into the heart of love,
to welcome us to his table.
That’s where the compass on our map is pointing – to the table
where our thirst is slaked, and our hunger is satisfied,
and we have all that we ever need.

That’s when we get what’s coming. 
Thanks be to God!


Monday, December 4, 2017

Waiting for God

This is the first in a series for Advent from our work in progress called "Prairie Liturgy."

Original artwork by Meg Rift (c) 2017

Isaiah 40:27 – 31; Psalm 42:1 – 6a
December 3, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading for this first Sunday of Advent comes from the prophet Isaiah, as he exhorts the weary nation of Israel to wait for God. As waiting is an essential element of Advent, it was an essential for the Israelites. They were not usually prone to waiting or trusting for very long. They preferred to get on with things and let the God of the Covenant catch up to them. This usually did not go well for them. In this familiar passage, Isaiah insists that they call to mind the faithfulness of God, and the provision that God will make for those who are weary, exhausted, struggling, if only they will wait for God: Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Isaiah 40:27 – 31

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The experience of yearning, and the expression of longing for God is beautifully expressed in Psalm 42. The Psalmist is waiting, deeply desiring connection with God, and so remembering worship, the joyful procession to the temple, and the ineffable pleasure of gathering for worship, prayer, and singing. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Psalm 42:1 – 6a:

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

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

You might have noticed a certain little play on words in the sermon title, “Waiting for God.” It’s a twist of the title of Samuel Becket’s play, “Waiting for Godot.” That play has been called the most famous parable of the 20th century. In it, the main characters, “Didi and Gogo” simply wait for Godot. They do nothing else in Act I, and they do the same in Act II. Gogo says, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

That’s what the first Sunday of Advent feels like. In all the whirl of busy people rushing to get their shopping started, and all the noise of Christmas music and sales and promotions, Advent is a still point.

Nobody comes, nobody goes. It isn’t Christmas. But it isn’t a play by Becket, either. Advent is flat like the prairie, featureless, quiet. We are waiting, weary, weak. We are yearning for something to happen, longing for someone to come. We are waiting.

Like a deer, panting for the water, we are thirsty for the presence of God. The salty taste of our tears on our lips makes us weep even more. Our throats are dry and our hearts are hungry, and all around us people ask, “Where is your God?”

Out on the prairie, you look around and there is horizon, and there is nothing coming, not as far as the eye can see. You know that feeling – you may be experiencing it now. It’s that feeling of being out in the open with nothing to protect you, that feeling that you are teetering on the edge of despair, and the next strong wind that sweeps across the prairie will just knock you flat.

It’s that feeling that you’ve done everything you know to do,
said every word you know to say,
prayed every prayer you know to pray
and still, there is silence.

And so we remember, like the prophet and the psalmist. We remember that our God is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

We remember this truth, and we wait upon the Lord.
We remember, as we pour out our souls:
walking in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts.
We remember the songs of thanksgiving.
And we remember our future!

We remember what God has promised us: Immanuel, which means God with us. The promised one is coming, and though we may not be able to see him on the far horizon, not just yet, we sing the hopeful songs of Advent; we pour out our hearts in prayer; and we wait.

We wait with hope.
As we wait, we light the first small candle to brighten the dark night,
we gather at his table to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
which sustain us and strengthen us.

Around us, the voices grow louder, more insistent.
Maybe they say, “C’mon! It’s Christmas! Celebrate! Buy things! Be happy!”
Perhaps they say, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”
But we know that while we are waiting, everything is about to happen.
A young woman is pregnant; a manger is waiting.
The promised one is about to be born, everybody is about to go to the stable,
and it is not awful, but awe-inspiring, and beautiful.

We wait in hope.
We wait for God, for we shall again sing praise.
That’s what it means to be waiting for God.

Let that Spirit begin to grow in us,
one tiny light flickering into the darkness of the night,
to renew us and strengthen us as we wait.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Always Being Re-Formed

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Matthew 22:34-46
October 29, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading is from the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Bible and an entire book of rules and codes and commandments. We don’t often have sermons from the book of Leviticus in this church. That’s partly because today’s selection from the Revised Common Lectionary is the only one from the entire book; over an entire three-year cycle, this is all that is used. Interestingly, while these verses from Leviticus form what is the heart of Torah, the five books of law, they are often overlooked. In fact, it is possible that Leviticus is the most quoted and the least studied by some Christians. See, some Christians are very fond of quoting Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as clobber verses against LGBT folks, but they are not terribly interested in Leviticus 19. Perhaps that is because it is easier to grab two verses to set themselves up as judges of others. It is much more challenging to be grabbed by these verses which set us up to be judged in light of God’s holiness. Slinging a Bible verse out of context at someone is much less demanding that looking at ourselves in light of a command to be holy and to love. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment;
you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great:
with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,
and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor:
I am the LORD.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;
you shall reprove your neighbor,
or you will incur guilt yourself.
You shall not take vengeance
or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
I am the LORD.

In our gospel reading from Matthew, the gospel that has been called “the most Jewish of the four gospels,” we hear Jesus quoting the scripture from Leviticus. Once again, he is being challenged by his detractors, who are trying to trip him up, prove him wrong, or catch him in a verbal trap.

It is worth remembering, as we commemorate this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, that as long as there have been humans and religions, there have been disputes and disagreements about those religions. It is also worth noting that this text makes certain claims about Jesus, and certain claims on us, as followers of Jesus. Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us today in Matthew 22:34-46:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer,
asked him a question to test him.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together,
Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah?
Whose son is he?"
They said to him, "The son of David."
He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord,
saying, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?"
No one was able to give him an answer,
nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I know that probably most of you are not quite as excited as I am
about Reformation Day, on this 500th Anniversary. 

In fact, my brilliant idea for a huge church party on Tuesday, October 31,
was about as appealing as… I don’t know, maybe, Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

I thought it would be great!
You know, all of us dress up as great Reformation figures:
Martin Luther, John Calvin, Joan of Arc, Henry the Eighth, John Knox,
Melancthon, Zwingli, Catherine of Aragon, or Anne Boleyn.

Wouldn’t that be FUN?!

Yeah, well, I guess not.

But even though we are not having a party,
this is still a day worth commemorating,
because it was so very important in the history of Christianity
and the history of the entire world.
And there are few scripture selections that connect as well
as the two we have heard today.
These commandments from both the first and the second testaments
form the basis for who we are as Christians.

Those five solas you heard about earlier: scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone,
and all for the glory of God, form the basis for all our beliefs.
They sound simple, but they were outrageous claims to make,
and there was tremendous, violent backlash against these statements
and against those who made them.
People died standing up for these assertions, and for their right to make them.
For some of us, it might be hard to imagine how this could be.
How can something which seems so clear and logical
be such a dangerous stance?
How can the truth of God be a subject of dispute?
How can scripture, grace, faith, Jesus and the glory of God be argued?
It seems so obvious.

But we’ve seen it over and over, generation after generation;
we see it still today: God’s sovereignty – the lordship of God over all life,
and the call to love God and love neighbor,
are given second place – or even tenth place or no place! –
behind the assumed authority of those who hold power.

Way back in the days of Moses, the book of Leviticus was given by God,
as part of the Torah, to the people of Israel.
It contained 613 commandments, or mitzvot.
That is an enormous number of rules to follow.
Who could even remember all of them?
There are cleanliness codes and priestly codes
and purity codes and dietary codes.
But the summary of the law is found right here in Leviticus 19.

I’ve told you this story before, but it bears repeating.
Rabbi Hillel, the great teacher of the first century BCE,
was challenged to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot.
He took the challenge and stood on one foot saying:
“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

Jesus knew this, of course – knew that this commandment was the greatest.
One wonders whether those who were asking him knew it also,
but had chosen to ignore it,
or whether they simply had forgotten love of God and other
in their efforts to get all the other rules right,
and to make sure that everyone else did, too.

In any case, while Jesus answered correctly,
the rest of the conversation probably made them madder,
because he was asserting his authority as the son of God,
the God who had said, “Be holy as I am holy.
I am the Lord your God.”

Those two entwined commandments –
to love God with all our hearts, minds and strength,
and to love our neighbors as ourselves,
are so simple, and so challenging.

They can form us, and re-form us, and continue to reform us
throughout our lives, if we will let them.
But truthfully, it is so much easier for me to make others my project,
rather than the objects of my love.
I’m only human, so it is much more tempting for me to work on reforming you
than to attend to being re-formed myself.

Jesus saw that, of course,
and that’s why he told us to get the log out of our own eye
before we try to get the speck out of someone else’s eye.

But many Christians would rather speak and act
not from the heart of Jesus’ teachings,
but from the center of their own power and ego and judgment.
Others might put all their heart and mind and strength
toward figuring out all the rules, trying to both obey and enforce them.
This reformation project is ongoing,
because we are such stubborn and pride-filled humans!

So it is worthwhile to ask: “How do we go about obeying this commandment?
How do we live in ways that bring glory to God,
that demonstrate our love for God, and love for our neighbor?”

We can find some answers back in good old Leviticus,
the source of Jesus’ ethical teachings.
Not in the clobber verses, but in this 19th chapter.
It is here that we find what it looks like to love our neighbors.
We are told that God’s justice is the same for the rich as for the poor,
and that our obligation is to care for those who are needy.
We are not to profit from the harm or oppression of others,
but rather to speak and act in ways that lead to justice.
When a neighbor is in danger of being harmed or injured,
we cannot stand idly by, but must speak and act on their behalf.
Some of our neighbors need to be awakened to the plight of our community,
and some of our neighbors will join us as we seek to bring peace and justice.
Some of our neighbors will speak to us
in ways that we might find uncomfortable,
in ways that confront our sin.
Sometimes we will need to confront our prejudice and privilege;
we will need to confront our discomfort with those who are different.

True love of God and neighbor demands that we listen, without reproach.
True love of God and neighbor will open us to being re-formed.
True love of God and neighbor will lead us to roll up our sleeves
and join in with what God is doing in the world!

Opening ourselves to being re-formed, always and every day,
is opening our eyes to see others as God sees them:
beloved, beautiful people, made in the image of God.

Like those great reformers before us, this involves some risk.
We risk our pride and our egos when we let God’s love lead us,
and we don’t get to be in charge of everything and everyone.
We resign from our self-appointed jobs as executive directors of the world.
We risk some people being uncomfortable with us,
or even angry with us.

Not everyone will applaud our efforts for love, peace, justice, diversity.
Some people will just ask us to sit down and shut up.
We might even get unfriended on Facebook!
But the rewards are far greater than any risk.
I’m not talking about some far-off reward in heaven, some starry crown.
I’m talking about the reward that only deep love of humanity can bring,
the knowledge that our risks on behalf of others are worth it;
that our actions on behalf of the alien and stranger
are food for those who are starving for justice and hope;
that our words of love are water in the desert to a thirsty world;
that our hospitality is a blanket of love and acceptance,
enfolding those who are shivering from the cold exclusion of others;
that our small acts of kindness to those who are isolated
are as if we are breaking down the bars of a prison of loneliness.

To be Reformed and always being reformed, subject to the word of God,
is to be an ambassador of Christ, an emblem of God’s love.
This is our calling, and the center of our lives.
So there is no need to have a Reformation Day costume party,
or to dress up like John Calvin or Joan of Arc –
as much fun as that WOULD have been (grin)…

We only need be ourselves, reformed and always being reformed,
loving God and loving others,
and bringing glory to God and God alone.
Thanks be to God!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Who’s Whose?

Matthew 22:15-22
October 22, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL

We’ve been following Jesus around the last few weeks in the gospel of Matthew, and it might be helpful to pause for a moment and remind ourselves of where we are now on this journey. We’re very close to the end, here in this reading. It is Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, the Tuesday of what we’d call “Holy Week” to be exact. Things have been heating up for him in Jerusalem and his enemies are slowly closing the net around him. They’ll finally entrap him, of course, but not through his own words. A few short days after this reading, he’ll be tried for blasphemy and sedition.

In this reading, they’ve come up with a brilliant scheme. They are in the temple, surrounded by crowds. In the first half of the first century in Jerusalem, there is a marked political division among the Jewish people. On one side are the Herodians, those who supported the corrupt, adulterous, idolatrous, self-serving Herod, the so-called King of the Jews. The Herodians were willing to stick up for anything Herod set forth, including, in this case the hated census tax imposed on everyone.

On the other side are the Pharisees, who find Herod and everything he stands for utterly disgusting and deplorable, but who are unwilling to risk speaking out too much, lest he come after them.

But these two groups were united in one common cause: their hatred of Jesus. So they set out to trap him with a question of taxation. If he answers in favor of the tax, he offends the Pharisees. If he answers against the tax, he angers the Herodians. Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us in Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax."
And they brought him a denarius.
Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"
They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them,
"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's,
and to God the things that are God's."
When they heard this, they were amazed;
and they left him and went away.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Oh, Jesus!
How clever you are!

They tossed that coin over to you,
and all you had to do was look at it to know your answer.

“Whose image is on this coin?”

That denarius, of course, bore the image of Caesar.
They weren’t even supposed to have that coin, the Pharisees.
It not only bore the image of Caesar, it bore this blasphemous inscription:
“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”
If Augustus was divine, that made Tiberius Caesar the son of God.

No faithful Jew should carry such coinage, not in the temple.
And no faithful person could support a tax paid in such a coin.
But no sane person would publicly speak out against such a tax.
Nobody wanted to risk the ire of Herod.
John the Baptist had done so, and been beheaded for his troubles.

The trap was laid, and very skillfully so.
But Jesus won’t fall for it.
You can almost see the gleam in his eye, the tiny smirk,
as he took the coin with its image of Caesar and those blasphemous words,
the idolatrous coin of the realm that shouldn’t have been there.

You can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he recalled
the words of the first book of Torah – Genesis, when God said,
“Let us make humans in our own image.”

You can almost hear the ironic tone in his voice as he asked,
“Whose image is this, and whose title?”

As if he didn’t know.
As if!

Just to be perfectly clear,
Jesus was not offering a first century declaration
of the separation of church and state.
That idea had not yet become part of anyone’s political discourse.
And besides, Jesus wasn’t God incarnate
so that he could put forward some great Enlightenment ideals,
or offer any principals for the United States to be founded 1750 years later.

Jesus was not even interested
in becoming embroiled in their political divisions.
He was interested in calling them back to their ultimate loyalty: to God.
So, Jesus said, “Pay your taxes. Follow the law.
Give to the government what belongs to the government.
And give to God what belongs to God.”

Period. Full stop. End of discussion.

Except….these words have been interpreted
in so many different ways over the centuries.
The Amish, for example, from the 16th on, have paid their taxes,
but in the United States, they do not pay into Social Security or Medicare,
nor do they receive any benefits from such programs.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not say the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Quakers, in two notable periods of American history,
have withheld their taxes as resistance to American wars.

In fact, from the beginning of the colonial period to the present,
American Christians have practiced peaceful resistance to taxes
as a matter of their understanding of Christian conscience.

Other Christians have understood Jesus’ words to mean
that the citizens of a country owe their allegiance to the government,
because God ordains and permits governments to exist.
Some would tell you that whoever is elected to lead a country
is placed there by the hand of God.

Some only say that if they LIKE the person who was elected!

That reasoning has led to some disastrous positions:
the support of the Nazis by Christian leaders in Germany
being the worst, but not the only example.
Here in the United States,
there are numerous Christian groups who have refused
to say the pledge of allegiance,
or sing the national anthem,
or swear in a court of law,
because they believe that their first allegiance,
their only allegiance,
is to God and God alone.

So which is it, Jesus?
Do we pay our taxes, or not?

Jesus isn’t really all that interested in that dispute, apparently.
Pay Caesar what is Caesars.
Taxes, I suppose.
And give God what is God’s.

Which is… yeah…which is everything.

And that shifts the question.
The question is no longer “what belongs to whom?”
The question is “Who’s whose?”
To whom do you belong?
In whose image were you made?

Two of the great principle of the reformation, and of Presbyterians,
are that God is sovereign over all creation – God rules the cosmos,
and that the conscience of each one of us is subject to God.

So, we do not have freedom of conscience –
our conscience is captive to God.
And the exercise of that conscience is subject
to balance, humility and sensitivity to others.

An article about freedom of conscience from Presbyterians Today
summed it up this way:

“At its best, the “God alone is Lord of the conscience” slogan will function, as it does in our constitution, as a warning against tyranny by the majority against the minority. When used correctly, it means that “my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Only God is Lord of it. Only God’s Word has the right to bind it.” In other words, if a community standard is contrary to my informed understanding of God’s revealed will in Scripture, God sets me free to dissent from it, and then either passively submit to the standard or peaceably withdraw from the community.
At its worst, the slogan will be used to defy, not merely dissent from, corporate judgment.
It is used incorrectly when it is used to mean “conscience is my master.”
It is used incorrectly when it leads to schism.[1]
To exercise conscience does not mean that we have the freedom
to deploy our religious principles to the detriment of others,
or force our beliefs upon them.

In the congregations, that means that our decisions must balance
both personal and corporate judgment,
and in situations where our personal conscience
cannot support the corporate judgment,
we are to withdraw without attempting to create any schism.

In other words, if, say, elders or deacons finds their personal judgment
to be in conflict with the majority about polity or doctrine,
they must peaceably withdraw from their office.

To work together also requires humility –
the conviction that my own perspective may not be the last word,
and in fact, may not be the correct perspective.

This all goes into practice with an intentional sensitivity to others,
caring deeply and humbly about how our words and actions affect them.

I suppose you might be wondering what difference this all makes
when you walk out those lovely new doors this morning.
My prayer and my hope for each of us is that we remember who’s whose.
The first question of the Heidelberg catechism asks this:
What is your only comfort in life and in death?

The answer is: “That I with body and soul, both in life and death,
am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ”

Jesus’ clever answer does not spare him the wrath of those around him.
He’ll pay for his answer with his life.
But their hatred cannot destroy him, and death cannot hold him.

We may be afraid sometimes, to follow him,
but then we remember who’s whose.

We belong to God.
That’s our primary identity,
before politics or nation or economics- we belong to God.
The image on the coin, or on the currency, is not the image we bear.
So we may espouse a particular point of view,
but as Christians, those things cannot own us.
We bear the image of God; love etched upon our hearts.

Next week we’ll hear some of these same enemies
question Jesus about what is the greatest commandment.

You know, of course, what he answered:
Love God with all your heart and soul and mind
and love your neighbor as yourself.

We belong to God – heart, soul, mind, body, spirit and conscience.
Do you belong to a political party, or to a certain candidate?
Not if you belong to God.

Do you belong to a particular worldview, or nation?
Not if you belong to God.

Do you belong to an economic system?
Not if you belong to God.

If we take Jesus seriously, and I submit to you that we do,
our allegiance is not to the flag,
nor to America first,
nor to any race or nation or anthem,
nor to any candidate or elected official,
nor to any political or economic system.

If we remember who’s whose,
we remember that we belong to God.

And we render unto God the things that are God’s.
That’s everything – and it’s by loving God and loving others
that we demonstrate – every day – who’s whose. 



Sunday, October 15, 2017

Showing Up

Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
October 15, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading is from the letter to the Philippians. The Apostle Paul loved the church at Philippi, and his letters to them are full of affection along with his encouragement. This familiar reading comes toward the end of the letter, and includes his personal greetings for particular people, and those familiar words, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.”

It’s worth remembering, particularly with the two scriptures you’ll hear today, that the epistles, the letters, were written much earlier than the gospels. The letters reflect the formation of the early house churches, and point to some of the struggles of the newly formed Christian communities. In this letter, Paul refers to the church at Philippi as his “joy and crown,” -- they are such a source of pride and joy to him that they are like a laurel wreath awarded to an Olympic athlete. He loves this congregation.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Philippians 4:1-9.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.
Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Our gospel reading also addresses the early church. Matthew’s gospel is believed to have been written around the last quarter of the first century. The community to which it is written has one foot firmly planted in Judaism and the other in the newly formed Christian community. There is some anxiety, as might be expected, about these strange newcomers who have been joining them, and about what the gospel community is going to look like if they are welcomed in. Like last week’s reading about the tenants in the vineyard, this reading is a mixture of parable and allegory, with Matthew adding a bit more than his original source did. The more generous reading in Luke omits the enraged reactions of the king, but Matthew wants to make it clear that there are consequences for the failure to respond and to act in such a way that reflects our membership in God’s gathered people.

The story has two main points – first, the kingdom of God is like a glorious wedding celebration, and second, if the invited guests won’t respond to the invitation, there will be others welcomed to the banquet.

Let’s listen for God’s gospel invitation to us in Matthew 22: 1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:
"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.'
But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves,
'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'
Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him,
'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?'
And he was speechless.
Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
For many are called, but few are chosen."

Sometimes when I read a parable like this,
or like the one we had last week,
I think, “Jesus, you have some explaining to do.”

But now that we’ve been in Matthew’s gospel for these many weeks,
I think that if I get to meet the writer of Matthew in heaven,
I will demand my explanation from him!

This story in Luke’s gospel is SO cool!
It doesn’t include the part about those invited killing the messengers,
nor any of the burning and destruction wrought by the king,
nor does the king kick out an underdressed guest.
Plus it would go much better with the epistle reading about rejoicing.

Still, the fact that a scripture troubles us is a good reason to study it.
It seems pretty obvious to everyone that this story is told to the church,
to the community that came to be after the resurrection and ascension.
Christianity, as you know, didn’t drop from the heavens
as a fully articulated religious path.

It was developed over many centuries, with many voices, up to now.
As we approach the observation of the Reformation in a couple of weeks,
that is worth remembering.

In the newly emerging Christian community,
it was not immediately clear what God might be up to.
Matthew’s story demonstrates the teetering balance
between God’s sovereign grace and our own responsibility.
First, the invitation is to a wedding banquet, a celebration!
Actually, in the first century, the invitation had already gone out before the story begins. 
It was kind of like a “save the date” card.

Second, the invitation is not from your college roommate’s stepson.
It is from THE KING!
So, of course, when that first invite came to you, you accepted.
When the wedding banquet is for the king’s son, you don’t just ignore it.

But you know how it is.
Every wedding I ever do, it goes something like this, I imagine:
Yay! Fun! We got a wedding invitation!
Oh, look, here’s the RSVP for the reception.
Of course we are going to go, right honey?
Would you rather have chicken or beef?

Two months later, the bride texts you.
“Did you get the invitation? Are you coming?”
Ooops! Oh, sorry, yeah, forgot to mail it.
We’ll be there.
She dutifully notifies the caterer.

But then something comes up –
maybe there’s a fight and a breakup and your plus one is now a minus one.
maybe somebody invites you to something that is closer,
or maybe another invitation comes that is more fun for your spouse.
Maybe you have the opportunity to get some important work done.
Whatever it is, you decide not to go.
So you don’t show up.

I probably do not have to tell you – this drives brides crazy!
Wedding banquets cost a lot of money.
Thirty thousand dollars is not an unusual amount for one these days.
And you pay for it ahead of time.
I read a great story about a bride whose wedding was planned for July,
and two weeks before the big day, they called it off.
“I called everyone, canceled, apologized, cried, called vendors,
cried some more and then I started feeling really sick
about just throwing away all the food I ordered for the reception,” she said.
Rather than waste that banquet, she started calling homeless shelters.
The press got wind of it, and other donors in Indianapolis
provided dresses and suits for the homeless guests who would attend.[1]

Sound familiar?
“Go therefore into the main streets,
and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”
Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; 
so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

When the king invites you to a wedding banquet, and you don’t show up,
the king is not going to let that sumptuous feast go to waste.
Someone is going to be at that table, drinking the wine and eating the food.
That may as well be you.

So who does God invite? And who does God welcome?
It would seem that Matthew’s story means to say
that God eventually invites and welcomes everyone to the table.
And those who don’t show up will suffer for their rejection.

Okay, let’s go with that.
But what about that poor homeless guy, that last minute guest,
who didn’t have the right clothes to wear to the banquet?
As with Matthew’s other lessons, this one poses a difficult question.
And it is a question for us to ask - not Jesus, or Matthew, but ourselves.

What is there about me that looks like I’m going to God’s banquet?
If we are those homeless, outcast people who got this invitation,
you’d think that our gratitude and delight would show.

You’d think anybody could tell just by looking that we’re joyful guests
at a banquet that goes on forever,
set for us to share and celebrate.
You’d think that as we approach this table,
to re-enact and receive that joyful feast,
we’d be almost dancing up the aisles!

And you’d think that as we are on our way, out and about,
that anyone would observe our faith,
like a wedding garment, a glorious robe, a fancy tux or dress.

John Calvin said, in his commentary on this parable:
“As to the wedding garment, is it faith, or is it a holy life?
This is a useless controversy;
for faith cannot be separated from good works,
nor do good works proceed from any other source than from faith.
Christ intended only to state that the Lord calls us
on the express condition of our being renewed by the Spirit after his image;
and that, in order to our remaining permanently in his house,
we must put off the old man with his pollutions ...
and lead a new life that the garment may correspond
to so honorable a calling…
[and] whomsoever the Lord invites
he at the same time supplies with clothing.[2]

So while our Presbyterian and Reformed tradition tells us
that we get to attend God’s feast through God’s invitation and God’s grace,
we hold that in tension with the knowledge that our lives
ought to look like we are glad and grateful.
However, this in no way gives us the authority
to exclude anyone from the feast based on the way they are dressed.

This past week, a story went viral about a little girl
preparing for her first communion in the Roman Catholic church.
She loves suits and bowties, so she picked out a beautiful white suit,
planning to wear it at that momentous event in the life of a Catholic child.
They have rehearsal for first Communion – because it is a big deal –
and at the rehearsal, she was told that she must wear a white dress.
Because she is a girl.
If she didn’t wear a dress, she couldn’t be part of the group event.
Her mother said, "My daughter just wants to wear pants
while worshipping the Lord
and receiving the Eucharist with her classmates.
She's not hurting anyone.
However, being excluded and ostracized IS hurting her.”[3]

Friends, in Jesus Christ, God invites the world to a wedding banquet,
a great celebration of God’s love and mercy.
As guests at the banquet, we are invited to come from east and west,
from north and south, to feast at the table of God.
There isn’t a dress code, but there is a certain way to recognize us:
we’re the joyful people.
We’re the ones who focus our hearts and minds and strength on
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,... “

As guests invited to the great celebration, we honor the King
by welcoming everyone else who shows up.
We’ll leave it to the King to decide about them.
And even on the days when we are tired or busy or preoccupied;
even when we think that some other feast or some other table looks better;
even when we have ignored the invitation,
we are invited again and again.

This Christian life can be a great celebration,
one which brings us deep joy and a peace that passes understanding.
We can have that peace and joy.
And we start by simply showing up.



[2] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke - Volume 2.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tenant Church

Matthew 21: 33:46
October 8, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This week’s gospel reading finds us again in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus has been verbally contending with the temple leadership, and he has, as is usual with him, been telling stories. The text today is an interesting bit of scripture in that it begins as a parable but becomes a kind of allegory. That is, rather than the usual parable form, that creates an entire world which won’t quite translate into a simple explanation, this story invites us to hear a one-to-one correspondence between the characters and setting of the story and the real world in which Jesus lived. The story begins with a common first century economic arrangement: the tenant farmer.

Unlike the sharecropper of American history following the civil war, the tenant farmer’s relationship with the landowner was somewhat more fair and not an occasion of exploitation. Still, the landowner held all the power, and could evict the tenant at will. Jesus tells a story of tenant farmers who take advantage of the landowner, rather than the other way around. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 21: 33-46. 33

"Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son.'

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"

They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

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

If you were a poor farm laborer in the first century and you lived in the Middle East, where Jesus lived, you probably didn’t own a house, or livestock, or any property. You probably didn’t own much more than your coat and your cloak. You worked for about a denarius a day, enough for your daily bread.

Unless you were “lucky” enough to be a tenant farmer. Then you worked a piece of land as if you owned it, much like a sharecropper or a serf. At harvest time, you kept a share of the crop, and the landowner took the rest. The lion’s share, actually. It was not your property, and never would be. If the crop failed, so did you. But it was better than some other options, like selling yourself or your family members as slaves.

It was a living.

The disciples and the temple leaders and whoever else was standing around as Jesus debated would have had no trouble recognizing what Jesus was getting at. Let’s remember the setting: the temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus had arrived a few days before, riding on a donkey, and hailed as the Messiah, the one coming to save. He threw the money changers from the temple, then left town to spend the night in nearby Bethany. When he came back to town, the temple authorities demanded to know by what authority Jesus was doing such things.

Then Jesus starts telling stories, and they are mostly parables, cryptic and challenging allusions to actual events, with strong messages. These parables are also mostly about vineyards.

Vineyards. They weren’t all grape farmers.
Most of them weren’t. Why vineyards?

In Bible Study on Wednesday, alongside this gospel reading, we read a few verses from the Old Testament reading from the lectionary. It’s from Isaiah, chapter five, the first seven verses. Listen to this reading from the prophet, and see what you think:

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

“He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Who knows whether the religious authorities thought of Isaiah when Jesus was telling stories, but it had to have gotten their attention.

And Jesus when Jesus finished his story, he asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"

Not realizing that they are falling into his rhetorical trap, they answer, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

Well, then. 
 Hahaha on those Pharisees, right?

But wait.

Matthew’s gospel is addressed to the ecclesia, the church.
That would be … us.

Over and over, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, Matthew’s gospel makes its’ point: be humble, like a little child; if you are rich, give up your wealth and share with the poor; the last will be first; the least will be the greatest; be the servant of all; take the lowest spot… do you see a pattern here?

This story seems harsh, on its face – we are uncomfortable with such violent imagery. We don’t really like it when Jesus talks about people being crushed. If we hear the story as allegory, we can calm ourselves down by saying, “Well, it was about the Pharisees, the Jews, not about us.”

But Matthew wants you to be certain: it is about us.
The church – the gathered community.
You and me.

We are tenants, sisters and brothers.
This is not our vineyard.
We don’t own one blade of grass, one leaf, one single grape.
This is not our vineyard.

We don’t own this church.
We don’t own this building. 
We don’t own one single molecule of anything. 
Not. One. Thing. 

Lest we begin to think that we have earned something, we are reminded: we are tenants, and the crop does not belong to us. We are tenants, living here at the pleasure of the landowner. We have work to do. We need to be productive. It is our job. We have fruit to grow. 

God, the landowner, has sent messengers to us to tell us what is required. Usually, we’d rather not listen to those messengers. Maybe we don’t literally beat them up, or kill them. We do it figuratively, by ignoring them and the content of their messages. 

Our focus tends to drift inward, toward ourselves. 
We ask each other, “How do we keep this thing going?” 
We wonder how we can get more people in the doors on Sunday morning at 9:30 AM. 
We wonder how we are going to keep everything going the way it has always been done. 

There is nothing wrong with thinking of these issues. But when the time of harvest comes, the landowner is not looking for an attractively painted winepress, or a remodeled watchtower with new wallpaper and furnishings, or an expanded workforce that packs people into the vineyards, even if they are not actually doing anything but showing up. The landowner is looking for fruit. God owns the vineyard; God calls and pays the workers; and God does not deal with us according to what we deserve, but according to God’s grace. 

If that is indeed true, it is crucial now that we attune our ears to the messengers God has sent, and what they have told us, over and over again. Every Sunday School child learns that prophets are those who bring us messages from God. If we look at those messages, at least those we have in the Bible, we see some common themes emerging: 
1) Obedience to God’s law – the law of love for God and others. 
2) The promise of God’s faithfulness to the covenant: that God seeks to redeem and restore us. The covenant is for every living thing – everything – on the planet. 
3) The call to faithfulness and obedience for every land and nation. As a parenthetical aside, I remind you that this call is for every human, in every land and nation, not ever a call to be a so-called “Christian America.” 
4) And probably most importantly, the demand for doing justice, for mercy for others, and care for the poor, to welcome for the stranger – in short, that first one, amplified: love for God and neighbor. 

Like those tenants in the story, we have a tendency to reject the messages and the messengers who bring such demands from the landowner. It is much easier to think of this vineyard as our own, and to go about the things that, in our human judgment, make it nice: with the music we like, whether contemporary or the pipe organ; with sermons that soothe us and don’t ask too much of us; with pleasant social gatherings that we enjoy.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but it is not what we are here for. Jesus invokes Isaiah because that prophet had such power in their minds, and his powerful words still ring true for us. You’ve heard them many times, if you have been in church, but listen again to this messenger from God, the servant of the landowner speaking to the tenants: “Look, you serve your own interest …and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. …Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?... Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, … to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke? … to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, …” 

That’s the fruit that the landowner is looking for, according to the messengers who have been sent to us. And there is a promise for us, that comes with this agreement: 

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. …
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 

We are tenants, we here in this church, and the master of the vineyard has told us what is good. 
The lord of the vineyard, Jesus Christ, has called us to him, 
to be his people, 
to do his work, 
to speak his words of mercy, 
and to offer his love to the lonely 
and his justice to the oppressed. 

This is the fruit by which the vineyard owner will know us. 

Thanks be to God! 


Monday, October 2, 2017

Poured Out

Philippians 2:1-13
October 1, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture reading for today comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Verses five through eleven are widely regarded as among the earliest and most beautiful Christ hymns. But Paul’s letters were not written with chapters and verses, and today we have the pleasure of hearing that hymn in its intended context.

In the first chapter, Paul has commended the Christ-followers at Philippi, with those words familiar to many of us: “I thank my God every time I remember you,” and then he goes on to remind them of the importance of the way they live together in community, saying: “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

In this section, he continues his loving words to them, appealing to both their connection through Christ – the sense of community – and their life in Christ – the practice of humility.

It’s worthwhile to remember as you hear these words that Paul uses the second person plural – not just you, the individual Christian, but you, the church gathered by Christ – y’all!

Let’s listen for God’s word for all y’all in Philippians 2:1-13.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me,
not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Our gospel reading centers on the authority of Jesus.
He has been questioned once again by the religious leaders of the time,
legitimate questions wondering under what auspices he does his work.
Much as we might question a charismatic preacher who comes into town,
wondering what he is up to, they pose their concern.
He answers them in a way that does not start a fight,
but challenges their pre-conceived ideas of legitimacy.
Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 21:23-27.

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"
Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?"
And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'
But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet."
So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."
And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

It is World Communion Sunday today,
and it is the day on which the PC(USA) observes
our Peace and Global Witness offering.
The choice to have these two observances on the same Sunday
was inspired, I think, and it is worth considering both events
as we consider the scripture readings for today.

World Communion Sunday is a time when we celebrate unity –
our unity with one another as a congregation,
and our unity with other Christians, not only in our country,
but around the globe.

Whether we are Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist,
or some other brand, or simply generic Christians,
we are united by a few central beliefs and practices.
One of those is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
So on this day, we imagine Christians in every land
coming to the table with us in a global feast.

I like to imagine that this table is extended far beyond this chancel,
into every Christian community here in Sterling, across the Rock,
across the Mississippi, across the country, and across the oceans,
until it reaches to every person who would wish to come and eat.

This table is a place where we can be united as one,
even if it is only for one Sunday!

This table is a place where we can experience God’s shalom –
the wholeness, unity, and peace that come to us through Christ.

We approach that shalom, that wholeness and unity,
through having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind – the mind of Christ.

The Apostle Paul’s words speak for themselves,
and hardly need anything added by way of explanation.
However, like many parts of God’s word, it is simple, but not easy.

It’s simple to say, “Oh, while you’re up,
could you have the same love, humility, and compassion as Jesus?
Shouldn’t be too hard.”

But it is not easy to live those words.
How, after all, can we “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than ourselves”?

How do we choose to look not to our own interests,
but to the interests of others?

We are geared, as humans, to look to our own interests.
We are not particularly adept at humility.
The key, I think, to learning to live in this way,
as Christians who are in union with one another, and with Christ,
is this one little Greek word that packs a big theological punch:
the word “ekenosen.”

It means to empty oneself, to pour out oneself.
So the mind of Christ is one that doesn’t “lord it over”others,
despite the authority he is given by God.
The mind of Christ is one that regards itself as a slave to others,
not as the master of others.
The mind of Christ is one that pours out oneself on behalf of others.
If we were to learn no other lesson from the Epistles than this,
we would benefit so much!

It’s a lesson that involves our entire lives, and takes our whole selves,
that demands that we stay connected with God in Christ,
and with one another!

Having the mind of Christ leads us to our own kenosis –
our own outpouring of ourselves on behalf of others.
To live in such a way lifts us far above
the theological squabbles of our time,
into the realm of faith and trust in a God who loves us so much
that he came in human form, humble, obedient, willing to die.
To live in such a way marks us with that name that is above all names,
and unites us with every person on the planet.
To live in such a way is to bring into reality the call for God’s shalom,
and to invite the world to join us in confessing Jesus Christ as Lord.

Through this kenosis, this pouring out of self,
we do indeed work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
We pour out ourselves, as Christ was poured out for us,
we give our broken selves, as Christ broke the bread and gave it.
As we do so, having the mind of Christ,
God’s shalom becomes reality,
for it is God who is at work in us,
enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

Thanks be to God in Christ, poured out for us,
that we may be poured out on behalf of the world!


Job Insecurity

Matthew 20:1-16
September 24, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms wrote: “When Jesus delivered his parables, he lit a stick of dynamite, covered it with a story about everyday life, and then left it with his audience. By the time his hearers fully unwrapped the parable, Jesus and his disciples were long gone.”[1] And man, oh, man, was Clarence right! Last week we heard a story Jesus told about forgiveness. This week, we hear a story that he told about some workers in a vineyard. Or at least, the story seems to be about some workers in a vineyard. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 20:1-16.

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?'
They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.'
He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.'
When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'
But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

In 2015, the CEO of a Seattle company called Gravity Payments made an announcement to his employees.
Everyone was getting a raise.
Everyone who worked there.

Not only was everyone getting a raise, the lowest paid workers were getting a substantial raise. His plan, Dan Price said, was to set a base minimum pay for every employee in the place: a base minimum pay of $70,000 a year. Price had learned that research supported the idea that an income of $70,000 was the optimal level at which most people would be happy with what they made. It was enough to pay the bills and live comfortably, but not so much that they would experience the stress of having too much. His thinking was that by being generous with all employees, he’d get an increase in worker loyalty and morale, a promise of good productivity with less-stressed workers, and, yes, maybe some good publicity, and some new clients. He planned to pay for it by reducing his own salary.

Imagine for a moment that you were one of his lower paid employees.
You’d welcome that news, right? Of course you would.
What if you were one of his higher paid employees?
You’d get a raise, but not the same percentage raise as other workers.
Imagine now that you were one of Dan Price’s clients.
Would you care one way or the other?
And what if you were, say, Rush Limbaugh?
What would you think about this decision? 
What would you say?

I will tell you what actually happened in a minute, but I have to tell you, running across this news story this past week felt like a gift from heaven. Because Will Campbell, that wise old scoundrel, was right. This parable is a stick of dynamite wrapped in a story. Let’s tell the truth about what Jesus said: it is not fair.

Nobody thinks it makes sense for an employer to pay the people who work one hour the same as those who work ten. The workers who have worked all day don’t think it is fair. The other employers don’t think it is fair. And probably, those workers who worked only an hour would agree that being paid a day’s wage for an hour’s work simply is not fair. Once again, Jesus, we would respectfully request that you explain yourself. “The kingdom of heaven is like…,” Jesus starts out, and we know this is not going to be easy.

Anytime Jesus starts out that way, you can wait for the explosion. But it starts out with a familiar scene: a landowner needs workers. He goes to the place where laborers congregate, early in the morning, waiting for a day’s work. In some cities, that is the Home Depot parking lot, or the unemployment office, or the Co-op grain elevator, but every town of any size has such a place. He pulls up in his pickup and says, “I need some vineyard workers. I’m paying the usual daily minimum.”

He goes again at nine in the morning and does the same.
He goes again at noon and about three o'clock, and does the same.
Then at about five o'clock, Jesus says, “he went out and found others standing around;
and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here unemployed?'
They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.' So he hires them, too!
When it is time to pay everyone, he starts with those who came latest, and he pays them the usual daily wage. Then he pays everyone the usual daily wage. And those early-morning hires were not one bit pleased about it. “They grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'”

As would I.

I worked all day in this heat and you pay me the same as those who worked for an hour or so? But Jesus is no Calvinist. He has the landowner answer them with two questions:
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
Or are you envious because I am generous?'

This story probably did not sit well with Jesus’ first century audience, and it does not by any means sit well with American Protestants. We are so steeped in the Protestant work ethic that this kind of story is almost unimaginable. If we sympathize with anyone in the story, it is those hard working people who showed up early, did the job, stuck with it, and expected proportional compensation.

Sure, Jesus, it is okay to say “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” when we are talking in spiritual terms, but you are talking about the workplace, about our livelihood.

That Protestant work ethic, by the way, built this country. No matter what your view of American history and the founders, most everyone agrees that the colonists who first came to this country were hardworking, thrifty, committed people, willing to work for anything they got.

We get a little twitchy, we Presbyterians, when the Protestant work ethic is challenged. After all, Max Weber pointed out, way back in 1905, in his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” how the Calvinist view of hard work and thrift as signs of salvation contributed to the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of capitalism. Weber was well aware of the nuances of his argument, and did not go so far as to wed Calvinism and Capitalism permanently. But he did see how a religious system that often interprets worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, that emphasizes the duty to make good use of all resources, that regards decency and orderliness as important might be understood as being closely tied to an economic system 
in which hard work is rewarded with financial gain,
in which thrift is considered to be a cardinal virtue,
and in which upright living, tidiness, and discipline are valued.

In short, Weber knew that Calvinism and Capitalism were not wedded, but he saw that they were in a very serious relationship with one another. That relationship spawned a child that tends to be fought over by both Calvinists and Capitalists: the prosperity gospel. Which is why, I think, that the reaction to Dan Price’s pay raise idea was so strong, and surprisingly to me, not all positive. There was a lot of praise and positive response: “Talk show hosts lined up to interview Mr. Price. Job seekers by the thousands sent in résumés. He was called a “thought leader.” Harvard business professors flew out to conduct a case study. Third graders wrote him thank-you notes.  Single women wanted to date him.”[2]

But there was serious negative backlash: Rush Limbaugh hated it. Some of Gravity’s clients left them. At least two of the top performing employees quit. And Dan’s brother sued him.

One employee who quit after receiving a raise said: “He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump,”[3]

Another employee who received a $9,000 a year pay increase said, “Now the people who were just clocking in and out were making the same as me. It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”[4]

Does any of this sound like that parable to you?

I can almost hear Jesus asking, “Are you angry because I’m generous?”
Well, I would be.
After all I’ve done for you, Jesus, yeah, I am a bit peeved.
Sure, sure, you can do what you want with what is yours.
But I don’t have to like it.
You ask me to forgive, and I’m working on it.
You ask me to love my enemies, and I’m working on it.
You ask me to put God first in every aspect of my life, and I’m working on it.
But now you ask me to set aside the just rewards of my labors, and take the same pay as those others, those latecomers, who appear to me to be lazy and no-account.
That work is too hard.

Besides, you said your burden was easy. It isn’t easy.
I’d like to get the reward I deserve.
I punched the clock, put in the time, did the work.
So I’m bringing my time card to you, Jesus.
I’m bringing it to the cross, to demand what I deserve.

And the good news is that I’m not going to get what I deserve, and neither are any of you. Because when we bring our resentment to the cross, we are met with the same generosity that the landowner showed. When we come to Jesus with our productivity reports, and our time and effort records, he doesn’t give us the payment we demand or deserve.

The payment we receive is more than we can ask or imagine,
more than we could ever dream of,
more than we could ever earn in a lifetime of twelve-hour days:
grace upon grace,
mercy upon mercy,
lives overflowing with abundance.

Then, fellow workers in the vineyard, he sends us away from the cross with a job description:
to love as we have been loved,
to be generous as God has been to us,
to forgive as we have been forgiven,
to serve and sacrifice until sunset,
until we are called in from the fields
to sit down at a table prepared for us,
to feast with him, not as servants, but as friends.

Thanks be to God.


[2] Cohen, Patricia, July 31, 2015, “A Company Copes With Backlash Against the Raise That Roared” New York Times.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mercy Multiplied

Matthew 18:21-35
September 17, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Jesus has been trying to get it through the disciples’ heads: he is not going to be what they expect. This chapter begins with an argument between Jesus’ closest friends about who is more important. Jesus answers their question by placing a child among them and saying, “Be like this, like this child.” Then he warns them that anyone who misleads a child would be better off dead. THEN he tells them how to settle conflict in the community, a tidy three-step process that, if it is unsuccessful, ends in exiling the offender. But the very next line is Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive. Jesus seems to be giving a straight answer first, but follows with a parable that is rich in hyperbole, in exaggeration, and in imagery. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"
Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'
And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?'
And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I have a little quiz for you.
Don’t worry, it isn’t hard.
It’s fill in the blank.
You’ll do fine.
You know the answers.
I’ll start a phrase, and you finish it.
Don’t say the answers out loud – just think them, or write them down..


What goes around…..

You will reap….

Payback is …

Give him a taste of his…

Revenge is …

Last week when I started digging into the gospel text we just read, all those familiar sayings came to mind. Not because they are the point of the text – just the opposite. But you know that they express what most of us think and believe, at least sometimes, about this idea of forgiving and forgiving and forgiving, without end. 

You know, at some point, I just get done with all that forgiving. I’m like Peter – I want to know the equation on this, the mathematical end point, the number of times I absolutely HAVE TO forgive, which is actually the number at which I can say, “All right, enough. Not forgiving any more.
We. Are. Done.”

Most everybody reaches that point at some time, with someone. Most everybody can tell you a story about how they forgave, and forgave, and forgave, and finally they just couldn’t forgive any more, not one more thing. Some people might have stories of vengeance, how they themselves, or some circumstance, or natural consequence, gave an offender their just desserts, their comeuppance. We like those stories, mostly.

But this story that Jesus told is pretty disturbing. 
In the first place, it is all so hugely exaggerated. 
What king lends that kind of money to a servant? A loan shark king?
What servant is crazy enough to borrow that kind of money?
And then, if the king has loaned that outlandish sum to a servant who can’t pay it back in ten lifetimes, why even talk about getting paid back? It’s obvious to everyone that this servant can’t pay.

And what a jerk!

His debt forgiven, you’d think he’d forgive a measly few coins on an IOU. But no! He’s not letting one cent of that go. And then there are the weasly fellow servants, tattling to the king.

To top off this whole ridiculous parable, the king, who we are thinking all along is probably, you know, God, turns out to have a nasty and vindictive side – that last line is a shocker: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Say what, Jesus? He said, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

Yep, that’s what I thought he said.

To put this in modern terms, Servant A maxes out his line of credit at King Bank. King Bank does not care about Servant A’s credit rating – let him get underwater, over-borrow, take on a mortgage he can’t afford. When he does get underwater, King Bank works out a payment plan to avoid foreclosure. Servant A walks out the door and runs into Servant B, who owes him 150 bucks.
“Gimme my money!” says Servant A.
“I don’t have it,” answers Servant B.
Servant A makes sure that Servant B gets thrown into debtors’ prison.
The mortgage officer at King Bank finds out, and calls the note on Servant A.
None of it makes any sense.

That’s why this can’t be taken as allegory – too simple! Too simple to say, “Well, the King is God, and Servant A is you, and Servant B is that jerk who hurt you….” It’s also too simple to say, “Well, just forgive and forget. Jesus wants you to reconcile with everyone, no matter how abusive or dangerous they might be.”

In some cases, if we offer mercy, we need to do it at a great distance.
In some cases, offering quick and personal mercy is downright dangerous.

I was at a meeting the other day talking about reconciliation. One person remembered hearing a holocaust survivor say, “I’m not reconciling with a Nazi. I’m not hugging someone who tried to kill me.” So those kind of simple interpretations don’t apply.

We can’t just go all church lady and say “Well, I just forgive you, come give me a hug.”
Nor can we set up that simplistic idea that the forgiving king is likely to turn on us. That makes God’s grace conditional, like God won’t forgive if you won’t, like God’s just hanging around waiting for us to slip up so all the punishment can be unleashed.

That’s not God.
That won’t work.

But Jesus wants Peter to know that being unforgiving has consequences for us. Not consequences from a King, or from a court system. But from the action itself.

If someone seeks forgiveness, asks for mercy, what do we do? Anyone who has held a grudge, sought revenge, withheld mercy, knows that it can be painful. Anne Lamott says that’s like drinking rat poison and hoping the rat will die. Likewise, anyone who seeks forgiveness and is met with revenge knows how painful that is. Either way, the lack of forgiveness is like torture. And who would know that better than Jesus?

While I was studying this text, I took a forgiveness quiz, to see how forgiving I am.
You’d think, you know, in my line of work, I’d ace that little quiz.

I scored about a sixty.

Mostly because I’m not vengeful.
So there’s that.

But I’d like to be more forgiving.
Shouldn’t I get partial credit for that?
You know, like WANTING to pay your mortgage gets you somewhere? Not.

But we all want to get extra credit for who we think we are, or would like to be, and extra mercy for what we actually do, or who we turn out to be. Someone said we overestimate the mercy we give others, and underestimate the mercy we receive from God.

Well then, this parable is just bad news, isn’t it?

If I’m your minister and I can only score a sixty on the forgiveness test, what’s that say about the average Christian?  This story says we are sunk. No way can we forgive like we should. We are sunk.

Except for who the storyteller is. See, Jesus knows better than anyone what it means to be merciful. Jesus knows what it means to be so radically loving that he would forgive even if the offender is not sorry, even if the debtor to whom he has given so much has no intention of repaying him.

Think about that.

You just took out an enormous mortgage. You’re in debt up to your ears. You paid nothing down, and you haven’t the slightest hope of making even one full payment. You call the loan officer and tell her this, and she says, “Oh, well, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Just keep the house.” 
……… Excuse me. What?

That’s the kind of mercy we are given by God in Christ. Jesus knows what it means to keep your arms open, ready to embrace anyone who comes, even if they are broken and mean and unforgiving and clingy and scared and petty.

Jesus knows that we who have received that welcoming embrace are changed by it, and maybe a little less mean, a little more forgiving, a little bit stronger and braver, a little more willing to reach out in love…

… and maybe that’s what saves us all.

Maybe those of us who have received mercy will be more likely to give it, and the mathematics of grace become mercy multiplied, not just counting up to the top limit of how many times I have to forgive.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t do the math the way we do.
The good news is that Jesus even forgives our stubborn refusal to forgive others.
The good news is that even when we’ve squandered every last bit of our moral capital, and gone bankrupt on every promise to do better, and mortgaged away our kindness in trying to get ahead of the other guy, or spent our last pennies of energy trying to even the score with some horrid person, even then, Jesus stands there at the door, his arms open.

He asks for our ticket, our canceled mortgage, our personal forgiveness record,
our loan documents that are stamped, “PAID.” We don’t have that.
So we show him our terrible credit rating, our mangled ticket, 
punched only eleven or twelve times of forgiveness out of seventy seven, 
and he opens the gate and waves us through.

What can you possibly say about a God like that?

I’ll tell you what you say.
You say to your brother or sister, “I forgive you.”
You say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
You say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
You say, “Thank you. Thank you. I owe ya one, God.
I owe ya one life. My own.”
You answer that kind of grace with your life, and you live into the equation-
you live a life of mercy multiplied.