Sunday, January 29, 2017


Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
January 29, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

In our first reading, imagine that God has called a tribunal. The judges for this proceeding are the mountains and the hills, God’s very own creation. Those contending in this tribunal are God and mortals. The controversy is clear – God has not done anything to humans but free them and redeem them and save them and feed them. What is the fair compensation, then, than mortals should render unto God? Are we to bring burnt offerings of yearling calves? Or maybe God would be happier with an offering of thousands of rams and ten thousands rivers of oil? Does it come down to the sacrifice of our children? Will that offering satisfy God? The answer is perhaps not what you might expect, given the imbalance of the transaction. Let’s listen for what God asks of us in Micah 6: 1-8

1 Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the LORD has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 "O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the LORD."
6 "With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice,
and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our second reading comes from Matthew’s gospel,
a part of what is known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”
This section is commonly called the Beatitudes,
because it contains a list of those who are blessed.
There are quite a few preachers out there preaching
what is called the “Prosperity Gospel.”
They preach that if you just do the right thing, you’ll get God’s blessing.
They understand the Beatitudes kind of like this:

(dear readers, imagine this being read out loud in a TV announcer’s voice)

Good Morning, Lucky Christian!
Congratulations! You are today’s winner of the BEATITUDES SWEEPSTAKES!
You probably didn’t even realize you had entered, did you?
But you did, and YOU WIN!
Not only did you win, you get to choose your prize!
THAT’S RIGHT! God is rewarding you with a wonderful prize,
a gift to thank you for your faithfulness.
And there is a dazzling array of prizes from which you, Dear Christian, get to choose.
All you need to do is choose your BLESSING CATEGORY
You already knew that God wants you to be a winner,
to prosper and to be healthy, wealthy and happy, right?
SO - get ready to CLAIM YOUR BLESSING!
Okay! Are you ready?
Just choose the BLESSING you are going to CLAIM!
Choose whichever blessing you want from this list:
˜ The kingdom of heaven.
That’s right, the entire kingdom of heaven can be yours
if you just claim this blessing!
˜ To be comforted. Need to be comforted? A LOT? Claim this one.
˜ To inherit the earth. WOW! The whole earth! Yes! Claim it, it’s yours!
˜ To be filled. If you are feeling empty, this is definitely the blessing to claim.
˜ To receive mercy. You must really need it,
if you claim this over the entire kingdom of heaven
or inheriting the earth. But whatever - your claim, your blessing.
˜ To see God. WOWEE! Claim it. See GOD!
˜ To be called a child of God.
Claiming this one makes you officially a child of God.
˜ The kingdom of heaven, version 2.0.
Not interested in the first Kingdom of Heaven, listed above?
Claim this one, the updated version with all the newest features.
Did you make your choice? GREAT!
Now, here’s all you need to do to claim your prize.
Simply note the blessing you claimed, then,
complete the requirements for your prize.
That’s it - that’s all you need to do to CLAIM YOUR BLESSING!

Of course, God’s promises and blessings don’t exactly work like that.
The blessings in the Beatitudes are already given to us,
they are not prizes for completing certain requirements.
God’s grace comes as a free gift; it isn’t something we earn.
The Beatitudes are a description of how God’s beloved people are blessed.

Let’s read Jesus’ words of blessing and honor in Matthew 5:1-12
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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

The word means “blessing.”
It’s all blessing.

I don’t know what comes to mind when you hear the word blessed.
Some people think of blessing as a prize they claim –
“God’s going to bless me with a new house,
because I’ve claimed that promise!”
People say it a lot: “Too blessed to be stressed.”
“Bless his little heart.”
“You are such a blessing!”
I think of how often someone says “I was truly blessed.”
Sometimes what they go on to describe is exactly what I think of as a blessing –
a special moment of joy, an unexpected honor, a happy time with a loved one.
Other times, folks say they were truly blessed
and it turns out the blessing was a parking space in a crowded parking lot,
or they found a $20 bill in their coat pocket.

Nice for things to work out that way,
but not quite what Jesus had in mind.

The Greek word for blessing, we learned in Bible study,
is “makarios” and it means greatly honored, or favored.
Makarios is a word for blessing or honor that applies to people, not to God.
When the scriptures say “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name,” they do not use the word “makarios.”
So this honor or blessing isn’t given by humans to God,
but it can be given by God to humans,
and also by mortals to mortals.
Blessings are given, not claimed.

It’s also important to note that this section of the Sermon on the Mount
is not a list of things Christians ought to do
in order to get a blessing.
Many people may hear it that way,
and certainly many people think God works that way,
But that is not what the Bible tells us.
Rather than call the Prosperity Gospel a lie,
let’s just say that the so-called prosperity gospel
is an “alternative narrative”
to what the scriptures actually teach.

God does not demand burnt offerings,
or rivers of oil, or a thousand rams, or child sacrifice.
God is not looking for a specific type of offering;
God wants a specific type of person.[1]

God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

It’s the same kind of story with the beatitudes.
God is not hunting for those who are poor, meek and merciful,
in order to make them rich, bold and hardhearted.
Nor is God is hunting for those who are rich, bold and hardhearted
in an effort to force them into being poor, meek and merciful.
God does not call us to be the rich, the mighty, the bold and the beautiful.
However, God has, and has always had, a preferential option for the poor.
God’s special care extends to the grieving, the meek and the merciful.
God loves the peacemaker and God’s heart breaks for the persecuted.
These are the teachings that reflect the real truth of God’s grace.

So for us, the question is not “what do I need to do to be blessed?”
The question for us is more, “How am I blessed?”

We’re blessed, you know.
We’re blessed by all the bounty of love in our lives,
blessed by the simple gifts we have been given –
decent food, shelter, a caring community, faith, hope and love.
That’s an easy list to make.
And we’re blessed, too, by the less easy things;
the difficulties we face in life are part of the blessing.

No one has a life without difficulties.
And no one has a life completely devoid of blessings.
Some of our blessings are a matter of naming and receiving them.
Some of our blessings come because of what we need, what we hunger for.
It’s kind of like our hunger makes them taste better.
It’s like that first cup of coffee in the morning,
or the taste of ice cream on a hot day,
or cold water after a long hike.
Somehow the needing, the waiting, the wanting,
make them all taste so much better.

The same is true of true blessings.
We have to be willing to know our own emptiness
before we can know the satisfaction of these blessings.
If we are full of ourselves, satisfied with the status quo,
content with the world as it is,
happy to let others suffer as long as we ourselves are not suffering,
we lack the hunger and thirst for justice, for mercy for righteousness.
And we will not know the blessing of mercy and justice and peace,
because we never missed them in the first place.

If we are smug in our belief that we have all the right answers,
we’ll never know the blessing of discovery, of learning from others.
If we are satisfied to keep ourselves safe and sated and secure,
without caring for those who are frightened, hungry and displaced,
we will never know the blessing of caring for those whom God loves.
None of us would seek to be persecuted,
but if we were, God would help us see the blessing in it.

So are we blessed? Yes!
We are blessed in order that we may bless.
My friend Thom Shuman, whose liturgies so often enrich our worship,
wrote this in response to the Beatitudes:
blessed are the dog-walkers,
for they will discover the streets of the kingdom;
blessed are those who welcome refugees,
for they will embraced with unimaginable love;
blessed are those who read to children,
for they will plant seeds that bear fruit;
blessed are those who shelter the homeless,
for they will be shawled in God's grace;
blessed are those who stock food pantries,
for they will taste God's hope;
blessed are those who reach out to the outsiders,
for they shall be called bridge-builders;
blessed are the faith-full foolish,
for they shall be called the clowns of God.

Are we blessed? Yes!
And because we are blessed, we can bless others,
reaching out with God’s love to bless the world.
Thanks be to God.

[1] Tyler Mayfield

Monday, January 23, 2017

Leaving Our Nets

Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23
January 22, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is again from the book of the prophet Isaiah, this time one of the prophecies of the messiah. You recently heard this, if you were in church on Christmas Eve, but you heard even more verses than in this reading. Following the text you hear today comes the familiar “Unto us a child is born...a son is given…and his name shall be called “wonderful counselor, almighty God, everlasting father, the prince of peace. The promise is that in a time of struggle and anguish – captivity, brutality, hunger and poverty – in a time of deep darkness, God will send a savior. Let’s listen for God’s promise in Isaiah 9:1-4

1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.
In the former time he brought into contempt
the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea,
the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

The gospel reading for today is from Matthew’s gospel. If you were in church last week you heard from John’s gospel about Andrew and his brother Simon finding Jesus and following him. But each gospel tells its own stories, and in Matthew, Jesus finds Andrew and Simon, and calls them to follow. Jesus has been baptized in the River Jordan by John, has suffered forty days of temptation in the wilderness, and has now heard that John the Baptist has been arrested by HerodAntipas. What we know is that John the Baptist will be beheaded. Jesus does not yet know this. He leaves the area for Galilee, in the northern part of the country.

He goes to Capernaum, in the territory that was once called Zebulun and Naphtali, after the two sons of Jacob who were given that land when the twelve tribes received their allotments of land. The writer of Matthew is careful to make sure that we make the connection to the prophecy in Isaiah. Let’s listen for the good news in Matthew 4:12-23

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.
13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."

20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.

22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Zebulun and Naphtali.
You can’t go visit them.
They are not there anymore.

They weren’t there when Jesus walked the earth either, and they hadn’t been there for seven hundred years. Zebulun and Naphtali were sons of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Zebulun was the sixth and last son of Jacob and Leah; Naphtali was the son of Jacob and Rachel’s maidservant, Bilhah. They were also the names of regions held by two of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Zebulun and Naphtali, the tribal territories, were at the northern part of Israel, vulnerable to incursions from across the border. They were the first lands to be taken and annexed by the Assyrians, and the people were subsequently deported. At that point, Zebulun and Naphtali were no more.

Now, that same region around the Sea of Galilee was under Roman occupation, and it was there that Jesus went – he withdrew to the town of Capernaum. Just as the scene was grim in the time of Isaiah, so it was in the time of Jesus. It looked bleak for the people of the covenant. Occupied by empire, the people of Israel were oppressed. They were in poverty; their poverty contributed to many kinds of illness. Their freedom of movement was limited, they had no voice or power or influence. Some had chosen to collaborate with the Romans – to be what would come to be called quislings – those who decided their best course of action would be to turn on their fellow countrymen and trade their integrity for a good post, power, more money, better food or higher status.

The future looked bleak, as if it would be night forever,
and they would not again see the dawn break,
never again feel the warmth of peace,
never again see the light of God’s love shining in the darkness.

Zebulon and Naphtali.
You can’t go there anymore, but you know that place.
Maybe you yourself have been there,
or you know someone who has been there.[1]

It’s a desolate place, where violence is the norm,
and chaos and gloom fall on you like rain.
Dense fog and dismal days are the daily forecast.
In the distance, you hear the sound of tramping boots of armies on the move,
and nearby you hear the cries of children, hungry and hopeless.
Each morning brings a gnawing hunger,
and you give up looking for it to ever be different.

But God has other plans for Nazareth, for Judea, for the world, and for you.
The light will shine in the darkness,
and the mighty hand of God will break the yoke of oppression.
Famine and despair will evaporate in the light of the sun.
All the boots of the tramping warriors,
all the garments rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.
You know his name – wonderful, counselor, mighty God, prince of peace.
And now he has returned to his home country,
the forgotten and desolate place from which the light will shine.
You can hear his footsteps now, and his voice,
as he walks along the shores of the Sea of Galilee,
and his message echoes John the Baptist:
turn around! change direction! be transformed!
because the kingdom of God is here.

How could you do anything but follow, transfixed, fascinated?
Here is the light that shines in the darkness
and he is calling your name:
Come, follow me.
Come, follow me.

When you step out of the darkness into a bright light, you’re blinded for a moment, until your eyes adjust. Everything looks a bit blurry, or maybe that is tears of joy in your eyes. The promise is true – you can see that now!

The light is shining right here and now, and all you need to do is follow.
You’d leave your nets, leave your hometown,
leave your father and the boat and the family business.

If you’re a fisherman, you’ll now fish for people.
If you’re a banker, your savings will be the souls of the hopeless.
If you own a restaurant, you’ll feed God’s hungry people.
If you’re a singer, your song is love.
If you’re a musician, you only play joy now.
If you’re a teacher, your classroom is the world, and your subject is hope.

Your occupation is his occupation:
teaching in the synagogues,
proclaiming the good news of the kingdom,
curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Come follow me, he says.
And when you look into his eyes, you know that it is true.
You drop your nets – whatever they are.
And you go.
You just go.

[1] I am indebted to the work of John F.A. Sawyer, Isaiah, Westminster John Knox Press, 1984, for this concept.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Not Lacking

Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; John 1: 29-42
January 18, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is from the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of the prophet Isaiah. This section, like the scripture we heard last week from Isaiah, is a part of the text called “Servant Songs.” These prophetic promises have long been understood as pointing to the identity of the Messiah, the promised one who fulfills God’s covenant. But the servant songs can also be understood to be speaking to all of God’s servants – the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, and you and me. Let’s listen to God’s call to us in Isaiah 49:1-7:

1 Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The LORD called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
4 But I said, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing
and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD,
and my reward with my God."
5 And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength-
6 he says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
"Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel,
who has chosen you."

In our Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians, we hear Paul’s assurance to these early Christians that they are not only called to service, they are not lacking in any gift that they will need to perform that service. Paul’s message to the church of that time is no less meaningful to us, the church in this time.
Let’s listen to his words in I Corinthians 1: 4-9

4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God
that has been given you in Christ Jesus,
5 for in every way you have been enriched in him,
in speech and knowledge of every kind
6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you
7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
8 He will also strengthen you to the end,
so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 God is faithful; by him you were called
into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our Gospel reading comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, another look at the baptism of Jesus, this time from John’s point of view. In this account we see not only the baptism, but also the meaning of it – the identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who then begins to call people into service, to come and see, and who gives a new name to those whom he has called. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in John 1:29-42:

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
30 This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel."
32 And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" 39 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.
40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew,
Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him,
"We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed).
42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said,
"You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas"
(which is translated Peter).

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

Those of you who were here last Sunday had the joy and privilege of joining in the baptism of the Yemms' newest grandchild, welcoming young Everett into the Christian family. It was the Sunday in the lectionary called “Baptism of the Lord” and we heard the story of the baptism of Jesus from the gospel according to Matthew. We heard how he came to be baptized, and John hesitated – how, after all, could John baptize Jesus?

But Jesus was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and called him beloved. That text never fails to stir me – to make me consider how God’s Spirit names us as God’s beloved. No matter how often I hear it, I never tire of it, anymore than anyone would tire of being told they are truly loved. I don’t mean the kind of fake cheesy sentimental gushing that we sometimes see in silly songs and bad movies, even though there are probably some folks who bask in that sort of thing. No, I mean that deep satisfaction we feel when someone we love, someone important to us, name us “beloved.”

I think that many of us need to hear it more often because we have a hard time believing that we are lovable, let alone beloved. The writer Graham Greene said,
“It's a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love.”

We so often fail to recognize how loved we are by others, God included! Sometimes we find it unbelievable that we could be named “beloved” and be so deeply loved even by God.

There’s a lot of naming going on in this text from John. Not naming of the beloved by God, but a kind of christening by John as he names Jesus the “Lamb of God.” Then Andrew, who had been John’s disciple, runs to Jesus and names him Rabbi, which means teacher. When Andrew goes to get his brother Simon, he names Jesus also as Messiah, the anointed.And then Jesus himself gives a new name to Simon – Peter, which is the English translation of “petros” – a stone, or a rock.

There are lots of ways to understand those names - Jesus as lamb of God, a sacrifice, not just A lamb, but THE lamb. Jesus as the teacher, the messiah, the one anointed by God.And Simon, ever after known as Peter – the rock. Whether he was stubborn as a rock or solid as a rock, Simon is now Peter. Each person in this narrative is a person who is called, and who is called by name, just as we are.And because we are called, just like the prophet Isaiah promises, God is our strength, and it is God’s light that shines in us.

Because we are called, the Apostle Paul assures us, we are also equipped – in speech and knowledge of every kind. Because of God’s call, we are not lacking in any gift. But the voices in our heads tell us otherwise. The voices around us tell us otherwise. We are like the young man I described last week, who stood up to sing, hesitant, uncertain. When a woman encouraged him, what she told him was
“Just sing the song you know in your heart.”
But what she was really saying is: “You are loved. You can do this.”

Today as we ordain and install officers for the coming years, we know that there are some who may be hesitant, uncertain. Every one of us, when we are faced with the responsibility of leading, feels the weight of our own limitations. Every one of us, when we are asked whether we will serve in the church, hears the voices that tell us we are not competent, not good enough.

How can you sing the song in your heart, when your fourth grade music teacher told you to just move your lips, so as not to mess up the program?

How can you step up to lead God’s people in the congregation when you know you have fallen down on the job in the past?

How can you agree to be a servant leader when you don’t believe you have the gifts and skills to do it well?

Here’s how: because you are not lacking. Paul uses the plural you here – y’all! Y’all are not lacking any of the gifts you need to obey God’s call. The God who calls you also gives you – all y’all - every good gift that you need. The voice that names us as beloved is the same voice that calls us and leads us and guides us, the same voice that names us as disciples.

Sometimes, we hear that voice like Jesus did, the Spirit descending like a dove.
And sometimes, we need to hear it from the other disciples around us.

Years ago, a friend told this story about her friend Kathy. “Kathy had been participating in a spiritual retreat. During the final hour on the final day, each participant was invited to come to the center of the circle and declare out loud the “name” by which he or she was called, the name by which the Holy Spirit had anointed each one to do God’s work in the world. The exercise was going swimmingly until a certain young man stepped into the center and sat down.

The group waited.
They waited some more….. More silence.
Polite Protestant impatience began to express itself… 
creaking of chairs, clearing of throats, glances at watches, 
surreptitious counting of the ones 
who hadn’t yet been to the center of the circle.

The young man finally lifted his gaze …
‘I’ve prayed and looked for my name for three days. It isn’t there.’
That broke the polite silence in the room.
What does he mean, exactly… ‘The name isn’t there’?
‘It’s not that I didn’t want any of those names we talked about. But they aren’t strong enough,’ he confessed to the group. ‘They aren’t strong enough to undo the one I already have. My father gave it to me. Over and over again. My name is…’

He stopped and his gaze dropped back down to his hands.
Then he almost whispered. ‘My name is ‘Not Good Enough.’’

There was silence then, deep enough to drown in. Tears formed in many eyes. The group watched and listened, helplessly standing by on the shores of this man’s grief, this dangerous confession of inadequacy.

Then there was a stir and a handful of the retreat participants got up and circled the drowning man. An ancient tradition… the laying on of hands… then spontaneously took place, [like the one we will share soon when we ordain Diane, Emma and Wanda.]

One voice uttered the words, “You are my beloved son.
With you I am well pleased.”

Another voice joined in. A chorus of voices, male and female, arose, surrounding the young man, buoying him with love and affirmation. And in that moment, the group found themselves witnesses to a rebirth.”

Friends, it is in the voices of community that we hear God’s voice. John saw Jesus coming toward him and named him: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

The next day, he saw Jesus and said it again:
"Look, here is the Lamb of God!"

John’s own disciples heard the truth in his voice, and called Jesus “Rabbi,” and they followed Jesus. When he asked them, "What are you looking for?" They awkwardly answered with another question: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

He answered simply, “Come and see.”
He knew what they were looking for – it was him.
They had found the Anointed one, the Messiah.

And Jesus saw them, called them and named them.
And they knew that they were not lacking,
but they were beloved.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Water Clean, Water Holy

Baptism of Christ Sunday
Isaiah 42:5-9, Matthew 3: 13-17
January 8, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading today is from Isaiah, a part of one of the texts that are called “the servant songs.” These poetic passages are widely understood to be prophetic promises from God to God’s people – promises of comfort, of liberation, and of covenant. The God of the servant songs is the God whose spirit moved across the face of the deep in Genesis, the one who speaks and brings order out of chaos and whose covenant brings a future with hope, and a new vision for all of humankind. Let’s listen for God’s promise in this portion of the Servant Song in Isaiah 42:5-9

Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Our gospel reading today is from the Gospel According to Matthew, the assigned lectionary gospel for this year. The writer of Matthew was a Jewish Christian, probably in the area around Antioch, and he was interested in showing his readers a direct line from the prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. In Matthew’s gospel, there is no manger, nor shepherds. The only angels that show up do so in order to advise or warn people. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, and proceeds directly to the story of Joseph. Matthew gets Jesus born with great dispatch, brings in the magi, then shows us the Holy Family taking off for Egypt. An angel appears to advise them when it is safe to go back, and in the next chapter, we see John the Baptist at the river Jordan, and the adult Jesus, his cousin, coming to be baptized. Listen for God’s word for us in Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying,
"I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, 
suddenly the heavens were opened to him 
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said,
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

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

As a Presbyterian pastor, I get to be involved in a lot of wonderful events. And there’s hardly anything more wonderful than baptizing a baby. It’s always such a sweet moment, that moment when the parents give me their child to hold. And when I look into that baby’s eyes, it’s like looking into the ocean, or the night sky – something so grace-filled, and eternal. And then I get to see the looks on your faces, when I walk the baby around the sanctuary, introducing you to your new little brother or sister. In those moments, I think, “I have the best job ever!”

In that moment, we can almost see all the moments –the baby, the toddler, the child, the teenager, the young adult. It’s like time collapses, and we feel connected with past, present and future. Whether we have the delight and responsibility of seeing that child raised in our midst, worshiping with us, or whether our covenant promises, made on behalf of the whole church, must be kept by other congregations in other places, we name each child, “Beloved.”

In the covenant of baptism, we connect with this child, and with the whole church. We make a sacred covenant with this child, and with this family, that we will nurture them and support them and love them. And as our children grow, we remember that covenant. We remember it when they are adorable, which is most of the time, right? And we remember it when they are not so adorable. We remember it when they are kicking the pew in front of them, and when they are rolling their eyes at us as we try to herd them into church. We remember it when they lead in worship, reading scripture, and when they stand in front of us for recognition of their graduation. Because every person we baptize, every child of God, is part of our baptismal covenant.

Just as God promised a covenant, we promise to be keepers of that covenant with one another. Just as God’s Spirit, descending like a dove, named Jesus as the beloved, we name each child of God as beloved.

You know, each year when we hear this story of the baptism of Jesus, I always like to tell a baptism story. But it turns out, I’ve told you all my good baptism stories, and apparently they’re pretty memorable. So I can’t do re-runs.

So the story I want to share with you today is not about baptism per se. It is about this covenant, the covenant we make in the water clean and holy. Ginny McDaniel is a minister in the UCC, at the First Congregational Church of Granby, Connecticut. She shared this story with a clergy group.

Many years ago, Ginny says, she attended a gospel music service. “Part way through the program a young man came forward to sing a solo. He was clearly nervous, and missed his entrance, so the pianist had to begin over. There were reassuring and understanding murmurs and the young man began to sing, though his voice was still shaky and hesitant.

Then, a few rows away, a woman stood and said loudly,
“Just sing it out, son. Sing out what you know in your heart!”

And the young man smiled a shy smile and began to sing louder and more confidently.
And all the time he was singing, the woman who called out to him 
beamed him the most radiant and loving smile imaginable.

As a mother, Ginny said, my own heart went out to both of them at this extraordinary expression of love, both given and received. After the program, I went up to the woman
to tell her how well her son had done. She looked at me quizzically, and then replied,
“Why I never even met that boy before!
I just wanted him to know how much God loves him!”[1]

Friends, this is our baptismal covenant –
this is what makes us the body of Christ.
Our God, who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth, who gives breath to the people …
God has called us in righteousness,
God takes us by the hand and keeps us.

The Spirit descends like a dove.
Its wings unfurl, fluttering in the bright sun,
drops of water shimmer, glittering like grace.

In the still air, you hear the river flowing.
In the still air, you hear the water pouring out its promises.
To make us clean.
To make us holy.

This is the covenant we keep.
As the water trickles down on our foreheads,
the wings brush our faces, and the words burst through the water:

You are beloved.
Sing what you know in your heart!
You are beloved.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Ginny McDaniel “Defining Moments” Sermon from 2013