Sunday, April 30, 2017

People of the Way

Luke 24:13-35
April 30, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

The Easter season continues with another post-resurrection story. This story comes from Luke’s gospel, and was probably written around the year 80, for the communities of faith that had formed around the stories of Jesus, the risen Lord. They are house churches, gatherings that meet on the first day of the week, to eat a meal together, to sing and pray and read the scriptures. Some are well-off, most are not; they are Jews and Gentiles, men and women. They did not see the risen Lord face to face, but Luke’s gospel, and this beautifully written story in particular, shows them – and us-- how they can encounter Jesus. Let’s listen for the good news of the gospel in Luke 24:13-35:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"
They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?"
He asked them, "What things?"

They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him."

Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying,

"Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over."
So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.
They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!"
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

It’s such a simple, elegant story – fewer than 500 words.
A straightforward tale of two nobodies on the road to nowhere.
Two people, one unnamed, walking along the way,
leaving Jerusalem on the first day of the week,
three days after Jesus was crucified.

They knew who Jesus was; he was the source of their hope.
But their hope had died when he died.
What was there to do but leave Jerusalem and go to Emmaus?

Their voices were low as they talked, muted by grief.
As they walked along the road,
they were joined on the way by a third traveler, a stranger.
“What are you discussing?” he wanted to know.
What’s the subject of such intense conversation?
They stood still, looking sad.

You can almost feel the heartbreak in that silence.
You know what it’s like, that moment when your grief
is interrupted by a question – what is it? what’s wrong?
They must have been surprised – that’s how they sound –
“Are you the only one who doesn’t know?”

So they told the stranger what had happened, what had caused their sorrow.
We had hoped, they said…we had hoped.

“How foolish you are…how slow of heart!” And then, as they walked along the way, the three of them, Jesus opened the word to them, interpreting the scriptures.
Then Jesus was going on, but they prevailed on him to stay.
"Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over."
So he went in to stay with them.

You know the rest of the story, don’t you?

How when he was at the table with them,
he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;
and he vanished from their sight. 

But they had seen him – they had seen him! 
The broken hearted, the slow of heart, 
the ones who could not see him, 
their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. 
Of course they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

It’s such a simple, elegant story – fewer than 500 words.
A straightforward tale of two nobodies on the road to nowhere.
Two people, one Cleopas, the other – who knows?—
walking along the way on the first day of the week.

To have heard this story for the first time – back in the first century –
what an experience that must have been!

There must have been some in the community who actually had seen him –
who had met Jesus, and talked to him, heard him preach.
Maybe there was someone who had been healed by him, blessed by him.
Perhaps there was someone there whose mother had carried them to Jesus,
who’d been taken in the savior’s arms, and held on his lap.
So they gathered with the others, on the first day of the week,
like Cleopas and his companion,
to share in the breaking of the bread, the prayers, and scripture.
They gathered with the expectation of meeting the risen Lord.

They were called “the People of the Way,” –
the way of Jesus, the crucified one, who rose from the dead.
It’s what we were, before we began to be called Christians –
people of the way – people who have hope.
See, that’s how it happens, when people meet Jesus on the road.

You know the story.

They had hoped, but they had not seen him,
so they walked along the road, their steps heavy with sadness.
They had hoped – they had hoped for things to be different –
for the promotion that was promised,
for the marriage to work,
for the addiction to be conquered,
for the diagnosis to be wrong,
for the prognosis to be better,
for the promise to be kept,
for the love to be returned.

They were broken hearted, and they stopped, looking sad,
when he came alongside them and asked them what was on their minds.

They were searching, fleeing that city of empire and death,
trying to go back home again,
thinking they’d be safe if they could just get away,
thinking things might make sense if they could only have some distance.
But home would never be the same,
and only Jesus could make sense of things for them.

It was the first day of the week,
and they were together, and they asked the stranger to stay,
to eat with them, and the scriptures were read and interpreted,
and then the table was set, and the bread was there,
and he took it and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them
and their eyes were opened,
and their hearts were broken open.

In their small act of hospitality, they opened the door to grace.
In their willingness to welcome the stranger, they met the Risen Lord.
In the simple gift of bread, they received the hope of new life.
And in the moment of recognition, they knew – they knew –
that they had to hurry back to the city –
to tell the others,
to share the good news:
our eyes have been opened!

It’s such a simple, elegant story – fewer than 500 words.
A straightforward tale of two nobodies on the road to nowhere.
Two people, one Cleopas, the other – maybe you?
Because now you know the way.

It’s a door we open by sharing in the prayers and the fellowship.
It’s a recognition that comes in the breaking of the bread.
We encounter the Risen Lord, and walk in his way.
It’s a way we make by walking,
walking together.
Not away from the trouble, away from the mess,
but into city, back to the struggle, back to the community.
All along that way our eyes are opened,
and when our eyes are opened we realize
that our work has new meaning,
that Jesus is present even in our pain,
that our relationships can be transformed,
that healing involves something more than a cure,
that God’s promises are certain,
and God’s love never fails.
We are people of the way – following in the way of Christ,
a bunch of nobodies on the way to nowhere.
It looks like a dusty road away from the city,
but it turns out that it takes you right back
to the heart of everything.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Blessing of Doubt

John 20:19-31
April 23, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As the Easter season continues, the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances continue. These stories have been told so many times that many of them can be referred to by a single word or phrase to identify them. This story, from John’s gospel, has come to be known as the story of “Doubting Thomas.”

Apparently, Thomas got stuck with that label sometime back in the 1600s and he hasn’t really escaped it yet. It’s a shame that he got that nickname, because it is really very unfair. If we can attune our hearts to listen, we can hear a powerful message of faith and trust in this story of Thomas.

Let’s listen for God’s good news for us in John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Yesterday, all across our country, people marched for science.
Next week, in Washington DC, people will march for the climate.
If Thomas the Apostle were alive today, I think he would be marching with them. Maybe most of the disciples who followed Jesus would be there, too. Probably not Peter – he was the denier in the group! (Just kidding.)

If you think about science as a method, a form of learning, then questions and doubt are essential to that enterprise. After all, how does the scientific method work?

(Kids, listen for a minute – if you haven’t had this in school yet, you will, and if you’ve already had it, it is good review.) The scientific method is a five (well, six) step process.
1. First, make an observation. That means noticing something that seems interesting, or intriguing. Perhaps you notice that every Spring, the tulips bloom at different times.
2. Second, ask a question. If you see something that causes you to wonder, what questions arise for you about that observation? Why don’t the tulips bloom in the same week of the year each year? Could it be the temperature? Of the soil, or the air? Or some other factor?
3. Third, form a hypothesis, or testable explanation. Once you have a question in mind, state that question in a way that you can research to find an answer. What soil temperature is needed for the majority of tulips to bloom?
4. Step four, make a prediction based on the hypothesis. What do you think the answer or answers to your question might be? The average tulip blooms when the soil temperature reaches x degrees.
5. Fifth, you test the prediction. This is the actual scientific investigation – observe the tulip bulbs, maybe in the lab and the garden. Note the soil temperature at the same time or times each day. Notice when the tulips bloom. Record your results.
6. And there is a sixth step: iteration – repeat the steps! But use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

If we did this with tulips blooming in the spring, we’d learn that there is a genetic factor called Apetala 1 that functions like a switch, to make the flowers bloom. And we’d learn that the progression of warmer winters has changed how and when the flowers bloom, altering their patterns and the possibility of pollination, because the bees are flying before the flowers have bloomed.[1]

Then we would see a new pattern, and there would be new questions. One Orthodox priest describes the process like this:
“When scientists gather facts, they are at first uncoordinated.
Then the scientist gathers them together, and some kind of general picture emerges.
It seems integral. At this point, if [she or] he is a true scientist, they will pose a question to themselves: where are the cracks? I will search for a fact that will dismantle the integrity of my conception, since my conception is limited.”

This is the example set by Thomas. He has collected the facts before him, and is looking carefully at them. But his collection of facts, the whole collection, is not adequate. The whole is greater than the sum of all Thomas’s facts: it is deeper and broader and fuller than anyone can imagine.

Thomas only gets a mention in the other gospels, when Jesus calls him. But in John’s gospel, Thomas appears several times in crucial moments. His first starring role is in the 11th chapter of John, when Jesus gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is ill. But he doesn’t hurry back to Bethany where Lazarus lives. Even though he loves Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus delays his return for two more days. By then, Lazarus has died. Here’s what the gospel tells us:

“Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

And in one of those typical Johannine dialogues, Jesus answers in poetry:
“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

The disciples don’t get it, of course, but then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.
For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

Jesus is making the journey back to Bethany, to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus is returning to Bethany, where he is in danger, so that the disciples will believe.
The rest of the disciples are worried – they tried to stone you, Lord. 
(And they might do it – and they might stone us too!)
But Thomas doesn’t waver, doesn’t protest. 
He simply said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 
That’s Thomas.

The second place we see Thomas prior to this story is in John 14, the beginning of what is known as the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. You’ve heard this scripture many times if you have been to funerals.

Jesus said to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Do you see the pattern here? Thomas is not afraid to follow, AND he is not afraid to ask questions. Thomas, like a scientist of faith, collects the truths, arranges them into some kind of pattern, then asks questions about what he is seeing. When he does this, a new picture emerges, one he hadn’t seen before. It is deeper, broader, fuller, and more mysterious.

The same is true with each of us: we begin with our experience, and, imperfect though it may be, it is real for us. Then we begin to wonder – is my concept of God the truth?
Is this a reality, or just something somebody made up?

Our questions like that are a gift, a blessing, because they show us that we’ve outgrown our first understanding, and they show us that our knowledge is imperfect, that we need to learn and experience more, ask more questions. I’m very fond of the quote from St. Augustine of Hippo on this subject: “So what are we to say, brothers, about God? For if you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn’t God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God.” So as soon as we think we have the matter settled, we may trust that we are mistaken! 

That, too, is the blessing of doubt! But this questioning, this doubt that leads to investigation which only leads to more questions, this is not a methodology to dodge the demands that Jesus places on us! Kierkegaard has the answer for that one!

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? 
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?
Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.
Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”[2]

Jesus appears to the disciples, on the day of his resurrection. He comes into a locked room where they are hiding, and shows them his wounds, and gives them his peace, the peace he had promised them in his farewell discourse. He had died, and now he is back, alive, on the third day, just as he had told them.

Why wasn’t Thomas there?
Perhaps he was the only one with the courage to leave their hiding place. In any case, when Thomas returned, and Jesus returned, Thomas had questions, just as Peter and the other disciple had questioned Mary Magdalene a week earlier at the empty tomb. Thomas wanted to see, to experience for himself what they told him. 
Could it be true?
Could he really believe it?

Jesus returned, and stood in front of Thomas – “Touch my wounds,” he offered. But there is no indication that Thomas did so. He simply breathed the powerful affirmation of faith that comes from the intersection of faith and doubt, question and answer: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answers: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Then, as if the fourth wall is broken, the writer of John’s gospel turns to us, the narrator breaking into the narrative:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Here is the choice:
We can close our hearts and minds to any investigations or discussions, insisting that no doubts are allowed, that we will not entertain any questions, that we are certain of our absolute understanding of the truth. And if we do we foreclose on the possibility of greater faith; we concede that our belief is so tenuous that the least little jostling will knock it down, like a badly built brick wall.

Or we can wonder, and look around the world, and ask our questions. If we do we will find that our faith is flexible, and strong, like a trampoline that will lift us up into higher and more joyful places, and we won’t be afraid to jump, or to ask our questions.

Here is the blessing – if we are willing to receive it. We find it at the intersection of seeing and believing, the crossroads of questions and answers, the meeting point of doubt and faith. We will return to this crossroad many times in our lives, if we are attentive and willing. Each time, we may experience something new, something deeper, higher, broader, than we have known before.

We will ask questions of that new experience, perhaps forming a new hypothesis which will lead us deeper into faith, perhaps finding a new pattern we had not yet seen.

Then we can join our voices, with all our doubts and questions, along the words of 1 Peter 1: 8-9:
“Although you have not seen him,
you love him; and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.”

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."



Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seeing What Is Not There

John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

In Sunday School last week, I cued up the video about Holy Week and Easter for the children to watch. One of the little boys said, “Every Easter, it’s the same story!”

Yep, he is right. Each of the four gospels gives an account of the empty tomb. In each of them, the particular theological emphasis of the gospel is demonstrated in how that first Easter morning is described. All four agree that it was the first day of the week. Matthew includes an earthquake, and guards fainting in fear. In Mark’s gospel, the women encounter an angel sitting in the open tomb. In Luke’s account, the women also encounter an angel who says, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

But in John’s gospel, the burial place is in a garden. It is early morning, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone. And only in John’s gospel does Jesus himself appear. Let’s listen for God’s good news for us this Easter morning in John 20:1-18:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.
But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

As we think about Mary Magdalene, I think it is important to start out by saying that she was not a prostitute. She was unfairly described so by mistake a few hundred years ago. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. She loved him, and followed him, and was probably a patron who supported his ministry.

Mary Magdalene didn’t go to the tomb to see Jesus. She was not expecting to see Jesus.
She was perhaps thinking she would see his dead body, his pierced hands and feet, his bruised forehead, the flayed flesh of his back, where he had been whipped. She was perhaps thinking that she would find him there, wrapped in the grave cloths stained with blood, and she would lovingly tend to him.

Perhaps she was expecting to see that his body had been carried away, taken from this garden, from within this borrowed tomb. But she knew that he was dead, because she had been standing there, at the foot of the cross, with his mother, when he breathed his last.“It is finished,” he’d said. And then he had died.

Perhaps she only came to sit near the tomb, to weep, to sit in silence in the early morning in the garden, to pray, to remember. But she was not expecting to see Jesus himself.

Have you ever had that happen? -- not seeing what is right in front of you?
You know, you’re looking at something, but you can’t see it?

Some women say it is particularly common in children and husbands.
“Where’s the pickle relish?”
“In the fridge on the middle shelf, left side, right by the lunchmeat.”
“It’s not here.”
Exasperated sigh, as the mom/wife comes into the kitchen, where you are bent over peering at the middle shelf. She reaches right in front of you, picks up the pickle relish, gives you that look, and hands it to you.
“I didn’t see it!” you say, to her retreating back.

It happens to all of us – we don’t see what’s right in front of us. Interestingly, we also see what is not there. When we look at a picture or word that is incomplete, our brains fill in the blanks with the lines or colors.[1] Sometimes, a simple verbal cue can help us see what is there, even when the hint comes after the fleeting image!

I think that the gospel of John’s account of the empty tomb may be my favorite of the four. Each one has its interesting details, and its own theological slant. But this one, with Mary of Magdala alone at the tomb, there in the early morning twilight, just pierces my heart.

I think of her walking through the grass, wet with dew, in the gray dawn, heartbroken, coming to the tomb, alone. There’s something kind of holy about the early morning. The air seems crisp and clear; the birdsong seems brighter; there’s a stillness that makes you look around, and listen. I’m not an early riser, myself, so I’m rarely outside before dawn, unless it is for our monthly Men’s Prayer Breakfast. This past week at the Men’s Prayer Breakfast, the conversation turned to cemeteries.

We read this scripture from John’s gospels, and I was struck once again by this visit Mary made to the tomb. There are lots of very small cemeteries around here. Many of those cemeteries are overgrown and neglected, with grave stones toppled, weeds and grass waist high, fences down. But just as many are lovingly tended and cared for – like gardens - the gravestones upright, the grass cut, flowers along the fence row. W en you go to a cemetery, no matter what time of day it is, you have an expectation of what you will see there.

Most of us, when we are in a cemetery, know what we’re looking for. We look for familiar names on gravestones, or a particular grave. Lots of people are looking for ancestors, doing genealogical research.

I wonder what we are looking for when we come to Jesus’ tomb this bright Easter morning. I wonder what we do not see, even though it is right in front of us. I wonder what we see that is not there, because we have been primed, given some kind of hint or cue of what we ought to see, or hope to see.

Mary came to the garden in grief, expecting to see a dead body.
So when Jesus stood in front of her, she saw a gardener.
But it was not a gardener. It was Jesus. “Who are you looking for?” he asked her.
Jesus asked the same question in the first chapter of John’s gospel, when the first two disciples saw him. “What are you looking for?” he wanted to know.
"Rabbi!” they answered, and they followed him.
“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked Mary Magdalene.
Mary still saw the gardener.
Pleading with him, she begged him to tell her where the body was.
And then he spoke her name.
Jesus spoke her name and she answered, “Rabbi!”
Right in front of Mary Magdalene stood her risen Lord.
She was alone with him, there in the garden.
He walked with her, and he talked with her.
And then he told her to go, to go and tell the others.

Who are you looking for?

Every one of us comes to an Easter moment, when we have the opportunity to see what is not there: we may be expecting to find loss, sorrow, death and decay, but the body of Jesus is not in the tomb. Perhaps we expect to see judgment, or punishment. We might be expecting to see the long list of good deeds we must do. Maybe the realization comes slowly, rising like the bright morning sun. Maybe it comes in prayer, after long hours of struggle.

And then - we see what is not there:
What is not there is shame.
What is not there is isolation.
What is not there is manipulation, greed, empire.
What is not there is death.

Every one of us comes to an Easter moment, when can finally see what is right in front of us. We see, like Mary, that Jesus has been right there, right in front of us, all along – offering life and hope and joy. We stoop over and see the grave cloths, where he left them. The morning sun shines brightly in our eyes.

And then - we see what is right there:
What is there is grace.
What is there is community.
What is there is generosity, hope, patience.
What is there is life.

When that stone rolls from our hearts and the light of Easter dawns, we can, at last, see what is not there, and what is there. The “the old questions lie folded and in a place by themselves, like the piled graveclothes of love’s risen body.”[2]

Our Risen Lord is right in front of us – in this world,
at this table, in the bread that gives us life,
in the cup of mercy poured out,
in the love that never dies, but is always there
– for you, for me, for the world.

[1]“The Brain Doesn’t Like Visual Gaps and Fills Them In.” Vanderbilt University.

[2] From the poem, “The Answer” by R. S. Thomas, Anglican priest and poet.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

When to Be Glad

Isaiah 53: 3-5, Matthew 5: 1-2, Matthew 5: 11-12
April 2, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first scripture reading today is from the prophet Isaiah, a section of the text known as the description of the suffering servant, a prophecy of one who is to come. This coming one would be rejected – not a hero, not highly honored, not esteemed. But he would be the one who would take on not only his own suffering, but ours as well. Listen for God’s word to you in Isaiah 53: 3-5:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

Our gospel reading is again from the gospel of Matthew, as we hear the last of the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes. You’ve heard already the shift in focus – suddenly now, these blessings are not about some other people, but about you – the disciples.

Let’s listen for the blessing of Jesus in Matthew 5: 11-12.
Blessed are you when people revile you
and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Blessed are you – happy, greatly honored,
when you are reviled and persecuted for Jesus’ sake.
Rejoice! Be happy about that!

Blessed are you – happy, greatly honored,
when you are slandered for your faith.
Rejoice! Be happy about that!

Let that sink in for a little bit.

Rejoice and be glad when you are victimized in the name of Jesus.

This idea is so far from our reality that we can’t even wrap our heads around it. We don’t, most of us, have any actual experience of persecution. I want to talk for a moment about persecution. Here’s some info from someone who knows what he is talking about:

“There is very real persecution of Christians across the globe. In North Korea, Christians can be executed for gathering together for worship. In Iraq, Christians can be prey for terrorist groups that kill anyone who does not bow down to their particular version of Islam. In February of 2015, 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded simply because they were Christian. Reports indicate that many of them called on the name of Jesus just before they were viciously murdered. Persecution watchdog group, Open Doors, has identified fifty of the most dangerous places in the world for Christianity in which believers suffer a range of tribulations from “severe” persecution to “sparse” persecution. The United States is not on the list.”

So for any of us who have ever felt uncomfortable when our faith is challenged, and I include myself in that, we are not being persecuted. Not even sparsely! That same writer says that American Christians claiming they are persecuted is:“embarrassing .., because it would appear that you can’t even endure what essentially amounts to someone no longer being the popular girl in school.”[1]

Granted, there was a time in this nation’s history when it was much, much easier to be a disciple of Jesus. We were the norm – we Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans.
Being a church-going Christian was the done thing, the respectable thing.
We were the majority.
Nothing wrong with that.

But it is important to remember that during that time, black people in American couldn’t use the same water fountains as whites.
Schools were segregated.
Neighborhoods were redlined.
Discrimination was rampant and blatant racism was tolerated.
And much of that discrimination and tolerance of (or participation in) racism
was done by white Christian Americans.

We’re not proud of it.
But it happened.

When public school desegregation began, white people started private schools. Most of the white Christian segregationists claimed religion as their motive, but in reality, it was not religion, but race. White Christians made all sorts of claims about integration, Jerry Falwell started Lynchburg Christian Academy when his town’s public schools integrated. Surely we see how wrong that is.

Should black Christians have said, “rejoice and be glad?”
Of course not.

Should white Christians have stood up for them?
Of course they should have.

But many did not.
Because they were afraid – afraid of being outcasts themselves,
afraid of being persecuted, afraid of being slandered.

You heard in the children’s time the story of Ruby Bridges. Like you, she is a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary:
her father lost his job,
the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there,
and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land.

Ms. Bridges has noted that many others in the community, both black and white, showed support in a variety of ways. Some white children were sent to Frantz Elementary despite the protests, a neighbor provided her father with a new job, and local people babysat, watched the house as protectors, and walked behind the federal marshals' car on the trips to school.

In 2014, a statue of Bridges was unveiled in the courtyard of William Frantz Elementary School.[2] She is now chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999 to promote "the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences". She says, "racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it."

Ruby Bridges is still a follower of Christ, and still talking about forgiveness. She gave a speech a few years ago, in which she addressed racism, and in which she describes the process of forgiving the man who murdered her son. The faith she learned as a child still sustains her.

For most of us, the risk of persecution is very, very small.
For most of us, the challenge is not standing up to persecution,
but in standing up for the persecuted.

It’s much easier to remain silent, to turn away, to ignore it all.
Because speaking out, getting involved, paying attention
may mean that we will catch some heat from other people.
And if that happens, rejoice and be glad!

If we stand against community norms,
we may feel the disapproval and displeasure of our neighbors.
Rejoice, and be glad!

If we are imprisoned, or rejected, if we alienate other Christians,
if we seem strange or if we are told we are meddling,
rejoice, and be glad!

If we are mocked and belittled for our hope in Christ,
and for living out our call as disciples by caring for the needy,
speaking out for the marginalized,
feeding the hungry,
welcoming those who are different,
what should we do?

Rejoice and be glad!

It’s true, what Margaret Aymer says:
“We live in fear of the implications of living into the Beatitudes.”[3]

But what is also true is that the promise of the beatitudes is not only persecution and slander and embarrassment and criticism. The promise of the Beatitudes, the promise of Jesus,
is the outrageous joy,
the illogical hope,
the ridiculous peace
that comes with being sons and daughters of God.

With disciples of ages past,
we too follow the way of Christ,
honoring those who are destitute, weeping, humbled,
and famished for food and justice;
patterning our lives after those who are merciful,
those who walk with integrity,
those who make peace;
and living into the outrageous joy
that comes from the promise of the dominion of God, now and in the age to come

Friends, we are blessed!
Rejoice and be glad,
for the kingdom of God is at hand.

Rejoice and be glad,
for Christ has come and is present and will return.

Rejoice and be glad,
for we are disciples,
and we are invited, again and again and again,
to come to the table of blessing,
to come and sit and feast
in the presence of God.


[1] Benjamin Dixon, Patheos,
[3] Aymer, Margaret, Horizons Bible Study 2011 Confessing the Beatitudes

The Peace of Christ

John 14:27, Matthew 5:1-2, 9-10
March 26, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we continue in our study of the Beatitudes for Lent in this Table of Blessing series, we come to the famous verse in which Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Much ink has been spilled in an effort to unpack this verse, but perhaps one way to start our exploration is with some other words of Jesus, the words from John 14, a section of that gospel known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” Jesus is preparing himself, and his disciples, for their eventual separation. Let’s listen to his words about peace for them, and for us, in John 14:27.

[Jesus said to his disciples] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

As we continue in the beatitudes, we hear not only that famous blessing of peacemakers, but also a blessing of those who may be suffering. Listen for the blessing of Jesus in Matthew 5: 1-2, 9-10

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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

Usually when I want to preach on something like peace and peacemaking, I do a little word study on that word. I look at different translations and versions of the Bible, to see how the word is translated in their various theological perspectives. (You do know, I hope, that different translations of the scripture come from different theological positions?) I spend some time looking up the Greek and Hebrew, the dictionary definitions and various common usages of the word – you know the sort of thing.

And that’s what I was going to do this week, with a little sidetrack about the “Pax Romana,” the much touted era of peace in the Roman Empire which was maintained at the point of a sword and the application of violence.

But something caught my eye this week that shifted my focus. As you know, I subscribe to a number of periodicals and journals that come from a range of perspectives, including those from evangelical, theologically conservative, non-reformed, and mega-church points of view. I think it’s useful and helpful for us to hear a variety of voices so that we can faithfully consider our own perspectives. Usually, I don’t find those interpretations terribly surprising, nor all that different from the New Revised Standard Version that we use. But my email inbox this week contained an article from one of those magazines titled “3 Famous Bible Verses We Misinterpret.”

One of the verses was Jeremiah 29:11, a familiar verse to many. It’s from the prophet’s letter to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to build houses, plant gardens, and seek the welfare of the city. In our NRSV Bible, that verse reads:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Nice, yes? A hopeful promise.

But the New International Version of the Bible translates that verse:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”

The difference between a plan for your welfare
and a plan for your prosperity is, I think, significant.
Welfare, minus our modern usage, implies well-being, security.
Prosperity implies flourishing, making money, getting on, profiting.

The Hebrew word in that verse is not welfare, not prosperity.
It is “shalom,” the word for peace, for wholeness, for completeness.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, here’s Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the thoughts that I think about you, says the Lord,
thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

So what about that word, that word Jesus uses, peacemaker? It isn’t in Hebrew, of course – it is in Greek, like the rest of the New Testament. In Greek it is “εἰρηνοποιοί” – eirenopoioi – literally, peacemaker. It’s a compound word of poioi- making, and eirene, peace. Here’s what’s fascinating – that word “eirene” comes from a root word that means “wholeness,” or completeness.

Like shalom.

One Jewish scholar describes shalom as “most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace.”[1]

Its equivalent word in Greek is eirene – peace, completeness. That includes an absence of war or conflict, but shalom is so much more than that! The Jewish commentary on shalom is complex:

“The Sages went to great lengths in their praise of peace, to the point of viewing it as a meta‑value, the summit of all other values, with the possible exception of justice. Peace was the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah: ‘All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace’…Shalom is the name of the Holy One, the name of Israel, and the name of the Messiah, yet the name of God may be blotted out in water for the sake of peace…[But there are] competing values, with peace, situations in which different norms might conflict with one another.

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha taught that “peace was opposed to justice.”
He said “where there is strict justice there is no peace,
and where there is peace there is no strict justice,”
But the instruction is always to let peace temper justice.
To seek shalom.

To be an “eirenepoiois” is to be one who seeks God’s shalom, God’s wholeness for all of the cosmos. And it may also mean that the one who seeks peace is the one who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness. There is a price to be paid for this blessing of peacemaking. Certainly we can think of pacifists who have paid dearly for their commitment to peacemaking and non-violence. Certainly, Jesus paid the price of a non-violent stance for justice.

We Christians, most of us, are not true pacifists, nor in much danger of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Every now and then you hear about someone who claims to be a victim of persecution for their religious stance, but the reality is that, at least in this country, that is an extremely rare occurrence.

It is not persecution to be expected to follow the laws of the land.
It is not persecution to be expected to honor all people.
It is not persecution to be prohibited from imposing your convictions,
no matter how right you may think they are,
on everyone else in the country.
It is not persecution to be prevented from discrimination.
None of those circumstances prohibit a person from practicing their faith.

But it is challenging, to live as one of those blessed like Jesus describes. Living as peacemakers, is difficult. It goes against our nature, to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to bless them that curse us, to go the extra mile.

But to be a peacemaker is to be blessed.
To be happy.

This is both comfort and challenge.
The comfort is the assurance that we have been given this peace.
The challenge is that we are called to be peacemakers,
not simply passive recipients of the “peace that passes understanding.”

Margaret Aymer, in her Bible study on the Beatitudes[2], sums it up.
“…We are called to a cessation of violence against one another,
and … we are called to work for the cessation of all violence.
Making peace also means that we provide
for the needs of our brothers and sisters,
working for the wholeness and well-being of all our neighbors.
When we grasp the fullness of what peace,
what shalom, can mean,
we begin to see how Jesus’ seventh beatitude fits with the others,
for shalom-makers alleviate the needs of the poor
and the poor in spirit, materially and systemically.
Shalom-makers comfort those who mourn,
individually and within the community.
Shalom-makers stand with, and empower the humbled.
Shalom-makers feed those who hunger,
and quench the thirst of those parched for justice.
Shalom-makers are merciful.
Shalom-makers live with integrity.
In short, to be a peacemaker, a shalom-maker,
is to live into the heart of the Beatitudes.”

Friends, Jesus left us his peace:
not the Pax Romana, not the peace imposed and the end of gun,
but the blessing of completeness, tranquility, security
– not the world’s peace,
but the true wholeness of God’s shalom.

At this table of blessing, we receive the bread of peace – to strengthen us in answering God’s call. This table is set for you – plural – not simply for each of you individually, but for all of us together, as one body. To come together and to break bread and share the cup is to participate in the sign and seal of God’s shalom, God’s completeness, and wholeness. or at this Table of Blessing we are made one.

Come, you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Come to the table of blessing.
Come to the table of peace.

[1] Ravitzky, Aviezer. “Shalom” at My Jewish Learning.

[2] Aymer, Margaret, Horizons Bible Study, 2011, Confessing the Beatitudes

Pure in Heart

Psalm 24:1-5, Matthew 5: 1-2, 7-8
March 19, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

In this week’s selection from the Beatitudes, Jesus makes a shift in his sermon focus. Up to now he has focused on the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, calling them “greatly honored.” Now he focuses his words of blessing on the merciful and the pure in heart. Once again, he quotes directly from the Psalms, and uses a term that is infrequently used in the Scriptures – the “pure in heart.” The first scriptural mention of the pure hearted is in Psalm 24. Let’s listen for the promise of God’s realm in Psalm 24: 1-5:

The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.

We return to the fifth chapter of Matthew now,
to these blessings from the Sermon on the Mount.
Listen for the blessing of God’s word to you in Matthew 5: 1-2, 7-8:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

You probably heard or saw last week the debate in congress over what constitutes an act of mercy. Speaker Ryan referred to a particular piece of legislation as an “act of mercy.” Senator Kennedy disputed that claim, quoting the gospel of Matthew, saying that scripture “calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.” Now whatever you think of that piece of legislation to which Ryan referred, when it comes to the definition of mercy, Kennedy had it right. The dictionary definition of merciful is “treating people with kindness and forgiveness : not cruel or harsh: having or showing mercy : giving relief from suffering.” In Jesus’ context, being merciful meant more than just feeling pity. Mercy was not only pity or clemency, but loyalty, and steadfast love. It consisted of feeling, action, and commitment. Professor Margaret Aymer, in her study of the Beatitudes, says that

“One who shows mercy feels emotion when faced with the pain of another, takes action on behalf of that person, and demonstrates ongoing dedication to that person…
The promise of the fifth beatitude is that those who show mercy shall be shown mercy.
Jesus teaches that those who are merciful will experience the compassion, intervention, and dedication of the God of mercy.“

This fifth beatitude is the only one that is reflexive in that way - in the other beatitudes, the blessed see God, or inherit the earth. Here, the merciful receive mercy. Perhaps Jesus wants us to understand that receiving mercy, as we receive mercy from God, unlocks our hearts to let mercy in, and then, with our hearts pure and open, we can let mercy flow. Both the receiving and the giving of mercy bring a blessing. Shakespeare phrased it this way:

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.[1]

But it seems that this mercy, falling on us like a gentle rain from heaven, goes unnoticed in today’s atmosphere. We are so awash in consumer goods, in self centeredness, in competition, in judgment of others, in the flood of messages of fear and suspicion, that we cannot feel the rain of mercy falling on us even now.

And because we do not feel it, it becomes hard for us to pass it along.
We are showered with blessings but we are thirsty, so thirsty!
Water, water, everywhere, we say, but nary a drop to drink.

Friends, we do have mercy falling on us like a gentle rain!
It is God’s mercy - that loving kindness,
which is from everlasting to everlasting.

God’s mercy washes us clean – enabling us to show mercy - and that is what makes makes us “pure in heart.” When Jesus refers to the “pure in heart” he is making reference to Psalm 24. But what does it mean to have clean hands and a pure heart?

We remember Pilate, before Jesus went to the cross, washing his hands of the matter.
His hands were washed, but no one would say Pilate had clean hands or pure heart, in the matter. Washing your hands gets them clean, if you are thorough. Making your heart pure is more complicated. Perhaps clean hands and a pure heart refer to congruence between the outward action and inward motivation. Perhaps clean hands and pure heart are a kind of shorthand for righteousness – for being in right relationship with God and neighbor.

In spiritual terms, it sounds like an inside job.
In practical terms, it is probably far simpler.

When I was trying to think of a practical example of what it might look like to be merciful, and to be pure in heart, I ran across the story of Ginger Sprouse and her friend, Victor.[2]

Let’s start with Ginger. She’s a wife, mom, and entrepreneur - runs a cafe called “Art of the Meal.” Looks like a nice person, Ginger does. And as she drove to her café every day, she saw Victor, standing at the corner.

The same corner.
Every day.
For three years.

People in town wondered about Victor.
Who was he? Why was he on the corner every day?

Ginger did more than wonder.
She started spending her lunch break getting to know Victor.

She discovered that Victor, who has some mental health issues, was standing on that corner every day because it was the last place he had seen his mother. Gradually, as their friendship developed, Victor visited Ginger’s home. Occasionally he’d stay with her family, to get out of the weather. It didn’t stop there. Ginger started a Facebook page called “This is Victor.” She set up a “GoFundMe” website for him. 

She arranged for him to get dental care, medical care, and new glasses. Ginger made sure Victor was in the social service system, so that his ongoing mental health issues could be addressed. That necessitated getting some form of identification for Victor. He had no ID, no Social Security card, no birth certificate, not a single piece of paper that proved his identity. Eventually, Victor was placed in permanent housing, and was given a bicycle to use for transportation, and Ginger hired him to work at her café. All this is amazing and wonderful, merciful and righteous.

But here’s what struck me about the story: Ginger could not do most of what she did alone. Yes, her initial conversations and lunches with Victor were her action. But there were many, many others in her community who had noticed Victor, brought him food, given him money. They, too, had wondered, “Who is this pleasant young man on the corner?” “What is his story? Why does he stand there day after day?”

They cared – I have no doubt they cared about Victor. But it was not until Ginger spoke up for him, became his voice, that the community began to act in his behalf. Ginger didn’t save Victor! At least not on her own!

Ginger was merciful, and pure in heart, but that was not just a feeling. 
The story of Ginger and Victor is a story of mercy in its purest sense:

Mercy as emotion – Ginger felt compassion for Victor.
Mercy as action – Ginger began to develop a relationship with Victor,
and continued to act and to speak out on his behalf.
Mercy as dedication – Ginger showed steadfast love and commitment.
She didn’t just feed Victor, or give him money or a bicycle,
she stood with him until he was able to stand on his own.

You may be wondering why this white Texas woman would help this mentally ill young black man. I certainly wondered. What prompts a nice middle class white lady to bring a homeless black man with mental illness into her home, with her children, into her life, and her business?

Then I found her personal Facebook page. What would you guess was the motivation for Ginger to help Victor? If you guessed that it was her faith, you are correct. Ginger had received mercy. She said of herself:

“I'm a redeemed disciple of Jesus.
Committed to serving Christ in my life, family, work and community.”

It started with a simple meal, an offering of mercy to one who had nothing.
You know the story well, for you also have been hungry, broken, alone –
maybe not physically so, but spiritually so.

You know the story well, for you, too, have been welcomed to a table,
you, too, have received mercy, received a pure heart,
been given the bread of new life, and the cup of salvation.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Friends, God’s mercy is here for us, to open our hearts, to make them pure.
God’s table is set, and we are welcomed in, to come and sit and feast at the table of blessing.

Thanks be to God!


[1] Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice” Act IV, Scene 1