Saturday, May 13, 2017

Living Stones

1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
May 14, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading for today is from 1 Peter 2:2-10,
a letter to the churches written sometime at end of the first century.
The epistles of 1st and 2nd Peter were likely not written
by the Apostle Peter himself, but by a later disciple.
The sophisticated Greek and the scripture quotations
from the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures
indicate that it is unlikely that a fisherman from Galilee was the author.

The letters were written to Christians in what is now Turkey,
and were written to them during a time of distress.
In that time it was increasingly difficult, if not dangerous, to be a Christian.
Slander, accusations, insults, and discrimination were growing,
and would later turn into outright persecution
for those Christians who refused to worship the emperor.

This letter is meant to be encouraging, and fortifying,
for this young church made up mostly of Gentiles.
The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in about the year 70;
the western wall, still stands in modern-day Israel.
Those stones, still standing strong, are a good image for this text.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in 1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow into salvation—
if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals
yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,
to be a holy priesthood,
to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
To you then who believe, he is precious;
but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts
of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The word of the Lord.

Our gospel reading today is from the very familiar
fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel, a text you hear often at funerals.
When I memorized it as a child, the words I learned were:
“In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
Back then, my understanding of this text was as a promise that in heaven, as the old song said, someday yonder, I’d have a mansion of my own.
The context for this text is far richer than that,
more than just a promise of a mansion in heaven.

This is a part of what is called the “farewell discourse,”
which was an important literary form of the time.
Almost like a final soliloquy in a play,
a farewell discourse is the last testament of a teacher,
like Socrates’ farewell speech to his students,
or Moses’ farewell to the Israelites.
A part of the function of this final lesson to the disciples
is that it reassures and instructs them,
so that they will carry on the work of their teacher.
John’s gospel here is unequivocal in its assertion that Jesus
is the only way to God.
That way is prepared for us through Jesus Christ.
Let’s listen to the words of Jesus for us in John 14:1-14:

“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?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me, you will know my Father also.
From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip,
and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own;
but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;
but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me
will also do the works that I do and, in fact,
will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
I will do whatever you ask in my name,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Our scripture texts today are full of images and metaphors.
As a poet, I enjoy that.
But as a writer, the reading from 1 Peter makes me nuts!
We start off fine, with that imagery of the “pure milk of the word,”
Then we shift to this metaphor of stones – Jesus as the cornerstone,
the disciples – that’s us – as the living stones.
Then the writer shifts the metaphor,
and we’re talking about Jesus as a stone,
and/or the gospel message as a stumbling block to the unbeliever,
or the image of Jesus as the building block that was rejected.
Please, epistle writer, one image or metaphor at a time!

It reminds me of the bad analogy contest held by the Washington Post.
Here are some of the winners:
“The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil.
But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.”

“Even in his last years, grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap,
only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.”

See what I mean?
Those are almost as bad as mixed metaphors.
I had a friend who was brilliant at those.
My favorite was “Put that feather in your hat and smoke it!”
Here are some other winners:
“We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.
I’ll get it by hook or ladder.
From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb.”[1]
See, that’s so confusing!

So, rather than try to untangle whether Jesus or we are the living stones,
or what the stumbling block and rejected cornerstone have to do with it,
we’re going to just pick one – that wonderful image of living stones.

I mentioned that by the time 1 Peter was written,
the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.
There had been an uprising of Jews – the zealots,
an uprising long feared and suppressed by the Romans.
The Jews had scored some surprising military victories early on,
but their defenses in Jerusalem could not hold.
“the Romans employed new war machines
to hurl boulders against the city walls.
Battering rams assaulted the fortifications.
Jewish defenders fought all day and struggled to rebuild the walls at night.
Eventually the Romans broke through the outer wall,
then the second wall, and finally the third wall.
Still the Jews fought, scurrying to the temple as their last line of defense.
That was the end for the valiant Jewish defenders and for the temple. 
Historian Josephus claimed that Titus wanted to preserve the temple,
but his soldiers were so angry at their resilient opponents that they burned it.”[2]
It was a devastating blow to the Jewish people,
one which they still remember in the observance of “Tisha B’Av.”
The temple, the place of sacrifice and atonement,
the place where the spirit of God was known to dwell, was utterly destroyed.
The temple was gone.
Where, now, was God to dwell?
Only the western wall remained standing.
That wall still stands, and is a place of prayer and remembrance.
When people go to pray at the western wall,
they often insert written prayers between the stones.
There is a saying, from a song about the wall:
“There are people with hearts of stone, and stones with hearts of people.”

It’s hard to know if the writer of 1 Peter was thinking of that wall,
when he drew from the Old Testament images of living stones.
But it was then, and is now, a powerful image
for those of us who understand ourselves to be the church.

You know, of course, that the church is not a building.
As the Prelude Pondering says,
“People don’t enter a church; the church enters a building.”
But this image helps us make that even plainer –
you ARE the church, you are the living stones
being built up into a church, a dwelling place for God.

If we are the wall, the building,
then Christ is indeed our foundation and cornerstone.
If Christ lives in us, and we live in Christ,
then we are indeed a wall of living stones, a spiritual structure.

And because of the promises of Jesus Christ, our cornerstone,
God’s holy temple is in you – in me – in us.
Our living Lord assures us – believe!
Do not let your hearts be troubled!

Even in troubled times, we trust his words –
that while we are a living church, a place for Christ to dwell,
he is creating for us a final dwelling place,
through God’s initiative, not our own,
a place of expansive love and roomy grace, where all are welcome.

Until that day when we go to that place,
we are to do the works to which Christ has called us,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

We are the church!

No weapon of war will destroy us;
no hatred or prejudice will define us;
no ridicule can discourage us;
no dismissal will dissuade us;
no act of oppression will stop us.

We are the church – the location of prayer and praise,
resistance and renewal, sustenance and song,

We are the church, where the bread is broken and the cup is poured
so that we will be strengthened for action.

We do not do this on our own power,
but the master builder shapes us and sets us together,
supports us and makes us into a fit place for Christ to live.
We are living stones, continually being built up into the church.
In us, Christ acts.
In us, Christ lives.
In us, Christ loves.

Thanks be to God that we are living stones!




Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Voice

1 Corinthians 1:4-9, John 10:1-10
May 7, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

The Apostle Paul is known to us because of his dramatic conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, and because of his work with churches in the years that followed. Many books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul; those books are letters to churches, in which Paul advises, encourages, and confronts those new communities to help them become more Christ-like. Here is part of Paul’s greeting to one such church, the church in Corinth. . Let’s listen for his words of encouragement and God’s word for us from First Corinthians 1:4-9

I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The gospel reading for today from John’s gospel presents us with a familiar image, that of Jesus as our Good Shepherd, the one who leads and protects and cares for the sheep. This is a part of the “I Am” statements of Jesus, in which he begins by describing himself as the shepherd, then shifts the metaphor to describe himself as the gate to the sheepfold. Let’s listen for God’s gracious word to us in John 10:1-10

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd…
for many of us, those words trigger the memory of the entire 23rd Psalm.
Among many Christians, all it takes is those five words,
and the Psalm comes back to them in its entirety.
Those words also conjure for us the image of the good shepherd,
the image that also emerges from this reading in the gospel of John.

Interestingly, Jesus does not even say “I am the good shepherd”
in this reading – that comes in the next verse.
In that part of John, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd,
contrasted with the hired hand.
Jesus lays down his life for the sheep;
the hired hand runs away at the first sign of trouble.
So if you hear a minister described as a “hireling” by another minister,
you should know that that is an insult –
implying that the “hired hand” is a false teacher, leading people astray.
\In any case, we tend to prefer the image of Jesus as a shepherd
to the image of Jesus as a gate!
But what captures my attention in this gospel reading
is the idea of the voice:
“….the sheep hear his voice.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

We know from actual shepherds that sheep do know their voice –
you can find some really charming videos on Youtube that show this –

Sheep listening to their shepherd

One of them depicts several different people calling the sheep,
using the same words as the shepherd, but with no response.
Then the shepherd calls them.
Their heads pop up from where they are grazing.
They turn toward the shepherd, and then they run to gather near him.

So, Jesus says, it’s like that.
You know my voice, so you come when I call, and you follow.
Then he shifts the imagery.
Jesus says, “I am the gate. You come into life abundant through me.
I’m the one who keeps you in the right place,
the place where you can thrive.”

Some of us really like those metaphors – imagery that helps us understand
in ways that more concrete descriptions can’t.
It’s easy to draw the parallels – the pastor like the sheepdog,
the bellwether sheep who leads the flock like an elder,
the sheepfold like the church, or like the life of faith.
But some of us need something a little more practical.
How, exactly, does Jesus lead us, and how exactly, are we to follow?
And, not being sheep, how do we sort out the voice of Jesus
from all the other voices that are muttering and shouting
and whispering and calling to us?

We can’t do it like that television show – The Voice,
where they listen and judge and advance to the finals.
We have to figure out, sometimes in a split second,
without celebrity judges, whether a voice is worth listening to or not.
That’s a good deal of what we discuss in confirmation class:
how to listen for Jesus in our own lives, and in our daily decisions.
I’ve told the kids repeatedly what I tell every group –
this class is not about you memorizing answers to get them right on a test;
this class is not about you repeating something you have learned,
whether you mean it or not;
this class is not even really about making up your mind once and for all
about every article of faith expressed in the Apostles’ creed.

No, this class is about asking questions,
and helping you learn how to explore questions of faith,
so that as you get older, and learn more,
your beliefs will be a strong foundation for your Christian life,
and you’ll be able to consider new questions or challenges
through a lens of faith and belief, without losing your religion!

In other words, you can believe, and change your mind,
and still believe, or believe anew,
and grow and develop as Christians.
That can happen because you know how to listen
to the voice of the Shepherd – in scripture, in the community,
and in your heart as you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing that God is acting in our daily lives through those avenues
empowers us to live courageously and faithfully.
That’s what Paul is referring to in our Epistle reading.
The text uses that word, “confirm” – here it is again:
“you were made rich through him in everything:
in all your communication and every kind of knowledge,
in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. 
The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift
while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.
He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end
so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This confirmation process and this ceremony we go through
is as much about God confirming our testimony
as is it about these three young people confirming for themselves
the promises that were made for them in their baptisms.
This ritual we go through is a reminder to us that the Good Shepherd,
who leads us, also called us his friends,
entering into a dialogue with us that can continue throughout our lives.
In a few minutes, we’ll call Sarah and Caroline and Vincent up here,
and we’ll ask them to confirm the promises made on their behalf.
We will ask them if they will do their very best
to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd,
and if they will follow Jesus – not just say they believe,
but commit to living as faithful Christians.

We’ll invite everyone here to confirm those promises as well,
as we are reminded that “God is faithful,
and you were called by him to partnership
with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”
He knows you, and loves you, and calls you by name, to come and follow.
Can you hear him?

Thanks be to God for the voice!