Finding Your Cave: Going Beyond "Thoughts and Prayers"

Sermon by Rev. Paul Ortiz

First Sunday of Lent

Text: 1 Kings 19:11-12

As some of you may know, I served as a hospital chaplain for two years during seminary. My time there caused me to think deeper about humanity, grief, God, and prayer. I remember once I was with a man whose spouse was toward the end of a long journey with a terminal illness and was in a state of unconsciousness. The man explained that he was a person of faith. However, he also explained that, since the deterioration of his spouses’ health, he no longer had the “words to pray.” So he asked if I’d pray for them, and of course I did! With one hand upon his shoulder and one upon his spouses’ arm, I prayed aloud a prayer that included the theological language I had been taught in seminary. Yet the Lord was not in my prayer.

I prayed with confidence and said all the right things, yet something was off. I could tell that nothing had really changed for this man. I sensed that he still could not pray to God.

Afterwards the man thanked me for the prayer, perhaps out of politeness. And then we both just stood there. Resisting the initial urge to start saying more “pastoral” things, I instead entered into a time of holy quietness with him. After a few moments of deep silence the man began to weep. And he did what most of us do when we begin to cry in front of others, he apologized and tried to wipe his tears away. At which point, without even thinking about it, I found myself whispering to him, “your tears are prayers to God, and God hears your prayers.” Then the man lost it and wept and wept. And I began to tear up, as well. And it was obvious to both of us that the Lord was in the silence.

In Today’s scripture reading, we find another character who is troubled with great despair and ends up hearing God in a new way—in the silence. If you are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures you may know that Elijah is portrayed as the greatest of all prophets, alongside of Moses. While Moses is known as the law giver, Elijah can be known as the justice bearer. And thus Elijah has his hands full. For a time all goes well with the prophet Elijah, for he indeed is in control of his life. He has prophesied that the corrupt King Ahab will come to an end. He has performed great miracles. He has even called fire down from heaven. Yet after great success, he returns to the royal city of Jezreel to find that things are worse than ever, and there is a price upon his head. Deeply disillusioned, he journeys into the wilderness where he assumes he will die. And it is in the wilderness, away from the empire and all the noise, where the text tells us that Elijah finds a cave. He spends the night in his cave of solitude and hears from the Lord anew.

Elijah is told to go out, because the Lord is going to pass by. There was a great wind, so strong that it split the mountain, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then a great earthquake and fire but the Lord was not in those either. Finally the text tells us that there was the sound of sheer silence. It is there that Elijah hears God’s voice—by listening to silence. I love the translation of “sheer silence.” This suggests a silence that sheers, or cuts to our very souls. Some scholars suggest that this Hebrew phrase can also be translated as the “scream of silence.” Have you ever stopped and made quite space in your life to hear the scream of silence and allow it to pierce your soul? It is only after the storm that Elijah is able to hear God in the sound of silence.

Another prophet that comes to mind is Oscar Romero, an Arch Bishop in El Salvador during the 70s and early 80s, who was martyred for speaking out against the corruption of his day and organizing the poor and oppressed for the sake of peace and equity. Romero, a central figure in the early Latin American Liberation Theology tradition, is famous for saying, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

So today, Romero is telling us that there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried, and we are not to avoid grieving when it is needed. And Elijah is telling us that there are many things that can only be heard when we listen to silence, and not to avoid silent spaces in our lives. How often do we allow our prayer lives to have this kind of depth? How often do we actually listen for God, and allow God to change the way we see the world? How often do we go past offering mere “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of tragedy and injustice? I know I struggle with this.

This week we were made again acutely aware of the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings in our country. As we heard the terrible news of the 17 students and teachers murdered in the mass shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, once again the media became flooded with people wishing “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. And once again I couldn’t help but feel that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. While well meaning, too often “thoughts and prayers” a way of skirting responsibility. It is difficult (overwhelming even) to truly consider how we could work to change laws in ways that would curb gun violence in our country. Rather it is much easier to merely wish “thoughts and prayers,” and move on.

Yet as I found myself frustrated with those wishing “thoughts and prayers” in the face of continued injustice, I thought about how my own prayer life tends to look the same. How often do I merely say the type of prayers that I have been trained to say in order to avoid entering into the grief, silence, and pain—the pain of others and my own pain? How often do we say a simple prayer and move on rather than going deeper and listening to the voice of God in the midst of silence, which challenges us to love our neighbors and work for justice? If you are like me, your initial tendency is to avoid the silence, rather than seek it.

Of course, it is right and good to say a prayer for those who are hurting and keep them in our thoughts. It is the natural thing to do, yet this morning the story of Elijah tells us that there is so much more to prayer. Like Elijah, we must find our cave solitude. We too must create spaces away from the empire and all the noise in order to hear a new word from God. And from this, we too will be empowered for greater action in the world. 

In the verses that follow this morning’s text, Elijah is sent out to do something quite subversive, the Lord tells Elijah to go and anoint new kings and rulers in the face of the current ones. Like Elijah we must find our cave, we must go beyond mere “thoughts and prayers,” and we must learn to listen to the silence and be transformed for the work of God. 

Throughout the season of Lent we will be experimenting with prayer practices together. Here at Berry Church our community has built some prayer stations that you will have time to engage with during the next few weeks. And we will continue in a worship series called “Listen” where we will explore what it means to not only speak to God in prayer, but to listen as well.

May we make space in our lives away from the empire and all the noise, and may we listen to the sound of sheer silence. For God is waiting to speak to each of us anew. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Grit and Glitter

This year we began the journey of Lent by observing Ash Wednesday in a radically inclusive way. With both traditional ashes and glitter ashes in hand, as well as our Berry Church sign, we hit the streets to invite morning and midday commuters to stop for a moment and partake in the weird, morbid, and beautiful ritual of receiving dirt on your forehead in the shape of a cross. We offered blessings and ashes to Catholics, Protestants, religious nones, and everyone else catching the Brown Line train at the Western Station that day. 

The season of Lent is a journey to the cross of Jesus, a time to contemplate deeper the God that joins us in the pain and beauty of human existence. Ashes remind us of our mortality, sin, and need to turn to God. Glitter reminds us that there is always hope, and that all people our included in God's hope--particularly our LGBTQ+ friends and others excluded by religious structures. Thus we stood at a street corner and invited commuters to take a holy pause and experience the God that is with us in the grit and glitter of our existence. 

One of our volunteers described his experience of offering ashes as, "...the encounters were brief and appropriately solemn. Perhaps this is how God wants to be manifest this lent, in quiet supplication." 

Join us through Lent as we continue to make spaces for these types of encounters. 

Following la Estrella de Paz in a World of Violence

Sermon by Rev. Paul Ortiz

First Sunday after Epiphany. 

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

As some of you may know, I grew up attending Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches, where my grandmother was a pastor. While in some ways quite different from the Methodist tradition I am a part of today, we practiced things that overlapped with all Christians—Catholic and Protestant. One example is Christmas pageants!

I remember every Christmas Eve my friends and I would dress-up in bathrobes and sandals, and be handed walking sticks. I remember wearing a cotton beard on my face, way before I could grow a real beard. And toward the end of the service, while an adult read the final lesson for the night, all us children would run to the back of the sanctuary where we would slip out of our costumes to remain in our church clothes, and we would be handed candles with the little wax guards around them. Then, when the time was right, we would process back on to the stage. The lights of the sanctuary would dim to almost off, and we would begin to sing Silent Night, except in Spanish it is Noche de Paz, or Night of Peace—not night of silence. And as we sang the hymn, we would begin to light our candles in the dark one by one.

We would start the song by singing, “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” which means, night of peace, night of love—again, not night of silence. And toward the end of the song, when all the candles were lit, we would repeat a phrase that I still find myself repeating today in my deepest prayers, “brilla la estrella de paz, brilla la estrella de paz, which means, shine, star of peace, shine, star of peace.        

I like the Spanish version better. For it points to the gospel’s story of God injecting God’s peace into a world overtaken by violence. While the English version emphasizes everything being “calm” and the child being “mild,” as if baby Jesus did not cry or poop his diapers, or mother Mary scream as she gave birth to our Lord in a stable, the version in Español does not paint this picture. Rather it points to our deepest human longing for God’s shining star of peace, and the child born the Prince of Peace, to break into our darkness, and bring salvation. Today is the first Sunday after the feast of Epiphany, when the church celebrates that God actually reveals Godself to all nations. Today we celebrate that the star of God’s peace, la Estrella de Paz, can be seen, and together we can follow it to a new way of being.

In today’s Gospel reading we encounter a group of travelers that have journeyed far, following la Estrella de Paz. It is the Magi or the wise ones. We often refer to them as the “three kings”—this is likely due to the prophecy from Isaiah where it says that kings will come from afar bearing gifts (Is 60:1-6). However, the careful reader of the gospel of Matthew will notice that the text does not mention them to be kings, nor does it say there were three of them. Although, we do know that they brought three gifts.

Interestingly, however, while we talk so much about the “three kings,” there are two other kings which are indisputably part of the story. As our passage from Matthew begins, “In the time of King Herod wise men came asking, where is the child who has been born king of the Jews.”

Now if you were Herod at that time, this might have stuck you as an awkward question. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m the king of the Jews!” Herod the Great was appointed king over Judea as a vassal of the Roman Empire. 

Historical documents such as the writings of Jewish historian Josephus describe his tyranny as a leader. He spent lavishly on building projects paid by the taxes of the impoverished Jewish people. He lived a decadent lifestyle. He was intensely paranoid of losing his power. He had 2,000 body guards, and monitors in the streets to find out what people were saying about him. Perhaps the worst of it was that he executed members of his own family, including his wife, brother-in-law, and three sons. He also had a number of rabbis killed.

Matthew’s characterization of Herod as paranoid, easily threatened, and brutally vindictive is quite consistent with these historical records. In today’s text, Matthew describes that upon hearing about the child king Herod was frightened, “along with all of Jerusalem with him.” Familiar with the consequences of Herod’s wrath, if Herod was afraid, they all had reason to be afraid. Matthew’s account of the massacre in Bethlehem where Herod tries to have Jesus Killed by killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem also reflects Herod's willingness to kill anyone who stood in his way.

This is who was in power at the time of Jesus’ birth. This is the world into which God’s Estrella de Paz broke forth and shined into. And it continues to boldly shine today. In a world where men with way too much political power arrogantly boast about who has the larger button for nuclear destruction—the inhalation of countless human lives and the environment—God’s Estrella de Paz continues to shine in protest and calls us to follow a different way. 

It is interesting, radical even, that while Herod was sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, the region’s urban center and locus of political power, another king was being born in the small, inconsequential town of Bethlehem, who will grow up to be everything Herod is not.

Where Herod showed an utter disregard for life, Jesus time and again shows that every life is important to God—especially the oppressed—coming along side people who society deemed worthless. Where Herod took life to gain power, Jesus taught that whoever wants to gain life must lose it, and gave his life for others. Where Herod craved admiration and wanted to be the greatest, Jesus taught humility, and that being great comes through being least. Jesus was constantly using whatever power he had to give power to others, calling unlikely people to rise up as leaders. Where Herod lived in a place of paralyzing fear, Jesus lived in a place of assurance, rooted in God’s love—a kind that no one, not rulers, not principalities, and not even death can take away.

In modeling this counterintuitive power, and inviting us to follow him, Jesus reveals that power is not just for the Herods of this world. We are all meant to be powerful in the way of Jesus. It is the power of peace that Jesus talked about when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they are children of God.” And it is the power of la Estrella de Paz, which called the wise ones, and calls us today to follow the way of Jesus.

Today the reading of Matthew juxtaposes two kings, two vastly different takes on what it means to be powerful. And while Herod is an extreme version he is not that far off from the way our world envisions power. A way that assumes that everyone should be in pursuit of being the greatest, that our nation should be the greatest, no matter the cost. A way that is unreflective about how our own pursuit to get ahead can come at the expense of others. Herod’s actions are easy to condemn, yet how much of his model is present in our society and in our own hearts?

Much like the people in Jerusalem who were afraid, it may feel like our only two options are to join Herod’s way of power or to live in fear of those who are like him. But the wise ones in today’s story show us that there is another choice. They confronted Herod, his kingship, his false perverted sense of power, by asking for the other king. They had the audacity to go before the king of the Jews and say, where is the child born king of the Jews? Where is the true king who embodies real power—the power of peace. We, like them, must follow la Estrella de Paz.

We like the wise ones are given a similar choice. We must ask, what kind of power do we really trust? Do we trust the power of God’s love and peace, or the power of controlling other people in our lives? If you are like me, you often find yourself going back and forth without realizing it. It is hard to unlearn Herod’s power system, as it is pervasive in our world.

Yet, thankfully, God continues to break into our world, shining a great light, leading us down another path. Here at Berry Church, we are beginning a new year as we are also continuing a new path in living into a community of “justice and joy.” By following the light that shines before us, we have discerned this is who God is calling us to be. Like the wise ones in our story, it is a long path, yet it is a path to our true selves.

Thanks be to the God that breaks into our world in the son of Mary, and continues to shine La Estrella de Paz. May we follow. Amen.

 

 

A message from our Bishop: Prayers for Sutherland Springs

A message from our Bishop:
Prayers for Sutherland Springs

We're reeling once again-this time from a shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Most of the people in the church were shot and over half killed. I envision so many rural churches across all the places I have served in Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois, and also my own home church, where that could have so easily happened. I can't imagine and yet I do.

What should or can you and your church do about protecting yourselves and each other? Should you have armed guards? Locked doors during worship? Or other means of barring yourselves away from the world? I think it's a worthy conversation at a church council meeting to make sure that you are alert and aren't unnecessarily vulnerable but United Methodist churches are declared gun-free zones in our Book of Resolutions.

We live in a world that isn't completely safe but we are called to be people who trust in God and refuse to live in a cowering, fearful way. So most importantly I hope that you will reflect on this verse with me:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)

Since there is no ultimate safety or security in this life, let us take courage and could we at least be kinder and gentler with each other on the journey? My prayers are for all who have been victims of gun violence in our communities as well as Sutherland Springs, TX. I pray that these violent events make us more merciful and peacemakers. Read the Bishop's full statement here https://www.umcnic.org/prayers-for-sutherland-springs/

~Bishop Sally Dyck

Pride Worship Location Announced!

On Sunday, June 25th, Berry will join with the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches for a Pride worship service!  

The service will be held from 11:15-11:45 am on the lawn located at the intersection of N. Racine & W. Sunnyside (1197 W. Sunnyside Ave., Truman College). The lawn is outside the Truman parking garage about two blocks west of Broadway on Montrose and a block north on Clifton. If you are at Wilson & Racine, walk south across the campus to the parking garage and you’ll see the lawn. Following the service, we’ll head to our location in the parade lineup and receive our church signs. to carry in the parade.  

Please join us as we witness to God's wide love for all! 

Welcome Our New Little Free Pantry!

Berry is now home to a Little Free Pantry! Our LFP is located on the Giddings side of Berry. The Little Free Pantry utilizes a familiar, compelling concept to pique local interest in and action against local food insecurity. The LFP also offers an opportunity for neighbors to help meet neighborhood needs. Our Little Free Pantry was donated and set up by a member of the Lincoln Square community who used to live across the street from Berry. We will offer a blessing of the pantry on Sunday following worship.

What can you donate? Non-perishables, canned vegetables, proteins, personal care items, paper goods, kid-friendly non-perishables, crayons, school supplies (toward the end of summer). Berry is also accepting gift cards for re-stocking the pantry on “low” weeks.

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Easter Letter

Easter Letter

Spirit of the Living God,

who offers respite for the weary and life-giving hope:

Awaken in this your gathered faithful people of Berry UMC

Renewed vision in your Holy Spirit and hope for the future ministry

that we may serve the Lincoln Square community with a healing balm

worthy of your grace and splendor,

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Berry Offers Hope With Glitter Ash Wednesday

On Wednesday, March 1st, Berry UMC offered glitter ashes to commuters at the Western CTA Brown Line station.  This action was an intentional participation in a movement of other welcoming Chicago churches. Berry’s pastor, Rev. April Gutierrez, was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as a proponent of the movement. The glitter ashes were met with surprise by some and gratitude from many, including one man who drove into the city from Elmhurst to receive the ashes.

Parity, a faith-based LGBTQ-oriented organization based in New York City, organizes the Glitter+Ash initiative. From their website: “Glitter+Ash is an inherently queer sign of Christian belief, blending symbols of mortality and hope, of penance and celebration. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a season of repentance. During Lent, Christians look inward and take account in order to move forward with greater health. At this moment in history, glitter ashes will be a powerful reminder of St. Augustine’s teaching that we cannot despair because despair paralyzes, thwarting repentance and impeding the change that we are called to make.” Read more about Glitter+Ash here.

Berry November 2017 Newsletter

Berry Work Day Saturday, Nov. 19th, 9 am – 1 pm
with First UMC Downers Grove

  We are looking forward to working with volunteers from First UMC Downers Grove at our Church Work Day on Saturday, Nov. 19th! We will focus primarily on painting and mulching, and will also have a variety of smaller projects around the church. We invite your participation as we continue to make our church more hospitable to all.  If you can attend or donate a dessert or drink, please sign up online or RSVP to the church office Lunch will be provided. Desserts and drinks can be dropped off at the church office by Wednesday, Nov. 16th.  Thank you!

Save the Date: Seeds of Change Fair Trade Marketplace & Farmers Market

We are excited to host our annual Seeds of Change marketplace and farmers market!  This popular event features local, fair trade certified products around Chicago, a winter farmers market sponsored by Faith in Place, a children’s activity time, homemade chili, and more!  If you’re interested in making chili to sell, please contact Susan Geil. Tickets will soon be available to purchase quarts of chili to take home.

Order Your Poinsettia Today!

Fill out the form here and email it to the church office.  Poinsettias will grace our worship space beginning on Sunday, December 11th. Donor names will be listed in the bulletins on Dec. 11th, 18th, & 25th. The office will bill you after you submit your order form. Each poinsettia costs $14.

Halloween Happenings: Thank You!

On Saturday, Oct. 29th, Berry participated in Lincoln Square’s annual Halloween Happenings festival.  We handed out candy to trick-or-treaters, gave out free picture books, and had Halloween themed temporary tattoos. Over 50 kids came by, and we had a lot of fun meeting them! Thank you to Brent Holman-Gomez and Chuck Fowler for helping out with this event!

Submit Your Favorite Hymn for Sunday,
Nov. 20th Hymn Sing

Please submit your favorite hymn (including verse numbers) to Adrienne in the church office by Wednesday, November 16th.

Upcoming in Worship

This Sunday, Nov. 13th – Re-imagining Generosity
Message offered by Lay Leader Brent Holman-Gomez

Sunday, Nov. 20th – Stewardship Sunday & Hymn Sing

Upcoming Family Advent Events
Sundays, Nov. 20th & Dec. 4th

2017 Pledge Form Now Available

The 2017 Berry Pledge Form is now available!  Forms can be submitted via email, placed in the offering plate on Sunday, or mailed to the church office. Thank you for your giving to our mission and ministry!

Sanctuary Helpers Needed

Pastor April would like help preparing the sanctuary for worship. This could include setting up before each of the new sermon series’, or helping to visually plan the space. Please contact Pastor April if you’re interested. Thank you!

Sign the Petition: End Prolonged Solitary Confinement

Our Sunday School class on prison has joined with thousands of other Christians in speaking out against prolonged solitary confinement.  Join us in signing onto the Statement Against Prolonged Solitary Confinement, or look for the posting at the bottom of the sanctuary stairs.

Desires visitors:

Dave Stewart, at Birchwood Nursing facility in Rogers Park (1426 W Birchwood).

Ralph Weber. Contact the church office for Ralph & Anne’s contact information.

We are Praying for…

-A new living arrangement for Michael A.
-Those seeking life after imprisonment
-Michelle G.
-Donald M.
-Nancy, aunt of Doug R.
-For our country: to listen and care for each other

Healing:
-Scott B.
-Pastor Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, as she continues to recover

Comfort:
-The family and loved ones of Constance, who just passed away
-Jacob, Patti, and Nina as they grieve Teri L.