God’s Grace in Life

“God’s Grace in Life”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 25, 2017

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 1:27-31; 3:1-13 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2, 14-15

 

This story began 10 years ago when I was serving as the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Well, no, that is not quite true. Actually, this story began when, as a child, I was given a book for Christmas—this book. Well, no, that is not quite true, either. It wasn’t this exact book because, sadly, that one got lost somewhere along the way. It was, however, this publication. As you can see, it is a children’s Bible Storybook.

 

By now most of you have heard me mention I was not raised in a loving, Christian home so the fact that I even received such a gift—a children’s Bible Storybook, well, that was a special grace in and of itself. Being a child in an environment of brokenness, sadness, and fear, it is probably no surprise that I poured through these pages with wild-eyed wonder. How could I not fall in love with larger than life characters like Joseph and Moses, Ruth and David? Soon I began to wonder: Could these larger than life stories be true? Could they contain a smidgeon of truth? If so, sign me up because larger than my life was what I was searching for!

 

Undoubtedly, most people are spiritually formed through the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ—which is entirely understandable. But for me, formation began before Bethlehem. For me, the story started with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Grand stories of light and love, stories of chaos overcome and injustices made right—those were the kind of stories that captured my young imagination and gave me hope. So imagine my surprise when, as a minister, many years later, I heard from the lips of believers, ‘I don’t like the Old Testament where God is angry. I prefer the grace of the New Testament.”

 

“But wait!” I responded, “God’s grace is all over the pages of the Old Testament.” Repeatedly I found myself defending the Hebrew Scriptures. The situation bothered me—a lot—so I began to ponder how I might encourage others to fall in love with the old stories of our faith. Finally, I spoke to the senior pastor about an idea that had come to me: Why not preach a sermon series on our favorite Old Testament characters to remind people that God’s grace has always been alive and well. Thus began the sermon series I will be sharing with you this summer. Together we will look at the lives of people like Esther, Jeremiah, Hannah, Joseph, and Daniel—people who displayed amazing faith in God even before the example of Christ was set before them—people who make up that great cloud of witnesses who are part of our faith story.

 

Of course, we are told about the great cloud of witnesses in the Letter to the Hebrews. More like a sermon than a letter, it is written to a community of Jewish Christians who are facing persecution for their faith—so much so they are tempted to abandon Christianity altogether.  For the author, Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. As a result, the letter offers encouragement so that believers will not shrink back to the synagogue, but instead stand firm in their faith in Christ—Christ who is better than the angels, Christ who is better than Moses, Christ who is better than the Levitical priesthood.

 

Chapter 11, sometimes called the “Hall of Faith” is the climax of the sermon in which many “heroes” or “witnesses” of faith are named.  Abraham and Sarah are in their number—no surprise there! There are others, however, that seem less likely to be found in a list of the faithful.  If Jacob, Samson, and Jephthah are named, perfection is certainly not a requirement. Indeed, the list includes murderers, adulterers, liars, thieves, and harlots. What a family tree!  Yet, they all have something in common. They live by faith.

 

One scholar has defined faith as the belief that ultimate reality lies not in the here and now or in things visible, but in things yet to come and things that cannot be seen. Faith believes that God “is” even though God cannot be seen—that God rewards those who seek him if not in the present age, then the age to come.[i]  This surely describes the witnesses found throughout Hebrews 11.

 

And where did they get such faith?  Ephesians 2:8 says that faith is a gift from God. We know that grace, too, is a gift from God. By definition, grace is undeserved favor, blessing, or goodwill. The term I like best is “unmerited favor.”  In our sinful condition as humans, undeserving as we are of God’s love, grace is God’s goodwill and unmerited favor reaching out to redeem us. But grace is not, as some would have us believe, new to the early Christian community. God’s grace has been at work since the beginning of time.

 

Recall Genesis 1. God creates the earth and says that it is good. God creates a beautiful garden and creates man and woman to dwell there. And as a way of saying thank you, what do Adam and Eve do? Well, they get cozy with a stranger—the Serpent—they buy into his lies and they turn their backs on the goodness of God. They are deserving of anything but God’s kindness and love. But what happens?  God comes “a calling” as God does every day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding out. God knows their sin and surely life will never be the same for humanity, but God doesn’t turn away. Instead, God confronts them and then we are told in Genesis 3:21, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” God the Creator of all that is, God who loved us and created us in his image—this God, after being rejected by his own creation—sits down, takes out needle and thread and becomes God the Tailor, sewing clothing for the very ones who have broken his heart[ii].

 

We don’t have to look far to find other examples of grace. God chose the people of Israel to be a light to the world. Because they deserved it?  Because they were greater than all the other people?  Hardly!  God chose the people of Israel because he loved them and then, out of this great love, he gave them laws so that they would know how to live. He gave them the Sabbath day of rest; he gave them all that they would need to be the people of God, a witness to God’s goodness.  And what did the people of Israel do?  Time and time again, they turned away from God, running after other gods, running after the lies of this world.  Yet, God still loved them.

 

I once read a story about Philip Yancey attempting to read the Bible with fresh eyes. He settled into a mountain cabin in Colorado in the winter and started reading. A couple of weeks later, he reached the end. The experience affected him profoundly and left him with the sense that all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God trying to get his family back. We are God’s family and God’s love for us is limitless. Were it not so, God would surely have washed his hands of us by now. What a mess we make of things! The world is marked by unrest, poverty, homelessness, the breakdown of families, wars and violence. Surely the world is starving for grace—God’s grace!

 

In Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? he made reference to the movie Forrest Gump. You may recall that the movie is about a fellow with a low IQ who has a habit of repeating clichés handed down by his mother: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” He also does incredible things like rescuing his buddies in Vietnam, being faithful to his girlfriend, Jenny, regardless of her behavior, and committing to love his child to the best of his ability with every fiber of his being. Yancey writes,

 

A magical scene of a feather opens and ends the movie—a note of grace so light no one knows where it might land…Many thought [the movie] naïve, ridiculous, manipulative. Others, however, saw in it a rumor of grace that made a sharp relief against [other violent films of the day]. As a result, Forrest Gump became the most successful movie of its time. The world starves for grace.[iii]

 

The world has always been starving for grace—and God has always been the Great Provider. Thousands of years have passed since God created the heavens and the earth and male and female in his image. Yet, not much has changed. Like Adam and Eve, we are guilty. Like the people of Israel, we are undeserving. Like Rahab, we are surprised by God’s grace. Nevertheless, God’s unmerited favor is poured down upon us like rain. God’s grace woos us and calls us into a relationship. God’s grace draws us to God, justifies us by faith in Jesus Christ, and sanctifies and empowers us by the Holy Spirit.

 

The story of God’s grace is Christianity’s gift to the human race. But the story began long before Bethlehem. It all started, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Grand stories of light and love, stories of chaos overcome and injustices made right—those are the kind of stories we will be delving into throughout the summer. It is my prayer that through these stories, we may draw strength from the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and be reminded of the importance of faith in God—a God who cannot be seen but who rewards those who seek him. Thanks be to God!

 

 

[i] The Lectionary Commentary; Van Harn

[ii]  Grace in a Tree Stump, J. Ellsworth Kalas, 7.

[iii] What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey, 40.

Happy Birthday Church

“Happy Birthday Church”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 4, 2017

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

 

Our Christian calendar recognizes three major festivals—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  Generally speaking, the church does a fine job celebrating Christmas and Easter, but Pentecost, now that’s another matter. For Christians, Pentecost marks the day that the Holy Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus and the church is born.  Yet, for all its significance, for all its magnificence, for the majority of the church in this great land of ours, Pentecost hardly gets any attention at all. Seriously, have you ever been to a Pentecost production or a Pentecost cantata?  But then again, on this day that is such a remarkable part of our faith story, do we expect anything remarkable?

 

Before his Ascension, Jesus tells those gathered around him, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”[i] They pray and they wait. The next move is God’s. Then when the day of Pentecost comes, they are all together in one place when suddenly from heaven there comes a rush of a violent wind and divided tongues, as of fire, rest upon each of them.

 

In his book, The Source of Life, Jurgen Moltmann writes that Jesus, who was sent by the Holy Spirit, now becomes the Sender of the Holy Spirit—who is the source of life and brings life into the world—whole life, transformed life, everlasting life. The mission of the Holy Spirit is the mission of new life.[ii]   Peter gets a new life. The Peter who, after Jesus’ arrest, follows at a safe distance, now stands at the head of the pack. The Peter, who three times could not find the words to admit he even knew Jesus, now raises his voice and proclaims the gospel boldly.

 

The first gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is proclamation and Peter boldly proclaims that this was foretold in Scripture, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that God has sent the empowering Holy Spirit to continue God’s work in the world for all people. Peter may have failed miserably in the past and there will be mistakes in his future—such is life—but with the coming of God’s Holy Spirit, Peter is transformed. Ultimately, Peter becomes what Jesus says he is—Peter becomes the Rock! And the Rock will be silent no more. The Rock will open his mouth and proclaim the gospel message for all to hear.

 

With Christ’s Spirit within us, among us, around us—what do we proclaim? Through words (written or spoken), through art, through music, through other creative outlets, through service and acts of love—do we proclaim the good news that Christ’s Spirit has been set free upon the earth? Do we live with a sense of hope and joy because God has once again taken on flesh and lives among us? The Holy Spirit brings life into the world—whole life, transformed life, everlasting life. The mission of the Spirit is the mission of new life[iii] —no longer based on age, gender, or nationality.  New life for all!  And, that my dear sisters and brothers—that is cause to celebrate.

 

Ann Weems, a Presbyterian poet, noted writer, speaker, and worship leader, died last year at the age of 81. A woman of profound faith, through poetry and stories, she proclaimed to the world the need to celebrate God’s love on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and all the days in between. I invite you to listen to one of her marvelous stories, entitled, “Happy Birthday Church!” [iv]

 

There once was a church that had only party rooms: the Session’s Party Room, the Music Party Room, the Feasting Party Room, the Do Justice Party Room, the Love Mercy Party Room, the Touch Lepers Party Room.  In the center of the building was a large round room with an altar and a cross:  God’s Party Room.

 

There was in the church an air of festivity and brightness that could not be denied.  The people outside the church pointed their fingers and shook their heads:  “Something should be done about that church.”  They were especially upset when they saw that the members wore party hats and smiles both inside and outside the church. Other congregations came to take a look and were shocked when they saw this church having so much fun during a worship service…

 

“Sacrilegious,” screamed the crowd.  But the people in the church just smiled at them and went right on doing things like taking people in wheelchairs to the park and playing ball with them. …For the poor, this church bought pizza and marched right into dingy, dirty, paint-peeling apartments and sat down to eat with the tenants.

 

They held picnics for the old folks home, and old men ran races while the congregation stamped their feet in applause.  It was at one of these picnics that some of the members climbed up on the roof and shouted: “Good news!”

 

“Now we can get them for disturbing the peace,” said one of the outsiders. The police arrived with sirens, ready for the arrest, and came out two hours later wearing party hats and smiles.

 

One Sunday afternoon, the entire congregation met at the jail and passed out flowers to the prisoners. The following week after bread and wine and much [joy] at the Lord’s table, the people went to the hospital and asked to see the dying patients. They held their hands and mopped their brows and spoke to them of life.

 

“Disgraceful!” shouted the crowd. “They must be stopped.” So the crowd appealed to the governing body of the denomination, and this committee of respected church people went to see for themselves.

 

“Do you deny the charges of heresy?” asked the committee.  “Do you deny that you’ve mocked the church and the Lord?” The people of the church looked into the stern red faces and smiled at them. They held out their hands to the committee and led them to the Birthday Cake Party Room. There on a table sat a large cake decorated beautifully in doves descending and red flames and words that read: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHURCH! The people began cutting cake and blowing up balloons and handing out party hats to the committee members.

 

“Wait!  Wait!” cried the chairperson.  “Can’t you take anything seriously?”

 

“Yes,” said the people.  “We take our commitment to the Lord very seriously indeed.”

 

“You don’t take it seriously at all,” interrupted the chairperson in loud voice and red face.  “You have parties and wear silly hats and blow up balloons and sing and dance and have fun.  Do you call that commitment?”

 

The people smiled at the chairperson and asked him if he’d like a glass of wine.  The chairperson hit his fist on the table.  “I don’t want wine, and I don’t want birthday cake.  We’re here to reprimand you. We’re here to show you that you’re wrong.  Can’t you be serious?”

 

“We are,” said the people.  “We’re asking you to take communion with us.”

 

“Outrageous!” [Screamed the chairperson.]

 

“Outrageous?  [Said the people] “We ask you to sit at our table and sup with us.  God gave the Holy Spirit to believers, and that is something to celebrate!  It’s an occasion for a party.  We are celebrants of the gift of Life.  We are community.  We are God’s church.  Why are your faces red when we are trying to do justice and love mercy?  Why do you shake your fists at us when we are trying to discover the hurting and begin the healing?

 

We are overjoyed that we can be the church, a community of people, who are many, yet one—who are different, but who walk together and welcome any who would walk with us.  When we weep there is someone to weep with us and to affirm us and to take us to a party.  When we see injustices, we must be about God’s business of freeing the oppressed.  When we are faithless, we have God’s promise of forgiveness.  Isn’t it remarkable that we can be God’s good news?  Is it any wonder we have a church full of party rooms?  There is so much love to celebrate!”

 

The committee stared at the people, and the people moved closer to them and put their arms around them.  The committee chairperson stepped up to the table and sliced a piece of birthday cake, took a bite, and laughed out loud.  He began slicing and passing it out… [Then the chairperson] raised his glass and said,  “There is so much Love to celebrate!  Happy Birthday, Church!”

 

And all God’s people said, “Amen!” Abundant power is ours! Abundant joy is ours! The Spirit is among us and in us. So let us celebrate and sing “Happy Birthday” to Christ’s Church!

 

[i] Luke 24:49

[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 19-20.

[iii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 19-20.

[iv] copyright 1980 by Ann Weems