Welcome to the Party

Welcome to the Party

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 15, 2017

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

 

Congratulations, First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, you’ve been invited to not one but two parties.  I have your invitations here. Oh, but wait, you won’t believe it—they are at the same time. I guess you will have to choose which one you want to attend.

 

The first party—well, it looks like fun!  Let’s see… It’s at the bottom of Mount Sinai. It appears the hosts of the party have been waiting there for their fearless leader—some fellow by the name of Moses. But Moses has been having a retreat on the mountain with Yahweh; where he’s been receiving instructions on how to set up a tabernacle and how to establish a priesthood. Moses has been gone a long time—too long for the people’s fancy. As a result, they approach Aaron, Moses’ brother, with a request: “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?”[i] And what does Aaron do? He caves into their request—just like that. The golden earrings of the people are collected, formed into the mold of a calf—and lo, an idol is born. An altar is built and plans are made for a festival.  You’re invited!  Come, eat, drink and be merry!

 

It’s everything you might expect from a Golden Calf Party. You’ll be in charge. No more waiting on Moses. No more dealing with Yahweh whom you cannot control and who, quite frankly, sometimes scares you half to death. Imagine bowing before that shiny, golden god, that molten, inanimate object. You can throw flowers on it, you can dance around it. This is your god and you hold all the power, in your very own hands. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it?

 

Well maybe so—until you learn about Yahweh’s response to this little shindig. To Moses, the LORD says, “Go down at once, YOUR people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn against them and I may consume them.”[ii]

 

My, is God ever angry!  I don’t know about you, but that puts a damper on things for me. I don’t think I’m capable of enduring the wrath of God, no matter how enticing a Golden Calf Party might sound.

 

Thankfully, there’s another invitation!

 

Let’s see. This party is given by a king to honor his son—it’s a wedding banquet. (Oh, I love weddings!)  Lots of people have been invited. The table has been set, the prime rib is ready for carving; it’s a bounteous feast. But for some reason those who were invited refused to show up. Could it be they do not really care about the king? Don’t they have any respect for him and his son? Evidently not, because they make fun of the invitation. One returns to his farm, another to his business, and others grab hold of his slaves, mistreat them and kill them. Understandably, the king is enraged and sends in troops to destroy the city.

 

Still, the party must go on. The king says to his servants, “We have a wedding banquet prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants go out in the streets and round up everyone they lay eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet is on—every place filled.”[iii]

 

What a party it is—with the most unlikely guests present. People who have been treated like outcasts have come to the table to taste the goodness of the king. There’s room enough for everyone and no one is left out. Now this looks like a party worth attending. But wait! What’s that happening over there?

 

The king has entered the room and it looks like he is talking to some fellow. Let’s listen to what the king has to say. “What do you mean, daring to come in here looking like that?” Well, the man is dressed a little odd, but wait—didn’t this guy just get an invitation that read: “Come as you are”? Yet, he’s being called out—called out into “outer darkness,” no less—and for what? Coming underdressed to a party he never expected to attend in the first place?

 

Obviously, there is some deeper meaning to the scene that’s being played out before us. You see, while everyone is invited to this party—just as they are—no one is expected to stay that way.  Once a person is baptized into the family of God, a new garment, a baptismal garment is provided. Over time, as a person matures in her faith, she grows into the meaning of her baptism; she grows into Christ. Her heart is changed. Day by day, she cultivates a life of love, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness so that, in time, her dirty, old, sin-ridden rags no longer fit.

 

Putting on Christ leads to transformation but you have to show up and you have to put on Christ every day. The crux of the matter is this: While God’s grace is available for everyone, with it comes obligations. We, who are believers, are expected to live as God’s people—with the LORD as the king ruling over our hearts and lives. To do otherwise is to spit in the face of God. To do otherwise is to assert our pride and be clothed with our own filthy rags when the garment of Christ is hanging just within reach.

 

Dear church, you’ve been invited to not one, but two parties. If you choose the Golden Calf Extravaganza, you can go to the foot of Mt. Sinai and, seemingly, you’ll hold your future in your hands. You’ll be in control. You can worship whatever you want to worship. No more will you have to ask God what you should do with your time, your talents, and your treasures. After all, you have earned everything you have on your own, right?  You are not responsible for God’s kingdom work. You are not accountable to anyone. Why, you can go out and fashion your gold into a calf if you wish. You can make your own idol. You can be your own idol!

 

Maybe so, but remember this: Everything that glitters is not gold.

 

If, however, you choose to attend the king’s party, the wedding banquet for his son—you can go free of charge. God’s grace is sufficient. And at this banquet, a new kingdom is promised. No longer will pedigrees or titles take precedence over the contents of a person’s heart.

 

Jesus has come to set things right. Jesus has come to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and set the captive free. There will be no more hogging of power and beating down the lowly. For too long, the religious leaders whom Jesus speaks against have denied God’s power and scorned God’s love. They have been busy doing things their own way with their personal agendas as their guide. They have no interest in this new life Jesus promises. Instead, their hearts are set on using whatever authority they can garner to draw lines in the sand—keeping some in—keeping many out. But with the advent of Jesus, those days are over. The Son of God throws open the doors and windows and proclaims to the whole world: “Come, taste and see, my Abba, Father is good!”

 

Everyone is welcome. Nevertheless, the invitation comes with expectations. The right attire is a must for this new kingdom life. Only the garment of Christ will do! Is the cost too great? Or, in the end, will all of eternity not be long enough to offer up our thanksgiving and praise?

 

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud crashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! [Yes,] Praise the Lord![iv]

 

It’s time to get dressed for a celebration.

 

Which party will you attend and what will you wear?

 

[i] The Message

[ii] NRSV

[iii] The Message

[iv] Psalm 150, NRSV

 

*Cover Art “Getting Garbed” © Jan Richardson; used by subscription

 

Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 8, 2017

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14

How many of you are fans of HGTV’s hit series, “Fixer Upper”? If you are, you may need a little pastoral care since Chip & Joanna Gaines have announced this will be their last year doing the show. My husband, Kinney, is quite sad about the news but for the life of me, I do not know why. I do not know why because he has a litany he goes through with nearly every episode. It goes something like this: “You know what Joanna is about to do—replace the popcorn ceiling, take out a wall, install stainless steel appliances and granite countertops along with a new backsplash. Oh, and pull up the carpet to put down new hardwood floors.” To this litany, I sometimes cannot help but respond, “Then why, exactly, are we watching this show?”

 

Of course, home restoration reality shows have been around for a while. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” for example, was a wildly popular TV series that providing home improvements for families facing financial or other hardships. It ran for 9 seasons. One episode featured Kent Morrell, who started his own business while still a student at the University of Tennessee.  The “Indoor Oceans Company” specialized in large aquarium installation and maintenance. Kent was in the fast lane—working 60 hours a week. By the age of 31, he had it all—a wife, children, and bucket-loads of cash. But all this changed one night when he was involved in a car accident. In a split second, his reality was transformed—he couldn’t work, he was depressed, he worried about his family and his finances.

 

Faith is what kept Kent’s family going. About a year after the accident, he was anointed with oil during a prayer service and some of his chronic pain subsided. A later surgery left him feeling nearly normal. Then, two months after returning to work, Kent got a call from the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The request?  Install a 600-gallon saltwater aquarium for the upcoming two-hour season premiere. Oh, and do it in 2 weeks. Kent states: “Every step I said, ‘God, I don’t know how I will work this out,’ and it was like God said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Through many providential twists and turns, the aquarium—the first of its size to ever be installed in a private residence—was placed in a home in Clarksville, Tennessee for a wounded soldier who was getting his own Extreme Makeover for the whole nation to see.

 

And Kent’s makeover?  In his words, “My business used to be my life, my sense of self-worth… What’s really important now is my family. I realize now that God doesn’t promise a pain-free life.  I have new empathy and respect for people who have gone through pain and life changes. God has always been with me. I’m not saying there haven’t been problems, but he was there and will always be there. God has worked it out, every step of the way.”

 

God working!  God changing!  How can we talk seriously about life changes, extreme makeovers—without talking about God? And if anyone was ever “made over” it was the Apostle Paul.  Paul, who once persecuted Christians, becomes the leader of the pack proclaiming the gospel story.  A makeover, indeed!  Paul, transformed by God’s grace, appears in our epistle reading for today with important lessons. In three steps, he shows us how to take stock of our lives.  Let’s take a look.

 

Step one is to consider where we are now.  Imperfect?  Paul would agree, admitting, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal.” Truly, righteousness comes from God.  When we become children of God, we are declared not guilty, and therefore righteous, because of what Christ has done for us.  It is not our efforts at law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline that puts us in right standing with God.

 

Furthermore, ultimately, we know our complete perfection will not be achieved on this side of eternity.  Even so, we are responsible for working toward wholeness, toward perfection as long as we live. Eugene Peterson says, “The Christian life consists mostly of what God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is and does.  But we also are a part of it.  Not the largest part, but still a part.”

 

Where are we now?  Imperfect?  A mark of true maturity is to know that one is not yet perfect.  So imperfect is a good place to start. It turns out, it is the only place we can start!

 

In step two of taking stock of our lives, Paul invites us to reflect on where we’ve been!  In his letter to the church of Philippi, Paul defends the rights of Gentiles to be Christians. He opposes Judaizers, who are teaching it is necessary to first become a Jew, to first be circumcised. For Paul, circumcision is of no value unless it’s circumcision of the heart. Faith is what is essential. So Paul reviews his credentials:  Jewish by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure Hebrew, and in addition to these inherited privileges, he has excelled in everything Jewish. In essence, Paul says, “If you want to play the game of credentials and works righteousness, I can play. In fact, I can beat you at your game.” Then he shows them it’s the wrong game. Paul has found a new reason to boast.

 

In verse 13, Paul declares, “[T]his one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind…” In other words, forget the past!  (Isn’t it interesting that the things that Paul once boasted about separated him from others, while being in Christ unites him with others?)

 

Finally, we are invited to take stock of our lives by considering where we want to go!  Paul writes, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul uses the metaphor of a runner pressing on to win the prize, straining forward to what lies ahead. We can almost feel the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, the heart pump. Is he contradicting himself and now saying that faith is through works? No! For Paul, faith involves running, wrestling, striving and fighting. No health & wealth, cotton candy Gospel for Paul. Trust in God’s grace does not make Paul less active than the Judaizers, but rather sets him free to run the race without watching his feet.

 

Yet, Paul does not think he has “made it.” Twice he uses the phrase “I press on.”  He is not waiting idly by for perfection to come to him. He urgently pursues his goal while, at the same time, claiming that it will only be through God’s grace that he will ever reach it. Christ himself is the blueprint for Christian behavior, and Paul, modeling himself after Christ, has become a model for the Philippians.

 

Down through the ages, other models follow. Now, it is our turn. Now it is up to us to demonstrate to the world what Christian behavior looks like. With the privilege of belonging to Christ comes great responsibility. We are now the hands and feet and compassionate heart of Christ for the world. And we will always be in process, which is the way it should be.

 

In Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes of a Benedictine friend who compared the difficult intimacy of monastic community life to being placed in a rock tumbler.  “It’s great if you want to come out nice and polished.” The image speaks of the journey toward perfection. We are tumbled about. We slip, we fall, but we rise again to join the race. We press on, urgently pursuing the goal—but, oh the prize—that glorious time when we will all be polished, shining before Christ our Lord!

 

Paul had an extreme makeover! Through his transformation, we see the wisdom of assessing our lives and our goals.  Step One: Review where we are—imperfect, yes, but loved by God, nonetheless. Step Two:  Consider where we’ve been—yes, but leave the past behind. Step Three:  Examine where we want to go—the race before us will have its wins and losses but the ultimate prize will be ours if we press on!

 

As Christians, we have brothers and sisters of the faith down the street, in neighboring states and countries—folks all around the world. But no matter where we are, geographically, when believers gather to worship God, we do a bold thing. We sing. We pray. We confess. We preach. We return a portion to God from the bounty we have been provided. We share the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

 

Whenever we go forth from our places of worship, we do a bold thing. We dare to announce God’s love for all people. We dare to imagine a world filled with people transformed by God’s grace. We dare to work toward peace and justice for everyone. We dare to claim the power available to us for the race ahead—the Spirit that makes it possible for us to be transformed—for us to experience our very own Extreme Makeover!

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

 

*Cover Art “Saint Paul the Apostle” Icon in the Public Domain

 

 

 

 

The Authority of Jesus

The Authority of Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 1, 2017

World Communion Sunday

Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32

 

 

Jesus has been doing the will of his Father. As you well know, along the way, he has made friends and he has made enemies—not least of all are those who show up today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It seems that Jesus has crossed the line. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus enters the temple and creates quite a ruckus. He drives out everyone who is selling and buying. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of those selling doves. Then he heals the blind and the lame so that the children cry out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

 

It is no wonder the religious authorities—the chief priests and the elders—show up to question Jesus. And what is the nature of their questioning?  Authority! Now that’s a topic the religious leaders know something about. After all, for generations, they have been the ones in power—the ones with the keys to the kingdom—interpreting Yahweh’s words to the people. These rulers—they aren’t just anyone—they have roots.

 

I have friends who are into genealogy—spending hours among historical documents, pouring over registers, marriage and death certificates at the county courthouse, etc. No doubt, it is something to be able to say with confidence, “My great, great, great whoever did this or said that or came over on the Mayflower.” Even though I am not personally drawn to searching out my earthly heritage—there’s nothing I like better than to do so regarding my heavenly one. In my research, here is what I have found: “My great, great, great, whoever includes Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. What an incredible religious heritage that is freely ours to claim!

 

Of course, Jesus’ accusers, who are of the people of Israel, have long been into genealogy, which turns out to be a good thing. Otherwise, we might be missing the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah in Matthew chapter 1. But in this particular text, the temple authorities have not approached Jesus because they are interested in his genealogy and wish to convert. Far from it! No, they show up because they are angry. Who is this young whippersnapper—coming into THEIR temple—turning over tables? Who does he think he is?

 

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask. Instead of answering, Jesus responds with a question of his own. At first glance, it sounds like a riddle that makes us proud of Jesus for outsmarting those foxes again—avoiding their question altogether. But on closer examination, we realize Jesus has not avoided their question. He has simply answered them indirectly. (We’ll get back to that in a moment.) First, let’s look at what the chief priest and elders do. They go into a huddle. Seriously! They put their heads together to decide what to do to get out of this mess they have gotten themselves into. “If we say John’s authority came from God, then he will say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him.’ If we say from himself, then the people will rise up against us for they thought John was a prophet.”  So Jesus’ accusers creep back over toward Jesus, with chests held high and they plead the 5th.

 

“We cannot say,” to which Jesus responds, “Neither can I.”

 

Jesus’ question to the religious authorities relates to John the Baptist. And if we look back at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, we see that the lives of Jesus and John have been intertwined from the beginning. Remember how Mary, the soon to be mother of Jesus, comes to visit Elizabeth, the soon to be mother of John the Baptist. Upon Mary’s arrival, an unusual thing occurs. The unborn baby, John, leaps in his mother’s womb. Before birth, John recognizes this One for whom he will pave the way. Thus, when Jesus questions the religious leaders about the authority given to John the Baptist, he is hinting at the truth: To recognize John’s authority is to recognize his own.

 

Remember, though, the religious leaders have not come to be converted. They appear with one thing on their minds—trapping Jesus. This time, though, they will go away empty handed—but not before Jesus delivers up 3 parables to put them in their place—the first of which is the parable of the two sons. In the story, the father of the two sons asks each one to go work in the vineyard. The first refuses but later does; while the second says he will, but does not. When Jesus asks the leaders which of the two did the will of his father, they answer, “The first.”

 

As parables go, this one is straightforward and clear. But by the end of it, one thing is crystal clear—If these leaders were not angry before, they are now because Jesus says out loud, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Wow! Just a moment ago, these fellows were leading the parade into heaven and now look what has happened!

 

Ultimately both of our Scripture readings for this morning are about authority. In Exodus, the people of Israel are out in the wilderness complaining (as they were last week when we left them) and they approach Moses, practically ready to stone him. In response to their complaint about lack of water, again Yahweh provides—with water from a rock. The people test God saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” In other words, “Is God really in charge here? Is God really our authority?”

 

Who is our authority?  It is a question that plagues the Israelites for 40 years out in the wilderness.

It will plague them down through the ages as judges and prophets and kings come and go, often with one, two-part message: You must serve God and God alone and you must look out for one another. The question of authority continues to create a buzz during the days of Jesus—especially when Jesus keeps turning everything upside down—including the tables of the temple. Jesus comes to proclaim salvation hope with the authority given to him by the very one Moses met out in that burning bush—the One with the name: I AM WHO I AM.

 

Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Today, we are given a precious gift—an invitation to take stock of our lives. Who or what rules as our authority? Are we governed by money? By possessions? By success as defined by the world? Moreover, which brother am I? Am I the brother who has always been the black sheep of the family but now I am sorry and I want to turn my life around and follow the will of my Father. Am I the sister who has always thought of myself as “in”?  And, quite frankly, “I do not have to do anything to maintain the status quo. After all, I am a Christian because my great, great, great whoever was a Christian.”

 

At the end of the day, how will we respond to a personal encounter with Jesus? Will we come away grateful for our religious heritage, as children of the Living God? Moreover, will we welcome others to the Table of our Lord?

 

It was in the spirit of welcome that World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr first conceived of the notion during his year as moderator of the General Assembly. Later, with the support of the church stewardship committee, World Communion Sunday started as an attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity. The hope was that everyone might receive inspiration and be reminded how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is connected to one another.  The story of our faith does not belong to Presbyterians. Nor does it belong to the Methodists or the Episcopals or the Baptists down the street.

 

The idea of sharing communion with those of other traditions began slowly at first. People did not think much about it until WWII. The idea really took hold then because the world seemed to be falling apart. Maybe a spirit of togetherness would help. World Communion Sunday was soon adopted as a denominational practice. In a few short years, churches in other denominations followed suit. Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world on the first Sunday of October.

 

There is One Authority that governs us all. One Triune God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Oh, we may interpret God’s will for us differently. But surely, our commonalities outweigh our differences.

 

One Body.

One Baptism.

One Table.

Thanks be to God!