The Next 500 Years

The Next 500 Years

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 29, 2017

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE

 

Good morning! I am delighted to be here. Dr. Luther sends his apologies. He couldn’t make it but he has every intention of being with you this evening for all the festivities. You may be wondering who I am. To Dr. Luther, I am known by many names. He often calls me “Boss of Zulsdorf,” after the name of the farm we owned, or “Morning Star of Wittenberg,” due to my habit of rising at 4 in the morning to take care of my plethora of responsibilities, or, and this is my favorite, “Dear Kate.” While my given name is Katharina von Bora, it is the name Luther that means the most to me because Martin Luther is the love of my life, my companion, my closest friend, my husband.

 

No doubt our marriage shocked the world—but, alas, I get ahead of myself. Allow me to provide a little background. My mother died when I was a child and at the age of five, my father took me to a convent to “further my education” he said. Likely, he was really interested in finding me a home so he could start his life with his new wife. Regardless, I first entered a Benedictine cloister but was later moved me to a Cistercian monastery where my aunt resided.

 

At first, I was happy enough but as my education grew, so did my discontent with the monastic life in general, and the Catholic Church in particular. As a young woman I was interested in the happenings in Germany—especially the movement Martin Luther started when he nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. I became convinced that the Holy Spirit inspired Dr. Luther and others to set right the corruption within the leadership of Christ’s church.

 

I wasn’t the only one interested in the new movement. There were several in the monastery—friends of mine—who were equally captivated. In time we contacted Doctor Luther. He seemed to be the person who knew how to get things done and we wanted something remarkable done. We wanted to escape the monastery. It would be a dangerous feat because a person caught abandoning her vows could be tortured, imprisoned, or worse. Still, we felt inspired to take a bold step. We wanted to be part of Christ’s work in the world!

 

Dr. Luther, sympathetic to our cause, recruited a merchant to smuggle us out of the monastery. Upon our arrival, Luther was determined to return us to our families but that turned out to be impossible. For a variety of reasons, they did not want us. Mostly, though, they feared the consequences of violating Roman Catholic law. Never one to turn away from a challenge, Luther decided to find husbands for us, according to our wishes. Everyone found a mate—except for me. I was pickier than most. In the end, I determined in my heart that only two men would suit me—Nikolaus von Amsdorf, a colleague of Dr. Luther—or Luther himself.

 

At first, Luther resisted the idea. Although he had come to believe that marriage was a gift from God for all people—even those called to the religious life—he had not considered marriage for himself. Many of his friends were unsure, too. They feared Luther’s marriage would hurt the Reformation by causing undue scandal. Luther’s father, on the other hand, was overjoyed at the idea. He said it was what he always wanted for his son. Eventually, Luther came to the conclusion that his marriage would “please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” How could he lose?

 

Martin Luther and I were married June 13, 1525. He was forty-one years old and I was twenty-five. Against all odds, we had a wonderful life together. We took up residence at the Black Cloister, a former dormitory and educational institution for Augustinian friars given to us as a wedding gift. Immediately, I took on the task of managing our property, which included breeding and selling cattle, and running a brewery to provide for our family, the steady stream of students who boarded with us, and visitors who sought an audience with Dr. Luther. In times of widespread illness, I opened our home to serve as a hospital site and ministered to the sick along with other nurses.  In our life together, we were blessed with six children. In addition, we brought four orphans into our loving home—and a loving home it was.

 

Along with Dr. Luther, I had strong opinions about the way in which we are to live out our faith in the world. While I might have been known as being bighearted, I could not hold a candle to Dr. Luther. In fact, his proclivity for generosity is what led me to handle our finances. We would have starved, otherwise. Luther knew that I was a strong-willed woman when he married me—and he had no desire to dampen my intellect or my creative abilities. On occasion, he described me as “My Lord Katie” because he was determined that I have control over my own life—a stance unheard of in the 16th Century. One of my fondest memories, though, is waking up one morning to Dr. Luther smiling brightly at me and saying, “Dear Kate, I never tire of seeing your pigtails on my pillow.”

 

It’s incredible that 500 years have come and gone. When Dr. Luther nailed his theses to the door, he never intended to split the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted a debate. He wanted reform. He wanted the blatant abuse of church power to stop—no more taking advantage of the people (90 percent of whom were illiterate and had little choice but to accept the church’s teachings without question). Repulsed by the sale of indulgences, he wrote, “Why does not the pope [with his great wealth] build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers.” Most importantly, Luther was convinced that it was faith alone—and not deeds—that led to salvation.

 

You know the rest of the story. The Pope and other church leaders had no desire to debate their own folly. Instead, they were determined to continue the sale of indulgences, to continue to take advantage of the poor, to continue to do whatever it took to maintain their power and financial status. But the Reformers, Luther, in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and later, others like John Calvin and John Knox—they set a fire that could not be quenched. The church was being reformed. It still is!

 

Many good things came out of the Reformation. The corrupt leaders of the Roman Catholic Church became less powerful as people were exposed to new ways of understanding God and all that is holy. Scripture became available to people in their own languages. Bibles and other books became more plentiful, literacy grew, and schools and universities multiplied.

 

Clearly, though, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died gruesome deaths for their beliefs. Religious art and religious institutions were destroyed. The unity of the Western church was broken. Sadly, division has become the hallmark of the Protestant movement which is evident by the 9000 Protestant denominations now found throughout the world. We have divided over the meaning and administration of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism; we have divided over forms of church government; we have divided over issues like predestination and free will. In more recent years, we have divided over worship styles; we have divided over the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament; we have divided over being welcoming and affirming to all people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation. We have divided and we keep dividing. This is a far cry from what the Reformers had in mind.

 

Don’t misunderstand me. I am glad for the work the Reformers did—and for the small part, I played. Still, we have fallen short of bringing God’s kingdom to the earth. We cannot pay lip service to spiritual unity and continue to tear one another apart. We dare not ignore the fact that a shrinking percentage of the community even finds the church relevant anymore.

 

Truly, there is work yet to be done. It is time for a New Reformation and there is every indication that it has already begun. The Holy Spirit is on the move—challenging us to be courageous—challenging us to seek reconciliation rather than schism and war—challenging us, once again, to take the gospel out into the streets. The body of Christ, the church was never meant to be housed in a building—neither in St. Peter’s Basilica, nor in First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta. Believers and seekers alike enter into a sacred space like this one to worship, to pray, to learn, to grow, and then to return to the world equipped to BE the church. YOU are the church—each and every one of you. YOU are the church when you go shopping at Publix or TJ Maxx. YOU are the church when you go to work or to school and or to a restaurant or to a movie. YOU are the church when you volunteer for Break Bread Together or for other ministries of compassion. YOU are the church when you provide words of love and light on social media rather than disseminate turmoil and fear. YOU are the church when you get involved in matters of justice. YOU are the church when you try to right that which is wrong. YOU are the church when you obey the words of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith points us toward the future of his Church. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus showed mercy when mercy was needed. Jesus showed compassion when compassion was needed. Jesus spoke the truth when the truth was needed. Jesus embodied the words of Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

 

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are the Reformers of today! You are the Reformers of tomorrow! Go forth with the Spirit as your guide—reformed and always being reformed!

 

RESOURCES:

www.lutheranreformation.org

“The Morning Star of Wittenberg” by Susan Verstraete @ www.bulletininserts.org

www.visit-luther.com

*Cover Art “Katharina von Bora” in Public Domain.

 

God’s Coins

God’s Coins

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 22, 2017

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

 

It appears Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew puts us near the end of his earthly ministry. In previous readings, you’ll recall how Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, takes one look at all the crooked dealings going on in the temple and has a little house-cleaning party. In no time flat, the chief priests and elders come calling. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds with a question that traps them in their own deceit. Then, to hammer home his opinion of the way things have been going, Jesus tells three parables to put the religious rulers in their place. In essence, Jesus proclaims a new day with new kingdom rules to follow.

 

Now what? The religious authorities are livid.  “This ‘false prophet’ must be shut down. Look at the crowds, how they follow him. This is getting out of hand.”  They’ll stop at nothing to put an end to this man who claims to be something he couldn’t possibly be. So the Pharisees go out and make some strange bedfellows. They team up with the Herodians. Now, we don’t know much about the Herodians except that they are almost certainly supporters of Herod Antipas. Still, the Pharisees go into cahoots with them—with one common goal:  Get rid of Jesus!

 

Can’t you just hear the sweet, syrupy tone of their voices as they open their mouths to speak? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

 

Jesus wasn’t born yesterday. He can see straight through them—straight through them to their heart and soul—and what he sees is hypocrisy. Never one to mince words, Jesus asks, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”  (Interestingly, the Greek word for hypocrite means actor, a stage player, a pretender.)  How odd it is that these pretenders, bent on trapping Jesus, speak the truth even in their ignorance? Jesus is sincere. Jesus does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Jesus shows no partiality. Oh, if these hypocrites only believed that which so easily slips from their lips!

 

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. (Show me the money!) And there in broad daylight, they hand over a coin. On one side, there is an image of the emperor and on the other, words claiming his divinity. Therefore, what these religious leaders hand Jesus is nothing less than a graven image.

 

You remember the 1st and 2nd Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an idol (or graven image), whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

 

Even though, supposedly the Pharisees are against having in their possession any sort of graven image, someone has a coin in his pocket. At this point, I imagine you can hear a pin drop. Everyone waits with bated breath. The trap is set. Anticipation builds. If Jesus answers no, he is in trouble with the Roman authorities and a quick trip to Pilate will set things straight. If Jesus answers yes, he is in trouble with many of his own followers.

 

Indeed, it appears Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. “Whose head is this and whose title?” he asks. “The emperor’s.” Then Jesus responds, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are Gods.”

 

Without question, Jesus has strong opinions on money matters. Well known are his teachings: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” [i]; AND “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[ii]

 

While being good stewards of earthly things matters, Jesus always pushes us to see the greater reality—something we so easily miss! In 1st Century Palestine, this coin represents the dictating powers of Rome and their annual taxation, which is administered by the Jewish authorities. In his response, Jesus allows room for Caesar—for the emperor—for governing bodies but that is not the end of the story because he adds, “…and to God the things that are God’s.” So the greater reality to which Jesus points is this: Even the reign of Caesar is overruled by the reign of God Almighty.

 

“Give to God the things that are Gods.”  Isn’t everything God’s? All of creation! And if we’re talking about what belongs to God, we must surely include ourselves. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Tertullian wrote in the 3rd Century, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image which is on man.”[iii] We are made in God’s image. We are God’s coins. How will we allow God to spend us, to use us? How will we make available to God —all of our being—all for God’s glory?

 

It’s God’s glory that Moses yearns to see. Moses and Yahweh have been discussing whether or not God’s presence will continue to be with Moses and the people as they go forth. Moses won’t go without God. When God agrees to continue on the journey, Moses makes a grand request: “Show me your glory, I pray.”

 

God says, “[Y]ou cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock; and I will cover you with my hand until I pass by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”[iv]

 

It appears that Moses is between a rock and a hard place—but all the while he is in the presence of the glory of God. God’s glory cannot be grasped. God’s power is too much to behold—the shadow of God is all that Moses can stand. “No one can live and see my face,” God says, but, for those who have eyes to see, Jesus reveals the other side of the coin. While you cannot look at God’s face and live, you can look at the emperor’s face all day long. You can look at Caesar’s face, as my grandmother used to say, “’til the cows come home,” and no harm need come to you for the emperor holds no power other than what is given to him.

 

But God’s power—now that’s another matter—which makes it even more remarkable that we are made in the image of God. And baptism, baptism marks us as God’s currency. But sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves as God sees us, isn’t it? As one commentary writer put it,

 

 

When we look at each other, or in the mirror, we tend to see the inscriptions that our business with the world has left on us: you are what you look like, what you have, what you wear, what you do, the company you keep. Nevertheless, under all those inscriptions is a much deeper mark: the kiss of light in the eyes, the watery sign of a cross made once upon a time on the forehead, the image of all those children in the arms of their mothers, and the little ember of resolve to remember them. All those faces are a part of your face, when you begin to see the image that God sees…[v]

 

Made in the image of God, we are God’s currency. Even if, sometimes, we find our selves between a rock and a hard place, even there God’s glory can be found. In all that we say, in all that we do, may we be spent for the glory of God.

 

[i] Luke 18:25

[ii] Matt. 6:19-21

[iii] Quoted by Susan Grove Eastman in Feasting on the Word, 193.

[iv] Exodus 33

[v] Richard E. Spalding in Feasting on the Word, 192

 

*Cover Art ”Show Me Your Glory” ©Jan Richardson; used with subscription

 

 

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!