Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 28, 2018
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Mark 10:46-52
(Instruct folks to take out cell phones and hold them up. Take pics of the congregation and the choir. Then have everyone except those assisting later in the service, turn off cell phones.)
When Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Let me see again.” Let me see again. I invite you to ponder these words even as we reflect on this day, this Reformation Sunday. Let me see again.
You may recall that last year marked 500 years of the Protestant era. Good things came from the Reformation—for instance—the corruption of leaders in the church was exposed, Scripture gained authority, grace was elevated as a critical doctrine of the church, the Bible became accessible, and literacy spread. Yes, good things grew out of the Reformation. But, as a reaction against the Catholic church, good things were cast aside—things like stressing the importance of silence and solitude and various prayer practices to help heal the woes of our human condition.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, the church is alive but is the church well? And how is the Presbyterian church doing, in particular? We, who are often called the chosen frozen, have quite a reputation for being a cerebral bunch that leans on head knowledge rather than the knowing of the heart.
There is no doubt, the church, no matter the denomination, hardly looks like it did—even 50 years ago. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Scholars have been warning that a massive cultural shift happens in the church about every 500 years. If that’s true, we are due another Reformation. The thought of such a thing might cause us to freeze in fear or it might encourage us to evaluate our way of being and doing, and to ponder what we might do, not just to survive, but to thrive.
First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta has a long, rich history. Organized in 1864, the cornerstone to this sanctuary was placed in 1907. In 1958, the Fellowship Hall was erected with the Centennial Building constructed in 1964. Our church started 3 congregations in the area—West End Presbyterian Church 75 years ago, Twin Lakes Presbyterian Church 73 years ago, and Trinity Presbyterian Church 33 years ago. We have a long history of supporting foreign missions as well as other missions like Thornwell Home for Children and Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. Additionally, the Break Bread Together Program began 45 years ago, and the Father Daughter Valentine Dance began 22 years ago. What wonderful opportunities God has given us and those who have gone before us. Thanks be to God!
Undeniably, our story is rich and inspiring, but, by the grace of God, our story is far from over. For surely, we do not intend to rest on our laurels and go down in history as the church that “used to” be one of the large downtown churches, as the church that “used to” have resources aplenty, as the church that “used to” have a reputation for planting new churches and new ministries. No. Words like “used to” are words that do not serve us well. Instead, your Session and I have been encouraging you to try some new words, words like creativity and celebration, words like gratitude and generosity, words like explore and experiment.
These words have compelled us to start the First Friday Contemplative Service, to experiment with a multi-generational Sunday school class that allows us to pool our resources and learn together no matter our age, to try spiritual retreats and a variety of spiritual practices on Wednesday night and during Holy Week, and to dream of what wonderful things God might have in store for us. Some things we try on Christ’s behalf will succeed. Others will fail. But how will we know if we do not give it our all. Either way, we will press on. As a church, we will press on because being faithful is our goal, growing into the likeness of Christ is our goal, following the way of the Spirit is our goal—so yes, we press on to share the love of Christ whenever and however we can.
Making the love of Christ known is our reason for paying attention to our use of social media. The world of technology has exploded over the past decade—which is why most of you have a smart phone on your person. There is nothing like it to spread news quickly. Allow me to demonstrate. With my iPhone, I am going to send a text message to some folks in our midst. Let’s see what happens.
(Text 6 people, whom I contacted earlier in the week, a snapshot of the words of “Jesus Loves Me,” and one by one they will stand to say their line.)
Modern technology! It’s incredible! Of course, we may resist technology, and yearn for the good old days, but the truth is, technology—in one form or fashion—has a history of being used to spread the gospel. For example, the famed Roman Roads of the Ancient Empire were among the foremost technological advances that helped Christianity spread after Pentecost, when the work of the apostles, including Paul, really began. The construction of the Roman roadway system started in 500 B.C. and ultimately spanned over 250,000 miles. While the roads enabled the Roman Empire to grow, they also propelled the Gospel.[i]
Fast forward through time to 1448 when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. Gutenberg’s printing press meant more access to information and more widespread criticism of religious authorities. For Martin Luther, this new technology was something truly glorious. He praised its timeliness and encouraged its potential. Luther recognized a new “road.” [ii]
The Roman roads and Gutenberg press of today are the internet, the smart phone, and social media. Faithful church folks and even those who claim to be spiritual but not religious take advantage of Bible apps, prayer apps, and daily devotional apps on their cell phones. Make no mistake, people are plugged in, so it behooves us to recognize the “new road” that is before us. If we have eyes to see, we will learn to utilize new technology that God has provided for such a time as this.
Allow me to demonstrate. How many of you have Facebook accounts? I invite everyone who wishes to do so to simply log onto Facebook and check in. (Allow a moment.) What just happened? We just let our friends and family know that on this Lord’s Day—when we could be most anywhere doing most anything—we chose to be here worshiping God together. With just a few taps of a finger, we have played the role of evangelist. We did not go knocking on doors. We did not mail out stacks of flyers. No. Just tap, tap, tap. And we were witnesses for Christ.
Perhaps you are sitting among us thinking, “I have no use for modern technology. I don’t have email. I don’t even have a cell phone. Furthermore, I want no part of any of it.” No worries. No worries at all. Because here is the crux of the matter: social media and new technology like Facebook will NEVER take the place of face to face interaction. If social media isn’t your thing, then do evangelism the tried and true way. Sit down with a friend over coffee or tea and tell her how Christ has changed your life. Mail a First Friday Contemplative Service invitation to someone who is having a hard time. Call your grandson. Invite him to church the second Sunday of next month so he can stay for Friends out Front and we can get to know him, and he can get to know us. Whether with friends or strangers, take every opportunity to share a smile and a listening ear. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we want to remain a relevant voice for this community, there is work for us all to do and it will take all of us to do it.
Dear saints of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, in my prayers for you, I have asked God to let me see what we might do together in the coming months and years. When I close my eyes and imagine our future, I envision us planting something new right here on Patterson Street. I see the sanctuary filled with people who have a passion for Christ and an eagerness to grow in faith and love. I see us employing Facebook to stay connected but also to evangelize, thereby impacting more people for Christ. I envision new technology that allows us to livestream worship services on Sundays. I imagine people coming to the church during the week to pray. In my dream, the church has earned a reputation for being a place where people have the courage to seek new ways of being the church in these rapidly changing times. We are known for feeding the hungry—in body and in spirit. For the church and wider community, we offer day retreats and weekend retreats that allow sacred space for spiritual growth. And we have financial blessings that permit us to start new ministries and to renovate our lovely sanctuary and adjacent buildings as needed.
Reformation Sunday is a good day to celebrate, to reflect, and to ponder. But, it is also a good day to pause and hear Jesus’ question for us, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord Jesus, help us see again. Give us courage to embrace your vision for our future.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art “Sunflowers” by The Georgia Photography Fanatic; used by permission.