Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 11, 2018
26th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8
Here we are in the middle of November, approaching a national holiday. Are you in the mood for Thanksgiving? I’m guessing you are! But will our reading from the Gospel of Mark with Jesus predicting wars and the destruction of the Temple put a damper on our enthusiasm? Surely such a reading can’t possibly put us in the holiday spirit, or can it?
In just two weeks, Advent inaugurates a new church year—an event we will celebrate with a beautifully decorated sanctuary: purple paraments, red poinsettias, an Advent wreath and Advent candles, and lovely Christmas trees adorned with lights and Chrismons. But before we get too excited about Advent, before we even get too excited about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie, there’s some unfinished business at hand—business like tearing down of a few temples.[i]
In our reading from Mark, the temple in question is the 2nd Temple. The 1st Temple, you will recall, is built during the reign of King Solomon. Later, in Israel’s history, the temple is destroyed only to be rebuilt after the people of God return from Exile. Although the 2nd Temple never reaches the glory of the original, it is still grand by the standards of the day. It’s about a mile in circumference and it has walls lined with gold and silver. Just picture what it looked like with the rays of the sun reflecting on it! For the people of Israel, the Temple was the holiest of places made by human hands for the purpose of making sacrifices and worshiping Yahweh.
It’s this grand structure that the disciples stop to admire. “Look Teacher, what great stones?” Imagine their surprise when Jesus responds—not with equal admiration—but by foretelling of its very destruction. Just like that… “Do you see these great stones? Not one will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
“Wait a minute, Preacher!” you may be thinking, “What about putting us in the mood for Thanksgiving? I thought we came to hear some good news?” Indeed! What is all this about throwing down stones and the end of time. What’s hopeful about Jesus saying, “Many will come in my name and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…”
Ah, do not be alarmed! Hang onto that thought for a moment while we travel back in time to another temple—a temple located in Shiloh. It’s the setting for the story of Hannah. Shiloh was once the religious capital of Israel and it is here that Elkanah and his wives, Penninah and Hannah, come to worship and make their sacrifices to the Lord. But, the story goes, each year is torture for Hannah because she is barren. Penninah makes fun of her, jeers at her. Marci Auld Glass says that this may be “the ultimate family Thanksgiving of dysfunctionality. You can remember this story this week when your own family goes over the river and through the woods. We can’t catch the dialogue, but I suspect it went something like this. “Penninah: ‘Hannah, aren’t you excited to go to Shiloh? So we can say thank you to God for all our blessings, for all of our children? Oh, wait. You don’t have any children, do you?”[ii]
Distraught Hannah goes into the temple to beg Yahweh for a child. As she prays, her lips move but no sound comes out. So, Eli, the priest, mistakes her passion for drunkenness. Once he realizes his mistake, though, he says to her, “Go in peace. The Lord of Israel grant the petition you have made.” And God does just that. Hannah has a child whom, in her petition, she has promised to the Lord. Once he is weaned, she does as she promised. She takes him to the temple to leave him there. It’s then that she offers a prayer to God, a prayer that we know as the Song of Hannah:
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed…The Lord kills and brings to life…The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts… For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world… The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.
In Hannah’s future there will be five other children, but as Marci Auld Glass notes, Hannah doesn’t know that when she sings her song. What faithfulness! She makes a sacrifice…not of doves or cattle or harvest. Hannah offers to God her one and only son and the foundation is laid. The foundation is laid for great things in the future. Samuel grows up to be one of the most prominent figures in the Hebrew Bible. Dedicated to the Lord, he will anoint David to be the King of Israel. David’s son, Solomon, will build the First Temple in Jerusalem. From the line of this same David, a Messiah will come into the world. But Hannah knows nothing of these things. Even while leaving her son at the steps of the temple in Shiloh, she knows only one thing: her heart is overflowing with gratitude, so she does all she knows to do. She praises God!
In this world there are wars and rumors of wars. Truth be told, pain is woven into the very fabric of our lives. Surely, heavy on all our hearts these days are those who have recently experienced pain and destruction beyond measure—people in Florida and Georgia who are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Michael; people in California who have lost homes, transportation, animals, and even their very lives to the fires that have ripped through the region. We reel from such news. There are times we might even be tempted to give up hope, were it not for our hope in Jesus the Christ.
Jesus left the realm of glory to enter the world as a helpless baby to be the Great Hope of our past, our present, and our future. In Christ, there is hope. In Christ new life is possible—in this life and in the life to come. When Jesus foretells of the temple’s destruction, could it be that, on one level, he’s declaring an end to all the grand things that humans erect for comfort and protection? With Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, earthly temples and high priests are a thing of the past. Love, mercy, grace, hope—these are our present—these are our future. A new way of life—it’s ours for the taking. As one scholar notes, “Over the centuries, people have looked for signs and made predictions about the end of the world. Jesus is much more concerned about how we live our lives each day. Teaching, proclaiming, healing, feeding—these are our daily acts of discipleship.”[iii]
Still, is it important to keep alert, as Jesus advises later in the gospel? Of course! But there’s no need to worry. Remember Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t be alarmed!” For if we live faithfully, loving God and loving our neighbor the best way we know how, of what do we have to be afraid? We are not to live out of fear. We are to live out of humble gratitude.
Next Sunday marks the end of the Christian calendar when we gather to celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Soon, another song will be sung in our midst when Mary of Nazareth echoes the Song of Hannah, praising God, who has a way of working wonders in extraordinary ways.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…
Soon, Advent, the time of waiting will be upon us. But as we turn our faces toward turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie, let us also turn our hearts and minds toward heaven with words of thanks and praise. No matter what we face today—as individuals, as a congregation, or as a nation, still we serve a great God. Yes, there are wars and rumors of wars, yes there is pain, but maybe we can take Jesus at his word and believe there is no cause for fear. Jesus, our Savior, has gone before us. Jesus has made the crooked straight and the wrong right. Jesus has conquered death—and so we keep moving toward the Promised Land—knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Surely that is reason for thanksgiving!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] “Pouring Out Our Souls” A sermon by Marci Auld Glass, “Lectionary Homiletics,” Oct-Nov 2012.
[iii] Kimberly Clayton Richter, commentary in The Life with God Bible, 88.
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 11, 2018
25th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
By the church calendar, we are nearing the end of this year’s readings from the Gospel of Mark. Soon we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday and begin another year in the life of the church with the Season of Advent. But for now, we recognize an important time approaching in the life of Jesus. Soon he will turn his face toward Jerusalem. Soon soldiers will come to take him away. Soon he will be falsely accused, judged, and found guilty—soon and very soon—which makes today’s gospel reading even more poignant.
Most of us have heard sermons about the widow’s generous offering. It makes for an excellent stewardship message. I have certainly preached the text from that point of view and a lot of good can come from it. But this morning I want us to entertain a broader perspective of what Jesus is attempting to convey. Nearing the end of his ministry, Jesus happens to be in the temple observing the goings-on. He notices the scribes who have built up quite a reputation. They love wearing flashy robes and saying long-winded prayers that have about as much heart as they do. Known for taking advantage of helpless widows, they insist on being greeted with a respect they hardly deserve. Essentially, these scribes represent a temple-system that is broken beyond repair.
After Jesus criticizes the behavior of the religious leaders, he sits down to get an up close and personal view of what transpires in his Father’s house of prayer. Watching the people put money into the treasury, he notices the widow’s offering. There she is, just being herself, and Jesus catches her at it. Never one to miss a teaching moment, Jesus tells his disciples to look at this woman who literally has only 2 cents to rub together—nevertheless she gives her all. She has no robes. She garners no respect in the marketplaces or the synagogue. She does not sit in the place of honor at banquets. In fact, no one notices her—no one except Jesus. Jesus notices. Jesus sees.
Undeniably, we don’t know much about the widow, other than she no longer has a husband to support her and she is poor—extremely poor. Maybe she has children, maybe not. Maybe she is responsible for herself alone. She may live nearby and have a habit of visiting the temple every day because she yearns to be in Yahweh’s house. But she wouldn’t have to be in the temple that often to pick up on what the scribes are all about. Building their wealth on the back of widows and orphans and other helpless people in the Jewish community, their reputation has no doubt preceded them. Surely, even the widow knows their character. As I imagine the widow, I see a faithful woman of God, who recognizes the temple system for what it is—broken in many ways—nevertheless, she remains faithful. When it comes to the things of God, she will be generous no matter what.
At this point, we can’t help but wonder what good the widow’s sacrifice accomplishes though. Does her generosity simply add to the coffers of religious leaders in the temple system who are eager to exploit those who are vulnerable? Is Jesus pointing to her as an example of what to do or is he simply observing the contrast between the scribes who seem to have it all and the widow who seems to have nothing? Or both?
Jesus watches the widow give to an institution that has become perverted and he draws his disciples’ attention to this woman who gives “all that she has.” Interesting choice of words from someone who is about to follow suit, literally giving all that he has—his own life—for something that is broken and corrupt—the temple, yes, but also—all of humanity. Jesus sees things clearly—nevertheless, soon Jesus will suffer and die. Nevertheless, soon Jesus will give his all for love of his Abba Father, for love of all peoples of the world. In that moment, he will cry out, “It is finished,” and the curtain of the temple will be torn asunder.
In his life and ministry, Jesus is all about disrupting systems. Still today, we live in a world of systems that have gone awry—systems that desperately need the disrupting power of Christ. Who can deny that in our current economic system, the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer? Who can deny the brokenness of our educational system that puts pressure on teachers to test rather than teach? Who can deny the brokenness of our healthcare system that allows life-saving technologies and medications to be inaccessible to too many people? Who can deny the brokenness of the church that, in too many places, has become so focused on NOT dying, we have failed to teach people how to live?
So much around us is broken. We see it on the news—particularly with our recent mid-term elections. We feel it in our finances. We recognize it in our own families and other close relationships. Honestly, how do we keep from being overwhelmed by powers over which we have little control? Can our two cents possibly make a difference?
The world may seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, nevertheless we are called as children of God to do whatever small good we can. That’s it—really. Day by day, decision by decision, we walk into the light and help others do the same. It’s our life. It’s our mission for we are called to be a sign in and for the world of a new reality made possible through Christ. The PCUSA Book of Order informs us of ways the church serves as such a sign: By…
ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, the powerless…
engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice…
giving itself to the service of those who suffer…
sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world.
The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life.”[i]
Because of Christ’s sacrifice we live in the new reality, but not yet do we see it in its fullness. There may be an over-abundance of things broken all around us, nevertheless, we who are marked by baptismal waters, have been claimed as God’s own. We have been called to try to right whatever wrongs we see. How then, shall we spend ourselves? How, then, shall we spend our two cents? Day by day, may we grow into the likeness of our Lord, giving all that we have and all that we are for God’s service to the world.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order 2005-2007, G-3.0200-3.0400.
*Cover Art “Widow’s Mite” by James Christensen
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 4, 2018
24th Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints’ Service
Isaiah 25:6-9; Rev 21:1-6a
While All Saints Day actually falls on the first day of November, I am grateful that we can gather on this Lord’s Day to remember loved ones that are no longer with us but who, in a mysterious way, journey with us, still. Already this morning, we have named saints who have entered the eternal presence of God in the past year. We remember them and give thanks for the endless ways they enriched our lives. We give thanks for their goodness and for other qualities that, perhaps, made them “saints” for us.
It may be that our only experiences of the word “saint” are in relation to All Saints’ Day or in relation to those who have been canonized by the Catholic church, like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Teresa of Calcutta. For the purposes of our worship experience this morning, though, I want us to expand our understanding of the meaning of “saints” to include those still living who have demonstrated holiness or a closeness to God—anyone who is in Christ and in whom Christ surely dwells. In my proposed definition of saint, then, we may include those who have helped guide our faith, those who have shown us the face of Christ in ways large and small.
To help us along, I have recruited three church members to identify someone in our church who has played the role of “saint” for them. Please recognize that my intent is not to leave anyone out, but since I know how much you like short sermons, I’m convinced you will be happy we have chosen only one saint each. So, at this time, I invite Donna Gosnell, Bart Greer, and Jane Shelton to come forward to share their “Saint Alive” story.
(Donna Gosnell spoke of Jesse Spencer, who might be mistaken for St. Nicholas because of his beard and his generous heart. He might also be considered a saint of details since he has a reputation for being so organized. But, for Donna, Jesse is a saint because of his faithfulness—to God, to his church, to his family, and to his responsibilities as a chemistry professor at VSU, and to her—as a friend and mentor.)
(Bart Greer chose Eve Renfroe as his “Saint Alive.” Bart spoke of Eve’s gracious spirit that, for him, has been a vehicle of God’s grace in his life. He mentioned Eve’s generous heart, her welcoming nature, and her habit of reaching out to those who need a word of encouragement. For Bart, Eve has been an anchor and for that he is forever grateful.)
(Jane Shelton spoke of Libby George Clanton, who is known for her loving and accepting nature. Even on a recent cruise taken by Jane, Libby and a few others, Libby demonstrated her openness and friendliness by making friends with strangers upon hours of boarding the ship. Jane mentioned she was especially grateful that Libby had taught her how to be happy in the MORNING!)
When I think of saints in our midst, I see so many of you in my mind’s eye. I see Betty Tillman, Grayson Powell, Catharine Minor, Carol Busch. I see Florence and Lamar Cole. I see Gus and Sister Elliott, Grady and Judy Folsom. I could go on but I, too, had to choose only one Saint Alive so I chose Betty Sanders. Betty is pure joy. She has the greatest sense of humor. Two years ago, she showed up at the Tricks & Treats Costume Party and Potluck dressed as a woman of ill repute—pregnant. With a large pillow stuffed under her sweatshirt, she was a sight to behold. Another example of her humor came into play when she heard that Libby George Clanton was engaged. Betty couldn’t wait to reach out to Libby to offer her assistance. “Oh, Libby, I want you to know that Catharine Minor, Betty Tillman, and I would just love to be your flower girls. What do you think?”
While I adore Betty’s sense of humor, for me she has played the role of “saint” for another reason. You see, Betty Sanders has my cell phone number on speed dial and I am grateful. Often, she is the first person to call to let me know when my presence is needed at the bedside of someone who has been admitted to the hospital. Occasionally, for some reason, an individual or a family has preferred to handle whatever is going on in their lives, privately. When that has been the case, Betty has been good to explain the situation. She has been a truth-teller and, Betty, every pastor, everywhere needs truthtellers like you in their lives. Thank you for being that person for me. Thank you for being a saint in my life.
When we recite the Apostles Creed, we say we believe in “the communion of saints.” And during an All Saints’ worship service, we sing songs about our eternal home. We sing songs of the saints of God “who are patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.” In doing so, we express our belief in the communion of saints and we express our hope in being part of that communion someday—along with the Apostles, Augustine, Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, and a host of others. But let us not wait until that great by and by to make a difference in the lives of those around us. Let us seek a saintly life—even now.
By the grace of God, we are part of God’s salvation story. We are saints in the making. But some days we don’t feel much like saints, do we? We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. If that’s how it seems, though, we may take comfort in Robert Louis Stevenson’s definition of saints: The saints are the sinners who keep on going. I love that! The saints are the sinners who keep on going. We aren’t saints because we’re so good. We’re saints because we are children of God, and day by day, God fashions us into what we could never be on our own so yes, we keep on going. Saints alive! Thanks be to God!
*Cover Art “ The Communion of Saints” by Ira Thomas; used by permission.