A Plain Sermon

A Plain Sermon

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 17, 2019

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26

The verses preceding our reading from the Gospel of Luke tell us that Jesus has been on the mountain praying to God all night, seeking wisdom regarding his choice of disciples. When morning comes, he calls his disciples and chooses twelve of them, whom he also names apostles. Then Jesus comes down with them and stands on a level place—or on the plain—as it is sometimes translated. A great multitude from far and wide gathers to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Finally, Jesus looks up at his disciples—not at the multitude of people—but at his disciples—and delivers a series of blessings and woes.

 

If I felt compelled to write a series of blessings and woes this morning, I might come up with something like: Blessed is the preacher who does not preach guided by the lectionary and woe to the preacher who does. Or, how about blessed is the preacher who is on vacation the 6th Sunday of Epiphany and woe to the preacher who is not. Now, why would I think such thoughts? Because this is a very challenging text. So much so, I tried everything in my power to convince Jane Shelton, our Commissioned Ruling Elder, that today would be a perfect day for her to preach. She refused to buy what I was selling.

 

So, why is this gospel reading challenging? Because it seems to pit Jesus against anyone who is wealthy, satisfied, happy, or favored by the world. Could Jesus really hold the rich in disdain when his own ministry is supported by certain women of wealth? Could Jesus really show love to some people more than others when, throughout the gospels, he proclaims that God’s love is for all people? Surely there is something more going on here.

 

Let’s take a closer look. The Greek word for “blessed” is μακάριος, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, well off, happy. The word for “woe,” οὐαί, is an exclamation of grief as in, “woe” or “alas.” These words spoken by Jesus are, it would seem, polar opposites. When we hear Jesus’ list of blessings and woes preached in his Sermon on the Plain, surely our minds hearken to another text, found in the Gospel of Matthew—the Sermon on the Mount. It is a much longer sermon that begins with the Beatitudes. While Matthew’s Beatitudes give us only nine blessings, Luke pairs four blessings with four woes, contrasting the rich and poor, the hungry and full, those who weep and those who laugh, those who are hated and those who are esteemed. Furthermore, while Matthew speaks of the poor in spirit, Luke simply speaks of the poor. While Matthew speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Luke speaks clearly of those in real physical need. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount feels gentler, more spiritual, if you will—not so, the Sermon on the Plain. On the plain, Jesus speaks plainly. He offers no cotton candy gospel. Rather, Jesus portrays a radical way of discipleship that will turn the world upside down.

 

In many ways, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain echoes the radical words of his mother in the Magnificat, found also in Luke. “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.” Mary continues, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Radical words, indeed!

 

Prior to his Sermon on the Plain Jesus takes care of the needs of the people and then turns his attention to the needs of his disciples. At this point, Jesus’ audience is the disciples. In other words, Jesus’ audience is the church. So, what is Jesus trying to convey to believers?  In the new kingdom Jesus is ushering in, why does Jesus speak woe to the rich? Does God really bless the poor and exclude the rich? Does God play preferential games like we are prone to do—only in reverse? Of course not! The miracle of the fishes and loaves is ample evidence that God is a God of abundance—not scarcity. In God’s reign, there is enough for everyone.

 

Then why the seeming disdain for the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, and those well thought of in the community? Maybe because such people—those who SEEM to have it all—are less likely to recognize their NEED for God. Consequently, wealth can be a stumbling block to a heart open to God. It’s a danger—thus—a woe. The poor, the hungry, those who weep, or are derided, on the other hand, are in a better position to receive and respond to God’s promises. Out of necessity, they may be more able to recognize they are not self-sufficient. Out of necessity, they are more likely to depend on God to provide the blessings they crave.

 

Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord speaks these words: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water…” Radical trust and dependence upon God—that’s the root of all blessedness. And to be a disciple is to take up the cross of Jesus and travel differently in the world.  Make no mistake, it is a blessed and a costly endeavor. As one scholar puts it,

 

God asks for—indeed demands—our all. Everything. Material goods and money are but a part of what God expects us to give up and give over. God wants the entirety of our lives. The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God. God watches over them and blesses them abundantly in God’s way, not the way of the world: they will be filled, and they will laugh, and they will inherit the kingdom of God. To be disciples is to follow in this way. To be blessed of God is to have nothing but God.[i]

 

Truly, to be blessed of God is to have nothing but God. Once more, let us open our hearts and minds to Christ’s teachings by hearing our gospel reading as translated in Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 

Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke: You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.

 

Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and then he returns to a level place—to a place with the people—not above them—but with them. He then turns to the disciples to give a plain and simple sermon based on the reality of what is and the hope of what can be. Jesus’ vision of radical discipleship turns the ways of the world upside down. Blessed are believers who yearn for God more than anything else in this world and woe to believers who do not.

 

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

 

[i] David L. Ostendorf, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1

 

*Cover Art “Litany of the Blessed” © Jan Richardson, used by subscription

 

Jesus Asks for Help

Jesus Asks for Help

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 10, 2019

5th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 138; Luke 5:1-11

 

Our gospel reading brings us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he calls his first disciples. Already, though, his reputation has spread far and wide. We know this because we are told that by the lake of Gennesaret the crowd is pressing in on Jesus. Seeing two empty boats at the shore of the lake, Jesus gets into one of them—the one belonging to Simon—and he asks Simon to put out a little way from the shore. Simon does so. Safe from the crush of the crowd, Jesus begins to instruct the people.

 

While there are many teaching opportunities in this text, this morning let us examine two matters of significance. First, notice how the crowd is pressing in on Jesus. Word is getting around about his ministry and, no doubt, he is feeling the stress and strain of it all.  We live in days of stress and strain, too.  A recent poll of the American Psychiatric Association suggests almost 40% of us are more anxious than we were at this time last year. Roughly 18% of us have an anxiety disorder. We are anxious about keeping ourselves and our families safe. We are anxious about our health. We are anxious about our finances. We are anxious about the future of our nation. Yes, we are an anxious people.[i]

 

If we stroll back through history, though, we may find that every generation since the beginning of time has suffered from anxiety of one kind or another. Let’s consider 1907, for example, the year the cornerstone of FPC was put in place. In 1907, Americans had a much shorter life expectancy than we do today. 1907 was the year that typhoid spread through water and food supplies, ravaging the nation.  America was at war with tuberculosis—a disease that killed hundreds of people before a cure was found. Finally, the worst mining disaster in American history occurred in 1907 when an explosion killed 362 men and boys, leaving 250 widows and over 1000 children without support.

 

Most assuredly, people in New Testament times had cause for anxiety, too. The Jewish people found themselves occupied by Roman rule. There was no middle class. Poverty was visible and common. Rome cared little for the poor and disabled.  High taxation caused many peasants to lose land and livelihood. Moreover, improving one’s circumstances was near impossible.

 

While we may feel overly stressed in the 21st Century, all peoples down through the ages have experienced stress and strain. Jesus feels pressured, too. How does he respond? Well, first Jesus recognizes the situation—the pressing crowd is creating a problem. Then he finds a way to get some distance between himself and the cause of the stress. He looks around to see who can help him. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God asks for help. Seeing two empty boats at the shore of the lake, he gets into one of them and asks Simon, who will later be called Peter, to push off a little from the shore. From that vantage point, he teaches the crowd. Jesus finds release from his predicament because he humbles himself enough to ask for help. How are we at asking for help? How do we feel about accepting the generosity or welcome or support of another? Do we feel ashamed because we are convinced, we really ought to be able to manage things on our own? Jesus didn’t!

 

This weekend has been quite busy for our church. The 23rd annual Father Daughter Valentine Dance, was held Friday and Saturday nights—with two dances each night. Over 4200 fathers and daughters gathered in the James Rainwater Conference Center to make memories, and dance, dance, dance. It’s hard to believe that such an event began in the upstairs auditorium of this very church. Soon the event was bigger than the space allowed which necessitated a move to another location. With the increased space came exciting opportunities to enhance the overall experience for fathers and their precious daughters. But it would not have happened without Jeff and Becky Stewart recruiting lots of help. Yes, Jeff and Becky asked for help and help they received. I daresay most of you have helped this past weekend in one way or another. Maybe you prayed for the event, shared information about the event with your neighbors and friends—face to face—or through social media. You may have hung posters in your place of business. Perhaps you baked cookies—hundreds and hundreds of cookies or washed grapes—bunches and bunches of grapes or hung balloons—dozens and dozens of balloons or scanned tickets—oodles and oodles of tickets.

 

Over the years, helpers for the Father Daughter Valentine Dance have included people like John Plowden and his friend Rick who have fashioned incredible pieces of art for the event: larger than life wooden hearts—and intricate pieces that fold out into trees! Matt Phelps has been critical for his engineering skills because we all know that Becky can dream up some incredible things that might, to the common eye, seem impossible. But with Becky’s imagination and Matt’s skills—it all comes together.  Dawn Toth rolls up t-shirts—boxes and boxes of t-shirts—then she and her family work the t-shirt table during the dances. Troy Toth oversees the drink station. It’s a happening place! Deborah Taylor and Katherine Phelps—along with other volunteers—oversee the food trays, assuring there are always delicious treats available. John Vick sets up and manages the coat check area. Of course, there are dozens of people I haven’t named—people from our church and the community who come together to make something incredible happen—something that blesses families far and wide—all because God gave Jeff and Becky a vision and they pursued the vision—asking for help all along the way.

 

Jesus asks for help, too. In doing so, he makes himself vulnerable. Research professor, Brene Brown, who has done a lot of work on the topic of vulnerability, has this to say:

 

One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow, we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.[ii]

 

Yes, the truth is, we are both! When we think of Jesus, we can easily muster up images of him helping others—healing the sick, raising the dead, loving the un-loveable, but rarely do we imagine Jesus asking for help. Yet, Jesus does just that. “Can I borrow your boat for a moment? Would you row it out just a bit so I can tell the pressing crowd about the love and mercy and grace of my Abba Father?” Throughout his ministry, Jesus is on the receiving end of help—wealthy women contribute financially to his ministry, people invite him over for meals, others offer a place for him to sleep.

 

The theme of help continues in our story when, after Jesus finishes teaching, he asks Simon to put out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Since Simon and his friends have been fishing unsuccessfully all night, Simon is understandably skeptical. Still, there is something about Jesus that compels them to follow his instructions. And what happens? They catch so many fish, their nets begin to break. And what do they do? They signal their friends in the other boat to come and help them. When the boats begin to sink because of the weight of all the fish, Simon is so overcome, he falls at Jesus’ feet and Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

 

And this brings me a second matter of importance. “Catching people,” or what we commonly call “evangelism” has gotten such a bad rap—largely due to experiences of street-corner-preacher-types inquiring, “Are you saved?” plus the downfall of too many televangelist-types who appear to be concerned about people’s souls when their real motivation is people’s wallets. But let’s not allow bad press to put us off. Instead, let us consider the original meaning of the phrase, “catching people.” When Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching people,” he is not saying, “You will be entrapping people.” He is not saying, “You will be tricking people or pressuring people.” Instead, in the original Greek, the idea of “catching people” indicates Simon and the other followers of Jesus will be rescuing people; they will be saving people; they will be inviting people to live full lives, governed by the love of Christ.

 

It all begins with a risk on Jesus’ part because Simon could have said no. James and John, the sons of Zebedee could have said no. God, in Christ, asks for help. “Can I borrow your boat?” And God, in Christ, is still asking for help, “Will you rescue others? Will you invite others to the full life I can give? Will you?”

 

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

 

[i]A Lot of Americans Are More Anxious Than They Were Last Year, a New Poll Says,” published May 8, 2018. http://time.com/5269371/americans-anxiety-poll/

[ii] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

*Cover Art “Miraculous Catch of Fish” Jan van Orley; Public Domain; via Wikimedia Commons

 

Jesus Picks a Fight

Jesus Picks a Fight

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 3, 2019

4th Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jesus returns home for a visit and ends up in the synagogue where he gets a chance to share his mission statement—so to speak—through the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” All eyes are fixed upon Jesus. The people speak well of him and are amazed. They seem proud of their hometown boy made good until Jesus says something so horrible and so true, it cuts to the bone. Then, in a flash, the mood changes, and it’s “Throw him over the cliff!”

 

 

So, what happened? Let’s try to put it in perspective. Imagine our very own Zachary grows up and feels the call to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Following his undergraduate work at UGA, he attends Princeton Seminary and excels in everything. (Of course, he does, he is Zach, after all!) Time passes and he’s called to pastor a big church in Atlanta. But one Sunday when he’s in town visiting his parents, we are honored to have him preach from this very pulpit.

 

 

In preparation, we advertise near and far—emails go out, posts appear on the church Facebook page and on Instagram, an article is printed in the church newsletter and The Valdosta Daily Times. When the day arrives, the church is packed. And at the appropriate time in worship, Zachary approaches the pulpit, dressed in his robe and stole. He stands before us, reads Scripture and then begins his sermon—a word from God for the people of God.

 

 

Everyone is smiling—beaming really—because this is Scott and Kerri’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a baby. We are so proud—until he gets all fired up and begins pointing fingers. He broadcasts for everyone to hear how we have failed as a church. He uncovers our prejudices and lets us know, in no uncertain terms, how we have tried to contain God’s love for ourselves. We’ve made God in our own image, defined God by our standards. But whether we like it or not, God’s love is bigger than our minds can comprehend. God’s love isn’t just for us or for people we like—people who make us comfortable—God’s love is for everyone.

 

 

Now be honest, how would we respond?  How about something like, “That little whippersnapper—just who does he think he is? We knew him when he was just a little boy practicing his cup stacking routine in the Fellowship Hall, and running through the church with his big brother, Jaxson. What he said might have had some truth to it—but who cares about the truth!”

 

 

Jesus reads from Isaiah, sits down and begins to speak and the people remark, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” While there are scholars who propose the question is derogatory in nature, that is not necessarily the case. Instead, it may have been a compliment uttered with a sense of pride. Especially since we are informed that the people speak well of him. Others have suggested that the people are aggravated because Jesus has not performed miracles for them—but that is not likely since they have not asked for anything, yet.

 

 

Ultimately, it is as if we have walked into the middle of a story and we are left trying to make sense of it all. Much is unclear. But one thing is crystal clear—Jesus is the one who changes the tone in the synagogue. As one commentator notes, “The congregation is filled with rage only after Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing out of left field [and] who could blame them?”[i] If Jesus really does return home and pick a fight with his own people, surely, he has good reason. But what in the world might it be?

 

 

Well, here is a wild and crazy thought: Could this be a continuation of the temptation narrative, which occurs earlier in the same chapter of Luke? You recall how Jesus is in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan for 40 days. Verse 13 reads, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Could now—now when everyone is praising Jesus and adoring him—could this be one such time? People LOVE him and all Jesus has to do is preach warm messages, heal folks, and multiply a couple of fish sandwiches. “Oh Jesus, be careful. Don’t rattle any cages. Don’t make folks mad. Don’t be a prophet because you know what happens to prophets!” So, if Jesus is facing the temptation to accept people’s praise and maintain the status quo—he excels once again—for he will not succumb. Jesus will not be adored on the people’s terms. Instead, he takes up his mantle as a preacher and prophet to speak a truth that is so difficult, there is not enough sugar in the world to make his medicine go down smoothly.

 

 

The two examples Jesus uses in his tongue-lashing concern miracles that happened to Gentiles, but we dare not interpret his overall message as one of Gentile versus Jew. Rather, Jesus’ message is about the marginalized—those whom the Israelites would ignore even though that is never what God intended. Recall God’s words to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[ii]

 

 

Truly, God’s love is beyond our imaginings and God seems to have a special love for the poor, the downcast, and the outsider. Could it be that what Jesus is doing here is setting the record straight? Because if Israel can’t accept that God’s love is for all people, how can they accept the mission of God’s Son?

 

 

Jesus does not leave heaven’s glory to come to the earth to make people comfortable. Jesus comes to speak the truth. In his hometown, the response is quick and sure. The people are enraged that one of their own has the audacity to suggest that they will not be “the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative.”[iii] How ironic, now, Jesus the insider, becomes Jesus the outsider. But that won’t stop Jesus. He will not be tempted to water down his message to garner praise and adoration. Instead, Jesus points his own people toward the light. Could it be that he is trying to startle them into accepting the love he has come to offer? Through his surprising behavior, is Jesus really saying something like, “I am not for you alone. I am for all people. But you want a Savior who will guarantee you are healed, you have no drought, and there will be endless bread on your table. That may be what you want, but what you need is something more. What you need is faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love—the kind of love for which I will die.”

 

 

In Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, she claims she does not know much about God and prayer but over the last 25 years, she has realized that keeping it simple is best. In the “Wow!” chapter, she writes:

 

 

Sometimes—oh, just once in a blue moon—I resist being receptive to God’s generosity, because I am busy with a project and trying to manipulate Him or Her into helping me with it…But God is not a banker or a bean counter. God gives us even more which is so subversive. God just gives, to us, to you and me. I mean, look at us! Yikes.

 

 

God keeps giving, forgiving and inviting us back. My friend Tom says this is a scandal and that God has no common sense. God doesn’t say, “I have had it this time. You have taken this course four times and you flunked again. What a joke.” We get to keep starting over. Lives change, sometimes quickly, but usually slowly…If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark…if you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.

 

 

When nothing new can get in, that’s death…But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing—we had all this figured out, and now we don’t.[iv]

 

 

The people of Nazareth think they have it all figured out. They think they know Jesus. But what turns out to be truer is this: Jesus knows them! And Jesus knows us! We have come to this place to worship a God who will not be boxed in, confined to our temples, synagogues, churches, or stories. God will rattle our cages and shake us up. And God still calls us to care for and love those marginalized by the world: the migrant worker, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill. Because if we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, we are like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol—faith, hope, and love abide—these three—and the greatest of these is love. Amen.

 

 

[i] Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, 311.

[ii] Genesis 12:1-2

[iii] Feasting, 310

[iv] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essentials Prayers, 85-86.

*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.