True Riches

True Riches

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 29, 2019

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 91:1-6,14-16, Luke 16:19-21

 

When studying Scripture, it’s helpful to take note of what happens around a particular reading. If we do so today, we notice that Jesus has been talking about money all through this chapter. We also learn that because the Pharisees are lovers of money, they are none too happy about it. So how does Jesus react? Does he try to avoid conflict? Does he run from a fight? Far from it! Jesus, who is often imagined as meek and mild, is frequently anything but! He’s brave. He’s radical. And he pulls no punches when faced with injustice and greed.

The Gospel of Luke is filled with images of great reversals of fortune—beginning in the very first chapter. Recall the words spoken by Jesus’ soon-to-be mother in what we commonly call the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…he has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.[i]

Later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus proclaims:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.[ii]

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is nothing new for Jesus. It’s in line with his teaching and it’s in line with the Gospel of Luke’s overall relentless “concern for the faithful stewardship of goods.”[iii]

Once upon a time there was a rich man and a poor man. The unnamed rich man lives inside the gate of abundance—dressed in purple, residing in the lap of luxury with everything he could possibly want at his fingertips. The poor man lives a very different life. The poor man, named Lazarus, lives on the other side of the gate, dressed in sores and he would give anything for a crumb or two from the rich man’s table. But no crumb will be forthcoming.

Eventually, as is the case for every living soul, Death comes knocking and both men leave their earthly dwelling. In an ironic twist, Lazarus is taken by the angels to rest in the bosom of Abraham at the great banquet table. The rich man now resides in the fires of hell from where he sees Abraham and Lazarus off in the distance. Anguished, he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with just a drop of water. But Abraham says,

Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.[iv]

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the behavior of the rich man prior to his death. He doesn’t intentionally harm the poor, pitiful beggar. He doesn’t even order him to get off his property. In fact, he shows no compassion whatsoever. The love of money has turned his heart cold and numb. Archbishop Helder Camara once wrote,

I used to think when I was a child that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the danger of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on ones’ eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts.

 

The rich man has endless resources, but he doesn’t try to change social structures. He doesn’t start Break Bread Together or a soup kitchen or a food pantry. He doesn’t search for ways to equip and empower the needy so that they can become self-sustaining. No wonder. From his perspective, there is no need to change the status quo. It serves him quite well (thank you very much). But, oh, the eternal cost. Day by day, inch by inch, the rich man has been digging a trench between himself and the needy of this world—a trench that expands to a great chasm over which nothing and no one can cross. [v]

Essentially, to the rich man, poor Lazarus is invisible and sadly, as one commentator notes, the rich man is none the wiser for his death experience. Notice when he calls for relief from the fires of hell, he never directly addresses Lazarus. He still acts like he’s king of the castle and Lazarus is nothing more than a servant when he requests that Abraham order Lazarus to serve him.[vi] Even from Hades, his attitude hasn’t improved. Lazarus is still nothing more than an object; still nearly invisible. Which begs the question: “Who is invisible to us?”  We may not have a beggar living on our door step, but are there other people around us whom we fail to really see?

Recently, I came across a compelling op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle written by Brené Brown. Addressing how our crazy-busy, anxiety-fueled lifestyles affect others, she wrote:

Last week, while I was trying to enjoy my manicure, I watched in horror as the two women across from me talked on their phones the entire time they were getting their nails done. They employed head nods, eyebrow raises, and finger-pointing to instruct the manicurists on things like nail length and polish choices. I really couldn’t believe it.

I’ve had my nails done by the same two women for ten years. I know their names…their children’s names, and many of their stories. They know [the same about me]. When I finally made a comment about the women on their cell phones, they both quickly averted their eyes. Finally, in a whisper, the manicurist said, “They don’t know. Most of them don’t think of us as people.”

On the way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble to pick up a magazine. The woman ahead of me in line bought two books, applied for a new ‘reader card,’ and asked to get one book gift-wrapped without getting off of her cell phone. She plowed through the entire exchange without making eye contact or directly speaking to the young woman working at the counter. She never acknowledged the presence of the human being across from her…

[Too often] I see adults who don’t even look at their waiters when they speak to them. I see parents who let their young children talk down to store clerks. I see people rage and scream at receptionists, then treat the bosses/doctors/bankers with the utmost respect.

And I see the insidious nature of race, class, and privilege playing out in one of the most historically damaging ways possible—the server/served relationship.

Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a hand basket. I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a hand basket. When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and our own.[vii]

I think Jesus would agree, don’t you? For in all of life, Jesus beckons us to follow him as he embodies what the Lord requires of us: to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Inherent in the Gospel of Luke is the great reversal of fortunes—so that the first become last and the last become first. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a cautionary tale that offers us the golden opportunity to reflect on our relationship with our money and with those who are less fortunate than we are. Perhaps, at the very least, it might nudge us to be more diligent in showing basic common courtesy to every human being we encounter—no matter his or her status. Surely, if we try, we can find ways to see—really see—one another. No doubt, the Holy Spirit can show us how to break through the gates that would separate us so we can offer a smile, a kind word, a helping hand…

One day may these oh-so-familiar words be directed to each one of us:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[viii]

If we seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, when our time comes to leave this old earth, we need not fear. We, too, shall rest in the bosom of Abraham. Amen.

[i] Luke 1:46,52-53

[ii] Luke 6:20-26

[iii] Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word, 116

[iv] The Message

[v] Rev. Bruce Prewer @ http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm

[vi] Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Feasting on the Word, 118

[vii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, via KindleFire 148-149

[viii] Matthew 25:34-36

*Cover Art “The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Door” by James Tissott; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Squandering

Squandering

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 22, 2019

14th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13

Luke chapter 16 begins with Jesus telling his disciples a parable about a dishonest manager—someone who is squandering property that is not his to squander. The pericope ends with the now famous words, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Then the Pharisees get a dressing down because in their hearts they are lovers of money. Finally, the chapter closes with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In other words, throughout this entire chapter, Jesus talks about money.

No doubt, of all Jesus’ teachings, the parable of the dishonest manager is the most confusing. It appears the main character in the parable is a shyster—a lazy, conniving, self-centered manager who’s out to get all he can—no matter the cost. We wait and watch—eager to applaud when the fellow gets what he deserves. Understandably, we’re shocked when his perverse plan works. Moreover, his master commends him for his dishonest shrewdness.[i]  This is a parable that has stumped even the best and the brightest of scholars. So, if you’ve come expecting me to iron out this convoluted tale, I daresay you’ll be disappointed. Instead, let’s focus on one portion of the text.

Hear these words again:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’”

As I pondered these sentences, what struck me most was the word “squandering,” found in the first verse. The man was squandering his master’s property. The word comes from the Greek word diaskorpizō, which means to scatter abroad, to disperse. The NIV translates diaskorpizō: to waste. As I sat with this story a little longer, I began to wonder what it would be like to be on the receiving end of such an encounter with Jesus. I invite you to wonder with me. I invite you to put yourself in the story.

Imagine Jesus walks into our midst and he says to each one of us, “It’s time for a reckoning. Come forward my brother, come near my sister. Tell me how have you’ve spent the gifts my Father has given you? Have you squandered your time? Have you wasted your gifts and talents?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager to have this conversation with Jesus. I am certain that in such an encounter, I would be found wanting. “So Glenda, I’ve given you property to manage—my property—a healthy body, a healthy mind, 24 hours in every day of your 58 years, spiritual gifts and talents to help you become my faithful disciple, and I’ve given you money and other resources to care for yourself, your family, and others. How are you managing my property?”

I hear myself stuttering: “Well, Jesus, you see, there just never seems to be enough…enough time…enough talent…enough resources…enough me.”

Time is a precious gift but oh how eager we are to waste it—and we waste it in endless ways. [ii]  We waste time watching television, surfing the internet, texting or talking on the phone in long conversations about nothing at all. We waste time with social media. While all these ways of interacting or being entertained are good in themselves, when we stop using them as tools to enrich our lives and start using them as ways to keep from doing what most needs doing, then we are wasting time.

Another way we tend to waste time is by dwelling on what other people are thinking about us or doing to us. We dissect some recent conversation and we worry about what the other person is saying about us. We fear being misunderstood. All this anxiety uses up a lot of energy and a lot of time. Also, we waste time by harboring past pains and grudges. When we resist forgiving and letting go, we are saddled with negative thoughts and we rob ourselves of productive time that could be used otherwise. We are given but a handful of days on this old earth. How sad it is if we waste even a moment—especially since we have important matters on which to focus—in our families, our church, our community.

Still, we never seem to have enough time. These days it’s interesting to think about what it means to “have enough” or “be enough.” In her book, The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist writes about how, as a society, we have bought into the lie of scarcity—a lie that robs us of peace and purpose.

For me, and for many of us, our first waking though of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is, “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies [and] our greed…

Never enough time, we may think—and never enough to offer the people around us. But the Bible says that baptized believers are given spiritual gifts for service. From Ephesians 4 we read:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Each believer is equipped to make a difference in this world—through spiritual gifts and God-given talents. How are we doing? Are we spending our time and talents wisely? Are we squandering our financial resources?

A few years ago, I attended a Credo Presbyterian Retreat in Indiana. One of the retreat leaders, a pastor/CPA, led the financial component of Credo. A humble, precious man of God, he also had a twisted sense of humor—which, of course, made me like him even more. One day he said, “I’m convinced that most people would rather walk down Main Street stark naked than talk honestly about their finances. We’ll gladly talk about sex, politics, anything but money!” While that may be true, consider this: Jesus had very little to say about sex and politics—but he had a LOT to say about money. As I mentioned earlier, this entire chapter of Luke is about money. “But it’s my money,” we say, “I will do what I want with it.”

John Calvin had this to say on the topic: “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor…” This includes our money. When we think about our role in giving to the church, the emphasis tends to be on the money. But the real uniqueness of Christian giving is, perhaps, best captured by Dietrick Bonhoeffer who wrote, “Giving is not God’s way of raising money. It is God’s way of raising children.”

Let us consider once more Jesus’ words to his disciples; this time from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things;
If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.
If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?
No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second
Or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.[iii]

Everything we have—everything we are—it’s all God’s. So, the question isn’t how are we managing our property; it’s how are we managing God’s property? Are we living with love and generosity as our guides or are we squandering that which is not ours to squander? Someday there will be a reckoning. Someday the manager will come calling. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Feasting on the Word, 92.

[ii] See more at http://julettemillien.com/3-top-ways-we-waste-time-what-to-do-about-it/

[iii] Luke 16:10-13, The Message.

*Cover Art “Merchant Taking Accounts” from Art in the Christian Tradition; Used by permission

 

Even Though

Even Though

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 15, 2019

14th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

 

Just before today’s reading, Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Ironically, the tax collectors and sinners do just that, unsettling the Pharisees and scribes so much they can’t keep from grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Recognizing this as a perfect teaching moment, Jesus proceeds to share three parables about his Abba Father’s relationship to the lost. This morning we will consider only the first two: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These stories invite those who have ears to hear to slip on someone else’s dusty old sandals and venture into un-chartered territory.  And if the invitation feels a bit strange to us, it was nearly as strange to the original hearers—particularly the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

 

Though it may seem that the Pharisees and religious leaders are against everything Jesus is for, they are likely faithful Jews trying to live out their love for Yahweh to the best of their ability. They wait in hope of the coming Messiah and it is their understanding that while they wait—they are to study, interpret, and apply the Law of Moses. Therefore, they must maintain laws of cleanliness, which includes not affiliating with the unclean and sinners. For them, the unclean and sinners are those who habitually break the Law and do dishonorable work, like that of a tax collector or a leather tanner or a shepherd.[i]

 

Nevertheless, Jesus has the gall to ask these “righteous” leaders to slip on the dusty sandals of a shepherd and to imagine one of their 100 sheep goes missing. “Wouldn’t you leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the lost sheep? And when you find it, wouldn’t you throw it over your shoulder, take it back home, and celebrate with your friends and neighbors?”

 

If asking the religious leaders to identify with a dirty shepherd isn’t enough, Jesus continues by asking them to slip on the sandals of a woman who loses a coin. Surely Jesus realizes these Jewish leaders begin each day with the prayer: “Blessed are you, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile, for not having made me a slave, for not having made me a woman?”  Sure, Jesus knows, but that does not stop him. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, and sweep until she finds it? And when she finds it, doesn’t she call her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her?” Jesus concludes, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

If the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not already offended by Jesus’ teaching, they are now.  But Jesus does not care because he yearns for them to see “kingdom living” in a different light.  He wants them to know it isn’t that God’s doesn’t love and care for the righteous. It’s just that God also cares for the precious soul who loses his or her way and through the grace of God, reaches a place in life where being found is possible. Indeed, there is joy in the presence of the angels when the lost are found.

 

While I have read these parables many times and have preached them more than a few, not until this week, did I really see God as the key player in them. Instead, I have tended to focus on what is found—a lost sheep and a lost coin. But in both instances, God is the seeker. The sheep does nothing to find itself. The coin has no capacity to find itself. No! God does the seeking and the saving and the calling for a celebration. The Pharisees and scribes, however, are unable to celebrate because they see no need to seek nor to save. Why bother? Who cares about one sinner? God—that’s who! In the eyes of God, each coin and each sheep matters. In the eyes of God, each man and woman and child matters. In the eyes of God, both the righteous and the unrighteous matter.

 

As you have likely heard me say before, I was twelve when I was baptized into the family of God. In the conservative Baptist church I attended with my uncle, the path to salvation was made clear every Sunday. If a person wanted to be saved, he or she must make the decision to repent from sin and profess to the preacher and the congregation his or her faith in Jesus Christ. To this day, I can recall the morning I took that first step down the aisle. My hands were sweating, and my heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest. Still, my desire for the light and love of Jesus outweighed any fear that could keep me in my seat.

 

In the years to come, I had many questions about the act of “getting saved.” For example: Why did the preaching of my childhood focus on “getting people saved” almost to the exclusion of teaching people how to live as disciples of Christ? Why was there more emphasis on eternal life than the life we are called to live now—loving God with all our heart and mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Why did I witness the condemnation of people of other traditions because they were baptized as infants or, perhaps, because they could not recall the exact moment Jesus came into their heart? Thankfully, many of my questions were answered through the Reformers of our Presbyterian tradition, who recognized that even the DESIRE to know Jesus is pure grace. We cannot even muster up the will to profess Jesus without the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And though none of us deserve such love—it is doled out like manna from heaven for anyone who wants a taste.

 

Years before I met Rodger Nishioka at Columbia Theological Seminary, I read his book, The Roots of Who We Are. A Presbyterian preacher, seminary professor, and Christian educator, Nishioka’s reformed theology felt like a breath of fresh air to me and there is one story, in particular, that I carry with me still today.

 

Following a key-note address at an event, Nishioka was approached by a man and woman who were surprised that he was a Presbyterian since he talked about Jesus so much. He replied, “Well, he is kind of the point.” Then they asked him, “So when were you saved?” He responded, “Oh, I’ve always been saved. You see my parents love God and Jesus Christ, and from my earliest memory, I have known that God loved me and Jesus was my Savior.”

 

“Yes, but when were you saved?” they asked again.

 

“Well, if I had to name a day and time, I guess it would be when I was confirmed in our church. That is when I stood up in front of everyone and said that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior.”

 

“So that’s when you were saved?” they asked.

 

“Well,” I explained again, “I really believe I have always been saved, but that is a special time when I proclaimed it to my family and church.”

 

“Well,” they said, “That’s not good enough.” And they both walked away. What Nishioka came to realize in further discussions with them is that they had a very specific idea of what it means to be saved. They believed you could only be saved or converted in a dramatic way. But you see, there are different ways to be found by God—through a dramatic conversion, yes, but also through a nurtured conversion, like that of Rodger Nishioka, and like that of many of you, I daresay.

 

Undoubtedly, the most compelling example in Scripture of a dramatic conversion comes through the Apostle Paul. One moment he is going out of his way to terrorize Christians and the next he is preaching Christ to anyone who has ears to hear. In his first letter to Timothy, we find words of gratitude to Christ who strengthen him and called him into service EVEN THOUGH Paul had been a man of violence. Hear his words again, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

 

Even though Paul was a man who persecuted Christians, he was found by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Even though the sheep had gotten lost in the wilderness and the coin had fallen through the cracks, they were found by the God who seeks and the God who saves. For you see, it is only by God’s grace that anyone is found—that anyone is saved. And it is only by God’s grace that we know what our response should always be—rejoicing and celebrating. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Roger Van Harn, The Lectionary Commentary Series

 

Read the Fine Print

Read the Fine Print

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 8, 2019

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Luke 14:25-33

 

Years ago, when Kinney and I purchased our home, I remember the two of us sitting in the bank office, reading a mountain of documents in great detail. Other times, reading the fine print has been just as important, like when we took out insurance policies or purchased an automobile. Along the way, we learned the dangers of floating interest rates and hidden costs. We learned the truth of that old saying, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!” As a society, we are cautious and for good reason. Most of us have been burned somewhere along the way so we know that reading the fine print is a smart thing to do.

 

Jesus is making his way toward Jerusalem. Along the way he picks up quite a crowd of people. Some come for no other reason than curiosity—Jesus is the new thing in town, and they don’t want to miss the show. Others come because they have nowhere else to go—they are the pariahs of society—sinners, tax collectors, the poor, the outcasts—but for some strange reason this strange, holy man shows them kindness and love. Then, there are those who follow because they are Jesus’ disciples. They’ve seen the wonders of his teaching and acts of compassion. They’ll follow him anywhere—or so they think.

 

Jesus looks around at the throngs of people and realizes it’s time for full disclosure. He knows there are many gathered around him who won’t make it to Jerusalem—let alone the cross. More than likely, many of them won’t make it over the next hill—not after he shares what he’s about to share.

 

So, Jesus pulls out his Discipleship 101 manual and begins to read: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Wait a minute! What did he say? Did he say that we must hate our family to follow him? He did! And there’s more!

 

Jesus goes on to caution those who are gathered ‘round to think long and hard before making the decision to become his disciple. His questioning goes a bit like this: “Can you afford it? I guarantee it will cost you! It might cost you your family. It will surely cost a lot of effort because only those who are willing to carry a cross can make the journey with me. I want you to sit down and take stock because those dreams and plans you have made—you may have to kiss them goodbye. All that stuff you have accumulated, that may have to go, too.”  Then Jesus hands out a signup sheet on his handy dandy clipboard and passes it around. (There’s even a waiver to sign for insurance purposes.) You see, this is no ordinary excursion. This is no quick jaunt to Savannah. This is a trip of a lifetime and it will take a lifetime to complete the journey.

 

Of course, Jesus isn’t asking his followers to do anything he hasn’t done. He gave up everything to follow the will of his Abba Father. He left his heavenly address. Scripture tells us that he created a rift in his earthly family. It’s no wonder. He is the eldest son. He should be working in the family business. Instead he is gathering disciples, teaching, healing. People from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan follow him in droves. When unclean spirits see him, they recognize him and shout for everyone to hear, “You are the Son of God!” When Jesus gets home the crowd has grown so much, he can hardly eat. When his family hears all this, they attempt to restrain him. Some people even think he’s lost his mind.[i] Later when his family shows up outside the door and he’s told that they are calling for him, Jesus responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers? …Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother and sister.”[ii]  It appears that Jesus is not only redefining faithfulness—he’s redefining what it means to be family.

 

Jesus continues speaking to the crowd, reminding would-be followers to carefully consider what might be required. He even gives examples: “If you are planning an expensive building project, won’t you check to make sure you can cover the cost? Or if you are a king planning to go war, don’t you examine all your resources before deciding which option is best: battle or negotiations? Ponder your prospects well, for following me may cost you everything.”

 

Jesus shares all this because he wants people to know what they’re getting into before signing on the dotted line. In all things, Jesus must come first. On the screen of life, God gets top billing. Undeniably, reminding humans that God comes first is nothing new. It is an age-old problem. You’ll recall the first commandment given to God’s chosen people: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other Gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, 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…”[iii]

 

Only God is to be worshiped—not family, not dreams and plans, and not possessions. At the day’s beginning and at its end, everything belongs to God. We are merely managers of all that we claim to possess. Living in such a materialistic society, this teaching of Jesus may hit us particularly hard. But you see, Jesus knows that the more stuff we accumulate, the more insulation there is between us and God; between us and others. After a while we may succumb to the danger of allowing our egos to take center stage—so much so that life becomes about taking care of me and mine: me and my family, me and my plans, me and my stuff. It’s a strange stance to take when we consider we entered this world with nothing at all and we will depart the same way.

 

There once was a rich man who was near death. He was very grieved because he had worked so hard for his money and wanted to be able to take it with him to heaven. So he began to pray that he might be able to take some of his wealth with him. An angel heard his plea and appeared to him. “Sorry, but you can’t take your wealth with you.” The man begged the angel to speak to God to see if He might bend the rules. The man continued to pray that his wealth could follow him. The angel reappeared and informed the man that God had decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man gathered his largest suitcase and filled it with pure gold bars and placed it beside his bed. Soon afterward, he died and showed up at the gates of heaven to greet St. Peter. St. Peter, seeing the suitcase, said, “Hold on, you can’t bring that in here!” The man explained to St. Peter that he had permission and asked him to verify his story with the Lord. Sure enough, St. Peter checked it out, came back and said, “You’re right. You are allowed one carry-on bag, but I’m supposed to check its contents before letting it through.” St. Peter opened the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaimed, ‘You brought pavement?’ [iv]

 

God gives us everything—beautiful sunrises, good food, family and friends—even life itself. So, is it any wonder that Jesus warns no one can become his disciple unless he or she is willing to give up everything—all for the love of God? It’s radical commitment Jesus is after!

 

In an effort of full disclosure, Jesus cautions the foolhardy to reconsider. You know, drive the car before you buy it, read the contract before you sign it, and don’t start what you can’t finish. Becoming a disciple is not to be taken lightly!

 

Jesus continues toward Jerusalem. Few people will follow all the way. It’s still the same today. It’s no wonder! Following Jesus just might cost us: our plans, our priorities, our possessions. But then, why shouldn’t it? Jesus gave up everything—all for love of his Abba Father—all for love of us! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Mark 3:7-21.

[ii] Mark 3:31-35

[iii] Exodus 20:2-5a.

[iv] http://www.reflections-online.net/en/spiritual_jokes.php

Sermon, Welcome.

Welcome

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 25, 2019

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Heb.13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. It was a watershed moment in our nation’s history. Who can forget such powerful, inspiring words?

 

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…

 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…

 

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

 

Martin Luther King did not grab such high-minded ideals out of thin air. He got them from none other than Jesus, who held similar high-minded ideals which happen to be on display in our gospel reading for today.

 

Jesus accepts a dinner invitation from one of the religious leaders. While he is being closely watched, he is doing some watching, too. As a result, he notices how the guests elbow their way to the best seats. Clearly, this is an opportunity for a teaching moment, so Jesus, as they say, “takes them to church,” using a parable. The parable he shares is designed to do what most of his parables are designed to do—invite his hearers to reflect on their values, and to turn those same values, upside down.

 

Jesus has a dream. It is a dream in which everyone is welcome to the table of grace. No one comes with her nose in the air ready to fight for the best seat. No doubt, Jesus’ vision goes against the beliefs of the people gathered around because what he is calling for is radical hospitality. There are no insiders and outsiders—no us and them! The reading from Hebrews continues with this theme, counseling believers to show hospitality to strangers for we might, in fact, be entertaining angels without knowing it.

 

Followers of Jesus are called to be in community and community is created when we act in loving service toward everyone. This is no place to trample our way to the best seats. Instead we work to make space for everyone—more than that—we welcome others without even thinking about our place in line. Yes, radical hospitality!

 

What might it look like if we held each person in such high regard? The following story offers a glimpse:

 

Once upon a time there was an abbot of a monastery who was very good friends with the rabbi of a local synagogue. It was in Europe and times were hard… The abbot found his community dwindling and the faith life of his monks shallow and lifeless. Life in the monastery was dying. He went to his friend and wept. His friend, the rabbi, comforted him and told him, “There is something you need to know, my brother. We have long known in the Jewish community that the Messiah is one of you.”

 

“What?” exclaimed the abbot, “The Messiah is one of us? How can that be?”

 

But the rabbi insisted that it was so, and the abbot went back to his monastery wondering and praying, comforted and excited.

 

Once back at the monastery, walking down the halls and in the courtyard, he would pass a monk and wonder if he was the one. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder if he was the one, and he began to treat all of his brothers with respect, with kindness and awe, with reverence. Soon it became quite noticeable.

 

One of the brothers came to him and asked him what had happened to him. After some coaxing, he told him what the rabbi had said. Soon the other monk was looking at his brothers differently and wondering. The word spread through the monastery quickly: The Messiah is one of us.

 

Soon the whole monastery was full of life, worship, kindness, and grace. The prayer life was rich and passionate, devoted, and the psalms and liturgy and services were alive and vibrant. Soon the surrounding villagers were coming to the services and listening and watching intently, and there were many who wished to join the community.

 

After their novitiate, when they took their vows, they were told the mystery, the truth that their life was based upon, the source of their strength and life together. The Messiah is one of us. The monastery grew and expanded into house after house, and all the monks grew in wisdom, age, and grace before the others and in the eyes of God. And they say still, if you stumble across this place, where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same: The Messiah is one of us.[i]

 

If we truly see the Christ that dwells within each one of us, we will long to win the world over, we will welcome every passerby, and we will share the love of Jesus through acts of kindness, mercy, generosity, and love.

 

Today we come to the Lord’s Table to be nourished and equipped for service. There is no fence built around the Table to keep the “unsavory” out. The Presbyterian Book of Order informs us that none are to be excluded because of race, sex, age, economic status, social class, handicapping condition, difference of culture or language, or any barrier created by human injustice. We come to the Table to seek reconciliation. We come to the Table to be united with the Church in every place and time. Here we join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth offering thanksgiving to the Triune God. Here we renew our vows of baptism and commit ourselves afresh to love and serve God, one another, and our neighbors in the world.[ii]

 

It is with service in mind that we, here at First Presbyterian Church, continue our tradition of marking the Labor Day holiday with a Blessing of the Hands. During this time, we reflect on the work to which God has called each of us to do—work that will make Jesus’ dream a reality. Jesus left his heavenly home and entered the world to show us how to live. Boldly and with great enthusiasm, may our hands follow his example of showing love, kindness, and hospitality to rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, friend and stranger. Who knows! We might be entertaining angels!

[i] Megan McKenna in Mary, quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, 492.

[ii] Book of Order: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2011-13, 96.