A Matter of the Heart

A Matter of the Heart

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 27, 2019

19th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

 

A few years ago, a novel penned by Joanne Harris was made into a movie. The cast of “Chocolat” included such names as Johnny Depp and Judy Dench. Set in 1959, the movie begins once upon a time in a little French village known for its tranquility—that is until a sly north wind blows in Vianne, played by Juliett Binoche. Vianne is about to do the unthinkable—open a chocolate shop across from the Catholic church during the season of Lent. The town is run by Comte de Reynaud, whose family has ruled the village down through the ages. Comte de Reynaud is the mayor and because he thinks of himself as the moral authority of the land—he even writes the sermons that young Father Henri delivers like a reluctant puppet on a string.

 

 

It’s no surprise that Reynaud isn’t amused by Vianne’s sweet temptations—nor does he appreciate her generous, compassionate nature that attracts people to her almost as quickly as her sweet confectionary treats. When Reynaud sees Vianne, he sees an adversary—a woman who’s leading his people astray.

 

 

At first it seems odd that the people follow Reynaud’s lead without question. Eventually, though, it’s clear that they aren’t evil—they’re just living unexamined lives, like tranquil sleepwalkers following the path of least resistance—that is until they wake up and smell the coffee, or in this case, the chocolate. In time Reynaud’s arrogance and anger get the best of him, and his reckless words influence a troubled man of the village to set a dangerous fire. When Reynaud realizes what he’s done, he’s brought to his knees—an act that starts him on his way toward a transformed heart—opened by love—touched by grace—shaped by mercy—and bent toward compassion.

 

 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is again teaching through use of a parable. But this time he isn’t targeting his disciples or the crowds that are gathered. Instead Jesus is bent on opening the eyes, and perhaps the hearts, of some who pride themselves in their righteousness while looking down on others with contempt. We read the parable and it’s meaning is crystal clear. If we want to follow the right path, we’ll align ourselves with the humble tax collector. But as is usually the case, whenever Jesus’ teaching seems crystal clear, it’s reason to pause and ponder.

 

 

So, let’s examine the text more closely, beginning with the Pharisee. Going up to the temple, he stands by himself, and prays ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ It’s interesting to note that the Pharisee stands by himself—not with the community. Also notice how many times the Pharisee says, “I.” I thank you…I am not like others…I fast…I give…His prayer is all about himself. It sounds as if he’s come to the temple to remind God just how fortunate God is to have him worshiping at all![i]

 

 

But let’s give the fellow his due. Likely he does lead a blameless life according to the law and is seen by others as a religious expert. He gives 10% of his income to the Lord and fasts twice a week. Dedicated to his faith, generous—surely, we’d love to have him as a member of FPC, wouldn’t we?

 

 

What, then, is his fault? First, while the Pharisee may be right about the kind of life he’s living, he’s confused about the source of that life. He is confused about God’s grace. Second, he fails to show compassion for others. So, while he prays to God, his prayer concerns himself. He misses the source of his blessing and he misses the opportunity to be a blessing. In the end, the Pharisee leaves the temple with a heart just as empty as it was when he came through the doors.

 

 

What about the tax collector? He, too, goes to the temple to pray. Standing far off, he doesn’t even look up to heaven when he says, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He approaches God with an entirely different demeanor. But even here, in Luke’s telling, Jesus messes with our expectations because we expect the tax collector to promise to make amends—promise to give his own 10% —promise something. Make no mistake, the tax collector is not painted as a nice guy. His very profession defines him as a wealthy, low life who makes a living by collecting taxes for Rome, and it’s presumed, extorting profit for himself. There’s no doubt that the sins of the tax collector are real. And even though he enters the temple to pray, he doesn’t pledge to leave his employment or make restitution. He doesn’t even promise he’ll try to do better tomorrow. But what he does is open his mouth and speak words that reveal his heart. Somehow, someway, he recognizes his dependence on God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: Above all else, he needs God’s mercy and grace.

 

 

We hear this parable and, no doubt, we yearn to be in the place of humility instead of the place of arrogance but there’s still cause for caution. From the depths of our hearts, we dare not turn our eyes toward heaven and say, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.”[ii] Once we make that shift, we cross the line.

 

 

It is our human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for others isn’t it?  “Now wait a minute,” you might say. “I’m a good Christian. I am committed to Jesus and to this faith community. I give of my time by attending worship regularly. I give of my talents by singing in the choir and serving on a committee. I give generously of my income to support God’s work—here and in the world.” That’s a wonderful testimony, for sure. But Jesus, I believe, would ask one question, “How is your heart?” For being committed to the ways of God, is a matter of the heart. As Christians, we can tithe, we can fast, we can be Spiritual Masters, but we can still fail to be faithful.

 

 

Being faithful to God was the driving force of the Reformation which happened over 500 years ago. No doubt, many good things came out of the Reformation. Corrupt leaders of the Roman Catholic Church became less powerful. Scripture became available to people in their own languages. Bibles and other books became more plentiful, literacy grew, and schools and universities multiplied. However, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died gruesome deaths for their beliefs. Religious art and religious institutions were destroyed. The unity of the Western church was broken. Sadly, division has become the hallmark of the Protestant movement which is evident by the 9000-plus Protestant denominations now found throughout the world. We have divided over the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, over forms of church government, over worship styles, over the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament; over being welcoming and affirming to all people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and let’s be real—even over really important things the color of the carpet. We have divided and we keep dividing. This is a far cry from what the Reformers had in mind and surely, there is work still to be done!

 

 

But here is some good news to share: There is every indication that we are in the midst of a New Reformation. The Holy Spirit is on the move—challenging us to be courageous—challenging us to seek reconciliation rather than schism—nudging us, once again, to take the gospel out into the streets. The body of Christ was never meant to be housed in a building—neither in St. Peter’s Basilica, nor in First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta. Believers and seekers alike enter a sacred space like this one to worship, to pray, to learn, to grow, and then to return to the world equipped to BE the church. YOU are the church! YOU are the church when you shop at Publix or Home Depot. YOU are the church when you go to work or to school and or to a restaurant or to a movie. YOU are the church when you volunteer for Break Bread Together or for other ministries of compassion. You are the church when you provide words of encouragement on social media. YOU are the church when you seek justice for those who have no voice. YOU are the church when you obey the words of Jesus—to love God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

 

Today we give thanks for the Reformers of the past—even as we look forward to the future of Christ’s church. And on this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, we have the privilege of rededicating ourselves to the Lord—all that we have, all that we are, and all that we hope to become. In a moment, we will bring forward our prayer/pledge cards. How will we come to the Table?  Will we come trusting in our own abilities? Or will we come fully aware that more than anything else, we need God’s mercy and grace? On this Lord’s Day, may we approach our Loving God humbly, with a deep yearning for a transformed heart—opened by love—touched by grace—shaped by mercy—and bent toward compassion.

 

 

[i] Feasting on the Word, E. Elizabeth, Johnson, 215.

[ii] Bruce Prewer at http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C59sun30.htm

*Cover Image: Stushie Art; Used by subscription

 

Ora et Labora

Ora et Labora

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 20, 2019

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:1-8, Matthew 28:16-20

The title of today’s sermon is Ora et Labora. Ora et Labora is Latin for “Prayer and Work,” a saying that originated in the Middle Ages when it became an essential principle of the Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Church. The idea behind living a life guided by the practice of Ora et Labora is that prayer and work alternate so that work is blended with prayer and prayer is blended with work.

 

 

We are nearing the end of our 2020 “Pray for the Harvest” Stewardship Campaign. The theme is taken from Luke 10:2 in which Jesus tells his followers to pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers. Jesus, who has faith in the abundance of the harvest, gives the instruction—to pray—which is what we have been doing all month—or, at least, I hope that is what we have been doing. In addition to wearing the wristband designed to help me remember to pray each day, I have set my phone alarm for 10:02. So, at 10:02 I stop whatever I am doing and offer up a three-part prayer: Lord, I pray for our church—that you will send more laborers to help us gather a great harvest in Valdosta and beyond. I pray you will provide the resources we need to accomplish your harvest work. And I pray for your will regarding my own contribution of time, talents, and treasures.

 

 

Ora—we pray! Then, Labora, we work! How do we work? After doing our most important work of prayer, then we go forth trusting God for the harvest. Along the way, we remain open to growth—planning, organizing, and working in a way that anticipates growth—rather than impedes it. [i]  Our mission is one of peace, wholeness, and goodness. We are not guided by selfish desires. Instead, we are guided by Christ’s love for those who need a word of hope, compassion, and mercy. Ora et Labora.

 

 

Since the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as a praying man, it isn’t surprising that Luke includes a parable to help believers remember the importance of persistent prayer. In the parable, an unjust judge grants a widow’s request—not because he cares about justice—but because the widow refuses to give up. Day after day, she returns to make her legitimate appeal until, finally, she wears him down and he acquiesces. At first glance, we might think the judge represents God in the parable. But is God like the judge—ignoring us and wishing we would just go away and leave God in peace?  Quite the contrary! The nature of God is that of love and mercy and justice. So, the point of the parable is that if a person of poor character (the judge) can be persuaded to act justly in the face of persistent pleading, how much more can God be trusted![1]

 

 

Our first work, then, is prayer. But beyond the work of prayer, there is more to be done, which brings us to our second reading, otherwise known as The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:

 

 

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

 

The Great Commission is a well-known text. However, I imagine it is not a well-understood or an eagerly practiced text. Why?  Maybe it’s because it makes us feel unequipped, uncomfortable, guilty. I mean, how can we possibly measure up to Christ’s expectations? Preacher and scholar, Tom Long, has this to say on the topic:

 

 

The scene [of The Great Commission] is one of near-comic irony. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” but nothing in the surroundings seems to support such a claim. If Jesus had been speaking to vast multitudes, rank upon rank stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye could see, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir humming the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the background, perhaps it would seem plausible. However, Jesus is on an unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee with a congregation of eleven, down from twelve the week before, and even some of them are doubtful and not so sure why they have come to worship this day.

 

 

What Jesus tells them presses credulity even further: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” …Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to herd all the peoples of the earth toward Mount Zion in the name of Jesus would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, “Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.”

 

 

That is the point…The very fact that the task is utterly impossible throws the disciples completely onto the mercy and strength of God. The work of the church cannot be taken up unless it is true that “all authority” does not belong to the church or its resources but comes from God…

 

 

Ora et Labor! Understanding that all authority comes from God, what is our work to do in fulfilling The Great Commission? Might we be open to NEW WAYS of connecting the faith we talk about in here, with the way we live it out there? Might we try to be MORE GENEROUS this year than last?  Might we PRACTICE TELLING OTHERS where we see God active in our life and in the world? Could we make it a goal to INVITE SOMEONE to a church-related activity once a month? If we take just one step toward obeying Christ’s command, we may gain confidence to take another. Then, in time, we may entertain the possibility that, like Jesus’ disciples, we too are not only called, but also equipped and prepared, to go out into the world and make other disciples by our encouraging, teaching, preaching, merciful acts, and other ways of sharing God’s abundant love.[ii]

 

 

So it is. Ora et Labora. We pray and then, by the power of God’s own Spirit, we go into the world with everything Jesus has taught us. As pilgrims on a journey, may we be encouraged through the following entitled, The Commission[iii]:

 

 

At first it feels like a circle closed, a journey completed,
this reminder of the mountain where Peter, James and John saw the Lord transfigured,
speaking with Elijah and Moses, the voice that thundered from the enclosing cloud
filling the disciples with fear.
It is Christ himself who speaks to us here, the Lord crucified and now resurrected,
proclaiming his authority, and for a moment the apostles might be tempted to think the mission, surely, is accomplished, goal achieved: God reigning through Christ;
and perhaps the eleven look around the peak to see if Moses and Elijah will again appear
for congratulatory clasps of the hand.

 

 

But the circle has not closed; the journey has not finished, it is open-ended as the arching sky and as the road below that leads to the distant horizon; open as the mission that here Christ gives us, as the promise he makes to be always with us, from now to the end of days. For disciples must be made in and from every nation, taught Christ’s ways and words and sent anew to serve the men and women of the earth.

 

 

See how the slanting sun, moving across these Galilean hills, takes its seat on the rim of the wider world, inviting our eyes to seek, not the shades of prophets past, but the shimmer of the new world to come.  See how, as we lift our heads in the gaze that follows Christ’s lifting from the earth, we discover no mystifying cloud, nor faces from only scriptural glory. Rather see the shapes of the yet-to-be appearing in the echoes of his words.

 

 

There we see Paul, in conversation with Peter; and there is Barnabas, and Phoebe, and Lydia speaking with Thomas, who will travel to India; we can see Boniface, and Patrick, and Columba, standing beside Francis and John and Charles; a little further over: Dorothy Ripley who labored for slaves in America; Mary Slessor, who served so faithfully in Nigeria…just a few among hosts of other men and women come to this summit, hearts receiving Christ’s commission for them; whose long shadows shine, but in whose shadow – look, just over here – stands another familiar figure who, like them, will be helping to re-shape the world that so needs our obedience to Christ’s love. Yes. It is you.

 

 

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

[1] Ibid.

[i] David Lose, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] David Lose @ http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1584

[iii] “The Commissioned” by Andrew King @ https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/poem-for-the-sunday-lectionary-trinity-sunday/

*Cover Art: Creative Commons Free Bible Images; Used by permission

 

Pray for the Harvest

Pray for the Harvest

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 6, 2019

17th Sunday after Pentecost

World Communion Sunday

Psalm 30, Luke 10:1-11

 

Today is World Communion Sunday, which started in 1933 in a Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, for the purpose of reminding believers that, through Christ, we are connected. Our faith story does not belong to the Presbyterians or the Methodists or the Episcopalians or the Baptists down the street. We are all nourished at the Table of our Lord and we all have a role to play in God’s plan for the world.

 

While it is World Communion Sunday, today also marks the beginning of our 2020 Stewardship Campaign. “Pray for the Harvest,” is the theme, taken from today’s gospel reading, specifically Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Notice how Jesus has faith in the abundance of the harvest. In fact, the harvest is so plentiful, there are not enough workers to accomplish the task at hand. But how can we recruit new workers? Well, we do not, in good Presbyterian style, begin by forming a committee. Instead, we pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers.

 

Additionally, it is important to pay attention to who’s in charge of the harvest. Scholar, David Lose, points out, “God is responsible for the growth of our communities. We are called to be open to this growth; to plan, organize, and work in a way that anticipates, rather than impedes, such growth…”[i] Therefore, since the harvest is God’s, the last thing we should try to do is manipulate or coerce others. Instead, we trust God to provide and we pray. Prayer is how we gain access to the will and power of God to get the work done. Prayer is how we partner with God to bring heaven down to earth.

 

Then what do we do? Well, we don’t have a seat and leave the work up to everyone else. The language of harvest indicates something is coming to fruition that has been planted long ago. There is a sense of urgency because now it is harvest time—so it’s all hands-on deck. Imagine a field of vegetables ready for picking. If not picked immediately, they will be lost. Each vegetable is worth money to the farmer, and he is anxious to get them to market. Now imagine he calls on his workers to go quickly into the field to harvest—but instead they sit around complaining about the conditions on the farm or the inadequacy of the tools. Maybe they second guess the farmer because, well, the farm isn’t what it used to be. But now is not the time for such childish behavior.  Now is the time to be obedient to Christ’s command.

 

2000 years have come and gone since the days Jesus walked upon the earth. Certainly, a lot has changed. But one thing that remains the same is people are still desperate for the love and mercy and grace of God. If there is any doubt in your mind, look at the news on any given day. There are stories of corruption, suicide, addiction, murder, rape, theft, bankruptcy, genocide, just to name a few. Still today the harvest is great. Still today, people are hurting and are in need of the peace of Christ. Still today, people long to be cured of what ails them in body, mind, and spirit.

 

Instead of pointing fingers and criticizing “those people,” we have the privilege of going into the world on a mission of peace, wholeness, goodness—God’s shalom. We cannot go with an agenda—intent on filling our pews and overflowing our coffers. No, we must go with love and compassion as our guides and with no desire for personal gain because we are on a holy mission. In the words of Henri Nouwen:

 

When the message has been delivered and the project is finished, we want to return home to give an account of our mission and to rest from our labors. One of the most important spiritual disciplines is to develop the knowledge that the years of our lives are years ‘on a mission.’[ii]

 

The mission requires sacrifice. With thankful hearts, we give up some of our time, some of our resources. And to whom will our mission take us? Some people say, “All of my friends already know Jesus.” Well, make some new friends. Others say, “Everyone I know has heard about Jesus and already has some opinion about God.” Maybe so, but might there be those who have been misinformed or misled, who have been damaged by the church or turned off by the religious nonsense often promoted as Christianity? Actually, it is estimated that in any given community, 60% of the people are un-churched. While some have never attended church regularly, others have tried the church, found it lacking, and have gone home. Some folks feel they do not have time for church, or church is no longer relevant to their lives—so worshiping at St. Panera or St. Starbucks has become their Sunday morning practice.

 

Then, what are we to do? What is our mission? Recognizing the harvest is God’s, and trusting God for the increase, we pray for others to join us in the fields of God’s bounty. Remember, Jesus promises the harvest is abundant. Do we believe him? Or have we given up? Have we settled on just getting by? The truth is we are not put on this earth only to eke out an existence. We are meant to thrive. What would it look like for First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta to thrive? What is your vision of our future together? I envision abundance. I see the church alive, spiritually maturing day by day, and busy harvesting the bounty God has provided. I see us going into Valdosta and our neighboring communities to share Christ’s love with open minds and open hearts.

 

If you believe First Presbyterian Church has already had her day in the sun, then you are not trusting in the Lord of the Harvest to work big things through us. We possess the greatest story ever told—the story of God’s powerful love that will stop at nothing to save the world. To imagine we cannot be a part of the harvest in this time and place, is to have a pretty low view of the power of the gospel.

 

Knowles Shaw was an American author and composer of gospel hymns. Born in Ohio, he was a member of the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. A prolific evangelist, he baptized over 11,000 people in is lifetime. Of the numerous songs he wrote, the most popular was “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve, waiting for the harvest and the time of reaping, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

 

As a church, how can we bring God’s harvest home? First, we pray. To help us remember to do that, the children are about to pass out wristbands. And here is your invitation: Throughout October at 10:02 (taken from Luke 10:2), pray for our church—that the Lord will send more laborers to help us gather a great harvest in Valdosta and beyond. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will provide all the resources that our laborers need to accomplish the harvest work to which we are called. And pray for God’s will regarding your own contribution of time, talents, and treasures.  Let us join our brothers and sisters around the world, harvesting what God has provided. Then, may we, too, come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] David Lose, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: Reflections for Every Day of the Year, 132.

*Cover Art: Stushie Art used by Subscription