Time to Testify
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 17, 2019
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 12; Luke 21:5-19
As you know, most of the time our worship services are guided by Lectionary readings. Each week, the Lectionary calendar provides an offering from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a text from a Gospel and an Epistle. Supposedly, selections are provided that share common themes. Sometimes the connections are obvious. At other times, the pastor is left scratching her head, wondering, “What in the world were ‘they’ thinking?” I admit, at first glance, our readings from Isaiah and Luke seem like an odd pairing. Allow me to explain.
Overall, the book of Isaiah is a prophetic meditation upon the city of Jerusalem and the faith of ancient Israel, and, by extension, our faith. In poetic fashion, Isaiah weaves two threads into the fabric of the story of a chosen people. First, Yahweh, the God of Israel, has made deep, abiding promises to the line of David—promises of abundant blessings. In wondrous ways, God keeps God’s promises. The second thread of Isaiah’s story is an awareness that Jerusalem has fallen short and is constantly in jeopardy of judgment. Thus, through the eyes of the prophet, divine promise and divine judgment are linked.
Isaiah chapter 11, which precedes today’s reading, offers a glimpse of the peaceable kingdom that will spring up from the root of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord will rest upon God’s chosen king and peace and harmony will reign. The obvious response of such hope and restoration is the song of Thanksgiving found in our reading for today.
We happen upon quite a different scene in our reading from the gospel of Luke. While Jerusalem and the temple are still key to the faith of God’s chosen people, with Jesus a new day is dawning. For good reason, there are those who are impressed by the beautiful stones and the grandeur of the temple. Jesus, however, is not one of them. He is sick and tired of those in leadership who have used the temple system and their own positions to bully and oppress the vulnerable. A new day is dawning and with courage Jesus tells it like it is. In essence, he says something like this:
You see this building that you admire so much, well, a time is coming when it will be nothing more than a heap of rubble. It will be destroyed for the old world is passing away. But don’t be afraid—even when you hear of wars and rumors of wars—even when it looks like the end is drawing nigh—even when false prophets rise up. Oh, they will say they know the ins and outs of my Father’s plan. Don’t believe them! Don’t follow them! Nation will rise up against nation and there will be natural disasters that can’t possibly be explained. Hold fast! Before Abba’s plan is complete, there will still be work to do. Those who believe in me will be handed over to people in authority. And then you will be given the greatest of opportunities. You will have a chance to testify. Even then, don’t be afraid because I’m going to be right there beside you, giving you the wise words you need. They won’t know what hit them. It won’t be easy. You may be betrayed by your own kin. Hatred will rise against you—so much so—some will be put to death. Regardless, the bigger picture is this: every detail of your body and soul—even the hair on your head—is in my tender care. Stay with it! That’s what is needed! Stay with it and you won’t be sorry. Instead, you’ll be saved.
At first glance, the readings from Isaiah and Luke appear to be miles apart. But as I reflected on them, one thing kept glaring back at me. In a time of celebration, thanksgiving and praise, twice Isaiah proclaims, “You will say in that day!” Then from Luke, Jesus foretells of a time of chaos and destruction that will provide the perfect opportunity to testify. In other words, in good times, testify to God’s goodness throughout the earth. In bad times, don’t keep your faith bottled up; instead open your mouth and testify!
Testify—the word gets a bad rap in our tradition, doesn’t it? Likely, it brings up images of some Bible thumping man on the street corner, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Have you been saved?” In an article in Presbyterians Today, Lynn Hasselbarth, a student at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, admitted that when she thinks of evangelism, what comes to mind is a cartoon character of a car blaring its horn. Beep! Beep! Hasselbarth said in the past she felt more comfortable sharing her faith—quietly, politely, and avoiding conflict at all costs. But somewhere along the way her faith took her to an unexpected place—a place that helped her see evangelism differently. She realized that simple conversations about her call and the process of becoming ordained gave her just the opening she needed to talk about the things of God. She explains,
While I find myself more and more compelled to share the good news of God’s love for us, I continue to want to slam on the brakes, for fear of honking the horn of evangelism too loud. But I’m learning that the sound of evangelism is not [fundamentally] noisy or aggressive, nor is [a] …subdued or silent form of witness [best]. I yearn for an evangelism that sings like a set of wind chimes, ringing with different voices, tones, and pitches—not from our own doing but because of the stirring of the Holy Spirit.[i]
The truth is, in the way that we live out our faith, no matter what is going on—be it good, bad, or somewhere in between—we are a witness for God—albeit, too often, a silent one.
In her book, Tell it Like it Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, Lillian Daniel claims that all congregations and all churchgoers have faith stories. But most people of mainline traditions have for too long believed it is impolite or rude to talk about religion. People think being reverent to God means being silent and serving others. “It’s better to walk the walk than talk the talk” we say. One of the results of such thinking is we have lost our vocabulary of faith—we have lost our voice.
No doubt, we, who stand in the light and love of Jesus Christ, have a story to tell. And Jesus said we would have an opportunity to testify. But will we? Will we trust the Holy Spirit to help us find the words? “When things are going well,” you might be thinking, “I can muster up a few words of hope and love. Telling about good times and good things, sharing how God made a way when there seemed to be no way—that kind of testimony seems reasonable. I think I can learn to do that.” But what about when we stare darkness and pain in the face? Can we muster up a testimony then? Might it be that at such times, the world needs our witness even more?
No doubt every generation has speculated if the end of time is drawing near. In recent years, we have surely witnessed our share of wars, natural disasters, and political chaos, which might lead us to wonder: “Are these the last days of which Jesus spoke?” But Jesus does not want us to fret about such things. No matter what happens, our instructions remain the same: Do not be afraid…this is the perfect opportunity to testify.
But what kind of testimony can a faithful person give in the face of death and destruction? One scholar notes: “The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering. Great suffering changes some people and defeats others, but for those who endure—their very souls are gained. Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope.”[ii]
Thomas Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1889. He was an amazing song writer, and gospel and blues musician. As a young man he moved to Chicago where he made a living playing piano in churches, clubs, and theaters. Eventually, he devoted his career to the church. In August of 1932 he left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to St. Louis to be the featured soloist at a large revival. After the first night, he got a telegram with the news, “Your wife just died.” He raced home to learn that his wife had died during childbirth and his son had died the next day. Crushed, Dorsey refused to compose or play music for a long, long time. Eventually, however, sitting in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed over him. That very night, Dorsey recorded his testimony—one that has struck a chord in the hearts of people ever since.[iii]
Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.
We are all on a pilgrimage. There are days when the light shines and hope reigns. There are days when the bottom falls out and we stagger, unsure of which way to turn. Nonetheless, our instructions remain the same: It’s time to testify about the love and mercy and grace of God Almighty—the God who counts the hairs on our heads—the God who holds our hands—and, yes, the God who leads us home! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Lynn Hasselbarth, Presbyterians Today, Nov. 2013, 8.
[ii] Nancy Lynne Westfield, Feasting on the Word, 310- 312.
*Cover Art, Stushie Art; used by subscription
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 10, 2019
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 98; Luke 20:27-38
Recently a cartoon made its rounds on Facebook. It was a picture of the fairy godmother holding Cinderella’s hands, looking kindly into her eyes. The caption read, “And when the clock strikes midnight, Halloween will end, then bam, Christmas carols everywhere.” Of course, it will be a while before the tunes of Christmas ring out in our morning worship. Nevertheless, as I began preparing today’s sermon, reading and re-reading Psalm 98—well it put me in the mood for Christmas. The words of “Joy to the World” kept running through my mind—maybe because this is the very psalm that inspired Isaac Watts to put pen to paper 300 years ago to write what has become a most beloved Christmas hymn.
Let’s be daring. Let’s be bold. Even before Advent begins, let’s raise our voices and sing the first verse together:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room.
And heaven and nature sing; and heaven and nature and sing;
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
Such words—don’t they make you want to sing and shout for joy? From Watt’s perspective, the birth of Jesus is just the kind of event proclaimed in Psalm 98.
Indeed, joyful worship is in order. I imagine the psalmist as a dynamic worship leader, who has been given the important job of gathering God’s people to worship with a new song. First, he calls the people to praise the Lord. “Make a joyful noise to Yahweh,” he cries, “for he has done marvelous things.” The people respond with singing and dancing but that’s not adequate praise for Almighty God whose right hand and holy arm have given victory. “More! More!” The psalmist urges. “Strike up the band—let the instruments—the lyre, the trumpet, the horn—broadcast the joyful noise up to the heavens.” Sounds of jubilation break forth. Still, that’s not enough for the Lord who is known for steadfast love and faithfulness. “More! More!” God’s cheerleader cries. “Let creation join in with seas shouting, floods clapping, and hills singing.” God has done marvelous things and all the earth responds.
What a worship service! But a call to joyful worship isn’t for the people of Israel, alone. Nor is it just for the high holy days of Advent, Christmas, and Easter. Surely, of all people, followers of Jesus should excel at raising the roof and making some noise! Praise should be our calling card. It has been said that praise is our best response to the evil in the world. Praise is the cure for despair and loneliness. Praise is contagious because praise begets praise.
What a delight to be part of the song and dance of joy for the Lord. Joining earth’s celebration glorifying God, every creature adds its own distinct voice. The seas and rivers, meadows and hills add their response. “Sing praises to the Lord. Make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!”
That the whole earth participates in the song reminds me of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a lowly colt. When he approaches the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude begins to praise God, singing and shouting for joy. Some of the Pharisees are upset by the ruckus so they tell Jesus to make the people stop singing and shouting. Listen to Jesus’ response: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”[i]
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Jesus’ words have often made me wonder, in this day and age, are we guilty of praising God so little, the earth may have to respond on our behalf?
Some years ago, Babbie Mason came out with a song entitled, “Keep the Rocks Silent.”
I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—one more day.
I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—oh, one more day
I don’t know about you, but I’ll keep praising his name, and I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—one more day!
The words of the song continue:
Well there’s all kinds of trouble weighing me down, I hear the voice of confusion, trying to turn me around. But I’m bound and determined to see this thing through. Until the end of my struggle—here’s what I’m gonna do—I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—one more day.
The words of the final verse are:
Now I don’t know much of nothing, about the end of my days, but I know a little something, about the power of praise. Cause I’ve been bound and determined, right from the start, to keep a rock in my right hand and praise in my heart.
I know a little something about the power of praise. The psalmist, by all accounts, knows a little something about the power of praise. But why should we praise? We should lift our voices in praise because of our amazement at God and God’s greatness. We should lift our voices in praise because of our awareness of both the power and the gentleness of the Creator. Praise moves us from an attitude of “Woe is me!” to an attitude of “How great Thou art!”
Psalm 98 praises the Lord for the marvelous things he has done. Of course, the most marvelous “thing” God does is come to the earth as Emmanuel—God with us. Jesus, by simply taking on flesh—by teaching, touching, suffering and rising—was and is marvelous. Jesus is the victory of God, and our only reasonable response is praise. One preacher put it this way:
In Christ Jesus the Lord’s power is on display as never before. Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables. Watch Jesus wash the feet of those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last and then quite fantastically show up three days later. [ii]
God’s greatest gift is Jesus Christ the Messiah! How can we keep from joining the song of all creation—the moon and sun and the stars, the frogs and crickets, the dogs and birds? How can we keep from singing?
Advent and Christmas are just around the corner. Soon we will gather to sing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and yes, Joy to the World. But let’s not wait until then to raise our voices in praise. Let us sing a new song to the Lord and let us begin even now.
[i] Luke 19:40
[ii] James Howell @http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=693
*Cover Art “Rejoice and Be Glad” by Jan Richardson; used by subscription
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 3, 2019
All Saints’ Worship Service
Ps 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10
Time flies when you’re having fun, or so they say. It seems like only yesterday Kinney and I were running along the sandy shore of Myrtle Beach enjoying our first vacation together. Then, the pages in our little story book began to turn and we were running after four children, barely able to keep up.
When I think back on the life and times of our family, like vivid snapshots, moments frozen in time appear in my mind’s eye. Like the day Samuel, our first delight, was on the front walk riding his tricycle when I heard him calling out to someone. I walked outside to see him standing there with a serious expression on his face, chewing on a little stick and repeating to the gentleman mowing the church lawn, “Old man! Old man! Would you like a drink of water?” The “old man” was not really that old, but he gladly accepted Samuel’s kind offer—an offer that cemented a long friendship.
I can’t think of little Sarah without recalling her boundless joy for life. Often, in the mornings, we would awaken to a familiar sound: clu—clunk, clu—clunk, clu—clunk… It was Sarah jumping up and down in her crib, bursting with excitement, eager to greet the day.
Seth was a quiet, easy-going child. Maybe that’s why this snapshot remains with me. One day a bee stung him between his eyes, which sent us racing to the doctor. To say the prednisone shot and dose pack affected Seth’s personality—well, that’s an understatement. Later, Seth, Sarah and I were in the living room. Sarah was innocently sitting on the floor, coloring and watching television. I was reading. And out of nowhere, Seth jumped off the couch, raced across the room, and slapped Sarah across the head. Needless to say, the rascal had to be put on a short leash until the drugs wore off.
One of the pictures of Shane that I carry around in my heart is of him giving the best hugs in the whole wide world. I can still feel his little arms and legs wrapped around me in a grip that said, “I’m never going to let you go.”
It seems like only yesterday. The days come and the days go. How easy it is to take them for granted—instead of embracing each one as the gift that it is. Foolishly, we assume there will always be another day. Poet Jane Kenyon offers words of wisdom in a poem about a certain day even while she is well aware one day such days will no longer exist.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.[i]
“Teach us to number our days,” Scripture tells us. No doubt, it would be unhealthy to contemplate the day of our death all the time. However, since today we have gathered to worship God and celebrate All Saints’ Day—it is the perfect time to consider, when we leave this earthly dwelling, how will we be remembered? Will we be likened to those people who witnessed Jesus’ love and compassion toward the tax collector and grumbled? Or will we be remembered as someone who was so eager to dwell in the light of Jesus, we’d do anything, even climb a tree, just to get close to him? Will we be remembered as someone who raced through life, rarely spending time with people we say we love? Or will someone reminisce about the day we sat with them over a cup of coffee to share the story of how we first met Jesus? How will we be remembered?
When I reminisce over loved ones who have gone before, I are sure to remember my cousin, Kevin. He and Kinney loved going antiquing together. In my memory, Kevin’s laughter still reverberates through the air. A gifted RN, he died in his sleep at the age of 39 because of a heart condition he didn’t even know he had. Kinney’s best friend Doyle lived life with gusto but his plans for a long retirement never came to fruition—a diagnosis of lymphoma cut short too many of his dreams. Today we pause and we remember.
Like a snapshot frozen in time, Zacchaeus is remembered as the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree poised to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Probably, Zacchaeus awakes expecting this day to be like all the others. But one word from Jesus and Zacchaeus is forever changed. “Zacchaeus hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This day, Jesus said, we’ll sit at your table and dine together. This day!
In response, Zacchaeus shimmies down the tree even faster that he climbed it, keen on having Jesus as his guest. Furthermore, he is keen to make amends for his sins; so much so he volunteers to give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back 4 times as much to anyone he has cheated. Then Jesus speaks those oh-so-important words, “Today, salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” This is how we remember the wee, little man, Zacchaeus. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, how do you want to be remembered?
Today, in the sanctuary, we have a Christ Candle and then 14 other candles representing friends and family who, over the past year, crossed the threshold into their eternal dwelling place. To the great communion of saints, these different lives have been added—ordinary lives—beautiful lives. Today, we pause, and we remember others. Someday—hopefully many years from now—others will pause and remember you and me. What will they remember? Will they remember that salvation lived in your house?
This week I have pondered how I want to be remembered. Of course, I want to be remembered as Kinney’s wife, the mother of four incredible children, and grandmother to two little girls who have stolen my heart! But I also hope when my life is over and someone lights a candle on my behalf—I hope they remember I was an heir of God’s grace, a seeker of God’s face, a believer in the power of Jesus to transform all of life, and a witness of the Spirit’s power to make a way where there seems to be no way.
Today we pause and we remember. Amen.
[i] Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise,” in Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 41-42.
*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission