God’s Presence

God’s Presence

Isaiah 63:7-9 & Matthew 2:13-23

First Presbyterian Valdosta

Jane Shelton; December 29, 2019

 

I am Mary, the mother of the Jesus.

I’m sure you have heard of me.

I am the young girl to be wed to Joseph who is of the lineage of David.

Joseph who was visited by an angel of the Lord who told him “I” was the one chosen to carry the one to come…. the Messiah…. the child of God.

I still do not understand all that has happened.  My head still spins, yet on faith, I have accepted what has been handed to me by my God.  My God whose presence is always near me, and whose presence carries me day to day.

 

My husband, Joseph, ….. a righteous man….has been wonderful and supportive.  After hearing the words spoken to him by the angel in his dream, he had faith to still marry me.

Now, months later,… here beside me in this manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes lies our baby, Jesus, given to us by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, the name Joseph said we were to name him as he was instructed in a dream by an angel.

Joseph said the angel told him our son, Jesus, was to save his people from their sins.  But exactly what does that mean?!

The prophets tell us that his people are the people of Israel.  It is more than I can conceive as I watch my new baby in his manger.

Why we look at Jesus and can hardly believe that he has arrived!

As we watch him coo with wonder, it brings us such joy!

He lies gurgling with such a peaceful glow, a glow so bright….well, it’s as if he’s the light of the world!

We know that Jesus must be special because we have been visited by wise men.  They came from many miles far away, following a star to see our baby, Jesus, here in Bethlehem of Judea.

They even knelt before him paying him homage!

Then to our surprise, they opened their treasure chests and offered our baby, Jesus, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh!

We could only stare in amazement of this event unfolding before our very eyes.

Soon after they left, Joseph comes to me to tell me that we must leave.

“But, why?!”  I ask.

“I’m still recovering from our last journey here to Bethlehem, and I’m enjoying my time with him these last few months, must we go now?!”

I pleaded with him.  But my husband insisted.

Joseph tells me that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and we must go for our safety before something horrible happens.  Before Jesus is destroyed!

Jesus destroyed?!  I can barely consider the words.

Swiftly, I gather up our things, secure Jesus close to my body, and we begin our journey traveling in the night to Egypt, once more fleeing for safety.

 

Over the next few days, we begin to hear rumors that hundreds of children are being murdered in and around Bethlehem by the order of King Herod!

Why is this happening?  Just when we were beginning to settle down with our young son?!

Why must these evil things happen around us?  Is this what we are to expect in our new life with our new child?

So we remained in Egypt until King Herod died, and then… once again… in a dream Joseph was directed to take us to the land of Israel.

But Joseph heard that King Herod’s son was now ruling over Judea, and Joseph became afraid to go into Israel.

As my husband prayed what we should do, he received a warning in a dream and took us to the district of Galilee instead.

There, we made our home in a town called Nazareth.

 

Doesn’t that story just make your heart race?!

Confusion and fear, fleeing and going…and yet in the midst is joy…a new light.

 

We have just celebrated a season of Thanksgiving.  A season of the birth of Christ.  It’s the time of year where we look back at the resolutions we made in January and reflect on goals we had set for this year.

Did we uphold our resolutions?  Did we meet our goals?

Maybe some yes, and maybe some no.

Maybe we have ended up in a new direction in life without even remembering those resolutions and goals we made in January of 2019.

So here we are again, a few days from making our new resolutions for the new year of 2020.  Are you ready?

Will God be a part of our New Year’s resolutions?

Like Mary and Joseph, and the prophets before them, will we listen and watch for the presence of God to direct us for the coming year?

Will we await for the angel of the Lord to speak to us in the quiet of the night?

When life becomes difficult for us to understand, and our burdens become heavy, will we act when God speaks to us the way Mary and Joseph did?

Will the work and love of Jesus be continued through us?

Who will we find in need in 2020?  Who might we meet on our journey in life that we can help, that we can offer a hand up?

Someone that we might pray for?

Someone we can be there for when they are alone and in need of safety?

Will we keep faith that God’s plan will be fulfilled through us as a congregataion, and will we allow ourselves to act when we hear where we are to go and what we are to do in the name of Jesus?

Will we dream dreams of signs and wonders, and through God’s presence, find direction in our lives for 2020?

Or will we fill our heads with our own follies while once again putting Jesus ministry on the back burner?

I would say to you that as we have seen in our scripture this morning, God has a plan for his beloved.  A plan of love and protection for all his children.

Mary and Joseph certainly did not live a “happily ever after” life.

Yet, they did live a life in the presence of God.  A life constantly being given  direction by God.

Mary and Joseph are proof that their lives were far from easy, yet God’s presence was always there, always watching over them, leading them, directing them again and again.

Certainly, we can recognize that no matter what trials we face, whatever evil lurks around us, God’s plan will be fulfilled.

Will you find time from day to day to know what that plan is for you?

Will you listen to your heart and wait for where God sends you, just like he sent Mary and Joseph with Jesus to safety.

At this year’s end, may we be ever grateful that Mary and Joseph listened and acted when God gave them direction.  May we be grateful that God was present and ever watching over them, just like God watches over you today.

May we all acknowledge God’s presence in our lives each hour of every day, and may we get up and go when we feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit calling us to act.

God’s plan will be fulfilled as God provides for his beloved according to the abundance of his steadfast love.  It is God’s presence that saves us over and over again.  He will lift us up and carry us all our days.

 

What will be your New Year’s Resolution?

God’s resolution is love and protection for you,…. all of you.

*Cover Art: Stushie Art, used by subscription

 

The Theology of Time

A Theology of Time

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 22, 2019

4th Sunday of Advent

Genesis 1:1-5, Exodus 4:14-15, Matthew 11:2-11

 

It’s been said that we can learn a lot about ourselves—our goals, our priorities—by examining our check books and our calendars. How do we spend our money and our time? Does it really matter?

 

Regarding money, there are some who claim, “I work for my money—it’s mine—and whatever I have in the bank, in the mattress, or in the Ball jar out in the back yard is nobody’s business. And tithing—giving 10% of my earnings to the Lord—is antiquated, based on Old Testament teachings. Jesus is all about grace so I’m free to give or not to give.” On this topic, a clergy friend once said, “For people who look to Jesus as a way out of tithing, I encourage them to cling to that 10% because Jesus wants more than a mere 10%. Jesus wants it all.” (You may recall Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler who asked what he needed to do inherit eternal life. When he acknowledged to Jesus that he had kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus responded, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”[i] Suddenly 10% doesn’t seem so bad!)

 

What about time? What kind of relationship do we have with time? How do we make use of it? How do we spend it? Whose is it, anyway? Do we ever consult God before making plans for the hour, the day, the week, the year? These are important questions to ask if we yearn to live in in the light and love of Yahweh, our ever-present God. The truth of the matter is—both time and money are resources, but they are not OUR resources. They’re gifts from God. Our talents, our property, our money, our time—it’s all God’s and we are tenant farmers living on land that isn’t ours, spending money and time are on loan.

 

Today we conclude our two-part Advent sermon series concerning time. Abusing the gift of it is what put Bonnie Thurston in the place that led to writing her book, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time. One day, at the end of an academic year, she was out running a few errands when suddenly she was so overcome by exhaustion, she feared she wouldn’t make it back to her house. Thankfully, she was able to get home where she fell into bed and slept for hours. When she woke up, she cancelled all of her engagements for the next few days—days she spent sleeping, resting, reading, walking and praying. During this time, she was led to take a good, long look at her calendar and what she found was appalling. She writes,

 

I had literally scheduled myself into near collapse. Because I am a widow with no children, it wasn’t others’ demands on me that led to this place. I was teaching full time at a college, chairing my department and its Master of Arts in Theology program, writing a book, being deeply engaged with the students, serving as the pastor of a small church and as its spiritual director, traveling to speak and lead retreats, trying to keep contact with my family and friends, as well as attending to a “home life” (cooking, gardening, puttering around home). I enjoyed all these activities; I truly felt “called” to most of them. And yet I had driven myself to the edge of physical and spiritual collapse by means of them.[ii]

 

That’s when Thurston began to ponder a theology of time. She started to contemplate how God might want her to use God’s time. The gift of time is laid out beginning in the very first chapter of Genesis. It was evening and it was morning, the first day. God meant for there to be a rhythm of work and rest—we know this because God worked for six days—but on the seventh—what did God do? God rested. Scripture is filled with admonitions for us to do the same. Are we so important that we can’t bother to keep Sabbath? Are we really in so much demand that we don’t have time to enjoy God’s creation; time to care for ourselves; time to care for others? Just how do we spend our time?

 

It’s sobering to reflect on our responsibility to spend our time well.  Spending time—what an interesting phrase. Thurston highlights several noteworthy phrases often used concerning the use of time, “keeping time,” for example. We might say that someone keeps time with her foot as the music plays. Frequently the phrase is used in the context of sporting events where someone is keeping time or measuring time until the completion of the game. A “timekeeper” is a person who measures time and tells how many hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds have passed. But how can we possibly “keep time”? Time is not a “thing” to be put in jars or pressed between the pages of a book or locked up in a safety deposit box. Truthfully, “keeping time” is impossible.[iii]

 

Then there is the phrase “making time.” Busy people are always trying to “make time” for the next thing but we can’t make time. Only God makes time! The idea behind “making time” is to try to carve out space to do something. It usually suggests a desire to “find the time” to do something. Thurston asks quite directly: “What is it that you would like to make time to do? And why aren’t you doing it?”[iv]

 

Two additional phrases that bear mentioning are “killing time” and “wasting time.” The idea of “killing time” is that the present moment must be tolerated until some better time arrives. However, if time is as limited as we seem to believe—is there ever any time to kill? The idea of “wasting time” is looked down upon in the Western world. In business wasting time is equivalent to wasting money. Yet isn’t it often in those quiet, day-dreaming moments that new ideas are born—ideas that lead to amazing things. In our spiritual lives, sometimes “wasting time” gives the Holy Spirit a chance to suggest a new direction. In quiet “wasting” moments God’s abiding presence and love may be realized in tangible ways. Could it be that we might all be better off “wasting” a little time now and then?

 

To view time through a theological lens, we need to recognize that time is a creation of God—remember how God separated the light from the darkness and called one day and one night. Time is a gift, but do we receive it as such? Thurston questions: Do we experience time as one of the many aspects of creation that we are to enjoy and care for or do we experience time as a taskmaster? Do we manage time or does time manage us?

 

Another theological aspect of time is its sacred nature. The God of Israel is the God of events—of happenings in time. When Jesus enters history as a babe in Bethlehem, all of time becomes holy. Jesus models living in the present moment as he gives sight to the blind, makes the lame to walk, cleanses the leper, heals the deaf and raises the dead. Jesus comes to the earth to share the good news: “Even now, I am with you!” Yes, Jesus makes “now” holy. “If God is not here, in the now, ‘among the pots and pans,’ as St. Teresa of Avila would say, God won’t be found ‘then’ or ‘out there’ somewhere either.”[v]

 

Now and forever, God is a very present God. Remember the name God provides for Moses—“I AM.” Not I was. Not I will be. I AM. God is a very present God and God wishes us to learn to live in the present, too. The present is, after all, the only time we have. We can only remember the past—some moments with fondness—others with sadness. We may plan and hope and fret over the future. But the future is not in our reach other—only today—only this moment. Oh, but how difficult it is to live in the present. This is something we discuss frequently when we meet for Centering Prayer. To sit with God in the moment—to be available for God’s grace to rain down upon us—silent—still—not fretting over some recent slight—not fearing some upcoming struggle—just to be in the present at God’s disposal—it is hard work.

 

The present is the doorway into God’s eternity. The following poem written by one of Thurston’s students offers deep insight into this point.

I was regretting the past and fearing the future.

Suddenly, my Lord was speaking: “My name is ‘I AM.’”

He paused. I waited. He continued.

‘When you live in the past with its mistakes and

regrets, it is hard.

I am not there. My name is not I WAS.

When you live in the future with its problems and

          fears , it is hard.

I am not there. My name is not I WILL BE.

When you live in this moment, it is not hard.

I am here. My name is I AM.[vi]

 

Time is more than the passing of minutes and hours and days and years. Time provides the opportunity to learn to live as human beings rather than human doings. It may be that in slowing down, paying attention, and listening, time will lead us into the ever-present presence of the Great I AM. Surely there’s no better way to spend time. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Luke 18:22b.

[ii] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 4-5. Note this Advent sermon series is based on Scripture and Thurston’s book.

[iii] Ibid, 32-33.

[iv] Ibid, 34.

[v] Ibid, 43.

[vi] Helen Mallicoat, quoted in To Everything a Season, 47.

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription; Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/

 

Cloth for the Cradle

 

Cloth for the Cradle

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 15, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 2:1-12

This morning we consider a text generally reserved for Epiphany—the story of the wise men following a star from the East to pay homage, or to honor baby Jesus. No doubt, a lot of what we assume about the wise men comes from Christian folklore rather than Scripture. For example, tradition tells us that the wise men were three and that they were kings, that they were named Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, and that their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh signified a gift worthy of a king, a gift worthy of divinity, and a spice foretelling of Christ’s death, respectively.

 

While the wise men play a significant role in this story, so does the star burning bright—the star that leads them to their destination. With Christmas so commercialized these days, I daresay, we still need a star to find our way to Jesus. One scholar puts it this way:

Because we are almost blinded by the culture, the star is a sign, a wonder, a revelation, a guidepost, a traffic light, a tracking device, and a GPS that brings us to the point and place of divine revelation about the Messiah. For the real meaning of Christmas, we must “follow the star.” [i]

 

While tradition might have us focus on the star and on the three wise men, the real point to the story is, of course, paying homage to Christ. Before the wise men present their gifts to the child, they kneel and worship him. First, they give themselves completely to Christ. Then they offer their gifts.

 

Interestingly, when it was time for the wise men to return home, there is no indication that the star guided them. Could it be that they no longer needed it? Could it be that once they saw the child, the external light became internalized as hearts aflame? Moreover, shouldn’t it be true that when we follow the star to the Christ-child, when we behold the Messiah, when we bow, worship, and give our gifts to the child, we, too, leave with hearts aflame?

 

Today, led by the star, we have come to worship the Christ child. We come, we kneel, we worship, and we offer our gift. What is your gift to bring? My gift is to stand before you and point you to the Christ-child. Others bring gifts this morning.

 

Elise Phelps brings a gift for the Christ child. She brings the gift of a story.

Zachary Routsong brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of music.

Evan Phelps brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of laughter.

Jaxson Routsong brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of a song.

 

Take a moment to reflect on what gift you bring to Jesus. [Silence] There is a cradle on the Lord’s Table and there are strips of cloth available. When the music begins, you are invited to come forward, take a strip of cloth, and lay it in the cradle to symbolize your gift. While the choir leads us, singing the verses of “Cloth for the Cradle,” we will join in the refrain as we come to the cradle.

 

[Cloth for the Cradle experience]

 

We have followed the star and the way of the wise men. With joy we have bowed, we have worshiped, and we have presented our gifts to the Christ-child. Now, may we leave with our hearts aflame and may we never forget what we have seen. Amen.

 

[i] Frank A. Thomas, Feasting on the Word

 

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription; Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/

 

The Gift of Time

The Gift of Time
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Before becoming a lab supervisor, my time as a medical technologist was spent in a certain way. I waited for specimens to spin down in the centrifuge. I waited for test results to come off one instrument or another. I spent time titrating chemicals, examining cells under the microscope, or preparing units of blood or plasma for patients. Time was of the essence and time was carefully documented on each requisition since turn-around time was, often, of critical importance.

It just so happened that my watch stopped working around the time I left the medical profession. “That’s alright,” I thought, “My heart yearns to beat at a different pace anyway.” So instead of replacing my watch, I strung time together with Anglican prayer beads in hopes of walking the earth with my eyes on God rather than on the almighty clock. Well, that was my intention. But lo and behold, life takes on similar constraints for the minister who needs to plan weeks—even months—in advance. Of course, there’s no busier time for the pastor (and everyone else, for that matter) than this time of year. Years ago, a clergy friend said something that stays with me to this day: “Make no mistake, I love baby Jesus BUT I hate Christmas.”

Time—how it flies and how often we’re convinced there’s never enough of it. Children, however, experience time differently. Frederick Buechner writes,

For a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless… What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity…Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything in before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money…

After the innocence of childhood ticks away, most adults experience time with some sense of anxiety. Not even retirement allows the freedom we expect. How often I’ve heard it said in one form or another, “Now that I’m retired, I’m so busy I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Regardless of age, if I were allowed a peek at your calendars this morning, I’ve no doubt there would be days filled to the brim with: sports studying, travel plans, folks in for the holidays, family obligations, volunteering, and numerous church related activities. Then there’s important things like work, school, and other day-to-day commitments.

I think we would all agree we are living in ridiculously busy times—times governed by the clock and the calendar. Jim Forest, a writer and peace activist once accompanied Thick Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, on a speaking tour. As they stood waiting for the elevator to open, Forest noticed the monk studying the clock just over the elevator doors. The Buddhist said, “A few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” Well, not anymore!

Maybe an in depth look at how we regard time is in order. Toward this end, as part of our Advent journey, we will be guided by Scripture and Bonnie Thurston’s book, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time. Hopefully, by doing so, we may consider time from a theological viewpoint. We might even get an attitude adjustment regarding time, so that we can learn to view it as an extravagant gift of a generous God, “who always provides not only the bare essentials, but usually a feast.”

In her book, Bonnie Thurston tells a story of an African explorer who was hurrying through the jungle. For days the men he had hired to carry his equipment kept up with him, but on the third morning, they sat down and refused to budge. The explorer was confused by their behavior and, understandable, displeased. After much bantering back and forth, this is what the group leader told him: “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we must wait to give our spirits a chance to catch up with us.” Thurston asserts that now more than ever, modern Americans need to pause to give our spirits time to catch up with us.

No doubt, in our Western culture, we scramble about as fast as we can, certain that we’re running out of time. The Book of Ecclesiastes, however, reminds us of the seemingly endless progression of time, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The writer of Ecclesiastes notes the cyclical nature of time—that which is—already has been. Yet, God also gives us an awareness of time in the sense of past, present, and future. This is a linear perspective on time, a perspective enhanced in the modern world with the human invention of clocks. What might it be like to begin to see time differently—to experience the gift as more than hands on a clock or days on a calendar?

A Christian theology of time will have us dig deeper since time has a built-in eternal nature. “That is why,” Thurston asserts, “it’s possible for earthly worship to be a preparation for heavenly worship of the sort that St. John envisioned around the throne of the Lamb in the book of Revelation.”

In Christian worship, time is pivotal to what happens when we come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion. Around Christ’s Table our hopes and fears, our aspirations and disappointments are made sacred. When we gather around the Table, we do not gather alone—we do not even gather as First Presbyterian Church alone. Instead, eternity breaks in and the bread and cup are celebrated on earth and in heaven—and all time is contained in the present moment. Thurston says it so well:

God entered time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, took it into the Divine self, redeemed it and filled it with [hints] of eternity. After the resurrection, time and eternity [connected] in wondrous and mysterious ways…This is especially true at the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper is an event in the present that proclaims an event from the past which assures our future. It is a moment when Jesus is present with the church…Past becomes present and future.

At the Lord’s Table, we experience time in at least three ways. First, we remember the historical Jesus—come to the earth as a humble baby—all for the love of fallen humanity and we recall that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Second, we experience the present as Christ present with us now, nourishing us, encouraging us, and equipping us. Finally, at the Table, believers receive a foretaste of what it will be like when Christ returns—when with joy we will see him as he is—when we, too, will be invited to sit at his Table. Then all of time will be redeemed.

A time is coming when neither clocks nor calendars rule our days.

A time is coming when anxiety, stress, and fear no longer rule our nights.

A time is coming!

[1] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 11.

[1] Ibid, 6.

[1] Ibid, 2-3.

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[1] Thurston, 86-87

[1] Ibid, 88-89.

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription