Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 24, 2020
7th Sunday of Easter
The liturgical calendar marks this past Thursday as the Ascension of the Lord—a day that seldom gets the recognition it deserves. Some say that Christ’s ascension is every bit as important as his resurrection—because, in that moment—those standing on the Galilean hillside see that Jesus not only comes from God, he also returns to God. Because of Christ’s ascension, the veil between earth and heaven is lifted to reveal the promise of coming and going in a new way—for Jesus and for all who choose to follow in his footsteps. [i]
In a modern-day psalm, David Adam speaks of the wonder of Christ’s choice:[ii]
Hail to the King: blessed is he.
Coming to share in our humanity.
Upon the cross and in the grave,
Facing our loss, coming to save.
Risen again, never to die,
Ascended Lord, Christ on high.
Hail to the King: blessed is he.
Coming to share in our humanity.
Before losing his battle with cancer in 2010, David M. Bailey was well known as a 14-year survivor of a Glioblastoma brain tumor that was to have killed him in 6 months. [iii] A passionate Presbyterian folksinger, he wrote songs that inspired people to believe and to hang onto hope. David had an uncanny way of making even complex theological teachings understandable. One example, “The First Breakfast,” is a ballad that imagines the Trinity gathered for the very first breakfast and chatting about—of all things—us. The song offers a glimpse of the deep love that resides within the Trinity—a deep love that is available to us. So, I invite you to sit back, relax, and listen to the lyrics of “The First Breakfast.”
At the very first breakfast in the world, Jesus and God sat down to eat. Spirit put on some coffee and joined them at a table set for three. They talked about what had been created and God said, “I still think it’s good.”
Jesus said, “Yes, but I feel nervous.” Spirit said, “Well, I guess I would be too, if I were you. And I am…so I do.”
Later, God said “Son, we need to have a Word. I got this little job lined up for you. Gonna send you on a visit down to our creation to do something you might not want to do.” Jesus said, “Somehow I knew you’d say that. And I’m ready; just tell me when to go.”
God wiped a tear from His face and said, “This hurts me more than you’ll ever know.” Jesus said, “Dad, it’s OK. We both know it’s what has to be done.” God said, “That does not make it easy: after all, you’re still my only Son and we are One. Well, I’d do it myself if I could. But you know, it would not be the same. So, I’m sending you instead, like I always said I would; you’ll have a face, a family, and a name. Call it a special assignment. The trip will last you 33 years—a drop in the bucket in light of forever.” Jesus smiled and said, “I’m all ears.”
So, God reviewed the details one more time. And Jesus—he kinda winced and shut his eyes. He said, “It’s not too late to change your mind.” God said, “This should come as no surprise. I’ve thought about it forty ways till Sunday. I’m gonna turn it upside down and inside out. A costly demonstration of unexpected love will be proof beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
Jesus said, “I’m with you all the way. Just thought it might be worth a second look.”
God said, “We could look at it forever. In the end, we gotta do it by the Book.”
Jesus said, “The Spirit’s awfully quiet. She’s already been to the Holy Land.” God said, “She’ll go back after you return; Trust me, it’s all part of the Plan.” So, Jesus took a slow sip of his coffee, He looked up and said, “I’m ready to go.”
With pride in his eyes; sorrow in His voice, God said, “A few more things you should know. Your mom will be a quiet gal named Mary. She’s quite an amazing soul. Her husband, he might seem a bit confused, but he’s a good man. His name is Joe. And it’s going to take some time just getting used to doing something they call ‘growing up.’ But when you hear a voice calling from the desert, you’ll know you are ready for my cup.
I’ll get a dozen guys to help you. I promise you will never be alone—except for one evening right towards the end. But by then, you’ll be just 3 days from home.” Jesus said, I’ll do my best; But I never thought Love would feel like this…Strange how the end, the end of the beginning, will all be started with a kiss.’ God said “I understand your feeling but this is how it has to be. My house of many rooms is ready and you, you will be the key.” With those words the breakfast was over, followed by a bittersweet peace. The Bread, the Wine, that would come later, on the way to the final, forever, banquet feast.
Truly, Christ’s gift to us is more than we can comprehend. As I have pondered Jesus’ home-going this week, an image has stuck with me. The image is of Jesus crossing over into the great mystery of eternity and there, eagerly waiting, are God and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity reunited, once again. I imagine hugs and kisses and dancing for joy. Trumpets blow and angels sing. He, who came from God, has returned home to God, but not before accomplishing his mission—to show humanity how to live—to show humanity how to love. Through Christ we are invited into the family of God. We are redeemed. We are transformed. And by the power of the Spirit, we are swept into the never-ending story of God’s eternal love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Randle Mixon, Feasting on the Word.
[ii] David Adam, Music of the Heart: New Psalms in the Celtic Tradition
*Cover Art “The Great Amen” by Ira Thomas via Catholic World Art, used by permission.
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 17, 2020
6th Sunday of Easter
The gospel reading for this 6th Sunday of Easter is set in the Upper Room on Thursday of Holy Week—the evening before the crucifixion. After sharing a meal with his disciples, Jesus offers words of encouragement because he knows he is about to leave, and they are afraid. Jesus, who holds the key to abundant life, promises that he will not leave them abandoned, orphaned, alone. Instead, he will send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
But how can the disciples possibly relate to the living Jesus when he is no longer with them? The answer is that once Jesus leaves, his presence will be made known in a different way—through the person of the Spirit. Jesus calls this person “Paraklētos.” The word “Paraclete” means “someone called alongside” to help or assist. “Paraclete” is also translated as Advocate, Counselor, and Comforter. Thus, we can safely say that the Holy Spirit serves as counselor, advocate, intercessor, comforter, strengthener, and helper.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not say that the Father will provide “an Advocate,” but “another Advocate.” In other words, Jesus is also an Advocate. The implication is that Jesus has been God’s counselor for believers up to this point. It is true that Jesus and the Spirit have some similar functions. They both come from the Father and are sent into the world. Both teach, bear witness to the truth, and expose the sin of the world. Yet calling the Spirit “another Advocate” does not mean the Spirit is “another Jesus.” Rather, the Spirit continues Jesus’ work of love in the world. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus—with the same challenges—the same blessings—the same provision for a full life, a whole life—shalom—in this life and in the life to come.
A full life—a whole life—in this life… For many of us, life feels anything but full and whole during this global pandemic. Our world has suffered unimaginable loss in the past few months. Many of us have suffered loss, too. We may have lost loved ones whom we have been unable to grieve. We may have lost time spent with family and friends celebrating birthdays, graduations, weddings, recitals, or vacations. We may have lost employment or financial security. Loss—no matter the source—is difficult and it is worthy of acknowledgement. In the words of preaching professor, David Lose:
As a culture, we are not terribly good about talking about loss. I don’t know if it’s because it challenges the eternally optimistic stance we are encouraged to take, counters our celebration of youth and opportunity, or reminds us of our own mortality. But for whatever reason, we seem as a culture to lack the resources and emotional wherewithal to acknowledge the losses we, and those around us, suffer. Not sure what to say when confronted by a friend who has recently suffered the loss of a loved one or gone through a divorce, we turn away, leaving the person feeling all the more isolated.[i]
When Jesus was crucified, there is no doubt that the disciples felt tremendous loss. While we know the rest of the story—that death could not hold Christ in the grave—the disciples did not. Surely, they gathered in each other’s homes to mourn their loss, to share stories, to hold one another close. As we shelter in place to keep ourselves and others safe, though, these options are not available to us. We cannot safely gather in each other’s homes. We cannot hug one another to offer comfort. How then shall we express our loss, our grief? Perhaps we can start by recognizing our feelings for what they are. We can name them out loud, and then, with all the faith we can muster, we can ask Christ for the comfort of his own Spirit, and ask the Spirit to show us creative ways that we may offer comfort to others.
God’s Spirit is something we need now more than ever. As one author notes,
The world has in fact begun to crack. The moment of truth for humanity seems to have arrived. We seem destined for destruction at our own hands. But behold, miracle of miracles, out of the cracks a light shines. The venomous snake has not crushed the light. The light burns. It gives warmth. It gives hope. And as the dreamer timidly advances towards the light, he discovers that there are many, many others who are also moving toward it from different directions…from across human barriers, from behind the walls of our own frightened souls. Yes, we all need that light, for that light is the only hope…[ii]
We all need that light for that light is our only hope.
We are Easter people who have rejoiced at Christ’s resurrection. We have traveled with him as he revealed himself to the disciples as the Risen Lord. Soon, we will turn our faces toward his Ascension and then to Pentecost. It is good that we have taken this journey together. It is good to meditate on Christ’s promise of another Advocate, who leads us into truth and equips us for the work of sharing God’s love in the world! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] David Lose http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3226
[ii] Choan-Seng Song, The Compassionate God, 260.
*Cover Art by Stushie Art, used by subscription.
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 10, 2020
5th Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:2-10
When I traveled to the Holy Land on a pastoral pilgrimage several years ago, many things touched me on a deep, spiritual level. I can still close my eyes, for example, and imagine standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. What a wonder to dip my toes into the water upon which Jesus walked, into the water around which he trekked with his beloved disciples. Another treasure is the memory of walking the Via Delarosa, the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem. The experience gave me a sense of the thousands upon thousands who have done so—walking the path of Jesus—sensing his presence—yearning to follow him more faithfully. Another gem that I still carry in my pocket is visiting the wall of the temple in Jerusalem. Also known as the Wailing Wall, it is all that is left of the Second Temple. People flock to it daily to pray. Often, seekers write down prayers and tuck them in between the crevices of the huge temple stones. I was one such seeker. With much prayer and pondering, I created my list, writing name after name after name. By the time the task was complete, there was hardly a speck of white paper still visible. Eagerly, I approached the wall to offer my prayers—prayers for my loved ones, prayers for the church to which I had been called, prayers for the desires of my heart. I can still feel the touch of the cool stones upon my fingers. I can still recall the tears streaming down my face. My soul recognized the sacredness of the space—not only for people of the Jewish faith—but also for those who have been chosen as God’s people to proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus to the world.
Stones—they speak to us, don’t they? Whether they are the stones of the temple wall or the stones of our own church building—stones have something to teach us if we will only listen. In the Bible, stones are used to help future generations remember—like the stone that Jacob uses for a pillow the night he dreams of the ladder going into heaven. In his dream, the Lord blesses him and promises that he will be with Jacob forever. The next morning Jacob rises, takes the stone, pours oil upon it, and names the place Bethel.
When Moses dies, Joshua leads the people into the Promised Land. Their journey is hard, but God is with them every step of the way. By the time it is finished, and the people are able to dwell in peace, Joshua is a man of many years. Before he dies, he calls all the rulers together to give them instructions for their future, to remind them to love the Lord their God and to never go after the foreign gods of the land. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says, “but for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” After the people promise their allegiance to the Lord God, Joshua takes a large stone and sets it under an oak in the sanctuary of the Lord.
Of course, in Hebrew Scripture, stones of importance include those used to build the temple. Beautiful and massive as they are, though, they cannot last. One day when Jesus comes out of the temple, a disciple draws his attention to the large stones and large buildings. Jesus responds, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” No, the stones cannot last because the stones of the temple cannot contain God. Our God cannot be confined in any edifice—be it a tabernacle, a temple, or a church.
As a result of a global pandemic, we are not yet able to gather safely in our church, in our sanctuary. No doubt, we miss the stones that create sacred space to worship, to sing, to pray, to confess our sins, to give our offerings, to partake of Holy Communion. But those stones—they are not really the church. They never have been. And though COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our world and has broken our hearts into a million pieces, it has also offered an invitation for believers to re-think what it means to BE church. The church is and has always been the people.
Likely, Peter’s first letter is composed shortly before his martyrdom in Rome. With love in his heart, he reminds his readers that they are Christ’s traveling companions living in the midst of a power-hungry and violent world. Nevertheless, they can trust God to always be with them. Even so, the journey home requires new skills and new attitudes. Those who have tasted that the Lord is good require spiritual food and they can find it through Jesus Christ, the cornerstone.
Then Peter writes: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” Notice, he does not instruct them to build themselves—but to allow themselves to be built—into a spiritual house. New converts to the faith wonder how they are to worship God without a temple. But the beauty of God’s plan is that all believers are to become a temple of living stones. We are not a random pile of rocks. We are part of a structure built on Christ—and it is God who does the building.
When we think of building a spiritual house, what probably comes to mind involves a building campaign, or renovating a space, or adding to an existing structure. But Peter has something else in mind. Christ’s church can only grow physically when Christ’s people grow spiritually. If we say yes to God—if we are faithful—we become what God says we are: a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people so that we may proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. And how do we proclaim those mighty acts? By BEING the church. We are the church when we enjoy a meal with our loved ones like Jesus did so often. We are the church when we appreciate God’s wondrous creation and do all that we can to protect it. We are the church when we look out for an elderly neighbor who cannot shop during a pandemic. We are the church when we use our talents for the good of others—like preparing food or sewing face masks or sharing from the bounty of our garden. We are the church when, out of our abundance, we donate to ongoing ministries of Jesus Christ. We are the church when we resist the powers of greed and racism and hatred that are infecting our nation. We are the church when we join our brothers and sisters in the faith to pray for those in need and to pray for a cure for COVID-19. We are the church when we send a card, text, or email, or make a phone call to encourage someone who is feeling lonely and isolated. We are the church and day by day, we are being formed into spiritual homes—sanctuaries of God—with or without a building. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art by RaRa Schlitt, used by permission
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 3, 2020
4th Sunday of Easter
Since our reading from the Acts of the Apostles places us at the end of chapter 2, let us pause to consider what has happened thus far. Prior to his ascension, Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit and ascends into heaven. Then, when the day of Pentecost comes, his followers are all together in one place, and suddenly from heaven, there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and they are all filled with the Holy Spirit. 3000 people are converted to the faith, which brings us to our reading for today: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” What follows is a picture of the results of such devotion—awe, miracles, generosity, more breaking of bread, glad and generous hearts, praising God, and increasing numbers of believers added day by day.
No doubt, there are books of sermons that could be written, that have been written, from these first two chapters of Acts. But what I want us to focus on this morning is one verse: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” But first, let us narrow our focus to one word, “devoted,” which comes from the Greek word, “proskartero.” To be devoted is be committed, to be earnest, to persevere, to be constantly diligent, to be steadfastly attentive to. Devoted—what a beautiful word to portray the beautiful faithfulness of the first disciples and converts.
On this 4th Sunday of Easter, in addition to the reading from Acts, the Lectionary suggests Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Here too, is a picture of proskartero—devoted, committed, earnest, diligent, steadfast. But the one who demonstrates these qualities is not the believer, the sheep; it is God, the Shepherd. God makes me lie down in green pastures, God leads me beside still waters, God restores my soul. God leads me in right paths for his name sake. God is with me in the darkest of days—rod and staff in hand. God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. God anoints my head with oil and makes my cup overflow. God is devoted—devoted to me—devoted to you.
Oh, the great mystery of our faith—that the God who put the planets in orbit, who created all that is and ever will be—is devoted to us. Down through the ages, humanity has failed to respond in kind. Instead, we have gone our own way. We have sought our own selfish gain rather than looking out for one another. We have worshiped the almighty dollar instead of Almighty God. We have failed. And yet—and yet—God will not give up on us. Instead, God comes to us as our Redeemer, Christ the Lord. God stays with us as our Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
The first converts devote themselves to godly teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. Likely, these are our intentions, too. Even while we are physically distanced from one another because of a pandemic, as much as possible, we continue our devotion to our ever-faithful God. We pray—day in and day out. We study Scripture on our own or with others through social media. But we miss being together. We miss the fellowship and encouragement that we enjoy in community, and we miss gathering at the Lord’s Table to be spiritually fed.
We do not know when we will be able to safely gather in person in our beautiful sanctuary. Hopefully, it will be soon. But until that time, we gather here in this sacred space, and this morning, we break bread at tables in our homes. We trust Christ to be our host, just as he was for the disciples at Emmaus. You will recall that they invited him into their home, unaware of his identity. But when he was at their table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and when he gave it to them, their eyes were open, and they recognized him. Even now, Christ is with us in our homes and at our tables—no matter where they are. Christ makes the table holy. Christ makes the meal holy. And the Spirit unites us as one body of believers.
Distance will not disrupt our faith journey because we are devoted, committed, earnest, diligent, steadfast. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we continue our devotion and we trust in God for the results—awe, miracles, generosity, more breaking of bread, glad and generous hearts, praising God, and increasing numbers of believers added day by day. Hallelujah! Amen!
THE SACRAMENT OF COMMUNION
[Invitation to the Lord’s Table]
We are experiencing Holy Communion in a new way. Though physically separated from one another, we are still bound together as family through our baptism. For this sacramental meal, let us now offer Christ our table, and our bread and cup.
[Prayer of Thanksgiving]
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is truly right and our greatest joy.
Let us pray: Gentle Redeemer, we give you all thanks and praise for with you, there is no lockdown on blessing and no quarantine on grace. Let the heavens be joyful, and the earth be glad. We bless you for creating the whole world, for your promises to your people Israel, and for Jesus Christ in whom your fullness dwells. Born of Mary, he shares our life. Eating with sinners, he welcomes us. Guiding his children, he leads us. Visiting the sick, he heals us. Dying on the cross, he saves us. Risen from the dead, he gives new life. Living with you, he prays for us. Gracious God, send your Spirit of life and love, power and blessing upon every table where your children shelter in place, that the Bread may be broken and gathered in love and the Cup poured out to give hope to all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.
[The Bread and the Cup]
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
In the same way, he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”
Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we remember Christ’s death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his glorious return. These are the gifts of God for the people of God.
Let us, in our many places, receive the gift of God, the Bread of Heaven.
Let us, in our many places, receive the gift of God, the Cup of Blessing.
[Prayer of Commitment]
Spirit of Christ, you have blessed our tables and our lives. May the eating of the Bread give us courage to speak faith and enact love, not only in church sanctuaries, but in your precious world. May the drinking of the Cup renew our hope even in the midst of these trying times. Amen.