Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Do you love me?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Do you love me?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 30, 2020

13th Sunday after Pentecost

John 21:15-23

 

While I enjoy photography as a hobby, even more so I enjoy looking at other people’s photographic art—sunrises, sunsets, mountains, oceans, and old trails. I have a friend who is an attorney by trade—but his passion is photography. He takes mesmerizing photos of people he meets on random strolls through little towns and villages. He likes to shoot things that promise to tell quite a tale—if they could only talk—like dilapidated houses and buildings. I particularly enjoy his black and white photos of old farmers with their faces lined by the sun. Beautiful. And who knows why, but I am drawn to photographs of hands. One glance and I am pondering the lives the hands represent. I think of the clasped hands of newlyweds and the future they hold, and the hands of children with all their innocence and hope for tomorrow. A woman’s hands lifted in prayer; a man’s hands as he repairs the engine of his car or refinishes that special piece of furniture; a mother combing her daughter’s hair; a father holding bicycle handles while he teaches his son to ride.

 

Loving hands of my childhood include those of my grandmother rolling out biscuits as the sun began to rise in the morning sky; hands of teachers pointing me toward college and a future; hands of an uncle playing a guitar and singing songs about a Jesus whom I would come to love…

 

Later, my years working in the hospital as a medical technologist would show me other hands at work: hands of EMTs hoisting patients from gurney to bed; hands of nurses in the Emergency Room starting IVs so that medicine could be administered to sick patients, hands of doctors setting bones and sewing up wounds. Frequently the night shift brought in angry hands—hands scarred by barroom brawls, hands scuffed when resisting arrest, hands broken when the airbag deployed in the car accident. Sometimes when I worked a slow night at the hospital, I visited the nursery under the guise of seeing a nurse/friend, but really, it was about the babies. There I watched caring hands cleaning up newborns after delivery, gently patting backs after a feeding, offering loving care to precious babes at a vulnerable stage of life.

 

Of my 16 years in the medical profession, I was happiest when I worked at UT Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. I loved being a part of a teaching hospital—there was such a positive energy about the place. Surprisingly, I returned to work there when I was doing my CPE training during seminary. (You might think of it as a chaplaincy internship.) But this time my role had changed. Instead of caring for the body, I was to care for the soul. Instead of using my hands to handle specimens and gather data, my hands were offering support when someone faced, perhaps, one of the scariest moments of his or her life. Often my hands held a book of psalms. Sometimes they tightly held the hands of the other in fervent prayer.

 

It was while I was at UT Medical Center in the chaplaincy program that I assisted with my first Blessing of the Hands service. The hospital chapel was set up with soft instrumental music and a few candles glowed in the dimly lit space. Throughout the day, surgeons, nurses, administrators, support staff, and technicians of every ilk streamed in to have their hands anointed. It was a moving experience. Later when the students got together to talk about it, our supervisor mentioned that her church held a similar service on Labor Day weekend. My heart skipped a beat. I knew if I ever got a chance to do such a thing, I would. And since graduating from seminary, I have led a Blessing of the Hands service almost every year.

 

The first one I led was at First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee and I will never forget what one of the women of the church said to me that morning. With a big smile on her face, enthusiastically she reported, “O, Glenda, we usually go to the cabin Labor Day weekend, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to get my hands blessed. And I washed them extra-clean for the occasion.” She even held them up for me to examine—in case there was any doubt. When I was the pastor at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia, women of the church created a Blessing of the Hands banner. And now, at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, we are about to celebrate our 4th Blessing of the Hands service next Sunday. Out of necessity, this one will be virtual. But we will not let a pandemic stop us for there is still much good work for our hands to do.

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to several of his followers. As he approaches his final leave-taking, he shows up by the Sea of Galilee and makes breakfast for his disciples with his very own hands. It is a sacred meal—the last they will share together. Afterward, Jesus knows it is time to hand over his ministry to this ragamuffin band, so he turns to Peter. Peter, the one who has a habit of speaking when he should be quiet—Peter, who has remained silent when he should have spoken.

 

Three times Peter denied his Lord and three times his Lord poses the all-important question, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.” As one scholar notes, “If we have carried away from the Gospel the idea that the final thing to remember about Peter is his unfaithfulness, [here we are reminded] that far more important than Peter’s denials is the grace of Christ: the divine willingness to engage and entrust the ministry, even to someone whose life so far has been marked by impetuosity and denial.”[i] Jesus hands over his ministry to someone like Peter—someone like us. Amazing grace—how sweet the sound!

 

In light of Peter’s profession of love, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” for you see, being a follower of Jesus is not just about what we profess. It is also about what we do. It is not that we must earn our salvation—Jesus has taken care of that already. Yet with grateful hearts we are compelled to respond by obeying the command Jesus staked his life on: Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

For believers who choose to follow the way of Jesus, he does not promise the road ahead will be easy, which makes it even stranger when preachers preach the Cotton Candy Gospel. If you just have enough faith—in return, you’ll get everything your little heart desires. But that is nothing more than a lie. Look at Peter—one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers—who ends his life with outstretched hands—being led where he does not wish to go. Tradition tells us Peter is crucified but because he does not feel worthy to die in the same fashion as his Lord, Peter dies upside down on his cross.

 

No, there are no pie-in-the-sky guarantees for those who follow the path Jesus trods. Some people will die young and some will die old. Some will have an easier path to walk while others will be martyred for their faith. There is no rhyme or reason to it all. And while Jesus’ interaction with Peter might lead us to believe that those who love the most get the highest rewards—let us never forget that the highest reward may look something like death on a cross.

 

The end of John’s Gospel is a witness to the curtain coming down on the earthly ministry of Jesus. But the real-life drama of Christ continues in Peter. It continues in the other disciples. It continues in the church that is born on the day of Pentecost. It continues in Paul who meets the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It continues in all the saints who come after—including each one of us.

 

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. Do we? How then do we live? Day by day, are we praying to become more like Jesus, abounding in love and faith? Do we seek the good of the other more than our own selfish desires? Do we recognize that what we say matters, so we try to speak words of love and encouragement? Is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi our prayer—Lord, make me an instrument of your peace? Do we claim the work of our hands as God’s work?

 

Tending to the lambs of Jesus is the most tangible way to stay connected to Christ—as well as the surest way to show our love for him. This holy love knows no boundaries. It is love for the insider, the outsider, the poor, the rich, the business owner, the teacher, the plumber, the street-walker, the tattooed biker, the homeless addict, the physician, the lawyer, the stay-at-home mom, and every child of the world—red and yellow, black and white—they are all precious in Jesus’ sight! Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[i] Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, 425.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 23, 2020

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 27:45-56

Repeatedly, Jesus uses the art of asking good questions to turn people’s worldview upside down. In essence, he seeks to create a reality from the words his mother sang before he was born. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…his mercy is for those who fear him…he has scattered the proud…he has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly…he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”[i]

 

Jesus comes to make all things new, but his mission will only be accomplished by helping people see the world and their role in it differently. A paradigm shift is what Jesus is after, and nothing less. But change does not come easy, and sometimes, change comes at great cost. So, for all his good deeds and his endeavors to expand the thinking of those around him, Jesus ends up hanging on a tree. It is a ghastly scene. And surely the most difficult of Jesus’ questions is spoken from this place—directed not to an individual—but to his Abba Father.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” All seems lost because Hope is dying on a cross. Now what?

 

Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His book entitled Night, records many of his memories. He witnessed the death of his family, the death of countless strangers and friends, and the death of his own innocence. In addition, he experienced despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the evil of mankind.

 

In his book, Wiesel tells about a particular incident that happened one day in the camp—a hanging. As horrible as it is to imagine—hangings weren’t uncommon but there was something different about this one because a young boy was one of the three to be hanged and to hang a child in front of hundreds of onlookers was no small matter. In fact, the regular executioners refused to go through with it, so others stepped forward to do the deed.

 

In Wiesel words:

All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows…“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over…Then came the [obligatory] march past the victims…Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where—hanging here from these gallows…”[ii]

 

God hanging from a tree. God with us—Emmanuel. Great is the mystery of our faith! Still we cannot help but ask, “Why?” From The Letter to the Hebrews we read:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…. Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…[iii]

 

Jesus suffers as we suffer. Jesus is tested as we are tested. And the final result of his incredible sacrifice and boundless mercy is this—we are set free from bondage to all that would threaten to undo us. And through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ we can rest assured that there is nothing we go through in this life that God does not go through with us.

 

But we look at Jesus on that Friday we call good, and we cannot help but think it should have been otherwise. Surely there is a sense of numb disbelief as we gaze at our Lord nailed to a cross. Any second, we expect him to unleash the power at his disposal and come down. It is what his followers expect. But instead, moment by moment, the life blood of Jesus drains from him and he grows weaker, until finally, it appears he has given up on himself and on his Abba Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 

When Jesus breathes his last breath, the curtain of the temple is ripped asunder. One writer explains,

At that moment our souls are torn in two. At that moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two. But this is not the end of the story. Hopes and dreams may have been cast to the earth, but other things are destroyed—things that need to be destroyed. Now, “the barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection, which is just three days away.[iv]

 

As Jesus hangs from the cross crying toward the heavens, we see the darkest moment of his life—of God’s life. But let us never forget, this is not the end—quite the opposite.

 

Woven into the story of Jesus’ anguishing death, there is another story worthy of reflection—the way creation participates. As if in solidarity with Jesus, the earth quakes and rocks split asunder. Creation joins in the lament of God’s own Son being rejected by those whom God created.  But if we delve deeper, we realize that creation has always been a part of God’s Story. Genesis starts out with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind.” Then later, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”

 

One of the most poetic narratives in the Bible comes near the end of the Book of Job when God tires of Jobs questions and starts asking a few of his own. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” These words speak of God’s adoration of God’s created earth.

 

Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. And as a final point, Revelation concludes with the theme of God’s creation participating in God’s salvation story as a river of the water of life appears, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and on either side of the river is the tree of life with twelve kinds of fruit and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

 

Healing? It is what the nations need—have always needed—and it is through Jesus the Christ that healing comes.  But healing is not needed for people, only. It is also needed for creation—rivers that are now filled with trash, rain forests that are disappearing before our eyes, mountain sides that are being stripped bare. What have we done to God’s good earth? A Native American Proverb comes to mind: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” But I ask you, “What will we have to hand over to our children in another generation?” It all seems hopeless—too far gone—how could we possibly make a difference? Yet, isn’t it exactly when all hope seems lost that God is at God’s best? Remember Paul’s words, “For whenever I am weak, God is strong.”

 

On that Friday we call good, there is no doubt that Jesus is in anguish when he cries out to his Abba Father. No wonder the rocks split, the earth quakes, and the temple curtain is torn in two. All seems lost but things are not always as they seem. Friday, it may be, but let us never forget, the joy of resurrection is just three days away. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Adapted from Luke 1:46-55

[ii] Elie Wiesel, Night, 64-65.

[iii] Excerpts from Hebrews 2.

[iv] The Rev. Whitney Rice @ http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/03/23/palm-sunday-a-2014/

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 16, 2020

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 26:36-46

[Insert Sunday’s art]

 

The end of Jesus’ earthly ministry is drawing nigh. At the conclusion of the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, they sing a hymn together and then head toward Gethsemane. When they reach their destination Jesus tells them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Then he takes with him those in his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. Jesus, our Jesus, is in anguish and he admits it. “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” It seems a simple request, but the disciples are likely filled with worry and exhausted, too. So, with Jesus a stone’s throw away crying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” his closest friends fall fast asleep.

 

It is hard to think of Jesus being this vulnerable. It is easier to imagine him healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. But Jesus begging his friends to keep watch with him in his hour of need and then those same friends failing him, is heart wrenching. “So, you could not stay awake with me one hour?” While we might be tempted to judge the disciples for their behavior, we would probably have been there snoring right beside them—I mean we’re human, too, and failing one another is something we do more often than we care to admit. In this moment of Jesus’ life, he openly displays his human vulnerability. He shows us that even God-in-the-flesh is susceptible to being wounded and hurt. Oh, the great mystery of our faith and oh, the frailty of us all.

 

I returned home from a church function on August 11, 2014 to find four text messages on my cell phone—one from each of our children. In essence they read, “Have you heard? Robin Williams has died. Apparent suicide.” Like most of us, my children were crushed by the news. Kinney and I were dating when Mork & Mindy was a hit. Later, as avid movie-goers, our family fell in love with Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin. How we enjoyed Popeye and Hook. What inspiration we found in such works as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Patch Adams, and Good Will Hunting.

 

Proverbs tells us that a cheerful heart is good medicine and I believe this to be so. Yet, a man who brought so much laughter to the world could not heal himself with laughter. Instead, a man, who lived the life of fame and fortune, who loved God and was generous and caring, reached a dark, dangerous place out of which he was unable to climb. It is well-known that Robin Williams suffered from bi-polar disorder, characterized by drastic mood swings. But when things progressed beyond anything he had experienced, he reached out again for help. But numerous tests and a brain scan came back negative. It was not until after his death that the autopsy revealed the underlying cause: Lewey Body Dementia, a rare brain disease that can cause hallucinations, motor skill problems, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

 

I once heard someone say, “You never know what goes on in a person’s mind. Monsters can live there.” This must have been the case for Robin Williams, who struggled with addiction and depression even before something as devastating as a rare brain disease came calling.

 

Regarding mental illness and addictions, we know a lot more about them than we once did. Nevertheless, there is still a stigma attached to them—as if they are a mark of disgrace. Yet, we find in Scripture that Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, and David suffered from depression. Then there are historical figures to consider like Abraham Lincoln who wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell…To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”[i] Charles Spurgeon was tormented by depression. Beethoven and Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder, and the list goes on and on.

 

Mental illness is real, and it is painful but, thankfully, it is often treatable with the right combination of drugs and therapy. Regardless, people hesitate to discuss it for fear of what people might say or for fear of losing their job or for any number of other very real concerns. It turns out that being vulnerable is risky. Look where it got Jesus—praying alone—heart-broken and afraid—and, ultimately, crucified. Still, to be the church of Jesus Christ compels us to be vulnerable—to be authentic. For the truth of our human condition is: We all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive.

 

One summer when I was about 6 years old, my mother traveled from New York to visit us on my grandparent’s farm in North Carolina. She was eye-catching with her red hair and porcelain skin, but I could not help noticing numerous horizontal scars that marked her arms. When she caught me glancing at them she softly explained, “When your father and I got a divorce and I knew I had lost you both, I didn’t want to live anymore, so I tried to hurt myself.” So lovely on the outside—but inside so fragile.

 

Fast-forward a few years and I was 16 when a trusted physician took me aside to explain: “Although your father is high-functioning, he suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia.” There I sat, weeping for what seemed like an eternity. For years, I had been convinced that the chaos around me was my fault, but in a moment, everything changed.

 

Mental illness has affected many of us. If we have not suffered directly, we may be close to someone who has. In case there is any doubt, as your spiritual leader, allow me to make something clear. Our faith community is a safe space to share our challenges and our hurts, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Life is wonderful but it can also be difficult. Why not lean on one another!

 

Anne Lamott, an author (and a Presbyterian), who has been open about her own struggles with addiction and mental illness, writes:

 

If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction…life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of the abyss…

 

In [all suffering]…we see Christ crucified… The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, ‘Oh it will all make sense someday.’ The thing is, it may not. [Nonetheless], we still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water…

 

Try not to squander your life…Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story…Gravity yanks us down…We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up toolboxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity…[ii]

 

What can we do to help those who suffer from mental and emotional illness? What can we do if we need help ourselves? Maybe, we can start by breaking the silence. Maybe we can celebrate the gifts of every person because every person is made in God’s image. And could we do this: Could we treat everyone with kindness? We should—because—you see—we all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive. Amen.

[i] Quoted in Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded, Dwight L. Carlson, 24.

[ii] Anne Lamott as share on Facebook.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “What are you looking for?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“What are you looking for?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020

10th Sunday after Pentecost

John 1:35-42

 

The Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Then we are told, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”[i]

 

Once John the Baptist’s ministry is in full swing, priests and Levites come from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to ask, “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” John tells them he is not the Messiah. Rather, “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

 

The next day, John sees Jesus approaching, and he testifies to the truth he knows in his heart: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When he baptizes Jesus, he sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove from the heavens. Then, the very next day John stands with two of his disciples as Jesus comes near. Again, John testifies, “Look, here is the lamb of God!” John’s disciples are so convinced of his testimony, they leave John’s side and turn toward Jesus. Jesus sees them and asks, “What are you looking for?” Instead of answering him, they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” They come and see where he is staying and spend the day with him. Andrew, one of the disciples, is persuaded that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah so he rushes to find his brother, Simon. Jesus takes one look at him and gives him a new name: Peter.

 

In this text we see people who witness Jesus, are changed by Jesus, and are compelled to go and tell others what they have experienced. Come and see. Go and tell. But what about Jesus’ question for these first seekers, “What are you looking for?” Wouldn’t the logical question be, “What do you want?” But maybe this story is not about what people want. Maybe it is about what people need—deep in their hearts and souls. What are you looking for? “Come and see,” is Jesus’ invitation. The disciples take Jesus up on his offer and stay long enough to realize Jesus is “the real McCoy,” as we say in the South. So, they rush to tell others. They cannot wait to share the good news.

 

What are you looking for? Come and see.” Then, “Go and tell.” This is the evangelistic model that continues to propel the church forward, but how are we doing at our “going and telling.”

 

While perusing the internet, I happened upon a blogpost about traits of churches that will impact the future.[ii] Those who study church trends agree that there is a cultural shift happening and for the church to remain relevant, it must change. But it is important to recognize that it is not THE STORY that needs to change—just the method of sharing it. (One is sacred—the other is not!) So, what are some hallmarks of churches that will likely make an impact over the next decade? Those in good standing will be flexible and welcome experimentation. They will embrace innovative strategies—knowing full well that some things will work while others will not. They will accept that bigger is not always better. God calls us to thrive whatever our size, so small churches need to get over the idea that they will only be successful when they grow up and become the big church down the street, or the big church that they once were. Smaller venues actually allow for deeper relationships to form—another hallmark of the church of the future. Churches that provide a place where questions are welcomed instead of silenced will be in good stead. While these are all good traits, there was one on the list that really stood out for me: The need for the church to prioritize a “for you” instead of a “from you” culture.

 

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Too often, that is not the question that is on our lips. Rather, we gaze upon too many empty pews and in panic mode we look out into the world, and ask, “What can we get from them? Our numbers are dwindling, and we need them to come and save us.” But we do not need them to save us. Christ has done that!

 

Many of you have heard the story of my encounter with a Pastor Nominating Committee over a decade ago. They came to hear me preach and invited me out for lunch. Although things went well, I had a strong conviction that the church they represented was not the church to which I was being called. Maybe that is why I was able to be blatantly honest with them when they posed the million-dollar question.  “We’ve got $1M debt from the new sanctuary we just completed. What can you do to bring in people to help us pay off that debt?” Wow! The question sort of takes your breath away. Doesn’t it?

 

Folks, if we look out into the world at people who are struggling and have no faith community, and all we see is what we can get from them—then we are on a crooked path that will lead us nowhere near Jesus Christ. But, if our heart’s desire is to be a thriving church of the future, we will be passionate about what we want FOR people—not FROM them! We will want every person of every age and race and background to know Jesus. We will want to help people become part of something bigger than themselves—with Christ at the center of their lives. We will embrace the opportunity to build relationships with people in person and through online platforms. We will model how to share the wondrous story of the transforming power of God, made perfect in Jesus, and made available to us through the Holy Spirit. Along the way, “Come and see. Go and tell!” may become our motto. If so, we may look to Peter as our guide. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.[iii]

 

Concerning the importance of the church, one writer notes that churches are “the kitchens where Christians are ‘cooked’ into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray, and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbor.” [iv] The work of the church is important. The work of our church is important. And if we want our work to matter to future generations, it behooves us to be open to new ways to share the gospel story.

 

Even so, it is possible for a church to do all these things—and more—and still not grow numerically. But it seems to me that God is less interested in the numerical growth of the church and more interested in the spiritual growth of the church. God’s desire is for believers to become loving, mature, effective Christians. I daresay, there is not a person in our church family who does not long for us to grow in numbers, and if that happens, we will give God all the glory. But if it does not happen, let us remember that numbers are not everything. I mean, Jesus did just fine with a dozen fellows and a few faithful women. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Excerpt from John 1:1-7, NRSV.

[ii] Carey Nieuwhof blogpost at http://careynieuwhof.com/2013/05/11-traits-of-churches-that-will-impact-the-future/

[iii] 1 Peter 3:15b, NIV

[iv] David L. Odom blogpost at http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/07-21-2014/why-do-congregations-matter

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Do You Want To be Made Well?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Do You Want To be Made Well?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020

9th Sunday after Pentecost

John 5:1-9

 

During Jesus’ ministry, he asked many more questions than he answered. Following in his footsteps over the last few weeks, we have considered some of those questions: Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? The other nine, where are they? Why are you afraid? Are you not of more value? Good questions—all of them. But the question we focus on today seems almost ridiculous. Imagine with me—a man has been ill 38 years. When Jesus sees him lying by the pool of Bethzatha, the question Jesus poses is: “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to be made well? I want to be made well when I have a cold that hangs around for more than 38 hours so if I were ill for 38 long, grueling, life-limiting years—there is no doubt in my mind—I would want to be made well. Wouldn’t you? What an odd question.

There is something else unusual about this story—the text itself. Ancient manuscripts of the original Greek are quite confusing—something that is most evident in the addition of verses 3b-4 in some later manuscripts. Both the NRSV and NIV add this as a footnote to describe why people gather around the pool with its five porticoes in the first place. Thus, in the NRSV verse 3 reads, “In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed,” to which ancient manuscripts add, “waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” How interesting!

The man to whom Jesus directs the question, “Do you want to be made well?” is crippled in some fashion. We know this because he tells Jesus he does not have anyone to put him into the pool when the water is stirred up. In other words, whenever he tries to make his way into the pool, someone steps ahead of him—someone else gets the blessing. Thus, there is no way the man can possibly be healed—on his own. But Jesus, the Healing One, has a habit of going beyond what is possible to create new life and wholeness. As they say, “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.” Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

You will recall the story of the enslaved people of Israel who grow in such number in the land of Egypt that Pharaoh sees them as a threat. As a result, he decides to eliminate their number one male child at a time. The people cry out to God and God intervenes by raising up one of the male children to lead them out of Egypt. After many signs and wonders, the Israelites are granted permission to leave. When Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them with all his military might in tow, God intervenes. God makes a way where there seems to be no way and saves the people. They respond by singing and dancing and worshiping on safety’s shore. Then, with God as their guide, the people begin their journey to the Promised Land. Soon, though, the daily grind of traveling toward a land flowing with milk and honey loses its luster and they begin to grumble. “Where are the melons and grapes we left in Egypt? Remember the fresh fish and fresh bread? Is it too much to ask for basic necessities like bread and water? Moses, did you bring us here in the wilderness to die? We could have died just as easily and in better living conditions as Pharaoh’s slaves.”

The people of Israel cry out to Yahweh for years, “Come, save us!” Yahweh answers—but not in the way they want. They want God to fix everything; to make life easier for them—immediately. And could it be—they have no desire to do their part? “Fix it God but let us have only the good and not the bad. Fix it, God! But do not ask too much of us. Do not ask us to change. Just be our genie in a bottle—come when we say come—leave when we say leave!”  But God is not a genie in a bottle and God will not be used. God loves us and meets us where we are—but God never intends for us to stay there. God intends for us to live and love and grow. And, along the way, God expects us to participate in our own wellness, and in the wellness of others. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus sees a man who is waiting by a pool of water, waiting for an angel of God to move the water. By some miracle, the man hopes and prays he might be the first to feel the cool, healing water upon his skin. Even though he does not ask Jesus for healing, that does not keep Jesus from doling out God’s grace. Once the man is healed, Jesus offers instructions: “Stand up. Take your mat and walk.” The healed man is now called to respond. Now what? Where will his next steps lead? Is he headed down the yellow brick road of life without a care? Sadly, there are those who say so. There are those who believe that if we are followers of Jesus—if we have enough faith—then Jesus will touch us and make our lives picture perfect—now and forever more. Eugene Peterson warns against such an understanding:

I want to go over some old ground here, repeating what seems—in our culture, anyway—to need frequent repeating: entering into a life of faith…following Jesus, centering our life in the worship of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. Christians get cancer in the same proportion as non-Christians. Believers are involved in as many automobile accidents as nonbelievers. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior as it did before. I don’t take any particular pleasure in writing this. I would feel better if I could promise that being a Christian gave us a distinct edge over the competition.[i]

So, enough faith does not assure our heart’s desires! If that were the case, wouldn’t we be in control of God? But God will not be controlled. God is God and we are creatures made in God’s image to love God and to care for ourselves and one another.

For the crippled man, new life is his and new life comes with new freedoms, new joy, and new responsibilities. Things will be expected of him that were not expected before. Likely, he will have to go to work; get involved in his community. For the first time in 38 years, he can worship with other believers and joyfully bring a tithe of the first fruits of his labor. Though everything has changed, and his life has been transformed, there will still be hurdles aplenty. Such is the way of life. Always has been. Always will be.

On a spiritual level, this healing story offers another insight worth pondering. Isn’t it true that in one way or another, life has a way of crippling us all? Someway, somehow. So, I ask you: What is crippling you? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Fear of change? Disbelief that God can still make a way where there seems to be no way? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Do you doubt God’s love for you? Have you gotten caught up in negative behaviors like cynicism, gossip, bitterness, or other habits that cause harm to your body, mind, or spirit? What keeps you stranded on your mat? A false belief that you already know all you need to know about God—so prayer, Scripture reading, meditating and other spiritual disciplines—well, they are just not for you? What keeps you stranded on your mat?

In this moment, could it be that Christ’s Spirit is calling each of us to participate in our own healing in some form or fashion? Does Jesus have a word for us about standing up and walking boldly into a new future? How will we react to God’s grace—for we, too, are beneficiaries of God’s favor, and we, too, are called to respond. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

[i] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 195.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009