All for Love

All for Love

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 25, 2020

21st Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1a, 5-12; Matthew 22:34-40

 

On the liturgical calendar, today is the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. It is also Reformation Sunday. The motivation behind the Reformation was a deep love of God and a desire to hold religious leaders accountable for their corruption and their blatant misuse of power. No doubt, many good things came out of the Reformation, including the Presbyterian Church. However, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died for their beliefs. Religious property was destroyed, and the unity of the Western church was broken. In fact, division remains a hallmark of the Protestant movement. Sadly, it is a hallmark of the culture in which we currently live—for our nation is suffering. We are broken. We are divided. Looking out over the horizon, we cannot help but wonder if there is a path that can lead us to a brighter future for us all?

 

In our reading from Exodus, we happen upon Moses’ last mountain top experience. Accompanied by Yahweh, he goes up to the high places where the LORD shows him, from a distance, the Promised Land. In the presence of God, Moses dies. Then, we are told, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”[i]

 

Moses was an extraordinary man of God and a prophet. But even Moses falls short when compared to God’s Son.  The Letter to the Hebrews tell us, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself.”[ii]

 

In many ways, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses. Allow me to provide a few examples. First, when Moses is born, his life is spared while many baby boys of the land are killed at the command of Pharaoh. When Jesus is born, his life is spared, while many babies are killed at the command of King Herod.  Second, when Moses’ life is in danger he flees from Egypt to Israel, and then later returns to Egypt. Jesus takes the reverse trip: From Israel into Egypt (as a baby) and then later back to Israel. Third, Moses does signs and wonders—like asking God for food and receiving manna from the heavens. Jesus does signs and wonders like feeding the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. And finally, Moses goes up on the mountaintop to receive the Law, while Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, goes up on the mountain to teach a new way of understanding it.

 

No wonder Jesus reminds the people of those beloved stories of Moses who delivered God’s Law to God’s people. Over time, the laws grow as rule upon rule is added. Finally, 613 rules become a burden that can hardly be born. And it is the Law that becomes the focal point for our Gospel reading. The religious authorities are trying to trap Jesus. At their wit’s end, they send in the brightest of the bright—think of him as Walter Brueggemann (retired Old Testament Professor from Columbia Theological Seminary). So here comes Brueggemann, who knows his stuff, with his question: “Teacher, what commandment in the law is the greatest?”

 

Since, in the minds of the Pharisees, keeping the law is what makes a person holy, this question is really about holiness. Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus answers the question by redefining holiness. Jesus does not choose laws over people, or people over laws. It is not one or the other, because the law is not about a list of dos and don’ts. At its heart, the law is about relationships—it is about being guided by love to act in loving ways.

 

All of the law is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ because in all things, in all ways, Jesus models how to be in relationship with God and how to be in relationship with the people God loves.[iii] Moses may have delivered the law to the people, but Jesus has the authority to condense it down to—not 10—certainly not 613—but two commandments: love God and love God’s people as you love yourself.

 

Undoubtedly, Jesus models love of God every time he walks away from the crowd to pray, every time he spends the night listening to his Abba Father, and when he boldly prays: “Thy will be done.” But from experience we know that loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind—loving God like Jesus does—is impossible without God’s grace. We cannot do it on our own.

 

While Jesus shows us how to love God, he also shows us how to love our neighbor. Throughout his ministry, Jesus shows mercy when mercy is needed. Jesus shows compassion when compassion is needed. Jesus speaks the truth when the truth is needed. Jesus embodies the words of Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, points us toward the spiritual Promised Land, a land where love reigns supreme.

 

Yes, we are living in divisive, troubling times. But Christ offers us a path forward, a path marked with mercy, compassion, and love. Christ is—and always has been—our only hope. With this in mind, I offer you a blessing, written by Ruth Burgess.[iv]

In the starshine and sunshine of God may you be warmed and welcomed.

In the stories and laughter of Jesus may you be called and challenged.

In the fire and breath of the Holy Spirit, may you be awakened and kept from harm.

May your home be a place of hospitality and kindness, a beckoning lamp in the darkness,

A shelter for questions and dreaming, a safe space for joy and tears.

Live well—and—may you celebrate life together.

May you grow in love for each other.

May you dance with the little ones,

The saints and the angels,

May you be cherished,

May you be blessed.

[i] Deuteronomy 34:10-12

[ii] Hebrews 3:1-3

[iii] Sermon Brainwave

[iv] A Book of Blessings—and How to Write Your Own, Ruth Burgess (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001), p.54.

 

It’s All God’s

It’s All God’s

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 18, 2020

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:15-22

 

You gotta love Jesus! Well, of course you have to love Jesus—I mean if you’re a believer—if you’ve been baptized—if you know him as the Christ who entered the world to set things right—of course, you love Jesus. But I am not talking about Jesus, the Divine Son of God. I am talking about Jesus, the human, Jesus the person. Without a doubt, he is an extraordinary man. He loves boldly and shows kindness at every opportunity. He is angered when the poor and downtrodden are mistreated. He is compassionate toward children and others whom society disregards. He is a sage—wise beyond his years.

 

A study of Jesus as a man would not be complete, I would argue, without considering his sense of humor. Yes, Jesus has a sense of humor. There is too much evidence to believe otherwise. Think about it: Much of Jesus’ life is about joy. At the wedding in Cana, he turns water into wine—to help the family save face—but also to ensure that everyone has a good time. One writer notes, “The Gospels reveal Jesus as a man with a palpable sense of joy and even playfulness. You can catch glimpses of this in His interactions with the men, women and children of His time as well as in many of the parables.”[i]

While Jesus is a joyful man and a good friend—he is also a man of great intelligence—whose brilliance never shines brighter than when he is outsmarting his opponents. And in today’s gospel reading, his opponents come in a most unusual pairing—Pharisees and Herodians. The Herodians, as their name suggests, are Jewish allies of Herod Antipas—so they support paying of taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees, on the other hand, are committed to the Jewish law down to the letter—so they oppose paying taxes to Caesar on religious grounds.[ii]  Despite their differences, however, here stand Pharisees and Herodians—those who favor Rome and those who do not—united against a common cause—united against Jesus—and armed with a highly charged political question.

 

But first, they lay the groundwork, attempting to put Jesus off-guard—pretending they are something they are not. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

 

Jesus was not born yesterday. He sees straight through them—straight to their heart and soul. Not one to mince words, Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”  Isn’t it peculiar how these pretenders, bent on trapping Jesus, speak the truth even in their ignorance? Jesus is sincere. Jesus does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth and Jesus shows no partiality.

 

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. And there in broad daylight, they hand over a coin. On one side, there’s an image of the emperor—and on the other, words claiming the emperor’s divinity. Therefore, what these religious leaders hand Jesus is nothing less than a graven image, banned in the commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” Even though, the Pharisees are opposed to having in their possession any sort of graven image, someone has a coin in his pocket!

 

At this point, I imagine you can hear a pin drop. Will Jesus take the bait? If Jesus answers no, he is in trouble with the Roman authorities, and a quick trip to Pilate will set things straight. If Jesus answers yes, he is in trouble with many of his own followers. He is between a rock and a hard place, but with Jesus, that’s when things get interesting. Looking at the coin, Jesus calmly inquires, “Whose head is this and whose title?”

 

“The emperor’s.”

 

By now, the disciples of Jesus may be feeling a little nervous. The Pharisees and Herodians are filled with anticipation, surely thinking, “We’ve got him now. He’ll never get out of this one.” They couldn’t be more wrong for in the blink of an eye, the tables turn, when Jesus says to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are Gods.” With a simple coin and a simple sentence, Jesus avoids the trap of the Pharisees and the Herodians, but he does more than that. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are other layers of meaning for us to grasp.

 

In 1st Century Palestine, the denarius represents the dictating powers of Rome and their annual taxation, which is administered by the Jewish authorities.  In his response, Jesus allows room for Caesar, for the emperor, for governing bodies.  But that is not the end of the story because he adds, “and to God the things that are God’s.” Nothing could be clearer. “The earth is the lords and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.” All things belong to God. The realm of politics is always subservient to God so the emperor, the king, the governor, the president—they hold no power other than what is on loan to them.

 

Then there is the issue of money itself. It is something about which Jesus holds strong opinions. In fact, it has been said that Jesus teaches more about money than any other topic. You remember his admonition, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[iii] At the end of the day, the things in heaven and the things on the earth—it’s all God’s. All of creation! Nothing we own is truly ours—it is all on loan, which begs the question, “How well are we taking care of God’s possessions?”

 

And if we are talking about what belongs to God, we must include ourselves for in Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We are made in God’s image and baptism marks us as God’s very own. We are God’s currency. How are we spending ourselves on God’s behalf?

 

While Jesus is surely wise, witty, and wonderful, it is another personality trait that is captured my attention this week—his courage. Jesus is brave beyond measure. He is not afraid that if he fails to play the games of the world, he might lose his status. He does not care if people criticize him. Even the religious rulers who think they hold all the power, fail to intimidate Jesus. Why? Because from the day of his baptism, when Jesus is anointed by God’s Spirit, he becomes a man on a mission. From that moment, nothing deters him from doing the will of his Abba Father. An inner awareness of who he is and whose he is shapes Jesus’ interactions with everyone he meets—even those who oppose him—even those who will, ultimately, crucify him.

 

Autumn is upon us and with it comes the Stewardship Season of the church. Though things are different this year because of a global pandemic, still, we are responsible for the financial well-being of our congregation. Still, we are called to pray and ponder what our contribution to the Lord will be in the coming year. Still, we renew our intent to contribute our God-given time, our God-given talents, and our God-given treasures to make a difference for Jesus inside the walls of our church and beyond them. We are the body of Christ in this time and this place and we all have something to offer. What shall we bring?

 

It is an honor and a joy to be a follower of Christ our Savior. Day by day, may we yearn to be more like him. In his earthly ministry, he demonstrates radical hospitality and generosity. Jesus gives of his time—even when the crowds are so thick, he has to get into a boat to teach them. Jesus gives of his talents—a healer, a sage, a teacher, a multiplier of fish and bread. And Jesus gives of his treasures—not the emperor’s coin but something of much greater value. Jesus gives his life! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] James Martin, S.J. @http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/28558-jesus-was-funnier-than-we-think

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 191.

[iii] Matt. 6:19-21

*Cover Art via Unsplash, used with permission

Holy Transformation

Holy Transformation

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 4, 2020

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 3:4b-14

 

More than anyone other than Jesus, the Apostle Paul shapes the history of early Christianity—quite a surprise since Scripture introduces him as a young man who approves the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Later Paul is given permission by the high priest to pursue others who belong to “the Way” but on his journey to Damascus he encounters the Risen Lord. For three days Paul is unable to see until at the Lord’s bidding, Ananias arrives. Paul’s sight is restored, and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized.  Once he regains his strength, he begins to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen.

 

Paul leads mission trips, writes letters of encouragement and correction to the churches, and performs miracles in the name of Jesus. He is also beaten, shipwrecked, and imprisoned. Over time, by the work of Christ’s own Spirit, Paul undergoes a holy transformation to become a powerhouse of faith and practice. God working!  God transforming!  How can we talk seriously about being made new, without talking about God? And if it is a model of faithful behavior we are after, the Apostle Paul surely fits the bill.

 

Through the lens of our epistle reading for today, let us consider what Paul might have to teach us about living a life of faith. First, he encourages us to ponder where we are now. Do we feel imperfect? If so, we are in good company because Paul feels the same way. He writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal…” When we become children of God, we are declared not guilty, and therefore righteous, because of what Christ has done. It is not our efforts at law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline that puts us in right standing with God. Furthermore, we know our complete perfection will not be achieved on this side of eternity. Even so, we are responsible for working toward wholeness, toward perfection as long as we live. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “The Christian life consists mostly of what God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is and does. But we also are a part of it. Not the largest part, but still part.” Interestingly, a mark of Christian maturity is to acknowledge our imperfection. It turns out, being imperfect is a good place to start because it is the only place we have!

 

Paul also invites us to reflect on where we have been.  In his letter to the church of Philippi, Paul defends the rights of Gentiles to be Christians. He opposes Judaizers, who are teaching it is necessary to first become a Jew, to first be circumcised. For Paul, circumcision is of no value unless it is circumcision of the heart. Faith is what is essential. Claiming the authority that has been given to him, Paul reviews his credentials:  Jewish by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure Hebrew, and in addition to these inherited privileges, he has excelled in everything Jewish. In essence, Paul says, “If you want to play the game of works righteousness, I can play, and I can win.” But in the next breath he acknowledges that none of his credentials give him reason for boasting—only Christ is cause for that. So, while looking back at where we have been has its merits, what is more important is where our next steps lead.

 

This brings us to our final point. Through the life of Paul, we are encouraged to take stock of our lives and consider where we want to go. To make his point, Paul uses the metaphor of a runner pressing on to win the prize, straining forward to what lies ahead. We can almost feel the heart pump, the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache. Is he contradicting himself and now saying that faith is through works? No! For Paul, faith involves running, wrestling, striving, and fighting. Trust in God’s grace does not make Paul less active, but rather sets him free to run the race with his eyes on the prize. “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Come what may, Paul presses on. He does not wait idly by for perfection to come to him. He pursues his goal while, at the same time, he recognizes that it will only be through God’s grace that he will ever reach it.

 

Christ is the blueprint for Christian behavior, and Paul, who models his own life after Christ, becomes a model for the church at Philippi. He becomes a model for us as well and, down through the ages, other models have followed. Now, it is our turn. Now it is up to us to demonstrate to the world what Christian behavior looks like. With the privilege of belonging to Christ comes tremendous responsibility because we are to be the hands and feet and compassionate heart of Christ for the world. And we will always be in process—such is the story of the life of every believer: we slip, we fall, but we rise again to join the race. We press on, urgently pursuing the goal—but, oh the prize—that glorious time when we will all be transformed into the likeness of Christ our Savior. Through Paul, who experienced a holy transformation, we witness the wisdom of taking the time to ponder where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to go. No doubt, the race ahead of us will have its wins and losses but, if we press on, the ultimate prize will be ours!

 

As Christians, we have sisters and brothers of the faith around the globe. But no matter the distance between us, whenever we gather to worship God—whether in person or virtually—we do a bold thing. We sing. We pray. We confess. We proclaim. We return a portion of our God-given bounty to God. We share the Sacraments. Then, when we depart from our time of worship, again we dare to do a bold thing. We dare to claim the power available to us for the race ahead. We dare to announce God’s love for all people. We dare to work toward peace and justice for everyone. We dare to imagine a world filled with people transformed by God’s grace and we dare to be a part of that transformation. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art FPC World Communion Sunday 2019