Uncommon Courage

Uncommon Courage

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 24, 2021

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20

 

After John’s arrest, Jesus begins fishing for disciples. Surprisingly, they follow him, without question. To be honest, I am befuddled by this text. No doubt, the disciples’ immediate decision to leave their nets is inspiring. But it is also puzzling. I mean, can you imagine leaving behind your family, your home, your business—to follow some itinerate preacher—just like that—at the drop of a hat? Surely a decision to walk away from all that is familiar, to venture into the unknown, would take some thought, some prayer, some mulling over.

 

If we look to these four disciples as models for faithful discipleship, we might see ourselves coming up short. Is there even one of us who has left everything to follow Jesus? If not, does that mean we are less faithful than Andrew, Peter, James, and John?  It might help us to remember that some of Jesus’ disciples were first disciples of John the Baptist, so they knew something about the one John called the Lamb of God. It might also be helpful to recognize that even though they seem eager to follow Jesus, that does not mean they have it all figured out. They will fail him again and again. Nevertheless, with all the courage they can muster, they take that first step.

 

Cheryl Strayed wrote a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It is the story of her hiking 1500 miles in the hopes of redeeming her life from the self-destructive course she had been on for several years—since the sudden death of her beloved mother when she was only 20 years old. In the book, Cheryl tells of her commitment to the journey as a journey in and of itself.

 

There was the first, flip decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it. There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time. There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the Trail crossed a highway. At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected it to be…And then there was truly doing it.

 

The disciples make a choice to put one foot in front of the other to follow Jesus. They commit to truly following him, but do they really know where he will lead them? What will be required of them?

 

Joan Chittister, scholar, social activist, and best-selling author published The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage in 2019. In her book and in an interview with Oprah Winfrey about the crises we now face as a nation and as the church, Chittister says the time is now for each one of us to ask ourselves this question: What am I going to do about it? As I watched the video and later read the book, her words resonated with me because I have been asking myself similar questions as of late: Holy God, what is mine to do? What is mine to say?

 

Part of the challenge before us, notes Chittister, is that part of the Jesus story has been lost to us. In her words:

 

We’ve lost half the dimension of Christian spirituality. We see ourselves as very Christian…most of the nation identifies themselves as such. But who is the Jesus we like to follow? We love to follow Jesus the healer—makes us feel good. Jesus was good to women, raised little kids from the dead, fed whole hungry crowds—that’s who I am. We want to follow that Jesus—Jesus the healer. But that’s only half of the Christian [story]. If you turn Jesus the healer over, what you find is Jesus the prophet. This is the Jesus who contended, contested, confronted, and challenged those who were making it necessary to feed the hungry, to raise from the dead… Jesus spoke for [those who could not speak for themselves].

 

I confess, I am much more comfortable with Jesus the healer. But if I care about being a faithful witness of God’s love through Christ Jesus, I must continue to ask: What is mine to do? What is mine to say? Is it possible that I have a moral responsibility to do more to make the world a better place for my children, and my children’s children? If I really care about equality, safety, security, and compassion for all, must I be open to the call of Jesus the prophet? And if so, what might that look like?

 

Chittister goes on to explain:

 

The prophet is the person who says no to everything that is not of God. No to the abuse of women. No to the rejection of the stranger. No to crimes against immigrants. No to the [plunder] of the trees. No to the pollution of the skies. No to the poisoning of the oceans. No to the despicable destruction of humankind for the sake of more wealth, more power, more control for the few. No to death. The prophet is one who speaks the truth to a culture of lies.

 

As I sit with these words and imagine Jesus’ prophetic nature, no wonder I prefer Jesus the healer. Saying no to the power structures of Jesus’ day or to the power structures of our day—takes uncommon courage. On second thought, now might be a good time to stop asking what is mine to do or what is mine to say. Maybe I am comfortable with things the way they are. Maybe the status quo works in my favor, too.

 

Chittister continues, “And while saying no, the prophet also says yes. Yes to equal rights for all. Yes to alleviating suffering. Yes to embracing the different. Yes to who God made you. Yes to life.”

 

When the disciples say yes to following Jesus, where do they think it will lead them? Do they imagine an end to the reign of the Roman empire? Do they imagine life is about to get easier? How do they feel when Jesus touches the leper; welcomes the stranger; converses with the Samaritan; elevates the status of women and children? Are they challenged in their own perceptions of who is in and who is out? How do they see their own role in bringing about change?

 

We are living in tumultuous times—as a nation and as the church, but there is hope for us. The Spirit has equipped us for the work ahead. Historian and filmmaker Ken Burns stated in a recent interview on NPR that he believes the U.S. has had three great crises—the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. But we are now in the midst of a fourth great crisis, beset by three viruses—a year-long struggle with Covid-19, plus a 402-year-old virus of racial injustice, plus an age-old human virus of misinformation, paranoia, and conspiracies. But, he says, we have an opportunity to re-set, to appeal to our better angels. We will get through this tragedy if we work toward love and a sense of community.

 

Love and a sense of community—perhaps those are reasons that the disciples said yes. Yes to love. Yes to community. In the end, that is what Jesus is all about. But the question remains: What are we going to do about it?

 

*Cover Art “Be Fire!” by Ira Thomas from Catholic World Art, used by permission.

When Christ Rises, We Rise

When Christ Rises, We Rise

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 10, 2021

Baptism of the Lord

Mark 1:4-11

I had a sermon prepared—all ready to preach—but then Epiphany came. January 6, 2021 a day that will live in infamy as the day insurrectionists attacked the Capitol of the United States of America—not the capitol of some developing country—but the Capitol of the United States. In the months leading up to this horrific event that left five people dead and our democracy gravely wounded, I have wept and prayed, just as you have, I daresay. Often, I have shaken my head at some unimaginable event and remarked in disbelief, “This is not who we are.” But Wednesday, I had a startling epiphany. This is who we are. We are a nation that is broken, though I hope, not beyond repair.

 

This week we witnessed our democratic process interrupted by extremists, rioters, who erected a noose outside our Capitol building. A noose! A symbol of hate. Through this and the actions that followed: scaling the Capitol wall, breaking through locked doors, endangering the lives of elected officials and essential staff, creating such a dire situation that Congress and the Vice President had to be rushed to safety, and traumatizing every one of us through the images we saw playing out across our screens—all of this—all of it was the culmination of propaganda that has permeated news and social media outlets for months and months. Fact has been turned into fiction and hate speech has turned us into haters.

 

And if the battle over our democracy is not enough, we are in another battle against a virus that is killing us by the thousands. Thankfully, vaccines have been developed and are on the way. Until they reach us, scientists continue to repeat the mantra that the best way to slow down the virus is to wear a mask, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. But people far and wide have refused to follow CDC guidelines. Why? Some are convinced that the science is fiction. Others are of the belief that their individual rights are of more value than the rights of those in the larger community. For Christians, such behavior is a clear response to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves. And the response is, “Absolutely not, but thanks for asking.” Then, there are stories of health care workers who are being called liars, who are being berated and disrespected and for what? For risking their own lives to save even those who are convinced the virus is not real. Fact has been turned into fiction and hate speech has turned us into haters.

 

In all the chaos and confusion, it would be easy to give up hope, except for the baby born in Bethlehem long ago into the humblest of surroundings. Stargazers, seekers of wisdom from other lands, see a light—a bright, shining star—and they follow it to the Child. They bring gifts, but imbued by his light, the gift they receive is far greater. The child grows and becomes a man—fully human—fully divine. When it is time for the Son of God to begin his ministry, into the waters of the Jordan River he carries the weight of the world. He, who is without sin, carries our sin into life-giving waters—all of our sin—our nationalism, racism, sexism, agism; our greed, prejudice, jealousy, and hatred—he takes it all and he buries it there in the water. Then, when Christ rises from the water, we rise with him and we are forever changed.

 

As believers baptized into Christ’s love, we recognize, we must recognize our brokenness. And, considering recent events, it behooves us to also consider the role we have played in our national crisis. For you see, as followers of Jesus, no matter how much we love this great land of ours, if we love our country more than we love God, we sin. If the flag means more to us than the cross, we sin. If we trust the almighty dollar more than we trust Almighty God, we sin. If we are more likely to give up Jesus than our political party, we sin. If we help disseminate falsehoods that grant evil more power instead of boldly speaking truth to power, we sin.

 

I grew up in the hills of Appalachia to a hard-working, dirt-poor, dysfunctional family. To say my future looked dismal is an understatement. Yet, through the grace of God, throughout my life doors have opened to me— doors that would lead me to opportunities beyond my wildest dreams; doors that would lead me to a family of my own (dysfunctional in our own special way). I am grateful to be a citizen of the U.S.A., but I am also a citizen of another land—another kingdom—the Kingdom of God and that is the citizenship that I treasure most. Proof of my citizenship does not come through a social security number or a photo ID or a passport. Proof of my citizenship comes through the way I live.

 

As citizens of the Kingdom of God and of these United States of America, I am convinced that we are at a crossroads marked by two symbols: a noose which is a symbol of hate and a cross which is a symbol of the power of love to conquer hate. The path of hate leads to more hate. But through the Cross, the love of Christ is put on display for every nation of every people of every time. And with love as our guide, nothing is impossible. With love, it is not impossible to speak truth to power; it is not impossible for the church to play a crucial role in helping our nation heal; it is not impossible to learn to listen to one another instead of judge one another; it is not impossible for every child of every race and background to have doors of opportunity opened for them just as they have been opened for most of us.

 

The path of love—that road less traveled—is not easy. But love can serve as a magnet to pull us toward God and toward our neighbor. The magnet of love can propel the church into a brighter future. Too often, though, the church has been a part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We have spoken words of love inside the church building but love is not what we have shown to the world. Surely, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the church is not a building. The church is baptized believers. The church is us. So, if we go out into the world to spout words of hatred, the church goes out into the world to spout hatred. If we promote evil, the church promotes evil. If we belittle those who do not look like us or worship like us or speak our language, the church belittles those who do not look like us or worship like us or speak our language. If we scorn the LGBTQ community, the church scorns the LGBTQ community. If we fail to acknowledge the immense value of every man, woman, and child—regardless of skin color, the church fails to acknowledge the immense value of every man, woman, and child—regardless of skin color. We are the church. We are the sons and daughters of God. We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus and we are called to continue his work of love in the world.

 

This past Wednesday, on the day marked as the Epiphany of the Lord, we witnessed horrible actions perpetrated by citizens of our nation. It was a sad day, but a gift has sprung up from our tears. The gift is an invitation—an invitation to consider the question I posed in a sermon last year: WWJBD? What would John the Baptist do? John the Baptist was not Jesus, but he knew who Jesus was and his life’s purpose was to point seekers to Jesus. I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I am not Jesus, but I know who he is, and I know how to reach him. Here, I will lead the way: “Holy Son, Holy Father, Holy Spirit, Three-in-One, I bow before you with all the humility I can muster. You are the creator of the universe. You are the giver of life, faith, hope, family, community, and abundant resources for the good of us all. Oh God, I confess that I have been more interested in my good than in the good of others. Though you created me in your image, I have acted in ways that have tarnished your image. In my arrogance, I have assumed that my story within the beloved community is the most important story. I have assumed that my education and life experiences are all I need to decide what is right and what is wrong. For my journey, I have selected guides who think like I do or who have become what I want to become. Along the way, I have failed to consider other voices—the voice of the black man, the voice of the brown woman, the voice of the migrant worker, the voice of the gay teen, the voice of the Native American, the voice of the bi-racial child, and the voice of every American who is trying their best to find truth in a time when falsehoods are easier to come by. So many voices have been silent to me. Forgive me for not listening. Forgive me for not paying attention. Forgive me for caring for me and mine while ignoring thee and thine. Hundreds of times, thousands of times, I have prayed alone and with others: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done. Thy will be done. I have prayed these words, but I have not always meant them. Sometimes, what I have really meant is MY will be done. My will! Lord Jesus, I long to be like you. I yearn to live with love and compassion as my guides. When I witness people, who are living in fear and acting in ways that are harmful to our democracy, I want to see them with your eyes. I want to see them with love instead of anger. Cleanse my heart. Inoculate me with your divine love. Help me see the other. Help me hear the other. Help me love the other. Help me recognize that I am the other. You are my only hope. You have given me the gift of life. In gratitude, I give my life back to you. May it rise before you as incense, as an offering of praise. In the precious name of Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, I pray. Let it be so. Amen.

 

(Let us keep silence.)

*Cover Art “The Baptism of the Lord” by Ira Thomas from Catholic World Art

Gathering the Flock

Gathering the Flock

CRE Jane Shelton, January 3, 2021

2nd Sunday after Christmas

John 1:10-18

 

We have finally made it!  2020 is gone, and we are celebrating and welcoming 2021 with great joy and hope as we begin this new year, although COVID is not done with us yet!

 

Somehow this past year though, feels like….well, it feels like the Grinch came, and he had no heart at all!

 

I fear that 2020 has left a scar on us that we will not soon forget.  It seems we have lost so much, but would we be remiss if we did not look at what we have gained?

 

In some ways, it seems like it was just a couple weeks ago when I was talking to you from this very spot about “Star Words.”  Remember those?  You know, the yellow stars we gave out last January that held a meaningful word.  A word that we were to hold for the year, to live into, and then we would be able to gather this January to discuss and remember our words, and perhaps share with one another exactly how those words had spoken to us through the year.

 

My Star Word was “trustworthiness.”  I remember pulling that word from the basket, and thinking, “Gosh, I hope I’m already trustworthy!”  But as I had instructed everyone to do, I placed that star in a memorable place in my house so that I could see it often, and be reminded of my trustworthiness that I needed to live into.

 

So there it was on my refrigerator all year, staring back at me every time I opened the door, and next to it was Dick’s Star Word, “Unity.”

 

I often pondered how these words applied to us.  What did they mean?  And how would we live into them.

 

Then came COVID-19 like a bad winter storm that wouldn’t go away.  Life became complicated, frustrating and yes, even disappointing.

 

People that I worked with daily, were no longer in my life, and people that I was used to sharing joy with were being informed of much disappointment.

 

Any thoughts of gathering with friends and family became almost impossible.  Whoever thought we would have to cancel Easter Egg hunts, picnics and routine daily activities?  No graduations, no football gatherings, no Thanksgiving and perhaps worst of all, no Christmas gatherings?

 

Indeed life changed, and it changed for everyone.  There was no normal, and we were all left wondering if life would ever return to the normal we once knew, and we still wonder.

 

Yet, here these Star Words remained, staring back at me day after day.  Trustworthiness and Unity.

 

 

As I began preparing for today’s message, I realized how comforting the words in Jeremiah 31 were that Dick Shelton read for us this morning, and how comforting and timely in a world turned upside down.  Knowing the Shepherd will gather the flock.  Knowing we will indeed gather again.  I could just picture myself like the lamb in the arms of Jesus like we see in the beautiful stained glass window here in this church, and many other churches we’ve visited.

 

We will no longer languish, and we will have joy!  The Lord will comfort us and give us gladness!  We will be satisfied with the Lord’s bounty!  I wondered had these been someone else’s star words?  Joy?  Gladness?  Satisfied?

 

So there in my mind popped one of the words that I had been staring at all year, and a loud voice in my heart spoke, “we will gather and have unity in the flock.”  God wants his children to be unified.

 

And if we believe in him, if live into God’s trustworthiness, we will be given the power to be children of God.  It is through grace that we are given the power to be children of God, and to live into that calling by showing others the love of Christ.  With this power to be a child of God, I realized how important it is for me to reflect this same trustworthiness to others. How important it is that I have the ability to be relied upon as honest and truthful so that I might reflect God’s grace and truth.

 

We are all used to gathering to socialize, fellowship, and share meals.

 

Gathering is an instinct of survival.  From the beginning of time, gathering has occurred.  Gathering of nature for natural events to occur, gathering of animals in packs for survival, and gathering of humans for survival and growth.

 

When we look back to when Jesus was born, there was gathering at the manger.  When Jesus walked among us teaching the good news, groups gathered to hear his teachings. Indeed, Jesus traveled with a group of disciples and others for support and protection.  When he was judged and crucified, groups gathered.  When Christ arose, groups gathered.

 

So how do we respond today when we cannot gather physically?

 

One of my commentaries on Lectionary Reflections by Jill Duffield states, “This text in John invites us to silence that voice within us that tells us to keep everything under control, do not expect too much, do not hope too much, do not reveal too much, to not rejoice or grieve too much, and instead give ourselves over to the Word made flesh and embodied in us. Allow the Word to overwhelm and envelop, silence in you any voice but God’s. Open your mouth, your body, your whole Jesus-redeemed being to praise and song, truth, grace upon grace, let it radiate through you so that you will be, …we will be, ….the light of the world no darkness can overcome.”

 

God sent his Son, God in the flesh, to gather the flock, and to show us how to keep gathering.  So we gather in the power that has been given us as Children of God. We gather in Spirit by grace and truth that we have been shown by the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

 

When we gather via Livestream and Zoom, Facetime and Telephone, we gather not by physical touch, rather by the power of the Spirit that touches us within the heart, just as the Spirits  in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth jumped with joy before John the Baptist and Jesus were able to physically touch.

 

In Dolly Parton’s Christmas Special, she sings, “Circle of Love,” and the lyrics to this song speak to our text today:

 

‘Circle of love, halo of light, when Jesus was born on that Christmas night.

God sent his Son, his great gift to us.  Salvation for all, he loved us that much.

We honor and praise that gift from above.  He holds all of us in a circle of love.’

 

It’s up us to continue the circle of love, and Jesus has shown us the way.

 

So even if we can’t gather the way we want to now, the way we think of as normal, think of all the doors that have been opened and given to us because we have been given the power to learn new ways to gather as children of God to share the Word in this world.  We have been given the power to learn new technology, new ways to share in worship, new ways to connect and gather. New ways to embrace and expand our circle of love.

 

We are constantly bombarded with what we should think and feel, what and who we should like and dislike, and who we should follow or stand with.

 

Yet, God has given his children the power, and it is up to us how we choose to use that power.  Will it be to follow an ever-changing world telling us what we should think or feel with every whim…., or will it be to follow Jesus in all his trustworthiness in a circle of love on whatever path we are given, in whatever direction we are taken.

 

In the end, we will gather and be united in the power of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God.  As long as we trust in his Word, as long as we believe we have the power to be children of God, and with that comes the responsibility to continue bringing in the lambs to the flock, until that time when we are all united and gathered at the Lord’s table.

*Cover Art from https://pemptousia.com/2016/12/the-word-became-flesh-john-1-14-a-sermon-on-the-nativity-of-christ/