Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 21, 2021
1st Sunday in Lent
About 7 years ago, I helped design a Cultural Issues Class using movies to prompt conversation. During the planning phase, an elder in the church I was serving said to me, “Well, I would never talk about controversial issues at church.” When I asked why, he answered, “Because someone might get upset or even leave the church.” I remember walking home afterward, shaking my head, and wondering, “If we can’t talk about weighty issues at church, where can believers talk about them? And what if some things that are controversial are also important to our greater life in the community?
Maybe this exchange seems mundane to you—but to me—as a pastor—it was anything but mundane. In fact, I have carried this conversation in my pocket ever since. And now, here we are, in what feels like one of the most controversial times in American history. There is so much division, so much anger, so much unrest. And now, it seems that everything is political. And what I mean is that the things that matter, the things that need to be addressed, the things that keep us up at night—they have been made into political weapons. Are we to remain silent, still? If not, how do we move forward? What is ours to say? What is ours to do?
As your spiritual leader, these are the kinds of questions I have been lifting in prayer, day after day. I believe an answer came through the idea of a Lenten sermon series we begin today. “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us” is a foray into some important cultural issues. With all the wisdom and humility I can muster, I plan to speak my truth from this pulpit. But since the series is meant to promote dialogue, I hope you will join me on Zoom each Monday at 6:30 p.m. during Lent for what I am calling “Holy Conversations.” Our virtual time will give you a chance to speak your own truth—without judgment or debate. It will also provide a sacred space for us to pray together as believers who are seeking the wisdom of God, above all things.
To begin, let us consider the suffix “ism.” It is commonly added to a word to indicate a practice, prejudice, property, or abnormal condition, like sexism, alcoholism, Buddhism. We may think that “isms” are new to our day and time but that is hardly the case: Nazism, Communism, and McCarthyism, come to mind. During this Season of Lent, though, we will consider other “isms”: Individualism, Ageism, Domestic Terrorism, Consumerism, Christian Nationalism, and Racism. Our exploration will end on Easter Sunday with Radical Optimism. Thanks be to God!
Today’s topic is Individualism. The term, first used in the early 1800s, is defined as a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be paramount, that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals. Regarding individualist behavior, the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible offers insight. Judges records a dark time in the history of the people of Israel. It was a time of violence, massacre, brutality, and deceit—not quite what you would expect in God’s story of salvation. Yet, there it is—in black and white. And twice in the book, we find this refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, everyone did what they felt like doing.
Steven Charleston is an Episcopal priest as well as a Native American Indian. In his book, Ladder to the Light, he has this to say about individualism:
Colonialism brought to America the idea of individualism. The rugged individualist was the pioneer who saw what he wanted and took it. In this reality, community was rooted in convenience, and it became an endless competition between individuals who came together or broke apart for any number of economic or political reasons. In contrast, my ancestors believed in individuality: each person’s right to be uniquely who they are but never to be ostracized or isolated from their collective community. Diversity, therefore, was preserved in the heart of unity.
While we have certainly benefited from individualism that fueled the trek out West, centuries later, individualism has been taken to extremes. Some say we have become a “selfie nation.” Interestingly, sandwiched between Colonial individualism and a selfie nation, another time in American history stands out when the desire for community actually outweighed individual desires. Following WWII, people worked toward a shared national agenda, energized by a willingness to sacrifice and collaborate for the common good. The result was the building of numerous institutions—including churches on every street corner. With abundant resources of both people and money—the church played a critical role in leading discussions and shaping the community.[i] Although we may look back nostalgically on the 1940’s and ‘50’s as the good old days, a closer glance reveals that for many people they were not so good. Yes, institutions were being established to serve us, but they would not serve all of us in the same way—particularly when it came to women and people of color.
Fast forward a few decades, and we are now a generation that no longer trusts many of the social systems that were put in place to sustain healthy communities. Episcopal Priest Steven Charleston continues,
In this darkness, we are beset by questions… Can we live together in peace when we disagree? Can we accept the idea that change and tradition are not mutually exclusive? Can we realize that diversity is an innate human characteristic? Can we understand that our ecosystem is a survival pod with limited range and resources? Can we learn that having more for the few is not as important as having enough for the many?
Any reasonable look at American culture today would verify a pervasive unease about the path our society is taking. It does not matter whether we label ourselves as conversative or progressive; the reality we share means many of us are losing confidence. We are worried. The ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet… We are afraid, and we are looking for a way out of the darkness into the light.
Where do we go from here? The work of the church has always been to point people to Christ. But instead of serving as a beacon of light, we have gotten sucked into the vortex of anxiety and chaos. Afraid of speaking truth to power, we have become followers of the culture around us instead of leaders; we have become silent and thus, complicit. Plagued by individualism, even church members have become more interested in security than in the responsibility we have for the greater good.
While Christianity at its core is personal, intimate and, yes, individual, it is not private. It is not individualistic. Furthermore, the weighty problems we face will not be solved by individuals. It will take all of us, with our different skills, different strengths, and different experiences to build a shared abundant life of peace, forgiveness, justice, and love—for all God’s children. If we fear we are not up to the task, let us remember that God is in the chaos and the Spirit is eager to provide everything we need for the journey ahead. Amen.
[i] Gil Rendle, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World. 160.
*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, Used by permission.
Watch and Listen
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 14, 2021
Transfiguration of the Lord
Our gospel reading for this Transfiguration Sunday invites us into an incredible mountain top experience. Situated squarely in the middle of the Gospel of Mark, accompanied by Peter, James and John, Jesus goes up on the mountain and he is transformed. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than anyone on earth could make them. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses appear and begin talking with Jesus. Can this story get any better? Well yes, as a matter of fact, it can. Peter, overwhelmed with emotion, interrupts the happenings saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Peter’s plan is interrupted when a cloud overshadows them and a voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” In other words, “Hush Peter, now is the time to keep silent. You are on holy ground!”
Imagine: Elijah, the representative of the Prophets, and Moses, the representative of the Law, and Jesus, together on the mountaintop. But Jesus will not play the roles of Elisha or Moses. Oh no, something greater is about to happen, for Jesus has come as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Herein, the divinity of Jesus is surely revealed, but if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will realize that his humanity is also on display.
Most people tend to think of Jesus in a one-sided fashion, feeling more comfortable with either his “divinity” or his “humanity.” For those who lean toward the “divine” nature of Jesus, the Transfiguration offers a picture of dazzling light and abounding mystery. For those who lean toward the “human” side of Jesus, the Transfiguration may be a cloudy experience, indeed. If these are our tendencies, if we are more at ease with one or the other way of seeing Jesus, perhaps today’s reading offers the perfect opportunity to expand our way of thinking.
As Presbyterians, we are people of Creeds and Confessions—it’s part of our rich heritage. Throughout church history, the Creeds and Confession bear witness to how Christians have wrestled with the true nature of Jesus. Down through the ages, we have been and continue to be challenged to reject an attitude of either/or and embrace an attitude of both/and for Jesus is both human and divine. Certainly, on the mountaintop, Jesus’ divinity is on full display: dazzling white clothes, chatting with Elijah and Moses like it’s a holy homecoming. But if we look closer, we may wonder if Jesus has come to the mountain for a more human reason. Could it be that the transfiguration is for the benefit of Jesus as much as it is for the disciples?
No doubt, by this point in his ministry, Jesus realizes there are tough days ahead. Because he is human, he is heavy of heart, fearful of what he must face. And who better than Elijah and Moses, pillars of the faith, representatives of the Prophets and the Law, to encourage him at this critical point in his life? In their life on earth, both Elijah and Moses see Yahweh’s plan unfolding in wondrous ways. Both Elijah and Moses, during times of trial, behold the glory of God. Both Elijah and Moses depart this world and enter the next in mysterious God-ordained ways. Who better than Elijah and Moses to mentor Jesus as he faces the greatest challenge of his life for the sake of the world? Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, may well have come to the mountain to be equipped for what lies ahead.
Undeniably, the faith of the disciples is strengthened in the process—which is a good thing—because even though they have the benefit of seeing Jesus in the flesh, they still wrestle with their faith. They are unable to comprehend the magnitude of what Jesus is doing, day in and day out. The gospels, particularly Mark, portray them as missing the point most of the time—like Peter who sees the holy and instead of keeping quiet, chooses to fill the moment with words: “Rabbi, it’s a good thing we’re here—let’s build something.” (My translation, of course.) We don’t know why Peter interrupts this holy experience, but we are told that a word of advice comes from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”
“Listen to him!” In this glorious moment, God enters the story to uncover what has been hidden from human understanding. Yes, “Listen to him,” is a good corrective for the recurring theme of the disciple’s misunderstanding. They do, after all, tend to have their eyes fixed on earthly things. But are we any different? Aren’t our eyes more readily fixed on earthly problems than heavenly solutions? Wouldn’t we have been terrified by the sight of Jesus talking to two dead men and glowing like the sun?
Mountain top experiences or “thin places,” as they are sometimes called, don’t happen very often. Frankly, I think the reason is we couldn’t handle it. Being so close to the glory of God—well, humanity can only stand a glimpse of it. But having such experiences can help us in the dark nights—those times when God seems nowhere present, when we feel lost and alone. Then, in the silence, if we recall the memory of the time that we saw God’s hand moving in circumstances beyond our control, we may regain our footing, regain a sense of God being at work whether or not we can see it…whether or not we can feel it…
In the movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” Christian Bale stars as Moses. It is a fascinating, creative, and artistic telling of the biblical story. At one point in the movie, Moses is exhausted by his ongoing struggle with Pharaoh, which seems to be getting him nowhere. So, Moses climbs a mountain to talk to God—rant is more like it. “I’ve done what you have asked. I’ve done everything I know to do. What else do you want from me?” After a moment of silence, God replies, “Well, for now, you can watch.” For me, that was the best line in the entire movie. “Well, for now, you can watch.” Sometimes our best and most holy work is to watch, listen, and wait. Only then can we truly hear the voice of God. Only then can we truly see the hand of the Holy One moving, changing, preparing.
On a mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured. He is preparing for the days ahead. We, too, need to prepare. Today marks the last Lord’s Day before Lent. Normally, we would gather this week for Ash Wednesday to be marked with ashes and to begin our Lenten journey. Instead, out of an abundance of caution, we will gather virtually. Rather than ashes, I invite you to obtain a small sample of soil from your lawn and mix it with some oil—olive oil, cooking oil, essential oils—whatever you choose. Then, we will meet on Zoom at 5:30 p.m. to mark ourselves or our family members with soil from the earth. “From dust we came; to dust we shall return.” As a community of believers, we will look our humanity squarely in the face, even while we look toward the great day of Resurrection!
On the mountaintop, Jesus is transfigured. Then he comes down and returns to the people below who are desperate for his touch. Just as he has been doing, Jesus continues to meet their brokenness and transform their lives. He continues to share the love of his Abba Father—all the way to the Cross! What wondrous love is this! Thanks be to God! Amen.
*Cover Art “Transfiguration” by Alexandr Ivanov, Public Domain
Let Us Go On
Jane Shelton, CRE
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
February 7, 2021
Today we pick up following Jesus having cast out unclean spirits while in the synagogue, indeed having performed his first miracle.
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James and John enter the house of Simon and Andrew where they find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever, and when Jesus learns that she is ill, he went to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up. Upon being made well, Simon’s mother-in-law begins to serve them.
Through the evening Jesus continues healing throughout the whole city as they came to the door of Simon and Andrew’s home. I love the way it is noted here that he heals the “whole” city. He doesn’t leave anyone untouched who desires to be healed.
I can only imagine what this scene would have looked like with people pushing and shoving to be able to catch a glimpse at the sight of the healing going on at the door. I mean, just imagine for a moment that Jesus was at your home, and everyone in the city of Valdosta were coming to be touched by him. Can you imagine the gathering, the awe of the scene before you, and the joy that surely must have followed?
Then in the early morning, Jesus leaves the house to pray. And in the darkness of the morning, he seeks a deserted place, a quiet place, to pray.
Of course, as it is with any of us who try to find a place of solitude, it is often short-lived, and it is the same for Jesus.
Simon and his companions tell him everyone is searching for him. But Jesus doesn’t say, okay, let’s go back, no Jesus says, “Let’s us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Jesus has healed those in the city of Simon, so he doesn’t need to go back to be praised. He doesn’t need to return to receive an award, no Jesus is laser focused on his mission to fulfill God’s purpose in the world.
I remember a cold winter day when I was about twelve years old, my Daddy was summoned to South Carolina where his sister was in the last days of her life, having battled leukemia the last few years.
We were not down the road 30 minutes from our home when snow flurries appeared, and of course being from South Georgia, I was very excited to see the flurries, but I could see the concern on my parents’ faces who knew what this meant for the drive ahead.
The further north we drove, the more the snow fell, and as we watched cars spin off the road, I began to realize the dangers we faced being on the road, but my father drove on at a safe speed.
As we arrived into Charleston, reaching our last turn before the hospital, the light ahead of us turned red, and my Daddy, took his foot off the gas, and lightly tapped the brake, but the car kept crawling forward on the snow until we came to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Thankfully, there were no other cars coming, and we safely made our way through the intersection and on to the hospital.
Arriving late in the afternoon, after a long day on the road, my parents left me in the hospital lobby while they visited with my aunt, and I entertained myself by watching the snow continue to fall outside the big glass floor to ceiling windows, watching in awe as this was the most snow I had ever seen, it was magical.
But when my parents returned, and we were headed out the door to find a hotel for the night, the hospital security guard, asked, “Where ya headed?” to which my Daddy replied, “Going to get a hotel for the night.” The security guard replied, “Sir, I know it’s late, but you might be signing your death warrant if you try and leave and drive out there tonight. We’ve had several accident victims who have already been brought in this evening into the emergency room, and I would hate for you and your family to be one of them.” And he continued, “I know this hospital lobby isn’t too comfortable, but it might be your best option tonight.”
So there in the safety of the hospital lobby, along with other visitors, we stayed. Nurses appeared with blankets and pillows to make our stay a little more comfortable, and through the night we watched doctors and nurses being brought in by jeep. Being twelve years old, I was in total awe, and could barely sleep at all.
The next morning, I was awakened by one of my cousins, and my parents headed back upstairs to visit with my aunt where they were in and out for most of the day, and I continued to entertain myself, watching the sun slowly melt the snow which was disappearing little by little.
Indeed by the time we were headed back home late that afternoon, most of the snow was gone. When we got into the car, I took my usual place in the back seat and waited for the car to go into gear, but instead, I heard the sobs of my Daddy, the first time I had ever seen him cry, and not knowing what to do, I instinctively reached over the seat and touched him on the shoulder, as my mother reached over and touched his arm.
The power of touch. In that moment, in the moment of my Daddy’s pain, knowing he would not see his sister alive again, the power of touch was all that my mother and I had to offer. And looking back now, I realize that in that moment, we were the touch of Jesus.
We never know where we will have to travel to offer the healing touch of Jesus to lift someone up. I’m sure my parents had done the same in my aunt’s hospital room. It was what the security guard had done, as well as the nurses who showed up with pillows and blankets for those of us hold up in the lobby.
For us, it may be here in this church, it may be someone in our homes or in our community, or a neighboring town. It may be in a neighboring state or even a neighboring country, and one thing we can be assured is that wherever we have to travel, Jesus will be there with us also.
Jesus began healing in the synagogue, and from there he traveled to the home of those he knew where he took the hand of someone who needed wholeness and he lifted her up. And she began to serve them….she didn’t lie back down for a little more rest, no she was lifted up and began to serve her people and Jesus. There is no doubt that Simon’s mother went on, rather than choose to remain in her place in the bed after being healed.
Then in the dawn of a new day, Jesus leaves the house and goes out to a deserted place to pray. Scripture doesn’t tell us what Jesus prayed for that morning, perhaps it was meant only for him to find solitude to commune with his Abba Father, or maybe it was for strength or direction, or maybe it was that the disciples would come looking for him, and maybe it was for all of the above.
What is important, however, is what happens next when Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came to do.”
So I ask myself and you, how far have you traveled to be with someone who needed to be touched? Someone who needed to be lifted up, not just physically, but also spiritually? Are we doing what Jesus showed us to do, remembering there are no bounds to where we may have to travel?
In a world full of pain and hurt; a world where there are those who are faint and weary from persecution and genocide, those powerless to stop destruction by evil that creates violence and pandemics, there are plenty of people who need the healing touch of Jesus, and for some people, we may be the only Jesus they ever see. Let US go on with the good news of Jesus Christ.
*Cover Art https://wheelsms.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/jesus-hand-reaching-ours-pp-posterized.jpg
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 31, 2021
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Of the four gospel accounts, the Gospel of Mark is the first to be recorded. Written in the style of a modern-day newspaper account, Mark rushes us from place to place to witness gospel-making, life-changing history. Just twenty verses in, a lot of territory has been covered. Already, Jesus has been baptized, driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and cared for by the angels; John the Baptizer has been arrested and Jesus has started preaching the gospel and gathering disciples. Twenty verses of Scripture bring us to the synagogue on the Sabbath where Jesus is about to inaugurate his kingdom campaign. And Jesus’ kingdom campaign will shock and amaze the people. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s telling of the event, from The Message:
Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars. Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.
It is no surprise that this news travels fast. Jesus speaks with authority AND he makes things happen! His style of teaching differs from anything the people have ever heard. Jesus does not rely on borrowed authority. He does not offer information; instead, through the power of the Holy Spirit, what Jesus offers is transformation. Now that is something new and amazing.
You may have noticed the people are not alone in their amazement. The one who happens to see more clearly than anyone is the unclean spirit. Translations vary here—unclean spirit, evil spirit, or demon. Who or what is this? While opinions vary, one thing is clear—this is something that is contrary to purity and sacredness. It is a presence that is against the things of God. Yet it is the unclean spirit that speaks the truth, interrupting Jesus like a heckler during a campaign speech. It is safe to say that everyone in the synagogue is riveted to the scene being played out before them. The unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit is disturbed, for good reason, because he recognizes Jesus for who he is. Evil has come face to face with the source of its ultimate demise. Indeed, Jesus has come to do his Father’s business. Jesus has come to destroy the evil that threatens to undo humanity. Jesus has come to offer abundant life. Jesus has come to shut down the powers of darkness and Jesus CAN because he is exactly who the unclean spirit says he is: “the Holy One of God.”
Jesus’ authority is made known when what he speaks comes to fruition—word and action unite, and the evil spirit is silenced and cast out of the man. Let the healing begin! Isn’t it ironic that Jesus, possessed by the Spirit of God, faces off with a man, possessed by a demon? And in that moment, the healing ministry of Jesus is in full swing. With at least 13 miracles of healing documented in the Gospel of Mark, there is no denying that for Jesus there is a strong connection between religion and health.
Returning to the man with the unclean spirit, don’t you wonder what he is doing in the synagogue in the first place? Wouldn’t that be the last place an evil presence should want to hang out? It makes me wonder, in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed by something evil and beyond his control, is there something that draws the man to a place where he might find a glimmer of hope? Is that how he happens to be among the people that day? And while the brokenness of this man with an unclean spirit and his need for healing is so obvious, doesn’t he represent all of humanity? Whether by anger, greed, selfishness, anxiety, hatred, pride, whether by discouragement, despair, depression, whether by obsessions, addictions, disease—aren’t we all broken in some form or fashion? But for the possessed man, and for all who meet the person of Jesus, there is healing, there is wholeness, there is hope.
Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus acts with authority. Authority—it is an interesting word that refers to the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior. Sometimes authority is given by the nature of a position—such as in the case of a state legislator or an owner of an organization. At other times, we give someone or something authority over us, which begs the question “Who or what have we given authority or power in our lives?” Does Holy Scripture and the way of Jesus influence our behavior? What about wise teachers, trusted friends, mentors? Who else has authority over us?
When it comes to authority and preaching, lately I have been pondering the advice theologian Karl Barth gave to ministers—to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Barth believed in speaking truth to power, but these days, what is truth and where do we find it? As a life-long learner and spiritual leader, I want to stay informed about global and national matters but finding the truth has become increasingly difficult. Kinney and I have long relied on PBS Newshour and NPR for daily news. Lately, though, I have been compelled to broaden my information circle to include Pulitzer Prize winning digital publications of The New York Times and The Washington Post. To keep abreast of religious happenings, in addition, I have renewed my subscriptions to Christian Century and Presbyterian Outlook. While I would prefer to spend more time reading books and, perhaps, sleeping—in these troubling times, I feel an obligation to seek the truth to the best of my ability. But I cannot stop there. Once I think I have found it, I must take it to the Lord in prayer because you see, the real truth—the ultimate truth—comes from God and God alone.
Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus acts with authority. He is a prophet, a sage, a teacher, and a truth-teller. With God-given power, Jesus demonstrates the love of God for all to see. He makes the gospel message real. The message of hope that he brings is good news worth telling. With great courage, with great humility, may God give us hearts and minds and voices to tell it! Amen.
*Cover Art “Jesus Casts Out the Unclean Spirit!” Limbourg Brothers from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_166r_-_The_Exorcism.jpg.