A Future with Hope

A Future with Hope[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 24, 2021

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:10-14

 

Two of the most important events to shape the identity of God’s chosen people are the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian exile. After the defeat of the Assyrian empire by the Babylonian empire, three deportations take place between the years of 597 and 582 BCE. In our reading for today, Jeremiah addresses those removed from their homeland in the first of these deportations. For the most part, those exiled are from the upper classes—elders, priests, and prophets. [ii] Likely, they are surprised by the content of his letter because rather than a way out of their circumstances, they are given a stunning list of instructions: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and enjoy their produce; settle down, get married, and have families; get on with life—now—don’t wait for the future.

 

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God does not encourage rebellion against the oppressive superpower. Instead, God encourages those in exile to bloom where they are planted—to thrive despite the situation—and to hold lightly to their plans. Afterall, the task of planning is God’s. And what are God’s plans? God’s plans are for the people’s welfare and not for harm—to give them a future with hope.

 

Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says God, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

 

Over the last month, you have received this year’s Stewardship Campaign materials built upon the theme of “A Future with Hope,” taken from Jeremiah. In the letter I provided in the church bulletin and in the one sent as part of your stewardship packet, you read about how Christian life includes cycles of exile and return. But Jeremiah reminds us that even in something earth-shattering (like a pandemic, we might add) God is present and active. His letter reflects a traumatized community who has lost everything: their loved ones, their homes, their beloved city Jerusalem, their language, their culture, and their temple.[iii]

In the past 20 months of a global pandemic, what have we lost? What kinds of exile have we faced—as individuals and as a community of believers? We have those in our fold who have moved to other cities during the pandemic and building new friendships under COVID restrictions has been challenging. For others, a decline in health has made attending in-person worship too difficult. Others have had to make significant decisions about their finances or businesses. Some have faced the cancelation of important family events. As a church, we have felt like foreigners in a strange land. We have learned new technologies; we have worked and worshiped from home; we have been challenged to stay connected in a plethora of new ways.

While there have been challenges aplenty—there have also been invitations to ponder—questions to consider: What has come to light over the course of the pandemic? What lessons can we learn? What inequalities and injustices have been laid bare? What new forms of connection have been born? Because of this experience, are we now able to truly recognize the church is not the building? What blessings has it helped us to treasure even more—precisely because we have had to do without them so long?

As I have heard you talk about your experience of the pandemic, one theme has stood out—how much you miss being with your church family—in worship and around tables enjoying things like potluck meals. While we prefer being together, the truth is that life has always been a rhythm of separation and togetherness, exile and return. Sure, we may prefer the “return” bit, the “bring you back to this place” bit, but that doesn’t mean separation isn’t part of the story. It was part of the story in the Garden of Eden. It was part of the story of the Prodigal Son. It was part of the story for Jesus and his followers—separated by his death and reunited in his resurrection.

Even on our most “normal” days, our lives are a rhythm of gathering and dispersing, coming together and going apart, calls to worship and benedictions. This past year has been a profound experience of this ancient pattern, and as challenging as it’s been, we can take solace in the knowledge that our ancestors, too, experienced seasons of exile. Thanks to this history, over time our faith—and our church—have been built to help us live through such seasons with grace and hope.

Might the experience of this season energize us to seek new ways to make the world a more just, loving, life-giving place? By the grace of God, for more reasons than we can count, this congregation is a life-giving place—a gift to us and to the world. First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta is a place of homecoming and hope, a place we come together to hear the good news, that even during a crisis, God’s ultimate plans for us is a future with hope. When this pandemic is long gone, the world will still be full of need. Our community will still be full of need. That’s why we’re here. That’s who we are: a waystation of hope along life’s journey. It’s why God chose to be born with us as Jesus of Nazareth—to help us build bridges of connection and companionship—so that everyone might experience a homecoming to God’s new world of joy, justice, and love.

Today is Stewardship Dedication Sunday. Hopefully you’ve been praying the Giving Prayer you were mailed a few weeks ago. Hopefully your prayers have helped to clarify how, with the Spirit’s wisdom, you can contribute to the ongoing ministry that makes us who we are today, and who we will be tomorrow. Christianity was made for this: building bridges of homecoming and commissioning, sending and return, welcoming the stranger and being sent forth to visit the sick and imprisoned. FPC is made for this, too. To be clear, though, we are made to do this together, offering up our skills, our hopes, our ideas, our money, and our hearts to answer God’s call.

Shortly, you will be invited to bring your pledge card to The Lord’s Table. If you are worshiping with us virtually, you may mail your card to the church office. If you have misplaced the card or did not receive one but would like one, there are some available beside the offering plates at the sanctuary doors.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a season of separation like no other we’ve ever known. As we look ahead to First Presbyterian Church’s next chapter, we may never appreciate the power of gathering together in person more than we do today; the beauty of worship—gathering together in the midst of a world full of distance; the wonder of music—singing together in the midst of a world full of loneliness; the sweetness of sacraments—celebrating together the waters of baptism and the nourishment of Communion in the midst of a world full of hunger; and the joy of service—working together in the midst of a world full of broken systems and broken hearts.

If the world is full of exile, our church is a community of return; a place to come home to, again and again; a congregation in which we can tangibly experience God’s ancient promise to “bring you back to this place,” and “give you a future with hope.” Now more than ever, may we stand as a beacon of hope, welcome, and radical hospitality. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Stewardship theme materials from SaltProject.org

[ii] https://revgalblogpals.org/2013/11/18/narrative-lectionary-a-word-to-the-exiles-jeremiah-291-4-14/

[iii] Juliana Claassens https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/jeremiahs-letter-to-exiles/commentary-on-jeremiah-291-4-14

*Cover art photo Dave Hoefler via Unsplash, used by permission

Children of Zebedee

Children of Zebedee

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 17, 2021

21st Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

 

High-and-Mighty. Audacious. Arrogant. Clueless. Oblivious. Were we to reflect on our gospel reading for today and thoroughly consider the behavior of the brothers, James and John, these are just a few adjectives that might come to mind. It took a lot of nerve for them to approach Jesus with, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in your glory…” What gall! It kind of makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? To see the disciples behaving like this. Many scholars believe it makes the writer of the Gospel of Matthew so uncomfortable, he changes the story so that it is the mother of the sons of Zebedee who asks Jesus for her sons to be given the honor of sitting on his right and left when he comes into his kingdom. I guess it’s more palatable to imagine a mother asking something so outrageous on behalf of her children.

Regardless, in Mark’s telling it is the sons of Zebedee who seek to be first in line—who want the best for themselves—who—dare I say it—plan to lord their position over their fellow-disciples. Immediately though, Jesus sets them straight since they are traveling a crooked path—in the opposite direction of Jesus.

In the gospel of Mark, three times Jesus tells of his imminent fate and three times the disciples miss the point. The first time Jesus foretells of his death and resurrection, Peter takes him aside to straighten him out, only to be rebuked with the harsh words, “Get behind me, Satan.” After the second passion prediction, the disciples get caught arguing over which of them is the greatest. The third prediction happens right before today’s reading. Jesus has just encountered the rich man who wants eternal life—but not if he must sell everything he has and give it to the poor. When the man walks away shocked and grieving, Jesus and the disciples continue their journey toward Jerusalem, and Jesus again predicts his death and resurrection.

He takes the twelve aside again and begins to tell them what is to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.[i]

On the heels of such a prophecy, what happens? Sadness and tears? Questions for clarification? Prayers for a different outcome? Not quite! Instead, what is recorded is one more example of the disciples NOT getting it. With Jesus’ somber words still hanging in the air, James and John, the sons of Zebedee come forward to ask Jesus, of all things, “Can we be first?”

Some of you may have heard me tell this story before—but as they say—a good story is worth retelling. Marilyn, Kinney’s sister, has two sons, Matthew and Tyler. One day when they were little, they were giving her a fit, fussing about one thing and then another. Finally, Marilyn had about all she could stand so she raised her voice and said, “The two of you are driving me crazy!” Without missing a beat, her three-year-old, Tyler, asked with great enthusiasm, “Can I sit in the front seat?” Obviously, Tyler missed the point.

The disciples miss the point, too. Repeatedly, Jesus points toward a new way of living in the world—not seeking the highest positions but accepting the lowest— “for the first will be last, and the last will be first.” Not lording it over others in some superior fashion; instead, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Undeniably, Jesus is not asking the disciples to do anything he refuses to do. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Ironically, the sons of Zebedee ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left—what they perceive to be places of honor. In a short time, however, the ones at Jesus’ right and left will be two criminals crucified beside him—hardly the coveted places James and John are hankering for.

Personally, when I imagine the arrogant, outlandish request of James and John, it makes me feel superior—for about 10 seconds—until I recognize the ways in which I want to be first, I want recognition, or the endless ways I miss the point of the gospel time and time again. Truth be told, we are all children of Zebedee in one way or another as poet, Robert Raines, reminds us in his poem entitled, “I’m Like James and John.”

I am like James and John
Lord, I size up other people
in terms of what they can do for me;
how they can further my program,
feed my ego,
satisfy my needs,
give me strategic advantage.
I will exploit people,
ostensibly for your sake,
bur really for my own sake.
Lord, I turn to you
to get the inside track
and obtain special favors,
your direction for my schemes,
your power for my projects,
your sanction for my ambitions,
your blank checks for whatever I want.
I am like James and John.

Since I spent years working in hospitals prior to going to seminary, it will come as no surprise that I enjoy watching medical dramas on occasion. One of my favorites is New Amsterdam on NBC which just started its fourth season. The show is loosely based on the book Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital by Eric Manheimer. The storyline follows Dr. Max Goodwin as he becomes the medical director of one of United States’ oldest public hospitals. His intent is to reform the neglected facility to provide exceptional care to patients. But first, he must tear up its system of bureaucracy. In the first episode, he meets with all the staff and starts butting heads with one department head after another. The head of the Emergency Department wants to eliminate the waiting room and send patients straight to the bed. The Chief of Psychiatry, who is also interested in a more holistic approach to medicine and health, asks for better food. And on and on it goes. Max faces each daunting challenge with courage and unwavering optimism. While I enjoy many aspects of the show, what intrigues me most is a question that Max asks whenever a crisis emerges: How can I help?

How can I help? is a great question. It does not come from a place of superiority, arrogance, or a desire to “lord power” over others. How can I help? is a question of humility and service to others. How can I help? sounds like a question Jesus would ask. How can I help?

Next Sunday is Stewardship Dedication Sunday. You should have already received in the mail a stewardship letter and prayer, along with a pledge card. In the week ahead, let us ponder how we will be in service to Christ’s church in this time and place. How will we dedicate our time to help bring God’s kingdom here on earth? How will we utilize our spiritual gifts and particular talents? How much of our financial resources will we contribute? In the end, all we have is God’s. Our families, our homes, our cars, our clothing, our bank accounts, our achievements—they are all God’s. We’re just borrowing them for a time—caring for them—managing them—if you will.

Accepting the places of last and least for ourselves—serving God by serving others—these are the behaviors Christ expects of his followers. On this day, and on every day to come—may we dedicate all that we have, all that we are, and all that we hope to be—to the service of the Son of Man. Equipped by the Spirit with love and compassion, may we be guided by a simple question: How can I help? 

[Silence]

[i] Mark 10:32b-34, NRSV.

 

*Cover Art photo by Ira Thomas via Catholic World Art, used by permission

How Can We Keep from Singing?

How Can We Keep from Singing?

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 10, 2021

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Acts 2:42-47

 

Our reading from Acts provides a snapshot of the early church as a community of believers, caring for one another, living in harmony, and worshiping God. The most important work of believers then—and now—is to worship God. We gather around the Word, the Baptismal Font, and The Lord’s Table. We may gather under the stars, or around the campfire. We may gather in person or virtually. We listen. We pray. We sing. We, of all people, have reason to rejoice. Truly, how can we keep from singing?

 

God’s people have always sung because music is an essential part of the work of the people of God. Scripture’s first record of singing comes from the lips of Moses. You recall the story. The people of God are captives in Egypt. Hearing their cries for justice, Yahweh sends Moses to bring them out of bondage. After a battle to the death, Pharaoh agrees to release the captives, only to have a change of heart and come after them. But God parts the waters and allows the children of Israel to escape Pharaoh’s army—an army that, ultimately—drowns in the sea. Joy bursts forth from the lips of Moses. “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” Then Miriam, Moses’ sister, takes up her tambourine, and joins the song as the women dance around her. Having witnessed the mighty power of God, Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites sing to the Lord. How can they keep from singing?

 

Hannah longs for a child, but she is barren. In desperation, she cries out to the Lord, and vows that if God gives her a son, she will give him back in service to the Lord. God hears her prayer and Hannah bears a son. When she brings young Samuel back to the temple a few years later—making good on her promise—she prays a prayer that we know as “The Song of Hannah.” “My heart exults in the Lord…there is no Holy One like the Lord…there is no Rock like our God.” The Lord blesses Hannah with three more sons and two daughters. Hannah experiences the power of God in wondrous ways. How can she keep from singing?

 

In good times and in bad, David turns to music. He plays the lyre to ease King Saul’s troubled mind. Later David sings songs of praise and songs of lament. David lives life in extremes. He sins greatly, yet he loves the Lord with all his heart. And the Lord loves David. Oh, the wonders of God that David witnesses. How can he keep from singing?

 

When the Israelites turn their back on God and are exiled in Babylon, they fear they have lost their song. But even from the darkness, their songs rise to the heavens. They are, after all, God’s people. How can they keep from singing?

 

In time, Gabriel brings the good news of God’s salvation plan to young Mary, who is understandably confused. But the angel reminds her that nothing is impossible with God. Humbly, Mary responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” When Mary visits her elderly relative, Elizabeth, who is with child, Mary sings a hymn of praise that we know as the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” Mary is chosen to be the vessel for the Holy Child. How can she keep from singing?

 

Jesus grows up, is baptized, and begins his mission to bring salvation to the world—a mission that will cost him his life. Before his arrest, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples. At the table, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.” He takes a cup and gives it to them saying, “Drink from it; all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Then, after singing a hymn, Jesus and his disciples depart for the Mount of Olives.

 

The early church continues praising God, singing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. We’ve been singing ever since. Our songs serve as companions for the journey. They guide us through the church year. They give us words in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Still, we gather. Still, we sing, for we are God’s children, siblings of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of God. How can we keep from singing?

The Welcome Table

The Welcome Table

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 3, 2021

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 8; Mark 10:2-16

 

The idea of World Communion Sunday was born many years ago in Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, as an attempt to bring believers together and to reflect on the interconnection of Christian congregations. So, today we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with our brothers and sisters around the world. Some of us refer to this sacrament as the Eucharist, others the Table of the Lord, others simply Communion.[i] Some of us use wine at the Table, some grape juice, while others offer both. Some have fresh bread, while others have unleavened wafers. Some remain seated as the elements are passed to them, while others process up to the Table to receive their bread and cup.

While there are many ways to celebrate this feast, there are also different ways to interpret it. In a mysterious way we cannot understand, Presbyterians believe that Christ joins us here at his Table. Here we are nourished. Here we are blessed. Here we are sustained by Christ’s pledge of undying love and continuous presence with us. And here we are UNITED with all the faithful in heaven and on earth. But it is the opposite of UNITY that is being played out in our gospel reading.

Once again, the Pharisees are intent on trapping Jesus. They pose a question about divorce—a question that they know has no good answer. As is the way of Jesus though, instead of answering their question, he offers one of his own. Then he affirms that God’s original intent was for a married couple to remain married—to be united for the rest of their days. He also acknowledges the loophole that is permissible—though still not God’s intent. Because God’s intent from the very beginning of the creation of humanity was wholeness. Then, Jesus broadens the discussion by reminding his hearers that a divorce can be initiated by a man or a woman. As one commentator notes,

In Jesus’ day, when a woman received a “certificate of divorce,” she lost most of her rights (like the right to own property). She could easily find herself begging for food on the street or prostituting herself for income. Clearly Jesus had a pastoral concern for women who could have their lives torn apart by a signature on a piece of paper. In the kingdom of God, there should be mutual respect and concern for each other, not a quick certificate of divorce or a call to a lawyer to “take her (or him) for everything I can.”[ii]

Without a doubt, divorce is still a difficult issue. But most Protestant churches have recognized that respect for the institution of marriage means that there are some marriages that should end. Divorce can be tragic, but there are worse things. As a professor put it in a pastoral care class: “They say some marriages are made in heaven, but it appears to me that some are born in hell.”[iii] Being a child of parents who divorced—and wisely so—I couldn’t agree more. Nevertheless, as a minister, many times I have quoted the words of Jesus, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When I say those words at a marriage ceremony, I am optimistic that they will be the reality of the couple’s future. It is always my hope and prayer that the couple will embrace the kingdom of God that Jesus unfolds—a kin-dom of peace, love, and kindness. But I am also aware that not everyone chooses or is able to live within the ethics of this kin-dom. Neglect, abuse, tragedy, promiscuity, financial issues, mental illness, immaturity, and addictions are realities of the world in which we live.

It’s noteworthy that on the heels of Jesus addressing a question about divorce, he chastises his disciples who are scolding parents for bringing their children to him and thus, wasting his time. Indignant, he responds, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Then Jesus embraces the children and blesses them, thereby turning his wholehearted attention to those so often negatively impacted by the tragedy of divorce—children.

Current national statistics reveal that 80% of single-parent families are headed by single mothers, and about 33% of them live below the poverty line. While we may expect poverty in America to occur in inner cities or in Appalachia, a PC(USA) source paints a different picture:

Poverty looks like the health care worker who can’t afford their own prescriptions. Or the childcare worker who can’t afford child care. Being poor in America is not just about a lack of money. It’s about working hard and still not having access to the basic things so many of us take for granted. Like a decent wage, housing, affordable medical care, educational opportunities, and so much more.[iv]

Statistically, a child in a single-parent household is more likely to drop out of high school, experience violence, commit suicide, continue a cycle of poverty, become drug dependent, commit a crime, or end up in prison.

When it comes to the effects of poverty in our community, our country, and around the world, what is ours to do? First, we celebrate and continue to support Break Bread Together, a feeding program of our church that provides 5 meals each week to poor, elderly citizens of Valdosta. Second, we support the annual Rise Against Hunger event organized by our Presbytery that provides healthy meals to developing nations. Because of our financial and physical contributions to this mission, we will gather at Moultrie Presbyterian Church this afternoon to pack some 10,000 meals. Additionally, as a church seeking to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, we pray for new opportunities to feed the hungry—both physically and spiritually.

Several years ago, I happened upon a book by Michael J. Rosen entitled, The Greatest Table: A Banquet to Fight Against Hunger. It is a 12-foot-long accordion-style book that includes art from 16 children’s book illustrators. As each page or leaf of the table opens, children and their families share a feast as generous in spirit as it is in food. Since the book was created to support a charity that feeds hungry children, it seems fitting to share it with you this morning. For those who would like to see the accompanying art, I will leave it here on the railing after worship.

The greatest table isn’t set

inside a single home—

oh no, it spans the continents,

and no one eats alone.

 

The table in your dining room,

a picnic bench, a tray,

a party tent, your beach blanket,

a small sidewalk café,

 

a banquet hall, breakfast in bed,

a lunch box, take-out sack,

the circle at a campfire roast,

or any teatime snack—

 

each one is just another leaf

in one uncommon table,

where all the guests have cooked or baked

or brought what they are able,

 

where all of us can help ourselves,

and all of us are fed,

and no one has been turned away

with just a crust of bread.

 

The greatest table, like a tree,

is growing leaf by leaf,

and widening its canopy

to welcome more beneath.

 

Its tablecloth is flowering

and covers all our knees

its branches bend with every food

from pineapples to peas.

 

Who hasn’t eaten? Join us here,

pull up another chair.

We’ll all scoot over, make more room;

There’s always some to spare.

 

Baskets mound with crusty breads,

there’s soup in simmering pots,

and bushels brim year-round with fruit—

now pears, now apricots.

 

And always in the company

there’s someone we can toast:

an elder, infant, long-lost friend,

an honored guest, the host.

 

The table talk is musical,

with every language shared;

in every face the thankfulness

is more than any prayer.

 

The next time you sit down to eat,

the greatest table’s set,

connecting you with each of us

who hasn’t eaten yet.

 

So if you’re hungry, join us here,

pull up another chair.

We’ll all scoot over, make more room;

there’s always some to spare.

 

We are broken—all of us. We try and we fail, and we try again. But every step along the way, we are loved beyond measure. Through Christ, a new kin-dom has arrived—one that celebrates unity but not uniformity; one that celebrates love and forgiveness but not anger and greed; one that celebrates the Great Welcome Table of our Lord where there is room for every man, woman, and child.

So if you’re hungry, join us here,

pull up another chair.

We’ll all scoot over, make more room;

there’s always some to spare.

Amen.

 

[i] “The Things We Share,” by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005

[ii] Feasting on the Word

[iii] Quoted in Feasting on the Word as being said by Professor William B. Oglesby

[iv] Found in an advertisement for Matthew 25 churches in “Presbyterian Outlook.”

 

*Cover Art  “Let the Children Come to Me” by Ira Thomas, used by permission