Walking with Jesus

Novozybkov Walking with Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 27, 2022

Transfiguration of the Lord

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43a

 

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, written by Ben Montgomery, is the true story of a 67-year-old great-grandmother who left her Ohio home in the spring of 1955 and set out for a walk. Dressed in dungarees and tennis shoes, she carried a small drawstring bag with a change of clothes, flashlight, pocketknife, shower curtain, warm coat, a few snacks, and less than $200. She didn’t tell her family where she was going because she knew they would not approve. I guess not, since her goal was to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety—2050 miles from Georgia to Maine.

In September of the same year, Grandma Gatewood reached her goal. Standing atop Mt. Katahdin, she sang a verse of “America, the Beautiful” and declared, “I said I would do it, and I’ve done it.” Grandma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the AT alone. She would set another record in a few years, becoming the first person—male or female—to hike it a second time. And if that wasn’t enough, when she got a little older, and maybe, a bit frail, she hiked it a third time—but in sections.

When asked by reporters why she attempted such a feat, Grandma Gatewood said things like, she thought it would be fun or she loved the outdoors. However, the author speculates in his book there was more to her burning desire. Having lived many years with a violent, abusive husband whom she eventually divorced, Grandma Gatewood may have had as much reason to walk away from parts of her life as she had for walking toward an adventurous and freedom-filled future.

 

The most common reason for walking these days is to get in our 10,000 steps. Taking a walk for walking’s sake, though, is a dying art in our tech-savvy-fast paced world. Surely, we are the lesser for it. Walking has a way of changing our outlook on the world and helps us glimpse just what we are missing by traveling in plastic cars at break-neck speed. Walking changes us—even transforms us—physically, yes, but also spiritually. But who has time to walk and truly enjoy it when getting from point A to point B as fast as we can governs our lives? Who has time to be with God out in creation when social media platforms or podcasts are calling our names or when there are video games and computer screens, shopping malls, movie theaters, and restaurants demanding our attention? Who has time to be transformed one step at a time?

 

Moses takes a walk with God and is transformed into one of the most effective leaders in all of Scripture. It seems like Moses is always walking—walking in the desert—leading God’s captive people to freedom—trekking up or down a mountain. Up the mountain he goes to receive from God the tablets of the covenant. Down the mountain he comes to find the people dancing around the golden calf his brother Aaron has fashioned. Angrily, Moses throws the tablets and breaks them. Up the mountain Moses goes again to spend time with God and to make new tablets. But this time when he returns, the people are frightened by the glow on his face. Walking with God—being with God—changes Moses—inside and out. You may recall that Elijah is also changed by his walk with God when in fear for his life, he travels for days. Ultimately, he finds himself on a mountain where God reveals God’s self—not in the great wind—not in an earthquake—not in a fire. But out of the silence God speaks and in the silence, Elijah hears and is transformed.

 

Peter, James, and John are Jesus’ closest confidants. They have no idea where their journey will take them when they first sign on to walk with Jesus. On the day in question, it must have felt like just another day. It started out that way—another walk to take—another mountain to climb—after all, Jesus has a reputation for going out in the wilderness or up to a mountain to pray. But this time Jesus leaves the distractions behind to take his inner circle of disciples to a prayer meeting like none they’ve ever experienced. While praying to his Abba Father, Jesus’ appearance changes and his clothes become dazzling white. Then, lo and behold, Moses and Elijah show up to talk about the glory of Jesus and what he is soon to accomplish for all people. Exhausted and befuddled, when faced with the glory of God’s Son, Peter, James, and John are nearly overcome. Peter, not knowing what else to do, offers to build 3 shelters but God interrupts Peter with other plans—holy plans that have less to do with talking and more to do with listening.

 

In some mysterious way we can hardly comprehend, walking and listening to the holy go hand in hand. Jesus takes a walk up the mountain to commune with the Holy as part of his preparation for the days ahead. We, too, need to prepare for the days ahead and each year, when Lent rolls around, we are invited to do just that. We are invited to show up for our annual spiritual check-up to make sure that the lifeblood of Jesus is flowing freely through us.

 

While praying to his Abba father, Jesus’ face is changed. Prayer does that—changes people. Are we open to such change? To turn down the noise of the world might require time set aside each day for prayer and meditation. It might require a walk in the neighborhood or along the beach, or a trek up a mountain. The Season of Lent is a good time to examine ourselves, to meditate on our sinful nature and our mortality, and then, to recommit our lives to the way of Jesus. Will we make that commitment again this year?

 

Liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, but this year instead of gathering on Wednesday, we are going to start our Lenten journey today. So, at the close of worship, I will invite you to receive the Imposition of Ashes. If you are worshiping with us virtually, you may use oil or water to make the sign of the cross, accompanied by the words, “From dust you came. To dust you shall return.”

 

Moses and Elijah and Jesus have something to teach us about seeking God’s face, listening for God’s still, small voice, and then putting one foot in front of the other to live for God no matter where the trail leads. Come, let us take a walk with Jesus. Let us renew our commitment to the One who conquered sin and death so that we might have abundant life—now and forevermore. Amen.

 

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

Grace, Not Karma

Grace, Not Karma

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 20, 2022

7th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; Luke 6:27-38

 

In what is referred to as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, instead of addressing the crowd, Jesus addresses his disciples. The picture he paints is one of radical discipleship and what does that look like?  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do not judge. Forgive. Give and it will be given to you, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

 

We might say that for Jesus, radical discipleship looks a little like swimming upstream, but remember, Jesus is speaking to those who already know his love and are, day by day, being transformed by it. Have we been transformed by Jesus and all the saints who have followed in his footsteps down through the ages? Do we swim upstream or are we more likely to go with the flow—acting the same as those in the world who make no claim to Christianity?

 

The very idea of forgiving someone who has wronged us, surely runs against our grain so how can we possibly do it? Only by the grace of God! How can we pray for someone who has abused us or cursed us? Only by the grace of God!  How can we open our hearts and show mercy when no mercy is deserved?  Only by the grace of God!  No matter the circumstances, because of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, radical discipleship is possible—but only by the grace of God.

 

Someone who has been influenced by Eastern religions like Hinduism or Buddhism might look at the latter portion of our reading today and say, “That’s karma!” Karma, a Sanskrit word that is roughly translated as “action,” generally denotes the cycle of cause and effect. In other words, a person’s actions will affect him or her at some point in the future. With this in mind, let us hear again the words of Jesus:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

 

“The measure you give will be the measure you get back.” It does sound a little “tit for tat,” a little “quid pro quo,” doesn’t it? And if we search for more Scripture to make the point, there are examples aplenty: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (James 3:18). As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same (Job 4:8). Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it (Proverbs 11:27). Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends (Psalm 7:16). And the grand finale, [Y]ou reap whatever you sow (Galatians 6:7).

 

All these references might bring to mind the saying, “What goes around, comes around,” which can serve as a metaphor for karma. Many people—even Christians—believe in the idea and, to some degree, use it to guide their behavior. As such they may be intent on putting goodness out into the world in order to get goodness back. But as followers of Christ, our motivation for following the way of Christ is not to manipulate God. Our motivation for following the way of Jesus is to be like Jesus for no other reason than sheer gratitude for all he has done for us. We do not give good so that we can get good. God already gives us more goodness than we can handle. Furthermore, Jesus instructs us, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Hear that again, “He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Friends, that’s not karma. That’s grace!

 

A few years ago, “The Presbyterian Outlook” published an article by Rev. Jill Duffield entitled “Karma or Grace.”[1] In it she shares a story about her child climbing into the back seat of the car after school one day—simply giddy. Her daughter could hardly wait for the teacher to shut the car door so that she could tell her mom what happened on the playground. A classmate, who often teased her about her lack of athletic skills had, while showing off her own prowess, fallen face first out of the swing. Duffield’s daughter ended her story with great flourish, “Karrrmmmaaa!” When her mother reminded her, “We believe in grace, not karma,” the child rolled her eyes, and kept a smile plastered on her face the whole way home.

 

One of the striking things about this story, as Duffield points out, is how there is a cultural notion of karma embedded in our children’s thinking from a tender age. It’s as if it is in our DNA to give a little cheer when someone gets what is coming to them. Even when we are routinely exposed to the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and “Amazing Grace,” sometimes when we see someone who has acted badly get their just desserts, it’s Karrrmmmaaa!

 

Duffield offers these words of wisdom:

 

Week after week we recite a prayer of confession and hear an assurance of pardon, but do we pray and receive them? Are we aware to our marrow of our need for mercy—God’s and others’—or are we secretly (and not so secretly) hoping for some karma, because, compared to most, we aren’t that bad? I fear we have lost sight of the radical nature of the words we say on Sunday, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Unless we have a deep sense of our need for God’s grace and mercy, we cannot extend it to others. Until we recognize the depth of our own sin and the price paid for our forgiveness, we may well speak of grace but we will live out of and long for a post-modern, cultural version of karma. Instead of realizing that not one of us is righteous, we will imagine that none but us—and those we deem like us—are righteous.

 

For Jesus, radical discipleship may look a little like swimming upstream—loving our enemies, living generously, helping others without expecting anything in return, treating people with as much care and gentleness as we want for ourselves. Jesus calls us to give away our life, it’s true. But he also promises that it will be given back to us in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.

 

The coming of Christ into the world and the debt he paid for us makes all the difference in how we think, speak, and behave—even when someone has harmed us—even when someone does not “measure up” to our standards. No longer does our response to others depend on their behavior. It depends on how we want to respond to God’s love—a love that is poured out upon every living creature. It’s not karma. It’s grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] Jill Duffield https://pres-outlook.org/2017/02/karma-or-grace/

*Cover art photo by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, used by permission

Free to Dance

Free to Dance

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 13, 2022

6th Sunday after Epiphany

2 Samuel 6:14-21

[Insert Endnotes & Sunday’s art w/ attribution at bottom of document]

David is one of the most beloved characters of the Hebrew Bible—and for good reason. I imagine it would take a month of Sundays to do his story justice. A man of extremes, it seems like everything he did was larger than life: rescuing sheep from a lion and a bear, killing a giant with a slingshot and a stone, soothing King Saul’s troubled mind with a harp, and repeatedly evading Saul’s attempts to kill him out of jealousy. Then there was his terrible downfall when he not only took another man’s wife but made sure her husband was killed in battle. Still, Scripture tells us that the Lord loved David.

 

In the Apocrypha writing of Sirach, we find this tribute to David and to the God who did mighty things through him:

 

As the fat is set apart from the offering of well-being, so David was set apart from the Israelites. He played with lions as though they were young goats, and with bears as though they were lambs of the flock. In his youth did he not kill a giant, and take away the people’s disgrace, when he whirled the stone in the sling and struck down the boasting Goliath? For he called on the Lord, the Most High, and he gave strength to his right arm to strike down a mighty warrior, and to exalt the power of his people. So they glorified him for the tens of thousands he conquered, and praised him for the blessings bestowed by the Lord, when the glorious diadem was given to him. For he wiped out his enemies on every side, and annihilated his adversaries the Philistines; he crushed their power to our own day. In all that he did he gave thanks to the Holy One, the Most High, proclaiming his glory; he sang praise with all his heart, and he loved his Maker. He placed singers before the altar, to make sweet melody with their voices. He gave beauty to the festivals, and arranged their times throughout the year, while they praised God’s holy name, and the sanctuary resounded from early morning. The Lord took away his sins, and exalted his power forever; he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel.[i]

 

Our reading from 2 Samuel paints a picture of King David celebrating the Ark of the Covenant’s entry into Jerusalem. It has been a long time since the Ark has been the center of the people’s religious life and David is ecstatic. With abandon, he dances before the Lord. Then, look what he does next. He distributes food to the people. David dances before the Lord and then he serves the people of the Lord, thus meeting their needs—emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

 

Many of you have heard me say that whenever I think of dancing, the image that comes to mind is of my grandmother swaying to the music while cooking in the kitchen. You may recall the dances of your youth. For those who have been a part of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta for a while, images of 24 years of the Father Daughter Valentine Dance surely appear—something that was born in love and shared in love. Dance has always been a part of the religions of the world—whirling dervishes, for example. Yet, some traditions have worked feverishly to suppress such joy. The movie, “Footloose,” may be a fictional story, but most of us know similar tales of fundamentalist groups banning dancing at one time or another. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since even David drew criticism from his wife for his behavior. I wonder if the embodied joy of dancing threatens those who have a fear of losing control.

 

On the topic of dancing before God, one Presbyterian minister offered this interesting perspective:

 

As I see it, dancing is just a metaphor for doing what you love, for putting yourself in a space to praise God, however that is for you. I can imagine painting before God, or walking before God, or even sitting in meditation before God—whatever it is that allows you to shed some of you, and put you in touch with the boundless energy that radiates from the One who created us. Sometimes we think that dancing before God must be loud and frenzied…and for some that is true. But let’s not constrain what “dancing” might look like. Dancing before God suggests that we find ways to get out of the way, to loosen our tight control, and to stand in the presence of God, allowing God to move through us. [ii]

 

God created us, chose us, anointed us, and equipped us. When we dance before God, we express gratitude. Sometimes, though, we focus too much on our worries, our failures, and all that is wrong in the world. When we do that, we lose sight of the real story of our lives which is what God does with the raw material of who we are. God meets us where we are and then God shapes our story into God’s story. If we give ourselves over to dancing before the Lord when the occasion presents itself, we just might find that we are better able to navigate all of life. With a brighter perspective, we might begin to focus on the music of creation and our Creator who invites us to join the cosmic dance.

 

Scripture tells us that David was a man after God’s own heart. He did great things, but he also did dreadful things. His life was one of complexity and contradiction—in other words, a picture of humanity. David is us. We are David. In the warp and woof of life, David found a rhythm of prayer and praise and so he danced. We are free to do the same. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Sirach 47:2-11

[ii] Rev. Rebecca Migliore

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission

The Family Business

The Family Business

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 6, 2022

5th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 138; Luke 5:1-11

 

Fishing, which has been around for some 40,000 years, began as a means of survival in prehistoric times and turned, eventually, into industry, sport, and recreation. Fishing techniques have changed from fishing by hand, or using spears or nets, to using fishing lines and poles. And nowadays, fishing poles are made of fiberglass instead of hickory and bamboo, and tackle boxes are filled with fancy fishhooks and artificial lures, galore. Change is part of every aspect of life, isn’t it?

I am fascinated by the etymology of words, how they originate and how their meanings shift over time. Often, words are born right under our noses. Take the word “google,” for example. Its first recorded use was in 1998 when Google co-founder, Larry Page, wrote on a mailing list, “Have fun and keep googling.” Now, most of us jump on the World Wide Web numerous times a day to “google” one thing or another. Over time, new words are created, and old words are redefined. Take the word, “nice,” for example. It used to mean silly or foolish—far from the compliment it is today. Originally, the word “naughty” was not used to describe someone behaving badly. It described a person who had naught or nothing.

The meaning of phrases can change, too. For instance, “Fish or cut bait,” is a common expression that means something totally different now than it did initially. When I googled it, I learned that the original expression came out of the fishing industry, where fishermen must decide who is to fish, and who is to cut the bait used for fishing. Both tasks are equally important to the goal of catching fish, and everyone has a role to play. Now though, when someone says, “Fish or cut bait,” we understand it to mean it is time to make a decision. Stop hesitating. Fish or cut bait.

In our reading from the gospel, Jesus gets on a boat and starts fishing—for people. When all is said and done, he turns to Simon and his fishing buddies and tells them to not be afraid because they are joining his family business—the business of catching people. And they do! They leave everything to catch people with Jesus. Another way to describe “catching people,” is “evangelism” but that is a word that makes Presbyterians squirm. We’ve witnessed too many street corner preacher types asking, “Are you saved?” We have seen televangelists act concerned about people’s souls when all they really care about is their wallets.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the phrase, “catching people.” When Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching people,” he is not saying that you will be frightening, entrapping, tricking, or pressuring people.” Instead, in the original Greek, the idea of “catching people” indicates that followers of Jesus will be rescuing people; they will be saving people; they will be inviting people to live full lives, motivated by the love of Christ. Jesus instructs his disciples to lay aside their nets and take up another mode of fishing, fishing for people. At its core, evangelism is making connections, building relationships, meeting people where they are, and offering to others the hope you have found. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, living the good news, being the good news—that is the work of the family business.

Over time, the meaning of words and phrases change. So do fishing techniques. But one thing that has been slow to change is how the church practices evangelism. For nearly 100 years, we have understood fishing for people to mean hooking those people out there and reeling them in here. And when things have gotten tough, we have chosen to change bait or build bigger boats. Build it and they will come. Make it flashy and entertaining and they will swallow it hook, line, and sinker.

The truth is that the institutional church was in trouble before a global pandemic cast us ashore, but we are on the fast-track now. So much so, if we intend to stay in the family business, we have no choice but to change course. Our motivation cannot be to get those people out there to come in here. Instead, our modus operandi must be to meet people where they are and to share the love of Jesus. If we wonder what bait we are to use, we need look no further than Jesus. The bait he used was compassion, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

It’s been said that evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. Where do you find food for your soul? Whether you are here in person or joining us online, it is my hope and prayer that you find soul food here. And it is my hope and prayer that you feel compelled to share your experience of God’s love with others—whether the experience happens within these walls or outside them. Tell someone about how Christ changed your life. Share a post on social media that is uplifting and hopeful. If you have a neighbor who is having a hard time, meet them for coffee or for a walk and listen. Just listen. And if you join us via livestream worship and find spiritual sustenance here, share our service with a friend through social media or email—not because we want more likes or shares on our Facebook platform but because you yearn to tell others where to find bread, where to find water, where to find Jesus.

An article in the New York Times recently created quite a stir among my clergy colleagues. In the opinion piece, the writer posed that all churches need to stop online options for worship because it is not embodied. So, since people are not physically present in the pews, worship is not really happening. Are you kidding me? The idea that we should not utilize every lure in our tackle box to spread the news of God’s love is inconceivable. It would be like living in the 1400’s when the Gutenberg press was gaining popularity and refusing to utilize the press because it was a new technology that was not embodied. “Books, pamphlets, and Scripture in a language I can comprehend—that’s not the same as meeting face-to-face, so—no thank you!” How ridiculous!

As believers, worshiping together in person and online from First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, how can we contribute to the family business of saving the world for Christ? We can dig our heels in and refuse to accept new ways of being the church or we can bravely get on the boat that the Spirit has sent and see where the wind blows. Even though the church does not look like it did a hundred years ago, that does not mean the church has necessarily failed. It just means that we are living in a new era and, even now, we are being reformed. As Presbyterians, reformed and always reforming, that is something we know something about—or at least that’s what we say.

We have been baptized into the family business. As followers of Jesus, the task before us is to catch people—to rescue people—to save people—to invite people to live full lives, modeled after the life of Jesus. Motivated by love, and equipped by the Spirit, there is much work for us to do in this world that is struggling with fear, hopelessness, injustice, and despair. There is work to do and now is the time to fish or cut bait. Amen.

*Cover Art “Miraculous Fishing” by Lodewijk Toeput, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain