And God Laughs

asleep And God Laughs

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 24, 2022

2nd Sunday of Easter

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4; Psalm 2

By the time I had reached my junior year of high school, it would be an understatement to say that I was a serious student. My grandmother had passed away the year before and I had returned to live with my father in Tennessee with one goal in mind—study hard, get a good education, and gain independence! So, I studied, and I studied. I had little time for anything else. My girlfriends, however, had other things on their minds—mostly boys. They sat by the phone at night (you know, back when phones were still attached to the wall), and they dated on the weekends, and in between they re-told each drama in grand detail. I was, oh I don’t know how to say it—bored to tears by the whole process. Rolling my eyes, I would extricate myself from the romantic tragedies being played out before me as soon as I possibly could with my inner dialogue going something like this: “Are you kidding me? I’ve got better things to do than wait around on some foolish boy.”

 

But things took a different turn when this fellow named Kinney Hollingshead asked me out for a date. We knew each other—or at least, of each other. I recall the summer before I had told a friend how cute I thought he was—how kind he seemed—how I loved to hear him sing… So, Kinney asked me out on a date, and I agreed to go. We went to dinner and a movie—seemed harmless enough. We hit it off, right away. Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to make something crystal clear. I wasn’t interested in a boyfriend. I was a serious student taking two science courses per semester plus Latin, plus anything else that would get me the scholarship I badly needed. I had plans for medical school—big plans. Marriage…kids…all that stuff would have to wait. Kinney listened intently. Kinney agreed wholeheartedly. Kinney, oh I don’t know how to say this—the boy lied! At the end of our first date, he dropped by his friend’s house and when Lance asked him how the date went, Kinney answered, “Great! I’m going to marry that girl!”

 

I had plans—serious plans. I wasn’t going to get married—but I was one of the first of my group of friends to do so. I wasn’t going to have children—not anytime soon. I had four—two while doing my undergraduate studies. I was going to be a doctor. Well, it’s true, you can call me Dr. Hollingshead, but I have yet to order my first EKG or chemistry profile on a patient. Oh, the mighty plans we make!

 

Through Psalms, the Hebrew book of prayer, we are invited to a life of prayer and meditation. In Psalm 1 we read that those who meditate on the law of the Lord are like trees planted by streams of water—they bear fruit—their leaves do not wither—everything they do prospers. But by the second Psalm meditation on the law has turned to planning against the law of the Lord. The nations conspire. The peoples plot against God and his anointed. And God who sits in the heavens laughs! Really, what could be more absurd than God’s created beings waving their little fists and planning some sort of coup? Oh, the mighty plans we make—some good—others not so good. All our plotting and planning—how it must make God laugh.

 

A few years ago, I learned of churches having Holy Humor worship services on the Sunday after Easter. The tradition was rooted in the musings of the early church theologians who believed that God played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. For centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and then later in Protestant churches, the week and the Sunday after Easter Sunday were observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with plenty of practical jokes, parties and picnics shared among believers. There’s some debate as to when this practice actually began—perhaps as early as the 12th Century. But it can most assuredly be traced back to the 15th Century when Pope Clement X tried to prohibit the practice. Well, that may have worked for a time, but it’s no longer the case because many churches are resurrecting the Easter custom of a Holy Humor Sunday.

 

We take ourselves so seriously—thinking of ourselves as so clever—so bright. Speaking of bright, do you know how many Roman Catholics it takes to change a light bulb? None. They use candles. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks and one to talk about how much better the old one was. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? None. God has predestined when the lights will be on and off.

 

One day, or so the story goes, Groucho Marx was getting off an elevator when a clergyman came up to him, put out his hand and said, “I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into the world.” Groucho shook hands and responded, “And I want to thank you, Reverend, for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.”

 

But church is serious business—serious! It’s this kind of thinking that likely led to an incident Erma Bombeck wrote about. During worship, she noticed a small child who kept turning around smiling at everyone. “He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, or humming,” she wrote, “He wasn’t kicking, tearing the hymnal, or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater off Broadway, said, ‘Stop that grinning! You’re in church!’ (And) with that she gave him a belt on his hind side. Tears rolled down the little boy’s cheeks as the mother resettled primly into her pew. ‘That’s better,’ she said, as she returned to “listening” to the word of God.”

 

To tamp down the joy of a child in church—to tamp the joy of any person of any age in the church—what a sad commentary on a faith that is ruled by the King of Joy and Love. It was, after all, Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Oh, the wisdom of a child!

 

A pastor was speaking to a group of second graders about the resurrection of Jesus when one student asked, “What did Jesus say right after He came out of the grave?” The pastor explained that the Gospels do not tell us what He said. The hand of one little girl shot up. “I know what He said: He said, ‘Tah-dah!’”

 

Terri asked her Sunday School class to draw pictures of their favorite Bible stories.  She was puzzled by Kyle’s picture, which showed four people on an airplane, so she asked him which story it was meant to represent.  “The Flight to Egypt,” was his reply.  Pointing at each figure, Terri said, “That must be Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, but who is the fourth person?  Oh, that’s Pontius—the pilot.

 

After the baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, “The pastor said she wants us brought up in a good Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”

 

A college drama group presented a play in which one character would stand on a trap door and announce, “I descend into hell!”  A stagehand below would then pull a rope, the trapdoor would spring, and the actor would drop from view. During one performance the stagehand pulled the rope, and the actor began his plunge, but he got stuck. No amount of tugging on the rope could make him descend. One student in the balcony jumped up and yelled:  “Hallelujah! Hell is full!”

 

Proverbs 17:22 assures us, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” Yes, indeed, laughter is good medicine—the best medicine. When I was serving Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, I had a dose of good medicine during an illness that landed me in the hospital in the middle of Holy Week. (Yes, I have excellent timing!) It all started with a sudden loss of vision in my right eye. A trip to the ophthalmologist ended with me in the hospital for overnight IV treatments. With Kinney in Tennessee, I knew that it was up to me to let someone at the church know what was going on. I decided to contact Patty Clark. (Many of you know her through various Zoom gatherings she has attended with us.) So, I texted Patty: “Don’t freak out! I am at the hospital getting IV steroids.” (Her response was in caps, which in “text lingo” indicates the person is screaming at you.)  WHO IS WITH YOU? (So much for not freaking out.)  WHO IS WITH YOU? With a smile on my face, I spelled out “J-E-S-U-S.” Patty answered back: “I know Jesus is with you but I would feel better if someone human were there.” To which I just had to answer, “Patty dear, haven’t I taught you anything? Jesus is fully human and fully divine.”

 

In Scripture, his enemies call Jesus a wine bibber and a glutton. He didn’t get that reputation by being sour and serious all the time. As his followers, we should radiate the joy of resurrection. Christ is no longer in the grave and he has won victory for us—victory over death, fear, and all that would keep us down! The time for weeping is passed. Maybe we can take a lesson from Jesus and allow joy to spring forth from our hearts and laughter to burst forth from our lips. Hallelujah! Amen!

 

*Cover photo by Rara Schlitt, used by permission

Resurrection: Past, Present, Future

Resurrection: Past, Present, Future

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 17, 2022

Easter Sunday

Isaiah 65: 17-25, Luke 24: 1-12

 

In my 15 years of ordained ministry, nothing has been as humbling as writing Easter sermons. Year after year, I ask myself how I can possibly string together words to describe the indescribable. How can the mystery and wonder of God’s love revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus possibly be expressed in the short time provided? But recently, during my daily devotions, I have been studying the writings of Paul using a Bible given to me by a friend. It’s The Message translation with commentary provided by Eugene Peterson—my favorite Presbyterian (God rest his soul). Anyway, while reading Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae, I happened upon a priceless jewel in the third chapter. Hear these words from The Message translation:

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you.

And here is the jewel. In response to Paul’s words, Peterson offers a compelling image of a “resurrection triangle,” which is what I want us to explore together. In Peterson’s analogy, the first corner of the triangle is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that took place two thousand years ago. The second corner tells the story of the general resurrection of the dead in the future. The third corner is the resurrection that is taking place now, in you and me. Resurrection past, resurrection future, and resurrection present.

First, let’s look at resurrection past—the corner of the resurrection triangle that took place that first Easter morn. Luke paints a picture of a loyal group of women who follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Even when he is arrested, they remain. They watch as he is crucified. They follow Joseph of Arimathea when he takes the body of Jesus, wraps it in linen cloth and places it in a rock-hewn tomb. After the Jewish Sabbath, the women return early in the morning with embalming spices. To their surprise, they find the stone has been moved away and Jesus is nowhere in sight. Suddenly two men, dazzling in their brightness, appear and say to them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And that’s when it hits them. That’s when the women remember all that Jesus had said about his death and resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Resurrection past!

Now, let’s move to the second corner of the resurrection triangle—resurrection future—or the resurrection of the dead. In that day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth as described in Revelation 21:

…[F]or the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

The heavens and the earth in Genesis give way to a new heaven and earth in Revelation—a new heaven and earth in which all the faithful reside with Christ our Savior. Resurrection future!

Finally, the third corner of the resurrection triangle brings us to what is taking place in the here and now, in you and me. Although it is writ large throughout Scripture, Colossians 3 does a wonderful job describing Resurrection Present. Again, from The Message:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory… As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

To be faithful followers of Christ, each of us must experience the Risen Lord in our own hearts for, as Martin Luther put it, “It really doesn’t matter if Jesus rose from the dead if he isn’t risen in you.” Resurrection present!

Returning to Eugene Peterson’s commentary:

Resurrection is not only what happened to Jesus; it’s not only what will happen to us after death; it’s happening now. What happened to Christ is happening to us. Present tense. Christians not only will be raised from the dead, but we are already raised from the dead so that we can experience the power of God that enables us to walk in newness of life.

People who live this way find that the resurrection doesn’t remove us from the sweat and tears of our humanity into some paradise where the gritty quality of our ordinary daily lives is left far behind us. We would like that. Sometimes we think this happens to other people. But it doesn’t. When people talk that way, they aren’t telling the truth. When people talk as if being raised with Christ has removed them from doubt, pain, difficult responsibilities, and trying relationships, they are only fantasizing. [The miracle of resurrection for us today] isn’t that we’re delivered from our present circumstances; it’s that we’re transformed by them.[i]

Resurrection is available to each of us now as an invitation to live the way of Jesus. Once Jesus burst forth from the tomb, everything changed. Jesus is no longer only in Galilee or Jerusalem. Jesus is everywhere and he offers wholeness to all people of the world for all time. We, who have experienced the power of Christ’s resurrection, know that new life is possible for the vulnerable, the alienated, the desperate, and the grief-stricken. We know that resurrection touches us all because resurrection—past, present, and future—is at the center of all we do and all we are.

This Resurrection morn, we gather in person and virtually as a faith community. Here, the presence of Christ is known to us in the preaching of the Word, by the waters of Baptism, and at the Table of our Lord. Here in this sacred space, through liturgy, prayer, and song we are bound together in our common search for transformation.[ii] Christ is here among us to gather us in, and then, by the power of the Spirit, Christ sends us out to be his hands and feet in the world.  Let us faithfully live a resurrected life—now and forevermore. For Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!

[i] Colossians 3 commentary in The Message Study Bible: Capturing the Notes and Reflections of Eugene Peterson.

[ii] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 161.

*Cover Art by Stushie Art, used by subscription

The Misfits & Marginalized

The Misfits & Marginalized

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 3, 2022

5th Sunday in Lent

Luke 15:1-32

 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  The outsiders, the misfits, the marginalized—they draw near to Jesus. We cannot help but wonder why. Maybe they hear the good news in his teaching. Maybe they hear an invitation to the table of grace. The Pharisees and the scribes draw near to Jesus, too, but their response is quite different. They grumble. They point fingers at Jesus and his pack of sinners because they cannot comprehend how someone thought to be a holy man would risk his reputation welcoming and eating with riffraff.

Jesus recognizes the need for a teaching moment, so he tells the crowd gathered around not one—not two—but three stories. First there is a certain shepherd who leaves 99 sheep alone in the wilderness to go searching for one sheep that is lost. Then there is a woman who loses a coin and searches for it into the wee hours of the night until she finds it. Finally, there is a father who kills the fatted calf to celebrate the return of his wayward son.

Three parables about the lost and the found—three parables about extravagant grace—three parables about us. After all, what has been lost, if not us? We are the lost ones and something crucial in us needs to be found.[i]

On our spiritual journey through Lent, what difference does it make to hear the tales of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son? Perhaps more than any other church season, Lent can help us see the “lost-ness” of all the characters in Jesus’ teaching. Spent rightly, Lent can help us see why we do the things we do. What is it that truly motivates us? We may notice things in our lives that result in broken relationships, suspicion, and an unwillingness to admit our mistakes. Hopefully, we will recognize our total dependence on God—our need to be near Christ, our Lord.[ii]

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

 

As Christians we realize we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The writer of the Gospel of Luke understands a “sinner,” as someone who has a habit of sinning—so much so the entire community knows about it. “Righteous,” on the other hand, is less about perfection and more about actively trying to live by the law. So, when Jesus welcomes the untouchables and ne’er-do-wells, he welcomes the morally disgraceful and outcast. He accepts and befriends them to the point of embarrassment and the decent folks are more than a little concerned.

 

The parables, at first glance, seem normal enough. But Jesus rarely uses normal means to teach. Instead, he is more likely to leave us scratching our heads and wondering if we really understand him at all.

 

“Which of you,” Jesus begins, “Which of you doesn’t go out to look for a sheep that is lost?” Sounds reasonable—sounds perfectly normal since looking after the sheep is the shepherd’s job. But what about putting 99 sheep at risk? What about leaving them in the wilderness with no protection—to seek out only one that is lost? And when he finds the lost sheep, he calls together his friends to celebrate. Well, that hardly seems normal.

 

Then there is the woman who loses a tenth of her wealth. She sweeps and searches all night until she finds her lost coin. Then she calls together her neighbors and invites them to celebrate with her. But a celebration—doesn’t that generally involve providing food and drink for guests? Will she spend as much on the festivities as the sum of the coin she recovers? Well, that hardly seems normal.

 

Finally, a son who has wronged his father and lost his inheritance on decadent living ends up in a distant land starving to death. When he comes to his senses, he sets off toward home with a plan. He will admit his sin to his father and ask to be taken on as a hired hand. But before the son sets foot in his father’s house—before he even has a chance to say he’s sorry—he finds himself wrapped in the strong arms of his father’s embrace.

 

Jesus says there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. But what does it mean to repent? Repentance involves a change in perspective; a mending of one’s ways; a turning from one way of living to another. No doubt, these are stories of repentance—wonderful stories. But as I pondered them, I could not help but notice the greater story woven throughout them—the story of God’s extravagant love. It is beyond comprehension. God loves us so much God will stop at nothing to save us. And God will celebrate—host a party with all the angels—over one of us—just one of us—who is no longer lost—but found.

 

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?

Most of us try very hard to do the right thing and be good Christians. If so, we may feel less like wretched sinners and more than a little righteous. Yet, isn’t it true that dark things creep into our lives in surprising ways—anxiety, fear, greed, selfishness, jealousy, gossip, anger?

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down;
when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.

Although we are a people made right by God’s grace, we may still feel lost sometimes. If that is the case, we are in good company and church is just the place for us to meet. Here we can be honest about our lostness. We can share our hopes and dreams as well as our fears and disappointments. And here we can be reminded that whenever one of us turns toward God for any reason, God is ready and waiting to throw a party—eager to celebrate with the angels.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing,
to God and to the Lamb, I will sing;
to God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM –
while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
while millions join the theme, I will sing.

In the end, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son are not ultimately about sinners or the righteous. They are not even about being lost and found. They are about a God so much in love with God’s children that God will do anything to find them. To find us. How then shall we live? Will we live with repentant hearts? Will we live as grateful recipients of God’s love, mercy, and grace? Will we go out of our way to share the good news of salvation made possible through Christ?

 

Which of you, Jesus asks, would go to such lengths to search and to find? Which of you would take such measures to welcome back and then celebrate? In all honesty, none of us. But God would. God does. God searches hills and valleys longing to bring us home. God loses sleep, lights a lamp, and sweeps, sweeps, sweeps, until we are all returned into the fold of God’s loving embrace.

 

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on;
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.

[Silent Reflection]

 

*Cover Art by Fayhoo via Wikimedia Commons

[i] David E. Ensign @ http://clarendonsermons.blogspot.com/2016/03/this-ministry-for-this-moment.html?m=1

[ii] Karoline Lewis @ http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553