A Room Full of Friends: Kathleen Norris

A Room Full of Friends: Kathleen Norris

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 25, 2021

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 2:11-22

 

In our continuing series of A Room Full of Friends—writers who have taken up residence on my Study Room bookshelves—this morning we will look at another Presbyterian author: Kathleen Norris. (I hope you have noticed how many good Presbyterian friends I have, by the way.) Norris, a best-selling writer, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1947. She later moved with her parents to Hawaii and then returned to the east coast to complete her studies at Bennington College in Vermont. She became arts administrator of the Academy of American Poets and published her first book of poetry two years later. Then in 1974 she inherited her grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota and moved there with her husband, David.

Even as she embraced the spirituality of the Great Plains, she returned to her Presbyterian roots. There she was—a married woman with a Protestant background—trying to get her feet under her again. More often than not, she found herself filled with doubt instead of faith. In the midst of her doubt, however, she was drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism, to a community whose days are centered on a rigid schedule of prayer, work, and scripture. She says no one could have been more surprised than she was when she ended up with two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. As both an insider and an outsider, she became immersed in this world of liturgy, ritual, and deep sense of community.

When Norris was a child, she loved to sing in church choirs and she really enjoyed church—though she cared little for the theology—didn’t think much about it, really. Then when she went to college she drifted away, taking on Literature as a substitute for religion. But years later, she felt an urge to return to church—to try to rediscover the religion of her youth. What she found when she got there, though, was a far cry from what she remembered. It seemed in her absence, society had corrupted the Christian community by its emphasis on polarizing. Insulting other people had become a form of argument. It didn’t matter what the issue was. It seemed like the stand a person took on particular issues was more important than baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles Creed. Somehow Christians had become more interested in their opinions on political matters than on other things. Of course, there are plenty of areas where folks differ—in practice, theology—all sorts of things—Norris recognized this full well—but surely the Christian community is healthier when the focus is on what unites brothers and sisters of the faith—rather than what separates them.

Even if the church wasn’t the place Norris recalled, still it became the very thing she needed most at this time in her life. In the church and in the monastic community, Norris learned to live with her doubts. In fact, she learned that God takes pleasure in working with someone who has doubts—whether they were about herself, about her husband’s mental illness and alcoholism, about her role in the world…

Recognizing the grace of finding two faith communities to feed her soul, Norris explains: “For a couple of years I really struggled with what I should be doing with my life. And the monks would say, ‘Well, you sit with us in the choir, you sing the songs, this is where you should be, this is what you should be doing. Let’s see what happens.’ It was not a conversion. Here’s a list of things to believe and do. It was: ‘Keep showing up. Something good will come of this.’ Also, going to church. This has meaning. This is above and beyond my experience. Eventually I could see that all these things had more weight than my doubts and my frustrations.”

In her book, The Cloister Walk, in a chapter entitled “Small Town Sunday Morning,” Norris describes the beauty and blessing of the community she found in a little Presbyterian Church. I invite you to hear her words:

At the worship services of Hope and Spencer there’s a time after the sermon, and before the Lord’s Prayer, in which people are asked to speak of any particular joys they wish to share with the congregation, or concerns they want us to address in our communal prayer on that Sunday, and also to pray over during the week. It’s an invaluable part of our worship, a chance to discover things you didn’t know: that the young woman sitting in the pew in front of you is desperately worried about her gravely ill brother in Oregon, that the widower in his eighties sitting across the aisle is overjoyed at the birth of his first great-grand-child.

All of this pleases the gossips; I’ve been told that on Sunday afternoons the phone lines in town are hot with news that’s been picked up in church. For the most part, it’s a good kind of gossip, its main effect being to widen the prayer circle. It’s useful news as well; I’m one of the many who make notes on my church bulletin; so-and-so’s in the hospital; send a card, plan a visit. Our worship sometimes goes into a kind of suspended animation, as people speak in great detail about the medical condition of their friends or relatives. We wince; we squirm; we sigh; and it’s good for us. Moments like this are when the congregation is reminded of something that all pastors know; that listening is often the major part of ministry, that people in crisis need to tell their story, from beginning to end, and the best thing—often the only thing—that you can do is to sit there and take it in.

And we do that pretty well. I sometimes feel that these moments are the heart of our worship. What I think of as the vertical dimension of Presbyterian worship—the hymns in exalted language that bolster our faith, the Bible readings, the sermon that may help us through the week—finds a strong (and necessary) complement in the localized, horizontal dimension of these simple statements of “joys and concerns.”

For many years this aspect of our worship has also been strongly ecumenical. If your neighbor who’s a Catholic, or a member of the Church of God, had a heart attack the day before and was flown to Bismarck in the air ambulance, you ask for people’s prayers for him and his family. Our prayers also extend to those who seldom darken a church door. Not long ago, the congregation learned from one of his longtime friends that Bill O’Rourke had died. (Wild Bill to his friends, way back in his drinking days.) Most of us knew that he’d been failing in the Veterans Hospital for some time. I knew him casually, but still missed him. An old-time cowboy—he broke horses for the U.S. Calvary between the world wars—he was permanently bow-legged. In retirement he’d become a fixture at the café on Main Street; you could nearly always find him there holding court. More rarely, I’d run into him outside. Bill would wait for someone to come by who would stop and admire one of the Ford pickup trucks from the early 1950s that he kept polished and in running condition. When his death was announced, a sigh ran through the congregation. All but the youngest members, and our pastor, had known him for years, and had their own Bill stories.

It was an odd moment. Bill’s death felt like a loss, to me, to many people, but we also knew that our young minister would know nothing of him. The pastor was about to begin the intercessory prayer that follows this part of worship, when one of Bill’s oldest friends couldn’t resist saying, “You know, Bill paid me the first fifty cents I ever made, back in 1930.” The minister smiled, but looked a bit nonplussed. He took a breath, as if to start the prayer. From a pew in the back of the church came a voice, “And I’ll bet you still have it.”

Of course we laughed for a good long time, before continuing with our worship; it was the kind of story Bill would have enjoyed. He didn’t care much for church decorum, but he took some aspects of religion seriously enough. The last time I saw him was at the Lutheran church, where he’d come for the funeral of an old friend. Bill sat alone at the back of the church. “I wanted to make sure they gave him a good sendoff,” is all he said to me, after the service. He was apparently satisfied.

When the minister finally got to say his “Let us pray,” we were ready. We had been praying, all along. We had been being ourselves before God.

“We had been being ourselves before God.” Learning to “be ourselves before God”—well, to me, that’s what a faith community is all about. Learning to accept ourselves and one another—lifting one another up—celebrating with one another—holding each other’s stories. As a body of believers, we come together on any given Lord’s Day to worship—raising our hearts, and minds, and souls to God—in thanksgiving, in praise, in wonder. At the baptismal font, life-giving water marks us as God’s own—uniting us to every believer of every place and time. No more barriers of race, gender, status, or age. No more barriers of nationality, history, and practice to overcome. Around the Table of our Lord, we gather and we are nourished by the promises of our Lord and Savior. Truly we are blessed for we are a community. Here we learn, day by day, how to be ourselves before God—maybe, maybe even—our best selves.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art by Vincent Ledvina via Unsplash, used by permission;  Music CCLI 20016020/13

 

A Room Full of Friends: Frederick Buechner

A Room Full of Friends: Frederick Buechner

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 18, 2021

8th Sunday after Pentecost

John 13:33. 36; 14:1-6

This morning we resume the sermon series, A Room Full of Friends as I continue to introduce you to some of my favorite writers who, over the years, have come to reside on the shelves of my study. To me, they have become a room full of friends.  Today we consider Frederick Buechner: an ordained Presbyterian minister, he is the author of more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction and he has long been recognized as a kindred spirit to those who find doubt as a constant companion on their faith journey. Listen now to an excerpt from a sermon he wrote entitled “Let Jesus Show”:

When Jesus sat down to eat for the last time with a handful of his closest friends, he knew it was the last time, and he didn’t have to be the Messiah to know it—they all did. The Romans were out to get him. The Jews were out to get him. For reasons that can only be guessed at, one of his own friends was out to get him, and Jesus seems to have known that too. He knew, in other words, that his time had all but run out and that they would never all of them be together again.

 

It is an unforgettable scene there in that upper room—the shadows, the stillness, the hushed voices of people speaking very carefully, very intently, because they wanted to get it all said while there was still time and to get it said right. You can only imagine the way it must have haunted them for the rest of their lives as they looked back on how they had actually sat there with him, eating and drinking and talking; and through their various accounts of it, including this morning’s message from John, and through all the paintings of it…and through 2000 years of the church’s reenactment of it in the Eucharist, it has come to haunt us too. But I think of the Lord’s Supper as haunting in another way as well—not just as a kind of shadowy dream of an event long past but also as a kind of foreshadowing of an event not all that far in the future, by which I mean our own last suppers, the last time you and I will sit down with a handful of our own closest friends…

 

Who are these friends for you, who are they for me? We have to picture them for ourselves, of course—to see their faces, hear their voices, feel what it’s like to be with them. They are our nearest and dearest—our husband or wife, our children, a few people we can’t imagine living without or their living without us—and the sadness is that we have known them so long and so well that we don’t really see them anymore for who they truly are let alone who they truly are to us, who we truly are to them. The sadness is that we don’t see that every supper with them—even just a bowl of cornflakes in the kitchen some night after the movies—is precious beyond all telling because the day will come beyond which there will be no other supper with them ever again. The time will come when time will run out for us too, and once we see that, we see also that every one of our suppers points to the preciousness of life and also to the certainty of death, which makes life even more precious still and is precious in itself because under its shadow we tend to search harder and harder for light.

 

There in that shadowy room the disciples turned to Jesus, who was their light, with greater urgency than maybe ever before because, with all hell about to break loose, they had no other place to turn. They had drunk the wine he told them was his blood and put into their mouths the bread he told them was his body, and thus with something of his courage in them they asked him a question they had never risked asking…before. It was Simon Peter who asked it, and what he said was, “Lord, where are you going?”

 

As if they didn’t know. As if they didn’t know. As if you and I don’t know—both where he was going and where all of us are going too. He was going down the stairs and out the door. He was going into the night. He was going to pray in the garden to the God he called Father not to let the awful thing happen to him that he knew was already happening, and the Gospels do not record that he got so much as a whisper in reply. He was going alone, and he was going against his will, and he was going scared half out of his wits. He sweated blood is the way the Gospels put it.

 

The Last Supper not only prefigures our own last suppers wherever and whenever they are to be. It also is our last supper. You cannot read the account of it without in some measure being there, and the table where he sits with his friends is our table, and as they drew close to the light of him, we too try to draw close as if maybe in the last analysis he is the one who is our nearest and dearest—or our farthest and dearest because he is always just too far away to see very well, to take hold of, too far away to be sure he sees us. If we have any hope at all, he is our hope, and when Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” the question within his question is “Are you going anywhere at all or just going out, like a light?” and that is also our question both about him and about ourselves. When time runs out, does life run out? Did Jesus’ life run out? Do you and I run out?

 

“You will seek me,” Jesus says, and no word he ever spoke hits closer to home. We seek for answers to our questions—questions about life and about death, questions about what is right and what is wrong, questions about the unspeakable things that go on in the world. We seek for strength, for peace, for a path through the forest. But Christians are people who maybe more than anything else seek for Christ, and from the shabbiest little jerry-built meeting house in the middle of nowhere to the greatest cathedrals, all churches everywhere were erected by people like us in the wild hope that in them, if nowhere else, the one we seek might finally be found.

 

A friend of mine told me a story about a Christmas pageant he took part in once as the rector of an Episcopal church somewhere. The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, lying in the straw.

 

The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.

 

At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about 9 years old and smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoes could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”

 

There was a lot in the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there. “Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction, and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.

 

There is so much for all of us that hides Jesus from us—the church itself hides him, all the hoopla of the church with ministers as lost in the thick of it as everybody else so that the holiness of it somehow vanishes away to the point where services of worship run the risk of becoming only a kind of performance—on some Sundays better, on some Sundays worse—and only on the rarest of occasions does anything strike to the quick the way that little girl’s cry did with every last person who heard her realizing that Jesus didn’t show for any of them—the mystery and miracle of Jesus with all his extraordinary demands on us, all his extraordinary promises.

 

Let Jesus show in these churches we have built for him then—not just Jesus as we cut him down to size in our sermons and hymns and stained-glass windows, but Jesus as he sat there among his friends with wine on his breath and crumbs in his beard and his heart in his mouth as he spoke about his death and ours in words that even the 9 year old angel would have understood. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said in the midst of his own terrible troubles. Take it easy. Take it easy. Take heart. “Believe in God,” he said. “Believe also in me.”

 

Well, we are believers, you and I, that’s why we’re here—at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or father believes in a child.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked from where he was sitting, and Jesus answered, “I go to prepare a place for you…that where I am you may be also.” Can we put our money on that? Are we children enough to hear with the ears of a child? Are we believers enough to believe only what a child can believe?

 

“I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said, “that where I am you may be also. He was speaking about death because that is what was uppermost in his mind as it was uppermost in the minds of all of them that last time they had supper together and as I suspect it is uppermost in our minds too more often than we let on. He says he is not just going out like a light. He says he is going on. He says he is going ahead. He says we will go there too when our time comes. And who can resist giving our hearts to him as he says it?

 

“You know the way where I am going,” he says, and then Thomas speaks out for every one of us in a voice that my guess is had all the irritation and frustration and sadness of the little girl’s. “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

 

If I were as brave as the rector at that Christmas pageant, I would stop talking precisely here with those stark honest words. When it comes to the mystery of death, like the mystery of life, how can any of us know anything? If there is a realm of being beyond where we are now that has to do somehow with who Jesus is, and is for us, and is for all the world, then how can we know the way that will take us there? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” is how he answers. He does not say the church is the way. He does not say his teachings are the way, or what people for centuries have taught about him. He does not say religion is the way, not even the religion that bears his name. He says he himself is the way. And he says that the truth is not words, neither his words nor anyone else’s. It is the truth of being truly human as he was truly human and thus at the same time, truly God’s. And the life we are dazzled by in him, haunted by in him, nourished by in him is a life so full of aliveness and light not even the darkness of death could prevail against it.

 

How do we go where he is? As for me, I think what we are to do is to try to draw near him and to each other any way we can because that is the last thing he asked of us. “Love one another as I have loved you” is the way he said it, and that is what the little girl asked too on that Christmas Day. By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world…

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art Photo by Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Fred Craddock

A Room Full of Friends: Fred Craddock

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 11, 2021

7th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 8

 

We are now several Sundays into the summer sermon series: A Room Full of Friends. Throughout the series, it is my hope to introduce you to some dear friends who reside on the shelves of my study. Already you have met Eugene Peterson, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ann Lamotte, and others. Today I bring to you Fred Craddock. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest influences of the 20th Century on the craft of preaching—particularly preaching that embraces the art of storytelling. In my opinion, Craddock helped preachers embrace poetry and imagery and life in such a way that preaching became less like the presentation of a theme paper and more like the presentation of the Gospel. A few years ago, when Fred Craddock left his earthly dwelling and entered into glory, the news lit up my Facebook and Twitter feeds because so many of us felt the loss of someone who had impacted our lives deeply. It is my prayer that his influence will continue this morning as you listen to an excerpt from a sermon Fred Craddock preached on Psalm 8. It is entitled, “A Little Less Than God.”

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Such a huge statement made by the psalmist, probably living in the desert of Israel. How could he say, “in all the earth”? Probably had never seen huge chunks of icebergs break off and plunge into the sea. Probably never saw a flight of flamingoes startled by the appearance of a person. Never saw alligators dozing in the sun along the Amazon…Probably never heard the trumpet of the elephant…How could he say, “in all the earth”?

Because he is in a worshipful mode. He may have talked to some travelers who had seen some things and heard some things that he didn’t know, but not necessarily. He had his faith in God as the one God of all creation and he had Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Everything that is, is from God. So, he didn’t need to travel to say that. There are many people who travel all over the world, buy a lot of trinkets, complain about the service, and come home exactly the way they were. You can stand in the doorway of your cabin in the Appalachians and say in worshipful tones, “in all the earth…”

When I started out in ministry, I thought in terms of right and wrong and true and false and biblical and unbiblical. But now that I’ve gotten wise, there is a bigger category, more important to me; small and big. When I consider the moon and stars, O God, why do you even think of us? We’re so confused. The moon and the stars go in their courses every day. We can count on it; we can chart it. Whatever the century, whatever the country, we know exactly where every star and all the moons will be. We know exactly because they are ordained by God. But we are so confused.

You said, “I’ll give you dominion over land and sea and all that is in the sea and all the beasts of the field, the fish that go in the sea. Over everything, I give you dominion.” And we don’t know what it means. Some people think it means rape the land, you own it. Soil the streams, you own them. Darken the air, it’s yours. Toss your McDonald’s trash all along the highway, “This is my land.” Some people think that’s what it means, “You shall have dominion.”

There are other folk who think it means that you shall accumulate. It’s yours, so accumulate. And some never think about the fact that the more they get, the less somebody else has. If you get a huge meal, somebody else is hungry. That’s the way it works. What does it mean, “You shall have dominion”? It seems that we can just grab, hold, collect, hoard. After all, we have dominion…

When I consider the moon and stars that God has ordained, why does God pay so much attention to us? We’re so mixed up and we’re so temporary. The moon and the stars, the moon and the stars forever. As for me, I’m just a blip on the screen. There was a time I did not exist. There will be another time I do not exist, but in the narrow time between whence and whither, what am I going to do? Why does God pay attention to us? We’re so brief. We see it in the seasons: spring of the year, all the world is a poem of light and color, then it gets hot and the grasshopper drags itself along and the thermostat’s broken and everybody’s mad. Then it cools off; you grab a sweater, kick a football in the air; it’s beautiful, but not for long. The cold weather blows the leaves off the trees and bony fingers on those trees beg for cover and down comes the snow, the flying cloud, the frosted light, the year’s dying in the night. “Happy New Year.” What happened?

Do you live as though you’re going to live forever? At our little place over a creek, a couple of years ago I was out working in the yard, and I found a beautiful arrowhead, beautiful, beautiful and perfectly shaped. I picked it up and said to myself, “Fred, you’re not the first one to live here.” And the plow goes along and hits something hard. The farmer stops and goes around to pull out what might be just a little boulder. It’s a cornerstone, actually a hearthstone. There was once a family here; made popcorn balls, pulled molasses taffy, sat around the fireplace and sang from the old paperback book, “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” O What Wondrous Love is This.” They put poultices on the sick, put salve in their noses, cooked collards, and laughed and cried; gave birth and died, right here. We’re not the first ones. We’re not the last ones. Life is just so brief….Why does God pay attention to us? So small, so wrong, so brief.

And the psalmist says, “I know. God made us in God’s own image. When God made the duck, God said, ‘That’s good.’ When God made the elephant, God chuckled and said, ‘Well, that’s good.’ When God made the dogwood tree, God said, ‘That’s good,’ and so with the squirrel and the quail, and the grouse and the turkey. ‘That’s good.’ But it wasn’t enough and finally God said, ‘I’m going to make something just like myself, my very image. I’m going to make something that, when people look at it, they’re going to say, “God.” And that’s when God made you.”

Now we don’t want any of that stuff like, “We’re only human.” I’m sick of that. A shortstop catches the ball without mistake 300 times and finally he drops it and somebody says, “Only human.” What was he when he made the play? She bakes a cake eight inches tall, beautiful. Then the church has a fellowship dinner so she wants to outdo herself. She makes one, looks like the sole of your shoe. “Well, I’m only human,” she says. What was she when the cakes were eight inches tall? When the singer climbs the silver stairs and leaves every note as clear as the morning dew, what do people say? “Oh, that was wonderful.” If her voice cracks, “Well, she’s only human.” Why, why, why do we say we’re human when we make a mistake? Weren’t you made in God’s image? Don’t ever say, don’t ever say, “I’m only human.” When somebody says, “That was beautiful,” you say, “Well, after all, I’m human.” When somebody says, “Best I’ve ever eaten,” you say, “After all, I’m human.” When somebody says, “That was a beautiful prayer today,” you say, “Well, after all, I’m human.” Would you do that?

I know sometimes we don’t act like it. You take the expression, “You have made us but little less than God,” and then hold it up beside the daily newspaper and it doesn’t seem to fit. Left a baby in a trash bin? Hit a pedestrian and didn’t even stop? Took people’s money that was supposed to go for Medicare, Medicaid? It doesn’t seem to fit, I know, I know, I know. But once in a while, once in a while…

When I was a minister in the mountains of east Tennessee, the church had vacation Bible school in the summer. I had these kids, I don’t know, third or fourth grade. The thing lasted two weeks. I was ready at the end of one day to call it quits. Took about twelve kids, all day, two weeks. The lesson that year was on, you know, nature. Well, I use up all that stuff in one day; then what am I going to do for the rest of the time? I thought of something. I’ll send them out into the woods and let them get something that reminds them of God and bring it back. I rang a bell and said, “Now when I ring this bell, you go out into the woods, find something that reminds you of God, and when I ring it again, bring it back and tell us what it tells you about God.”

So I rang a bell and they scattered. My plan was not to ring it again, but I did. I rang it again and here they come. And I said to her, “What do you have?”

She said, “A flower.”

“And what does that tell you about God?”

“God is beautiful.” Now that’s good.

“And what do you have?”

“A rock.”

“What does that tell you?”

“God is stout.” Hey, that’s good, that’s good.

“And what do you have?”

“Huckleberries.”

“Well what does that tell you?”

“God is good; God feeds us and feeds the birds.” Another good answer.

Well, here’s Jim East, meanest kid I ever saw, but he was always there. You didn’t want him to be there all the time, but…

So I said, “Well, Jimmy, what do you have?” He was holding the hand of his sister from the kindergarten group. I said, “What did you bring, Jim?”

He said, “My sister.”

I said, “What does that tell you about God?”

And Jimmy said, “Uh, uh, uh, I don’t know for sure.” And that’s it. That’s it. This mean little kid recognized there wasn’t a thing in the forest that told him as much about God as his sister. That’s it.

In The Education of Little Tree, that marvelous story about a Cherokee Indian boy in western North Carolina, raised by his grandparents, poor as Job’s turkey, didn’t have a thing. He knew the grandparents had nothing to get him for Christmas; they had no money. But he wanted to give his grandmother something so he got some leather hide a sewed a little pouch, a coin purse I guess you would say.

He didn’t want to give it to her and hurt her feelings because she would have to say, “Well, Little Tree, I don’t have anything for you.” So you know what he did? You remember the story? He pushed that little coin purse that he made down in the bin of dried beans. They ate dried beans all winter. He pushed it, he said, down into the beans about Christmas deep. She would start reaching into that bin every day, October, November, December. Then about the middle or toward the last of December, she’d say, “Little Tree, Little Tree, look what I found, look what I found.” And he would run over and look at it, “What is it?” She said, “It’s a Christmas present. I don’t know who…” And Little Tree said, “That’s beautiful.”

A little less than God. I know, I know, some of us act like garbage sometimes. But I looked out one day and saw our garbage can with stuff spilling out the top and I thought, “That’s awful, that is really awful.” But during the night it snowed and the garbage can was a mound to the glory of God. How does Paul put it? “You are created in God’s image. You are recreated in Christ Jesus. You are God’s masterpiece.”

A little less than God. Amen.

*Cover Art Photo by Евгения Пивоварова via Unsplash

A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith

A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 26:1-8; Luke 9:23-37

 

This morning we continue the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends. For those new to the series, my goal is to share some of my favorite authors whose books reside on my shelves. Over the years, they have become dear friends. Today’s focus is on people who have sacrificed in tremendous ways because of their faith.

Whenever I think of such people, Corrie Ten Boom immediately comes to mind. Born in 1892, Corrie’s family were devoted members of the Dutch Reformed Church. They owned a small jewelry store in a narrow little house in the heart of the Jewish section of Amsterdam. There they met and became friends with some wonderful Jewish people. At the time, Corrie lived with her older sister and her father. She was 48, unmarried, and working as a watchmaker in the shop that was started by her grandfather.

Corrie’s involvement with the Dutch underground began by giving temporary shelter to her Jewish neighbors who were being driven out of their homes. She found places for them to stay in the countryside. Soon word spread and more arrived seeking shelter. In time, Corrie constructed a false wall in her bedroom so she could hide people behind it. After a year and a half, her home developed into the center of an underground ring that reached throughout Holland. But on February 28, 1944 a Nazi informant came seeking help. Before the end of the day, her home was raided, and she and her family were arrested.

Corrie’s father died within 10 days from an illness, but Corrie and her older sister, Betsie, remained in a series of prisons and concentration camps, first in Holland and then in Germany. In later writings, Corrie explains how she struggled with and overcame the hate that she had for the man who betrayed her family and how she and Betsie gave comfort to other inmates. She describes a typical evening in which they would use their secreted Bible to hold worship services. She writes,

At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed. At last, either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, and back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb.

Betsie, never strong in health, grew steadily weaker and died in December. Some of her last words to Corrie were, “We must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”

Due to a clerical error, Corrie was released from Ravensbruck one week before all women her age were killed. She made her way back to Haarlem, and tried for resume her life, but found her heart wasn’t in it. Instead, she had a burning desire to travel and tell her family’s story. In time, she documented the story in such books as The Hiding Place and Tramp for the Lord.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, son of a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Berlin, was born in 1906. He was an outstanding student and gifted pianist. Although his family expected he would have a career in music, at the age of 14, he announced his desire to become a minister and theologian. They were less than pleased. By the age of 25 he was a lecturer in systematic theology. In time he became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book Life Together describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

After a time of deep prayer and introspection, Bonhoeffer joined his brother-in-law and a few others to plan the overthrow of Hitler in 1939. Though their plan failed, in April of 1943, two men arrived in a black Mercedes, put Bonhoeffer in the car, and drove away. He spent two years in prison, corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.”  On April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer had just finished conducting a service of worship when two soldiers came in, saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us.” It was the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end—but for me, the beginning—of life.” He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies arrived.

Immaculee Ilibagiza wrote Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. In it she tells her story about the Rwandan genocide that erupted with a savagery that shocked the world. In just 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were killed.

In the early spring of 1994, Immaculee was visiting her family while on break from the university. Signs of trouble with the Hutu majority had been mounting and at dinner one evening, her brother implored her father to move the family away. Her father was the chief administrator of a Roman Catholic school and a figure of authority in the region. He had lived through two previous civil wars and remained confident that order could be restored. The very next day a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, was struck by missiles, and crashed, killing all on board. A well-organized campaign by Hutu extremists against Tutsis soon followed.

Government ministers began to openly threaten Tutsis on state radio. Soon, hundreds of people crowded around Immaculee’s home, seeking guidance from her father. He appealed in vain for help from local authorities. Soon her family dispersed. Her father arranged for her to hide in the home of a local Episcopal priest, in a bathroom, where she found seven other young women. The 3 X 6-foot bathroom was assumed to be a temporary shelter. The eight women would spend the next three months there.

Repeatedly, Hutu gangs came to search the house, carrying lists of names of Tutsis unaccounted for but they never attempted to enter the bathroom. Immaculee writes, “It’s a feeling I can’t explain. I remember dry [mouth]. I didn’t even have saliva to swallow. It was something like all your body became paralyzed. You don’t think anymore.” Immaculee began talking to God. She prayed constantly, clutching her father’s red rosary in her hand. She promised not to seek vengeance if her life was spared. At the same time, she had a growing certainty that none of her family had survived. In her words: “I remember I dreamt about Jesus, and he was telling me, ‘Well, when you come out, there will be no one in your life in your family. And I want you to know that, even if they took care of you, I can take care of you better, so I want you to trust me. I’d like you always to pray’ — and that was so real. It was a thing that was so real that I didn’t doubt.”

On July 7, 1994, after most of the killing had ended, Immaculee and the other women emerged from their hiding place. Just as she feared—her family was gone. Only one brother survived because he happened to be out of the country. So much horror. So much hatred. So much loss. Still, Immaculee betrays no bitterness at the events that claimed most of her family. Instead, she stresses understanding and forgiveness: “I don’t want just to hate somebody. I felt bad enough that I don’t want just to hold this kind of bad feeling in my heart for long, if I can help it,” she writes.

Such hateful, horrible things have happened down through the ages—even to people of faith—often in the name of God. Yet Jesus, God’s beloved Son, walked the dusty roads of Palestine listening to people’s stories and responding with understanding and love and mercy. Many people became angry with him because he was kind and good to the wrong people. It was one of the reasons they killed him.

Jesus offered an alternative vision for the world—one which valued love over hate, serving over being served, sacrifice over self-indulgence, truth over deception, justice over injustice, inclusion over exclusion, generosity over greed, humility over arrogance, forgiveness over revenge, healing over hurting, and peace over war.

Jesus modeled how to live with one another and inspired people to build bridges of goodwill. We need bridges of goodwill—in our country—in the world. No doubt there are serious issues at stake and sometimes even after prayerful consideration, people of good faith disagree. So, the question is this: How can we model the way of Jesus—listen to each other’s stories—respond with empathy and grace—love each other—no matter what?

Today we celebrate the freedoms we have as citizens of this great nation we call home. But let us never forget that our citizenship in God’s kingdom matters even more. It is a place where every believer is invited to—called to—dwell. As citizens, it behooves us to practice being neighbors in a neighborhood filled with people of difference colors, different nationalities, different denominations, different backgrounds, and different beliefs. It is a kin-dom of love and God calls every believer to BE love—to BE Christ for the world—no matter the cost.  Amen.

A Room Full of Friends: Anne Lamott

A Room Full of Friends: Anne Lamott

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 27, 2021

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 3:21-24

 

Continuing this morning with the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, let us consider the life of American writer, public speaker, teacher, political activist, and Presbyterian: Anne Lamott. She was born in San Francisco in 1954 and is known and loved for her humor and openness, writing on such topics as her own alcoholism and depression as well as motherhood and her deep love for the God who somehow saved her from herself—saved her from the atheistic beliefs of her childhood home. Strangely enough, Lamott’s father was raised by Presbyterian missionaries in Tokyo but for some unknown reason, he turned against Christianity. He particularly despised Presbyterians whom he referred to as “God’s frozen people.” Lamott’s mother wasn’t much different. Even though she attended the Christmas Episcopal midnight mass, she often remarked on how ridiculous it all was!

While Lamott did not inherit faith in God from her father, she did inherit his love for reading and books—not so strange when you consider he was a published author, too. On the topic of books, Lamott writes, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die… Books, for me, are medicine.” Sadly, Lamott’s first book was a novel written in her 20’s about real life circumstances—her beloved father’s diagnosis and death from incurable brain cancer. Later books include Traveling Mercies, Grace Eventually, Plan B, Stitches, Bird by Bird, and numerous others.

Lamott’s parents and their circle of friends lived a wild and crazy lifestyle. Lots of parties. Lots of drinking and drugs. If they worshiped anything it was ideas, the written word, and, perhaps, nature. It wasn’t enough for Lamott—though she tried to be satisfied with what seemed normal to everyone around her. Nevertheless, she had a sense that there was something bigger—Someone Bigger—a higher purpose. In small ways, God came seeking little Anne—through a friend whose family was Catholic, through a philosophy class in college when she had to read Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Abraham and his son, Isaac, through an Episcopal priest she contacted when she had nearly reached the end of her rope and was considering suicide. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

In college Lamott began to believe in God but she didn’t want anyone to know. In fact, all through her 20’s, she tried to find something else to believe in—something not as embarrassing or as awful as being a Christian. But nothing took. Then one day in 1985 she somehow stumbled into a little Presbyterian Church, of all places. St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. She was 31 and hung over—still wrestling with the demon of alcoholism. The choir was made up of 5 black women and 1 Amish-looking white man—but what a glorious sound they made together. The congregation consisted of 30 people or so, who radiated kindness and warmth—something that Lamott needed desperately. It was the songs that got to her first—those old spirituals. She loved hearing them, so she stayed, and the people didn’t hassle her. They didn’t try to get her to sign up for something or threaten to pay her a visit. If they had, she would have surely run in the opposite direction. The church folk just let her be there at a time when she didn’t really have much sense of belonging anywhere. She had little sense of being OK at all, since she was pretty hung over most mornings.

Lamott went to church for months and months without staying for the sermon because it was too bizarre to hear Jesus stuff. Then about a year later, she started to feel like Jesus was around her. She writes, “I would feel His presence. It would be like a little stray cat. You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say, ‘No,’ because you can’t let him in, because once you let him in and give him milk, you have a little cat, and I didn’t want it. I lived on this tiny little houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: ‘Oh, whatever. You can come in.’ And from that day on, I have really felt a relationship or friendship with Jesus, a connection to Him. I got baptized, and I invited some friends from my literary community, and the reaction was kind of like, ‘How very touching — we are seeing Annie’s little blind spot. She was getting so bad before with the mental illness and with being an alcoholic and a person who uses a lot of drugs.’”

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

Over 20 years ago a very hung-over Anne Lamott stumbled into a small church and started what was to be a long journey towards sobriety and sanity. There were no instant miracles on that road, but many small mercies that for Lamott added up to a growing awareness of God’s grace. She soon came to understand that, to her, religion was a “come as you are” party, with no need to pretend to be anything but your own true self. In her words, “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot and have no real certainty about anything. I have learned that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

When asked what grace means to her, Lamott answered, “I’ve heard it said that man is born broken and the grace of God is glue, and I think that’s pretty true, that it’s divine glue. It’s glue that surprises you. Classically, grace is unmerited assistance from God. I know that grace meets you wherever you are and doesn’t leave you where it found you. I experience it as buoyancy, as a very strange sense of calm in the midst of tremendous anxiety and lostness. I often get my sense of humor back, or I just feel safe and in God’s care.”

Lamott has written a beautiful book on the topic of prayer, entitled: Help, Thanks, Wow! The following is an excerpt:

I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.

You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God…

Some of you were taught to pray at bedtime with your parents, and when I spent the night at your houses, I heard all of you saying these terrifying words: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake … ”

Wait, what? What did you say? I could die in my sleep? I’m only seven years old…

“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

That so, so did not work for me, especially in the dark in a strange home. Don’t be taking my soul. You leave my soul right here, in my fifty-pound body. Help.

Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, “God help me.” This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.

Or I might be in one of my dangerously good moods and say casually: “Hey, hi, Person. Me again. The princess. Thank you for my sobriety, my grandson, my flowering pear tree.”

Or you might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, “I hate you, God.” That is a prayer, too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you’ve had in months.

Some of us have cavernous vibrations inside us when we communicate with God. Others are more rational and less messy in our spiritual sense of reality, in our petitions and gratitude and expressions of pain or anger or desolation or praise. Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.

We can pray for things (“Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”). We can pray for people (“Please heal Martin’s cancer.” “Please help me not be such a jerk”). We may pray for things that would destroy us, as Teresa of Avila said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” We can pray for a shot at having a life in which we are present and awake and paying attention and being kind to ourselves. We can pray, “Hello? Is there anyone there?”

We can pray, “Am I too far gone, or can you help me get out of my isolated self-obsession?” We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer.

Anne Lamott is a renowned writer and a Christian. Faith in God didn’t seem possible when she was a child, living amongst atheists. But in God’s great mercy and grace, a little Presbyterian Church drew her in, gave her spiritual and physical sustenance, created a haven for her. It was a small church that looked homely and impoverished on the outside—a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a little piece of land amidst a few skinny pine trees—not much by the world’s standards. Yet a church choir of 6 and a congregation of 30 were used by God to share the love of Jesus with a young woman who had lost her way.  It’s a familiar story told again and again around the world. God has a habit of using small churches to do extraordinary things. Such is the way of God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Shelf Full of Friends: Ben Carson, M.D.

A Shelf Full of Friends:  Ben Carson, M.D.

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Jane Shelton, CRE

 

Keeping in the theme of Dr. G.’s “Friends on the Shelf” summer series, I must say that I went into a bit of a panic when she mentioned preaching on one of my favorite authors, as I cannot say I have many of the same authors on my bookshelves.  As much as I like to read, I am often drawn in by the titles and even the artwork of the books, and not so much by the authors themselves.

Of course, she did not make this a requirement, and yet I thought it was a fun idea, but who would I choose.  The first author that jumped into my mind is C.S. Lewis, and I know you all know that I like C.S. Lewis because he is often quoted in my sermons, and I have my favorite C.S. Lewis NRSV Bible with many of his thought-provoking quotes next to scripture.  And while I am always fascinated by Lewis’ life journey, and his incredible insights on scripture, I wanted to speak about someone else today.

With the recent newsworthy topic of racism, I have started reading a selection of African American authors, like Shelby Steele, a former Civil Rights Leader and activist, who has written books like, “White Guilt,” and “The Content of Our Character.”

Another young African American author that I have been reading and following her blog is Candice Owens.  She is a little dynamo, full of energy and insight for such a young age, and I enjoy her energy.

Today however, I want to talk to you about my new friend on my bookshelf, Dr. Ben Carson, who has found a warm and encouraging spot in my heart.  I came to know Dr. Carson through the news, and he was one of those persons that seemed to draw me in, someone I wanted to know more about.  Someone I thought spoke with wisdom.

In his book, written in 1990 and titled “Gifted Hands,” Dr. Carson takes us on his life’s journey from an inner-city kid to a renowned neurosurgeon.

While this is Father’s Day, much of this story will be about Dr. Carson’s mother, who was not only the mother in the household, but the father as well.  It is a great story on how sometimes celebrating Father’s Day, is not always about celebrating a biological male figure in your life, but the person in your life that provided you with love, discipline, and encouragement whether male or female.

Dr. Carson’s mother was married at just age 13, admitting she did so probably more to escape a bad family situation than for love.  But by the time her second son, Ben Carson, was age 8, she discovered not only was her husband unfaithful, but he was living a second life with a second family.

At his young age, Ben Carson did not understand why his mother was telling him that his father would not be living with them anymore, or the heartbreak he felt losing his father who had always been loving to him and his brother.  Always taking time with them and often bringing gifts when he came home from work.

Carson said he looks back, and realizes the incredible sacrifice his mother made hiding her own hurt while staying strong for her boys.  He remembers her working three jobs to make ends meet.  He retells the story of when he and his brother would ask for toys, his mother would reply, no, we can’t afford it, and that was the end of the story on getting a toy.

As an example of Mrs. Carson’s wisdom and tenacity, in order to help put food on the table, Mrs. Carson would bargain with farmers for her and her boys to pick four bushels of berries so that she could keep one bushel for them.  This allowed her to put fresh fruit and vegetables on the table, and put up the rest for them to have through the winter.

She was the one that defended her boys in school, and when she found out that the school was going to place her oldest son on a vocational tract of learning, she marched down to the school, and said, “No, you keep my boy in the regular classes because my boys are going to college.  My boys are going to learn reading and math.”

Dr. Carson tells the story of his mother coming home one day from work, and finding him and his brother watching TV.  She walked over and turned off the TV in the middle of their program, and said, “from now on, you boys are only allowed to watch TV three times a week, and the rest of the time, you will be studying.”

“Only three times a week!”  Ben protested as his mind raced through all the shows he would miss, but his mother held firm, and told him he would have to learn his multiplication tables.  Again, he protested, asking her if she knew how many there were to learn, and she simply replied, “I will help you.”

And it didn’t stop there, a couple weeks later, she came home and announced they would start reading two books a week, and when they had finished reading the books they had in their possession, she proceeded to march them down to the public library where they were directed to find more books to read.  It was here that Dr. Carson began his journey into books on nature, especially loving the books on animals and science.

He also became aware that as he gained knowledge, he was no longer referred to as the dummy in his classroom by his classmates, and this encouraged him to learn more.

When his mother could no longer afford the house where they lived in a nicer neighborhood in Detroit, she rented it out and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law in Boston.  Here, Dr. Carson learned about tenement living, complete with rats, roaches and an occasional snake.  He learned about walking through the streets among the broken glass, winos and drunks with sirens blaring in the background.

While it was dark on the outside, his aunt and uncle showered them with light and love on the inside of the home.  It was here that he remembers experiencing his best Christmas ever when he received a chemist set.  He retells of how he played with this set endlessly finding it fascinating and intriguing as he learned to mix things to create things.  With the instructions in hand, he would work one experiment after the other to find he couldn’t wait to see what the next experiment would bring.

His mother eventually got back on her feet, and they moved back to Detroit.  As soon as she could, she regained the ability to move them back into their old home, once again placing them in a modest neighborhood, and for the boys, this meant attending a mostly white school again.  With his experience and knowledge in science from his nature books and his chemist set, Ben soon excelled in his biology class.  His teacher put him in a position to teach other children how to identify bugs and work through their experiments.

Attending a Seventh Day Adventist church as a young boy, Ben listened one Sunday to his pastor tell the story of a mission doctor and his wife, and how God was able to protect them during a time of danger.  He liked hearing the adventure, and more importantly, he liked hearing how the doctor was able to help people, and how God had protected them from harm.

On his walk home, he asked his mother if she thought he could be a doctor, and she said, “Bennie, you can be anything you want to be.”  He replied, “I want to be a doctor.”  And she responded, “Then you will be a doctor, Bennie.”

At age 14, Dr. Carson said, “I fully understood how God can change us” as he overcame his struggle with his temper rooted in bad situations from growing up from losing his Dad at age 8 to being called a dummy in his early school days.

When he would find himself complaining about an unfairness, his mother would quote a poem titled, “Yourself to Blame” by Mayme White Miller or tell him, “You just ask the Lord, and he’ll help you.”  She would say, “Bennie, you can do it.  Don’t stop believing that for one second.”

Eventually, Ben would see exactly how God would move him through the struggles of becoming a doctor, from realizing his divine gift of hand and eye coordination while playing foosball with a friend, to a dream revealing answers to a test he thought he would surely fail in college chemistry.

After studying in his room all day before the test for which he had not properly prepared, he prayed for God’s help before he went to bed.  That night he had a dream, and the next day as he looked at page after page of his chemistry test, the answers came just as he had seen them on the chalkboard in his dream.

He wrote, “After this experience, I had no doubt that I would be a physician.  I also had the sense that God not only wanted me to be a physician, but that He had special things for me to do.  I’m not sure people always understand when I say that, but I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life – the path God had chosen for me.  Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.

Ben was continuously given positions of leadership, not just in his classes, but in college, ROTC, and summer jobs between college classes that he would acquire.  His teachers recognized his hunger to learn, and provided him tutoring and extra books to read.  He excelled on his SAT, and was provided a 90% scholarship to Yale.  Continuing at the medical school at the University of Michigan, in his hometown, he still longed to attend John Hopkins where he would later become a top neurosurgeon sought around the world.  Dr. Carson tells of many of his surgeries in his book, and how he learned from these surgeries, ending with his most famous case in separating a German set of Siamese twins connected at the head.

At one point in his journey, he was so sought after that he had a neighboring hospital to John Hopkins vying for his talents at their hospital.  The Director said to him, “Here you can help black people,” and being taken aback by this statement, Dr. Carson replied, “But I want to help ALL people.”

While it is easy to see how God moved him through life with the gifts and tools needed to become a neurosurgeon, leading and directing him each step of the way, as he explains in his book, it was also inspiring to see the strength and courage of a mother, that was obviously also gifted with strength, wisdom and love to be able to provide her children with the love and encouragement they needed to not only succeed with both graduating college, but to be able to understand and help people in return.

God never leaves us.  The more we lean toward him, the more we seek him out for direction and purpose, the more he continues to provide blessings on our journey in life.  This allows us to carry on in faith knowing that God is not only present in our daily lives, but that he cares about us and our outcomes.

Dr. Carson looks for opportunities to speak to young children, and when he does, he emphasizes the point, “There isn’t anybody in the world who isn’t worth something.  If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you.  The same people you meet on the way up are the same kind of people you meet on the way down.  Besides that, every person you meet is one of God’s children.” And he writes, “I truly believe that being a successful neurosurgeon doesn’t mean I’m better than anybody else.  It means that I’m fortunate because God gave me the talent to do this job well.  I also believe that what talents I have I need to be willing to share with others.

When I finished this book, I immediately started reading it again, because it is so encouraging, inspiring, and heart-warming.  As we look around us in a world driven by greed and power, it is an incredible reminder that while we may be caught up in circumstances beyond our control, and we are faced with challenge after challenge, all the while, God is in the midst of the turmoil bringing greatness from the most unexpected places.

God’s grace and gifts are truly a miracle in our lives.  It is up to us to have the wisdom and courage to develop those gifts to the glory of God, and if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame.

A Room Full of Friends: Barbara Brown Taylor

A Room Full of Friends: Barbara Brown Taylor

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 13, 2021

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Mark 4:26-34

 

Today, for the summer sermon series: A Room Full of Friends, I want to introduce you to a dear friend who has resided on my bookshelf for years. For many of you it will be a re-introduction since you have heard me refer to her numerous times as my favorite instructor during my doctoral work at Columbia Theological Seminary. In addition to being an outstanding teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and renowned writer. She has published such books as Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Holy Envy. She has also published numerous books of sermons and since she was named by Baylor University as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, I thought it best for you to hear a word directly from her this morning through a sermon entitled, “The Automatic Earth.”

At my house there is a gardener and there is a worrier. The gardener is a pretty easy-going fellow. Every May or June he comes through the door with a brown paper sack full of seed packets and a couple of evenings later he can be found puttering around the yard, emptying the packages into furrows, heaping the dirt into little mounds and curling pieces of fence around them to keep the dogs out. Several weeks later, plants appear in the strangest places. He has been known to plant green peppers between the azalea bushes and broccoli by the mailbox. For the second year in a row a stand of asparagus is pushing up through the roots of the crepe myrtle tree and sweet pea vines are winding through the branches of the weeping cherry. In a few weeks, string beans will overtake the back deck of the house, covering everything in sight like kudzu.

All of this drives the worrier crazy. She knows how gardens are supposed to be and this is not it. You are supposed to begin by buying a book, for one thing, with illustrations on how to arrange plants according to size, heights, and drainage requirements. Everything goes in straight rows. First you must test the soil, then you must fertilize, mulch, weed, and water; above all you must worry, or else how will your garden grow?

To her eternal dismay and amazement, there comes one day every summer when the gardener proclaims that the vegetables are ready. He goes out to collect them from all over the burgeoning yard and a little while later the worrier sits down to a table heaped with manna. Against her will and better judgment she has to admit that he has done alright, in spite of his refusal to worry. This year there are even two dill plants that appeared out of nowhere, gifts from the earth itself.

This is what the kingdom of God is like, according to Mark. A man scatters seed on the ground and goes about his business, trusting the seed to sprout without his further interference, because the ground produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. The Greek here is wonderful: the ground is, literally, automatic. It produces of itself; it has within itself the power to make a seed become a plant, and so the kingdom of God is likened to automatic earth, earth that can be trusted to yield its fruit without any cheerleading, without any manure, any worry on our part. The seed sprouts and grows, we know not how. Call it agricultural grace.

All right then, I will not worry any more about my string beans and squash—the automatic earth can be trusted—but what about my life? There is nothing automatic about that. If I do not attend to it, manage it, and yes, worry about it, I will fail at what I want to do, be found wanting at the end, die unsatisfied and unnoticed. Help! Saint Paul is right; in this earthly tent I do groan, do sigh with anxiety, but not exactly for the reasons he says.

When I first read today’s passage from 2 Corinthians out loud, I began by nodding my head a lot. “We know,” Paul says, “that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed we have a building from God.” Well, yes, we hope that. Can’t be too presumptuous, after all, can’t really know, but yes, a building to replace this tent sounds heavenly. “Here indeed we groan.” Do we ever groan…what a mind reader; that is exactly what we do. “So that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” What a beautiful phrase, swallowed up by life. “So we are always of good courage.” Well, we try. We may not always be courageous, but we are brave from time to time…“and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” What was that? Actually, we sort of like it here in the body, all things considered. There is no particular hurry to leave, is there? “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Oh groan, here comes the anxiety again.

Paul names the big worries, death and judgment, but fill in your own variations: nuclear war, cancer, poverty, divorce, addiction, pollution. What is it that makes your heart chatter in your chest? What feeds your ulcer, makes your shoulders cramp, keeps you awake at night? Where are you busiest protecting yourself and those you love? Where does it seem as if there is ultimately no hope, and where is it in particular that you do not quite trust God to be God? Someone says, “Have faith!” and you want to break something, want to shout, “Faith is not enough!”

We live in an age of anxiety. To go back to the agricultural metaphor, we live between the time of planting and the harvest, and it is a time of great uncertainty. We want to trust the automatic earth. We want to believe that what God has begun he will bring to fruition, but just in case he doesn’t we hedge our bets, doing everything we can think of to keep the anxiety at bay. Sometimes we call what we are doing “helping God out.” Sure, we can trust him with our lives, but just to help him along we frequent the health food store, the investment broker, the insurance agent, maybe even duck into the astrologer’s storefront to have our palms read—just for fun—to see what is ahead. Anything to batten down the hatches, to make the future look a little more secure.

But that is only one symptom of anxiety. There are lots more. Like perfectionism, the need to do everything exactly right, exactly to the book. Or drivenness, that compulsion that turns all our “want to’s” into “have to’s,” that raises our demands on ourselves and others to a fever pitch. There is moral outrage, our insistence that we who have worked so hard have earned the right to be protected from all harm, because bad things should not happen to good people. Or how about restlessness: the swinging foot, the tapping finger, the vague unease that says we should never be where we are but somewhere else instead. We cannot sleep, cannot sit still for long, got to keep moving, got to stay busy. Then there is the dread of being alone.

Faced with the prospect of a night at home by ourselves, we get on the telephone and see what we can rustle up or, failing that, settle into five or six hours of fellowship with the television set or [social media of some sort]. Along with that estrangement from self comes estrangement from God, where we buy books on spirituality but read mysteries instead. Or we mean to pray but it is hard to find the time and when we do, we’re so tired, we fall asleep. Sometimes it seems as if there is nobody there.

The word is anxiety, angst in German: a straight or narrow passage that restricts breathing; uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event, such as my life, my death, my relationship with God. Anxiety is so much a part of modern life that it seems automatic, an occupational hazard of being a finite creature in a universe of infinite possibilities. But anxiety is more than that, more than just a quirk of creatureliness to be taken for granted.

Insofar as my anxiety separates me from God, from other human beings, and from my own soul, I am prepared to call anxiety a sin, one that calls for my repentance because it keeps me in limbo, telling me on one hand that I must work out my own salvation and on the other that I am doomed to fail. In short, what is absent when anxiety is present is faith—faith that God will be God, that the automatic earth will yield its fruit, that life can be trusted.

I am not, of course, advocating that we all lie down under the nearest fig tree and watch the clouds go by, although that might not be a bad idea for most of us. Giving up anxiety does not mean giving up responsibility, or concern, or the wish to live a productive life. But it does mean giving up our incessant, sterile worrying about what will become of us and our poisonous illusion that if we do stop worrying our lives will collapse. This is sin, and the remedy for it is twofold: first confession and then amendment of life. Do you desire to be saved from the sin of anxiety? Then get on your knees and confess it. Confess everything you have tried to control, all the ways you have tried to manufacture your own security, all the times you have turned away from God in order to seek your own solutions. Confess what it has cost you, and how poorly it has worked to bring you peace. Then ask for forgiveness, the forgiveness that is yours before you ask, and within the freedom of that forgiveness amend your life. Make a different choice, a choice against anxiety, and live out of that choice for a change.

Saint Paul’s word is as good as any: choose courage, which is not the absence of fear but the willingness to go on in spite of it. Choose to face your life, your death, your God, the dangerous unknown. Choose to face it without resorting to the old perfectionism, the old drivenness, the old restlessness and outrage.

Choose courage, even knowing as you do that you cannot choose it once and for all, that if courage is what you want you must choose it over and over again, every day that you live, if real life is what you are after. That is what it takes. Confession and choice, forgiveness and courage, over and over, a new way of life.

Then scatter your seeds. Anxiety would have you keep them in your pocket, or plant them in small pots, or dig them up every day to see if they are growing. Courage allows you to open your hand and let them fly. They land where they land, and a few feed the birds, but many more fall into the ground. There in the dark, where you cannot see and do not know how, the automatic earth turns their death into life, pushing up through the layers of dirt, through asphalt, through concrete if necessary, through whatever is in their way—first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. Then it is your turn, you who have watched and waited faithfully, knowing you cannot make the seed grow, knowing who can. It is your turn to harvest the crop, and let your table be heaped with good things, and sit down at it, and eat.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A Room Full of Friends: Eugene Peterson

A Room Full of Friends: Eugene Peterson

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 6, 2021

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:34-35; 1 Samuel 16:1-13

If you read the June letter, “From the Pastor’s Desk,” you know that some time ago, I decided to read several books written by one of my favorite Presbyterian pastors, scholars, writers, poets: Eugene Peterson. I re-read The Contemplative Pastor. I read Run with the Horses, A Long Obedience, and several others. Along the way, I happened upon an old, used copy of Take & Read. It is an annotated list of some of Eugene Peterson’s favorite authors. While the book and its list were of some interest to me, what really caught my attention was some advice he offered in the introduction: “Not all of my books will become your books…Start with my list, but then gradually remake it your own. You have to start somewhere. Develop your own list, which over the years will become not a “list” at all, but a room full of friends with whom you have sweet converse.”

A room full of friends! My bookshelves are home to a host of writers. Eugene Peterson is there, of course. Then there’s Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendell Berry, Howard Thurman, Fred Craddock, and many others. Over the years, as Peterson suggests, they have become my friends. And they are friends I want to introduce to you over the summer, via a sermon series entitled, “A Room Full of Friends.” And since it was Peterson who inspired the series, it is only fitting to start with him.

Eugene Peterson grew up in Montana. He attended Seattle Pacific University and New York Theological Seminary, and acquired a Master’s Degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University. In 1962, Peterson was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for 29 years before retiring in 1991.  But it was never Peterson’s intent to become a pastor. He planned to work in the academic world as a seminary professor.

Peterson grew up in a Christian home and was familiar from an early age with the Bible. Although he read it, memorized it, and argued it with his adolescent friends, he wasn’t fond of it. He knew it was important, but he had seen it used badly too many times. But after just three of four weeks in seminary, under the teaching of one professor, things began to change. What was once a holy book to be used as a textbook with information about God, as a handbook to lead people to salvation, as a weapon to defeat the devil and all his angels, as an antidepressant—became instead, a place for holy conversation. Peterson found himself listening carefully to skilled writers, poets, and storytellers who were artists of language. Isaiah and David were poets. Matthew and Luke were masters of the art of the narrative. Words were not just words. Words were holy.

When Peterson learned that students were required to do field work, he was thrilled to get the opportunity to coach the basketball team at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He was thrilled because it gave him a chance to work in church without going to church. However, he decided to go to worship the first week of his employment just to get a lay of the land. Growing up in the Pentecostal movement, Peterson didn’t know any Presbyterians. But the preacher, Dr. George Buttrick, had a reputation for being one of the great preachers in America. Almost from the start, Peterson was captivated by something he had never seen in the pulpit—a storyteller and a poet.

Every Sunday evening Dr. Buttrick invited the seminarians to his penthouse manse on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park for conversation about vocation, theology, and the church. The more Peterson saw of his mentor, the more he appreciated his way of being a pastor to his flock. Soon, Peterson began to have second thoughts about his vocation. It dawned on him that there’s little ambiguity to Greek and Hebrew. It’s just right or wrong. But the church was much more interesting. There life was happening all the time—death, birth, divorces, children gone astray. Soon Peterson left his dissertation behind to become a storyteller, a poet, a shepherd to God’s people.

It is to another shepherd that we now turn through the story of David. The Bible is a book of stories. Oh, there are other literary forms—sermons, genealogies, prayers, letters, poems, and proverbs—but story carries them all and holds them together. Moses tells stories. Jesus tells stories. The four gospel writers present their good news in the form of stories. And when it comes to stories of the Bible, David’s story is the most extensively narrated. In truth, we know more about David than any other individual in Scripture. In Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall (from which I am liberally sharing to give you a sense of his writing style), he takes up the story of David, particularly how David prefigures Jesus the Christ and how David’s life serves as a map for spirituality for every person for all time.

The prophet Samuel is out looking for a replacement for King Saul. Having located Jesse and his sons, Samuel proceeds to interview and examine each of them. Jesse brings his sons before Samuel one at a time, like prize farm animals. The grandstand is packed with spectators. Eliab, the eldest is first. His mountainous size and rough-hewn looks command attention. Samuel is impressed. Clearly here is a man who can get things done. Samuel, like everyone else in the community is taken in by his appearance. But God whispers in Samuel’s ear, “Don’t be fooled by outward appearance. Down deep, there’s not much to write home about.” Next comes Abinadab. Then Shammah. After the third son, the Bible quits naming. As each in turn is rejected, tension builds up. Yet none are chosen. The show is over. Jesse is disappointed. The seven sons are humiliated.

The grandstand and bleacher crowds are starting to get restless, some of them feel gypped and want their money back. Samuel is confused. “This is Bethlehem? I am in the right town? You are Jesse?” Well, there must be another son. And as it turns out, as the whole world now knows, there is another son—David. The baby brother, the youngest, the runt of the family. Because David is out of the way, tending the sheep, nobody has thought to invite him to the party. Yet it is David who is chosen. Chosen and anointed. Chosen not for what anybody sees in him—not his father, his brothers, not even Samuel—but because of what God sees in him.

The story of David is the story of a person who is chosen by God and who, over time, comes alive before God. In truth, every event in David’s life is a confrontation with God. He becomes aware of God. He responds to God. We are never more alive than when we’re dealing with God, and David certainly deals with God. When we look at the whole narrative of David’s life—from his anointing to his dying breath—as a specimen of humanity, David isn’t much. He has little wisdom to pass on to us on how to live successfully. He is an unsuccessful parent and an unfaithful husband. From a purely historical point of view, he is a barbaric chieftain with a talent for poetry. But David’s importance isn’t in his morality or military expertise—it’s in his experience as a human being and a witness of God.

The truth of the matter is we can’t be human without God. That’s what Christians believe. All of us are aware of something we need or lack most of the time. We’re not complete. This sense of being unfinished is pervasive and accounts for a lot of the trouble we get ourselves into. Feeling inadequate, we attempt to bolster ourselves by getting more education, more money, traveling to another place, buying different clothes, searching out new experiences. The Christian gospel tells us that in and under and around all of these incompletions is God: God is who we need; the God-hunger, the God-thirst is the most powerful drive in us. It’s far stronger than all the drives of sex, power, security, and fame put together. And David displays the most complete rendering of the common life that God can use and shape into his glory—into the likeness of his Son, Jesus.

Oh, David is far from perfect. David fighting, praying, loving, sinning. David with his eight wives. David angry. David devious. David generous. David dancing. If the life of David that comprises prayer and adultery and murder can be written and told as a gospel story, no one should be written off. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing that God can’t and doesn’t use to work God’s salvation and holiness into our lives. If we examine the story of David’s life carefully, we see blemishes and imperfections aplenty, and yet, we witness the love of God that will not let us go.

God’s love is greater than any obstacle we might face in life—David’s Goliath is no match for God. And God is partial to making the impossible possible—for transforming that which we have long abandoned. God makes blessing out of brokenness. God turns shattered dreams into visions of a new tomorrow. Through his Son, Jesus, God comes to us in the simplest of things—bread and wine. Through the Holy Spirit, God comes to us as our Comforter and Guide. And God comes to us through witnesses like Eugene Peterson, who by their preaching, teaching, and writing, inspire us in our faith-walk. The world is filled with people who need inspiration, who need encouragement, guidance, and hope, who need to hear the story of God’s great love.  Each day, in new and creative ways, may we be both willing and eager to tell it!

A Gentle Invitation

A Gentle Invitation

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 30, 2021

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 29; John 16:12-15

 

Joe is searching—searching for answers, searching for hope, searching for something.  Over the past couple of years, Joe has begun to realize that his life hasn’t turned out like he thought it would—and now Joe is afloat in the world like a ship without a sail.  He always thought he was one of the lucky ones.  He graduated from college, got a good job, and began building a life.  But even with so much success, life felt empty.  Joe had a hunger that he could not name—a deep hunger for hope, for truth, for something.  Joe grew up in church but when he went off to college, well church didn’t seem to be important anymore.  Religion—he thought—that’s for old folk—religion—well, it just wasn’t for him.  But lately, Joe had begun to have second thoughts. Maybe there was something to his mother and father’s faith. All these things had been weighing on his mind and then one morning he woke up with a hymn playing in his head, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…” Yeah, a little grace—that would be a good thing right now—Joe thought—that would be a very good thing.

 

So Joe began to look for a church home. He started with the church just down the road—The Church of Only the Father—it was called.  Joe visited for a few weeks.  He sat in the back, hoping no one would notice him, and sure enough, no one did. The preacher was loud, and he yelled a lot about hell and damnation. He preached about God as a Judge who would one day burn wicked sinners in a Lake of Fire because they had not heeded the Law. Amazing Grace—they sang the song, but Joe didn’t sense much grace. Something was missing. What about Jesus? The One who gave his life for sinners? What about the Holy Spirit that can transform lives—even the lives of people who have somehow lost their way? No, this wasn’t what Joe had in mind. So, Joe stopped going. No one noticed his absence. No surprise since they had hardly noticed his presence.

 

And Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

 

Yes, Joe needed truth in his life. He still had a void in his heart so, he got up the courage to attend another church, The Church of Only the Son, it was called. He watched and he listened. The focus of the church was doing—doing things for Jesus. But after a while, Joe realized that the teaching wasn’t just about being the hands and feet of Jesus. The teaching and preaching was more like, it is in the doing that people find favor with God—that people earn God’s love. Joe listened carefully.  In the church of his youth, he had been taught that salvation is found through grace—not through works righteousness. No, Joe didn’t believe he could earn his salvation. He didn’t believe that at all. And he didn’t believe that living faithfully was only about doing, doing, doing. Something was missing. What about God the Father who created humanity and loves humanity still? What about the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—stories that demonstrate God’s love and grace throughout history? What about the Spirit who convicts us, prods us, and prompts us to walk into light and truth? No, this wasn’t what Joe hungered for—being faithful is about more than “doing” so Joe stopped going.

 

And Jesus said, “The Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

 

A few months later, still searching for a church home, Joe heard about a church on the other side of town that had been creating quite a stir—The Church of Only the Spirit, it was called. Now, to be honest, Joe walked in and wanted to walk right back out. He could not believe he was putting himself out there again. But no—he wanted to be fair—he wanted to give this church a try, so he did, for several weeks. He mustered up the courage and showed up—sat in his favorite place—the back pew—just in case he felt the urge to leave. He watched and he listened. And there was a lot to see and hear—this was a rowdy bunch—there was shouting and dancing in the aisles—speaking in tongues. Joe had never seen anything like this before. Prayers were prayed to the Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is about all the preacher preached about—the Spirit was about all the church sang about. And if there was any glory and honor being given—it was to the Spirit. What about the God of the Old Testament and the New? What about living life as Jesus did—showing compassion to the least of these? What about sacrificial love—costly love? Something was missing. Surely religion is about more than spiritual highs and spiritual “feelings.” So, Joe stopped going—or so the story goes.

 

And Jesus said, “All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

 

The story of Joe’s search for a church—well, I am sure you noticed that it includes huge generalizations. Most churches are not so obviously aligned with ONLY the Father, ONLY the Son or ONLY the Holy Spirit. And let’s face it—most seekers are not like Joe—quickly observing on the front end the inner teachings of a church’s theology or doctrine—that takes some time. Still, the story may provide us a way to reflect on the challenges of being a church that embraces the Triune God and lives out a balanced faith.

 

Today is Trinity Sunday and let me be honest. Preaching about the Trinity is a tough task. Why? Because on Trinity Sunday we are challenged to preach a teaching of the church rather than a specific teaching in Scripture. The word is not in the Bible. It is a term coined in the 3rd Century to explain our experience of God as the Creator of the world, God as the Son who entered the world as a baby, and God as the Holy Spirit, ever-empowering and present. The doctrine of the Trinity was meant to help give words to our faith, and, over time, it became a natural way to speak about what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. We worship a Creator who is still creating among us. We worship a Savior who redeemed us and works among us, sometimes in spite of us. We worship the Holy Spirit who is in our midst—moving and working. Our Holy God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.

 

The bulletin cover image created by Andrei Rublev, is the artist’s attempt to explain the Trinity through the story of the hospitality of Abraham found in Genesis chapter 18. You may recall that Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre at the entrance of his tent when he looks up and sees three men standing by—three men who turn out to be Angels of the Lord—Angels who proclaim that in one year Abraham and Sarah will be blessed with a child. Abraham welcomes the strangers—water is brought, food is served—it is hospitality at its finest. In portraying this act of hospitality, earlier artists included Abraham and Sarah, a servant killing the fatted calf, and a tree of Mamre, but Rublev eliminated all those narrative elements. He made a conscious decision to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham—but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity. Rublev’s “Trinity” beckons us to dig deeper into our own understanding of God and it offers a gentle invitation to enter that sacred space to love, to be loved, and to go forth to live faithfully in the world.

 

One day, God may put it on Joe’s heart to visit First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta—either in person or online. What will he find? Will he find a church that teaches one way of knowing God at the exclusion of other ways? Or will he find a church that seeks to understand God as fully and wholly as we can in our thinking, in our feeling, and in our doing? Will Joe find a home with us?  I pray that he will. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Church Alive

Church Alive

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 23, 2021

Day of Pentecost

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21

Oh, how I love the wonderful stories of the Bible—like the accounts of David, Esther, the Prophet Deborah, Jeremiah, Hannah, Isaiah. And what about Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Wouldn’t you like to sit with her for a while and hear her story? Then there’s Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Paul. What tales they could tell. Scripture is filled with so many people who have incredible lives. It kind of makes me wish I were that proverbial fly on the wall. And never more so than on this day—the day of Pentecost when the wind, the spirit, hope on fire, sweeps in, and alters our faith story forever. Pondering our lectionary readings made me wonder what it might have been like for someone who happened to be present. How did they experience knowing Jesus, loving Jesus, witnessing his ministry to the world, and then after his death, resurrection, and ascension, waiting with the others for the promised power from on high?

 

One person who comes to mind is Joanna. She is named in the Gospel of Luke as one of the women who comes to the tomb on Easter morning to find that it is empty for Christ has risen, just as he said. Although we know nothing more about her, with the help of the Holy Spirit, she still may have something to teach us. So, imagine with me a little Jewish girl, Joanna, sitting at the feet of her father whom she adores. He has a love for Hebrew Scripture, and he is gifted with a dramatic flair that makes the old stories come to life. Although Joanna loves every story, nothing holds her attention like her father’s rendering of Ezekiel prophesying to the dry bones.

 

The days of Ezekiel are dark days when disaster has fallen on Israel. Because of the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people, the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem. The traumatized survivors, who witness the massacre of loved ones, are taken into captivity. Ezekiel is among them. In Babylon, Ezekiel the priest becomes Ezekiel the prophet to the exiles. The people are dejected. They have lost hope. The Temple, the home of the Presence of God has been destroyed. What of the spiritual life now? It is into this dark, hopeless place that God sends Ezekiel, setting him down into a valley of dry bones. Joanna’s father tells this story with great enthusiasm!

 

Our people had given up saying, “All is lost. We are dead.” But Yahweh was not finished with Israel. God said, “No! There is still hope.” Then Yahweh provided a demonstration. He put Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones and God said to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God…I will cause flesh to come upon you…cover you with skin…put breath in you and you shall live.” Ezekiel prophesied and suddenly the bones began to rattle and the bones began to shake—as if finding a long, lost friend, they came together, bone to bone. Then tendons appeared, and muscle and then skin that wrapped it all up, just so. Again God spoke, telling Ezekiel to prophecy to the breath and say, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these…that they might live.” Ezekiel did as he was told to do and the breath, the wind, the spirit, the ruah came upon them and they lived and they stood at attention.

 

What an incredible scene—a prophecy and a promise of things to come for the people of Israel—for the people of God. To be sure, all hope is not lost. Joanna’ father reminds her that in another place in Scripture, Ezekiel speaks these prophetic words of God, “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you…and you shall be my people and I shall be your God.”[i]

 

Joanna grows up hearing these stories of wonder and promise and hope, and then she meets Jesus. From the moment she lays eye on him, hope begins to stir in her heart. She watches Jesus change lives, heal the sick, feed the hungry, love the unlovable. He walks the streets of Galilee and Nazareth and Jerusalem. Everywhere he goes people flock to him. Some begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the dry bones of God’s people might rise again. They come and they see. However, there are others who cannot accept this humble king. They want a ruler to reign with a shield and a sword. But Jesus has other plans—plans for the salvation of the world. In the end, it comes as no surprise that Jesus, the humble Son of God, is silenced because the rulers of the world are not ready for his message. It is doubtful they will ever be!

 

Joanna is there when her precious Savior hangs on a cross and, like everyone around her, she thinks it is the end. But God has other plans. God breathes life into his Son once more. A new day dawns on Easter morning when Joanna, along with Mary Magdalene and other women arrive at the tomb only to find that it is empty. Empty! And then Jesus, alive and oh so well, appears. He walks among his followers, spends time with them. But soon, he tells them he must return to his Abba Father’s side. Beforehand, he provides instructions. “Wait to be clothed with power from on high.” Even though they don’t really know what he means, they wait. Once Jesus ascends into heaven, there is some business to take care of. Matthias is chosen to replace Judas, and the disciples, representing the tribes of Israel, are once more numbered 12.

 

In a few short days, the Jewish festival of Pentecost arrives—a festival that honors Yahweh’s giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Understandably, people from every land wander the city.  But the followers of Jesus are together in one place. About 120 people are present, including the disciples, and Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Suddenly from heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind and the wind, the spirit, the ruah rips through the house. Divided tongues like flames of fire rest upon Joanna and all those gathered there. Everyone is glowing with the Spirit of God, and they begin to speak in languages they don’t even know! It’s like a roll call of nations and languages symbolizing how God’s Spirit will be for the whole world.[ii] Devout Jews hear the ruckus and come to investigate. In their own language, they hear the gospel message of God’s wonder-working power. They are stunned. They are perplexed. Some even claim: “They’re drunk, that’s what this is!” But if they are intoxicated, it isn’t from wine. It is from the heavenly wind that sweeps through them, giving life to dry, dry, bones.

 

Peter jumps up, raises his voice, and proclaims this is nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken long ago from the lips of the prophet Joel, that in the last days, God’s Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh, that sons and daughters will prophesy, that young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

 

In a flash, the Holy Spirit rushes in and the church is born. The Temple of the Lord comes to dwell in the heart of every believer with no more class, race, age, or gender distinctions. What a glorious day! I imagine Joanna dancing and singing as she remembers the stories of her childhood—stories her father told about those dry bones coming to life. How he would have loved to see God’s story unfold in such a way.

 

God’s story is still unfolding. Here we are, equipped by the Spirit to step out of our fears and away from our doubts to notice new life swirling all around us—to think wondrous thoughts and dream marvelous dreams on behalf of God’s beloved community. Here we are, after a year of a global pandemic that has nudged us to explore new ways of being the church. Here we are, gathered onsite and online to celebrate the Spirit among us and within us. Here we are, amazed at God’s grace that has proven to us that the church is not a building. The church is God’s people doing God’s work of love in the world. The Spirit continues to be a moving, nudging, creating Spirit. To what new creative work might the Spirit be calling our church? To what new creative work might the Spirit be calling you and me? Let us watch for it. Let us wait for it. And when we feel the Spirit move, with all the courage we can muster, let us ride the wind wherever it takes us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Ezekiel 36:26, 28, NRSV.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 4.

*Cover Art “Pentecost” by Ira Thomas @ Catholic World Art, used by permission