We Are Easter People
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 21, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12
The prophet Isaiah foretells the good news: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight… Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
The year was 2009 and along with about 20 other pastors, I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Although memories of the journey come to mind from time to time, during Holy Week and Easter they often ripple to the surface like waves. I catch myself daydreaming of the peaceful waters of the Sea of Galilee. In my mind’s eye, I leave those peaceful waters to follow Jesus to the city of his crucifixion—to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. I see the narrow, crowded streets. Along the streets are a vast array of vendors raising their voices to entice would-be buyers to their tables.
Recently, while reflecting on the Holy Land, I took a moment to open my travel journal to peruse its pages. Here is what I found from an entry marked June 11th:
Today is our first full day in Jerusalem. I have been outside reading and trying to gather my thoughts. Already I have heard the bells calling believers (of other faith traditions as well as our own) to prayer. With just a short walk I can be at the Mount of Olives; the place of the Last Supper; the place where Pilate pronounced his verdict; the Stations of the Cross that have been prayed and walked by millions down through the ages; I can be at the presumed sites of Golgotha and the Tomb where Christ was laid to rest.
Jerusalem is the place where Christianity was ultimately born. The birth of the church came through the ultimate pain and sacrifice of the very Son of God. How can there be such love? Yet in this holy place, there is hatred—people against people—religion against religion. From this place hatred radiates throughout the world. But the love of Christ radiates from here, too. The love of Christ reaches out toward those who are willing to accept the gift of God’s love—reaches out like the rays of the sun—reaches across the seas to other lands—other countries—other states—other communities—other people—and remarkably, even to me.
This morning we celebrate something extraordinary that happened 20 centuries ago over 6000 miles away. We celebrate because for us, too, a life-changing event has occurred. Jesus, the Son of God is not dead. He is alive.
From Luke’s gospel we catch sight of a loyal group of women who follow Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Even when things begin to unravel and Jesus is arrested, they remain. They are at the foot of the cross. They hear him cry, “It is finished!” They watch him draw his last breath. The Jewish Sabbath comes and goes, and the women go early the next morning to the tomb with embalming spices in hand. They know that the tomb has been sealed and they probably know guards have been posted to keep watch over it. Maybe they hope these same guards will roll the heavy stone away for them. Imagine their surprise when they arrive only to find the stone has already been moved. And even more surprising, Jesus is nowhere in sight. The only thing left are burial cloths. Suddenly two men, dazzling in their brightness, appear and the women bow their faces to the ground in terror.
The men say to them, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And that’s when it hits them. That’s when the women remember all that Jesus had said about his death and resurrection. They head straight to the disciples and the others to tell them what has happened. To the Eleven Alumni of Jesus’ School of Religion, their words seem like an idle tale—absolute nonsense. Nevertheless, Peter races off to see for himself.
He, too, sees the empty tomb and the burial cloths lying inside and he leaves in amazement.
Despite Jesus having foretold these events repeatedly to his disciples, it is beyond their comprehension that he might rise from the grave. So, if the disciples are hesitant to believe the women, what chance do we have? How can we accept such a fanciful tale? In order to believe that the Son of God conquered death so that we might live, our view of reality must change. We may have to consider that life is not what we think it is—nor is death, for that matter.
Actually, it all seems like nonsense—until you believe! Like Peter who must go and see for himself, each one of us has to experience the Risen Lord in our own hearts and minds and souls. We cannot rely on our grandmother’s faith or our father’s faith. And we will have to do more than learn about Christ as some grand, historical figure. Truth be told, we can be well versed in rituals, hymns, liturgies, sacraments and creeds of the church, and still be ignorant of the meaning of Easter.[i] Martin Luther once wrote, “It really doesn’t matter if Jesus rose from the dead if he isn’t risen in you.”
Has Christ risen in you? We, who are baptized believers, we are Easter people. And Easter people are equipped by Christ’s Spirit to live as witnesses of the Resurrection. As one scholar notes:
Resurrection, after all, is not some buoyant ideal, unconnected to the real world. It is an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things—it is we ourselves who see at last the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now… [On that morning] the women knew. The women remembered. The women believed. The women responded by breaking their own silence to speak their own truth. Which is, after all, what God asks of us.[ii]
The women break their own silence. The women speak their own truth. It is still what God asks of each one of us. Otherwise, how will the world know that Isaiah’s prophecy has come true?
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…
But some days rejoicing is difficult. There is no doubt that we live in troubling times. Around the globe, terrorist attacks have become more the norm than the exception. Too many people in our own country are filled with hatred and eager to promote fear, confusion, distrust, and violence. Even faith groups who claim to be Christian war against one another. For too long, too many Christians have sat idly by, hoping and praying that God would intervene. But maybe God is waiting for us to intervene. We are, after all, Easter people. We possess good news—good news for those who are sick and cannot afford decent health care; good news for neighbors who are hurting; good news for families in need of healing; good news for those who have lost hope.
Once Jesus bursts forth from the tomb, everything changes. No longer is Jesus restricted to Galilee or Jerusalem. Jesus is everywhere and he offers wholeness to all creation and to all people of the world. As Easter people, we have experienced the power of Christ’s resurrection. We know that new life is possible for the vulnerable, the alienated, the desperate, and the grief-stricken. We know that resurrection touches us all, is available for all. The story is as real today as it was in the 1st Century. In the words of Karl Barth: “Resurrection remains the center around which all else is moving, from which all comes, and to which all is leading.”
Here we are, gathered as a community of faith on a spiritual journey. Along the way we offer mutual support and concern; we mentor one another; we rejoice with one another on good days and grieve with one another on bad ones. Here, the presence of Christ is known to us in the preaching of the Word, through the waters of Baptism, and at the Table of our Lord. Here in this place, through liturgy, prayer, and song we are bound together in our common search for transformation and union with God. [iii] Christ is here among us to gather us in, and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ sends us out to be his hands and feet in the world.
Since we are a forgetful people, we return Sunday after Sunday for a Little Easter to be reminded of what happened on that first Resurrection morn. It’s no idle tale. Rather, it’s an invitation to believe and participate in God’s unending work for good, for life, and for love.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…
Yes, let us be glad and rejoice. For Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!
[ii] Nancy Claire Pittman, Feasting on the Word, 353.
[iii] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 161.
*Bulletin Cover by Stushie Art; Used by subscription
Our Christ Walk Continues
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 14, 2019
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40
The Season of Lent is drawing to an end. So is our Christ Walk challenge. You will recall that our goal was to cover 3000 miles—a rough estimate of the distance Jesus walked during his 3 years of ministry. Through exercise, service to others, and prayer and meditation, we are well on our way to surpassing that goal! I continue to be amazed at the good things that have happened on our journey together—not only in the accumulation of miles but in increased energy and enthusiasm for life and ministry—as well as meaningful conversations about good health practices that have occurred in our closed Facebook group as well as in face to face encounters. Indeed, this has been a fruitful Lenten Season.
Now it is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. From here, if we glimpse toward the horizon, we will see Jesus washing the feet of his beloved disciples, and offering them bread and wine saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And if we listen carefully, we may hear the cries of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it’s possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not my will, but your will be done.” Finally, the cries of Jesus will be replaced by the cries of the crowd on Good Friday: “Crucify him!”
Holy Week is upon us. Are we ready?
Through the eyes of Luke, we see Jesus entering the city riding on a donkey. It seems such a paradox, doesn’t it? The King of all kings riding on a humble donkey instead of a mighty steed. Is this a simple act or is it, in fact, spectacular? Does this day mark the beginning or the end? Will it lead to death through a crucifixion or life through a resurrection?
With such paradoxes in play, contextualizing the message becomes all the more important. In Biblical studies, contextualizing the message refers to understanding what is being said in Scripture in light of what’s going on at the time. After 2000 years, things can become a bit muddled. Sometimes, particularly with familiar passages like today’s Gospel reading, we are tempted to rush through the story and paint the canvas of 1st Century Jews with our 21st Century brush. If we do, it is our loss.
Allow me to demonstrate: Imagine with me for a moment…Eve Renfroe and I go for a little walk in her beautiful back yard. Then, in a moment of hushed surprise, we trade in the blossoms and greenery for another time, another place, another garden. We find ourselves walking in the Garden of Gethsemane in the days of Jesus. Eve turns to me and says, “Glenda, I really like the prophet Jesus. He tells stories of God’s love that speak to my heart and soul. Don’t you agree?” And I answer, “Well, yes, and I am dying to learn more about him and his movement. In fact, I’ve thrown out my Hebrew Scriptures and traded them in for a pocket-sized New Testament I just got from Amazon. Let’s sit here for a while and read it together.” Somehow, I don’t think 1st Century Jews had pocket testaments—of any sort. In fact, they probably didn’t even have pockets!
From time to time we need to be reminded that while we, as a New Testament church are quite familiar with the Gospels and the writings of Paul, things are different for the people in 1st Century Palestine. The stories that the Jewish people, including Jesus and his disciples, hold dear come from the Law, the Psalms, and the prophets. What they hear during worship and in their homes become the stories that help them interpret life around them. Like them, we are informed, comforted, and called back to God’s grace through biblical faith stories, but we mustn’t assume that we experience these stories in the same way as the people who were there. It would behoove us to stop long enough to remove our “enlightened” glasses to take a closer look.
Returning to our gospel reading, when Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, what is the experience of the crowd? Living under the power of Rome, the stories of their ancestors in Egyptian captivity are very real to them. So, Jesus’ simple procession into Jerusalem lights a patriotic spark in their souls. No doubt they hear echoes of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice, greatly O daughter, Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter, Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; humble and riding on a donkey…” Memories stir of other kings—like Solomon who rides his father’s mule into the city after being anointed king. Then the crowds shout, trumpets sound, and the ground shakes as the people cry: “Long live King Solomon!”
The people who catch the royal symbolism of Jesus’ act, spread their cloaks on the road and they worship Jesus, the Suffering Servant, as he rides into Jerusalem—not on a beast of war, but on a beast of the people—a donkey. And just as the donkey is known for its stubborn nature, Jesus, too, is determined. He will not turn back. Jesus has a message of God’s Kingdom to deliver, and he will deliver it. Recall the words of Isaiah: “I did not turn backwards, I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out [my] beard…I have set my face like flint….” Jesus, who could have turned back, who could have called down legions of angels, instead sets his face to enter Jerusalem.
Yet, the Messiah will fail to fulfill the expectations of the crowds. They want a warrior king to rescue them from their physical state. But Jesus has bigger plans in mind—holy plans—unbelievable plans.
On this day, this portal into Holy Week, we reenact Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem. We process into the church waving palm branches and we remember with joy, Jesus. We, too, lift our voices in praise. Still, even though we know Jesus will not be held in the grave forever, we wrestle with the mysterious paradox of Christ’s nature—both human and divine; both a humble king who does not overpower his followers and a king who is able to empower his followers for the work of his Abba Father; both obedient and victorious; both crucified and resurrected.
Hear again the praise of the people: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” For Jesus, this day of joy carries a hint of sorrow because he knows that the joyous crowd will soon be replaced with an angry mob. The cloaks and palms will become a crown of thorns and the donkey which bears Jesus into the city will become a cross, which he himself must bear. And words of praise will be replaced with shouts of “Crucify him!” Jesus knows that anyone can sing a word or two of praise. The eager crowd may use the right words, but they miss the point. After all, simply knowing the truth is not the same as doing the truth.
Our words must match our actions. As modern-day Christians, we are challenged to tell the story of Jesus and to show his love to a world that is free even though they live like they are still in captivity. Our task is to tell the old, old story in new and inviting ways. As a church, how are we doing?
How is our Christ Walk influencing others for love of Christ? Might we meet the challenge through lively worship that recognizes God is the audience of our praise? It’s not about you! It’s not about me! Might we meet the challenge by showing welcome and hospitality to everyone who enters our doors? Might we meet the challenge by finding new ways to engage with people who are unchurched? Might we meet the challenge by continuing our Christ Walk experience through service, prayer and meditation, and through taking care of ourselves so we may better care for others?
As a community and as individuals, our Christ Walk journey compels us to put feet to our faith; to find new ways to share our love for Christ—in our church, in our homes, in our community, and in the world.
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven. Sing Hosanna, dear Christians! Shout Hosanna!
Holy Week is upon us. Are we ready?
*Cover Art “Palm Sunday” by Stushie Art; Used by subscription
A Beautiful Thing
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 7, 2019
5th Sunday in Lent
Psalm 126; John 12:1-8
It was only six days before the Passover. Although they didn’t know it at the time, soon their Lord would be hanging on a cross. Naturally, they had heard rumors. While Jesus’ prior activities—all his teaching and miracles—had gotten the attention of religious rulers, things came to a head when he raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead. You see, many Jews who witnessed the miracle became believers, too. And when the chief priests and Pharisees heard, they called a council meeting to decide the fate of Jesus.
News of Lazarus being brought back to life spread throughout the land. People from far and wide came to see the living miracle with their own eyes. Always a bit shy, Lazarus was overwhelmed by it all: the sudden illness; his trek into the valley of death; strangers flocking to see him; and now there he sat beside Jesus.
Because Martha, Mary, Lazarus had a large home, they tried to live by the Jewish teaching of showing hospitality to strangers. They were taught that by doing so, they might be entertaining angels of God. Little did they know, when Jesus became their dearest friend and frequent houseguest, it was more than angels of God they were entertaining.
Oh, the good times they had—such joy and laughter. Jesus taught them so much—taught Martha so much. Before she met Jesus, Martha was set in her ways and could be harsh and judgmental when things didn’t go according to her plan. (She was, after all, the eldest sister.) No doubt you’ve heard the story, the story of Jesus going to her home to dine and Martha working away, playing the role of the perfect hostess. But when Martha saw Mary sitting there at Jesus’ feet as if she had nothing better to do, Martha was annoyed and judged her sister—judged her for not helping—judged her for sitting there oblivious to all the hustle and bustle. Jesus showed Martha the error of her ways, though. Jesus showed her a better way to live and move and be in the world.
Remember Jesus’ teaching? “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”[i]
Like most people, sometimes Martha was better at seeing the speck in someone else’s eyes. But Jesus taught her that God provides a variety of gifts for the common good. Though Mary and Martha were sisters, they served the Lord in different ways. While Martha’s gifts were hospitality and service, Mary’s gifts were learning and discernment. Truth be told, Jesus broke all the rules of tradition by encouraging women to learn, to study, to pray, and to grow in faith and love. In the eyes of Jesus, there was always room for one more at the table. Jesus loved and valued everyone. Period.
In all that he said—in all that he did—Jesus embodied love, acceptance, and wisdom. No wonder Martha, Mary, Lazarus were always glad to see him at their front door. And since their little town of Bethany was only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were often in their home. But one evening stands out—the evening they had something incredible to celebrate!
Of course, Mary and Martha were distraught when Lazarus became ill. It all happened so fast. One minute he was fine—and the next—he wasn’t. Not knowing what to do, they sent for Jesus. Tell him, “The one whom you love is ill.” But Jesus did not come. Jesus did not come until after they laid the lifeless body of Lazarus in a tomb.
As soon as Martha heard Jesus was on the way, she ran to meet him. With tears in her eyes, she told him if he had been with them, Lazarus would not have died. “But even now,” she said, “I know that God will give you whatever you ask…I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Then Jesus, their friend, their Teacher, their Lord, went to the place where Lazarus was buried and did more than they could have ever imagined. He called Lazarus out of the tomb. Wrapped in burial cloths from head to toe, their brother walked out of his cold, cold grave.
They were astonished. They were overwhelmed. They were filled with joy. Certainly, a celebration was in order because they wanted to share the news with everyone. But Jesus was being watched closely by the religious authorities and they soon learned through the grapevine—Lazarus was in danger, too. So, they planned a small, intimate gathering to honor Jesus.
Martha was busy waiting on their guests, filling goblets with wine, and bringing in fresh bread. Suddenly, she noticed something in the air—a rich, sweet, fragrance. Turning, she walked back into the dining area. Lazarus was sitting beside Jesus and her sister was kneeling before the Lord, drenching his feet with perfumed oil, and wiping off the excess with her hair. It was one of the most beautiful, gracious things Martha’s eyes had ever beheld.
The alabaster jar Mary cracked open was quite valuable, but Mary knew this was the time for a lavish gesture of love. Even though Jesus had warned his disciples that he would soon die, they did not understand. But Mary with her spiritual sensitivity—she recognized the imminent suffering and death of our Lord. She understood and with her whole heart, she gave all that she had.
Everyone sat in awe of the gift being poured out before them—everyone except Judas. Into this holy scene, he spoke words of judgment. Judas was always worried about the bottom line—soon, they would understand why. But at the time, Martha thought how like Judas to miss the point again. Immediately Jesus came to Mary’s defense. He told Judas to leave her alone. Jesus knew what Mary was doing and why—and he, more than any of them—knew the deeper implications—she was anointing him for his burial. [ii]
Judas and Mary—what a contrast! Judas was a thief, a false disciple, a betrayer. Mary was generous to a fault, a true disciple, a friend of Jesus.
Without a doubt, Mary’s gift was generous—even extravagant. But the life and ministry of Jesus begged his followers to consider generosity as a way of life. Everywhere Jesus went, he provided an abundance. You will recall his first miracle at Cana where he turned 180 gallons of water into the finest wine. That was more than a wedding party could possibly consume. Later, with a little fish and bread Jesus fed over 5000 people beside the Sea of Galilee. And if that wasn’t enough, there were 12 baskets of leftovers. Once, when Simon Peter and his friends went fishing, Jesus told Simon to cast his net on the other side and 153 huge fish jumped into the net.[iii]
Generosity! Abundance! It was a lifestyle for Jesus. Why shouldn’t Mary reciprocate in kind when she had the resources to do so? In that moment, she modeled how being a disciple of Jesus Christ should cost something. And in that moment, Judas modeled the price people may pay for judging others unkindly. After all, ridiculing, demeaning, and judging others can become a habit—a habit that reveals more about the person pointing the finger than anything else. Such negative behavior can keep folks so busy focusing outward, they don’t spend time sitting at the feet of Jesus; they don’t grow in their own Christ Walk. In the end, the change people want to see in others may really be the change that is needed in their own hearts and minds and souls.
Dear church, are you spending time at the feet of Jesus? If not, please hear me. Jesus loved being in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and, surely, Martha was humbled to serve him. He was her friend and she never doubted his love. Yet when Jesus returned to his Abba Father, I can’t help but wonder if she wished she had spent less time doing stuff for Jesus and more time sitting at his feet like her sister. Perhaps, in time she recalled how Jesus made a habit of going away for a time of prayer and rest, then returning filled with a deeper peace and joy. Maybe the Spirit gave her a similar desire—to live a more balanced life just like Jesus did—so that she could have that peace and joy—in her doing AND in her being—all for the sake of Christ.
Is your Christ Walk filled with peace and joy? Are you seeking ways to balance doing and being? Are you taking care of your own spiritual, physical, and mental needs so you can care for others? Resurrection morning is drawing nigh. Are you ready?
[i] Matthew 7:1-3
[ii] Resources: Carlos Wilton, Lectionary Preaching Workbook, 138.
[iii] William G. Carter, Feasting on the Word, 144.
*Cover Art: Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with nard and wiping them with her hair by DANIEL F. GERHARTZ
Scandal of Grace
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 31, 2019
4th Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
In recent weeks, our readings from the Gospel of Luke have had a common theme: the urgent need to repent. Today’s text or pericope places us at the end of a series of parables—also sharing a common theme: how God receives the sinner’s repentance. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd loses one of his 100 sheep and goes into the wilderness to find it. Once it is rescued, the shepherd calls all his neighbors together for a celebration.
In the parable of the lost coin, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and she searches diligently until she finds it. When she does, she calls together friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me!” “Just so,” the gospel tells us, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now we turn our attention to the third parable in the series. It is one of the most well-known stories of the New Testament, commonly referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable offers us an opportunity to learn something about two brothers, as well as ourselves. But more importantly, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will realize more fully the love of our Abba Father—a great, generous, even prodigal love.
“Prodigal” is an interesting word—one that is seldom used outside the framework of this story. While people assume it means “bad,” it can mean generous, abundant, or wasteful—so you see—prodigal isn’t always bad. We learn in Genesis chapter 1, for example, God creates species and resources abundantly or prodigally and it is good. Often, wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates give money prodigally (generously) to a good cause. In the parable, the son has come to be called prodigal because he squanders his money prodigally or wastefully.[i]
With his father alive and well, the son goes to him and demands his inheritance. In Jewish culture, such a request is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead.” Nevertheless, the father agrees and divides his property between his two sons. The younger one takes his inheritance and squanders it in riotous living until, finally, he finds himself without a dime to his name, nowhere to live, nowhere to turn. In desperation, he gets a job feeding the pigs. In truth, he is so hungry, he would gladly eat the pig’s food. But then he comes to himself; sees himself for what he really is. It is in that pivotal moment that his true repentance begins—as he turns to take that first step toward home.
The older brother, well, he’s always been home—never left. And when he happens upon the grand celebration that his father is giving in their home, honoring that no-good, vagabond of a brother, he is none too happy. Angrily, he rants at his father. In today’s vernacular, his ranting might sound something like this:
For years I’ve slaved for you, never once leaving you or causing you any grief and you’ve never offered to throw a party for me and my friends. Yet, this son of yours who has wasted your money on who knows what, shows up after all this time, and you have the audacity to throw a big bash like this!
In a Sunday school class he taught on this parable, Fred Craddock offered a different version of the story: The father puts the robe and ring on the older brother; the reward goes to the one who stays behind as the dutiful son. It’s for him that the father kills the fatted calf and throws a grand celebration. Craddock said that after he described this alternate version in the class, a woman seated near the back shouted out, “No, but that’s how it should have been!” Not at all what Craddock expected! But then, truth be told, what happens in the story isn’t what either one of the sons expect—for they both expect about the same thing we would—that the son who has squandered his inheritance has gotten what he deserves.
It’s about time he learns his lesson—bad behavior has consequences! Oh, he can live here, he can even have his old room back. But out in the fields he will go until he learns his lesson; until he earns—you heard me—earns—his place at the table again!
In the setting in which Jesus tells the parable, the behavior of the oldest son represents the ungracious attitude of the religious leaders who have been complaining about with whom Jesus breaks bread and spends time. Like the older brother, they feel they’ve earned their positions in life and “those sinners,” well, they got what they deserve.
We, too, may be guilty of acting like the religious leaders—especially if we have the tendency to draw lines in the sand to mark who is in and who is out. But a word of warning is in order: Drawing lines to exclude folks can be risky business because Jesus is notorious for being on the other side—on the side of the outcast, the downtrodden, the excluded! Through the eyes of Jesus, we see our Abba Father as a God of deep, abiding, boundless, even desperate love for those created in God’s image—for us. It is a love that comes in search of us; a love that allows for humanity’s free will; a love that is vulnerable.
Being a parent is hard work, isn’t it? We want the best for our children. We work and play and teach and pray—and it doesn’t end when they are all grown up—oh no—it lasts a lifetime! And often, it grows to encompass those whom our children marry…and then, there may be grandchildren to consider. Kinney and I are blessed to have four children who have brought us much joy. Oh, they aren’t perfect, but they have given us endless reasons to celebrate—from that first moment when we learned a little one was on the way, to the day of his or her birth, and then all those big days like kindergarten, school plays and musicals, birthdays, awards ceremonies, and graduations and weddings and grandchildren…
As I look back, I am humbled by the good things God has given us to celebrate as a family. But for the life of me, I cannot recall one time we had a party to celebrate anyone’s failure. Had one of our children brought “shame to the family name,” I can’t imagine us even thinking about a party. But the Prodigal, Generous Father—he will stop at nothing to welcome home the son who was lost. What extraordinary love! Even though the youngest son insults him by asking for his inheritance early, even though the son has been gone for who knows how long without a word, even though he loses everything and ends up bedded down with unclean pigs—still, when the father sees him coming over the ridge, he breaks into a run. He can’t get to him fast enough. It’s as if the father has been keeping vigil, praying for his son night and day, hoping against hope he might return.
What extravagant love! We would say, welcome him home, but be reasonable. But for God, that just won’t do. As one scholar notes, “Joy must be made all the more complete by abundance: the best robe, the finest ring, the fatted calf. This is the amazing thing about [God’s] grace, that while we remain bound in both body and soul to Adam’s sin, the Spirit of God enables us to utter the word of salvation—“Father”—and God [comes running to meet us]…”[ii]
While visiting a museum in Russia, Henri Nouwen had a chance to sit for a while and meditate on Rembrandt’s marvelous painting, “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It is the image that is provided on your bulletin cover this morning. I invite you to take a moment to examine it. [Silence is kept.] While gazing at the painting, Nouwen saw the story in a new and astounding way. There was the Father and there was the Son, Jesus, who became something of a prodigal for us all. Nouwen writes,
He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through a cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God…Jesus is the prodigal son of the Prodigal Father who gave away everything the Father had entrusted to him so that [we] could become like him and return with him to his Father’s home.[iii]
What scandalous grace is this! God’s great embrace, God’s love, compassion, and justice are deeper and wider than our hearts can imagine. God our Father is watching, waiting, and hoping that we will rush into his arms and remain there now and forevermore. Amen.
[iii] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 55.
*Cover Art “The Return of the Prodigal” by Rembrandt via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain
Comfort and Crisis
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 24, 2019
3rd Sunday in Lent
Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9
God loves us, and in turn, God yearns to be loved. Love is the main reason Jesus comes to the earth and love is at the center of today’s text—although at first glance—it may not appear so. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and others gathered around. He has been warning folks about the danger of hypocrisy, about the dangers of storing up treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven, and about the need to be watchful for surely the hour of judgment is nigh.
In the midst of Jesus’ teaching, certain they know what his message is all about, some in the crowd bring up recent news of murder in the temple. The implication is that “they” must have sinned. It’s an age-old assumption: When bad things happen to people, it’s because they have done something wrong and so they are just getting what they deserve. It was a common notion among the people of Israel. In too many circles, it is still a common notion.
“So, Jesus, how about the bloody, vengeful act by Pilate against Galileans at worship in Jerusalem? Surely such a dreadful thing would not have happened without just cause.” Jesus refutes their interpretation, perhaps foreshadowing Paul’s later teaching that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[i] Those Galileans were not more terrible than other Galileans. But Jesus warns, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Then Jesus offers another example—eighteen people who died when the tower near the pool of Siloam collapsed on them—they were no more guilty than other citizens of Jerusalem. Yet, again he says, “I tell you, unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
This passage from Luke, found nowhere else in the gospels, demonstrates that while Jesus is compassionate, he is not indecisive.[ii] He demands that sinners repent before it is too late. While God is a God of love and mercy and grace, only a cotton candy gospel promises us that God meets us where we are and is happy to leave us there—wherever “there” may be!
Jesus wants his followers to understand the harsh reality that anything can happen to anyone at any time. It’s not necessarily because “those people” are being singled out, it’s because that is the nature of the broken world in which we live. Tragedy comes, sometimes by the hand of an angry assailant, sometimes through natural disaster… That being said, it is best to get things right with God and others now—not tomorrow—but now.
Turning from this harsh reality, Jesus, the great storyteller, segues into a parable. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
There is comfort woven into this parable because it shows us that God is a God of love and second chances. But there is also a prediction of potential crisis—for one day, judgment will come. Will our hearts be right with God and with others when it does? Truly, God wants to give us more time. We see the delay of God’s judgment repeatedly in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.[iii] One example is provided in 2 Peter 3:8-9, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
St. Francis of Assisi speaks of the wondrous love of God:[iv]
May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
fiery and sweet as honey,
so absorb our hearts
as to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
to die for love of your love,
as you died for love of our love.
In the parable of the fig tree, it is commonly understood that the owner of the vineyard represents God. The gardener in the story is Jesus. And the dire situation is this: God’s chosen people, the people of Israel, have had chance after chance to fulfill their God-given task to be a light to the nations. Time has passed and now time is running out. If they fail to change their ways, there will be dreadful consequences. Jesus knows full-well what a disappointment this fig tree is, but the head gardener still has hope growing inside him—hope that refuses to die. So, in essence, he says to the owner, “Let’s give it one more chance. I will do all I can and then, if nothing good comes of it, you can cut the fig tree down.”
One scholar offers a helpful word of warning as we try to interpret the parable rightly.[v] While the owner of the land and the gardener in the parable represent God and Jesus, we push the parable too far if we slip into the error of thinking this means God is hard-hearted and bent on the tree’s destruction, while Jesus is the kind-hearted one, bent on saving the tree. Such an understanding is nothing short of bad theology. Instead, what we have before us is a divine paradox—God is pleading with God to be patient with these stubborn, wayward humans.
Does this seem ridiculous? Well, don’t you sometimes talk to yourself, especially when you are trying to work out something difficult? I talk to myself when I do something as simple as try out a new recipe. Or you might be like the person in the Facebook meme who proclaims, “Sometimes I talk to myself because I need some good advice.” Sure, most of us talk to ourselves from time to time. So why shouldn’t God the Father and God the Son be in dialogue with one another? Isn’t that what the Trinity is all about? A truer understanding of God and Jesus in this parable might be: The compassion of Jesus is God’s compassion. The love, patience, and hope of the gardener is the love, patience, and hope of the owner.
And that’s the comfort the parable brings. But there is a word of warning, too. Opportunity may knock, but it will not always be so. If the tree does not respond to the care, the digging, the fertilizer, then there will come a time when it must be cut down. God’s grace pours down upon us like rain, but if we do not accept the gift, we, too, will be barren. And if we bear no fruit, what good are we to the land-owner? What good are we to the kin-dom of God?
Jesus looks out over the people and sees the fruitless lives many are leading. They are not fruit-bearers; instead they are barren down to their roots. While some will accept him with open hearts and minds, others will follow him in secret; and still others will out and out reject him. Nevertheless, Jesus the Bread of Life, looks with compassion on them for he knows what they are missing out on—the good news of whole, transformed, abundantly fruitful lives.
Here we are this morning, still on our Lenten journey. It’s the perfect time to examine the health of our hearts and minds and souls. How are we doing? How are we responding to God’s grace and love? Have we turned from sin? Are we bearing fruit? By the way we choose to live, can people tell we are followers of Jesus Christ? Do we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If not, what areas most need tending?
In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of the story—only, “One more year, and we’ll see…” God wants to give us more time so God will hoe and throw fertilizer and do the hard work, but we will have to do our part. A day of reckoning is inevitable. One day we will each breathe our last—from dust we came—to dust we shall return. It is prudent and wise to get things right with God and with others—and sooner is much better than later.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Romans 3:23
[ii] The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 705.
[iii] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Series, 169.
[iv] St. Francis of Assisi, “For Love of the Love.”
[v] Rev. Bruce Prewer at www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C22lent3.htm
*Cover Art “Parable of the Fig Tree” via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain
I Will Be Confident
2nd Sunday in Lent
Jane Shelton, CRE; March 17, 2019 – First Valdosta
Have you ever had someone tell you, you need to have more confidence?
How do we respond to that statement, and do we really even know what the word “confidence” means?
Someone who has too much confidence, may be considered arrogant or boisterous, while someone with too little confidence may be considered timid or shy, or just insecure in what they know or believe about something.
So where is the balance?
The dictionary defines confidence as “full trust, or belief in the trustworthiness or reliability of a person or thing.”
So let’s think about this. Why is it hard for us to have “full” trust of something in our lives? Is it because we have been laughed at when we expressed an opinion or thought? Have we felt scorned, judged or wrongfully accused? Is it because we have been disappointed by someone or something that we fully trusted and that has now made us weary? Perhaps.
But in today’s scripture readings, both in Psalms and in Luke, we meet two people who are fully trusting in what they know and believe.
First, in our Old Testament scripture, the Psalmist, believed to be written by or for David during his early reign as King, lays out a remarkable profession of faith in God.
He recounts his adversarial encounters, and then states, “yet, will I be confident,” and then another statement of a rising of adversaries, followed by an affirmation of what he believes: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
It is important to note in this Psalm that we can see in David’s lament and exhortation of his faith in God, faith and trust do not come without difficulties as God’s servants, yet we are also equipped by God with hope and courage, despite these difficulties.
Will we have light or will we have darkness. Fear or faith? Trust or doubt?
Over and over again we see the blessings or saving presence of God as light. The psalmist affirms the desire and intention to live in God’s light…in God’s presence.
In his writing, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Present Concerns, C. S. Lewis wrote:
“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
- S. Lewis was attempting to express upon his audience that when we surround ourselves with “Oh, the sky is falling” attitudes, we begin to believe that indeed it is, and everything around us becomes suspect.
These negative and fearful thoughts interfere with our Christ journey, causing us to look inward to ourselves rather than looking toward Christ for a new and positive direction.
Lent is a journey that causes us to look both inward and outward.
We look with deliberation at our spiritual lives. We ask ourselves:
– How can we further our relationship with God?
– How can we deepen our connection to God and grow the ministry of Jesus?
– Where do we find new direction to give our lives more meaning and hope in the promise of a risen Christ?
– How can we expect to grow Jesus’ ministry when we don’t take the time to grow our relationship with God?
– How can we find ways to grow spiritually?
It could be that while we are searching for new ways to bring new energy and direction to our lives, that we can participate in ways that God has set before us here at First Presbyterian Church Valdosta, such as Centering Prayer on Wednesday evenings, Generations of Faith Sunday School, a First Friday Contemplative Service, or a Christ Walk study during Lent.
These are ways we can learn to grow spiritually, both individually, and with one another, if we are only willing to risk a new way of life, a new experience with God.
We find it so hard to change our habits and learn new ways to explore our relationship with God, yet this is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.
Jesus brought a new and exciting way of thinking about God, something beyond just the written law of the Old Testament. A new way of thinking that caused people to feel loved and accepted. Something experienced in the heart.
As we turn our attention to the Gospel of Luke, we see two pronouncements in our scripture: Jesus will not die out of season, and he will finish his divinely appointed mission in Jerusalem.
We see the Pharisees characterized as those who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”
In this scripture it is not made clear whether Herod and the Pharisees were working together to run Jesus out, but it is hard to believe that with all the other stories of the Pharisees’ dealings with Jesus that they were here to advise him of any favors.
I’m guessing they wanted Jesus to be gone as soon as possible from their sight so they could get back to things as normal. Their normal, with them in control rather than having Jesus teaching people to think for themselves, to think outside the norm of control by the law, as taught by the Pharisees. A norm to benefit their rule and the rule of Herod, not the kingdom of God.
Herod, the “fox”, as Jesus called him. Herod, the sly, cunning and destructive character on the scene along with the Pharisees certainly saw Jesus as a threat to their control over the people of Jerusalem.
However, in his divine faith and confidence in his mission given to him by God, Jesus does not let Herod deter him from completing the work set before him. Jesus continues to cast out demons and heal the sick – acts that show the divinity of Jesus and his connection to the kingdom of God.
Both Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his death there will be controlled by his faithfulness to God’s redemptive purposes, not by Herod.
In Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he remains obedient to God’s direction.
His reference to a prophet not being killed outside Jerusalem, is a direct statement of fact in how Jerusalem has consistently killed prophets sent to Jerusalem to save God’s people, yet they turn away from these prophets again and again. They turn away from growing their relationship with God.
In Jesus’ statement, “How often I have tried to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you are not willing!” shows his frustration with their ignorance; their inability to see the obvious. Their unwillingness to see the direction of God for their lives.
My mother used to use a phrase to emphasize how mad someone might be as, “they were as mad as an old, wet settin’ hen.”
Growing up with chickens at our home, I knew exactly what she meant, because you never wanted to disturb a hen that was setting upon her eggs, or one that was guarding her baby chicks under her wings!
It is the ultimate example of protection of the love of a mother over her young. Jesus uses this example to show the extent of his love and the love of God for his people.
Today, we ourselves, do not want to miss the efforts of those who are trying to gather us under their wings, to protect and save us from those who wait to devour, those who lurk behind the scenes with gossip and words that tear down rather than build up the kingdom of God for their own selfish gain. We must ask ourselves, do we want to be a Pharisee or a disciple of God?
We, too, must be careful who we allow in our hen house, in our Jerusalem. Do we want a fox, sly and cunning? Or the loving and protecting wings of God?
Jesus’ divine confidence leads us to look toward the one who loves us, the protector and savior, the one who covers and shields us from the ever present dangers of evil. Our adversaries lurk around us, sly and cunning like a fox working its way into the hen house, but we can be confident and obedient to God’s direction in our lives. We can have the same confidence as Jesus, not arrogant or boisterous about what we know, but committed and faithful to God’s direction in our lives.
Recently in our Generations of Faith Sunday School Study, we covered a chapter on Loving Self. In this study, the writer, Brian McLaren, wrote:
“You have this self. What you do with it matters a lot. You can be self-absorbed, self-contained, self-centered, selfish, self-consumed — and your closed-in self will stagnate, spoil and deteriorate over time. Or you can engage in Spirit-guided self-examinations, self-control, self-development, and self-giving — and your self will open and mature into a person of great beauty and Christ-like maturity.”
McLaren went on to say, “God isn’t a divine killjoy. God wants to love you the way God loves you, so you can join God in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation. If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of self-care and love of self that is good, right, wise and necessary. And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: to journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love. There we find God. There we find our neighbor. And there we find ourselves.”
When reading this, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus as he journeyed ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love. There, he knew he would find God.
Why do we find it difficult to journey there?
How do we find the confidence that that the Psalmist had, that Jesus had in knowing God’s divine purpose for their lives?
Risk taking is often difficult, yet often rewarding. If you haven’t been to Centering Prayer or First Friday Contemplative service, risk to be there to commune with God among friends. It may feel strange or odd at first, but God will be there to give you comfort.
The Psalmist knew how to get self out of the way so that he experienced God’s divine purpose. He was not deterred by adversaries and woes of life, not that he did not experience them, but he was so focused in knowing that God was ever present, confident that God would lead him, protect him, and love him no matter what life brought his way.
In his response to Herod and the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to trust rather than fear. When we turn our attention in the direction of God, we find light, life, strength, and courage. We find confidence in one that never leaves us alone.
We find God in the presence of our lives.
The Psalmist told us “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” The Gospel of John (1:5) tells us “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
In the light of God, we find both faith and hope that give us life and peace.
Jesus displayed this in the confidence with which he walked and in what he taught his disciples and others around him.
Waiting for God is active, and the season of Lent is a reminder for us to be active in waiting for God. Active in our study of scripture, active in our time for prayer, and active in recognizing God’s path for us. Trust and not fear.
Jesus followed a “divine timetable,” and in so doing, he followed the will of God according to God’s schedule. Jesus had work to do, and he was confident in his journey with God.
Just as Jesus was confident in his mission, we are called to be confident in our relationship with God and to follow his will for our lives. Jesus has given us the example…..Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Shall we be confident in our journey?