Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “What are you looking for?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“What are you looking for?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020

10th Sunday after Pentecost

John 1:35-42

 

The Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Then we are told, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”[i]

 

Once John the Baptist’s ministry is in full swing, priests and Levites come from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to ask, “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” John tells them he is not the Messiah. Rather, “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

 

The next day, John sees Jesus approaching, and he testifies to the truth he knows in his heart: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When he baptizes Jesus, he sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove from the heavens. Then, the very next day John stands with two of his disciples as Jesus comes near. Again, John testifies, “Look, here is the lamb of God!” John’s disciples are so convinced of his testimony, they leave John’s side and turn toward Jesus. Jesus sees them and asks, “What are you looking for?” Instead of answering him, they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” They come and see where he is staying and spend the day with him. Andrew, one of the disciples, is persuaded that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah so he rushes to find his brother, Simon. Jesus takes one look at him and gives him a new name: Peter.

 

In this text we see people who witness Jesus, are changed by Jesus, and are compelled to go and tell others what they have experienced. Come and see. Go and tell. But what about Jesus’ question for these first seekers, “What are you looking for?” Wouldn’t the logical question be, “What do you want?” But maybe this story is not about what people want. Maybe it is about what people need—deep in their hearts and souls. What are you looking for? “Come and see,” is Jesus’ invitation. The disciples take Jesus up on his offer and stay long enough to realize Jesus is “the real McCoy,” as we say in the South. So, they rush to tell others. They cannot wait to share the good news.

 

What are you looking for? Come and see.” Then, “Go and tell.” This is the evangelistic model that continues to propel the church forward, but how are we doing at our “going and telling.”

 

While perusing the internet, I happened upon a blogpost about traits of churches that will impact the future.[ii] Those who study church trends agree that there is a cultural shift happening and for the church to remain relevant, it must change. But it is important to recognize that it is not THE STORY that needs to change—just the method of sharing it. (One is sacred—the other is not!) So, what are some hallmarks of churches that will likely make an impact over the next decade? Those in good standing will be flexible and welcome experimentation. They will embrace innovative strategies—knowing full well that some things will work while others will not. They will accept that bigger is not always better. God calls us to thrive whatever our size, so small churches need to get over the idea that they will only be successful when they grow up and become the big church down the street, or the big church that they once were. Smaller venues actually allow for deeper relationships to form—another hallmark of the church of the future. Churches that provide a place where questions are welcomed instead of silenced will be in good stead. While these are all good traits, there was one on the list that really stood out for me: The need for the church to prioritize a “for you” instead of a “from you” culture.

 

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Too often, that is not the question that is on our lips. Rather, we gaze upon too many empty pews and in panic mode we look out into the world, and ask, “What can we get from them? Our numbers are dwindling, and we need them to come and save us.” But we do not need them to save us. Christ has done that!

 

Many of you have heard the story of my encounter with a Pastor Nominating Committee over a decade ago. They came to hear me preach and invited me out for lunch. Although things went well, I had a strong conviction that the church they represented was not the church to which I was being called. Maybe that is why I was able to be blatantly honest with them when they posed the million-dollar question.  “We’ve got $1M debt from the new sanctuary we just completed. What can you do to bring in people to help us pay off that debt?” Wow! The question sort of takes your breath away. Doesn’t it?

 

Folks, if we look out into the world at people who are struggling and have no faith community, and all we see is what we can get from them—then we are on a crooked path that will lead us nowhere near Jesus Christ. But, if our heart’s desire is to be a thriving church of the future, we will be passionate about what we want FOR people—not FROM them! We will want every person of every age and race and background to know Jesus. We will want to help people become part of something bigger than themselves—with Christ at the center of their lives. We will embrace the opportunity to build relationships with people in person and through online platforms. We will model how to share the wondrous story of the transforming power of God, made perfect in Jesus, and made available to us through the Holy Spirit. Along the way, “Come and see. Go and tell!” may become our motto. If so, we may look to Peter as our guide. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.[iii]

 

Concerning the importance of the church, one writer notes that churches are “the kitchens where Christians are ‘cooked’ into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray, and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbor.” [iv] The work of the church is important. The work of our church is important. And if we want our work to matter to future generations, it behooves us to be open to new ways to share the gospel story.

 

Even so, it is possible for a church to do all these things—and more—and still not grow numerically. But it seems to me that God is less interested in the numerical growth of the church and more interested in the spiritual growth of the church. God’s desire is for believers to become loving, mature, effective Christians. I daresay, there is not a person in our church family who does not long for us to grow in numbers, and if that happens, we will give God all the glory. But if it does not happen, let us remember that numbers are not everything. I mean, Jesus did just fine with a dozen fellows and a few faithful women. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Excerpt from John 1:1-7, NRSV.

[ii] Carey Nieuwhof blogpost at http://careynieuwhof.com/2013/05/11-traits-of-churches-that-will-impact-the-future/

[iii] 1 Peter 3:15b, NIV

[iv] David L. Odom blogpost at http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/07-21-2014/why-do-congregations-matter

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Do You Want To be Made Well?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Do You Want To be Made Well?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020

9th Sunday after Pentecost

John 5:1-9

 

During Jesus’ ministry, he asked many more questions than he answered. Following in his footsteps over the last few weeks, we have considered some of those questions: Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? The other nine, where are they? Why are you afraid? Are you not of more value? Good questions—all of them. But the question we focus on today seems almost ridiculous. Imagine with me—a man has been ill 38 years. When Jesus sees him lying by the pool of Bethzatha, the question Jesus poses is: “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to be made well? I want to be made well when I have a cold that hangs around for more than 38 hours so if I were ill for 38 long, grueling, life-limiting years—there is no doubt in my mind—I would want to be made well. Wouldn’t you? What an odd question.

There is something else unusual about this story—the text itself. Ancient manuscripts of the original Greek are quite confusing—something that is most evident in the addition of verses 3b-4 in some later manuscripts. Both the NRSV and NIV add this as a footnote to describe why people gather around the pool with its five porticoes in the first place. Thus, in the NRSV verse 3 reads, “In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed,” to which ancient manuscripts add, “waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” How interesting!

The man to whom Jesus directs the question, “Do you want to be made well?” is crippled in some fashion. We know this because he tells Jesus he does not have anyone to put him into the pool when the water is stirred up. In other words, whenever he tries to make his way into the pool, someone steps ahead of him—someone else gets the blessing. Thus, there is no way the man can possibly be healed—on his own. But Jesus, the Healing One, has a habit of going beyond what is possible to create new life and wholeness. As they say, “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.” Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

You will recall the story of the enslaved people of Israel who grow in such number in the land of Egypt that Pharaoh sees them as a threat. As a result, he decides to eliminate their number one male child at a time. The people cry out to God and God intervenes by raising up one of the male children to lead them out of Egypt. After many signs and wonders, the Israelites are granted permission to leave. When Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them with all his military might in tow, God intervenes. God makes a way where there seems to be no way and saves the people. They respond by singing and dancing and worshiping on safety’s shore. Then, with God as their guide, the people begin their journey to the Promised Land. Soon, though, the daily grind of traveling toward a land flowing with milk and honey loses its luster and they begin to grumble. “Where are the melons and grapes we left in Egypt? Remember the fresh fish and fresh bread? Is it too much to ask for basic necessities like bread and water? Moses, did you bring us here in the wilderness to die? We could have died just as easily and in better living conditions as Pharaoh’s slaves.”

The people of Israel cry out to Yahweh for years, “Come, save us!” Yahweh answers—but not in the way they want. They want God to fix everything; to make life easier for them—immediately. And could it be—they have no desire to do their part? “Fix it God but let us have only the good and not the bad. Fix it, God! But do not ask too much of us. Do not ask us to change. Just be our genie in a bottle—come when we say come—leave when we say leave!”  But God is not a genie in a bottle and God will not be used. God loves us and meets us where we are—but God never intends for us to stay there. God intends for us to live and love and grow. And, along the way, God expects us to participate in our own wellness, and in the wellness of others. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus sees a man who is waiting by a pool of water, waiting for an angel of God to move the water. By some miracle, the man hopes and prays he might be the first to feel the cool, healing water upon his skin. Even though he does not ask Jesus for healing, that does not keep Jesus from doling out God’s grace. Once the man is healed, Jesus offers instructions: “Stand up. Take your mat and walk.” The healed man is now called to respond. Now what? Where will his next steps lead? Is he headed down the yellow brick road of life without a care? Sadly, there are those who say so. There are those who believe that if we are followers of Jesus—if we have enough faith—then Jesus will touch us and make our lives picture perfect—now and forever more. Eugene Peterson warns against such an understanding:

I want to go over some old ground here, repeating what seems—in our culture, anyway—to need frequent repeating: entering into a life of faith…following Jesus, centering our life in the worship of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. Christians get cancer in the same proportion as non-Christians. Believers are involved in as many automobile accidents as nonbelievers. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior as it did before. I don’t take any particular pleasure in writing this. I would feel better if I could promise that being a Christian gave us a distinct edge over the competition.[i]

So, enough faith does not assure our heart’s desires! If that were the case, wouldn’t we be in control of God? But God will not be controlled. God is God and we are creatures made in God’s image to love God and to care for ourselves and one another.

For the crippled man, new life is his and new life comes with new freedoms, new joy, and new responsibilities. Things will be expected of him that were not expected before. Likely, he will have to go to work; get involved in his community. For the first time in 38 years, he can worship with other believers and joyfully bring a tithe of the first fruits of his labor. Though everything has changed, and his life has been transformed, there will still be hurdles aplenty. Such is the way of life. Always has been. Always will be.

On a spiritual level, this healing story offers another insight worth pondering. Isn’t it true that in one way or another, life has a way of crippling us all? Someway, somehow. So, I ask you: What is crippling you? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Fear of change? Disbelief that God can still make a way where there seems to be no way? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Do you doubt God’s love for you? Have you gotten caught up in negative behaviors like cynicism, gossip, bitterness, or other habits that cause harm to your body, mind, or spirit? What keeps you stranded on your mat? A false belief that you already know all you need to know about God—so prayer, Scripture reading, meditating and other spiritual disciplines—well, they are just not for you? What keeps you stranded on your mat?

In this moment, could it be that Christ’s Spirit is calling each of us to participate in our own healing in some form or fashion? Does Jesus have a word for us about standing up and walking boldly into a new future? How will we react to God’s grace—for we, too, are beneficiaries of God’s favor, and we, too, are called to respond. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

[i] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 195.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Questions Jesus Asked Summer Series  Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith? 

July 26, 2020

8th Sunday after Pentecost

Questions Jesus Asked Summer Series

Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?

Mark 4:35-41

Boat Jesus

Recently, a charming little sign showed up on Instagram with the following printed on it:  “Do Not Be Afraid” is written in the Bible 365 times.  That’s a daily reminder from God to live everyday fearless.”

Well, when we see amazing stories spread like wildfire on social media, it is good to be skeptical!

Let’s take this charming Instagram message.  A little fact checking uncovered it isn’t actually true!  Shocking, right?!!

Depending on what, if any, variations are included in the count, the number of “fear not” references in the Bible are actually between 100 and 300 – hardly a year’s worth!

But does that make it any less true?  Would the admonition to not fear be any less true if it only occurred once in the Bible?  After all, God only had to say “Let there be light,” once and that was enough!

 

In our gospel lesson, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and he needs a break.  “Let’s take a trip across the Sea of Galilee,” he says to his disciples.

In his book, “The Journey,” Alister McGrath explains that in the New Testament the earliest term used to refer to Christians was “those who belong to the Way,” based on Acts 9:2.”

McGrath goes on to say, “Thinking of the Christian life as a journey through the world offers a vivid and helpful way of visualizing the life of faith.”

He provides two points to consider:

“1. The image of a journey reminds us that we are going somewhere.  We are on our way to the New Jerusalem.  It encourages us to think ahead and look forward with anticipation to the joy of the arrival.  One day we shall finally be with God, and see our Lord face-to face!

2. Traveling does more than lead us to the goal of our journeying. A journey is itself a process that enables us to grow and develop as we press on to our goal.

To travel is thus about finally achieving journey’s end, with all the joy and delight that this will bring—but it is also about inducing personal and spiritual growth within us as we travel.  Journeying is thus a process that catalyzes our development as people and as believers.

In one sense, people who complete the journey are the same as when they began it.  Yet in another sense, they are different in that they have been changed by what they experience.  A journey is a process of personal development, not simply a means of getting from A to B.  The journey allows us to understand ourselves better.”

 

In our scripture journey today, we know that at least four of Jesus’ disciples are experienced fishermen so when a storm arises that terrifies them, we can safely assume it’s a dreadful storm.  As the water rises inside the boat, so does their sense of doom.  And if you’ve ever been in a boat filling up with water, you can certainly identify!  They are scared out of their wits!

With hair standing on end, they’re quaking in their sandals convinced that disaster is at hand, while their beloved Miracle-Worker is undisturbed by the tumult, fast asleep on a nice soft cushion.

“Are you kidding me?!” they must have thought.  They reach over and shake him.  “Jesus! Jesus!  Wake up!  Look’s what happening!  We are about to die!  Don’t you care?!”

Jesus wakes up and realizes that his disciples are in a tizzy.  So Jesus calms the storm that’s causing the ruckus, “Peace, Be Still!”  The storm listens.  The storm obeys.  Then Jesus turns to address his companions:  “Why are you afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”  They are dumbfounded.  How is it that even the wind and sea obey the Teacher?

Now I’m sure all of you have noticed the yard signs around our neighborhoods that read, “Faith over Fear,” and I’m sure Jesus was holding up this sign at this moment in the boat!  Yet, isn’t it so much easier to read it or think it, than to live it?!

While in one sense this incident may be foreign to us — on another it’s quite familiar.  Because even if we have no experience of being on a boat in a storm — the story resonates with us for it depicts chaos without – the storm at sea – and chaos within – the disciples’ fear.  Yet – Jesus isn’t afraid.  Instead, Jesus takes a nap.  One commentator has this to say:

‘This story offers meaning on literal and figurative levels.  The world of nature can and sometimes does bring terrible storms, and we must take necessary precautions.  On a figurative level, there are many “storms” in life that cause us to feel swamped indeed, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Often, one of the first casualties when we are afraid or uncertain is our ability to sleep peacefully and restfully.  Yet here Jesus sleeps in a storm of wind and waves at peace and unafraid.  Jesus sleeps in trust and confidence, because he knows that in life and in death, he belongs to God.  God has power over everything, including nature itself.  Jesus’ word to the wind and waves is also his word to the disciples then and now, “Peace! Be Still!”  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God and has the power to save us replaces fear with trusting confidence, allowing us to sleep in peace.’

‘Does this mean there’s nothing to be afraid of?  No doubt the disciples have good reason to respond as they do to a very real danger just as the frail vessels we call our lives respond in fear at the wind and waves that assail us from time to time.  In our individual lives, in our life together as a church, as a nation—we have plenty to fear:  disapproval, rejection, failure, our own insignificance, disease, and of course, we fear death – our death, and the death of those we love.’

There is more than enough to make us afraid, and if we keep up with the news, our fears are multiplied with things that are happening in our neighborhoods, cities, and country, as well as tensions around the world.

So what are we to do?  Pretend things are okay and bury our fears deep inside ourselves until we explode with anxiety?  The disciples certainly could not muster up the faith in the face of the storm to rest their heads on a soft cushion.  Rather, Jesus calms the storm and Jesus calms them with the power of his presence.

On our life journey, in the face of wind and rain, in the face of stresses in our lives, are we waking Jesus up?  Are we turning to Jesus, the Lord of wind and wave, and saying, I am afraid, please calm the storm?

There are plenty of scary things in life, but no matter how scary something may be to us—it does not—it cannot—have the last word because ultimate power belongs to God Almighty!  Are we training ourselves to look forward with anticipation of the joy of arrival?

Recall the words of the Apostle Paul, “…in all these, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We should paint that on our garage walls so we can read it as we drive out into the world every day!

We should tattoo on our forearm Peace!  Be Still! so we can glance down at it every time fears rise inside us.

“Peace! Be Still!”  The truth is fear doesn’t get the last word of who we are and whose we are.  Surely, there are real and fearsome things in life but they need not paralyze us for no matter what boat we’re in—we’re not alone.  Being still and knowing God is God—–that’s something we need to remember—365 days a year.

 

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Are You Not of More Value?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Are You Not of More Value?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 19, 2020

7th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 6:25-34

 

Normally, Stephen was a happy fellow—content with life and hopeful about the future. But lately, things had taken a turn. What once had brought him joy, now left him despondent. “Could this be a midlife crisis?” he wondered. Stephen was an attorney and he, along with his wife and a college-friend, had a lucrative law firm just south of Atlanta. To outsiders, Stephen had it all—but in his heart—he knew that was not the truth—not the real truth. He had reached an impasse. He needed something more. But what?

A sense of gloom permeated Stephen’s waking hours and disrupted his sleep. He could go to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow; he just could not stay asleep. So, there he would be, lying beside his sleeping wife, Sally, with his mental wheels spinning. On good nights, memories carried him back to the days of his childhood. He grew up with two loving parents who made sure Stephen had every opportunity. He wondered if they would be concerned if they knew what he was going through—all this worry and dread—over only God knew what!

God—now that was a subject for Stephen to ponder in the midnight hours. Raised in the church, as a child he loved being there as much as his parents did. But when he got older and began questioning some of the teachings of the church, he did not feel welcome anymore. By the time he graduated from law school he had lumped “those Christians” into one category—a group of people who were judgmental, anti-intellectual, and mean-spirited. He wanted nothing to do with people who claimed to be followers of Jesus but seemed to identify less with Jesus and more with whatever they happened to be against at any given moment.

But when he and Sally married, she wanted them to be involved in a church—as a couple. He tried. Really, he did. But to no avail. He still loved God, but his way of loving God would not allow him to check his mind at the door. Nor could he accept that God’s message for him had anything to do with a blueprint for a happy life, 5 steps to success, or excluding people different from him.

Besides the church, Stephen’s parents had another passion—being outdoors. They enjoyed hiking, swimming, biking, kayaking, and camping. Actually, they loved nature so much that early in their marriage they made a pact to visit every national park in the United States. Since they were both teachers with ample time off in the summer, the plan was challenging, but it was also achievable. What wonderful adventures they had traveling from coast to coast as a family. Oh, how Stephen missed those days.

One rainy evening, Stephen was catching up on some reading when his friend, Joe, called. They had attended college together and had been friends ever since. They had a lot in common—not least of which was a love of hiking, so much so, they spent one whole summer hiking along the Appalachian Trail. They had talked about doing it again sometime, but never got around to it. On the phone, Stephen and Joe caught up with one another. “How’s the family?” “How’s work?” that sort of thing. Finally, Joe got to the point of his call. “I have two weeks of vacation coming up and I wondered if you would like to go hiking with me in the Smoky Mountains? We always said we would take another trip. Let’s do it!”

Stephen hesitated, mentally clicking off a litany of reasons why he could not go. But then he realized none of his reasons were valid. He was in between cases at his law firm, and there were others who would gladly pick up the slack—especially Sally. She would be thrilled he was doing something—anything—to improve his somber demeanor.

The trip came together quickly and even before everything was loaded into the SUV, Stephen’s heart began to beat a little easier. So off they went, driving through Georgia and into Tennessee. The plan was to begin the trek at Newfound Gap Road outside of Gatlinburg and hike Alum Cave Trail up to Mount LeConte. From there, they would take in every noteworthy vista they possibly could—rain or shine.

Stephen brought along a small book that contained a variety of nature poems and excerpts from writings of people like John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist who advocated for the preservation of the wilderness in the United States. After their first day of hiking, the two friends sat on a cliff at Mount LeConte, eating their dinner and waiting for the sun to set. Stephen pulled out his nature book and found words written by John Muir nearly a century before:

The mountains are calling and I must go…I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains and learn the news…Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

Stephen yearned for nature’s peace—peace in his heart and mind and soul. He did not know where to start. Or did he? Maybe this was the place to start. So out on the trail, hiking and resting and eating and breathing in the splendor all around, Stephen talked to Joe about his life—the truth of how lost he felt. He told Joe that he believed in God and missed being with other believers. But when it came to organized religion, well…

Stephen could not have turned to a better person to talk to about faith because after college, Joe attended seminary to become a chaplain. Joe was a Presbyterian—the only Presbyterian Stephen had ever known. Yet, even as a chaplain, he never pushed his faith on anyone. Instead, he listened. He was such a good listener. For the next few days, the two friends had long talks over miles of mountainous terrain. Joe shared teachings of the Reformed tradition of which he was a part. He talked about how everyone was welcome at Christ’s Table. No one was excluded. He mentioned that different ideas were not only appreciated, they were expected. Joe shared the emphasis Presbyterians place on the sovereignty of God and on God’s grace—poured out for every human being. “Everything begins and ends with God,” he said, “and it is our life’s work to glorify God in whatever we say; whatever we do.”

When the trip was over and the two friends were about to part ways, Joe casually invited Stephen to church. Stephen promised to think about it and, sure enough, the following Sunday, he and Sally showed up at Joe’s church. Stephen was nervous but then, isn’t everyone nervous when they enter a church for the first time? They were greeted at the door by someone with a smiling face and a kind voice. It had been a long time since Stephen had been in a church and he had never been in a Presbyterian Church. The people were friendly and welcoming, and he sensed prayer was important to them, because so much emphasis was given to prayer during the service. Although the hymns were unfamiliar, there was one he really enjoyed: “God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars…”  And when the minister opened the Bible and began to read from the Gospel of Matthew, Stephen’s heart skipped a beat—it was one of his favorites: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air.”

Stephen had read it many times but this time something new caught his ear. It was the question Jesus asked: “Are you not of greater value than these?” Immediately visions of all the wonders of nature he had seen since his childhood flashed across his mind like a vivid slideshow. There was the view from Mount LeConte, the Grand Canyon, the beautiful valleys of Yosemite and Shenandoah, and the geysers of Yellowstone. “Really, God? I’m more valuable to you than these?” In his heart, he heard the answer, “Yes, my child, more valuable than every wonder of creation your eyes have seen—and countless ones you have not. You are more valuable to me than any of them.”

On a Sunday morning, in a quiet place of worship, Stephen was surprised by God’s grace. Tears filled his eyes as he experienced God’s love washing over him. He remembered how Joe had described the people of his church—as loving, caring, and accepting. Were they, really? Could they honestly accept people with differing views and still love them? Would they welcome him—along with his questions and his doubts? Could this place offer a respite for his soul? Was there that much room around the Table? Stephen did not know the answers to his questions. But he knew this: he would be back to find out.

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

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Can You See Anything?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Can You See Anything?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 12, 2020

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8:22-26

Scripture is filled with readings that invite us to celebrate. Psalm 150 comes to mind:

Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple….praise him for his excellent greatness…. praise him with lyre and harp, timbrel and dance; with strings and pipe…with resounding cymbals…. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.[i]

What a grand worship service the psalmist portrays. Yet, if we are honest, there are times when we gather as God’s people and we do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God, who seems to have left us on our own. When this happens, the psalmist has other words for us:

O God, you have shaken the earth and split it open; repair the cracks in it for it totters. You have made your people to know hardship…. Save us by your right hand and answer us…Hear our cry, O God, and listen to our prayer. We call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts.”[ii]

We have been livestreaming worship in the safety of our home for the past four months. During that time, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the globe. Our nation has recorded over 134,000 deaths due to the virus; our economy has been shaken to the core; and there seems to be no end in sight. With heaviness in our hearts, we have cried out to the Lord. And another cry has reverberated around the globe, the cry of one man, George Floyd, who pleaded for his mother even as a police officer held him in a choke hold until he could breathe no more. In that moment, a seismic shift occurred that sent shock waves around the world. Since then, we have been inundated with heartrending images of alarming behaviors, flashing before us like lightning strikes in the midnight sky. So much tragedy, so much sorrow. O God, we call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts…repair the cracks in the earth for it totters…

When faced with systemic problems that threaten to destabilize our fractured nation, we could easily fall into despair. We could let our lives be governed by anxiety that leads to loss of sleep and loss of perspective. As Christians, we know in our hearts that with Christ’s resurrection, all things are made new. But we also recognize that not yet are things as they will be when Christ returns. We live in the in-between times. In these in-between times, when we look at the world and wonder why evil continues to happen, it behooves us, whether virtually or in person, to gather with other believers and with all the saints who have gone before us to turn our eyes upon Jesus. In the presence of the Word, the Water, and the Table, dirt and grime that keeps us from seeing with heavenly eyes can be washed away. In community, we can re-gain perspective—re-gain holy perception.

Perception—the ability to see, hear, understand, or interpret something through the senses—is the focus of today’s gospel reading. On Jesus’ preaching tour, parables are told, storms are calmed, and people are healed. Doing the work of his Abba Father, Jesus feeds the multitudes and, just for kicks, he walks on water. Actually, business is booming until Jesus reaches his hometown of Nazareth. Then, because of the unbelief of the people there, only a few are healed.

When Jesus enters the village of Bethsaida, some folks bring a blind man to him and beg Jesus to touch him. Jesus responds by taking the man by the hand and leading him away—maybe Jesus wants a little privacy. Then Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on him but when Jesus asks him if he can see anything, the man answers, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” The man can see—something—but his perception is impaired until Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again. Finally, his eyesight is restored, and he can see clearly.

Jesus’ healing ministry is writ large over the landscape of the gospels but there is something unusual about this story found in the Gospel of Mark alone. It is the only miracle Jesus performs that happens in two stages—as if he fails to get it right the first time. We are left scratching our heads, and as you might imagine, scholars have varied opinions about the meaning behind Jesus’ 2-step recipe for healing. Some suggest that Jesus’ power is affected by the lack of faith he finds in the people. Others propose the man’s own spiritual condition is a factor.

Of course, we cannot know why Jesus offers a second touch before the man’s sight is fully restored. But if we look closely, we may recognize a metaphor for the faith that Jesus finds in those around him. After all, even his disciples see through a glass dimly. Truth be told, the incident mirrors the faith journey of every believer because no one sees everything clearly in a flash. Instead, if we set our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we may come to see more clearly—learn to see with spiritual eyes—moment by moment, day by day.

Learning to see with spiritual eyes—it is a process!  James Fowler wrote a book about this process entitled Stages of Faith. In it he proposes that there are 6 stages of faith that begin when we are toddlers and continue through maturity. The progression is from blind faith, to seeing the world in black and white, to learning to see the world through the eyes of our peers and others around us. Then we gain some autonomy and begin to take responsibility for our own beliefs and attitudes—even as we develop a gnawing sense that life is too complex for us to rely on our judgment alone. By the time most of us reach mid-life, we accept that there are contradicting truths in the universe that we can never explain. We gain a capacity to make meaning in new ways and we learn to appreciate symbols and rituals and myths. The final stage that Fowler proposes—the sixth stage—is one most people never reach. The rare folks who do, live out their faith in absolute love for all people. They are engaged in spending and being spent for the transformation of the present reality. They are often honored more after their death than during their life—think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Of course, there is no greater example of faith fully realized than Jesus who demonstrates how we are to live into our baptism—loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

If our desire is to progress in our own faith journey, we may have to turn down the voices of the world that scream over our news channels and news-feeds—voices that encourage us to have fear instead of faith—voices that urge us to hate rather than love—voices that make it hard for us to see that the stranger is also made in the image of God—voices that keep us mistaking people who do not look like us or people who do not agree with us—as little more than trees, walking.

Maybe, though, we are satisfied with our vision. Happy with the status quo, we are comfortable with our prejudices, and we do not want God messing in our lives. If so, the last thing we want is for Jesus to show up and spit in our eyes to provide a different point of view. But whether we want it or not, clarity—clear vision—is what the world needs. It is what our nation needs. It is what we all need. And God is calling every believer to wake up to the wonder of what God might do with us, among us, through us, and for us. “Well, that sounds fine in a sermon,” you might say, “but in the real world…” As part of Adam Hamilton’s survey of “Christianity’s Family Tree,” he reflects on how Orthodox Christians see “the real world.” He notes,

The Orthodox remind us that our daily lives (our jobs, our schooling, our relationships) are not the real world. The real world is heaven, God’s eternal kingdom; and real life is found in participating in that divine kingdom now, here on earth; we are, in the words of Scripture, just pilgrims and aliens here. There is a heavenly realm that we cannot generally see. It is invisible, but it is all around us; and if we really knew and understood this, if we participated in this realm, our lives would be radically different.

What a wonderful way to see “the real world.” Would we behave differently if we imagined God constantly at our side? If we imagined the Holy Spirit within us and the heavenly saints cheering us on? How might we react to seemingly insurmountable challenges if we were convinced that there was something more real of which we are a part?

Yes, if we are honest, there are times when even the faithful do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God. Yet, we need not despair because in life and in death, we belong to God, and Jesus is our guide. With just a touch, he can help us see more clearly. He can help us love more fully. And if our hearts are open, he can show us our role to play in changing the world for his sake. In these dismal days, Christ stands before us and beckons us to speak love and not hate; to wage peace and not war. Let the transformation begin and let it begin with me! Amen.

[i] Adapted from Psalm 150, The Book of Common Prayer

[ii] Adapted from Psalm 94-95, The Book of Common Prayer

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “But the other nine, where are they?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“But the other nine, where are they?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 5, 2020

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  As he enters a village bordering Galilee and Samaria, he is approached by ten lepers who live at the boundaries of the region. They are outsiders. Once upon a time, they may have been divided by such things as profession, religion, or nationality, but now they are united by a common goal—survival. Together they seek their most basic needs for they are at the mercy of others.

 

Perhaps the day begins like any other as the ten lepers wander from their dwelling place to approach—as close as they dare—the people passing by—people on their way to family—on their way to friends—on their way to lives. But the ten lepers have none of those options available to them. Instead, they make their way along the familiar trek to plead for crumbs from society.

 

The lepers have heard about Jesus—this One who calls himself the Son of Man—this one who has amazing healing powers. So, they rush toward him and call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!  Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  We can only imagine the anguish in their voices. Here is their one chance—their one shot at being healed. So, they cry out. They do not care about social norms, about proper behavior, about what people will think of them. What man cares about social graces when he has already lost everything?

 

The lepers cry out from the depths of their hearts in sheer desperation. Desperation often has that effect on us. When we come up against something in life over which we have no control, when the diagnosis is cancer, when the marriage is about to end, when hopes and dreams go up in smoke—we are likely to fall to our knees with tears streaming down our faces. In that place of darkness, we too, plea for mercy from the depths of our soul. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!”

 

Jesus sees the lepers, this sampling of broken humanity, and he has compassion for them. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he says. They do not even stop to ask for clarification. They just go—maybe a little slowly, at first. After all, slow may be the only speed they are capable of—with extremities deadened by disease. Then transformation begins. They start to feel a tingling sensation in their fingers and toes. Strength returns to arms and legs. Smiles appear on faces that are no longer distorted. With each step their pace quickens. They near the temple, eager to receive the stamp of approval that will allow them to return home—home to family—home to friends—home to lives.

 

Except for one. One man restored to health turns to leave the other nine. He retraces his steps because he feels compelled to go back to the Source of his healing. His heart is nearly bursting with joy as he approaches Jesus but this time, this time he does not stand off at a distance. This time he goes right up to Jesus and proceeds to fall on his face at his feet. With hands and face gripping the dirt beneath Jesus’ feet, he gives thanks and praise!

 

And he is a Samaritan! To many Jews, he is considered “unclean” with or without leprosy. Yet, with one word from Jesus he is no longer unclean—no longer unaccepted. Instead he is made well. With his restored body, he has gained a new way of being in the world. And from this point on, what he does with his life will be his gift back to God. So, he begins the best way he knows how—with praise. The Samaritan, the foreigner, praises God and gives thanks to Jesus who is the source of his healing. In response, Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

 

“The other nine, where are they?” Well, they are off doing exactly what Jesus told them to do—showing themselves to the priests—and along their path to obedience they are healed. Still, we cannot help but consider Jesus’ question: Where are the other nine?

 

Imagine with me for a moment: A cure for COVID-19 has been found and we are safely gathered to worship in our lovely sanctuary. Now, in your mind’s eye, notice the empty pews in the balcony and on the main floor. Finally, notice how few young people are in our midst. Where are the other nine?

 

In the introduction of her book, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Carol Howard Merritt shares her story about being a child of the 70’s attending a conservative church with her family—every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other time the doors were open. She did not mind—quite the opposite—she loved the church—and could not wait to reach the age when she could participate more. She was particularly interested in mission work. But things changed when she went to college and began to delve deeper into her faith. As a feminist who believed that in Jesus Christ “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” she had to face the fact that in her church her spiritual gifts were not acknowledged. She saw herself as an environmentalist, yet the church was more concerned about the great by-and-by than in being good stewards of God’s great land. And how was she to resolve her experience of people outside the church being more gracious, loving, accepting, and responsible—more Christ-like—than the people who gathered inside the church?

 

Eventually, Merritt experienced God’s grace and was nurtured in her faith through the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her journey is not uncommon for people of her age-group. But the truth is, today there are many folks of all ages who are looking for a place where their ideas on environmentalism, economic equality, and justice for all people can be heard and where their connection to God can be nurtured.

 

The other nine, where are they?

 

When it comes to young adults, while many have left the church, others are seeking a place to call their spiritual home. So, what is it that draws them to the church? A special issue of Presbyterians Today entitled “Young Adults: Their Vision for the Church” reveals that there is a shift in what young people are seeking in worship. Instead of amusement and entertainment, they are interested in worship that points them to God and fills them with a sense of the sacred. On this theme, Rachel Held Evans wrote, “We’re not leaving church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there…What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

 

Nathan Proctor who is an associate director of music in a Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, wrote the following:

 

I am a millennial who unabashedly loves worship. I love the energy of being around people, singing hymns together, hearing new ideas from Scripture, and then discussing it all over lunch…Authenticity is essential…We have too often experienced church as a social group busy with the work of going through the motions…Now is the time for something real! We want to feel the joys and sorrows of those around us instead of being met with the happy Sunday church face. Church leaders: tell us something about faith or this church that really matters. Help us discover what is new in Scripture, moving us toward deeper understanding. Make us feel the world Jesus inaugurates. Challenge us; give us something new to think about.

 

“The other nine, where are they?”

 

Seekers young and old are challenging the church to redefine what it means to BE the church. For example, while many of us have questioned the value of new technology like Facebook, months of livestreaming may have changed our opinion. How can we ignore the fact that our church is reaching three and four times more people via livestream than we do for in-person worship on any given Sunday? And when the pandemic is over and we are able to return to “church as normal,” will we continue to welcome people into our midst, virtually? Will we learn the languages of Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom to discover new ways to share Christ’ love with those who may never darken the door of 313 N. Patterson Street? Might we even be open to offering hybrid educational experiences that welcome in-person and distance learning?

 

Especially in these trying times, folks are searching for more of God. They need hope. They yearn for a space that will allow them to listen for the still, small voice of God. They want to be inspired by beauty and wonder—so much so—they cannot help but fall at the feet of Jesus to offer their own word of thanks and praise.

 

“The other nine, where are they?”

 

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

 

(Let us keep silence.)

 

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

 

 

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 28, 2020

4th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2:23-3:6

During seminary I attended a lecture series given by Bonnie Thurston. Her theme was Paul as a mystic—a man of fervent prayer, a man through whom the Holy Spirit works mightily. In the academic realm, Dr. Thurston is an interesting blend of the head and heart. While she is a New Testament professor, author, and accomplished speaker, she is also a contemplative who is drawn to the holiness of the everyday. She is a spiritual teacher and a wise soul.

 

Although it is not easy to define wisdom, people generally recognize it when they see it. The information hub, Wikipedia, defines wisdom in the following terms: It is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. To act wisely requires an understanding of people, things, events, situation, and the willingness as well as the ability to apply perception and good judgment.

 

Pondering the topic of wisdom makes me exceedingly grateful for the wise individuals God has placed in my life. I am also thankful for the wisdom I have found in books written by deep spiritual thinkers—from the works of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, to monastics across the ages, to more modern-day writers. Brother Lawrence comes to mind. He was a 17th Century French monk who, by grace alone, learned to practice the presence of God at all times. Listen to these wise words he shared with someone in his community:

 

Let us think often that our only business in this life is to please God, and that all besides is but folly and vanity… I am filled with shame and confusion when I reflect, on one hand, upon the great favors which God has done, and incessantly continues to do me; and on the other upon the ill-use I have made of them, and my small advancement in the way of perfection.[i]

 

In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote:

 

If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.[ii]

 

Concerning the ministry of listening, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

 

The first service that one owes to others…consists in listening to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear…Christians…so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others… They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.[iii]

 

In these challenging times in which we live, times that beckon us to be a part of the change we want to see, listening may be our most important work—that is, if we intend to act wisely.

 

Another author that graces the shelves of my study is Cynthia Bourgeault. An Episcopal priest, she has written several books but the one that fascinates me most is The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. It was through her eyes that I first began to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher, as a sage. In her words:

 

There has always been a strong tendency among Christians to turn [Jesus] into a priest….but Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him. His message was not [about returning] to the covenant. Rather he stayed close to the perennial ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked those timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself? These are the wisdom questions and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.

 

Today marks the beginning of a sermon series entitled: Questions Jesus Asked. Jesus, who asks eight times more questions than he answers, is the master of asking good questions that challenge cultural norms and lead to a place where transformation can occur. He refuses to accept the status quo. Instead, he fearlessly walks into potential conflict with the intention of turning people’s world view upside down.

 

In our gospel reading, for example, Jesus is in trouble with the Pharisees because his disciples have walked through a field and plucked some grain to eat on the Sabbath. It seems simple enough—they are hungry, and they eat what is available. But the Pharisees interpret their act as work. Jesus tries to help them reinterpret the meaning of Sabbath by pointing out that the Sabbath was made for humankind—not humankind for the Sabbath. But they miss the point.

 

Afterward Jesus enters the synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watch closely. Unimpressed with Jesus’ power to cure, they are concerned with whether or not he will heal someone on the Sabbath. So, Jesus poses a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” Then, without performing any physical action, without even touching the man, he instructs him to come forward and stretch out his hand. The man does so and is healed. Jesus speaks words of healing on the Sabbath and for that the Pharisees plan to destroy him.

 

Ultimately, Jesus will challenge every legalism that makes of the Sabbath a burden to bear rather than renewal for the road ahead. But nowhere in Scripture does he dishonor the Sabbath. Addressing the holiness of the day, Bonnie Thurston’s writes,

 

I think a mark of our distance from God and God’s image is that we often do not know when to stop. We keep working until it is counterproductive. In fact, we have found it hard to take seriously God’s command to rest. And it is a command, not a polite request…God is so gracious to us that God has commanded us to rest. The Hebrew word for ‘rest’ literally means ‘to catch your breath.’ God has commanded us to take time to catch our breath…[Quoting Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Thurston continues:] ‘Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.’[iv]

 

Jesus is interested in “the seed of eternity planted in our soul.” He is not interested in religious leaders who habitually choose the letter of the law rather than God’s love within the law.

 

In 2009 I had the privilege of walking the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem with a group of 23 pastors. Throughout this sermon series, our bulletin cover art will be photographs taken by a clergy friend on that pilgrimage. It is my hope that they will help us get a lay of the land, the Holy Land from which Jesus poses many questions—questions that are harder to answer than one might imagine. For instance, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” But wait a minute Jesus, on which day of the week is it lawful to do harm?

 

(Let us keep silence.)

[i] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 50.

[ii] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 134.

[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classis Exploration of Faith in Community, 97.

[iv] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 68-73.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Glory of the Father

Glory of the Father

Romans 6:1b – 11

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Jane Shelton, CRE

First Presbyterian Church

June 21, 2020

 

It is certainly appropriate on this Father’s Day Sunday that we recognize and look to the love of our earthly fathers and father figures in our lives.

Fathers come in all areas of lives.  Some are called Daddy, others are called grandpa, uncle, brother, cousin and friend.

Fathers who have sacrificed so we might have comforts such as food and clothing.  Fathers who have provided love and understanding.  Those who shared knowledge and direction in our lives that helped get us where we are today, and helped us be who we are today.

Yet greater than these is our Heavenly Father who sent Jesus, so he could walk with us and teach us how to live.  Our Heavenly Father, who raised Christ from death so we too might walk in newness of life.  Like Christ and because of Christ, we are alive to God, the Father.

In our newness of life, we are servants who trust in God, receive forgiveness and receive steadfast love.

When we experience uncertainty, fear, heartbreak, death and loneliness, our Heavenly Father is with us, and when we cry out, our Father in Heaven listens and responds.  In our anguish, God consoles us, and in our fear, our Lord gives us strength.

 

I remember looking through old family photographs with my parents and siblings many years ago, and among these black and white photographs were pictures of a family reunion at my mother’s parent’s home.  My siblings and I would point to all our cousins and name them, and the aunts and uncles and grandparents.  Mama filling in the ones we couldn’t name.

In this series of photos, I was being held by my Father in all of them.

It didn’t matter how many times in my life we sat down to look at these photographs, my mother would tell the story about how I would not have anything to do with anyone but my Daddy.

You see, we lived in South Carolina at the time, and had come to Georgia to visit my mother’s family, which was very large.  And I’m sure that those some 40 strangers to a two year old probably felt like a mob of 80 people or more!  I was overwhelmed, and I sought the comfort of the strong arms of my Daddy who I knew would protect me….much to my mother’s disappointment!

I’m sure, she simply wanted to share me with her family.  But I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.  Safe within my Daddy’s strong arms I found my refuge.

 

Is it not this same security we find with our Heavenly Father?  Always there to embrace us, care for us and protect us from the dangers we face today.  Dangers such as hate from people we’ve never met; dangers of diseases that create havoc in our communities and around the world; dangers of loneliness and isolation.

And joyously, we can be reminded that we have a new life given to us by the glory of the Father in Heaven!

In our scripture, Paul tells us that just as Christ was raised from death, we too might walk in newness of life.

Through our baptism, we have been given newness of life to walk, not in our same day-to-day activities of life of our past, but with a new focus and identity in Christ Jesus.

We cannot experience change, unless we are willing to embrace this new identity.

Paul believed that right identity preceded right actions.

Right identity before right actions.  What does it mean to have a new identity?

 

Shawnthea Monroe, a writer of a Pastoral Perspective in one of my commentaries tells a story about her cousin who entered a medical school,

“students were instructed to call each other “doctor” from day one.  They were not really doctors, but people who were living, learning, and growing into this new identity as doctors.  Using the title was a way to remind them of the goal toward which they were striving.

In the same way, I once knew a minister,” she continues, “who always addressed his congregation as the “saints of God.”  While I am relatively certain few of these people considered themselves saints in the popular sense of that word, just hearing themselves called saints made them feel ennobled and reminded them of who they were.  Like those medical students, they were living, learning, and growing into a new identity.”

 

It is by the glory of the Father that we have been baptized into a new identity, and one that when embraced brings the power to shape our behavior and move us into action.  Action that reflects the life of Jesus.  A life of forgiveness, understanding, love and teaching.

The question for us today is what new identity do we need to claim for ourselves?

Our day to day lives only change if we embrace our new identity that we have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ.  God loves us and accepts us where we are right now.  Once we accept this new identity we are made new and are Christ like, then we can move forward in right actions as servants of God.

By the glory of the Father, like Christ, we are empowered to walk in this new life we have been given through our baptism.

This identity does not demand a change, but creates a glorious possibility to be alive to God.  What good news!

 

I’m sure if you talk to most anyone today, they would like a do over on 2020.  This year has been filled with confusion, disappointments, bewilderment, and many struggles that we must come to grips with in our lives.

As we live through these struggles we are faced with, how do we respond?  Out of anger and hatred?  Out of resentment toward an evil action or force beyond our control?  Where do we turn for help and answers?

As we heard the pleas from the Psalmist’s writing that Dick read from Psalm 86, “I am poor and needy….preserve my life….save your servant who trusts you”….and the pleas go on until the last sentence, “because you, Lord, have helped and comforted me.”

The Psalmist is embracing the role as servant, recognizing God’s ability to fill the soul with the power to sustain us with good.

Through Christ and by the glory of the Father we have been given a new life to be alive in God.  A God who sustains us with good, not anger and violence.  Like Jesus, we can teach others how to walk away from sin of hatred and violence through our actions of love.

We have a new identity to which we can live in that is not violent, rather a life filled with love and peace.  All we have to do is claim it and live a life alive in God.  Glory be to the Father.

*Cover Art Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-00903-OL, ‘The angels rejoice at Jesus’s Ascension as He returns to the Father in Glory’, copyright © Radiant Light 2006, www.radiantlight.org.uk