All for Love

All for Love

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 25, 2020

21st Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1a, 5-12; Matthew 22:34-40

 

On the liturgical calendar, today is the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. It is also Reformation Sunday. The motivation behind the Reformation was a deep love of God and a desire to hold religious leaders accountable for their corruption and their blatant misuse of power. No doubt, many good things came out of the Reformation, including the Presbyterian Church. However, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died for their beliefs. Religious property was destroyed, and the unity of the Western church was broken. In fact, division remains a hallmark of the Protestant movement. Sadly, it is a hallmark of the culture in which we currently live—for our nation is suffering. We are broken. We are divided. Looking out over the horizon, we cannot help but wonder if there is a path that can lead us to a brighter future for us all?

 

In our reading from Exodus, we happen upon Moses’ last mountain top experience. Accompanied by Yahweh, he goes up to the high places where the LORD shows him, from a distance, the Promised Land. In the presence of God, Moses dies. Then, we are told, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”[i]

 

Moses was an extraordinary man of God and a prophet. But even Moses falls short when compared to God’s Son.  The Letter to the Hebrews tell us, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself.”[ii]

 

In many ways, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses. Allow me to provide a few examples. First, when Moses is born, his life is spared while many baby boys of the land are killed at the command of Pharaoh. When Jesus is born, his life is spared, while many babies are killed at the command of King Herod.  Second, when Moses’ life is in danger he flees from Egypt to Israel, and then later returns to Egypt. Jesus takes the reverse trip: From Israel into Egypt (as a baby) and then later back to Israel. Third, Moses does signs and wonders—like asking God for food and receiving manna from the heavens. Jesus does signs and wonders like feeding the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. And finally, Moses goes up on the mountaintop to receive the Law, while Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, goes up on the mountain to teach a new way of understanding it.

 

No wonder Jesus reminds the people of those beloved stories of Moses who delivered God’s Law to God’s people. Over time, the laws grow as rule upon rule is added. Finally, 613 rules become a burden that can hardly be born. And it is the Law that becomes the focal point for our Gospel reading. The religious authorities are trying to trap Jesus. At their wit’s end, they send in the brightest of the bright—think of him as Walter Brueggemann (retired Old Testament Professor from Columbia Theological Seminary). So here comes Brueggemann, who knows his stuff, with his question: “Teacher, what commandment in the law is the greatest?”

 

Since, in the minds of the Pharisees, keeping the law is what makes a person holy, this question is really about holiness. Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus answers the question by redefining holiness. Jesus does not choose laws over people, or people over laws. It is not one or the other, because the law is not about a list of dos and don’ts. At its heart, the law is about relationships—it is about being guided by love to act in loving ways.

 

All of the law is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ because in all things, in all ways, Jesus models how to be in relationship with God and how to be in relationship with the people God loves.[iii] Moses may have delivered the law to the people, but Jesus has the authority to condense it down to—not 10—certainly not 613—but two commandments: love God and love God’s people as you love yourself.

 

Undoubtedly, Jesus models love of God every time he walks away from the crowd to pray, every time he spends the night listening to his Abba Father, and when he boldly prays: “Thy will be done.” But from experience we know that loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind—loving God like Jesus does—is impossible without God’s grace. We cannot do it on our own.

 

While Jesus shows us how to love God, he also shows us how to love our neighbor. Throughout his ministry, Jesus shows mercy when mercy is needed. Jesus shows compassion when compassion is needed. Jesus speaks the truth when the truth is needed. Jesus embodies the words of Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, points us toward the spiritual Promised Land, a land where love reigns supreme.

 

Yes, we are living in divisive, troubling times. But Christ offers us a path forward, a path marked with mercy, compassion, and love. Christ is—and always has been—our only hope. With this in mind, I offer you a blessing, written by Ruth Burgess.[iv]

In the starshine and sunshine of God may you be warmed and welcomed.

In the stories and laughter of Jesus may you be called and challenged.

In the fire and breath of the Holy Spirit, may you be awakened and kept from harm.

May your home be a place of hospitality and kindness, a beckoning lamp in the darkness,

A shelter for questions and dreaming, a safe space for joy and tears.

Live well—and—may you celebrate life together.

May you grow in love for each other.

May you dance with the little ones,

The saints and the angels,

May you be cherished,

May you be blessed.

[i] Deuteronomy 34:10-12

[ii] Hebrews 3:1-3

[iii] Sermon Brainwave

[iv] A Book of Blessings—and How to Write Your Own, Ruth Burgess (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001), p.54.

 

It’s All God’s

It’s All God’s

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 18, 2020

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:15-22

 

You gotta love Jesus! Well, of course you have to love Jesus—I mean if you’re a believer—if you’ve been baptized—if you know him as the Christ who entered the world to set things right—of course, you love Jesus. But I am not talking about Jesus, the Divine Son of God. I am talking about Jesus, the human, Jesus the person. Without a doubt, he is an extraordinary man. He loves boldly and shows kindness at every opportunity. He is angered when the poor and downtrodden are mistreated. He is compassionate toward children and others whom society disregards. He is a sage—wise beyond his years.

 

A study of Jesus as a man would not be complete, I would argue, without considering his sense of humor. Yes, Jesus has a sense of humor. There is too much evidence to believe otherwise. Think about it: Much of Jesus’ life is about joy. At the wedding in Cana, he turns water into wine—to help the family save face—but also to ensure that everyone has a good time. One writer notes, “The Gospels reveal Jesus as a man with a palpable sense of joy and even playfulness. You can catch glimpses of this in His interactions with the men, women and children of His time as well as in many of the parables.”[i]

While Jesus is a joyful man and a good friend—he is also a man of great intelligence—whose brilliance never shines brighter than when he is outsmarting his opponents. And in today’s gospel reading, his opponents come in a most unusual pairing—Pharisees and Herodians. The Herodians, as their name suggests, are Jewish allies of Herod Antipas—so they support paying of taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees, on the other hand, are committed to the Jewish law down to the letter—so they oppose paying taxes to Caesar on religious grounds.[ii]  Despite their differences, however, here stand Pharisees and Herodians—those who favor Rome and those who do not—united against a common cause—united against Jesus—and armed with a highly charged political question.

 

But first, they lay the groundwork, attempting to put Jesus off-guard—pretending they are something they are not. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

 

Jesus was not born yesterday. He sees straight through them—straight to their heart and soul. Not one to mince words, Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”  Isn’t it peculiar how these pretenders, bent on trapping Jesus, speak the truth even in their ignorance? Jesus is sincere. Jesus does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth and Jesus shows no partiality.

 

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. And there in broad daylight, they hand over a coin. On one side, there’s an image of the emperor—and on the other, words claiming the emperor’s divinity. Therefore, what these religious leaders hand Jesus is nothing less than a graven image, banned in the commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” Even though, the Pharisees are opposed to having in their possession any sort of graven image, someone has a coin in his pocket!

 

At this point, I imagine you can hear a pin drop. Will Jesus take the bait? If Jesus answers no, he is in trouble with the Roman authorities, and a quick trip to Pilate will set things straight. If Jesus answers yes, he is in trouble with many of his own followers. He is between a rock and a hard place, but with Jesus, that’s when things get interesting. Looking at the coin, Jesus calmly inquires, “Whose head is this and whose title?”

 

“The emperor’s.”

 

By now, the disciples of Jesus may be feeling a little nervous. The Pharisees and Herodians are filled with anticipation, surely thinking, “We’ve got him now. He’ll never get out of this one.” They couldn’t be more wrong for in the blink of an eye, the tables turn, when Jesus says to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are Gods.” With a simple coin and a simple sentence, Jesus avoids the trap of the Pharisees and the Herodians, but he does more than that. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are other layers of meaning for us to grasp.

 

In 1st Century Palestine, the denarius represents the dictating powers of Rome and their annual taxation, which is administered by the Jewish authorities.  In his response, Jesus allows room for Caesar, for the emperor, for governing bodies.  But that is not the end of the story because he adds, “and to God the things that are God’s.” Nothing could be clearer. “The earth is the lords and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.” All things belong to God. The realm of politics is always subservient to God so the emperor, the king, the governor, the president—they hold no power other than what is on loan to them.

 

Then there is the issue of money itself. It is something about which Jesus holds strong opinions. In fact, it has been said that Jesus teaches more about money than any other topic. You remember his admonition, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[iii] At the end of the day, the things in heaven and the things on the earth—it’s all God’s. All of creation! Nothing we own is truly ours—it is all on loan, which begs the question, “How well are we taking care of God’s possessions?”

 

And if we are talking about what belongs to God, we must include ourselves for in Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We are made in God’s image and baptism marks us as God’s very own. We are God’s currency. How are we spending ourselves on God’s behalf?

 

While Jesus is surely wise, witty, and wonderful, it is another personality trait that is captured my attention this week—his courage. Jesus is brave beyond measure. He is not afraid that if he fails to play the games of the world, he might lose his status. He does not care if people criticize him. Even the religious rulers who think they hold all the power, fail to intimidate Jesus. Why? Because from the day of his baptism, when Jesus is anointed by God’s Spirit, he becomes a man on a mission. From that moment, nothing deters him from doing the will of his Abba Father. An inner awareness of who he is and whose he is shapes Jesus’ interactions with everyone he meets—even those who oppose him—even those who will, ultimately, crucify him.

 

Autumn is upon us and with it comes the Stewardship Season of the church. Though things are different this year because of a global pandemic, still, we are responsible for the financial well-being of our congregation. Still, we are called to pray and ponder what our contribution to the Lord will be in the coming year. Still, we renew our intent to contribute our God-given time, our God-given talents, and our God-given treasures to make a difference for Jesus inside the walls of our church and beyond them. We are the body of Christ in this time and this place and we all have something to offer. What shall we bring?

 

It is an honor and a joy to be a follower of Christ our Savior. Day by day, may we yearn to be more like him. In his earthly ministry, he demonstrates radical hospitality and generosity. Jesus gives of his time—even when the crowds are so thick, he has to get into a boat to teach them. Jesus gives of his talents—a healer, a sage, a teacher, a multiplier of fish and bread. And Jesus gives of his treasures—not the emperor’s coin but something of much greater value. Jesus gives his life! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] James Martin, S.J. @http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/28558-jesus-was-funnier-than-we-think

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 191.

[iii] Matt. 6:19-21

*Cover Art via Unsplash, used with permission

Holy Transformation

Holy Transformation

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 4, 2020

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 3:4b-14

 

More than anyone other than Jesus, the Apostle Paul shapes the history of early Christianity—quite a surprise since Scripture introduces him as a young man who approves the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Later Paul is given permission by the high priest to pursue others who belong to “the Way” but on his journey to Damascus he encounters the Risen Lord. For three days Paul is unable to see until at the Lord’s bidding, Ananias arrives. Paul’s sight is restored, and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized.  Once he regains his strength, he begins to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen.

 

Paul leads mission trips, writes letters of encouragement and correction to the churches, and performs miracles in the name of Jesus. He is also beaten, shipwrecked, and imprisoned. Over time, by the work of Christ’s own Spirit, Paul undergoes a holy transformation to become a powerhouse of faith and practice. God working!  God transforming!  How can we talk seriously about being made new, without talking about God? And if it is a model of faithful behavior we are after, the Apostle Paul surely fits the bill.

 

Through the lens of our epistle reading for today, let us consider what Paul might have to teach us about living a life of faith. First, he encourages us to ponder where we are now. Do we feel imperfect? If so, we are in good company because Paul feels the same way. He writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal…” When we become children of God, we are declared not guilty, and therefore righteous, because of what Christ has done. It is not our efforts at law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline that puts us in right standing with God. Furthermore, we know our complete perfection will not be achieved on this side of eternity. Even so, we are responsible for working toward wholeness, toward perfection as long as we live. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “The Christian life consists mostly of what God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is and does. But we also are a part of it. Not the largest part, but still part.” Interestingly, a mark of Christian maturity is to acknowledge our imperfection. It turns out, being imperfect is a good place to start because it is the only place we have!

 

Paul also invites us to reflect on where we have been.  In his letter to the church of Philippi, Paul defends the rights of Gentiles to be Christians. He opposes Judaizers, who are teaching it is necessary to first become a Jew, to first be circumcised. For Paul, circumcision is of no value unless it is circumcision of the heart. Faith is what is essential. Claiming the authority that has been given to him, Paul reviews his credentials:  Jewish by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure Hebrew, and in addition to these inherited privileges, he has excelled in everything Jewish. In essence, Paul says, “If you want to play the game of works righteousness, I can play, and I can win.” But in the next breath he acknowledges that none of his credentials give him reason for boasting—only Christ is cause for that. So, while looking back at where we have been has its merits, what is more important is where our next steps lead.

 

This brings us to our final point. Through the life of Paul, we are encouraged to take stock of our lives and consider where we want to go. To make his point, Paul uses the metaphor of a runner pressing on to win the prize, straining forward to what lies ahead. We can almost feel the heart pump, the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache. Is he contradicting himself and now saying that faith is through works? No! For Paul, faith involves running, wrestling, striving, and fighting. Trust in God’s grace does not make Paul less active, but rather sets him free to run the race with his eyes on the prize. “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Come what may, Paul presses on. He does not wait idly by for perfection to come to him. He pursues his goal while, at the same time, he recognizes that it will only be through God’s grace that he will ever reach it.

 

Christ is the blueprint for Christian behavior, and Paul, who models his own life after Christ, becomes a model for the church at Philippi. He becomes a model for us as well and, down through the ages, other models have followed. Now, it is our turn. Now it is up to us to demonstrate to the world what Christian behavior looks like. With the privilege of belonging to Christ comes tremendous responsibility because we are to be the hands and feet and compassionate heart of Christ for the world. And we will always be in process—such is the story of the life of every believer: we slip, we fall, but we rise again to join the race. We press on, urgently pursuing the goal—but, oh the prize—that glorious time when we will all be transformed into the likeness of Christ our Savior. Through Paul, who experienced a holy transformation, we witness the wisdom of taking the time to ponder where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to go. No doubt, the race ahead of us will have its wins and losses but, if we press on, the ultimate prize will be ours!

 

As Christians, we have sisters and brothers of the faith around the globe. But no matter the distance between us, whenever we gather to worship God—whether in person or virtually—we do a bold thing. We sing. We pray. We confess. We proclaim. We return a portion of our God-given bounty to God. We share the Sacraments. Then, when we depart from our time of worship, again we dare to do a bold thing. We dare to claim the power available to us for the race ahead. We dare to announce God’s love for all people. We dare to work toward peace and justice for everyone. We dare to imagine a world filled with people transformed by God’s grace and we dare to be a part of that transformation. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art FPC World Communion Sunday 2019

Authority in Christ

Authority in Christ

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 27, 2020

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32

 

As many of you know, I have had a spiritual director for most of my ministry.  Because of my appreciation for the practice, a few years ago I earned a certificate in Spiritual Direction from Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. And just recently, I started facilitating a Spiritual Direction Clergy Support Group for our Presbytery. Since meeting with a spiritual director is not a common practice, you might be wondering what it’s all about. Well, a spiritual director is a friend with whom you sit in prayer and in quiet conversation, together trying to discern the direction the Holy Spirit might be leading. It’s less like a counseling session and more like a “spiritual listening” session.

 

As a minister, I can honestly say that meeting with a spiritual director has been invaluable. Doing so, helped me find my way into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It helped me hear God’s call to Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church and then, over 4 years ago, FPC of Valdosta. The practice of spiritual direction has helped me to become more courageous as a leader on behalf of God’s kingdom work. It has helped me claim the authority I have been given (through my baptism and ordination)—authority to live fully as a seeker of God’s face—authority to encourage others to do the same.

 

Authority. It is the issue at hand for Jesus in our gospel reading. The chief priests and elders have been watching him. By this time, in Matthew’s telling, Jesus has entered the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers, and in righteous indignation proclaimed, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” While we might imagine Jesus as meek and mild, here we witness him at the onset of his ministry, as a truth-teller who stirs up trouble with the powers that be. And the powers that be do not relinquish their control without a fight—never have—never will. But that does not stop Jesus.

 

In today’s reading we find Jesus again in the temple. And the chief priests and elders approach him with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Make no mistake, they are not acting out of curiosity. They are acting out of a desire to bring Jesus down to size. In today’s vernacular think: “Who said you could do that? Who do you think you are? You’re too big for your britches. You need taking down a peg or two…”  When it comes to questioning someone’s authority, it is rarely an act of observation or casual interest. Rather, as in our story today, there is an ulterior motive at work. In the case of the chief priests and elders, they have come to trap Jesus. But what do they hope to accomplish by questioning his authority? Their motivation isn’t clear, but there’s one thing that is—things don’t turn out like they plan.

 

In the commentary, Feasting on the Word, Charles Campbell, Professor of Homiletics at Duke University, tells the following story:

A few years ago, while channel surfing, I paused and watched part of an interview with television psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil. At one point the interviewer asked Dr. Phil, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.” As soon as Dr. Phil spoke, I remember thinking, “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.

 

As the chief priests and elders discover, conversations with Jesus can be dangerous. Especially when, like a good rabbi, he answers a question with a question:

“What do you think?” he begins and then tells a story about a man with two sons. In the parable, the father asks each son in turn to go out to the vineyard to work. The first says he will not but then he has a change of heart and goes to do his father’s bidding. The second says he will, appearing to be the obedient son, but then he does not follow through with his promise. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the chief priests and elders say, “The first.” Herein, Jesus seems to be getting at something worth remembering: What matters is not talking the talk—it’s walking the walk. Then comes the punch line…wait for it…wait for it…“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Did you get that? Jesus has just told the “authorities that be,” the very “keepers of the law,” that they will enter God’s kingdom behind sinners whom they hold in contempt.

 

The Letter to the Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. Of unknown authorship, originally, it was written to newly converted Jewish Christians to stress the superiority of Jesus to anything in heaven or on earth. Jesus is superior to the angels and heavenly beings. Jesus is superior to the prophets of old, even Moses. Jesus is superior to the priests. In other words, Jesus is THE AUTHORITY! In all that he says, in all that he does, Jesus is concerned with being the power—the power of God—the power of love! And Jesus uses his authority to model his own command: “Love the Lord your God with all your strength and all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus uses his authority to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.

 

One biblical scholar makes an interesting observation[i]: Jesus has authority because it is given to him by his Abba Father. In point of fact, authority is always given. This is the primary difference between power, which is the sheer ability to do something or bring something about—and authority, which is one’s ability to do or say something because they have been given that ability. In other words, a person has the authority to do things because he has been authorized to do them by the author, or the one with the actual power.

 

Authority may always be given—but it is given in two ways. Authority is given by those “above” with the power. It is just as often given by those “below” who decide to accept it. And here is the thing: in about 99% of the cases of our lives, those with authority over us have it only because we give it to them. The colleague who slighted us, the child who disappointed us, even the spouse or parent who abandoned us—yes, in each case the person in question may have actually done something harmful, even devastating; nevertheless, the way we regard that action and person over time is something we get to determine. If we are still angry, hurt, disappointed, or upset, it is because we have decided to give authority to that person or event to continue to influence and even dominate our lives. We may have been victimized, but we choose whether or not we will live as a victim.

 

When it comes to the religious rulers who question Jesus, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon to ridicule them. But it might be wise to take a moment to consider how we use or misuse our own authority. We are, after all, baptized believers, and through the work of Jesus Christ, we have been given authority. So how are we using it? Are we following in the path of Jesus? Do we use our authority in God’s kingdom work—in whatever measure we have been given—to look to the interests of others, rather than our own? Do we have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited?

 

Love, selflessness, humility, regard for the other, vulnerability—these are not at all the characteristics associated with authority. But such is the way of Jesus who uses his last ounce of human authority to gaze upon those who’ve put him on the cross and say with all the strength he can muster: “Forgive them Father. They know not what they do.” This is love in action. This is power with a purpose.

 

As we walk in the path set before us by Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, day by day may we, too, grow into the authority given to us at our baptism—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Adapted from blogpost by David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-16a-open-future/

*Cover Art Christ the Savior (Pantokrator) via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Employed by God

Employed by God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 20, 2020

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16

 

While Presbytery meetings are generally informative and worthwhile, I am sure to enjoy them more when we have someone being examined for candidacy as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. You see, at this point in the ordination process, men and women are given an opportunity to share their call story. It is amazing to hear the various ways God has worked in their lives, thus far. For me, call stories echo the truth that the Spirit is still on the move, nudging, awakening, compelling… And no two stories are alike—God is creative like that! Some folks recognize a call in their teens. Others hear the voice of God calling them during college. Others, like me, enter ministry as a second career—in quite unexpected ways.

While I enjoy all the stories, I admit my favorites are from the young folks who have just completed college and are in seminary. They spark a romantic notion within me of a future filled with possibilities. Honestly, though, there was a time when I reacted to their stories with a twinge of regret on my own behalf—somehow wishing I had showed up earlier for the party—envisioning what it would have been like to set out on this road in my 20’s with a clearly defined call. But that is not my story and I have accepted it—more than that—I’m pleased about it. For, overtime, God has opened my eyes to the importance of diversity in all things—even in something like when, where, and how, a person accepts a call into ministry. We all have different roles to play. While mine is not one of the starry-eyed glow of youth, I still have something to bring to the party. I have life experiences; I have a sense of humor for which I thank God! And I am humbled when, every now and then, God uses me to speak a word of wisdom.

As a community of believers, we all have a part to play. We all bring something different to the party. Isn’t it wonderful? Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12. Hear these words as translated in The Message:

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.

We all have a role to play but sometimes we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. We begin to feel that since we are not gifted with A, B, or C, we have little to offer. And if we keep going down this path, we will find ourselves adrift in the story of someone else, wishing that their gifts and their successes were ours. Margaret Thatcher once said, “The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” And Proverbs 14:30 tells us, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” To grasp the fullness of this statement, let’s consider some context provided by a modern-day writer.

Bones were a reference to the whole body, the fullness of life. To say that envy rots the bones is to say that it breaks down and destroys the whole self. It tears life apart. Beyond that, the word used for bones in this particular verse comes from the Hebrew word meaning “where the strength is.” Bones provide structure, stability, power. Envy infects and decays that strength like an infectious disease. As with anything that opposes life, it is deceitful. It keeps us staring at others, resenting our apparent weaknesses, but meanwhile, it is literally boring a hole into our strengths, ripping apart the meaningful stories we are created for…When we look at the talents, titles, successes, and influences of our peers with anything less than pride and support, trying to mold ourselves into their image, we choose to let envy drill away at our God-given purposes.[i]

In today’s gospel reading Jesus offers a description of the kingdom of heaven. It is like a landowner who gives jobs to those who have no work. Some he hires at 9 in the morning, some at noon, some at 3 in the afternoon, and some at 5. But when quitting time comes, the landowner has such a big heart—he pays everyone a day’s wages. They get the same amount—no matter whether they worked all day or just a few hours. Of course, the human sense of fairness can’t stand such generosity so some of the workers grumble against the landowner. But the landowner comes right back at them with something like, “Wait just a minute here, friends. You agreed to the daily wage—so take it and get out of here. I will give as I see fit—it’s my money! I can be generous to whomever I wish to be generous. What business is it of yours?”

Jesus gives us an interesting story to ponder. Likely, you have heard sermons over the years dealing with one detail or another. Maybe you have heard it preached from the angle of the Pharisees and Jews who are jealous that with Jesus on the scene even the Gentiles have a place at the table of grace. Some have looked at the text and reflected on the struggle in certain churches where some people feel they pull the lion’s share of God’s work while too many others sit idly on the pews. Good, hard-working people look at the story and wonder what kind of God would be so unfair as to give the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not. It boggles the mind, really. But as God reminds us through his prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[ii]

While our human nature may lead us to look at the story through critical eyes and wonder how in the world God got to be such a lousy bookkeeper, it might behoove us to stand back and behold the broader picture Jesus is painting of his Abba Father. For in the kingdom of heaven, God gives everyone work to do. So instead of getting caught up in our favorite pastimes—comparing ourselves to others and grumbling against God—we might give thanks to God for the prize that is ours. Being employed by God is our reward—in and of itself! We are on God’s payroll.

Surely there is no better way to spend our time, talents, and treasures than in the pursuit of bringing the kingdom of heaven to all the earth. And the kingdom of heaven is not just some place to which we go in the sweet by and by. The kingdom of heaven is now. And in this time and this place—there’s work for us all to do. It isn’t work that we are bent on getting out of—rather it’s work to be honored. We have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard. With God as our employer—it is the job of a lifetime. And it is a waste of energy to compare our work with someone else’s work. Instead, let us cultivate our talents and passions. Let us celebrate and even complement each other’s gifts! Let us foster a spirit of gratitude because the Lord of the Vineyard so generously provides for us all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/problem-with-purpose-envy#yrc4dhjIWdLtb6Hk.99

[ii] Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV

*Cover Art via Unsplash, used with permission; Music CCLI 20016020/13

Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace

Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 13, 2020

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

 

On any given Sunday, as disciples of Jesus we gather virtually or in person to worship God, to encourage one another, and to be equipped to return to the world to fulfill our Lord’s command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. During worship, in response to God’s word for us, we pray The Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When we do so, when we call upon the name of our great and glorious God, are we cognizant of the sacred ground upon which we stand?

 

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church, once wrote a book of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. In one essay, Dillard broaches the subject of holiness. In one of the best-known quotes from the book, she writes these words:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs…watching the radar screen, noting weather reports…No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew…The wind seems to be picking up.

On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[i]

 

As seekers of the holy, should we proceed with caution? Is it hazardous to call upon the Creator of the Universe, willy-nilly? Is there danger in praying “Thy will be done,” if that is not what we really mean in our heart? In The Lord’s Prayer, we continue by asking for daily sustenance—daily bread—and then, then, things get dicey when we dare to speak the words: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Oh, my! Now we are in deep water. We may be in over our heads.

 

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how forgiving we really need to be. In the story, a certain king realizes it is time for the end of year audit. He contacts the accounting experts in his kingdom. In no time flat, they realize there is an outlying account that needs to be settled. A certain man owes the king an exorbitant sum—one that could hardly be paid off in 100 lifetimes. The king calls the slave on the carpet. Realizing the man is in way over his head and will never be able to pay him back, the king instructs that the man, his wife, his children, and all that he owns be sold. The man falls on his knees and begs for mercy. In a shocking turn of events, the king shows him mercy.

 

The slave departs, grateful for the mercy that has been bestowed upon him. Or is he? All evidence is to the contrary for when he meets another slave who owes him the sum of 100 days of labor (a sum that could reasonably be paid back) he grabs the fellow by the throat. Even when the man falls on his knees and begs for mercy, no mercy is shown. Instead, the debtor is thrown into prison. Upon witnessing this tragic state of affairs, some of the fellow slaves report to the king what they have seen with their very own eyes. Understandably, the king is outraged. Now, any mercy that has been extended to the first slave is retracted—denied—refused.

 

Jesus concludes the story with: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

As a Presbyterian pastor, I am eager to preach words of grace and joy and hope. But I would not fulfill my obligation to preach the entirety of the gospel if I did not also proclaim that one day there will be a reckoning. One day we will all stand before God to give an account of our words and deeds. So, it is in our best interest to take Jesus seriously in this matter, and to ponder those familiar words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

 

For most of us, passing judgment on others comes as easy as falling off a log. But Jesus does not call us to an easy life. Jesus calls us to a life of goodness and love—and, often, living in such a way is anything but easy. Forgiveness is hard—extremely hard. Peter knows that full well, which is why he approaches Jesus with the dilemma in the first place. And he may be quite proud of himself when he generously suggests forgiving someone seven times. But 77 times or as it is sometimes translated 70 times 7? That is nigh impossible. Surely Jesus is not serious. While Jesus may be using hyperbole—an exaggeration to make a point—he is still dead serious. The heart of his message is this: “Stop keeping score. The life to which I am calling you does not allow for small-minded, stingy behavior. Think bigger—think better—think endless love; boundless mercy; amazing grace!”

 

Through the life of Jesus, we are invited to move outside the law of self-righteousness and condemnation—into a great commonwealth of love. By telling the story of the king and the two indebted slaves, Jesus offers a picture of what it means to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is a brave and risky prayer that begs each of us to consider: “How willing am I to forgive the person who wrongs me? And with whatever measure I “grade” other’s behavior—am I comfortable with God using that same measure on me?

 

Unquestionably, having a forgiving spirit, is not about sweeping bad behavior under the rug. There are times when we must hold others accountable. But there are also times when, empowered by the Holy Spirit, healing can begin—day by day—step by step.

 

Thankfully, God does not deal with us in the way we deserve. Instead, God offers us forgiveness beyond measure. And as followers of Jesus, rather than tallying up the errors of others, we would be wise to enter the throne of glory, giving thanks to God AND showing our thanks by forgiving others as we long to be forgiven. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 52-53.

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Do you love me?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Do you love me?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 30, 2020

13th Sunday after Pentecost

John 21:15-23

 

While I enjoy photography as a hobby, even more so I enjoy looking at other people’s photographic art—sunrises, sunsets, mountains, oceans, and old trails. I have a friend who is an attorney by trade—but his passion is photography. He takes mesmerizing photos of people he meets on random strolls through little towns and villages. He likes to shoot things that promise to tell quite a tale—if they could only talk—like dilapidated houses and buildings. I particularly enjoy his black and white photos of old farmers with their faces lined by the sun. Beautiful. And who knows why, but I am drawn to photographs of hands. One glance and I am pondering the lives the hands represent. I think of the clasped hands of newlyweds and the future they hold, and the hands of children with all their innocence and hope for tomorrow. A woman’s hands lifted in prayer; a man’s hands as he repairs the engine of his car or refinishes that special piece of furniture; a mother combing her daughter’s hair; a father holding bicycle handles while he teaches his son to ride.

 

Loving hands of my childhood include those of my grandmother rolling out biscuits as the sun began to rise in the morning sky; hands of teachers pointing me toward college and a future; hands of an uncle playing a guitar and singing songs about a Jesus whom I would come to love…

 

Later, my years working in the hospital as a medical technologist would show me other hands at work: hands of EMTs hoisting patients from gurney to bed; hands of nurses in the Emergency Room starting IVs so that medicine could be administered to sick patients, hands of doctors setting bones and sewing up wounds. Frequently the night shift brought in angry hands—hands scarred by barroom brawls, hands scuffed when resisting arrest, hands broken when the airbag deployed in the car accident. Sometimes when I worked a slow night at the hospital, I visited the nursery under the guise of seeing a nurse/friend, but really, it was about the babies. There I watched caring hands cleaning up newborns after delivery, gently patting backs after a feeding, offering loving care to precious babes at a vulnerable stage of life.

 

Of my 16 years in the medical profession, I was happiest when I worked at UT Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. I loved being a part of a teaching hospital—there was such a positive energy about the place. Surprisingly, I returned to work there when I was doing my CPE training during seminary. (You might think of it as a chaplaincy internship.) But this time my role had changed. Instead of caring for the body, I was to care for the soul. Instead of using my hands to handle specimens and gather data, my hands were offering support when someone faced, perhaps, one of the scariest moments of his or her life. Often my hands held a book of psalms. Sometimes they tightly held the hands of the other in fervent prayer.

 

It was while I was at UT Medical Center in the chaplaincy program that I assisted with my first Blessing of the Hands service. The hospital chapel was set up with soft instrumental music and a few candles glowed in the dimly lit space. Throughout the day, surgeons, nurses, administrators, support staff, and technicians of every ilk streamed in to have their hands anointed. It was a moving experience. Later when the students got together to talk about it, our supervisor mentioned that her church held a similar service on Labor Day weekend. My heart skipped a beat. I knew if I ever got a chance to do such a thing, I would. And since graduating from seminary, I have led a Blessing of the Hands service almost every year.

 

The first one I led was at First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee and I will never forget what one of the women of the church said to me that morning. With a big smile on her face, enthusiastically she reported, “O, Glenda, we usually go to the cabin Labor Day weekend, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to get my hands blessed. And I washed them extra-clean for the occasion.” She even held them up for me to examine—in case there was any doubt. When I was the pastor at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia, women of the church created a Blessing of the Hands banner. And now, at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, we are about to celebrate our 4th Blessing of the Hands service next Sunday. Out of necessity, this one will be virtual. But we will not let a pandemic stop us for there is still much good work for our hands to do.

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to several of his followers. As he approaches his final leave-taking, he shows up by the Sea of Galilee and makes breakfast for his disciples with his very own hands. It is a sacred meal—the last they will share together. Afterward, Jesus knows it is time to hand over his ministry to this ragamuffin band, so he turns to Peter. Peter, the one who has a habit of speaking when he should be quiet—Peter, who has remained silent when he should have spoken.

 

Three times Peter denied his Lord and three times his Lord poses the all-important question, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.” As one scholar notes, “If we have carried away from the Gospel the idea that the final thing to remember about Peter is his unfaithfulness, [here we are reminded] that far more important than Peter’s denials is the grace of Christ: the divine willingness to engage and entrust the ministry, even to someone whose life so far has been marked by impetuosity and denial.”[i] Jesus hands over his ministry to someone like Peter—someone like us. Amazing grace—how sweet the sound!

 

In light of Peter’s profession of love, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” for you see, being a follower of Jesus is not just about what we profess. It is also about what we do. It is not that we must earn our salvation—Jesus has taken care of that already. Yet with grateful hearts we are compelled to respond by obeying the command Jesus staked his life on: Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

For believers who choose to follow the way of Jesus, he does not promise the road ahead will be easy, which makes it even stranger when preachers preach the Cotton Candy Gospel. If you just have enough faith—in return, you’ll get everything your little heart desires. But that is nothing more than a lie. Look at Peter—one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers—who ends his life with outstretched hands—being led where he does not wish to go. Tradition tells us Peter is crucified but because he does not feel worthy to die in the same fashion as his Lord, Peter dies upside down on his cross.

 

No, there are no pie-in-the-sky guarantees for those who follow the path Jesus trods. Some people will die young and some will die old. Some will have an easier path to walk while others will be martyred for their faith. There is no rhyme or reason to it all. And while Jesus’ interaction with Peter might lead us to believe that those who love the most get the highest rewards—let us never forget that the highest reward may look something like death on a cross.

 

The end of John’s Gospel is a witness to the curtain coming down on the earthly ministry of Jesus. But the real-life drama of Christ continues in Peter. It continues in the other disciples. It continues in the church that is born on the day of Pentecost. It continues in Paul who meets the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It continues in all the saints who come after—including each one of us.

 

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. Do we? How then do we live? Day by day, are we praying to become more like Jesus, abounding in love and faith? Do we seek the good of the other more than our own selfish desires? Do we recognize that what we say matters, so we try to speak words of love and encouragement? Is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi our prayer—Lord, make me an instrument of your peace? Do we claim the work of our hands as God’s work?

 

Tending to the lambs of Jesus is the most tangible way to stay connected to Christ—as well as the surest way to show our love for him. This holy love knows no boundaries. It is love for the insider, the outsider, the poor, the rich, the business owner, the teacher, the plumber, the street-walker, the tattooed biker, the homeless addict, the physician, the lawyer, the stay-at-home mom, and every child of the world—red and yellow, black and white—they are all precious in Jesus’ sight! Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[i] Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, 425.

*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 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 23, 2020

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 27:45-56

Repeatedly, Jesus uses the art of asking good questions to turn people’s worldview upside down. In essence, he seeks to create a reality from the words his mother sang before he was born. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…his mercy is for those who fear him…he has scattered the proud…he has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly…he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”[i]

 

Jesus comes to make all things new, but his mission will only be accomplished by helping people see the world and their role in it differently. A paradigm shift is what Jesus is after, and nothing less. But change does not come easy, and sometimes, change comes at great cost. So, for all his good deeds and his endeavors to expand the thinking of those around him, Jesus ends up hanging on a tree. It is a ghastly scene. And surely the most difficult of Jesus’ questions is spoken from this place—directed not to an individual—but to his Abba Father.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” All seems lost because Hope is dying on a cross. Now what?

 

Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His book entitled Night, records many of his memories. He witnessed the death of his family, the death of countless strangers and friends, and the death of his own innocence. In addition, he experienced despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the evil of mankind.

 

In his book, Wiesel tells about a particular incident that happened one day in the camp—a hanging. As horrible as it is to imagine—hangings weren’t uncommon but there was something different about this one because a young boy was one of the three to be hanged and to hang a child in front of hundreds of onlookers was no small matter. In fact, the regular executioners refused to go through with it, so others stepped forward to do the deed.

 

In Wiesel words:

All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows…“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over…Then came the [obligatory] march past the victims…Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where—hanging here from these gallows…”[ii]

 

God hanging from a tree. God with us—Emmanuel. Great is the mystery of our faith! Still we cannot help but ask, “Why?” From The Letter to the Hebrews we read:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…. Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…[iii]

 

Jesus suffers as we suffer. Jesus is tested as we are tested. And the final result of his incredible sacrifice and boundless mercy is this—we are set free from bondage to all that would threaten to undo us. And through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ we can rest assured that there is nothing we go through in this life that God does not go through with us.

 

But we look at Jesus on that Friday we call good, and we cannot help but think it should have been otherwise. Surely there is a sense of numb disbelief as we gaze at our Lord nailed to a cross. Any second, we expect him to unleash the power at his disposal and come down. It is what his followers expect. But instead, moment by moment, the life blood of Jesus drains from him and he grows weaker, until finally, it appears he has given up on himself and on his Abba Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 

When Jesus breathes his last breath, the curtain of the temple is ripped asunder. One writer explains,

At that moment our souls are torn in two. At that moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two. But this is not the end of the story. Hopes and dreams may have been cast to the earth, but other things are destroyed—things that need to be destroyed. Now, “the barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection, which is just three days away.[iv]

 

As Jesus hangs from the cross crying toward the heavens, we see the darkest moment of his life—of God’s life. But let us never forget, this is not the end—quite the opposite.

 

Woven into the story of Jesus’ anguishing death, there is another story worthy of reflection—the way creation participates. As if in solidarity with Jesus, the earth quakes and rocks split asunder. Creation joins in the lament of God’s own Son being rejected by those whom God created.  But if we delve deeper, we realize that creation has always been a part of God’s Story. Genesis starts out with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind.” Then later, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”

 

One of the most poetic narratives in the Bible comes near the end of the Book of Job when God tires of Jobs questions and starts asking a few of his own. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” These words speak of God’s adoration of God’s created earth.

 

Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. And as a final point, Revelation concludes with the theme of God’s creation participating in God’s salvation story as a river of the water of life appears, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and on either side of the river is the tree of life with twelve kinds of fruit and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

 

Healing? It is what the nations need—have always needed—and it is through Jesus the Christ that healing comes.  But healing is not needed for people, only. It is also needed for creation—rivers that are now filled with trash, rain forests that are disappearing before our eyes, mountain sides that are being stripped bare. What have we done to God’s good earth? A Native American Proverb comes to mind: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” But I ask you, “What will we have to hand over to our children in another generation?” It all seems hopeless—too far gone—how could we possibly make a difference? Yet, isn’t it exactly when all hope seems lost that God is at God’s best? Remember Paul’s words, “For whenever I am weak, God is strong.”

 

On that Friday we call good, there is no doubt that Jesus is in anguish when he cries out to his Abba Father. No wonder the rocks split, the earth quakes, and the temple curtain is torn in two. All seems lost but things are not always as they seem. Friday, it may be, but let us never forget, the joy of resurrection is just three days away. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Adapted from Luke 1:46-55

[ii] Elie Wiesel, Night, 64-65.

[iii] Excerpts from Hebrews 2.

[iv] The Rev. Whitney Rice @ http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/03/23/palm-sunday-a-2014/

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 16, 2020

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 26:36-46

[Insert Sunday’s art]

 

The end of Jesus’ earthly ministry is drawing nigh. At the conclusion of the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, they sing a hymn together and then head toward Gethsemane. When they reach their destination Jesus tells them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Then he takes with him those in his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. Jesus, our Jesus, is in anguish and he admits it. “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” It seems a simple request, but the disciples are likely filled with worry and exhausted, too. So, with Jesus a stone’s throw away crying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” his closest friends fall fast asleep.

 

It is hard to think of Jesus being this vulnerable. It is easier to imagine him healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. But Jesus begging his friends to keep watch with him in his hour of need and then those same friends failing him, is heart wrenching. “So, you could not stay awake with me one hour?” While we might be tempted to judge the disciples for their behavior, we would probably have been there snoring right beside them—I mean we’re human, too, and failing one another is something we do more often than we care to admit. In this moment of Jesus’ life, he openly displays his human vulnerability. He shows us that even God-in-the-flesh is susceptible to being wounded and hurt. Oh, the great mystery of our faith and oh, the frailty of us all.

 

I returned home from a church function on August 11, 2014 to find four text messages on my cell phone—one from each of our children. In essence they read, “Have you heard? Robin Williams has died. Apparent suicide.” Like most of us, my children were crushed by the news. Kinney and I were dating when Mork & Mindy was a hit. Later, as avid movie-goers, our family fell in love with Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin. How we enjoyed Popeye and Hook. What inspiration we found in such works as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Patch Adams, and Good Will Hunting.

 

Proverbs tells us that a cheerful heart is good medicine and I believe this to be so. Yet, a man who brought so much laughter to the world could not heal himself with laughter. Instead, a man, who lived the life of fame and fortune, who loved God and was generous and caring, reached a dark, dangerous place out of which he was unable to climb. It is well-known that Robin Williams suffered from bi-polar disorder, characterized by drastic mood swings. But when things progressed beyond anything he had experienced, he reached out again for help. But numerous tests and a brain scan came back negative. It was not until after his death that the autopsy revealed the underlying cause: Lewey Body Dementia, a rare brain disease that can cause hallucinations, motor skill problems, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

 

I once heard someone say, “You never know what goes on in a person’s mind. Monsters can live there.” This must have been the case for Robin Williams, who struggled with addiction and depression even before something as devastating as a rare brain disease came calling.

 

Regarding mental illness and addictions, we know a lot more about them than we once did. Nevertheless, there is still a stigma attached to them—as if they are a mark of disgrace. Yet, we find in Scripture that Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, and David suffered from depression. Then there are historical figures to consider like Abraham Lincoln who wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell…To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”[i] Charles Spurgeon was tormented by depression. Beethoven and Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder, and the list goes on and on.

 

Mental illness is real, and it is painful but, thankfully, it is often treatable with the right combination of drugs and therapy. Regardless, people hesitate to discuss it for fear of what people might say or for fear of losing their job or for any number of other very real concerns. It turns out that being vulnerable is risky. Look where it got Jesus—praying alone—heart-broken and afraid—and, ultimately, crucified. Still, to be the church of Jesus Christ compels us to be vulnerable—to be authentic. For the truth of our human condition is: We all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive.

 

One summer when I was about 6 years old, my mother traveled from New York to visit us on my grandparent’s farm in North Carolina. She was eye-catching with her red hair and porcelain skin, but I could not help noticing numerous horizontal scars that marked her arms. When she caught me glancing at them she softly explained, “When your father and I got a divorce and I knew I had lost you both, I didn’t want to live anymore, so I tried to hurt myself.” So lovely on the outside—but inside so fragile.

 

Fast-forward a few years and I was 16 when a trusted physician took me aside to explain: “Although your father is high-functioning, he suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia.” There I sat, weeping for what seemed like an eternity. For years, I had been convinced that the chaos around me was my fault, but in a moment, everything changed.

 

Mental illness has affected many of us. If we have not suffered directly, we may be close to someone who has. In case there is any doubt, as your spiritual leader, allow me to make something clear. Our faith community is a safe space to share our challenges and our hurts, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Life is wonderful but it can also be difficult. Why not lean on one another!

 

Anne Lamott, an author (and a Presbyterian), who has been open about her own struggles with addiction and mental illness, writes:

 

If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction…life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of the abyss…

 

In [all suffering]…we see Christ crucified… The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, ‘Oh it will all make sense someday.’ The thing is, it may not. [Nonetheless], we still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water…

 

Try not to squander your life…Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story…Gravity yanks us down…We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up toolboxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity…[ii]

 

What can we do to help those who suffer from mental and emotional illness? What can we do if we need help ourselves? Maybe, we can start by breaking the silence. Maybe we can celebrate the gifts of every person because every person is made in God’s image. And could we do this: Could we treat everyone with kindness? We should—because—you see—we all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive. Amen.

[i] Quoted in Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded, Dwight L. Carlson, 24.

[ii] Anne Lamott as share on Facebook.

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