Wilderess Wondering

Wilderness Wandering

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 18, 2018

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

 

The paraments are purple, again. Did you notice? It seems like only yesterday they were the same liturgical color leading up to Christmas. Maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the liturgical calendar. That was not the case for me. In fact, I learned about celebrating Advent and using an Advent wreath with candles of purple, pink, and white through my mother-in-law—a life-long Presbyterian.

 

Many years have passed, and I have celebrated the liturgical calendar from season to season with Kinney and our children and with our church family. Along the way, I have learned a few things—one of which is—there are people in every church who grew up celebrating the church calendar with all its color and rhythm and poetry. And there are those for whom such practices are still quite new. With this in mind, I want to take a few moments this morning to consider the use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons, which became a common practice in the Western church in about the 4th century. Although the colors varied somewhat at first, by the 12th century they were systematized by Pope Innocent III. It will not come as a surprise that the practice of using liturgical colors in worship was rejected by the Reformers after the Reformation. But by the 20th century, many ancient Christian practices—including this one—gained new life in Reformed Churches. I guess it finally dawned on us that we had thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water; discarding too much of the poetry and heart of our faith story in the process.

 

The Presbyterian Planning Calendar explains that the liturgical colors of the Christian year are white, purple, red, and green. White is used for the special days or seasons in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, such as Christmas and Easter. Red is the color for Pentecost and is often used for ordination services. Green is used for Ordinary Time—periods that are not marked by a specific festival or season and Purple marks the seasons of penitence and preparation—Advent and Lent.

For most of us, Advent hardly seems like a time for penitence or preparation, though. Oh, we give a nod to the prophets of old and we listen to the yearning of the people of Israel for a Messiah. We even sing Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” But we hardly wait to sing Christmas hymns until Christmas Day and the twelve days following. Rest assured, if I chose only Advent hymns for the Season of Advent, I would hear about it and so would every member of the Worship Committee.

 

Utilizing the church calendar, though, we recognize Advent and Christmas have come and gone—as has Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, and Transfiguration of the Lord. Now, by the mark of ashes on our foreheads, we have entered the Season of Lent—a penitential time of 40 days—a time set aside for us to follow the footsteps of Jesus as we journey toward Easter. The time is meant to be self-reflective in nature. We may feel led to give up something that will allow us more time to pray, fast, read Scripture, serve others, make amends…

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we gather in worship to hear a reading from one of the gospels about Jesus in the wilderness. The telling from the Gospel of Mark stands out for its brevity. As is his minimalist nature, Mark rushes us through the scene at break-neck speed, which is one reason why we should pay attention to every word because every word counts. So, let’s take a closer look at the intensity of Mark’s account. First, as Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, the heavens are torn apart.  After the voice calls from the heavens, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There, for 40 days, Jesus has some extraordinary company: Satan and wild beasts and angels. Only after the time of preparation is complete does Jesus set off to do his Abba Father’s business of proclaiming the good news.

If we want to know more about Jesus’ wilderness time, and of course, we always want to know more, we might look to other gospels to fill in some of the blanks. But maybe we have enough to ponder—even with Mark’s bare-bones story-telling style. For instance, we might consider the sky being torn asunder. Who’s doing the tearing? It appears that it is the Holy One who is doing the tearing—an act that will be repeated later in the gospel when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross. Yes, God is doing the tearing. God is doing a new thing through Jesus for us and our salvation. What wondrous love is this!

Pondering this text further, we might wonder why the Spirit is doing the driving—driving Jesus out into the wilderness. The Spirit does so for a purpose—a divine purpose. I daresay, if we examine our own lives we realize every wilderness brings with it lessons to be learned. In what desert place have we chosen to grow, lately? Well, you see, that’s just it. None of us voluntarily chooses to go to the wilderness. We aren’t eager to struggle. But struggle and temptation and darkness—well, they come to us all at some time or another. Do we trust God to be present in such times? Do we see that even though God does not cause our misery, God is at work in us and through us and around us—even in our darkest hour? What have we learned in the wilderness? What might we learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness?

One biblical commentator notes that what’s most important in Mark’s telling of the wilderness event is how:

…Jesus is retracing the steps of Israel’s history in order to rewrite her story. Whereas Israel in the wilderness stumbled and wandered for forty years in sin, rebellion, and distrust, longing again for the chains of slavery, Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the wilderness for forty days. [Then] he announces that the time has been made full, and God’s rule has come near. All of the old obligations to the priests, to the temple, to Herod, and to Rome have been canceled, not only for Jesus, but for all those who repent and follow him into God’s rule.[i]

All the old obligations have been canceled and, in the darkness—whether Jesus’ or ours—we learn we are merely dust. Truly, we need help and it is our Abba Father who comes to our aid. It is God who makes us new. It is God’s Spirit who journeys with us to show us the way and keep our enemies at bay.

What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Jesus lets go of human things and fully embraces the will and way of his Abba Father. In the wilderness, he struggles physical and spiritually, but he comes forth from the darkness a new man—filled with the Spirit and equipped for the humble revolution he is about to lead.

The lectionary links today’s story with the story of the flood—a story that comes about because of the downfall of the order of things established at creation. The future now belongs to a small group of people, who live under the covenant of the rainbow cast in the sky by God’s own hand. Jesus, too, inaugurates a new day, a new covenant, a new structure. “The way things have always been” will be no more. A new empire is being built right before the eyes of Jesus and his disciples. Out on the horizon, we stand as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ. Through the waters of our baptism, we have a new identity and a new mission. We are free. We are filled with the Spirit. We are equipped to make a difference. Are we making a difference?

Lent offers an opportunity to take stock of our lives but, in the words of Rev. Sarah Dylan:

Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time—chocolate, beer, swearing, or some such—drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as “good,” and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we’re on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered the desert with wild animals and angels…and we are striving to follow him.[ii]

Striving to follow Jesus, we have entered the desert of Lent on our own spiritual quest. How will we wander onward? Will we rush through the 40 days ahead as if there is nothing of value to be learned? Will we continue to turn our faces toward anything but God? Or will we tread upon the earth at a different pace…listening…watching…praying…obeying?

Jesus is not alone on his journey. Neither are we. Let us go forth boldly. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, let us be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Then, when we gather here on Easter morning, with paraments of white marking the occasion of the resurrection of Christ, our Lord—we will have even more to celebrate!

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

[i] Stanley P. Saunders, Feasting on the Word, 49.

[ii] Rev. Sarah Dylan @sarahlaughed.net, First Sunday in Lent, Year B.

Jesus on Tour

Jesus on Tour

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 4, 2018

5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                        Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

 

The ministry of Jesus is in full swing. After astounding the people in the synagogue with his teaching and healing the demon-possessed man, Jesus enters the home of Simon and Andrew. He learns of Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever and raises her up, restoring her to health. Notice, Jesus touches the woman—the Son of God touches the woman. The healing power of touch cannot be denied. Study after study has revealed how human touch and community affect the overall quality (and, often, quantity) of life. It was true in the days of Jesus and it is still true today. But isn’t that what incarnation is all about—Jesus entering the world taking on human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. The kingdom of God is at hand.

 

Through the power of Jesus, Simon’s mother-in-law and is made whole. Although we don’t even learn her name, there are important lessons to be learned through her. For one thing, she represents our need for wholeness. In Bethlehem, in 400 A.D., Jerome preached on this very text saying:

 

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand; for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees (Corpus Christianorum, LXXV, 468).[i]

 

While I may feel no obligation to ask the apostles to beseech Jesus on my behalf (since Jesus is our High Priest—that hardly seems necessary), still, I appreciate Jerome’s sentiment for don’t we all have fever? And when Jesus comes to us and touches us, aren’t we changed?

 

Another important lesson we can learn from Simon’s mother-in-law comes through her response to healing. The Gospel of Mark introduces her as the first deacon (diakoneo) of the New Testament. This word (diakoneo) is used earlier, after the Temptation in the wilderness, when the angels tend to or care for (diakoneo) Jesus. In our reading for today, it is Simon’s mother-in-law who responds to the healing touch of Jesus by rising from her sick bed and caring for others in service and love. Is there any better response?

 

Of course, the news of Jesus’ healing power spreads like wildfire. So many others, who are sick or possessed by demons, are brought to him that by sunset, the whole town is standing outside the door. So many people; so little time!

 

Imagine what would happen here in Valdosta if Jesus came into our midst, touched a few of us, and healed us, quick as a flash. Wouldn’t we all be dancing for joy? Wouldn’t we call our neighbors and friends? We would send the good news out via mass email, the Valdosta Daily Times, our church website and Facebook page, you name it! Jesus is touring Georgia and he has started here, at First Presbyterian Church! Now imagine this place next Sunday. Have no doubt; you would need to arrive early. Don’t even plan to sit in your favorite seat. In fact, if you don’t arrive at the break of dawn, bring a nice, warm jacket because you will be forced to stand outside and listen from a distance—all the while just hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus the Master Preacher and Healer.

 

In Capernaum, at the home of Simon and Peter, the people are pressing in on Jesus from every side. He heals, he casts out demons and then, and then, and then, it’s morning and he’s nowhere to be found. Jesus is so passionate and his ministry is just getting started, but wait a minute! Where did he go? In the early morning (it’s still dark outside) Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray. Why do you think Jesus goes off to pray? When we think of Jesus praying, we might envision him kneeling, holy and still, in perfect peace, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe teaching and healing the people has drained him. As a pastor, I can bear witness that preaching can be exhausting. In fact, the responsibility of attempting to speak God’s word to God’s people can take every ounce of energy a person can muster.

 

Part of my doctoral work at Columbia included research about pastors and their preaching practices. Some of my research involved conducting interviews—one of which I will never forget.  While interviewing a woman pastor serving in Holston Presbytery, I asked: “So, tell me, what do you enjoy most about preaching?” Without missing a beat, she answered “12:05.”  Cracked me up! The honest truth is that for most of us, preaching is rewarding but it is also challenging. With that in mind, I can’t even fathom what it was like for Jesus who was preaching with a power and an affect never before seen on this old earth. 12:05, indeed!

 

Jesus looks around and there are people in need—everywhere. And like a new star in town overtaken by paparazzi, the only way he can find a moment of peace and quiet is to slip out of the house while everyone is asleep. Surely, he needs refreshment and renewal. Here and in other places in the gospels, in times of stress, temptation and decision, Jesus returns to God for guidance and strength. Time and time again, he shows us the need for balance in life: work, rest, prayer, and, yes, even play.

 

But his prayer time is cut short when Peter and his companions interrupt him. One scholar notes how most translators are gentle with Peter and his friends saying that they “hunted” or “searched for” or “went after” Jesus. But, in fact, the word used here implies hostility. In other words, Peter and his friends are astonished at Jesus’ behavior, and they’ve come to set him straight.[ii]

 

As I imagined this scene, in the happenings in the synagogue and in the home of Simon and Andrew, Jesus is the main attraction. However, Simon and Andrew are probably getting quite a bit of attention, too. Is it going to their heads? Are they toying with the idea of becoming Jesus’ managers? They seem to think they know what Jesus needs to be doing—and solitude and prayer—well, that’s not it. The tension between what the disciples think Jesus has come to do and what he has, in fact, come to do builds throughout the gospel. But Jesus will not be swayed. He will be the one to set the tone for his ministry. Instead of allowing the disciples or even the people to set his agenda, Jesus will follow the leading of his Abba Father. So, early in the morning, he goes off alone to be refreshed, renewed, and rekindled by Yahweh, so that he can go out and do ministry led by the Holy Spirit. The people’s ways will not be his ways. Not then and not now. “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do,” he tells them.

 

Jesus does not come to be the Savior of Capernaum, or the Savior of Galilee or the Savior of Jerusalem for that matter. Jesus comes to be the Savior of the world.  Jesus comes in human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. Jesus comes to cast out darkness, and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

 

God’s ways are always grander than we can fathom. It’s something the prophet Isaiah knew well:

 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.[iii]

 

In the person of Jesus, God enters the world to raise us up, to renew our strength. With the Spirit within us, we mount up with wings like eagles; we run and do not grow weary. The kingdom of God is at hand. This is the message of Jesus—the Bread of Life—who comes to heal and save the world. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, may he touch us, and may we rise as servants of our Lord! Amen.

[i] Ibid, 55.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, Gary W. Charles, 337.

[iii] Isaiah 40:28-31.

*Cover Art “Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife” by John Bridges, 1839; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Let Healing Begin

Let Healing Begin

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 28, 2018

4th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28

 

The writer of the Gospel of Mark has a way of moving us rapidly through time, so much so, in the very first chapter we learn:  John the Baptist prepares the way; Jesus is baptized; the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he’s tempted by Satan and cared for by the angels; John is arrested; Jesus comes to Galilee to preach the good news and, by the Sea of Galilee he calls out to four fishermen, “Come with me and I will teach you to fish for people.” Twenty verses of Scripture bring us to the synagogue on the Sabbath where Jesus is about to inaugurate his kingdom campaign.

 

One of Mark’s favorite words is “euthys” which is translated “immediately,” “at once,” or “right away.” Like a newspaper reporter, Mark rushes us from place to place to witness Gospel-making, life-changing history. Unfortunately, in many translations, the “immediacy” of Mark’s gospel is lost. However, Eugene Peterson does an excellent job capturing the essence of Mark. Here this short reading once more, from The Message:

 

Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars. Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.

 

It’s no surprise news of this travels fast. Jesus speaks with authority AND he makes things happen! Truly, Jesus teaches in a way that astounds the people. At this point we might be tempted to give the teachers of the law (the scribes) a hard time. But before we go off on a tangent, let’s note that in this passage, while the scribes are mentioned, we are not sure if they are even present. Since people are gathered in the synagogue on this Sabbath, we assume scribes (biblical scholars of the time) are there—but we don’t know. Another thing to remember is that even later, when tension escalates between Jesus and the religious rulers, Jesus seems less concerned with what they teach and more concerned with how they live.

 

In today’s reading, what is crystal clear is Jesus’ teaching carries an authority unlike anything the people have ever heard. Keep in mind—Jesus doesn’t have to rely on “borrowed” authority. Moreover, Jesus does not just offer information. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers transformation. Now that is something both new and amazing!

 

You may have noticed the people are not alone in their amazement. In fact, the one who may see the situation more clearly than anyone else is the unclean spirit. Translations vary here—unclean spirit, evil spirit or demon. One scholar explains: “In biblical language, “impure” means, simply, contrary to the sacred. All that is against the sanctity of God is considered impure.”[i]  So regardless of how we choose to think of it or name it, the important thing to recognize is that this presence is against the things of God. Still it is the unclean spirit that speaks the truth, interrupting Jesus like a heckler at a campaign rally.

 

It is safe to say everyone in the synagogue is riveted to the scene being played out before them.  The unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit is disturbed, for good reason, because he recognizes Jesus for who he is. Evil has come face to face with the source of its ultimate demise. Two questions are put to Jesus. The first is “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” I like the way The New American Standard Bible and The Message translate this question: “What business do we have with each other, Jesus?” Business—yes, there is business to be done!

 

Then, lo and behold, the unclean spirit speaks an even greater truth: “Have you come to destroy us?” In a word—Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what Jesus has come to do. Jesus has come to destroy all that is broken in humanity. Jesus has come to restore all God’s people to whole and abundant lives. Jesus has come to shut down the powers of darkness and Jesus can—because he is exactly who the unclean spirit says he is—the Holy One of God.

 

Basically, Jesus responds to the evil spirit with something like, “Shut up!” A more literal translation is: “Put a muzzle on it!” Isn’t it ironic that Jesus, who is possessed by the Spirit of God, faces off with a man, who is possessed by a demon? [ii] Ultimately, Jesus’ authority is made known when what he speaks comes to fruition—word and action unite, and the evil spirit is silenced and cast out of the man. And in a moment, the healing ministry of Jesus begins. With at least 13 miracles of healing documented in the Gospel of Mark alone, there is no denying that for Jesus a strong relationship exists between faith, healing, and wholeness.

 

But returning to the man with the unclean spirit, don’t you wonder what he is doing in the synagogue in the first place? Wouldn’t that be the last place an evil presence should want to hang out? It makes me wonder, in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed by something evil and beyond his control, is there something that draws the man to a place where he might find a glimmer of hope? Is that how he happens to be among the people that day?

 

And while the brokenness of this man and his need for healing are so obvious, doesn’t he in some way represent all of humanity? Whether by anger, greed, selfishness, anxiety, hatred, pride; whether by discouragement, despair, depression; whether by obsessions, addictions, disease—aren’t we all broken in some form or fashion? But for the possessed man, and for all who meet the person of Jesus, a muzzle is offered for our brokenness. Through Jesus, there is hope for healing and wholeness.

 

Jesus comes to the synagogue and makes the gospel message real. It’s not the same old story about a prophet or a king or some people back in the day. No, Jesus brings transforming power into the room! And the news spreads like wild fire. As one scholar put it, from the very first chapter of Mark, we are put on notice: “the boundary-breaking, demon-dashing…Son of God has arrived in the person of Jesus, and he expects of his followers far more than amazement. [iii]

 

Bonnie Rackley is a friend of Sissy Almand’s who has become a regular at our First Friday Contemplative Service. Last month she shared a story that she has given me permission to share this morning. Bonnie’s sister’s first and only grandchild, Archie, is 6 months old. Late last year he started wheezing. After many tests the pediatricians discovered Archie had a cyst growing near his vocal chords. Surgery was scheduled the first Sunday in December. Bonnie said she thought it strange that surgery would be scheduled on a Sunday until she learned it was a Jewish hospital. On the Friday evening before the surgery, Bonnie came to our Contemplative Service and lit a candle and offered a prayer for her grand-nephew. Then Sunday, when the doctors took Archie in for surgery, much to their surprise, the cyst was gone. Bonnie’s sister called to give her the good news and Bonnie responded: “God answered my prayer. It was the votive candle I lit and the prayer I prayed. It was those Presbyterians!”

 

Jesus was in the business of healing. Still is! But do we believe it? Or are we like one of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who has gotten so used to doing the same old thing in the same old way with the same old result that the very idea of Jesus breaking into our lives and into the lives of others—well, it’s unfathomable?

 

Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual—we are all in need of healing. We need transformation and Jesus has the authority and the desire to fix what ails us. Sometimes healing comes through spiritual practices like laying on of hands and different forms of prayer. Sometimes healing comes through the God-given wonders of modern medicine. Sometimes healing arrives through the blessing of a community of believers who surrounds us with love and light—even in our darkest hour. Sometimes—it happens through all the above. And sometimes healing may begin in this life only to be completed in the life to come. Yet, no matter the circumstances, for everyone who meets the person of Jesus, there is hope.

 

Richard Foster has penned the following prayer that, perhaps, speaks words of truth for each one of us:

Lord Jesus Christ, when I read the gospel stories I am touched by your healing power. You heal sick bodies to be sure, but you did so much more. You healed the spirit and the deep, inner mind. Most of all I am touched by your actions of acceptance that spoke healing into those who lived on the margins of life, shoved aside by the strong and the powerful. Speak your healing into me, Lord, body and mind and soul…Heal my heart, Jesus, heal my heart.[iv]

 

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

[i] Ibid. 310.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Ofelia Ortega, 312.

[iii] Ibid., Gary W Charles, 313

[iv] The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, Richard Foster, 148-149.

*Cover Art by Elise Phelps of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta

 

Dear James and John

Dear James and John

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 21, 2018

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-5; Mark 1:14-20

 

Often, when I begin to prepare a sermon, I sit quietly in my prayer room at home with Scripture before me. Using the ancient practice of lectio divina (or sacred reading) I read the text and then sit in silence, listening for a word or phrase that speaks to my heart. I generally read through the passage several times, and prayerfully listen after each reading. Using this process for our gospel reading today, I notice it is set at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been arrested and then Jesus sets off for Galilee. Walking alongside the sea, Jesus calls two sets of brothers to join him.

 

When I close my eyes to meditate further on this scene, I am taken back to a beautiful, sunny day in 2009. Walking along the banks of the Sea of Galilee with other clergy, a holy presence is palpable. I can almost hear Jesus’ voice to those would-be disciples, “Come, follow me, I will make you fish for people.” Hopefully, you noticed the photograph on the front of your bulletin. It was taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley, a dear friend who was also on the Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Looking at it this morning, doesn’t it suggest to you another time and place? Two men—gone fishing! Simon and Andrew? James and John?

 

Jesus approaches first Simon and Andrew, and then James and John. “Follow me,” he says. And they do.  As simple as that!  Or is it? Eventually, my holy pondering cause me to settle on one person in the scene—Zebedee. Imagine with me for a moment, Zebedee, sitting in the boat with his sons and a couple of hired hands. Then along comes Jesus and takes his sons away. What must that have been like for Zebedee? His sons’ decision surely affects him deeply.

 

Such ruminating compels me to invite you on a journey. Off to the Galilee we go—to the Sea of Galilee Public Library. In the room of archives, we pilfer through ancient documents. And there, on something like papyrus, we happen on a letter addressed, “Dear James and John.” Wait! Could it be our James and John? Looking closer, we realize that, yes, it is. And, lo and behold, it is written in English. (My oh my, Jesus really did speak in King James English…just kidding…) What insight might we gain from this ancient document? Let’s take a closer look.

 

Dear James and John,

I miss you both, still. Some evenings I sit by the Sea of Galilee and remember those days long ago when we worked as successful fishermen alongside Simon and Andrew. Even then, you had the look of wanderlust in your eyes. I knew about your visits to the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach. I knew you were captivated by his passionate message. I kept silent, but oh, how I worried.

 

Then along came Jesus. You never stopped talking about him. Of course, in due time, you weren’t the only ones talking about Jesus. Everyone was!  Initially, I admit I was skeptical. Other Zealots had come through and preached hellfire and damnation, eager to take up arms to overthrow the Roman government; eager to set things right for our people—no matter what! I guess it’s no wonder then that, at first, I was concerned about your relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. I feared he might be a Zealot, too!

 

On the day he came along the banks of the seashore and invited you to follow him, I couldn’t believe you did it. Without hesitating, you left me sitting there with only the hired hands to keep me company. My heart was broken. We had dreams for the future of our family. We had plans to expand the business. As you well know, fishing is one of the few lucrative enterprises available for those of us under Roman rule who live by the sea. But in a moment, everything changed. When you left, I sat in that boat, with my head in my hands, fighting back tears, for what seemed like forever. What was I supposed to do and how could I do it without you?

 

Thankfully, as the months went by, you visited your mother and me whenever you were nearby. You kept us posted about what was going on in the life of Jesus, yourselves and the other disciples. It didn’t take long to realize that Jesus was not a Zealot, at all. Oh, he spoke his mind against evil and against the religious authorities who cared more about themselves than the people. But he showed no signs of wanting to take up arms; lead a revolution; overthrow the Roman Empire. Quite the opposite! All this humble, compassionate man wanted to do was demonstrate Yahweh’s love, call us to repentance, and offer forgiveness and new life. Abundant life! The signs were everywhere! The sick were healed, the blind gained their sight, outcasts were invited back into the fold—no Zealot here—only the Son of Man zealous to do his Father’s bidding.

 

As a father myself, I dreamed of grand things for your future. From the time you were both young lads, I urged you to strike out on the unpredictable seas. I wanted the best for you and I thought I knew what that meant. In retrospect, I confess I was blinded by my own ambition. On that day when you stepped out of our boat and bounded after Jesus, all I wanted to do was call you back, “Don’t go on those seas, my sons, don’t go!” I thought all was lost but nothing was lost, and everything was gained—for us and for all who have ears to hear! What you found was Jesus who first found you and called you. I thank Yahweh that you listened and obeyed. Because you did, you are part of the wonderful story of redemption—repenting, believing, following, and fishing. You have learned to keep time in a different way.[i]

 

Unquestionably, there have been difficult days since Jesus returned to his Abba Father’s side. But you have witnessed God’s power in ways I can only imagine. Oh, what I would give to have been there with you on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came into the world in power and might. What a day that must have been!

 

For all time, for all the world, Jesus the Messiah, changed everything. I see that now. At first, when you left, I worried about you leaving the family business. I worried about having to do it all alone or ending up alone. But now I know I am never alone. Christ is with me. I have learned that the love and invitation Jesus offered you that day is now available for everyone—even me—and I praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit!

 

Words can hardly express how proud I am of you both. You followed Jesus. You followed your hearts. What courageous men you have become. No doubt, you stumbled many times along the way, disappointing Jesus and yourselves. But every time you fell, Jesus was right there beside you to pick you up and set you on the right path. He gave you strength for your journey of faith. He still does! Remember that!

 

Even though you have faced more than your share of challenges already, it’s not over yet.  Now, more than ever, there are those who want to silence the message Jesus proclaimed. There are those who will try to silence you, too, before all is said and done. But you will not back down; of this I am sure. With all your heart and soul, you have cast your lot with Jesus who gave his life for the poor, the lowly, the marginalized, the forgotten. Because of Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

 

On Easter morning, when news began to spread that Jesus was missing, it didn’t take long for the report to reach Galilee. All seemed lost.  But then we began to hear rumblings that something miraculous had happened. Jesus was not dead because no tomb could hold the Son of God. Oh, how we rejoiced! In my heart, I know that the empty tomb still speaks to you. It speaks to me, too. Jesus’ victory over death means that death is nothing to be feared. It’s only temporary—for Jesus and for everyone who believes.

 

So, my sons, do not fear the days ahead. Whatever you do, in word and deed, do it for the glory of God. Continue to spread the good news that new life is possible—for us, for our children, for our children’s children. It is my prayer that this message rains down through the pages of history—never to be silenced—never to be lost! To point the way to Jesus has been your vocation since that beautiful morning by the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus the ultimate fisherman, caught you in his net.[ii] And just as he said he would, he has made you fishers of people. Well done, my beloved sons, well done!

 

Your devoted father,

Zebedee

[i] Feasting on the Word, Ted A. Smith, 287.

[ii] Ibid. Lee Barrett, 286.

 

*Cover Art Photo “Sea of Galilee” taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley in 2009 when she, Dr. Glenda Hollingshead, and several other clergy were on a Holy Land Pilgrimage.

 

Greater Things

Greater Things

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 14, 2018

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

I Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

 

After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, it is time for Jesus to choose his disciples.  He heads off to Galilee, finds Philip, and extends an invitation: “Follow me.”  Philip can’t wait to share the news with Nathanael. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  But Nathanael has doubts, and asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” At this point, Philip doesn’t try to defend Jesus, he merely extends the invitation: “Come and see.”  Then when Jesus says to Nathanael, upon his approach, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” and explains that he saw him under the fig tree even before Philip called him, Nathanael is taken aback. And just like that, he becomes a believer.

 

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It appears that Nathanael’s easily impressed. Jesus must think the same for he responds with what must have been laughter in his voice. “You believe because I told you I saw you under a fig tree? You’ll see even greater things…”

 

One of the best-kept secrets about the life of Jesus may be this: Jesus had a sense of humor! Think about it for a moment. Could Jesus have been truly human without having a sense of humor? I don’t think so. Honestly, I cannot read today’s passage without smiling. It’s funny! First, Nathanael can’t believe anything good can come out of Nazareth. Then, when Jesus reveals that he has a little supernatural information, Nathanael is blown away. That’s all it takes! Well, Nathanael, hold on to your horses!

 

While life is filled with challenges, it is also filled with joy. Take, for example, last fall when our Mission & Evangelism Committee met to discuss, among other things, items to include in our new visitor’s bags. Since our marketing guru, Jane Shelton, had already emailed me a few ideas, I got the conversation started by sharing them. We might include some candies beautifully wrapped with a note that reads, “How sweet of you to drop by!” Another idea: a packet of hot chocolate during the cooler winter months, with a note that says, “Your visit warmed our hearts!” Or maybe a packet of nuts, labeled, “We’re nuts that you chose to worship with us today. We hope you come again soon.”

 

The thought of including nuts in the gift bag raised concerns for Kerri Routsong (who happened to be wearing her “Good Mother” hat that evening). She suggested sunflower seeds instead, to which—without batting an eye—Libby George exclaimed, “And we can add a label saying, ‘We SEED you here and we hope to see you again!” We SEED you here and we hope to see you again. By this time, we were all in stitches. It still makes me chuckle—every time I think of it! In fact, Libby and I have gotten into the habit of greeting one another with, “I SEED you!”

 

The Christian life is worth living, and along the way, how much better it is to journey with our brothers and sisters and enjoy a laugh or two. Make no mistake; Jesus is not a sour person. He does not go through life glumly and without joy. Remember—he and his disciples are called wine-bibbers and gluttons. That’s not a reputation you get by being solemn and serious all the time. Furthermore, I ask you, when you get together with friends to eat a meal and enjoy one another’s company, isn’t laughter one of the best parts?

 

In James Martin’s book, Between Heaven and Mirth, he speaks of Jesus’ full humanity and his fully developed sense of humor. Says Martin, “[Jesus] told clever stories, made funny asides, and welcomed apostles who had a sense of humor. Indeed, his sense of humor may be one largely unexamined reason for his ability to draw so many disciples around him with ease.”[i]

 

When Nathanael hears that the Messiah is from Nazareth, he cannot believe it—and he says exactly what he thinks. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s a slur regarding the insignificance of this little backwater town is. But does Jesus scold Nathanael for making fun of his hometown? No, instead he says to Nathaniel, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” In other words, “I can trust you. You will tell me exactly what’s on your mind.”[ii] Then, when Nathaniel seems so impressed that Jesus even knows where he was sitting when Philip finds him, in essence, Jesus says, “Wait until you see how this story turns out—I’m just getting started.”

 

To Nathanael, in whom there is no deceit, Jesus declares, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now we move from the humorous to the holy, because what Jesus is alluding to is another story in another place. It is the story of Jacob—you remember—the one in whom there was plenty of deceit! He lied and tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, and had to run for his life. One night, while using a stone for a pillow, Jacob goes to sleep. He dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it.  Then, Yahweh renews the covenant that had been made with Abraham saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac…all people shall be blessed in you …I am with you.”

 

Many years have passed under the old covenant, but now, in Jesus, a new covenant begins.  “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” he says to Nathanael.  The ladder has been replaced by Jesus himself who connects heaven and the earth. Jesus is the center point between this world and the world to come—Jesus, who is both human and divine, Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel.

 

The humorous and the holy mark the life and ministry of Jesus. Hopefully, they mark our lives, too. As we journey forth together, may we find moments to stop and give thanks for the ways in which Christ enriches our lives through one another. Without a doubt, we live in individualistic times—maybe now more than ever. People claim to be spiritual and not religious. People find endless things to do on Sunday morning besides gathering with other believers to sing and pray and worship God. But wise ones who have gone before us—wise ones like Martin Luther King Jr. have left us words to ponder: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” The broader concerns of all humanity—we need each other just like Jesus needs his disciples—for the work, yes, but also for the fellowship and the laughter and the abundant life available for us all.

 

You may have noticed that both our Old and New Testament readings for today are call stories—Samuel as a little boy, laying in the Temple, and Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree. It does not matter where they are, God knows, and God calls. Thankfully, they listen. Today we have three elders who have responded to a similar call.  A few months ago, the Nominating Committee began to meet and pray about whom God might be calling to lead our church. By the Spirit’s leading, each candidate was approached: “In you, we see spiritual gifts for leadership that our church needs. Will you join with us?” Thankfully, these three answered yes to the call. (Actually, two of them are serving a second term.)

 

We need good leaders. Along with the other seven who are currently serving on session, our new ruling elders will help us seek both the holy and the humorous to bring us closer to God. They will help us explore the way ahead. They will pray and work and listen for the voice of God. They will help cast a vision for the coming days of our church life. All of us are invited to join in the work—to create something even more beautiful!  “Greater things than these!” Jesus said. All to honor Jesus—the Good One who came out of Nazareth—the Good One who connects heaven and earth with the new ladder of salvation. Greater things, indeed!

 

[i] Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, James Martin, SJ 58.

[ii] Ibid. 54.

*Cover Art “Come and See” © Jan Richardson; Subscription.