For the Beauty of Creation

For the Beauty of Creation

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 18, 2021

3rd Sunday of Easter

Psalm 8; Luke 24:36-43

 

When I was a child one of my favorite people to visit was my cousin, Lisa, who lived beside her grandparents’ dairy farm. The block milk house, the dairy cows eagerly entering the stalls, the rattle of the milk cans, the fizzing of the tubing being cleaned and attached just so—the whole process fascinated me. But even more so, I was enamored by the farm itself. Oh, the hours Lisa and I spent running and playing on the rolling hills just behind the house and catching minnows in the creek near the front yard. I can still see in my mind’s eye the creek covered by a small wooden bridge with tiger lilies and wildflowers growing on either side. The Fisher Dairy Farm was a magical place on God’s good earth. But the dairy has been closed for years; Lisa’s grandparents have long past; and Lisa’s home is there no more. It was razed to the ground to make way for a new highway. Thinking about it reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi.” “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

As we gather to worship our Creator God this beautiful morning, we also recognize Earth Day—an annual event that is celebrated worldwide on April 22nd to encourage efforts to protect the environment—to protect the wonders of God’s creation. Instead of a traditional sermon this morning, what I want us to do together is a series of guided meditations. First, we will remember a place, then we will remember a meal, and, finally, we will imagine the future.

So, I invite you to close your eyes (if this feels comfortable to you). Allow your mind to take you back to a place that spoke to you of God’s beauty. It may have been decades ago or just yesterday. What do you see around you? What sounds do you hear? What smells? Who, if anyone, is with you? Finally, what is it that makes this place so special?  (Silence)

In connection with our gospel reading, my mind takes me to the Sea of Galilee on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I recall the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, which, tradition stays, is built on the site where Jesus fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. Behind the church is a grassy field and nearby the seven springs that flow into the sea. My friend, Rachel Crumbly, and I make our way alongside the sea in search of the springs. It takes some navigating because of all the stones rising from the water’s edge, but our journey does not disappoint. Seeing the water rushing into the sea is quite an experience—but it hardly holds a candle to witnessing a group of young men playing in the waterfall, splashing and swimming. It is not a far stretch to imagine Jesus and his disciples doing something just like this—refreshing themselves in the water after a long, day of teaching, healing, and caring for crowds of people.

In the final chapter of Luke, following Jesus’ resurrection, he once again appears to his disciples and once again says, “Peace be with you.” Since they think he’s a ghost and are terrified, they need a word of peace. Then Jesus asks for something to eat—not because he’s hungry but because he wants to show them he is not a ghost. It’s all a bit ironic since Jesus has a reputation for loving to eat—and here he is, risen from the dead, and still eating.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on eating with people we love and the joy it can bring. Again, I invite you to close your eyes and remember—this time a particular meal that was gratifying to you. Who sits around the table? What dishes of food do you see? What makes this meal special? How is God present? (Silence)

From potluck lunches to receptions to communion at the Lord’s Table, food is integral to what we do as a community of believers. We eat together and our bodies are nourished as are our souls. But things have changed since the days Jesus walked upon the earth. In our increasingly global food system, our food comes with a heavy environmental footprint.  The pastoral images of well-loved farmland and animals roaming freely have given way to agricultural practices that damage the land, the animals, and, of course, eventually every living creature that lives upon the planet. Which begs the question, “How long will it be before dining around a table, eating healthy food we enjoy, becomes as challenging for us as it already is in many parts of the world?”

In 1992, long before Greta Thunberg became a household name, a young twelve-year-old girl from Canada made history when she attended the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. There, Severn Suzuki gave a speech that became known as “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes.” While I encourage you to go online and read the speech or watch the video in its entirety, I invite you to listen to a condensed portion of her powerful speech.

Hello, I’m Severn Suzuki speaking for The Environmental Children’s Organization. We are a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds from Canada trying to make a difference… We raised all the money ourselves to come six thousand miles to tell you adults you must change your ways. Coming here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future. I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet because they have nowhere left to go. We cannot afford to be not heard. I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the holes in the ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it. I used to go fishing in Vancouver with my dad until just a few years ago we found the fish full of cancers. In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rainforests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry about these little things when you were my age? All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I’m only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realize, neither do you! You don’t know how to fix the holes in our ozone layer. You don’t know how to bring salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can’t bring back forests that once grew where there is now desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it! I’m only a child yet I know we are all part of a family, five billion strong, in fact, 30 million species strong and we all share the same air, water and soil. I’m only a child yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal.  I’m only a child yet I know if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this earth would be! At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us to behave in the world. You teach us: not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share – not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? Parents should be able to comfort their children by saying “everything’s going to be alright,” “we’re doing the best we can” and “it’s not the end of the world.” But I don’t think you can say that to us anymore. My father always says, “You are what you do, not what you say.” Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown ups say you love us. I challenge you, please make your actions reflect your words. Thank you.”[i]

 

At this time, please join me in our final reflection. With eyes closed, take a moment to ponder one action you might take to better care for God’s good earth and its resources—and when might you start? (Silence)

In closing, I offer you a blessing written by John Philip Newell, a poet, scholar, and Church of Scotland minister, who is widely recognized for his work in Celtic spirituality:

May the deep blessings of earth be with us.

May the fathomless soundings of seas surge in our soul.

May boundless stretches of the universe echo in our depths

To open us to wonder

To strengthen us for love

To humble us with gratitude

That we may find ourselves in one another

That we may lose ourselves in gladness

That we may give ourselves to peace. Amen.

[i] https://creativesystemsthinking.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/a-12-year-old-fighting-for-our-planets-future/

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission

 

Resurrection Life

Resurrection Life

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 11, 2021

2nd Sunday of Easter

Psalm 133; John 20:19-31

Last Sunday we gathered in person for the first time in over a year to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. For the next seven weeks, we will continue to celebrate the Season of Easter and to explore what it means to live an Easter life, a resurrection life.

 

Our reading from the Gospel of John occurs on the first day of the week. It is still Sunday. Earlier in the chapter, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus missing. She runs to tell Peter and John, who race to the tomb to find that she is telling the truth. They return to their homes while Mary stands at the tomb weeping. But when Jesus appears and speaks her name, she recognizes him and rushes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

 

That same evening the disciples are in the house together, still locked behind closed doors in fear. Then, Jesus comes among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. To prove his identity, he shows them his hands and side and then, “Peace be with you,” he says again. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, transforming them from disciples (those who follow) to apostles (those who are sent). Later, when they tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord, he refuses to believe them until Jesus appears again to offer words of peace and to offer himself to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

 

Jesus does not scold or ridicule Thomas for doubting. Instead, Jesus meets Thomas where he is, offering love and resurrection life. And how do Thomas and the disciples respond? It takes some time but eventually, these men who fell asleep when they should have prayed, who denied Jesus when they should have proclaimed him as Lord, who abandoned him when they should have clung to his side—these same men become so sure of resurrection life for all people, that most of them die as martyrs because of their faith in Christ as the Risen Savior. Because of their faithfulness, we have a story to tell.

 

Through God’s grace we have accepted the Easter message as true: Jesus has been raised from the dead and now life can be lived—not in fear—but in hope. Hear these words of hope taken from the Presbyterian Companion to the Book of Common Worship:

 

In the resurrection of Christ, God’s awesome purposes were on display, revealing a radically new world of peace and harmony and equality and mutuality… On Easter we glimpse a new landscape — the age to come — and experience a sense of holy awe at the significance of the resurrection for human life. The shape of the age to come reveals a new people of God, a new humanity. When Christ was crucified, humanity died with him on Calvary. But on Easter morning, a new world was born — raised up with the crucified and risen Christ. Bursting the bonds of death, the first human being of a new human race, Jesus Christ, appeared among those who crucified him. In the midst of the old sin-struck world, God gave the world a new beginning, a new humanity. By faith the old guilt-ridden humanity was born again into the new forgiven humanity of Jesus Christ. Ever since, here and there, clusters of the new people of God live according to the new social order of the new age.

 

After the Season of Lent, after living through a global pandemic, it is easy to welcome Easter with open arms. Resurrection is, after all, about new possibilities. But resurrection is about more than the joy we feel when the cold of winter bursts forth in spring flowers—more than providing hope for the time when our own lives come to an end. Resurrection is about the ways in which God can transform all that threatens to undo us; the ways in which God can transform all that wounds and scars; the ways in which God takes that which seems like the end and creates a new beginning. That is our resurrection hope made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus. Do we live with such hope coursing through our veins? Does our behavior demonstrate our belief that Jesus can make all things new? Or do we look at the state of the world and the state of the church and allow the language of death to creep in and push resurrection out the window?

 

In this Season of Easter, where might you begin to look for resurrection? Perhaps in your own personal struggles with disappointment, discouragement, fear, anxiety, addiction, or ill-health? Whatever your circumstance, what would resurrection mean for you? Are there changes that you might be called upon to make to be part of your own resurrection story? Do you long to see resurrection in the life of the church? What might that look like? How might you play a role in communicating the gospel in new, vibrant ways? Do you long to see resurrection in the world, where wars and rumors of wars continue, where the most vulnerable are routinely exploited for financial gain? Do you long to see resurrection in the death blows delivered to God’s creation—polluted waters, polluted soil, polluted air? What might resurrection look like for the plants and trees, rivers and oceans, all creatures great and small? What steps might you take to help bring healing to the hurting planet?

 

Through the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s children. We are followers of Jesus, and in our crazy mixed-up world, we are his representatives. Because of Christ, resurrection life is possible! Undeniably, there is much that threatens our peace, our well-being, our dreams for a better world for all God’s children. Yet, there is hope if we take up the mantle handed to us and continue to live in the ways of love—something Jesus modeled so well.

 

In large ways and small, we are invited to participate in God’s story of love for all people. And each new day brings with it opportunities to live into a resurrection life. Yes, Christ is risen! But he is not risen only on Easter morning. He is risen every day of our lives, every day for all of eternity. And we stand in a long line of saints who have proclaimed to the watching world: “Jesus has transformed my life; he can transform your life too! Thanks be to God! Amen!

*Cover Art, “Earthen Vessel” by Ira Thomas, Catholic World Tradition, used by permission

 

 

 

 

 

Radical Optimism

Radical Optimism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 4, 2021

Easter Sunday

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

 

Let us pause to savor this moment. For over a year, we have been the church from many dwelling places but this morning, by the grace of God, we are the church here in this beautiful sanctuary, as well as the church from many dwelling places. Let us relish this moment because this morning we gather—not for the funeral of Jesus—but for his resurrection. Because of Christ, hope abounds, and because of Christ, we have every reason for radical optimism. On this day, in a host of different languages, a greeting resounds around the world: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Easter marks the beginning of Christianity. Without Easter, there would be no Gospel, no Good News to proclaim. Without Easter there would be no reason for us to be here in this church; there would be no church.

 

No doubt, all seems lost that first Easter morn, when Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome head out to tend to the body of their Lord. These same women, along with others, look on from a distance that Good Friday that seems anything but good. They watch while all their hopes and dreams of new life are nailed to a cross!  In 1st Century Palestine, it naturally fell to women to care for the bodies of the deceased. So, after the Sabbath, they rise with the sun, to perform the natural—only to be met with the supernatural. Imagine their distress, when they enter the tomb and are greeted by a young man, dressed in white, who says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

 

The women flee from the tomb in terror and amazement, and they say nothing to anyone. Nothing at all. What a strange way to end a gospel that has throughout reminded those impacted by it to “Tell no one.” Now, the instruction is crystal clear: Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him. But their response is just as clear: Out of fear, they tell no one!

 

Wait a minute! Surely there’s more to the story. Surely Mark does not mean to leave us hanging with a resurrection scene minus Jesus, minus the disciples, minus Peter. If we look carefully at our Bibles, we notice that two additional endings are provided. No doubt, it is a strange ending—so strange that it likely causes one monk, and then, later, another to add a little something to explain what happens next. The women do tell someone—otherwise how would we know what happens next—and something does, indeed, happen next! Though the topic has been long debated, verse 8 is widely accepted as the original ending: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” Maybe, if we allow this conclusion to stand on its own, we will find that instead of an incomplete ending, it provides the perfect beginning.

 

In her commentary on Mark, Kimberly Clayton Richter points out two major themes woven throughout this gospel.[i]  First is the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus preaches, teaches, heals, and loves people. He embodies the authority and power of his Abba Father. Jesus embodies that which the powers of the world will stop at nothing to silence! God’s love is a dangerous love in the eyes of the world!

 

The second theme concerns the disciples. As Richter notes:

At first, they act like models of faithfulness, dropping everything to follow Jesus. But repeatedly, they’re portrayed as fellows who just don’t get it. They misunderstand; they doubt; they are filled with fear. And even though Jesus speaks of suffering and of being last and least, they want to know which of them is the greatest, and who will sit on his right and his left in glory. They fall asleep when he needs them most. By the end of the gospel, one of them has betrayed Jesus, one has denied him, and all have fallen away.

 

Surprisingly, in Mark’s telling, it’s the women who are portrayed as “getting it” more times than not. Yet, it’s the women who witness the empty tomb only to run away in fear and tell no one! How out of character. So why this strange turn of events? Why the cliffhanger? Personally, I attribute it to the genius of the writer of Mark’s gospel. For now, the dilemma is this: Who will go and who will tell? Only the reader is left! Thus, Mark’s ending sends us back to the beginning of Mark to re-read Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”[ii] WE are left to share the good news and continue the mission of Christ in the world. Along the way, like the disciples, we may doubt. We may fear taking up our cross and following Jesus. Too often, we may prefer glory to suffering. Instead of watching and praying, we may fall asleep. Nevertheless, it falls upon our shoulders to receive and believe Jesus’ resurrection promise: “He is going ahead of us. We will see him.”[iii]

 

During Lent we have explored “Isms” that threaten to undo us—Isms such as Individualism, Ageism, Domestic Terrorism, Consumerism, Christian Nationalism, and Racism. While there is much going on in the world that is cause for concern, as Christians we do not lose heart because there is every reason for optimism—even radical optimism. Why? Because of the radical nature of God’s love. That’s what the salvation story is all about, after all. God so loved the world that God entered the world as Emmanuel, God with us. In the person of Jesus, God’s love heals the sick and gives sight to the blind. God’s love turns tax collectors into generous disciples. God’s love feeds the hungry and embraces the outsider. Unable to accept God’s love, the powers of evil join forces to kill Love. They bind Love, they beat Love, they humiliate Love, and then, when that is not enough, they hang Love on a cross and kill Love. But God’s Love is too strong. So, in three days, God’s Love bursts forth from the tomb! And God’s Love is still on the loose!

 

As we continue the mission of taking Christ’s love into the world, there is no need to fear and there is every reason to be hopeful, to be optimistic. Because no matter where we go and no matter what is going on in the world, Jesus is already there—in Galilee, in Philippi, in Egypt, in Rome, in America, in Tennessee, in Georgia. Christ has gone ahead of us and he is here! Bread of heaven, Light of the world, Hallelujah! God’s Resurrected Love is risen! He is risen, indeed!

 

[i] Commentary for Mark, The Life with God Bible, NRSV, Kimberly Clayton Richter, 62-63.

[ii] Mark 1:15

[iii] Ibid, Richter.

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt; used by permission

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Racism

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Racism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday

Psalm 22:23-31; Mark 7:24-30

 

This morning we continue the Lenten sermon series, “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us.” I encourage you to join me for our final segment of Holy Conversations via Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. to share your perspectives and to pray with others who are seeking God’s wisdom. While we all look forward to next Sunday when we will gather in-person and online to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with “Radical Optimism,” today we pause to consider the issue of racism. Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their race or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized; the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another. While we may have seen prejudice in the world, in our country, in our neighborhoods, in our families, and even been guilty of it ourselves, I daresay none of us expect such discrimination to be recorded in Scripture—especially not by Jesus. But that is certainly an explanation for what we find in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.

 

In his Bible study, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, Walter Brueggemann notes that Jesus’ ministry is conducted in large part in Galilee. Just prior to our reading from the Gospel of Mark, in response to a hungry crowd gathered around Jesus in a deserted place, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the people so that 5000 are fed with 12 baskets of bread left over. (The 12 baskets left over represent the 12 tribes of Israel.) Afterward, Jesus enters a house to catch his breath. While presumably enjoying the hospitality and the respite, his peace is rudely interrupted by a Syrophoenician woman. She is NOT a Jew. She is a Gentile, an ethnic “other.” Make no mistake, her intrusion is disruptive, disturbing, and unwelcome. But she is not concerned about decorum. Having heard of Jesus’ powers of healing, she is a woman on a mission to get help for her beloved daughter who suffers with an unclean spirit. Humbly she bows at his feet and begs Jesus for help. Instead of responding with the kindness we expect from Jesus, he retorts, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Make no mistake, is clear to the woman and to everyone within earshot what he is implying. The children are the entitled Jews, the dogs are the “other,” the Gentile, the woman and her daughter, and the food is the power of God to transform life. Interestingly, the woman does not dispute his statement. She accepts that the children, the Jews, should be served first. “But sir,” she reasons, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

 

I cannot overstate the problematic nature of this text. In fact, whenever it comes up in the Lectionary, I cringe—I, along with every other preacher I know. Wells of ink have been spilled to explain away Jesus’ uncharacteristic behavior with some saying he is tired and others arguing that even Jesus has a bad day on occasion. But Brueggemann has another take on the matter. He contends that what happens between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman alters the course of Jesus’ ministry. In Brueggemann’s words,

 

[Jesus] was from Galilee. He apparently understood himself…in the limited provincial categories of Jewish Galilee, and that was the proper scope of his ministry. There had thus far been no challenge to that scope. There was enough to do in Galilee among Jewish peasants…His own people had received him gladly, and that was surely enough.

 

But now an outsider, a woman, intrudes and contradicts Jesus and now he must answer. Again, Brueggemann:

 

Would he dispute her? Would he defend male privilege? Would he argue for Jewish chosenness? Would he stubbornly insist that he had it right the first time: He has no ministry to the “dogs”? No; he does none of that. He makes a different response. He commends the bold woman…Because she broke the silence in a daring, insistent way that reeducated him, her daughter is set free.

 

Indeed, this encounter does mark a change in Jesus’ ministry for immediately afterward he moves on to the region of the Decapolis and there in Greek territory among Gentiles, he heals a man who is deaf and mute. And then, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus performs yet another feeding miracle, this time to 4000 people. Starting with seven loaves, Jesus takes, thanks, breaks, and gives so that the crowd eats and are filled with seven baskets left over. The use of “seven,” notes Brueggemann,

 

…is an allusion to the “seven nations” that ancient Israel had displaced in the Old Israel tradition. These nations had been forcibly displaced, and their religious icons had been violently destroyed. But now Jesus sets them alongside his own people in Galilee as those who are able to share with Jews the “food” of the new regime of God. The woman’s speech has set in motion a wholly different history. And we have arrived at a narrative symmetry of twelve baskets of bread for the twelve tribes of Israel and seven baskets of bread for the seven nations of the tradition…Now it is no longer “bread for the chosen people.” Now it is “bread for the world.”[i]

 

I subscribe to Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation and in recent weeks he has explored how difficult it is to see our own biases and how only love can overcome them. Wisely, he observes that no matter what our viewpoint is, it is a view from a point. On the subject of bias, Brian McLaren insists that the more we bump into folks who are so-called “other,” the more we are stretched, the more we are pulled out of that bias and have new truths because we have tangible evidence of the beautiful, powerful creativity of our God who made all of this diversity for us to enjoy.

 

As Christians, we are called to be people who love. That is our life’s work. We love God. We love ourselves. We love our families. We love our friends. But we must move beyond that. We are called to expand love out into the universe—to people who are not like us, who do not look like us, who may not worship as we do, who do not see the world from our point of view. To do otherwise, is to fail Jesus who modeled how to expand our thinking and modify our behavior when the need arises.[ii]

 

Over the course of my 22-plus years of education, I have to say that my time at Columbia Theological Seminary and at Shalem Institute were the most life-changing. While there are many reasons for the impact these institutions had on me, one that stands out is the diversity of the faculty and students—people representing different continents, different countries, different faith traditions, different races, different life experiences, different perspectives. In the company of such diversity, I often gave thanks to God for allowing me to see from different points of view, for allowing me to glimpse God’s kin-dom—a place where everyone is welcome, everyone is included, everyone has a voice, and no one is offered crumbs. Instead, baskets overflow with bread for the world. Glory be to God. Amen.

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, 46-54.

[ii] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/?ogbl#inbox/FMfcgxwLswFxwjnhhMSjqBJmRFBwLFss

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Christian Nationalism

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Christian Nationalism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 21, 2021

5th Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-2, Exodus 20:1-5a, Matthew 22:36-40

 

This morning we continue the Lenten sermon series, “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us,” and once again, I invite you to join me for Holy Conversations via Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. to talk and to pray with others who are seekers of God’s wisdom. Now, we turn our attention to the issue of Christian Nationalism. In recent conversations with many of you and with others I hold dear, I have sensed a shared concern for the future of our country. Some of us worry that we are headed toward socialism in which production, distribution, and exchange are owned or regulated by the community as a whole. Some are concerned about fascism defined as a form of totalitarian or authoritarian government in which most of a nation’s power is held by one ruler. Others have expressed various other concerns. While we may differ in how we imagine things playing out in the years ahead, many of us seem to agree that our democracy—a government designed to be for the people by the people—is in trouble.

 

One threat that has been debated and written widely about in recent years is Christian Nationalism. With all the ink that has been spilled, you would think that defining it would be a cinch. Not so. But I will do my best in the short time allotted. In an article in “Christianity Today,” Paul Miller, professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, defines Christian nationalism by contrasting it with Christianity. Christianity is a religion, a set of beliefs drawn from the Bible and certain creeds about ultimate things like life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In contrast, Christian nationalism is a political ideology about American identity, a set of instructions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. Instead of being drawn from the Bible, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework built on a collection of myths, symbols, and narratives. It idealizes a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. It dangerously appeals to tribal instincts, suggesting we are “a chosen race,” while denying the universal nature of God’s love.

 

When I hear the phrase “Christian nationalism,” my mind immediately goes to our Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions, specifically to The Theological Confession of Barmen. In part, here is what is provided as an explanation for the confession:

 

The Theological Confession of Barmen was written by a group of church leaders in Germany to help Christians withstand the challenges of the Nazi party and of the so-called “German Christians,” a popular movement that saw no conflict between Christianity and the ideals of Hitler’s National Socialism.

 

In January 1933…Adolf Hitler was named chancellor. By playing on people’s fears of communism…he was able to persuade the Parliament to allow him to rule by edict. As he consolidated his power, Hitler abolished all political rights and democratic processes: police could detain persons in prison without a trial, search private dwellings without a warrant, seize property, censor publications, tap telephones, and forbid meetings. He soon outlawed all political parties except his own, smashed labor unions, purged universities, replaced the judicial system with his own “People’s Court,” initiated a systemic terrorizing of Jews, and obtained the support of church leaders allied with or sympathetic to the German Christians.

 

Most Germans took the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism for granted, and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The German Christians exalted the racially pure nation and the rule of Hitler as God’s will for the German people.[i]

 

Thankfully, there were church leaders who resisted. Numerous church members, university professors, and ordained ministers (including Karl Barth), gathered in Barmen to discuss, debate, and adopt a declaration to appeal to the churches of Germany to reject the false doctrine of the German Christians. The resulting declaration affirms the church’s freedom in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. It also makes clear that the church is to obey Jesus as God’s one and only Word to determine its order, its ministry, and its relation to the state. [ii]

 

The relationship between church and state has been an important matter down through the ages. Americans have long valued the separation of church and state. Historically, whenever the church and state have wed, it has been the church that has suffered. Still, history has a way of repeating itself. To shed more light on the topic, allow me to share a portion of an article that appeared in The Presbyterian Outlook in 2019. [iii]  It referenced a letter endorsed by Christian representatives from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, The Episcopal Church, and the National Council of Churches—just to name a few. The purpose of the letter was to condemn Christian nationalism. In part, the letter reads:

 

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy…We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation. As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that people of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square; patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions; government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion; religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families; conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion; and we must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad. [iv]

 

We at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta worship the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not worship our country or its president. While we value our citizenship in the United States of America as well as the Constitution and our national symbols, we do not worship a political party or the flag or the national anthem. Our allegiance is and always must be to Jesus Christ. What unites us is more powerful than ideals or opinions or platforms that separate us. We share a deep faith in Jesus. We long to do the will of Christ by feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger. We have been and will continue to be a place of hope for our community. Sure, we have different political views, but we love one another, we break bread with one another, we support one another in good times and bad. As ambassadors for Christ, we are called to live by a higher standard than other citizens. We seek to follow the way of Jesus, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Do we always get it right? Of course not, but day by day, we are learning. We are growing. We are becoming sons and daughters of God who are equipped to lead others into a brighter future for us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Book of Confessions, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 280.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] https://pres-outlook.org/2019/08/christian-leaders-condemn-christian-nationalism-in-new-letter/

[iv] https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org/statement

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Consumerism

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Consumerism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 14, 2021

4th Sunday in Lent

Matthew 6:19-24; Luke 12:16-20

 

This morning we continue the Lenten sermon series, “Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us,” and once again, I invite you to join me for Holy Conversations on Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. Our virtual time offers you a chance to speak your truth—without judgment or debate. It is also a sacred space to pray with other believers who are seekers of God’s wisdom. Now, let us turn our attention to the issue of Consumerism. Consumerism is defined as the idea that increasing consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal and that a person’s wellbeing and happiness depend fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possessions. Of course, purchasing goods and services is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it becomes a problem when it is taken to the extreme, when it puts people in debt, when it harms the environment, when anyone, and especially a Christian, defines happiness and wellbeing by how much they possess.

 

Billionaire Malcolm Forbes is credited with the oft-quoted phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But the truth of the matter is—he who dies with the most toys—well, he is still dead, which leads us to the wisdom Jesus provides in his story from the Gospel of Luke. While surrounded by a crowd of people, someone urges Jesus to order his brother to give him his share of the family inheritance. Jesus tells him that is not his business and, turning to the people, he warns them of the danger of greed for life is not defined by what you have. Then, Jesus tells the story of the greedy farmer. Commenting on the passage, Eugene Peterson’s has this to say:

 

The eternal relationships of the soul aren’t improved by bursting barns or new cars or bigger homes. Our deepest happiness isn’t influenced by the quantities of food and drink on the table. The profound realities of life aren’t enlarged by material success in status and money. Jesus called this man “fool” because he remembered the wrong things: He remembered himself…Besides remembering the wrong things, he forgot the essential things. He forgot his neighbors. If his barns were too small, there must have been others who would have been only too glad to share in his surplus. [And] he forgot time. It never occurred to him that time could possibly have an end.

 

Tracy Chapman’s “Mountains o’ Things,” paints a picture of someone who also forgets the essentials. In the song, the singer dreams of a life of ease with mountains of things, a big expensive car, a sweet lazy life with servants to care for her every need, champagne and caviar—all so that others will look at her with envy and greed. She imagines reveling in their attention for her mountains of things. Then, “Oh they tell me there’s still time to save my soul. They tell me—renounce all those materials gained by exploiting other human beings.” Then, the final verse: “Consume more than you need, this is the dream. Make you pauper or make you queen. I won’t die lonely; I’ll have it all prearranged, a grave that’s deep and wide enough for me and all my mountains o’ things.”

 

When it comes to possessions, here are a few statistics to consider from an article first printed in 2014, the year in which Americans spent over $57 billion on Black Friday weekend alone, while giving $103 billion to churches for the whole year; that same year, enough K-Cups were thrown out to encircle the earth 12 times. Additionally, nearly 40% of food in America goes to waste, while globally, malnutrition effects 161 million children; despite making up just over 3% of the global population of children, nearly half the world’s toys are in America; we create more electronic waste than any other nation on earth; homes in the U.S. contain more TVs than people, with, on average, each household having three working television sets.[i] Startling as these statistics may seem, they only skirt around the edges of how we are drowning in consumerism, and how our actions are detrimental to God’s wondrous creation, to us, and to generations to come.

 

Scott and Gabby Dannemiller are former Young Adult Volunteers for the Presbyterian Church USA. Their experience in Guatemala led them to embrace a new spiritual practice—to give up participation in consumer culture. Convinced that there was more to life than working to keep up with societal expectations, they wanted to live missionally in their day-to-day life—to be in the world and not of the world. So, they made a New Year’s resolution in 2013 to stop buying stuff. In the book, The Year Without A Purchase: Our Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting, they share their experience, including goals that guided their journey: To buy only stuff that could be used up within a year, like groceries, gas, and hygiene products (no clothes—they had plenty, already). To fix things that broke, unless the repair cost was greater than the replacement cost. To give gifts as charitable donations or as life experiences with the intent of building connections and making memories by doing things like going to dinner together, visiting the zoo, or traveling to be with family and friends.

 

Reflecting back on the experience, Scott Dannemiller said that after a couple of months, not shopping simply became his family’s new normal, but he admits it was rough at first. The most humbling part was realizing what they were doing as an experiment, is the reality for most of the people on the planet. For them, three big things came from not purchasing for a year: More time, more energy, and a greater appreciation of the things that matter. Now, his family spends on experiences more than on things. They look more at the function of an item, instead of how it makes them feel. Before making a purchase, they ask questions like, “What value is it going to bring? Will it allow us to have more time or energy for the things that are important?” He admits that they do shop from time to time, but the experience has ruined “shopping as a hobby” for his family.

 

God has given us endless opportunities and resources: creation filled with beauty and wonder, life, love, a relationship with God and with others, a faith community, and even God’s own Son. God is the Great Giver. As people created in God’s image, we, too, are called to be givers. Sure, there are things we need, things we must consume. But when the perceived chasm between our wants and our needs drives our every action, and leaves our neighbors dying from lack of food, clothing, clean water, housing, medical attention, community—it is time for us to re-think our priorities.

 

The Gospel of Matthew offers words of wisdom for us to ponder. Hear now these words from The Message:

 

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

 

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

[i] https://www.relevantmagazine.com/current/11-stats-will-change-way-you-think-about-consumerism/

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission.

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Domestic Terrorism

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Domestic Terrorism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 7, 2021

3rd Sunday in Lent

Proverbs 6:16-19; Romans 12:19-21

 

A question that often comes up in seminary is, “How long does it take to write a sermon?” A common response is to expect to spend an hour preparing for every minute of a sermon. Generally, I have found this to be a good rule of thumb. But not this week. This week, while preparing to preach on domestic terrorism as part of the Lenten sermon series, “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us,” ten hours has hardly been adequate. Instead, the experience has felt more like drinking from a fire hose only to drown in data. So much so, I will begin with a disclaimer. My goal this morning is not to be thorough. My goal is to open avenues for you to explore, ponder, and pray about on your own. It is also my hope that you will join our Holy Conversation on Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the matter with other believers who are seeking the wisdom of the Spirit during these trying times.

 

January 6, 2021 is a day that will live in infamy, a day when we witnessed mob violence at the U.S. Capitol as insurrectionists attempted to disrupt our democratic process. No matter how you identify politically, violent acts against people is contrary to Christian faith. In the aftermath of the insurrection, I daresay most of us recognize the very real threat of domestic terrorism to our nation and to our way of life. Just this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that domestic terrorism cases have doubled over the past year—like a metastatic cancer that shows no signs of stopping. As concerned citizens, and as believers in the Prince of Peace, we are filled with questions. What is domestic terrorism, exactly? How are domestic terrorists being radicalized? Is there anything the church can do to help?

 

Domestic Terrorism is defined as the committing of terrorist acts in the perpetrator’s own country against fellow citizens. For many of us, the term became real April 19, 1995 when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In an article in Presbyterian Outlook, Chaplain Maggie Alsup, who grew up in Oklahoma, reflects on how both the Oklahoma bombing, and the January 6 insurrection, were fueled by fear and hate. In her words,

 

…as I watched the events of January 6 unfold, I felt a wave of emotions — the same wave I felt all those years ago on April 19. I watched as a place of hope, of democracy, of what represents sacred political ground was desecrated. I felt ill, I felt helpless, I felt a wave of sadness come over me. Then I felt a sense of rage and of anger, I felt like shouting, “We warned you this would happen!” And that was the statement that rang in my ears all day as I watched the chaos unfold. It hung in the air because I have seen firsthand the ways hate and rage play out in the violence of domestic terrorism… As a college chaplain, it has become a vital part of my ministry to speak up against such hate and violence, to share stories of lament and loss, to hold people accountable to their actions — not just because of my childhood encounter with domestic terrorism, but also because of the covenant I entered into at my baptism [to renounce evil and the powers which defy God’s righteousness and love and to renounce the sin that separates us from the love of God]. [i]

 

If we wonder how people are being radicalized, it is happening in lots of ways. A common method is demonstrated through a character in Jodi Picoult’s book, Small Great Things. In the novel, Turk was a recruiter for a radical white supremacy group. His modus operandi was to target kids who experienced bullying and to step in to protect them. He would invite them to hang out with him, and act like he cared about their plight in life. He reminded them how superior they were—for no other reason than the color of their skin. And for every complaint they had about life, he pointed them toward someone to blame. These steps toward radicalization are the same steps used by street gangs to garner members. Target the teen who has a broken home, a weak or absent support system, the one who feels lost and unloved and then, convince them that they can keep living as prey for their enemies or they can become the predator. While these types of encounters increase terrorist group membership, a more effective tool these days is the Internet. Using various social media platforms or dark websites, a curious person of any age can plummet into danger with just a click or two.

 

In the Washington Post article, “The Psychology of How Someone Becomes Radicalized,” a research psychologist at the University of Maryland has found that no matter the flavor of extremism—neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, or members of the Islamic State—the necessary ingredients for radicalization are the same. First, there is a universal need to feel significant, and while most people satisfy this need through working hard, having families, and other achievements, radicals tend to find their place based on gender, religion, or race. Second, there is the embrace of a narrative that gives someone permission for violence like an enemy is attacking their group, so the radical has no choice but to fight to maintain honor. The third necessary component is the community—the network that validates the narrative. Radicalization can change a person’s path forever. Yet, there are some who find a way out. Tony McAleer is one such person, a former skinhead and organizer for White Aryan Resistance. He says that the process of deradicalization starts with first disengaging from the toxic community. The person must be exposed “to a different, more pro-social narrative, and particularly [become] attracted to alternative networks that give them respect.”[ii]

 

The phrase “alternative networks that give them respect,” is worth considering for it brings us to our third question, “Is there anything the church can do to help?” Yearning to belong, to be a part of something larger than oneself—isn’t that something that our faith network, our faith community provides for us? If so, might the church possess an intentional, alternative narrative for those lost in a vortex of hatred and anger? No doubt, hatred can become a dangerous tool for survival. But Jesus points to another way—the way of love—because Jesus knows that hatred bears deadly fruit, ultimately, destroying even the hater.

 

Domestic terrorism is a real and present danger for us and our global neighbors. The problem is so big, it is hard to imagine how we can make a difference. But no matter how big the problem, our God is bigger. As people of faith, we are compelled to look beyond what our eyes can see to a vision of God’s wholeness and peace. Challenging the hatred and fear that are driving the increase of domestic violence in our nation will require the hard work of prayer, love, and forgiveness. If we ask for guidance every step of the way, if we work in community, if we bravely speak the truth in love—change is possible. New life is possible—for us and for the world Christ came to save. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

(Let us keep silence.)

[i] Maggie Alsup, “Domestic Terrorism and Baptismal Vow,” Presbyterian Outlook; January 18, 2021

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/11/01/psychology-how-someone-becomes-radicalized/

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Ageism

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Ageism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 28, 2021

2nd Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; 1 Peter 5:1-5

 

 

On this 2nd Sunday of Lent, we continue the sermon series “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us.”  Because the series is meant to promote dialogue, I invite you to join me on Zoom Monday at 6:30 p.m. for what we are calling “Holy Conversations.” The setting provides a sacred space for you to speak your truth—without judgment or debate—and to pray with other believers who are seeking wisdom during these tumultuous times.

 

Today we turn our attention to “Ageism,” a term coined in 1969 to describe discrimination toward older people, old age, and the aging process. I learned of the term about 20 years ago when Kinney and I had two friends over the age of 50 with advanced degrees, who lost their jobs when their companies downsized. Months turned into years as they searched for employment. But because of their age and salary expectations based on experience, they seemed to be un-employable. Eventually, both pursued different professions, and both were convinced that they had experienced age discrimination.

 

The American Psychological Association reports that in people over 60, about 80% have experienced ageism. Examples of prejudice include people assuming seniors have memory or physical impairments because of their age, not taking them seriously, ignoring them or perceiving them as dependent, helpless, or demanding rather than deserving.  But the reality is that most seniors are self-sufficient and have remarkable assets and gifts that are beneficial to society.

 

I once heard a story about a 90-year-old woman during a doctor’s visit who was accompanied by her daughter. Throughout the exam, the physician kept addressing the daughter instead of her mother, as if her mother was mentally hampered in some way. But this was no ordinary nonagenarian. Finally, fed up with the doctor, she posed a question, “Do you work the New York Times crossword puzzle?” He answered, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” She countered, “So do I, in ink. So, any comments or questions you have regarding my health—you can address to me.”

 

While there are older folk who fit stereotypes like being set in their ways and being unwilling to change, that is not the norm. And even if it were, the aged among us deserve respect if for no other reason than having survived decades of the ups and downs of life. I have a special fondness for the elderly, maybe because in my formative years, it was my paternal grandmother who cared for me. Even with all the love she gave to her 8 children, there was enough love left over for me, and I am grateful. A friend shared a Facebook post on the topic that made me pause and ponder:

 

I asked an elderly man once what it was like to be old and to know the majority of his life was behind him. He told me that he has been the same age his entire life. He said the voice inside of his head never aged. He has always just been the same boy. His mother’s son. He had always wondered when he would grow up and be an old man. He said he watched his body age and his faculties dull but the person he was inside never got tired. Never aged. Never changed.

 

Abram was 99 when the Lord gave him a new name and blessed him with a covenant that would, in time, bless the entire world. God’s love is boundless so, of course, it could not be restricted to one people, the people of Israel. Through Abraham, through prophets, priests, and kings, and then, through Christ, God’s love reached out to us all.

 

Episcopal bishop and Native American Indian, Steven Charleston, offers this perspective on elders:

 

My culture respects the elders not only because of their wisdom, but because of their determination. The elders are tough. They have survived many struggles and many losses. Now, as they look ahead to another generation, they are determined that their sacrifices will not have been in vain, that their children’s children will not grow up in a world more broken than the one they sought to repair. The elders are voices of justice. They are champions for the earth. They defend the science of the community…

 

Our eternal grandparents are watching over us, all those who have gone before. They are our ancestors, and they have seen enough in their own lives to know what we are going through. They have survived economic collapse, social unrest, political struggle, and great wars that raged for years. Now, from their place of peace, they seek to send their wisdom into our hearts, to guide us to reconciliation, to show us our mistakes before we make them. Their love for us is strong. Their faith in us is certain. When times get hard, sit quietly and open your spirit to the eternal grandparents, who are still a part of your spiritual world. Receive their blessings, for their light will lead you home.[i]

 

Recognizing those who have gone before us is certainly not foreign to the Christian tradition. Following a chapter that recaps the history of the faith of our ancestors, Hebrews 12:1 tells us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We benefit from their experiences and their sacrifices.

 

In the 21st Century, we are inundated with information, but we are lacking in wisdom. Sure, with the tap of a finger, we can google anything. But there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is simply knowing something while wisdom involves perspective and the ability to make sound judgments based on knowledge. Knowledge might give us something to say, but wisdom will teach us when to say it. During these troubling times, we need elders to help tend the flock, to serve as guides, to teach us humility, and to point us to the grace and mercy and love of Jesus.

 

“Selma” is a powerful movie based on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Its theme song, performed by John Legend and Common, is entitled, “Glory.” Here are a few of the lyrics:

 

Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany. Now we right the wrongs in history.
No one can win the war individually. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy…

 

It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy. To accomplish our most important work—the work of justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God—it will take every one of us, no matter our age, gender, race, or nationality. We are all called. We are all equipped. We are all blessed by the God of Abraham and Sarah. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

(Let us keep silence.)

[i] Steven Charleston, Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder’s Meditations on Hope and Courage, 90.

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, Used by permission.

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Individualism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 21, 2021

1st Sunday in Lent

Romans 12:1-21

 

About 7 years ago, I helped design a Cultural Issues Class using movies to prompt conversation. During the planning phase, an elder in the church I was serving said to me, “Well, I would never talk about controversial issues at church.” When I asked why, he answered, “Because someone might get upset or even leave the church.” I remember walking home afterward, shaking my head, and wondering, “If we can’t talk about weighty issues at church, where can believers talk about them? And what if some things that are controversial are also important to our greater life in the community?

 

Maybe this exchange seems mundane to you—but to me—as a pastor—it was anything but mundane. In fact, I have carried this conversation in my pocket ever since. And now, here we are, in what feels like one of the most controversial times in American history. There is so much division, so much anger, so much unrest. And now, it seems that everything is political. And what I mean is that the things that matter, the things that need to be addressed, the things that keep us up at night—they have been made into political weapons. Are we to remain silent, still? If not, how do we move forward? What is ours to say? What is ours to do?

 

As your spiritual leader, these are the kinds of questions I have been lifting in prayer, day after day. I believe an answer came through the idea of a Lenten sermon series we begin today. “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us” is a foray into some important cultural issues. With all the wisdom and humility I can muster, I plan to speak my truth from this pulpit. But since the series is meant to promote dialogue, I hope you will join me on Zoom each Monday at 6:30 p.m. during Lent for what I am calling “Holy Conversations.” Our virtual time will give you a chance to speak your own truth—without judgment or debate. It will also provide a sacred space for us to pray together as believers who are seeking the wisdom of God, above all things.

 

To begin, let us consider the suffix “ism.” It is commonly added to a word to indicate a practice, prejudice, property, or abnormal condition, like sexism, alcoholism, Buddhism. We may think that “isms” are new to our day and time but that is hardly the case: Nazism, Communism, and McCarthyism, come to mind. During this Season of Lent, though, we will consider other “isms”: Individualism, Ageism, Domestic Terrorism, Consumerism, Christian Nationalism, and Racism. Our exploration will end on Easter Sunday with Radical Optimism. Thanks be to God!

 

Today’s topic is Individualism. The term, first used in the early 1800s, is defined as a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be paramount, that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals. Regarding individualist behavior, the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible offers insight. Judges records a dark time in the history of the people of Israel. It was a time of violence, massacre, brutality, and deceit—not quite what you would expect in God’s story of salvation. Yet, there it is—in black and white. And twice in the book, we find this refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, everyone did what they felt like doing.

 

Steven Charleston is an Episcopal priest as well as a Native American Indian. In his book, Ladder to the Light, he has this to say about individualism:

 

Colonialism brought to America the idea of individualism. The rugged individualist was the pioneer who saw what he wanted and took it. In this reality, community was rooted in convenience, and it became an endless competition between individuals who came together or broke apart for any number of economic or political reasons. In contrast, my ancestors believed in individuality: each person’s right to be uniquely who they are but never to be ostracized or isolated from their collective community. Diversity, therefore, was preserved in the heart of unity.

 

While we have certainly benefited from individualism that fueled the trek out West, centuries later, individualism has been taken to extremes. Some say we have become a “selfie nation.” Interestingly, sandwiched between Colonial individualism and a selfie nation, another time in American history stands out when the desire for community actually outweighed individual desires. Following WWII, people worked toward a shared national agenda, energized by a willingness to sacrifice and collaborate for the common good. The result was the building of numerous institutions—including churches on every street corner. With abundant resources of both people and money—the church played a critical role in leading discussions and shaping the community.[i] Although we may look back nostalgically on the 1940’s and ‘50’s as the good old days, a closer glance reveals that for many people they were not so good. Yes, institutions were being established to serve us, but they would not serve all of us in the same way—particularly when it came to women and people of color.

 

Fast forward a few decades, and we are now a generation that no longer trusts many of the social systems that were put in place to sustain healthy communities. Episcopal Priest Steven Charleston continues,

 

In this darkness, we are beset by questions… Can we live together in peace when we disagree? Can we accept the idea that change and tradition are not mutually exclusive? Can we realize that diversity is an innate human characteristic? Can we understand that our ecosystem is a survival pod with limited range and resources? Can we learn that having more for the few is not as important as having enough for the many?

 

Any reasonable look at American culture today would verify a pervasive unease about the path our society is taking. It does not matter whether we label ourselves as conversative or progressive; the reality we share means many of us are losing confidence. We are worried. The ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet… We are afraid, and we are looking for a way out of the darkness into the light.

 

Where do we go from here? The work of the church has always been to point people to Christ. But instead of serving as a beacon of light, we have gotten sucked into the vortex of anxiety and chaos. Afraid of speaking truth to power, we have become followers of the culture around us instead of leaders; we have become silent and thus, complicit. Plagued by individualism, even church members have become more interested in security than in the responsibility we have for the greater good.

 

While Christianity at its core is personal, intimate and, yes, individual, it is not private. It is not individualistic. Furthermore, the weighty problems we face will not be solved by individuals. It will take all of us, with our different skills, different strengths, and different experiences to build a shared abundant life of peace, forgiveness, justice, and love—for all God’s children. If we fear we are not up to the task, let us remember that God is in the chaos and the Spirit is eager to provide everything we need for the journey ahead. Amen.

[i] Gil Rendle, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World. 160.

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, Used by permission.