The Eternal Now

The Eternal Now

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 12, 2018

12th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; John 6:35, 41-51

 

You have probably heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. Jesus, a Jew, is faced with a group of his own people who have small minds. They resist the idea that God may act in an unexpected way; they disregard the miraculous events of Jesus’ life thus far. They fail to see the divine nature of this human Jesus. As a result, they complain because of the claim Jesus has made—that he is the bread of life that came down from heaven. They complain because they know him. They know his momma. They know his daddy. He can’t possibly be who he says he is.

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. While life is complicated—so is faith! Just when you think you have God all figured out, God moves in some astounding, unfathomable way. Yes, great is the mystery of our faith! Jesus encounters a group of his own people who are certain they know who Jesus is. Most likely, they are faithful people who know their Scripture, yet they are unable to see God’s gift of manna before their eyes. How easy it is to get to a place where we think we know more than we do. But no matter how dedicated we are to the study of Scripture or the study of life, “real knowing” may still not be achieved because “real knowing” is a gift from God. It is pure grace.

 

When it comes to our book of faith, let’s be honest, that, too, is complicated—filled with strange teachings. For example, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God’s people are instructed: Don’t let cattle graze with other kinds of cattle; don’t have a variety of crops on the same field; don’t wear clothes made of more than one fabric (in other words, cotton and linen don’t mix), and if you find out a city worships a different god, destroy the city—kill everyone. Unexplainable, conflicting teachings continue in the New Testament. For example, in Matthew 28:18, Jesus says, “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth…” but 1 John 5:19 tells us, “the whole world is under control of the evil one.” (Which is it?) In John 9:39 Jesus says, “For judgment I am come into this world.” but in the very same gospel, he says, “I came not to judge the world.”[i] And lastly, a contrast between the two testaments: In Genesis 32:30 Jacob says, ‘I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'” But Jesus proclaims in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God.”

 

And my point? Our Scripture is complex and even people who know it well can use it to go astray—or worse still, to do harm. I’m convinced that the Bible can be used to prove just about anything we want to prove. Simply take a phrase, separate it from its historical context, and “Voila!” you have a faith-based argument. The Bible contains all that is needed for our salvation, and the wise person will approach it humbly, prayerfully and always, always, seek to interpret it in light of the whole of God’s salvation narrative.

 

To those who are complaining about Jesus’ claim that he is the Bread of Life, Jesus counters that it is the Father and not his teaching that draws people to the true bread that comes from heaven—to eternal life—to Jesus. Yes, even the desire to know, the desire to seek the bread of life, even that is a gift—even that is a grace. Grace upon grace! Because Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day…Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. I am the living bread…whoever eats of this bread will live forever…”

 

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…whoever believes has eternal life…” There is a constant tension between how eternal life is interpreted and what it means. Most people think of eternal life as the last day, as the sweet by and by, but in essence, Jesus says, “No, eternal life is standing right here in front of you.” Eternal life is Jesus himself—eternal life begins right now! What difference does the eternal now make to the way we live our lives?[ii] It must be more than a set of rigorous beliefs. Christian faith begins with an encounter and a relationship with the Bread of Life, with Jesus. What is the bread on which we feast?

 

When my children were growing up, I enjoyed making bread. I loved the whole process—measuring, stirring, kneading, waiting and then the wonderful aroma of the bread baking in the oven. The kids were quite happy with Momma’s homemade fare, that is, until they went to a neighbor’s home and ate white store-bought bread. Eventually, it became a struggle to get them to eat the hearty bread at all. Finally, I gave in and made wheat and white bread. However, I did get the last word. Now that they are all grown up and more health conscious they have finally come around to momma’s way of thinking—hearty bread is healthier.

 

When it comes to our spiritual food, it is good to be selective about the bread upon which we feast. As one writer puts it, “It is one thing to survive, to just get by, like the manna that got the children of Israel through the wilderness. It is another to feast on that which will last forever. We are wise to ask ourselves, “What has to move out for God to move in? What do we need to make sure is not a part of our diet?”  To do otherwise is to risk spiritual starvation. Jesus provides for us spiritual, eternal nourishment that begins right now.[iii] Do we believe it? If so, does our life prove it?

 

Some of you have heard a little of the story of my childhood. It’s not something I often talk about—not because I am ashamed but because it really doesn’t make for polite dinner conversation. Suffice it to say, when it comes to my family of origin, I did not win the lottery. Having to overcome being abandoned by my mother, mistreated by my father and finally having no place to really call home—well folks, it was a hard row to hoe, as the saying goes. Who could imagine that the row would end here?

 

As far as church rows go, I prefer the pew near the front on the left. (In fact, Sue Miller, you are sitting in my seat.) But that’s not how things turned out. Instead, every Sunday, I put on this robe and drape the stole around my neck (a symbol of being yoked to God for ministry) and I do this thing that is my greatest fear and my greatest delight—attempt to speak God’s salvation story to those who will hear. For you see, with all my heart and soul, I believe that being baptized into the family of God matters. In fact, it changes everything! These living waters give us a new name and a new eternal address that begins in the here and now. With all my heart and soul, I believe that what happens around the Table of our Lord matters. It matters when the sun is shining, and it matters when there is a storm a-brewin’. For above all else, God’s grace is sufficient to meet our needs. God’s grace is sufficient for new life to be ours in the eternal now. And in this eternal now, God’s Spirit is our guide—instructing us, renewing us, challenging us, and equipping us to boldly embrace abundant life!

 

Søren Kierkegaard told a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left commenting on the message and waddled back home. But they never flew.[iv]

 

What difference does Jesus make in your life? It has been said that to the hungry, (Jesus) is the bread of life; to the thirsty, he is the fountain of living water; to the lonely, he is the friend who is willing to go the second mile; to the sick, he is the Balm in Gilead; to the dying, he is the resurrection and the life.[v] Who is Jesus to you?

 

Hear now a poetic interpretation of Jesus’ words penned by Rev. Ken Rookes:

 

I am the bread,

the bread of living;

come to me.

I have God’s word for you,

food for your heart.

It is a word of joy and of freedom,

surprising in generosity,

intense and glowing.

It tells of peace in the midst of turbulent times,

defiant love in the midst of fear,

hope, when darkness abounds.

This is the word that will answer your hunger,

and confound your emptiness.

I am the bread of life;

in me the journey begins and ends

and finds its shape.

In me you will discover yourself;

you will also find true community

and the friendship of God.

Sing, rejoice, dance and weep:

I am the bread:

the bread of living;

come to me.

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

[i] John 12:47

[ii] Sermon Brainwave, Karoline Lewis

[iii]http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/08/pentecost-11b.html

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, Maxie Dunham

*Cover Art by Stushie; used by Subscription

 

Hard Truths

Hard Truths

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 5, 2018

11th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; John 6:24-35

 

Occasionally a particular word in the English language will send me on a search for its meaning and history, its etymology. Just such a word caught my attention recently—the word “meander.” It’s a good word, don’t you think? To meander is to follow a winding course or to wander without definite aim or direction. You might be interested to know that the term comes from the Meander River of eastern Turkey, which, from ancient times, was a visual metaphor for how to take the longest path between two points. When I think of meandering, I think of long walks on the beach or spending hours in a bookstore seeking new treasures. Kinney meanders on his morning runs.

Certainly, meandering can take us to places of wonder and delight, but meandering can also get us in trouble—take the people in our lectionary readings, for example. David loses his way and meanders into sin—so much so that he is unable to see himself in Nathan’s moral tale.[i]  David meanders into a trap that forces him to face a hard truth: he has committed a terrible sin against God. No doubt, he has sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, and their unborn child. And what about soldiers that might have been under Uriah’s command? Although Scripture does not tell us, it is likely that other innocent men lost their lives because of David’s dastardly deed.  Yes, David meanders into sin.

 

The Bible records other stories of God’s meandering people like the Israelites who wander in the wilderness for 40 long years because they fail to trust in God after their great exodus from Egypt. Because of their sin, they do not enter the Promised Land. Nevertheless, while on their journey they experience God’s provision raining down from heaven as manna to fill their empty tummies.

 

In John’s Gospel when Jesus repeats this miracle of provision (by feeding the 5000 with a boy’s gift of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish), there is no doubt the people are reminded of the story of long ago. We know so because they mention it! Listen to how the people react to what Jesus has done, but this time, I invite you to hear the story through Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 

The next day the crowd that was left behind realized that there had been only one boat and that Jesus had not gotten into it with his disciples. They had seen them go off without him. By now boats from Tiberias had pulled up near where they had eaten the bread blessed by the Master. So when the crowd realized he was gone and wasn’t coming back, they piled into the Tiberias boats and headed for Capernaum, looking for Jesus. When they found him back across the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” To that, they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?” Jesus said, “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.” They waffled: “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jesus responded, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.” They jumped at that: “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!” Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.”

 

The people are eager to find Jesus because they have gotten their tummies full and they want more. They are in the market for immediate gratification. But in the person of Jesus, they must face a hard truth. Living the life that Jesus requires will take more than aimless wandering. In the NRSV, verses 28 and 29 read as follows: “Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  It turns out that believing is, in fact, work!  Believing and living as God would have us to live takes dedication. It takes discipline. At the end of the day, those who meander after Jesus need to find the way, the truth, and the life before they can even find themselves.[ii]

 

How many of us stay up night after night when the Olympics are on television?  Even though I am not passionate about swimming, I still recall watching in awe as Michael Phelps took medal after medal—especially in the 2008 Olympics. How could we not be inspired by the discipline that it takes to get to the Olympics—no lounging in front of the TV, no fast food, no time for much of anything except practice, practice, practice (which, by the way, Scott Routsong knows a little something about since he is currently training to run a marathon).

 

When it comes to remarkable physical accomplishments, we expect nothing less than sold out commitment. However, when it comes to the things of God, “practice” and “discipline” seem foreign notions. How about a dollop of Jesus and we will be on our merry way! Our world spins on a diet of instant coffee, instant grits, and fast food. Immediate gratification are our watchwords—especially when it comes to our spiritual life. There was a time when spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, and Scripture reading were considered important to faith development. But times have changed and, unfortunately, such thinking has gone out of style. But can we really expect to grow in our faith without such practices?

 

To have the mind of Christ is not reached by meandering here and there. The hard truth is this: it takes work—it takes commitment—it takes discipline to grow day by day into the likeness of Jesus. As believers claimed by the waters of baptism and nourished at the Lord’s Table, we are called to participate in our own spiritual growth, our own wholeness. Christian maturity is not delivered to our doorstep wrapped in lovely paper and adorned with a fancy bow.

 

So, what must we do to perform the works of God? Well, if our goal is to be sold out committed Christians we will make worshiping with other Christians a priority in our lives. (Since you are here, I assume this is already important to you.) Gathering with our brothers and sisters, praying, singing, and partaking of God’s bounteous feast is a perfect way to allow God to reset our compasses, readjust our goals. Otherwise, we may become sidetracked like David, letting our desires become more important that God’s desires for us.

 

Other disciplines to enrich your spiritual development might include a renewed commitment to daily Bible reading, fasting, prayer, service to others, or meditating on God’s goodness through music, art, or nature. Perhaps, if you enjoy writing, it is time to begin a prayer journal—recording your thoughts and prayers each day. Hopefully, if you aren’t already participating in Sunday School, you will prayerfully consider joining the Generations of Faith class that starts next Sunday.

 

Oh, you may say, “All that stuff is for other people—radical folks like Pentecostals—not Presbyterians.” I beg to differ. The hard truth is that when we claim to be Christians, we are witnesses for Christ. And like Olympians who with each competition represent their country, we represent Christ to the world. Of course, we may choose to meander hither and yon, or we may decide to go for the gold!

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

[i] Wayne Brouwer, http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788032779&key=kufgb89fPZcjlsma

[ii] Ibid.

*Cover Art “Gathering the Fragments” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.

 

Give or Take

Give or Take

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 29, 2018

10th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:1-15; John 6:1-21

 

Did you know that the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels? No doubt, you are quite familiar with the story. Still, I urge you not to wander off, but to stay with me—in body and mind—for though there is fish and bread on the menu, there is spiritual food, as well.

In the story, we come upon people who are hungry—very hungry. They have followed Jesus and have become so engaged in what he has to say and what he is doing before their very eyes, well, they cannot pull themselves away. To leave his presence, to miss something extraordinary—oh no, they simply cannot. So, they stay, and they stay, and they stay, until, truth is, they may be too weak to return to their homes. Now what?

Jesus recognizes the problem. And the solution? Well, it begins with a boy who has a little food that he is willing to share. As adults, we would likely do the math, much as Philip does, “Six months wages wouldn’t make a drop in a bucket toward what we need.” But children, well, they are better at imagining abundance than we are. They are better at God’s math! So, the boy gives all that he has, and Jesus takes it, multiplies it, and uses it to perform a wondrous miracle. The result is a feast so great that people are patting their tummies and saying, “Oh no, thank you but I simply can’t hold another bite.” (Much like those of us who attended our Session Retreat felt after feasting on both breakfast and lunch at Kinderlou Clubhouse yesterday.)

Through it all, Jesus appears relaxed. He knows his Abba Father will not fail him. Here we see Jesus at his best. It’s one of specialties, really. With a blessing of his hands, he turns the weak into the strong, the blind into the sighted, the loser into the winner, and the little into the large. In desolate places, with hungry souls, Jesus transforms hopelessness into delight, and hunger into fulfillment. There is food aplenty because of the power of God working through Jesus and the generous nature of a little boy.

A generous nature, however, is not what we see in the person of King David. I’m sure you’ve noticed that over the past few weeks our Old Testament readings have followed the life of David. We may recall how Israel’s first king, Saul, falls out of favor with God. Then we learn about young David having to be called away from the sheepfold for the prophet Samuel to anoint him. He’s ignored, altogether, being the runt of the family and all. After a time, David becomes the official king of Israel and his popularity grows. But then, David succumbs to sin. David is chosen by God to be the king of God’s people. He can have anything he wants. Already, he has wives aplenty; and God seems bent on filling David’s every longing, until, that is, David’s heart longs for the wife of another man.

The deed is done. Then, as if adultery isn’t bad enough, when David learns that Bathsheba is pregnant with his child, he tries to cover it up by devising a plan to make the baby appear to be fathered by Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband). When the plan fails, David makes matters worse by plotting to have Uriah conveniently “killed” in battle. What a shameful episode in the life of God’s chosen king. Out of lust and greed, David takes what is not his to take. Then, his sin is multiplied when he causes the murder of an innocent man. Sin is like that, you know. We never sin in a vacuum because, ultimately, our sin effects other people.

It is quite a contrast to go from David the great king to David the great adulterer and murderer, isn’t it? Nevertheless, the Bible boldly tells of this sordid affair. And there’s hope in that. For although David’s sin makes a dark mark on his character and his future, it is not the end of his story. God still walks with David, still loves David—and that is good news for us. For everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is David’s story. It is our story, too. As one preacher puts it, “The margin between standing tall and falling is often as thin as glad wrap.”[i]  While we may not be planning to commit murder, still we face our own demons—greed, gossip, pride, holding grudges—sin comes in endless packages.

That is not to say that sin is okay or since we all are tempted, there is no use trying to live a godly life. Not at all! The important thing is to recognize our frailty and then accept the grace-filled news that our sinfulness is not the whole truth of who we are. Our sinful nature may, from time to time, lead us astray. But just as David was graced with God’s saving hand, so have we been. The ultimate truth is that we are precious in the eyes of our Creator and Redeemer. Broken, yes that is our universal story. But forgiven—that can be our story, too.

If we examine this chapter in David’s life, we might say that he is a taker. He takes what is not his to take without considering the cost to himself or to other people. In stark contrast, we might say that the little boy who shares his bread and fish, giving all that he has to give, well, he is a giver. Such is life—give or take—take or give.  These two figures demonstrate generosity placed alongside lust and greed.

In the warp and woof of life, it behooves us to consider in which camp we stand in this chapter of our own story. Are we givers or are we takers? It’s worth considering. Some people go through their entire lives looking for ways to contribute, to add goodness to the world. While other people go through life with an attitude of greed, blind to the needs of those around them, always asking that ever-important question, “What’s in it for me?” In this world filled with the abundance of God’s creation, isn’t there enough for everyone? To be greedy, well that is really a part of our worldly nature. Living like David, taking what’s not ours to take—that the world knows full well. But to live a life of generosity, in our day and time, we might call that counter-cultural.

Think about it! On most days, can you tell a difference between people who go to church and people who do not?  It seems the church is in danger of losing her identity. Getting back to the basics of our faith may be a way to find it again. Living out of an attitude of abundance instead of an attitude of scarcity may be the best witness we can make as faithful Christians.

And in God’s mathematics, whatever our gifts or talents, whatever efforts we make to better the world in the name of Jesus will be received, blessed, and multiplied. Giving whatever we are able to give may not seem like a big deal unless we remember the time Jesus faced 5000 hungry people and created a bountiful feast out of nothing more than a child’s gift of 5 loaves and 2 small fish.

With a willing, generous heart, God can transform hopelessness into delight and hunger into fulfillment. In a world where people tend to miss the extraordinary in the ordinary, the often-quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning may say it best:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

And only he who sees takes off his shoes—

the rest sit around and pluck blackberries.[ii]

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

[i] http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY17.htm

[ii] Quoted by Douglas John Hall in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 288.

God’s Mission

God’s Mission

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 8, 2018

7th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Mark 6:1-13

Today we examine an intriguing event in the life of Jesus. He returns to his hometown, to family and friends, people who have known him since he was a little boy.  Since he has become the talk of the countryside, a grand reception might be in order, but, of course, that is not what happens. On the Sabbath Jesus does what he normally does—he goes to the synagogue and teaches. At first, the people are astonished and praise him, “Look at his wisdom and power!” But in the next breath they’re offended, “Just who does he think he is? He’s one of us! He’s the carpenter, the Son of Mary!” (Or like my grandmother used to say, “He’s gotten too big for his britches!)

 

What is it about familiarity that breeds contempt? Jesus is rejected by his own people, and while they are astounded by him, he’s equally astonished by their unbelief—a lack of faith that affects what happens next. “…he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” One commentator notes that because of their unbelief, the narrative is in fact an un-miracle story.[i]

 

Jesus has every reason to be discouraged, to have hurt feelings and go off somewhere and nurse his wounds.  We would certainly understand. Instead, he goes out into the villages to teach. He continues the mission God has called him to—never swaying—never stopping.

 

Already we’ve noted the amazement of the people in his hometown over Jesus’ ministry and his amazement at their unbelief. Since astonishment seems to be the emotion of the day, here’s something else over which to be astonished: whom Jesus calls forth to continue God’s mission: Jesus sends the disciples—that ragamuffin band of misfits—well, that’s how Mark often portrays them—the 12 who, more often than not, just don’t get it!  Nevertheless, on their way to understanding, they are sent on their way to do God’s mission.

 

What are their marching orders? Jesus instructs them to travel light and to rely on the hospitality of the people they encounter. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” While this may seem like odd behavior to us, for the Jewish people it was something they did whenever they returned home after traveling through defiling Gentile territory. It was a way of separating themselves from those whom they perceived as ungodly or unclean.

 

The disciples do as instructed—they proclaim the need for repentance and they cast out demons and cure many who are sick. They go, they share, they do, and then they depart. Whether the people respond or not, well that is up to the people. It is God’s mission—and the people are free to accept it or reject it.

 

Could it be that in this “practice run” for future events, Jesus is preparing his disciples for rejection? Think about it, if Jesus, the very Son of God, is rejected by his own people, so will his disciples be rejected—so shall we be—from time to time. But like Jesus, we must not be swayed by our reception for it’s not about us. It is about the mission of God to save the world. The responsibility of the disciples and all who have followed the way of Jesus ever since is the same: We are responsible for our obedience to ministry in Christ’s name, not for how or if other’s respond positively.

 

Recently, among other topics, I have been researching mission and evangelism. Simply put, mission is outreach in deeds and evangelism is outreach in words.[ii] I like this definition. It’s short and simple—outreach in deeds; outreach in words. Truth be told, often we gravitate toward missions because the “E” word makes us anxious. But the work of God is not either evangelism OR mission—it’s both. They go hand in hand. The disciples model this when, sent out two by two, they evangelize—outreach in words—by telling the people of their need to repent, and they do the work of missions—outreach in deeds—by healing the sick and driving out evil spirits.

 

I’m convinced that both missions and evangelism will play key roles in the success of any church in the future. For too long, we have chased other rabbits that have led us nowhere except to a place of conflict and division. In doing so, we have failed to see the forest for the trees. We have failed to be faithful to our calling as followers of Jesus Christ, worshipers of our Sovereign God, and believers in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform the world.

 

When General Assembly met in Pittsburg a few years ago, Brian McLaren was a guest speaker. McLaren is a prominent Christian pastor, author, activist, speaker and leading figure in the emerging church movement. At a General Assembly Breakfast, he said to the good Presbyterians gathered around: “I think that you are farther along the path of change than you realize, and I think better days are ahead.” I couldn’t agree more. In my heart and soul, I believe better days are just around the corner. New life and possibility abound—if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

 

While I still have lots more research to do before I can offer ideas for future mission and evangelism that we might consider as a church, already I can share with you some methods that DO NOT work. Sometime if you’re bored and want a little church-related humor, google “ineffective evangelism techniques.” [iii]  When I did, I found a couple of interesting stories. One person told of working as a waiter and occasionally being given a tract that looked like money on one side, but had words on the other side that said, “are you disappointed it’s not real money…we’ll don’t be disappointed because Jesus offers you something better than money.” The man who shared this story said that many of the servers he worked with were single mothers barely getting by. When they were deprived of a tip and given a deceitful tract instead, they became turned off by Christians.

 

Here’s another example: In Southern California with gas prices soaring, a man saw a banner on a church that said: Save Gas / Worship Here. Seriously? Should we attend church because it’s close? If that’s what we are looking for—to save gas—we could stay home and watch televangelists. Surely, we should attend a church for more reasons than its proximity.

 

While it’s true that God can use anything to touch people’s heart, (I daresay even billboards that read “Got God?” or people on the street corner holding up signs that read: “Are you saved?” or “So you think it’s hot up here!”) still, it behooves us to realize that today, more than ever, we live in cynical times. Let’s face it…we have followed the yellow brick road. We’ve seen Oz behind the curtain with all his levers and folly. We can smell an agenda a mile away—and so can most everyone else—especially our young people.

 

As a result, it is crucial that our ways of mission and evangelism contain no hidden agenda. That’s what the world expects. What the world does NOT expect is authentic Christians who are not trying to get people on our side or even trying to grow our church. Our goal should simply be to tell others about the God who has come to mean so much to us and to show them that love in action. Our methods must match the message.

 

Presbyterian Minister, Michael Lindvall, tells the following story about a woman, a mainline Christian, who worked as a clerk in a bookstore:

 

When she arrived for work one morning, she encountered a man dressed as a Hasidic Jew. After turning on the lights she said, “Would you like any help?” “Yes,” he answered softly, “I would like to know about Jesus.” She directed him upstairs to the shop’s section of books about Jesus and turned to go downstairs, but he called her back. “No,” he said, “Don’t show me any more books, tell me what you believe.” “My Episcopal soul shivered,” the woman said later. But she gulped and told him everything she could think of.[iv]

 

Tell me what you believe. That is the crux of the matter. In a skeptical world where we’ve been conditioned to look for the hidden agenda via sales-pitches, politics, and religion, honestly telling our story may be what we most need to do. While I expect to find many other suggestions for successful missions and evangelism—suggestions I am certainly open to, I doubt I will come across anything as potentially life-changing as one person sitting down with another person to share what God has done in his or her life. Stories sell—especially the story of God’s mission for the world: that all may come to know the love and mercy and grace of a God who desires all God’s children to be restored, to be transformed, to be made whole.  Now that’s a story worth telling!

[i] Interpretation: Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr., 113-122.

[ii] Feasting on the Word.

[iii] “A Better Way to Evangelize accessed July 3, 2012 at http://www.ancient-future.net/evangelism.html

[iv] Feasting on the Word, Michael L. Lindvall, 216.

*Cover Art “Two by Two” via Google Images

 

Just a Touch

Just a Touch

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 1, 2018

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5:21-43

 

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a woman—we shall call her Diana. Diana was young and quite lovely and she was, like any young woman, filled with hopes and dreams for her future.  But one day, quite unexpectedly, Diana became sick. One day led to another and to another until Diana was sick most of the time. Her illness was an abnormal bleeding condition—a type of illness that caused Diana physical, spiritual and emotional pain, for you see, in her day and time, such an illness made her unclean. Everything Diana touched became unclean, too. Her condition made it impossible for her to go to the synagogue to worship with others in her community. In actual fact, she had limited contact with most of the world. Diana felt such pain and isolation; she was lonely and fearful, and she was willing to do whatever she could to find healing.

 

Since Diana was a woman of wealth, she could afford the help of the best physicians of the day. They promised help—for which she paid—help she didn’t receive. Instead of getting better, Diana only grew worse. Now, after twelve years of vain searching, she had exhausted every resource and spent all she had. She was at the end of her rope and at the end of her hope. Then, she began to hear stories about a man named Jesus. He had done such amazing things that even Diana, in her small world, had heard about him. She heard he was a teacher who taught with authority, and in the synagogue in Capernaum he had cast an unclean spirit out of a man. He healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and, later, a leper—with just a touch of his hand. She heard about him healing the paralytic and the man called Legion, who was filled with many demons. Just a few days ago, he had even calmed a terrible storm over on the Sea of Galilee. Oh yes, she had heard about Jesus.

 

Diana was open to experiment, open to the possibility that a divine power was at work in this unexpected and unlikely Jesus. After all, people called him a teacher, a prophet, some even wondered if he was the Promised One from the line of David. She began to wonder—could this man, this Jesus, heal her? In comparison to all he’d been doing, healing a poor woman of a bleeding condition would be small—even insignificant. It really would not take much—just to touch his garment might be enough. Then she would not have to face the crowd, face her shame; she wouldn’t even have to speak to Jesus openly.

 

Soon Diana learned Jesus was nearby, so she went in search of him. He was not difficult to find—a swarm of people was gathered around him. She glanced at the crowd and quickly realized it might be more difficult to get close to Jesus than she had expected. But she must—she simply must reach Jesus—whatever it took!  What choice did she have? For twelve long years she had suffered.  If Jesus could not help her, no one could. Then her life would be over—because she would surely die.

 

Entering the crowd of people, she began to turn first one way and then another, easing between those who had come to see Jesus, trying not to touch people, trying to go unnoticed. Quietly and quickly she crept up behind him and she reached out her hand, leaning forward to gently touch the hem of his garment. And then it happened! She felt a force sweep through her. Immediately, she knew in her heart and soul, she was healed. She turned to rush away, hoping no one would notice. She felt joy and fear all at once. She had experienced a miracle and no on knew!  Her courage had paid off—now she would have a chance of happiness, a chance to be a part of her faith community again, a chance of a life.

 

Suddenly the crowd stopped moving. Diana looked to see what was happening behind her and then she heard the voice of Jesus as he turned in her direction and asked the unimaginable, “Who touched me?”  There were so many people around, it could have been anyone—but she knew, she knew he was talking about her. While she had felt healing enter her body, Jesus had felt power leaving his. Why, oh, why did he have to point her out? How she wished to be invisible. She thought about running, but her legs refused to carry her away. She knew she had touched the holy, and, finally, with gratitude, awe, and all the courage she could muster, she retraced her steps back to Jesus. Approaching him, she fell at his feet and confessed everything. She did not know what to expect. Would Jesus be angry with her and chastise her?  Would her humiliation grow beyond what she had already endured?  She waited with her head bowed before him. To her utter amazement, she heard the gentle voice of Jesus speak to her and call her “Daughter.”

 

Daughter!  What manner of love was this that Diana, who was forced to come alone because she had no kinsman to speak for her, was now shown such compassion and concern?  “Daughter,” Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well, go in peace, you are healed.” Diana was struck by the kindness in the voice and eyes of Jesus. She had never known such compassion. How surprised she was that Jesus took the time to encourage her and applaud her faith in front of all these people who would have ostracized her only moments ago. Jesus elevated Diana to a position of respect that had long been missing in her life. Jesus knew what she needed, and Jesus met her needs.

 

Diana came to Jesus to be healed physically, but she received so much more. She was a woman, an unclean woman, a desperate woman who dared to approach Jesus hoping for a quiet, secret miracle. But Jesus wanted things out in the open. Jesus wanted to show Diana that SHALOM –peace and wholeness could be hers—not just a physical healing. In that moment Diana experienced the grace of God as she realized that Jesus was not merely out spreading kindness and good will.  Jesus was so much more. Jesus was God incarnate; come to reconcile and to heal ALL that was broken in the world.

 

The woman in our story today came to Jesus for a reason.  Why do you come to Jesus?  Why do you come here to worship?  Do you expect great things? Has God touched your life and you long to demonstrate your gratitude?  Do you long to gather with other believers to offer each other encouragement and love?  Do you long to worship this Holy God who can change a life with just a touch?  And are you eager to spread the news?

 

The woman in our story today came to Jesus for a reason.  She needed healing.  Why do you come to Jesus?  Is there brokenness in your life that needs healing?  Have you been wounded?  Are you filled with worry or despair?  None of us walk this earth without facing some pain and disappointment. It’s been said that everyone sits near their own pool of tears. It is our human condition to face hurt and challenges in this life, but we are not alone. Each of us has been called in a personal way through God’s grace. We have been called “Daughter.” We have been called “Son.”  We do not approach the throne of grace alone because Jesus is our kinsman. And Jesus invites us to share in the remembrance of him this day as we take Holy Communion together. We come as broken people in need of the love and care of a Holy God. We come to the Table as family. We come to remember.

 

The woman in our story today came to Jesus for a reason.  She came after having spent all that she had seeking a healing she could not find.  But finally, healing found her through the compassion and power of Jesus Christ. Just a touch is all it took. Just a touch of the power of Jesus can change a life, can heal a broken heart, can change attitudes, desires, direction… Yes, just a touch will do!

 

*Cover Art “I Will Be Made Well” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.

 

In the Storm but Not Alone

In the Storm but Not Alone

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 24, 2018

5th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 17:32-49; Mark 4:35-41

Today we hear the retelling of one of the most beloved stories of the Old Testament—David and Goliath. Last Sunday we heard about Samuel anointing David to be the king of Israel. However, in practice, David is not yet acting as king; Saul is. Nevertheless, their paths have already crossed. It seems that the spirit of the Lord has departed from Saul, only to be replaced with an evil spirit that is tormenting him. Saul’s servants locate someone skillful in playing the lyre so that when the evil spirit comes upon him, music can be played to comfort him. In God’s providence (wouldn’t you know it) the person tapped to lullaby Saul is none other than David.

 

After a time, the Philistines gather to do battle with Israel and they bring their finest champion, Goliath—a monster of a man, who strikes fear in all those gathered there. All, that is, except for young David. When everyone else runs for the hills, it’s the boy, David, who volunteers to go fight Goliath. He’s eager, in fact. I picture him jumping up and down, crying, “Pick me! Pick me! I’ll do it!” Saul states the obvious—you are just a boy and you can’t possibly do the impossible. David responds with tales of previous adventures—battles with lions and bears. This is no different, for, David says, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” Young though he may be, David recognizes from whence his power comes. Already he’s experienced the hand of God protecting, providing, calming life’s storms, in extraordinary ways. Already, David trusts that with the power of God working in his life, he can do anything. So, in an extraordinary scene, armed with a sling, a stone, and the spirit of God, David drops the monster of a man in one fell swoop.

 

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we happen upon another extraordinary scene, which happens at the end of a long, exhausting day of ministry for Jesus and his disciples. Leaving the crowds behind they get into a boat with the goal of crossing to the other side. But along the way a storm rises, and the waves beat fiercely against the boat. It must have been a monster of a storm to frighten the disciples so, especially since some of them are seasoned fishermen, skilled in the art of navigating dangerous waters. Red alert! Red alert! They are going to perish—and the one person filled mightily with the spirit of God; the one person who might turn the situation around is sleeping peacefully in the boat’s place of honor, the stern. Terrified, the disciples wake Jesus up with a sharp “Don’t you care, Teacher, that we are about to die?” Instead of responding to the disciples, Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to simmer down; the first word (“Peace!” in the NRSV) is a verb meaning be silent; the second (“Be still!”) means literally be muzzled. “Peace! Be still!” The disciples are amazed. “Who is this? Even the winds and waves obey him.”[i]

 

We live in a time when there is an endless supply of things to be afraid of. If we aren’t careful, we’ll join the masses to live a life filled with worry and fear. Stress management experts say that only 2% of our “worrying time” is spent on things that might actually be helped by worrying.

And here is how the other 98 % of this time is spent: 40% on things that never happen; 35% on things that can’t be changed; 15% on things that turn out better than expected; 8% on useless, petty things.

 

On this topic, one of my favorite and often repeated stories is provided by Barbara Brown Taylor in an article she wrote about her choice to not watch television. She does listen to NPR, but even then, she limits her listening of the news once a day.  She wrote:

 

When a young girl was kidnapped from her bedroom in the Midwest, the details of her abduction flooded the news for days.  Descriptions of suspects alternated with speculation about whether she was still alive.  Her family’s despair was unimaginable. In the midst of all this, I was speaking with someone who watches a great deal of television news.  “We live in a country where children are not safe in their own beds,” this person said with monumental despair. While I knew I was meant to agree, I did the math and realized I could not. Although the media’s round-the-clock repetition of the story made it seem as if a thousand girls had been abducted instead of one, the truth was that the girl we were all worried about remained one girl. While the police searched for her, the vast majority of children were safe in their own beds, which seemed vital to remember in the face of so much fear.

 

There is always tragedy somewhere, as the news reminds us so well.  But there is not always tragedy everywhere, which the news does not make quite so clear. The good news, also known as the gospel, is that where ferries are going down, brave people are diving into water to lift thrashing children to safety. Where crops are failing, generous people are providing relief for farmers and migrant workers, and where a young girl is kidnapped from her bed, an entire community is turning out to hunt [for] clues, post flyers, cook food and keep watch with the family.

 

Meanwhile, there are entire towns where nothing terrible is happening for an hour or two, where parents are caring for children with remarkable tenderness, where nurses are tending patients…and at least one man who owns a small business is taking off work early to coach a girls’ soccer team.[ii]

 

To this, I would add that there are people of all ages who are not making the news by being evil and destructive. Instead, they are visiting and praying for and caring for friends and family and neighbors. Instead, they are packing and delivering meals for the needy in Valdosta. Instead, they are doing things like participating in a “Rise Against Hunger” event, packaging foods that will go to children and adults across the globe to people they will never see.

 

As baptized believers, this we know: Following the way of Jesus does not guarantee a storm-free life. Sometimes, truth be told, we find ourselves crying out to the Lord, “Wake up!  Do you not care?” But even in the midst of our cries, if we stay close, if we pay attention, we just might hear that comforting voice from out of the whirlwind saying, “Peace! Be still!” Come what may, Jesus is with us, always eager to remind us that God is in the business of calming storms, making the impossible possible, and bringing down giants in one fell swoop.

 

Recently released statistics by the PCUSA Office of General Assembly show a 5% loss of membership for the Presbyterian Church in 2017—a loss we can hardly afford. In response, Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson released a statement saying that he believes the PCUSA is “reforming” rather than dying but, still, there’s no doubt Presbyterians are doing poorly at evangelism. Our new reformation, Nelson continued, “must be built on a vision of God’s Kingdom that is compelling people who find us lacking. We have that vision—it is part and parcel of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We simply must find new ways to proclaim it and, more importantly, live it out in our congregations.”[iii]

 

Churches from our tradition and other traditions find themselves in the heat of a storm, a monster of a storm, and we wonder what can save our churches, our denominations? We look at the circling clouds; we listen to the howling winds and we cry, “Lord, don’t you care? Don’t you care that we are dying?” But folks, we are guilty of focusing on the storm instead of Jesus who is standing in our midst. Our job as Christians is not to “save” our churches or our denominations, for that matter. Jesus, the Risen Savior is in control of all of that. I am not alone when I say that I believe that it’s time to change the conversation. Instead of “What’s wrong?” we need to ask, “What next? To what new work is the Spirit leading us?”

 

Dear church, we may be in a storm set loose by our life and times, but God is working mightily in our midst. God is in the business of calming storms, making the impossible possible, and bringing down giants in one fell swoop. As baptized believers, it behooves us to turn our eyes toward Jesus, who is in the boat with us and hold fast to his powerful words, “Peace!  Be still!”

[i] Bill O’Brien, “The Christian Century”, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2712

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Christian Century,” May 30, 2006.

[iii] https://relevantmagazine.com/current/report-presbyterian-church-usa-membership-at-an-all-time-low/

*Cover Art: “Jesus Calms a Storm,” by Waldemar Flaig; via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

 

In the House

In the House

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 10, 2018

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Mark 3:20-35

 

Being a part of a family is not easy. From the beginning of Scripture in Genesis, our story begins, not with nations and tribes, but families. And from the beginning, dysfunction is palpable. As one preacher notes, “It gives one pause at the phrase ‘biblical family values.’”[i]  Of course, later, other metaphors are used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people—king and subjects comes to mind. But the people do not always want God as their king. Then, as now, people tend to want their own way rather than the way of God.

 

We get a glimpse of such behavior in our reading from the book of 1st Samuel. Israel is yearning for something they do not have—an earthly king. But, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Israel has been handpicked by God to be God’s chosen people—yet they decide that instead of being led by Yahweh, they prefer an earthly king like the other nations.

 

Samuel is upset by the people’s request, but God points out that it is God being rejected, not Samuel. Essentially, God says, “They’re acting like they’ve been acting from the beginning—forsaking me, serving other gods. Now, I’m going to give them what they ask for, but before I do, go and tell them what earthly kings are good for!” And Samuel does! Samuel tells them that an earthly king will make servants of their sons and daughters; some will even be made slaves. The king will take the best of the fields and orchards himself and a tenth of whatever harvest is produced—that’s what an earthly king is good for! And when all this happens, don’t even bother crying out to God.” The people ignore Samuel’s warning, crying, “No! We want to be like the other nations. We want a king.” And, so it was.

 

Being God’s people and understanding what that means, well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? But Jesus steps in to simplify things—put things in order—if you will. Jesus comes to redefine what it means to be God’s people, but it will not be without great cost!

 

In recent months, following the church calendar, we have traveled through Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. We are now are in the Season of Pentecost—what has been traditionally known as “Ordinary Time.” In the weeks and months ahead, we will focus on the extraordinary acts of Jesus in the day in and day out of his life in ministry and we will reflect on our own lives as his faithful disciples.

 

Again, the lectionary places us in the Gospel of Mark. As you likely remember, Mark, wastes no time in getting to the point. He doesn’t bother with birth narratives and such. Instead with a single-sentence introduction, he gets right to it, announcing the coming of John the Baptist and the One greater than he, who is to follow. By the time we get to chapter 3, Jesus has been baptized and tempted and his ministry is in full swing. He has called his disciples, healed one person after another (of whatever has kept them from leading full, whole lives), and he has passionately preached the good news of God’s love and power breaking into the world. By now, there are people everywhere—so much so—he and his disciples can barely get a bite to eat.

 

Jesus has drawn a crowd, and in the crowd, there are friends, family, and foes. In today’s reading, Jesus is wrongly accused by not only his foes (we would expect that) but also his family. His family has heard rumors about Jesus. They think he’s gone out of his mind—the translation is more literally, “to stand outside of,” as in “to be outside oneself.” Jesus’ family may hope to control him. Perhaps, they are genuinely concerned for his mental health. At the very least, they would prefer he not embarrass the family name.

 

Then there are the scribes (foes of Jesus) who have come a long way from Jerusalem to examine this young upstart. They come. They see the authentic results of Jesus’ ministry and conclude that Jesus has Beelzebul! There’s no other explanation. He’s possessed with a spirit of a demon. He’s kin to Satan. That’s how he is able to cast out demons.

 

Always ready and able to trip up the religious authorities, Jesus responds with something like, “Pray tell, how can Satan cast out Satan?” In a flash, Jesus makes the point that since his exorcisms are defeats for Satan, they can hardly be performed through Satan. And any entity—be it kingdom, house, or Satan—divided against itself cannot stand! By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus binds Satan (the strong man) and Jesus sweeps in and plunders his house. No, Jesus is not kin to Satan. Jesus is his sworn enemy! [ii]

 

Overall, Jesus’ engagement with the Scribes disproves charges made against him both here, during his ministry, and even after his death. Jesus is not out of his mind. Jesus is not possessed by a demon. Jesus is not an agent of Satan. Quite the opposite! Jesus, the Stronger Man, has come to bind Satan and sin and free God’s people.[iii] Jesus has come to demonstrate his power over the house of Satan.

 

The image of Jesus’ “house” serves as a symbol for the church. With that in mind, who is inside the house? Who is outside?  Those who are criticizing him—the scribes and his family stand outside.[iv] They are the very ones who should know better—yet there they are—outside, creating quite a ruckus.

 

Why is it that wherever Jesus goes, storms are a-brewing? Why does his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing create such controversy? Could it be that Jesus is so far out of the reach of the religious ruler’s imagination, they simply can’t accept him? He doesn’t fit their categories, so he must be abnormal or possessed. As scholar, David Lose, comments, “We assume that what we know, have experienced, and hold to be true is normal, natural, and God-ordained, and that becomes the standard by which we measure—and judge—the thoughts and actions of others.” [v]

Jesus has come into the world to bring a new vision of God’s family tree. The old definition with genealogies tracing back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—no longer applies. It’s a new day! And at the heart of the Jesus’ vision is nothing less than God’s love because God desires nothing less than shalom—peace, wholeness, health—for all God’s creation. God is with us! God is for us! All of us!  Lose continues, “This is why Jesus sets himself against all the powers that would rob humanity and creation of the abundant life God intends—whether those powers be unclean spirits; disease that ravages the mind, body or spirit; illness that isolates and separates those who suffer from community; or whatever. Jesus introduces a new vision of God and a new way to relate to God…and it’s not what any of those, make that any of us, religious folk expect.”[vi]

There’s an old saying that blood is thicker than water. Jesus breaks through this way of thinking. Jesus, the Stronger Man, through his life, death, and resurrection, flings open the doors and windows so that we all can come in. Now, everyone who does the will of his Abba Father receives an invitation. Imagine! When we do the will of God we get the chance to be the brother, the sister, even the mother of Jesus!

 

Oh, things aren’t perfect inside the house—on this side of eternity, we all bear the marks of our brokenness. Truth be told, at times we may look more like a bunch of misfits than anything else. Yet, the house of Jesus is our home and here, day-by-day, we are growing more into the likeness of Jesus, our holy kin. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are becoming a holy family.

 

On our best days, we yearn to do the will of our Abba Father and we gratefully recognize the faith and baptismal waters that unite us. On our best days, some fruit of the Spirit is evident in the way we live—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. On our best days, we bring honor to God, who is with us; God, who is for us; God, who through his Son, opens the doors of the family home and says, “Come on in!”

[i] http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1645

[ii]Interpretation: Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr

[iii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 604-605

[iv] Feasting on the Word, 116-121

[v] David Lose @ workingpreacher.com

[vi] Ibid.

*Cover Art “House Dreaming” by Jan Richardson Images; Subscription.

 

Making a Way

Making a Way

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 3, 2018

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6

 

The Book of Samuel opens with Hannah praying with all her heart and soul for a son. Eli, the priest, believes her to be intoxicated. But after she explains that she has been pouring out her heart and soul before the Lord, Eli instructs her to go in peace. Then, he pronounces a blessing. In due time, Hannah delivers a son, Samuel, whom she gives into the service of the Lord, just as she had promised. Hannah leaves her little boy in the care of Eli, the priest, and day by day, the little boy learns to minister unto the Lord.

 

It just so happens that Eli has sons of his own, but Scripture tells us that they are scoundrels. They have no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priesthood. In fact, when people come to offer their sacrifices, Eli’s sons take meat from the pot for themselves—whatever their evil heart’s desire. Eli, who is very old, hears about all that his sons are doing—how they treat the offerings of the Lord with contempt—how they lay with the women who serve at the entrance of the meeting house. What does Eli do? He scolds his sons, but he does nothing more to reign in their behavior. Yahweh responds quite differently, though. Yahweh sends a messenger to Eli to prophecy the outcome of Eli honoring himself and his sons more than he honors the Lord. All the members of Eli’s household will die by the sword.

 

While Eli and his household move further away from the will of the Lord, Samuel grows in stature and favor until one night, God comes calling. Samuel thinks it’s just Eli wanting him to perform some temple duty. “Samuel, Samuel,” God calls. Samuel runs to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” After this occurs three times, Eli, realizes it is God who is calling the boy, so he tells Samuel to go and lie down and if he hears the voice again to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

 

How ironic! For the mission at hand, God does not call upon an adult candidate—not Eli—nor his sons. No. God has more faith in a child than he does in them. It seems that God is not looking for experience or privilege. God is looking for an open heart—a vessel through which the word of God may be delivered. God will make a way where there seems to be no way. Such is the way of God.

 

Fast forward through time. God sends priests and prophets and kings to turn God’s chosen people back to the way of God—the way of steadfast love—the way of being a blessed people who will bless the nations. That does not happen. Instead, the people continue to make their own path. They choose other gods. They mistreat one another and fail to follow God’s laws of love. Until, once again, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread.

 

But then, one night, the cry of a newborn baby is heard, and angels sing, and shepherds leave their flock to see for themselves—how God is, once again, making a way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, enters human history to right the wrongs than have been done, to give hope to the hopeless, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. Sadly, his way is not met with open arms. Instead, there is skepticism, and doubt, and anger. Ultimately, the more Jesus acts like the God who sent him, the more the religious rulers want to kill him—which is exactly what happens in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.

 

Here, we find a two-part confrontation, a two-part wrestling match between Jesus and the Pharisees. First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on a Sabbath. (Minding their own business, we might say.) When they get hungry, they pluck some grain to munch on. The Pharisees pounce—inquiring of Jesus why they are breaking the Sabbath law. But Jesus tells them that humankind was not made for the Sabbath; Sabbath was made for humankind. In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a gift, a blessing, a day of rest—for one’s household, for one’s servants, even for one’s animals. Constant work enslaves us to our own efforts. It was true then. It is still true today.

 

The Pharisees are enslaved to something other than the Sabbath, though. They are enslaved by their own understanding of a set of rules and regulations—rules and regulations that mean more to them than the Sabbath—rules and regulations that mean even more to them than compassion and mercy and love. So, on another Sabbath, when Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand, sadly, the Pharisees’ actions are hardly a surprise. Jesus knows full well he is being watched. Regardless, he calls the man forth and asks the Pharisees if it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill. They refuse to answer. Heartbroken and angry, Jesus restores the man’s hand. And what do the religious leaders do? Well, they go out and immediately conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. I suppose, to them, healing is not an acceptable activity for keeping the Sabbath holy—but plotting a murder is just fine.

 

Undeniably, we have little trouble making the Pharisees out to be evil. I mean, it’s so easy to consider their unreasonable behavior and side with the “good guy,” who usually turns out to be Jesus. But by hastily doing so, we may miss a golden opportunity for spiritual growth. For the truth is, these Pharisees are likely good people (though somewhat misguided) who are trying to preserve their laws, rituals, and traditions—things that mediate their faith for them. And isn’t it true that we are prone to behave in similar fashion when our favorite worship practices are threatened, or when someone interprets a Scripture passage much differently than we do, or when some preacher comes in who has a proclivity for trying something new—AGAIN?

 

The Pharisees are not wrong to uphold the Sabbath. They are wrong to allow their definition of keeping the Sabbath rightly to override the greater law of love. Nothing is more sacred than God’s love. The true spirit of the Sabbath is the spirit of love. Love that looks upon a man with a withered hand and gives thanks when he is healed—no matter what day of the week it is. Love that makes a way where there seems to be no way.

 

Which brings us back to the place where we began in Mark’s gospel—with Jesus and his disciples making their way through the grain fields; plucking off heads of grain to feed their growling stomachs. In other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that it is acceptable for a traveler to pick and eat if they find themselves hungry. So, plucking and eating on the Sabbath may not really be the issue. The real issue may be that they are “making a way” for it is against sabbath rules to make a road. Yet, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the fields, forging a path, trampling wheat, making a way. And Jesus and his followers, well, they are just getting started. They will make their way to healing more people, setting more crooked paths straight. They will create a path where there is food aplenty. They will make their way to abundant life—for themselves and for all people. They will bring forth a time when healing and visions and a word from God are common—rather than rare. Through Jesus, Yahweh forges a path—a path of love. Jesus’ way is always the way of love and Jesus comes to show the religious rulers and all people how to live in love—how to choose love.

 

On the Sabbath and on every other day of the week, we are given choices to make. Will we choose love, or will we choose our own selfish desires? Will we stick to our own understanding, or will we be open to God giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear? Every day, we choose. What is the path we are making for our life? Are we dining from the Table of the Lord? Are we growing in kindness and steadfast love?  Or are we sticking to a set of rules and regulations that always make us out to be the good guy whenever someone disagrees with us? Are we intentional about keeping the Sabbath as a holy day—to worship and rest and spend time with family and friends? Or is it just another day of doing and grabbing and getting? On the Sabbath and on the other six days of the week, we have choices to make.

 

God called Samuel—a boy. God wasn’t looking for the experienced, the privileged, the all-knowing. God was searching for an open heart—a vessel through which God’s love might be delivered. Samuel was such a vessel. Christ was such a vessel. And you—you who have been baptized into the family of faith—you who are indwelled by God’s own Spirit—you are such a vessel. Go forth and make a way in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Cover Art “Heaven’s Highway” by Stushie; Used by subscription.