The Legend of the Christmas Stocking

The Legend of the Christmas Stocking

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:5-25

 

Zechariah is a priest in the days of King Herod.  He and his wife Elizabeth are getting up in years and though they are righteous before God, they have no children.  One day, Zechariah is chosen to enter the Sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense.  He steps inside while the people stand outside praying—just another day in the life of a priest—that is until the angel shows up beside the altar.  Zechariah is, undoubtedly, terrified, which is why the angel quickly responds, “Do not be afraid.”  Then God’s messenger continues with the task at hand—delivering God’s message to Zechariah: “Your prayer has been heard.  Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.”

 

After providing instructions for the boy’s upbringing, the angel foretells how the child will prepare the way for the Lord. Zechariah, dumbfounded, asks, “How will I know that this is so?  I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”  Displeased by Zechariah’s reaction, the angel declares, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” (Ah, an angel with attitude!)  Gabriel who appeared to Daniel in the days of old; Gabriel who will soon appear to Mary; this Gabriel now stands before Zechariah. “I have been sent to bring you this good news…but now because you did not believe my words, you will be unable to speak until the day these things occur.”

 

No doubt, for many years Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for a child but it is unlikely they offered such a prayer that morning. And, with his advanced old age, Zechariah’s shock is reasonable—from our perspective. But how often is our perspective—well—wrong? Could it be that we need another point of view—prehaps from the eyes of a child?

 

Even though children are considered little more than property in the days of Jesus, he holds them in high regard. You will recall how Jesus responds when the disciples ask him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[i] Later, when children are being brought to Jesus for his blessing, the disciples assume children are a waste of his time but Jesus strongly disagrees, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”[ii]

 

So, this morning, I invite you to listen to a children’s story, The Legend of the Christmas Stocking, written by Rick Osborne. Together, let us open our hearts and minds to a child’s point of view.

(The children are invited to come forward and the story is read.)

 

Oh, to see the world through a child’s eyes; to experience a sense of wonder; to be overcome with anticipation. Such is the world of a child, and, as Jesus teaches, “It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belong.”

 

Regarding our gospel reading, I have often wondered why the angel seems to have no patience for Zechariah’s doubting spirit. Maybe Gabriel lets old Zechariah have it because Zechariah is a priest. He is in the God-business so if anyone is familiar with the wonders of God, it should be Zechariah. But somewhere along the way, Zechariah has lost his sense of wonder—his sense of anticipation for God making the impossible possible.

 

Might we be in the same boat as Zechariah? How often have we diligently prayed for something to happen and when it does, we are shocked? Why are we surprised when God does wondrous things? And might God do even more wondrous things if only we asked, believed, expected?

 

Something else I’ve been pondering: Is it possible that one reason society has become so enamored with Saint Nickolas and reindeer and gifts galore is that the church has lost her sense of wonder? The story of God’s love coming in the flesh to save all of humanity—it is a story that remains the same from generation to generation—and during the season of Advent, we have endless occasions to share it. Ample props are all around—the evergreen tree that demonstrates God’s ever-present love; the Chrismons that tell the story of Jesus through symbols; Christmas stockings that speak of hope and generosity.

 

Wonder of wonders, just as the Angel Gabriel foretells, a son is born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. At the naming ceremony, when the priest looks to Zechariah to confirm the baby’s name, the mute Zechariah asks for a tablet on which he writes, “His name is John.” With the scribbling of a few words, his silence is broken, his tongue is freed, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the old priest praises God like never before.

 

Like Zechariah, maybe it is time for us to open our mouths and speak the wonder of our faith. People are drawn to stories of wonder—always have been—always will be—because people are forever searching for a word of hope. Truly, through the waters of baptism that claim us and the bread and cup that sustain us, we can do more than we imagine. With God’s grace, we can pay attention to our faith and glimpse God moving and working. With the hope, peace, joy, and love brought into the world through the Christ Child, and with the Holy Spirit empowering us, surely, we can speak our truth—surely, we can sing our song of praise for someone to hear.

 

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

 

[i] Matthew 18:3

[ii] Matthew 19:14

*Cover Art: Advent Candle Art Week 2 by Stushie; by subscription

Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/

 

The Legend of the Christmas Tree

The Legend of the Christmas Tree

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

 

Jesus is a Master Teacher known for getting his point across by the simplest of means. Frequently he uses similes and metaphors as teaching tools. With metaphors, Jesus helps people get a handle on complex theological ideas. Similes work because people tend to think in terms of comparisons of things, people, and ideas that are already familiar. Take, for example, the various ways Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven is like the sower who planted good seeds in his field but while he slept an enemy came and sowed weeds. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that is the smallest of seeds, yet it grows into a tree big enough for the birds to make their nest. Jesus uses many other simple things to teach important concepts.

 

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses something as unassuming as a fig tree as a teaching tool saying, ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Repeatedly Jesus uses whatever is on hand to point people toward the way, the truth, and the life.

 

As we journey through Advent in this day and time, what better metaphor do we have on hand to tell the story of Jesus than a simple evergreen tree? So, this morning, I have recruited Jaxson and Chasey to light our Christmas trees. Afterward, they will join me down front for the reading of a simple children’s story entitled The Legend of the Christmas Tree.[i]  (Story is read.)

 

Many traditions have a long history that is impossible to trace back to their source. In my study on the topic, I learned that apples were actually used as ornaments at one time. I learned a few other things as well. For example:

 

Since very ancient times, long before the advent of Christmas, primitive people would take evergreen plants and flowers into their huts, seeing in them a magical or religious significance. The Greeks and Romans decorated their dwellings with ivy. The Celts and Scandinavians preferred mistletoe, but many other evergreen plants such as holly, butcher’s broom, laurel and branches of pine or fir were considered to have magical or medicinal powers that would ward off illness. This belief was found especially among the inhabitants of the northern regions with cold climates and long, dark winters; it was almost as if these plants revived thoughts of the coming spring while everything around them lay dormant.

 

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it—originating—many say—with St. Boniface (mentioned in our children’s story). Martin Luther (also mentioned) is widely credited for adding lighted candles to a tree. As the story goes, he was walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, when he was overcome with awe at the brilliance of the stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he set up a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.[ii]

 

In early American culture, Christmas trees didn’t catch on at first. The New England Puritans held Christmas as a sacred holiday—so much so all frivolity was penalized—Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that dishonored the holy event. In 1659, a law was passed in Massachusetts that made any observance of December 25 a penal offense and people were fined for hanging decorations. This way of thinking continued until the 19th century when there was an influx of German and Irish immigrants who brought their own traditions with them across the ocean blue. Finally, in 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in a popular London newspaper standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was so popular with her subjects, what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain—but with the fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. [iii]

 

Here in our church, our Christmas trees are made complete by the addition of Chrismons—a tradition that began at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia in 1957 when Frances Spencer designed monograms and symbols for Jesus Christ. Because the symbols have been used by followers of Jesus since biblical times, they are the heritage of all Christians. Soon other churches were carefully Chrismons—mostly of white and gold—to represent the purity and majesty of the Son of God. Mrs. Spencer often said that a tree is only finished when someone uses the ornaments to share the story of Christ.[iv] During Advent, we wait and we watch. What better time to tell such stories?

 

Jesus warns that the time will come when the sun and moon and stars behave in unexpected ways. Then the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. For centuries, rivers of ink have been spilled over the specifics of the end times. But while Jesus gives more than a nod to the matter, his overarching message is less about the future and more about the present because what really concerns Jesus is how we live our lives now—how we love God and our neighbor.

 

The story of Emmanuel—God with us—is the greatest story ever told. How might we continue telling it—not just here on Sunday morning, but in other places through simple and humble ways? After all, with something as ordinary as a fig tree, Jesus points to signs of the future. With something as simple as an evergreen—the story of Jesus’ birth has been told for ages. So keep awake—pay attention to the wonders all around you. Who knows when the Spirit might inspire you to tell the story in a fresh, new way? Amen.

[i] Rick Osborne, The Legend of the Christmas Tree.

[ii] http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] http://www.chrismon.org/chrismons-ministry.html

*Cover Art: Advent Candle Art Week 1 by Stushie

*Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/

 

Risking, for God’s Sake

Risking, for God’s Sake

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 19, 2017

24th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 123: Matthew 25:14-30

 

Our church is blessed with people who possess talents galore. Sherrida Crawford is detail oriented and an amazing organizer who shares her talents with us in numerous ways. Royce Coleman lends his financial expertise to our Presbytery by serving on Flint River Presbytery’s Finance Committee. Grayson Powell, Nelda Harris, Eve Renfroe—are all gifted encouragers. Sue Miller, Libby George, Sissy Almand, Carol Brotherton, Julie Stout, and Jenny Williams employ their talent for hospitality here in our midst—or at The Center—or both. And have you tasted some of the delicious food the folks in this church provide for covered dish meals? Truly, there are a vast array of talents among us. But what does the word “talent” mean? More importantly, what did it mean originally?

 

From the Greek language, the word “talent,” initially referred to a unit of money. It wasn’t until the mid-15th Century that it came to mean a gift or skill—largely because of Jesus’ parable of the talents. In Jesus’ day though, a talent was worth about 15 years of earnings for a day laborer. Thus, when the wealthy master in our gospel reading entrusts the first slave with 5 talents—it’s the equivalent of 75 years of labor; the second man is given 2 talents equivalent to 30 years of wages, and the last is handed over 1 talent equal to 15 years of wages.  In other words, all 3 slaves are given a lot of money.

 

No doubt, this text lends itself to sermons that encourage followers of Christ to discover their talents and use them wisely. However, this morning I want us to dig a little deeper to reflect not only on the recipients of the talents, but on the giver as well. Let’s begin by turning our gaze toward God. Since everything begins with God—love, faith, and our very lives—it might behoove us to start there!

 

God’s Son is on a roll, teaching about the end times. Prior to today’s story, Jesus warns about the need to be watchful. Then he cautions those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven to keep their lamps trimmed and burning. Finally, he tells a parable about a wealthy man who departs on a long journey. Before the master leaves, he distributes his property to three slaves—each according to his ability. After a long time, the master returns to settle accounts. In his absence, the first two slaves act wisely, making investments that double their money. The master is pleased. The third slave takes a different approach. He digs a hole and buries his treasure because he does not trust his master and he is afraid of taking a risk. While we might look at the man’s behavior as understandable, the master sees things differently. The master chastises the slave and sends him to outer darkness. It seems a harsh punishment. What are we to make of it all? Rev. John Buchanan, a Presbyterian pastor offers some food for thought.

 

I cannot help wondering how it would have turned out if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus does not tell it that way, but I cannot but imagine that the master would not have been harsh toward them, and might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It’s about living. It’s about investing. It’s all about taking risks…

 

It’s about being a follower of Jesus and what it means to be faithful to him, and so, finally, it is about you and me. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything…The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe…[i]

 

The greatest risk of all is not to risk anything…to play it safe. Each man in the story is given a generous gift but only two are commended. The third, frozen by fear, plays it safe. Could it be that what the Master wants more than anything else is for those who await his return to risk everything for him in the meantime?

 

Who of us can look back over the years without feeling some regret—wishing we had done otherwise—wishing we had more to show for our God-given life? Maybe we have played it safe too often. Maybe we have taken our God-given treasures and buried them in the back yard out of fear. But look where that got the man in the parable—cast away from God’s presence. With God, the lover of our souls, there’s no room for fear. Our God is a risk taker. He risked his own Son for us and our salvation. And, made in God’s image, we are called to be like God. We are called to be risk-takers. If we will trust, and live with courage, the greatest bonus of all will be ours when we see our Heavenly Father and hear, “Well done! Come and enjoy your Master’s delight.”[ii]

 

On the topic of taking risks, a Christian blogger states that one of the most difficult questions we ask is: “Am I trusting God or am I just being foolish?” It’s a reasonable question. There’s a fine line between faith and recklessness. But if we hope to look to Scripture for help, we may be surprised. Take Abraham, for example. Is it faith or foolishness that makes him set out with his family to a place he’s never been to before, risking everything because of a voice he thinks he hears? Is it faith or foolishness that makes Moses stand up to Pharaoh—the most powerful king in the land? Is it faith or foolishness that makes Daniel pray to God three times a day as is his practice even when doing so will land him in a lion’s den?  Is it faith or foolishness that drives Peter, James, and John to leave their families to follow a man whom some are calling the Messiah? Is it faith or foolishness that leads Paul to go from place to place and prison to prison because he refuses to keep his mouth shut when it comes to Christ? So if you were advising one of our biblical figures, what would you say? What makes for a godly decision? When do you take a risk? When do you play it safe?[iii]

 

A while back, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Barbara Brown Taylor about faith and her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Taylor is an Episcopal priest who, for the past 19 years, has been a professor of religion at Piedmont College in north Georgia. She enjoys being surrounded by young adults who are eager to find their way—their path. They ask lots of questions and explore new ideas so the college classroom can become a lab of sorts. But some of the young people aren’t eager to embrace the unknown. Instead, their focus is on finding that one sure path.

 

In the interview, Taylor said she thinks we’d like life to be a train. You get on. You pick your destination and you get off. But life doesn’t work like that. It’s much more like a sailboat ride. “Every day, you have to see where the wind is and check the currents and see if there’s anybody else on the boat with you who can help out. It’s a sailboat ride—the weather changes and the currents change and the wind changes. It’s not a train ride.” She confesses, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to accept in my life. I just thought I had to pick the right train—and I worked hard to pick the right train. And darned if I didn’t get off at the end of it and find out that was just a midway station.”[iv]

 

Life is like a sailboat ride—the weather changes—the wind takes us first in one direction and then another. Could it be that living boldly for God means sometimes stepping out on faith and doing the very thing that scares the daylights out of us?

 

At last month’s session meeting, I mentioned that I believe doing something brave—stepping outside our comfort zone for God is what spiritual growth is all about. An example that comes to mind from my own spiritual journey happened while I was still serving Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia. After completing my doctoral work, I had no intention of returning to the classroom as a student. But the Spirit began tugging on my heart to apply for Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Attending would mean a commitment of my two weeks of Study Leave for the next two years, two intensive residencies, and loads of assignments. In addition, the cost of the program was more than I could afford with one son still in college. Nevertheless, God kept nudging. For weeks I prayed about the decision and sought counsel from clergy friends and my Spiritual Director, but I resisted making the decision until the last minute. Why? Because what I really wanted to do was buy a ticket for a train ride. I wanted to start out in Petersburg, get off in Alexandria, and catch the Metro into D.C. I wanted to know my destination and hold the itinerary tightly in my hand. But trust in God to provide what was needed? Set sail for the unknown? That was risky business.

 

Yet, how can I be a spiritual leader for Christ’s church and ask you to live boldly for God if I refuse to do the same? Ultimately, I filled out the application, put it in an envelope, and sent it on its way. Over the next two years, I was provided both the time and resources to complete the program. In the end, it was all in God’s very capable hands. But is there any better place to be than in the hands of a generous God who risks everything for us?

 

When you imagine God, do you imagine God with a clenched fist or an open hand? The Message translation of Psalm 145:16 has this to say about God: “Generous to a fault, you lavish your favor on all creatures.” So, you see, not only humans—but all living things—are blessed by God’s open-handed nature.

 

During our vacation last week, Kinney and I spent a few days at Mexico Beach. Ah—the beach in November—so quiet—so peaceful. We had such a restful time. While Kinney probably enjoyed his runs on the beach most of all—for me one of the highlights was star-gazing from our balcony at night. I was awestruck by the sparkling lights that appeared in abundance. It reminded me once more of the majesty of God’s creation. A few hundred stars in the sky would be more than enough but several thousand stars can be seen with the naked eye. And to count the stars in the universe would be like trying to count the grains of sand on the beach.

 

God, who holds in his hands—all that lives and moves and breathes—urges us to live courageously—urges us to take risks for God’s sake. How will we respond? Will we live in fear and bury our treasures for safekeeping? Or will we risk it all—for God’s sake?

 

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

 

[i] John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, 310.

[ii] Bruce Prewer @ http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocA/63Sun33.htm

[iii]Carey Nieuwhof @ http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/11

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/07/barbara-brown-taylor-analogy-future_n_6122188.html?&ir=Religion&ncid=tweetlnkushpmg00000055

 

*Cover Art “Horn of Plenty” © Walt Curlee; Used by permission.

God’s Children Now

God’s Children Now

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 5, 2017

All Saint’s Service

Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3

 

Like most clergy, I love books. I have since I was a child—and still today—I enjoy children’s books. For me, books written for children invite the reader into the story, capture the attention in vivid ways, and let’s not forget—they have pictures!  When my children were small, it may be true that I enjoyed story time more than they did. I loved Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Alexander begins the morning with gum in his hair, and things go downhill from there. Even the title of the book makes me want to give him an “FPC of Valdosta Cultivate Gratitude” bracelet.

 

Another favorite was The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, written from the wolf’s perspective. In it, the wolf declares that down through the ages, he has gotten a bad rap. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see, he had a dreadful cold, and he went to the little pigs’ house hoping to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny a cake. It was not his fault that those ham dinners—I mean pigs—built such flimsy houses!

 

And then there’s the story of Stone Soup. Versions of this story abound, but my favorite tells the story of two strangers who happened upon a village, hoping for food. But times were tough and hoarding food was more common than sharing it, so the fellows decided to trick the villagers. They found a huge cooking pot, filled it with water, built a fire beneath it, and dropped in a large, round, stone. When the villagers passed by, they asked, “What are you cooking?” The quick reply was, “Stone soup.” Of course, no one had ever heard of stone soup so they were intrigued. The two strangers promised, “Oh, it’s delicious. We’ll let it cook up for a while and then you’re welcome to join us.” As anticipated, people began offering a little something extra to throw into the pot: “Oh, I have some potatoes—how about a few onions—some carrots—spices—I have a few chunks of meat…” One by one, ingredients were added that resulted in a delicious Stone Soup—enough for everyone!

 

Stone Soup is a children’s story that has been used to teach the importance of sharing, generosity, and hospitality. Remember, however, the story began as a practice of manipulation, even desperation. While it is only a children’s story, today it may provide a lens through which to examine the church. In a world filled with cafeteria-style approaches to God and all that is holy, with declining numbers in churches across the country, many churches, filled with fear and anxiety, behave like the only thing we have to offer the world is the beginnings of stone soup. We act as if the only way to get the world to stop and pay attention to the church anymore is to stir up a pot full of empty promises.  “We have to be fresh, modern, and new. Nobody wants to hear that old, old story anymore!  Come on in and do as we do, and you’ll have your every desire. You will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Come on in and we will entertain you. We will teach you how to think happy thoughts. Most importantly, and we won’t require anything of you. It is all about you, after all!”

 

But before we drag out the pot, fill it with water, stoke up the fire, and throw in a stone, let us stop and read the words from I John once more:

           

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

 

Because some have departed from the community of faith, spreading a distorted message, the author of I John writes a letter, a homily of sorts. He wants to clarify the gospel message that a believer’s life must be marked by love—love for God and love for one another. He wants to encourage believers, and he uses phrases like “you know,” “we know” or some variation over 23 times in this letter. [i] John urges Christians to stay the course; stay with the message they have heard from the beginning; and continue to believe in the Son of Man, the Son of God—and in the saving value of his death.

 

The world (those who live apart from God), the world does not know what we know! And what is it we know? We know God is our Father and God has revealed his steadfast love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

We know we are children of God even if the world fails to recognize it. This is not a promise only for the future. It is a promise for the present because we are God’s children NOW. As children of God, we may live in a particular nation, community, or family, but our identity is in none of those places. Our identity is as children of God, and holiness is our goal.[ii]

 

There is something else that we know: We know someday we will be like him. Even though we are children of God now, we are not finished projects. We must grow in our faith to be purified. Like a runner training for a race, we make certain habits or practices a part of our disciplined life. Consider Scripture reading—is the Bible woven into the fiber of our being?  It won’t be unless we consistently spend time with God’s Word. What about prayer? The Apostle Paul instructs the church to “pray without ceasing.” Instead of a literal interpretation, we might consider weaving prayer throughout our day—morning, noon, and night—with additional specific prayers spoken throughout the day. We can pray while in line at the checkout counter, while waiting at the doctor’s office—eyes open—eyes closed—God doesn’t care. (Except if you tend to pray while driving—then definitely—eyes open.)

 

Other spiritual disciplines that might lead us toward more holy living include things like meditation, keeping a prayer journal, Christian service, and worship. Some people yearn to connect with the Holy on days of silent retreat or on a pilgrimage to a special place. Sacred places, in the Celtic Christian tradition, are often called “thin places.” There’s a Celtic saying that heaven and the earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even smaller. In thin places, boundaries of time and space fade away.[iii]

 

Thin places are often associated with beautiful vistas: the seashore, the mountains, and other wonderful sanctuaries of creation. From such places we may return refreshed, renewed, and more aware of the thin places in all of life. Soon the birds outside our window capture our attention in a new way. Suddenly we are filled with wonder and we cry out with the psalmist, “I will bless the Lord at all times…O taste and see that the Lord is good!” And the beauty of “thin places” is that even when we are unable to physically return there, we can return to them in our memory and in our imagination.[iv]

 

When my prayer and meditation time feels dry, I like to imagine that I am walking by the Sea of Galilee again, and suddenly my spiritual bucket is filled with living water. When I’m overcome with tedious details and endless tasks, I close my eyes and return to Mt. LeConte in Tennessee or to the James River in Jamestown, Virginia. When I want to move beyond time and space to re-live God’s gifts beyond my wildest imaginings, I pause, breathe deeply, and envision taking that first step onto the island of Iona in Scotland and, once more, I know the abundance of God’s blessings.

 

On a Sunday like this, when we gather to celebrate All Saints’ Day, it is good to ponder thin places, where boundaries of time and space fade away. It is good to pause and give thanks as we imagine our loved ones who have gone on before us and who now dwell in the world just beyond this one. It is good to reflect on John’s reason for writing, revealed in chapter 5, verse13, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

 

Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have the promise of being called children of God now and the promise of an eternal future in his presence. All Saint’s Day is a joyous day to remember the saintly ones who have gone before and to renew our commitment to holy living. Those who have crossed from this world into the next have left us with an amazing inheritance. And, as one writer puts it, “through their love and compassion, their instruction and correction, their laughter and tears, their honesty and humility, their sacrifice and dedication, and most of all, their faith, they are still speaking. What a great legacy to claim for ourselves and to share with the world!”[v]

 

We are children of God, now. We are saints in the making. So next time we are tempted to drag out a pot, pour in the water, stoke up the fire, and stir up a batch of Stone Soup for the world, let us remember that we do have something to offer. In fact, our hope is built on nothing less than the One Stone—the Stone the builders rejected; the Stone that has become the Chief Cornerstone, Christ our Lord. And Christ calls us brothers. Christ calls us sisters—because we are Children of God—NOW!

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Annette G. Brownlee, The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and Epistles, 583

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, 230-235.

[iii] Rev. Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale http://day1.org/1117-glimpsing_heaven_in_thin_places

[iv] Sylvia Maddox http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html

[v] William N. Jackson, Feasting on the Word, 232.

*Cover Art via Google Images

 

The Next 500 Years

The Next 500 Years

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 29, 2017

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE

 

Good morning! I am delighted to be here. Dr. Luther sends his apologies. He couldn’t make it but he has every intention of being with you this evening for all the festivities. You may be wondering who I am. To Dr. Luther, I am known by many names. He often calls me “Boss of Zulsdorf,” after the name of the farm we owned, or “Morning Star of Wittenberg,” due to my habit of rising at 4 in the morning to take care of my plethora of responsibilities, or, and this is my favorite, “Dear Kate.” While my given name is Katharina von Bora, it is the name Luther that means the most to me because Martin Luther is the love of my life, my companion, my closest friend, my husband.

 

No doubt our marriage shocked the world—but, alas, I get ahead of myself. Allow me to provide a little background. My mother died when I was a child and at the age of five, my father took me to a convent to “further my education” he said. Likely, he was really interested in finding me a home so he could start his life with his new wife. Regardless, I first entered a Benedictine cloister but was later moved me to a Cistercian monastery where my aunt resided.

 

At first, I was happy enough but as my education grew, so did my discontent with the monastic life in general, and the Catholic Church in particular. As a young woman I was interested in the happenings in Germany—especially the movement Martin Luther started when he nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. I became convinced that the Holy Spirit inspired Dr. Luther and others to set right the corruption within the leadership of Christ’s church.

 

I wasn’t the only one interested in the new movement. There were several in the monastery—friends of mine—who were equally captivated. In time we contacted Doctor Luther. He seemed to be the person who knew how to get things done and we wanted something remarkable done. We wanted to escape the monastery. It would be a dangerous feat because a person caught abandoning her vows could be tortured, imprisoned, or worse. Still, we felt inspired to take a bold step. We wanted to be part of Christ’s work in the world!

 

Dr. Luther, sympathetic to our cause, recruited a merchant to smuggle us out of the monastery. Upon our arrival, Luther was determined to return us to our families but that turned out to be impossible. For a variety of reasons, they did not want us. Mostly, though, they feared the consequences of violating Roman Catholic law. Never one to turn away from a challenge, Luther decided to find husbands for us, according to our wishes. Everyone found a mate—except for me. I was pickier than most. In the end, I determined in my heart that only two men would suit me—Nikolaus von Amsdorf, a colleague of Dr. Luther—or Luther himself.

 

At first, Luther resisted the idea. Although he had come to believe that marriage was a gift from God for all people—even those called to the religious life—he had not considered marriage for himself. Many of his friends were unsure, too. They feared Luther’s marriage would hurt the Reformation by causing undue scandal. Luther’s father, on the other hand, was overjoyed at the idea. He said it was what he always wanted for his son. Eventually, Luther came to the conclusion that his marriage would “please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” How could he lose?

 

Martin Luther and I were married June 13, 1525. He was forty-one years old and I was twenty-five. Against all odds, we had a wonderful life together. We took up residence at the Black Cloister, a former dormitory and educational institution for Augustinian friars given to us as a wedding gift. Immediately, I took on the task of managing our property, which included breeding and selling cattle, and running a brewery to provide for our family, the steady stream of students who boarded with us, and visitors who sought an audience with Dr. Luther. In times of widespread illness, I opened our home to serve as a hospital site and ministered to the sick along with other nurses.  In our life together, we were blessed with six children. In addition, we brought four orphans into our loving home—and a loving home it was.

 

Along with Dr. Luther, I had strong opinions about the way in which we are to live out our faith in the world. While I might have been known as being bighearted, I could not hold a candle to Dr. Luther. In fact, his proclivity for generosity is what led me to handle our finances. We would have starved, otherwise. Luther knew that I was a strong-willed woman when he married me—and he had no desire to dampen my intellect or my creative abilities. On occasion, he described me as “My Lord Katie” because he was determined that I have control over my own life—a stance unheard of in the 16th Century. One of my fondest memories, though, is waking up one morning to Dr. Luther smiling brightly at me and saying, “Dear Kate, I never tire of seeing your pigtails on my pillow.”

 

It’s incredible that 500 years have come and gone. When Dr. Luther nailed his theses to the door, he never intended to split the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted a debate. He wanted reform. He wanted the blatant abuse of church power to stop—no more taking advantage of the people (90 percent of whom were illiterate and had little choice but to accept the church’s teachings without question). Repulsed by the sale of indulgences, he wrote, “Why does not the pope [with his great wealth] build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers.” Most importantly, Luther was convinced that it was faith alone—and not deeds—that led to salvation.

 

You know the rest of the story. The Pope and other church leaders had no desire to debate their own folly. Instead, they were determined to continue the sale of indulgences, to continue to take advantage of the poor, to continue to do whatever it took to maintain their power and financial status. But the Reformers, Luther, in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and later, others like John Calvin and John Knox—they set a fire that could not be quenched. The church was being reformed. It still is!

 

Many good things came out of the Reformation. The corrupt leaders of the Roman Catholic Church became less powerful as people were exposed to new ways of understanding God and all that is holy. Scripture became available to people in their own languages. Bibles and other books became more plentiful, literacy grew, and schools and universities multiplied.

 

Clearly, though, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died gruesome deaths for their beliefs. Religious art and religious institutions were destroyed. The unity of the Western church was broken. Sadly, division has become the hallmark of the Protestant movement which is evident by the 9000 Protestant denominations now found throughout the world. We have divided over the meaning and administration of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism; we have divided over forms of church government; we have divided over issues like predestination and free will. In more recent years, we have divided over worship styles; we have divided over the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament; we have divided over being welcoming and affirming to all people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation. We have divided and we keep dividing. This is a far cry from what the Reformers had in mind.

 

Don’t misunderstand me. I am glad for the work the Reformers did—and for the small part, I played. Still, we have fallen short of bringing God’s kingdom to the earth. We cannot pay lip service to spiritual unity and continue to tear one another apart. We dare not ignore the fact that a shrinking percentage of the community even finds the church relevant anymore.

 

Truly, there is work yet to be done. It is time for a New Reformation and there is every indication that it has already begun. The Holy Spirit is on the move—challenging us to be courageous—challenging us to seek reconciliation rather than schism and war—challenging us, once again, to take the gospel out into the streets. The body of Christ, the church was never meant to be housed in a building—neither in St. Peter’s Basilica, nor in First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta. Believers and seekers alike enter into a sacred space like this one to worship, to pray, to learn, to grow, and then to return to the world equipped to BE the church. YOU are the church—each and every one of you. YOU are the church when you go shopping at Publix or TJ Maxx. YOU are the church when you go to work or to school and or to a restaurant or to a movie. YOU are the church when you volunteer for Break Bread Together or for other ministries of compassion. YOU are the church when you provide words of love and light on social media rather than disseminate turmoil and fear. YOU are the church when you get involved in matters of justice. YOU are the church when you try to right that which is wrong. YOU are the church when you obey the words of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith points us toward the future of his Church. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus showed mercy when mercy was needed. Jesus showed compassion when compassion was needed. Jesus spoke the truth when the truth was needed. Jesus embodied the words of Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

 

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are the Reformers of today! You are the Reformers of tomorrow! Go forth with the Spirit as your guide—reformed and always being reformed!

 

RESOURCES:

www.lutheranreformation.org

“The Morning Star of Wittenberg” by Susan Verstraete @ www.bulletininserts.org

www.visit-luther.com

*Cover Art “Katharina von Bora” in Public Domain.

 

God’s Coins

God’s Coins

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 22, 2017

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

 

It appears Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew puts us near the end of his earthly ministry. In previous readings, you’ll recall how Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, takes one look at all the crooked dealings going on in the temple and has a little house-cleaning party. In no time flat, the chief priests and elders come calling. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds with a question that traps them in their own deceit. Then, to hammer home his opinion of the way things have been going, Jesus tells three parables to put the religious rulers in their place. In essence, Jesus proclaims a new day with new kingdom rules to follow.

 

Now what? The religious authorities are livid.  “This ‘false prophet’ must be shut down. Look at the crowds, how they follow him. This is getting out of hand.”  They’ll stop at nothing to put an end to this man who claims to be something he couldn’t possibly be. So the Pharisees go out and make some strange bedfellows. They team up with the Herodians. Now, we don’t know much about the Herodians except that they are almost certainly supporters of Herod Antipas. Still, the Pharisees go into cahoots with them—with one common goal:  Get rid of Jesus!

 

Can’t you just hear the sweet, syrupy tone of their voices as they open their mouths to speak? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

 

Jesus wasn’t born yesterday. He can see straight through them—straight through them to their heart and soul—and what he sees is hypocrisy. Never one to mince words, Jesus asks, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”  (Interestingly, the Greek word for hypocrite means actor, a stage player, a pretender.)  How odd it is that these pretenders, bent on trapping Jesus, speak the truth even in their ignorance? Jesus is sincere. Jesus does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Jesus shows no partiality. Oh, if these hypocrites only believed that which so easily slips from their lips!

 

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. (Show me the money!) And there in broad daylight, they hand over a coin. On one side, there is an image of the emperor and on the other, words claiming his divinity. Therefore, what these religious leaders hand Jesus is nothing less than a graven image.

 

You remember the 1st and 2nd Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an idol (or graven image), whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

 

Even though, supposedly the Pharisees are against having in their possession any sort of graven image, someone has a coin in his pocket. At this point, I imagine you can hear a pin drop. Everyone waits with bated breath. The trap is set. Anticipation builds. If Jesus answers no, he is in trouble with the Roman authorities and a quick trip to Pilate will set things straight. If Jesus answers yes, he is in trouble with many of his own followers.

 

Indeed, it appears Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. “Whose head is this and whose title?” he asks. “The emperor’s.” Then Jesus responds, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are Gods.”

 

Without question, Jesus has strong opinions on money matters. Well known are his teachings: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” [i]; AND “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[ii]

 

While being good stewards of earthly things matters, Jesus always pushes us to see the greater reality—something we so easily miss! In 1st Century Palestine, this coin represents the dictating powers of Rome and their annual taxation, which is administered by the Jewish authorities. In his response, Jesus allows room for Caesar—for the emperor—for governing bodies but that is not the end of the story because he adds, “…and to God the things that are God’s.” So the greater reality to which Jesus points is this: Even the reign of Caesar is overruled by the reign of God Almighty.

 

“Give to God the things that are Gods.”  Isn’t everything God’s? All of creation! And if we’re talking about what belongs to God, we must surely include ourselves. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Tertullian wrote in the 3rd Century, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image which is on man.”[iii] We are made in God’s image. We are God’s coins. How will we allow God to spend us, to use us? How will we make available to God —all of our being—all for God’s glory?

 

It’s God’s glory that Moses yearns to see. Moses and Yahweh have been discussing whether or not God’s presence will continue to be with Moses and the people as they go forth. Moses won’t go without God. When God agrees to continue on the journey, Moses makes a grand request: “Show me your glory, I pray.”

 

God says, “[Y]ou cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock; and I will cover you with my hand until I pass by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”[iv]

 

It appears that Moses is between a rock and a hard place—but all the while he is in the presence of the glory of God. God’s glory cannot be grasped. God’s power is too much to behold—the shadow of God is all that Moses can stand. “No one can live and see my face,” God says, but, for those who have eyes to see, Jesus reveals the other side of the coin. While you cannot look at God’s face and live, you can look at the emperor’s face all day long. You can look at Caesar’s face, as my grandmother used to say, “’til the cows come home,” and no harm need come to you for the emperor holds no power other than what is given to him.

 

But God’s power—now that’s another matter—which makes it even more remarkable that we are made in the image of God. And baptism, baptism marks us as God’s currency. But sometimes it’s hard to see ourselves as God sees us, isn’t it? As one commentary writer put it,

 

 

When we look at each other, or in the mirror, we tend to see the inscriptions that our business with the world has left on us: you are what you look like, what you have, what you wear, what you do, the company you keep. Nevertheless, under all those inscriptions is a much deeper mark: the kiss of light in the eyes, the watery sign of a cross made once upon a time on the forehead, the image of all those children in the arms of their mothers, and the little ember of resolve to remember them. All those faces are a part of your face, when you begin to see the image that God sees…[v]

 

Made in the image of God, we are God’s currency. Even if, sometimes, we find our selves between a rock and a hard place, even there God’s glory can be found. In all that we say, in all that we do, may we be spent for the glory of God.

 

[i] Luke 18:25

[ii] Matt. 6:19-21

[iii] Quoted by Susan Grove Eastman in Feasting on the Word, 193.

[iv] Exodus 33

[v] Richard E. Spalding in Feasting on the Word, 192

 

*Cover Art ”Show Me Your Glory” ©Jan Richardson; used with subscription

 

 

Welcome to the Party

Welcome to the Party

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 15, 2017

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

 

Congratulations, First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, you’ve been invited to not one but two parties.  I have your invitations here. Oh, but wait, you won’t believe it—they are at the same time. I guess you will have to choose which one you want to attend.

 

The first party—well, it looks like fun!  Let’s see… It’s at the bottom of Mount Sinai. It appears the hosts of the party have been waiting there for their fearless leader—some fellow by the name of Moses. But Moses has been having a retreat on the mountain with Yahweh; where he’s been receiving instructions on how to set up a tabernacle and how to establish a priesthood. Moses has been gone a long time—too long for the people’s fancy. As a result, they approach Aaron, Moses’ brother, with a request: “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?”[i] And what does Aaron do? He caves into their request—just like that. The golden earrings of the people are collected, formed into the mold of a calf—and lo, an idol is born. An altar is built and plans are made for a festival.  You’re invited!  Come, eat, drink and be merry!

 

It’s everything you might expect from a Golden Calf Party. You’ll be in charge. No more waiting on Moses. No more dealing with Yahweh whom you cannot control and who, quite frankly, sometimes scares you half to death. Imagine bowing before that shiny, golden god, that molten, inanimate object. You can throw flowers on it, you can dance around it. This is your god and you hold all the power, in your very own hands. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it?

 

Well maybe so—until you learn about Yahweh’s response to this little shindig. To Moses, the LORD says, “Go down at once, YOUR people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn against them and I may consume them.”[ii]

 

My, is God ever angry!  I don’t know about you, but that puts a damper on things for me. I don’t think I’m capable of enduring the wrath of God, no matter how enticing a Golden Calf Party might sound.

 

Thankfully, there’s another invitation!

 

Let’s see. This party is given by a king to honor his son—it’s a wedding banquet. (Oh, I love weddings!)  Lots of people have been invited. The table has been set, the prime rib is ready for carving; it’s a bounteous feast. But for some reason those who were invited refused to show up. Could it be they do not really care about the king? Don’t they have any respect for him and his son? Evidently not, because they make fun of the invitation. One returns to his farm, another to his business, and others grab hold of his slaves, mistreat them and kill them. Understandably, the king is enraged and sends in troops to destroy the city.

 

Still, the party must go on. The king says to his servants, “We have a wedding banquet prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’ The servants go out in the streets and round up everyone they lay eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet is on—every place filled.”[iii]

 

What a party it is—with the most unlikely guests present. People who have been treated like outcasts have come to the table to taste the goodness of the king. There’s room enough for everyone and no one is left out. Now this looks like a party worth attending. But wait! What’s that happening over there?

 

The king has entered the room and it looks like he is talking to some fellow. Let’s listen to what the king has to say. “What do you mean, daring to come in here looking like that?” Well, the man is dressed a little odd, but wait—didn’t this guy just get an invitation that read: “Come as you are”? Yet, he’s being called out—called out into “outer darkness,” no less—and for what? Coming underdressed to a party he never expected to attend in the first place?

 

Obviously, there is some deeper meaning to the scene that’s being played out before us. You see, while everyone is invited to this party—just as they are—no one is expected to stay that way.  Once a person is baptized into the family of God, a new garment, a baptismal garment is provided. Over time, as a person matures in her faith, she grows into the meaning of her baptism; she grows into Christ. Her heart is changed. Day by day, she cultivates a life of love, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness so that, in time, her dirty, old, sin-ridden rags no longer fit.

 

Putting on Christ leads to transformation but you have to show up and you have to put on Christ every day. The crux of the matter is this: While God’s grace is available for everyone, with it comes obligations. We, who are believers, are expected to live as God’s people—with the LORD as the king ruling over our hearts and lives. To do otherwise is to spit in the face of God. To do otherwise is to assert our pride and be clothed with our own filthy rags when the garment of Christ is hanging just within reach.

 

Dear church, you’ve been invited to not one, but two parties. If you choose the Golden Calf Extravaganza, you can go to the foot of Mt. Sinai and, seemingly, you’ll hold your future in your hands. You’ll be in control. You can worship whatever you want to worship. No more will you have to ask God what you should do with your time, your talents, and your treasures. After all, you have earned everything you have on your own, right?  You are not responsible for God’s kingdom work. You are not accountable to anyone. Why, you can go out and fashion your gold into a calf if you wish. You can make your own idol. You can be your own idol!

 

Maybe so, but remember this: Everything that glitters is not gold.

 

If, however, you choose to attend the king’s party, the wedding banquet for his son—you can go free of charge. God’s grace is sufficient. And at this banquet, a new kingdom is promised. No longer will pedigrees or titles take precedence over the contents of a person’s heart.

 

Jesus has come to set things right. Jesus has come to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and set the captive free. There will be no more hogging of power and beating down the lowly. For too long, the religious leaders whom Jesus speaks against have denied God’s power and scorned God’s love. They have been busy doing things their own way with their personal agendas as their guide. They have no interest in this new life Jesus promises. Instead, their hearts are set on using whatever authority they can garner to draw lines in the sand—keeping some in—keeping many out. But with the advent of Jesus, those days are over. The Son of God throws open the doors and windows and proclaims to the whole world: “Come, taste and see, my Abba, Father is good!”

 

Everyone is welcome. Nevertheless, the invitation comes with expectations. The right attire is a must for this new kingdom life. Only the garment of Christ will do! Is the cost too great? Or, in the end, will all of eternity not be long enough to offer up our thanksgiving and praise?

 

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud crashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! [Yes,] Praise the Lord![iv]

 

It’s time to get dressed for a celebration.

 

Which party will you attend and what will you wear?

 

[i] The Message

[ii] NRSV

[iii] The Message

[iv] Psalm 150, NRSV

 

*Cover Art “Getting Garbed” © Jan Richardson; used by subscription

 

Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 8, 2017

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14

How many of you are fans of HGTV’s hit series, “Fixer Upper”? If you are, you may need a little pastoral care since Chip & Joanna Gaines have announced this will be their last year doing the show. My husband, Kinney, is quite sad about the news but for the life of me, I do not know why. I do not know why because he has a litany he goes through with nearly every episode. It goes something like this: “You know what Joanna is about to do—replace the popcorn ceiling, take out a wall, install stainless steel appliances and granite countertops along with a new backsplash. Oh, and pull up the carpet to put down new hardwood floors.” To this litany, I sometimes cannot help but respond, “Then why, exactly, are we watching this show?”

 

Of course, home restoration reality shows have been around for a while. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” for example, was a wildly popular TV series that providing home improvements for families facing financial or other hardships. It ran for 9 seasons. One episode featured Kent Morrell, who started his own business while still a student at the University of Tennessee.  The “Indoor Oceans Company” specialized in large aquarium installation and maintenance. Kent was in the fast lane—working 60 hours a week. By the age of 31, he had it all—a wife, children, and bucket-loads of cash. But all this changed one night when he was involved in a car accident. In a split second, his reality was transformed—he couldn’t work, he was depressed, he worried about his family and his finances.

 

Faith is what kept Kent’s family going. About a year after the accident, he was anointed with oil during a prayer service and some of his chronic pain subsided. A later surgery left him feeling nearly normal. Then, two months after returning to work, Kent got a call from the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The request?  Install a 600-gallon saltwater aquarium for the upcoming two-hour season premiere. Oh, and do it in 2 weeks. Kent states: “Every step I said, ‘God, I don’t know how I will work this out,’ and it was like God said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” Through many providential twists and turns, the aquarium—the first of its size to ever be installed in a private residence—was placed in a home in Clarksville, Tennessee for a wounded soldier who was getting his own Extreme Makeover for the whole nation to see.

 

And Kent’s makeover?  In his words, “My business used to be my life, my sense of self-worth… What’s really important now is my family. I realize now that God doesn’t promise a pain-free life.  I have new empathy and respect for people who have gone through pain and life changes. God has always been with me. I’m not saying there haven’t been problems, but he was there and will always be there. God has worked it out, every step of the way.”

 

God working!  God changing!  How can we talk seriously about life changes, extreme makeovers—without talking about God? And if anyone was ever “made over” it was the Apostle Paul.  Paul, who once persecuted Christians, becomes the leader of the pack proclaiming the gospel story.  A makeover, indeed!  Paul, transformed by God’s grace, appears in our epistle reading for today with important lessons. In three steps, he shows us how to take stock of our lives.  Let’s take a look.

 

Step one is to consider where we are now.  Imperfect?  Paul would agree, admitting, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal.” Truly, righteousness comes from God.  When we become children of God, we are declared not guilty, and therefore righteous, because of what Christ has done for us.  It is not our efforts at law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline that puts us in right standing with God.

 

Furthermore, ultimately, we know our complete perfection will not be achieved on this side of eternity.  Even so, we are responsible for working toward wholeness, toward perfection as long as we live. Eugene Peterson says, “The Christian life consists mostly of what God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is and does.  But we also are a part of it.  Not the largest part, but still a part.”

 

Where are we now?  Imperfect?  A mark of true maturity is to know that one is not yet perfect.  So imperfect is a good place to start. It turns out, it is the only place we can start!

 

In step two of taking stock of our lives, Paul invites us to reflect on where we’ve been!  In his letter to the church of Philippi, Paul defends the rights of Gentiles to be Christians. He opposes Judaizers, who are teaching it is necessary to first become a Jew, to first be circumcised. For Paul, circumcision is of no value unless it’s circumcision of the heart. Faith is what is essential. So Paul reviews his credentials:  Jewish by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure Hebrew, and in addition to these inherited privileges, he has excelled in everything Jewish. In essence, Paul says, “If you want to play the game of credentials and works righteousness, I can play. In fact, I can beat you at your game.” Then he shows them it’s the wrong game. Paul has found a new reason to boast.

 

In verse 13, Paul declares, “[T]his one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind…” In other words, forget the past!  (Isn’t it interesting that the things that Paul once boasted about separated him from others, while being in Christ unites him with others?)

 

Finally, we are invited to take stock of our lives by considering where we want to go!  Paul writes, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul uses the metaphor of a runner pressing on to win the prize, straining forward to what lies ahead. We can almost feel the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, the heart pump. Is he contradicting himself and now saying that faith is through works? No! For Paul, faith involves running, wrestling, striving and fighting. No health & wealth, cotton candy Gospel for Paul. Trust in God’s grace does not make Paul less active than the Judaizers, but rather sets him free to run the race without watching his feet.

 

Yet, Paul does not think he has “made it.” Twice he uses the phrase “I press on.”  He is not waiting idly by for perfection to come to him. He urgently pursues his goal while, at the same time, claiming that it will only be through God’s grace that he will ever reach it. Christ himself is the blueprint for Christian behavior, and Paul, modeling himself after Christ, has become a model for the Philippians.

 

Down through the ages, other models follow. Now, it is our turn. Now it is up to us to demonstrate to the world what Christian behavior looks like. With the privilege of belonging to Christ comes great responsibility. We are now the hands and feet and compassionate heart of Christ for the world. And we will always be in process, which is the way it should be.

 

In Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes of a Benedictine friend who compared the difficult intimacy of monastic community life to being placed in a rock tumbler.  “It’s great if you want to come out nice and polished.” The image speaks of the journey toward perfection. We are tumbled about. We slip, we fall, but we rise again to join the race. We press on, urgently pursuing the goal—but, oh the prize—that glorious time when we will all be polished, shining before Christ our Lord!

 

Paul had an extreme makeover! Through his transformation, we see the wisdom of assessing our lives and our goals.  Step One: Review where we are—imperfect, yes, but loved by God, nonetheless. Step Two:  Consider where we’ve been—yes, but leave the past behind. Step Three:  Examine where we want to go—the race before us will have its wins and losses but the ultimate prize will be ours if we press on!

 

As Christians, we have brothers and sisters of the faith down the street, in neighboring states and countries—folks all around the world. But no matter where we are, geographically, when believers gather to worship God, we do a bold thing. We sing. We pray. We confess. We preach. We return a portion to God from the bounty we have been provided. We share the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

 

Whenever we go forth from our places of worship, we do a bold thing. We dare to announce God’s love for all people. We dare to imagine a world filled with people transformed by God’s grace. We dare to work toward peace and justice for everyone. We dare to claim the power available to us for the race ahead—the Spirit that makes it possible for us to be transformed—for us to experience our very own Extreme Makeover!

 

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

 

 

 

*Cover Art “Saint Paul the Apostle” Icon in the Public Domain

 

 

 

 

The Authority of Jesus

The Authority of Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 1, 2017

World Communion Sunday

Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32

 

 

Jesus has been doing the will of his Father. As you well know, along the way, he has made friends and he has made enemies—not least of all are those who show up today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It seems that Jesus has crossed the line. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus enters the temple and creates quite a ruckus. He drives out everyone who is selling and buying. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of those selling doves. Then he heals the blind and the lame so that the children cry out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

 

It is no wonder the religious authorities—the chief priests and the elders—show up to question Jesus. And what is the nature of their questioning?  Authority! Now that’s a topic the religious leaders know something about. After all, for generations, they have been the ones in power—the ones with the keys to the kingdom—interpreting Yahweh’s words to the people. These rulers—they aren’t just anyone—they have roots.

 

I have friends who are into genealogy—spending hours among historical documents, pouring over registers, marriage and death certificates at the county courthouse, etc. No doubt, it is something to be able to say with confidence, “My great, great, great whoever did this or said that or came over on the Mayflower.” Even though I am not personally drawn to searching out my earthly heritage—there’s nothing I like better than to do so regarding my heavenly one. In my research, here is what I have found: “My great, great, great, whoever includes Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. What an incredible religious heritage that is freely ours to claim!

 

Of course, Jesus’ accusers, who are of the people of Israel, have long been into genealogy, which turns out to be a good thing. Otherwise, we might be missing the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah in Matthew chapter 1. But in this particular text, the temple authorities have not approached Jesus because they are interested in his genealogy and wish to convert. Far from it! No, they show up because they are angry. Who is this young whippersnapper—coming into THEIR temple—turning over tables? Who does he think he is?

 

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask. Instead of answering, Jesus responds with a question of his own. At first glance, it sounds like a riddle that makes us proud of Jesus for outsmarting those foxes again—avoiding their question altogether. But on closer examination, we realize Jesus has not avoided their question. He has simply answered them indirectly. (We’ll get back to that in a moment.) First, let’s look at what the chief priest and elders do. They go into a huddle. Seriously! They put their heads together to decide what to do to get out of this mess they have gotten themselves into. “If we say John’s authority came from God, then he will say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him.’ If we say from himself, then the people will rise up against us for they thought John was a prophet.”  So Jesus’ accusers creep back over toward Jesus, with chests held high and they plead the 5th.

 

“We cannot say,” to which Jesus responds, “Neither can I.”

 

Jesus’ question to the religious authorities relates to John the Baptist. And if we look back at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, we see that the lives of Jesus and John have been intertwined from the beginning. Remember how Mary, the soon to be mother of Jesus, comes to visit Elizabeth, the soon to be mother of John the Baptist. Upon Mary’s arrival, an unusual thing occurs. The unborn baby, John, leaps in his mother’s womb. Before birth, John recognizes this One for whom he will pave the way. Thus, when Jesus questions the religious leaders about the authority given to John the Baptist, he is hinting at the truth: To recognize John’s authority is to recognize his own.

 

Remember, though, the religious leaders have not come to be converted. They appear with one thing on their minds—trapping Jesus. This time, though, they will go away empty handed—but not before Jesus delivers up 3 parables to put them in their place—the first of which is the parable of the two sons. In the story, the father of the two sons asks each one to go work in the vineyard. The first refuses but later does; while the second says he will, but does not. When Jesus asks the leaders which of the two did the will of his father, they answer, “The first.”

 

As parables go, this one is straightforward and clear. But by the end of it, one thing is crystal clear—If these leaders were not angry before, they are now because Jesus says out loud, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Wow! Just a moment ago, these fellows were leading the parade into heaven and now look what has happened!

 

Ultimately both of our Scripture readings for this morning are about authority. In Exodus, the people of Israel are out in the wilderness complaining (as they were last week when we left them) and they approach Moses, practically ready to stone him. In response to their complaint about lack of water, again Yahweh provides—with water from a rock. The people test God saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” In other words, “Is God really in charge here? Is God really our authority?”

 

Who is our authority?  It is a question that plagues the Israelites for 40 years out in the wilderness.

It will plague them down through the ages as judges and prophets and kings come and go, often with one, two-part message: You must serve God and God alone and you must look out for one another. The question of authority continues to create a buzz during the days of Jesus—especially when Jesus keeps turning everything upside down—including the tables of the temple. Jesus comes to proclaim salvation hope with the authority given to him by the very one Moses met out in that burning bush—the One with the name: I AM WHO I AM.

 

Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Today, we are given a precious gift—an invitation to take stock of our lives. Who or what rules as our authority? Are we governed by money? By possessions? By success as defined by the world? Moreover, which brother am I? Am I the brother who has always been the black sheep of the family but now I am sorry and I want to turn my life around and follow the will of my Father. Am I the sister who has always thought of myself as “in”?  And, quite frankly, “I do not have to do anything to maintain the status quo. After all, I am a Christian because my great, great, great whoever was a Christian.”

 

At the end of the day, how will we respond to a personal encounter with Jesus? Will we come away grateful for our religious heritage, as children of the Living God? Moreover, will we welcome others to the Table of our Lord?

 

It was in the spirit of welcome that World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA in 1933. Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr first conceived of the notion during his year as moderator of the General Assembly. Later, with the support of the church stewardship committee, World Communion Sunday started as an attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity. The hope was that everyone might receive inspiration and be reminded how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is connected to one another.  The story of our faith does not belong to Presbyterians. Nor does it belong to the Methodists or the Episcopals or the Baptists down the street.

 

The idea of sharing communion with those of other traditions began slowly at first. People did not think much about it until WWII. The idea really took hold then because the world seemed to be falling apart. Maybe a spirit of togetherness would help. World Communion Sunday was soon adopted as a denominational practice. In a few short years, churches in other denominations followed suit. Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world on the first Sunday of October.

 

There is One Authority that governs us all. One Triune God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Oh, we may interpret God’s will for us differently. But surely, our commonalities outweigh our differences.

 

One Body.

One Baptism.

One Table.

Thanks be to God!

Cultivate Gratitude

“Cultivate Gratitude”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; Sept. 24, 2017

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16

 

It was his first day at a new school and Teddy approached his teacher. “Teacher, what kind of school is this?” The teacher asked, “Well, what kind of school was your last school?” With a smile on his face, Teddy said without reservation, “Oh it was a very nice school.  The teachers were the best, the students were friendly, and learning was so much fun.”  The teacher responded, “Then Teddy, I have good news for you. You’ll be quite happy at your new school because it’s the same way here—good teachers, friendly students, and learning is lots of fun.”

 

It was her first day at the same school and Sally approached her teacher. “Teacher, what kind of school is this?” The teacher asked, “Well, what kind of school was your last school?” With a frown on her face, Sally said, “It was terrible. The teachers were too strict. The students weren’t nice at all. I never learned a thing.” The teacher responded, “Then Sally, I have some bad news for you. You’re probably not going to like it here either.”

 

Often, the old saying is so true: Life—it’s what you make of it!

 

In our reading from Exodus, we happen upon the people of Israel who have safely crossed the Red Sea by the powerful hand of God. For their thirst, they have been provided fresh water. God’s generosity is all around them even to the point of God leading them to a place where there are 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. What an incredible sight that must have been to behold. In response to this God-blessing, what do the people of Israel do? In the twinkling of an eye, they forget God’s provision and power. In fact, at their very next stop, the people pull up a seat on the sand in front of poor Moses and they get right to it. The whole congregation has one thing in mind—complaining! Against Moses and Aaron they complain, and, of course, against God, “Why didn’t Yahweh just let us die in Egypt where at least we could eat our fill?” Nevertheless, God pours out blessings and provision as if to say, “If it’s proof you want, it’s proof you’ll have.” In the twinkling of an eye, manna falls from the heavens.

 

The pattern repeats itself down through the ages. God provides. People dance and celebrate. Then people forget God’s goodness. They praise God less while asking for more. Eventually, they become numb to God’s generous nature—as if they have never seen it before, never witnessed it in this God-given life they call their own. In time, God provides the greatest gift of all—his Son. Jesus steps into history as a helpless baby, grows into a man, and reveals God’s goodness with a different slant. It is a different slant that we happen upon today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. But before we get to the laborers in the vineyard, let’s back up a few verses to the end of chapter 19.

 

The rich young man comes to Jesus asking about eternal life. When he declares that he has kept all the commandments, Jesus looks into his heart and identifies the real stumbling block for the young man—love of possessions. So Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. When the young man hears Jesus’ words, he goes away grieving. Then Jesus remarks that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples are astounded. Peter speaks up (as Peter so often does): “Well, we’ve given up everything for you. What will we get in return?” (It seems Peter is interested in a little quid pro quo.) In response, Jesus gives Peter a preview of coming attractions by relaying a story about a generous landowner who hires workers throughout the day to care for his vineyard. Some begin working early in the morning, some around nine, some at noon, some about three. Others show up just before quitting time. When it’s time to settle accounts, the workers line up for their pay, beginning with those who’ve arrived last. Lo and behold, everyone gets the same pay—those who work one hour and those who have worked all day.

 

How do the workers react? Well, they do what we would expect them to do—what we would likely do—they complain. “We’ve been out here in the heat of the day working, back’s breaking—we’re worn out, and look at them over there. They hardly broke a sweat. This isn’t fair!”  But the landowner sees things from a different perspective. “Now wait a minute, I’ve done nothing wrong. You agreed to the wages. If I am feeling especially bighearted and I want to be generous with everyone, what’s that to you? I can do what I want with what is mine. Look me straight in the eye and tell me, are you jealous of my generosity?”

 

Well, are we? Are we jealous of a loving and caring God who pours down rain on the just and the unjust? If the last will be first and the first will be last, where do we stand? And if we are standing somewhere we don’t especially like, must we complain and be ungrateful?

 

Jesus, the Master Teacher, who endeavors to teach his disciples the fundamentals of the right way of living, repeatedly takes them back to school. Jesus takes Peter back to school at the end of the Gospel of John. On the beach by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus fixes breakfast for his disciples. Afterward, he and Peter take a walk down the beach and Jesus begins to tell Peter about Peter’s future. “When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.” [i]  Herein Jesus hints at the way Peter will end his life on this old earth—all to glorify God. Then he says, ‘Follow me.’”

 

And what does Peter do? Immediately, he looks down the beach, sees the disciple whom Jesus loves following behind them and asks, “What about him?” Jesus asks him, “What’s that to you?” Jesus is saying to Peter (and now to us, for that matter), “Don’t compare your life to anyone else’s life.” What Jesus is doing for or with someone else is none of your business. Your business is to follow Jesus. Your business it to keep your eyes on the Master Teacher!

 

Jesus is fully aware of our tendency to compare ourselves to others, to keep checking to make sure we get what is our due—what is fair! But being guided by questions like, “What about him? What about her? What’s in this for me?” leads nowhere fast. We measure with the wrong yardstick and end up unhappy and ungrateful.

 

Here’s a thought: What might happen if we began to cultivate gratitude as a spiritual practice? The word cultivate means to loosen or break up the soil in order to prepare the fields for planting. It also means to foster the growth of, to improve by labor, care or study. What if each one of us began to pay special attention to our own inner lives—to seek to improve by labor, care, or study—to cultivate the spiritual practice of gratitude? How might we grow?

 

Gratitude is one of the core responses of a disciple of Christ. Everything we do, from singing to worshiping to serving as a leader or teacher of the church to sharing in the life of this community in this time and place—should be a direct response to God’s abounding love for us. Surely it’s justified. Cultivating gratitude might begin with something as simple and as complex as gaining a different perspective; claiming a different attitude. While we may get all our things together to be schooled by Jesus—notebooks, pens, calculators, laptops—you name it—there is one thing that should be at the top of our “supply list.” Our attitude—it goes where we go. And everywhere we go—there we are—there we are with our criticisms and ungratefulness, our hopes and our dreams.

 

Although I am not proposing that we deny the hard things of life, taking on some Pollyanna attitude, I am convinced, we would live a fuller life if we began each morning with this thought: The very breath that fills my lungs is a gift from God. Thank you, God! Every day—God is more generous than we can fathom. But is our first thought to appreciate God’s goodness? Do we open our eyes and lips to praise God—first and foremost? Or do we go from morning to night with hardly a thought of God. We are, after all, so very, very busy!

 

Yes, it’s back to school and the lesson for today is this: Being a follower of Christ—well, it’s not about us. It’s about God who gave us life. Our life begins and ends as a gift. What we do with that life—well, that is our gift back to God!

 

Today marks the beginning of our Stewardship Campaign—the theme of which is “Cultivate Gratitude.” Next Sunday you will receive your Stewardship Packet which will include, among other things, a colorful wristband like this one that reads, “FPC of Valdosta / Cultivate Gratitude. (Notice the Presbyterian blue and red—or at least as close as Katie Altman and I could manage.) Consider wearing your wristband as a reminder of God’s generosity. Consider wearing it as a reminder to pray for your own inner spiritual life as well as the inner spiritual life of those around you.

 

In the coming weeks and months and years, may we cultivate gratitude as a spiritual practice. May we grow—flourish, even. Increasingly, may we give praise and thanksgiving to the One who gives us life—offering all that we have and all that we are to the One who offers us love beyond measure.

 

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

 

[i] John 21:18, The Message

*Cover Art “Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” By Lawrence W. Ladd via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain