A Plain Sermon

A Plain Sermon

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 17, 2019

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26

The verses preceding our reading from the Gospel of Luke tell us that Jesus has been on the mountain praying to God all night, seeking wisdom regarding his choice of disciples. When morning comes, he calls his disciples and chooses twelve of them, whom he also names apostles. Then Jesus comes down with them and stands on a level place—or on the plain—as it is sometimes translated. A great multitude from far and wide gathers to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Finally, Jesus looks up at his disciples—not at the multitude of people—but at his disciples—and delivers a series of blessings and woes.

 

If I felt compelled to write a series of blessings and woes this morning, I might come up with something like: Blessed is the preacher who does not preach guided by the lectionary and woe to the preacher who does. Or, how about blessed is the preacher who is on vacation the 6th Sunday of Epiphany and woe to the preacher who is not. Now, why would I think such thoughts? Because this is a very challenging text. So much so, I tried everything in my power to convince Jane Shelton, our Commissioned Ruling Elder, that today would be a perfect day for her to preach. She refused to buy what I was selling.

 

So, why is this gospel reading challenging? Because it seems to pit Jesus against anyone who is wealthy, satisfied, happy, or favored by the world. Could Jesus really hold the rich in disdain when his own ministry is supported by certain women of wealth? Could Jesus really show love to some people more than others when, throughout the gospels, he proclaims that God’s love is for all people? Surely there is something more going on here.

 

Let’s take a closer look. The Greek word for “blessed” is μακάριος, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, well off, happy. The word for “woe,” οὐαί, is an exclamation of grief as in, “woe” or “alas.” These words spoken by Jesus are, it would seem, polar opposites. When we hear Jesus’ list of blessings and woes preached in his Sermon on the Plain, surely our minds hearken to another text, found in the Gospel of Matthew—the Sermon on the Mount. It is a much longer sermon that begins with the Beatitudes. While Matthew’s Beatitudes give us only nine blessings, Luke pairs four blessings with four woes, contrasting the rich and poor, the hungry and full, those who weep and those who laugh, those who are hated and those who are esteemed. Furthermore, while Matthew speaks of the poor in spirit, Luke simply speaks of the poor. While Matthew speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Luke speaks clearly of those in real physical need. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount feels gentler, more spiritual, if you will—not so, the Sermon on the Plain. On the plain, Jesus speaks plainly. He offers no cotton candy gospel. Rather, Jesus portrays a radical way of discipleship that will turn the world upside down.

 

In many ways, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain echoes the radical words of his mother in the Magnificat, found also in Luke. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary continues, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Radical words, indeed!

 

Prior to his Sermon on the Plain Jesus takes care of the needs of the people and then turns his attention to the needs of his disciples. At this point, Jesus’ audience is the disciples. In other words, Jesus’ audience is the church. So, what is Jesus trying to convey to believers?  In the new kingdom Jesus is ushering in, why does Jesus speak woe to the rich? Does God really bless the poor and exclude the rich? Does God play preferential games like we are prone to do—only in reverse? Of course not! The miracle of the fishes and loaves is ample evidence that God is a God of abundance—not scarcity. In God’s reign, there is enough for everyone.

 

Then why the seeming disdain for the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, and those well thought of in the community? Maybe because such people—those who SEEM to have it all—are less likely to recognize their NEED for God. Consequently, wealth can be a stumbling block to a heart open to God. It’s a danger—thus—a woe. The poor, the hungry, those who weep, or are derided, on the other hand, are in a better position to receive and respond to God’s promises. Out of necessity, they may be more able to recognize they are not self-sufficient. Out of necessity, they are more likely to depend on God to provide the blessings they crave.

 

Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord speaks these words: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water…” Radical trust and dependence upon God—that’s the root of all blessedness. And to be a disciple is to take up the cross of Jesus and travel differently in the world.  Make no mistake, it is a blessed and a costly endeavor. As one scholar puts it,

 

God asks for—indeed demands—our all. Everything. Material goods and money are but a part of what God expects us to give up and give over. God wants the entirety of our lives. The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God. God watches over them and blesses them abundantly in God’s way, not the way of the world: they will be filled, and they will laugh, and they will inherit the kingdom of God. To be disciples is to follow in this way. To be blessed of God is to have nothing but God.[i]

 

Truly, to be blessed of God is to have nothing but God. Once more, let us open our hearts and minds to Christ’s teachings by hearing our gospel reading as translated in Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 

Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke: You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.

 

Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and then he returns to a level place—to a place with the people—not above them—but with them. He then turns to the disciples to give a plain and simple sermon based on the reality of what is and the hope of what can be. Jesus’ vision of radical discipleship turns the ways of the world upside down. Blessed are believers who yearn for God more than anything else in this world and woe to believers who do not.

 

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

 

[i] David L. Ostendorf, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1

 

*Cover Art “Litany of the Blessed” © Jan Richardson, used by subscription

 

Jesus Asks for Help

Jesus Asks for Help

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 10, 2019

5th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 138; Luke 5:1-11

 

Our gospel reading brings us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he calls his first disciples. Already, though, his reputation has spread far and wide. We know this because we are told that by the lake of Gennesaret the crowd is pressing in on Jesus. Seeing two empty boats at the shore of the lake, Jesus gets into one of them—the one belonging to Simon—and he asks Simon to put out a little way from the shore. Simon does so. Safe from the crush of the crowd, Jesus begins to instruct the people.

 

While there are many teaching opportunities in this text, this morning let us examine two matters of significance. First, notice how the crowd is pressing in on Jesus. Word is getting around about his ministry and, no doubt, he is feeling the stress and strain of it all.  We live in days of stress and strain, too.  A recent poll of the American Psychiatric Association suggests almost 40% of us are more anxious than we were at this time last year. Roughly 18% of us have an anxiety disorder. We are anxious about keeping ourselves and our families safe. We are anxious about our health. We are anxious about our finances. We are anxious about the future of our nation. Yes, we are an anxious people.[i]

 

If we stroll back through history, though, we may find that every generation since the beginning of time has suffered from anxiety of one kind or another. Let’s consider 1907, for example, the year the cornerstone of FPC was put in place. In 1907, Americans had a much shorter life expectancy than we do today. 1907 was the year that typhoid spread through water and food supplies, ravaging the nation.  America was at war with tuberculosis—a disease that killed hundreds of people before a cure was found. Finally, the worst mining disaster in American history occurred in 1907 when an explosion killed 362 men and boys, leaving 250 widows and over 1000 children without support.

 

Most assuredly, people in New Testament times had cause for anxiety, too. The Jewish people found themselves occupied by Roman rule. There was no middle class. Poverty was visible and common. Rome cared little for the poor and disabled.  High taxation caused many peasants to lose land and livelihood. Moreover, improving one’s circumstances was near impossible.

 

While we may feel overly stressed in the 21st Century, all peoples down through the ages have experienced stress and strain. Jesus feels pressured, too. How does he respond? Well, first Jesus recognizes the situation—the pressing crowd is creating a problem. Then he finds a way to get some distance between himself and the cause of the stress. He looks around to see who can help him. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God asks for help. Seeing two empty boats at the shore of the lake, he gets into one of them and asks Simon, who will later be called Peter, to push off a little from the shore. From that vantage point, he teaches the crowd. Jesus finds release from his predicament because he humbles himself enough to ask for help. How are we at asking for help? How do we feel about accepting the generosity or welcome or support of another? Do we feel ashamed because we are convinced, we really ought to be able to manage things on our own? Jesus didn’t!

 

This weekend has been quite busy for our church. The 23rd annual Father Daughter Valentine Dance, was held Friday and Saturday nights—with two dances each night. Over 4200 fathers and daughters gathered in the James Rainwater Conference Center to make memories, and dance, dance, dance. It’s hard to believe that such an event began in the upstairs auditorium of this very church. Soon the event was bigger than the space allowed which necessitated a move to another location. With the increased space came exciting opportunities to enhance the overall experience for fathers and their precious daughters. But it would not have happened without Jeff and Becky Stewart recruiting lots of help. Yes, Jeff and Becky asked for help and help they received. I daresay most of you have helped this past weekend in one way or another. Maybe you prayed for the event, shared information about the event with your neighbors and friends—face to face—or through social media. You may have hung posters in your place of business. Perhaps you baked cookies—hundreds and hundreds of cookies or washed grapes—bunches and bunches of grapes or hung balloons—dozens and dozens of balloons or scanned tickets—oodles and oodles of tickets.

 

Over the years, helpers for the Father Daughter Valentine Dance have included people like John Plowden and his friend Rick who have fashioned incredible pieces of art for the event: larger than life wooden hearts—and intricate pieces that fold out into trees! Matt Phelps has been critical for his engineering skills because we all know that Becky can dream up some incredible things that might, to the common eye, seem impossible. But with Becky’s imagination and Matt’s skills—it all comes together.  Dawn Toth rolls up t-shirts—boxes and boxes of t-shirts—then she and her family work the t-shirt table during the dances. Troy Toth oversees the drink station. It’s a happening place! Deborah Taylor and Katherine Phelps—along with other volunteers—oversee the food trays, assuring there are always delicious treats available. John Vick sets up and manages the coat check area. Of course, there are dozens of people I haven’t named—people from our church and the community who come together to make something incredible happen—something that blesses families far and wide—all because God gave Jeff and Becky a vision and they pursued the vision—asking for help all along the way.

 

Jesus asks for help, too. In doing so, he makes himself vulnerable. Research professor, Brene Brown, who has done a lot of work on the topic of vulnerability, has this to say:

 

One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow, we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.[ii]

 

Yes, the truth is, we are both! When we think of Jesus, we can easily muster up images of him helping others—healing the sick, raising the dead, loving the un-loveable, but rarely do we imagine Jesus asking for help. Yet, Jesus does just that. “Can I borrow your boat for a moment? Would you row it out just a bit so I can tell the pressing crowd about the love and mercy and grace of my Abba Father?” Throughout his ministry, Jesus is on the receiving end of help—wealthy women contribute financially to his ministry, people invite him over for meals, others offer a place for him to sleep.

 

The theme of help continues in our story when, after Jesus finishes teaching, he asks Simon to put out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Since Simon and his friends have been fishing unsuccessfully all night, Simon is understandably skeptical. Still, there is something about Jesus that compels them to follow his instructions. And what happens? They catch so many fish, their nets begin to break. And what do they do? They signal their friends in the other boat to come and help them. When the boats begin to sink because of the weight of all the fish, Simon is so overcome, he falls at Jesus’ feet and Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

 

And this brings me a second matter of importance. “Catching people,” or what we commonly call “evangelism” has gotten such a bad rap—largely due to experiences of street-corner-preacher-types inquiring, “Are you saved?” plus the downfall of too many televangelist-types who appear to be concerned about people’s souls when their real motivation is people’s wallets. But let’s not allow bad press to put us off. Instead, let us consider the original meaning of the phrase, “catching people.” When Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching people,” he is not saying, “You will be entrapping people.” He is not saying, “You will be tricking people or pressuring people.” Instead, in the original Greek, the idea of “catching people” indicates Simon and the other followers of Jesus will be rescuing people; they will be saving people; they will be inviting people to live full lives, governed by the love of Christ.

 

It all begins with a risk on Jesus’ part because Simon could have said no. James and John, the sons of Zebedee could have said no. God, in Christ, asks for help. “Can I borrow your boat?” And God, in Christ, is still asking for help, “Will you rescue others? Will you invite others to the full life I can give? Will you?”

 

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

 

[i]A Lot of Americans Are More Anxious Than They Were Last Year, a New Poll Says,” published May 8, 2018. http://time.com/5269371/americans-anxiety-poll/

[ii] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

*Cover Art “Miraculous Catch of Fish” Jan van Orley; Public Domain; via Wikimedia Commons

 

Jesus Picks a Fight

Jesus Picks a Fight

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 3, 2019

4th Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jesus returns home for a visit and ends up in the synagogue where he gets a chance to share his mission statement—so to speak—through the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” All eyes are fixed upon Jesus. The people speak well of him and are amazed. They seem proud of their hometown boy made good until Jesus says something so horrible and so true, it cuts to the bone. Then, in a flash, the mood changes, and it’s “Throw him over the cliff!”

 

 

So, what happened? Let’s try to put it in perspective. Imagine our very own Zachary grows up and feels the call to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Following his undergraduate work at UGA, he attends Princeton Seminary and excels in everything. (Of course, he does, he is Zach, after all!) Time passes and he’s called to pastor a big church in Atlanta. But one Sunday when he’s in town visiting his parents, we are honored to have him preach from this very pulpit.

 

 

In preparation, we advertise near and far—emails go out, posts appear on the church Facebook page and on Instagram, an article is printed in the church newsletter and The Valdosta Daily Times. When the day arrives, the church is packed. And at the appropriate time in worship, Zachary approaches the pulpit, dressed in his robe and stole. He stands before us, reads Scripture and then begins his sermon—a word from God for the people of God.

 

 

Everyone is smiling—beaming really—because this is Scott and Kerri’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a baby. We are so proud—until he gets all fired up and begins pointing fingers. He broadcasts for everyone to hear how we have failed as a church. He uncovers our prejudices and lets us know, in no uncertain terms, how we have tried to contain God’s love for ourselves. We’ve made God in our own image, defined God by our standards. But whether we like it or not, God’s love is bigger than our minds can comprehend. God’s love isn’t just for us or for people we like—people who make us comfortable—God’s love is for everyone.

 

 

Now be honest, how would we respond?  How about something like, “That little whippersnapper—just who does he think he is? We knew him when he was just a little boy practicing his cup stacking routine in the Fellowship Hall, and running through the church with his big brother, Jaxson. What he said might have had some truth to it—but who cares about the truth!”

 

 

Jesus reads from Isaiah, sits down and begins to speak and the people remark, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” While there are scholars who propose the question is derogatory in nature, that is not necessarily the case. Instead, it may have been a compliment uttered with a sense of pride. Especially since we are informed that the people speak well of him. Others have suggested that the people are aggravated because Jesus has not performed miracles for them—but that is not likely since they have not asked for anything, yet.

 

 

Ultimately, it is as if we have walked into the middle of a story and we are left trying to make sense of it all. Much is unclear. But one thing is crystal clear—Jesus is the one who changes the tone in the synagogue. As one commentator notes, “The congregation is filled with rage only after Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing out of left field [and] who could blame them?”[i] If Jesus really does return home and pick a fight with his own people, surely, he has good reason. But what in the world might it be?

 

 

Well, here is a wild and crazy thought: Could this be a continuation of the temptation narrative, which occurs earlier in the same chapter of Luke? You recall how Jesus is in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan for 40 days. Verse 13 reads, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Could now—now when everyone is praising Jesus and adoring him—could this be one such time? People LOVE him and all Jesus has to do is preach warm messages, heal folks, and multiply a couple of fish sandwiches. “Oh Jesus, be careful. Don’t rattle any cages. Don’t make folks mad. Don’t be a prophet because you know what happens to prophets!” So, if Jesus is facing the temptation to accept people’s praise and maintain the status quo—he excels once again—for he will not succumb. Jesus will not be adored on the people’s terms. Instead, he takes up his mantle as a preacher and prophet to speak a truth that is so difficult, there is not enough sugar in the world to make his medicine go down smoothly.

 

 

The two examples Jesus uses in his tongue-lashing concern miracles that happened to Gentiles, but we dare not interpret his overall message as one of Gentile versus Jew. Rather, Jesus’ message is about the marginalized—those whom the Israelites would ignore even though that is never what God intended. Recall God’s words to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[ii]

 

 

Truly, God’s love is beyond our imaginings and God seems to have a special love for the poor, the downcast, and the outsider. Could it be that what Jesus is doing here is setting the record straight? Because if Israel can’t accept that God’s love is for all people, how can they accept the mission of God’s Son?

 

 

Jesus does not leave heaven’s glory to come to the earth to make people comfortable. Jesus comes to speak the truth. In his hometown, the response is quick and sure. The people are enraged that one of their own has the audacity to suggest that they will not be “the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative.”[iii] How ironic, now, Jesus the insider, becomes Jesus the outsider. But that won’t stop Jesus. He will not be tempted to water down his message to garner praise and adoration. Instead, Jesus points his own people toward the light. Could it be that he is trying to startle them into accepting the love he has come to offer? Through his surprising behavior, is Jesus really saying something like, “I am not for you alone. I am for all people. But you want a Savior who will guarantee you are healed, you have no drought, and there will be endless bread on your table. That may be what you want, but what you need is something more. What you need is faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love—the kind of love for which I will die.”

 

 

In Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, she claims she does not know much about God and prayer but over the last 25 years, she has realized that keeping it simple is best. In the “Wow!” chapter, she writes:

 

 

Sometimes—oh, just once in a blue moon—I resist being receptive to God’s generosity, because I am busy with a project and trying to manipulate Him or Her into helping me with it…But God is not a banker or a bean counter. God gives us even more which is so subversive. God just gives, to us, to you and me. I mean, look at us! Yikes.

 

 

God keeps giving, forgiving and inviting us back. My friend Tom says this is a scandal and that God has no common sense. God doesn’t say, “I have had it this time. You have taken this course four times and you flunked again. What a joke.” We get to keep starting over. Lives change, sometimes quickly, but usually slowly…If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark…if you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.

 

 

When nothing new can get in, that’s death…But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing—we had all this figured out, and now we don’t.[iv]

 

 

The people of Nazareth think they have it all figured out. They think they know Jesus. But what turns out to be truer is this: Jesus knows them! And Jesus knows us! We have come to this place to worship a God who will not be boxed in, confined to our temples, synagogues, churches, or stories. God will rattle our cages and shake us up. And God still calls us to care for and love those marginalized by the world: the migrant worker, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill. Because if we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, we are like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol—faith, hope, and love abide—these three—and the greatest of these is love. Amen.

 

 

[i] Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, 311.

[ii] Genesis 12:1-2

[iii] Feasting, 310

[iv] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essentials Prayers, 85-86.

*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.

 

Jesus Is in the House

Jesus Is in the House

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 27, 2019

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21

 

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke gives us a bird’s eye view of a synagogue service. Actually, this account is the oldest and most detailed description we have. Although other gospel writers place this event later in the ministry of Jesus, Luke puts it near the beginning in order to announce Jesus’ mission, right up front. Luke wants everyone to know, without question, who Jesus is, what his ministry is about, and what the likely response will be to both Jesus and, later, to the church. [i]

 

 

Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returns to Galilee. By this time, people from far and wide have heard of him. When he arrives in Nazareth, he is among family and friends. This is where Jesus grew up, where he played, and where he worshiped. On the Sabbath, Jesus does what he always does, he goes to the synagogue. Fred Craddock notes that it was during the exile that the synagogue came into being as a sort of temple surrogate, minus the altar or priest. “Led by laity, the Pharisees being the most prominent among them, the synagogue became the institutional center of a religion of the Book, not the altar…the synagogue was not only an assembly for worship but also a school, a community center, and a place for administering justice.” [ii]

 

 

So, Jesus returns to Nazareth and enters the synagogue. But notice that he does not simply show up. He participates. An attendant hands him the scroll of Isaiah and he stands to read it. Unrolling the scroll, he finds the place from which he wishes to read:

 

 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

 

 

Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant and sits down to interpret what he has just read—something like a homily, if you will. With the eyes of everyone upon him, Jesus says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

 

While our reading today ends on a calm note, when we take up the story next Sunday, we will see that the temperature in the synagogue changes quickly. In a flash, the people will move from “every eye is upon Jesus” to “Let’s throw him off the nearest cliff.” But for now, let’s keep our attention on what has transpired up to this point. Jesus has come home to Nazareth to proclaim his mission statement to his family and friends. It will amaze, encourage, challenge, and comfort—but, before all is said and done—it will get him killed.

 

 

What is a mission statement anyway? A mission statement is a statement of purpose for a person, committee, organization, or church. In the case of a person, it guides her actions, spells out her overall goals, and provides a path to help guide decision making. With all eyes upon him, in essence, Jesus proclaims, “What I have read today—it’s who I am—it’s what my ministry will be about, for today, the year of the Lord’s favor begins. Today!”

 

 

The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee, something God laid out for Israel in the book of Leviticus:

 

 

You shall count off…forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud…on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.[iii]

 

 

The people of Israel know about captivity. They know about slavery and the harshness of life. They look forward to a day when all will be made right. Over the centuries, they begin to hope for the day when the Messiah will come, and jubilee will reign forever. And there in their midst sits Jesus, “Today,” he says, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

 

In other words, Craddock points out:

 

 

The age of God’s reign is here; the eschatological time when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s purpose comes to fruition has arrived; there will be changes in the conditions of those who have waited and hoped. Those changes for the poor and the wronged and the oppressed will occur today. This is the beginning of jubilee.[iv]

 

 

Jesus, a Jew, is steeped in his own tradition. He knows the teachings of the prophets. He sings psalms. Yet, throughout his earthly ministry, he refuses to be cemented to the past. His mission is about today—not yesterday—not even someday—but today!

 

 

As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I have long recognized that there was a time in the life of the church when we felt pressured to become more contemporary. But things, well, they are a-changing. Now, “contemporary” is old hat and what seems to be drawing more people into the church is not something new and flashy, but that which is ancient and tried and true! Millennial blogger, Amy Peterson, puts it this way, “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s market. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”[v] It turns out, young and old alike, who are searching for ways to deepen their faith, are being drawn to churches that offer classes on spiritual practices. Contemplative style worship services are becoming more common. People want to experience God in new, old ways—centering prayer, walking a labyrinth, lighting candles, silent and other spiritual retreats. We are living in a time when people are starving to death to connect to the holy. As a church, how are we helping? What is our mission—our mission statement? The mission of First Presbyterian Church is to celebrate God’s grace and to share Christ’s love through worship, study, and service. If we focus on our mission and remain open to the movement of the Spirit to guide us forward—then, surely, we will continue to be a beacon of light that draws people to the holy.

 

 

When Jesus enters the synagogue, we might say, “He goes to church.” There he demonstrates his faithfulness to his own tradition, but he also helps people see things fresh and new. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we have our traditions, too. Some are specifically reformed Presbyterian traditions, some are our very own. Repeatedly, though, over the past 2 ½ years, I have found joy in the way you are willing to embrace the new: singing old hymns and new ones; accompanied by organ, piano, guitar, handbells, flute, or recorded music; implementing the First Friday Contemplative Service that includes a variety of prayer practices; being willing to try a multi-generational Sunday school class; and taking the huge leap to support social media and live-streaming as ways to reach more people for the sake of Christ. Indeed, it is clear Jesus is in our church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is among us, teaching us to hold on to the old traditions while exploring new ways of telling the story TODAY! For still today, there are people in dire need of good news. Still today, there are those who are held captive by the chains of addictions, unforgiving spirits, feelings of rejection, hatred. Still today, there are people oppressed by systems over which they have no control, oppressed by lies that would have them believe there is no hope. Still today, there are those who are blind to the way of Jesus and they need someone—anyone—to point them to the light.

 

 

Presbyterian missionary, Dick Gibson, tells a story about his days in Cairo, Egypt in the early 1970’s. On a street in a desperately poor neighborhood, with few modern conveniences, a church had requested a film on the life of Christ. The missionaries drove there, set up a screen in the sanctuary, and turned on the projector. As the church neighbors in this poor Muslim neighborhood walked by and saw the image of Jesus moving and speaking on the screen, there was pandemonium. It was the first movie most of them had ever seen. One of the women, who had entered the church out of curiosity, came bursting out the door and down the steps, shouting to anyone who had ears to hear, “Come and see! Come and see! They have Jesus in the church!” [vi] Oh, to hear our neighbors say that about us! “Come and see! Come and see! They have Jesus in First Presbyterian Church!”

 

 

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

 

 

[i] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, 60-63

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Leviticus 25:8-10

[iv] Craddock, 62.

[v] Rachel Held Evans, “”Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.21d662739d7e

[vi] Adapted from Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Series VIII Cycle C, Carlos Wilton, 70-71.

 

*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.

 

The Next Step is Yours (Preached as a Dramatic Monologue)

The Next Step is Yours (Preached as a Dramatic Monologue)

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 20, 2019

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Elder Ordination & Installation

1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

 

Disgrace! It is an emotion I know well. Even though, in my head, I understood why people talked, my heart was broken many times. You see, in my day, getting into what might be referred to as “my predicament,” brought with it not only shame—but the potential for execution. So of course, people talked and, occasionally, I felt shamed because of it. But the man whom I had chosen to wed was a good man—such a good man—and he refused to end his covenant with me. No doubt, the Angel of the Lord had something to do with that. I mean, really, wouldn’t you obey Gabriel if he came knocking on your door?

 

 

The child was Yahweh’s. Joseph knew it. I knew it. But few others believed us. As people have a way of doing, they thought the worst. Some whispered that I had been unfaithful. Others said that it was Joseph’s child and we should just own up to our behavior. Regardless of what others thought or said, Joseph and I remained resolute. We knew that God had spoken, and we relied on God and one another.

 

 

Still, being disgraced left its mark on my heart. Maybe that’s why I behaved as I did when things went awry in Cana. The wedding was beautiful, and it was special to have Jesus there, along with his disciples. Overall, everything went well—until it didn’t. In those days, a newly married couple did not have a honeymoon. Instead, the bride and groom celebrated the marriage with a seven-day wedding feast at the groom’s home.[i] It was a grand affair of tremendous social importance. Everything had to be just right. So, when it came to my attention that those lovely people were about to run out of wine, I realized if there was anything I could do, anything at all, well, I had to do it! And I knew just where to turn. Jesus could keep our friends from being disgraced. So, I did what mothers have done since the beginning of time—I offered my child a little encouragement, a little nudge if you will, realizing that the next step would, or course, be his to make. It was possible that he would deny my request, but somehow, in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t. Somehow, I knew that this was the day of new beginnings.

 

 

Although he was hesitant at first, Jesus came through with flying colors. “Fill those jars with water,” he told the servants. The huge pots were generally used for religious purification purposes, and collectively, they held 120-180 gallons of water. Make no mistake, to fill them was hard, back-breaking work. It took time and effort, but fill them, the servants did, all the way to the brim. Then Jesus said, “Now take some to the host,” and it was done.

 

 

Two simple instructions—Fill those jars with water—Take some to the host—and the result was astounding. It was a moment of extravagance—not a little wine—or enough wine—but wine filled to the brim! Not average wine—or good wine—but the best we had ever tasted! (Isn’t that so like the divine generous nature of our God?) Of course, the servants were amazed because they had witnessed this sign first hand. The host was amazed by the wine’s quality. But the disciples—they were more than amazed. They caught the first glimpse of Jesus’ glory and they believed.

 

 

Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Later, I wondered why his first sign of glory would occur in such a setting and here is what I finally grasped: Turning water into wine was the perfect first miracle because it showed all people of all time—it is God who puts joy into life and God thinks it’s worth a little divine intervention to help us keep a party going to celebrate it.[ii]

 

 

From his first breath until his last, I watched over my son. I prayed for him—oh, how I prayed! I was there when people were moved by his love and care and provision. I was there when people believed because of his many miracles of healing. And I was there when things began to take a turn and his life was in danger. Surely you know that I was there at the cross, a witness to the cruelest of deaths—an innocent man hanging on a tree—more than a man—my son—more than my son—the Son of God.

 

 

Remarkably, it was on the 3rd day that we gathered for the wedding feast—the 3rd day in a long line of 3rd days for our people: For on the 3rd day, God revealed to Abraham the place where he was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. On the 3rd day, God came down upon Mt. Sinai and Moses led the people forth. On the 3rd day, Jesus revealed his glory for the first time, turning water into wine. And at the end of his ministry, Jesus was mocked and beaten and crucified, but on the 3rd day, he rose from the dead and brought salvation to all who believed—including me, his mother.[iii]

 

 

Then the day came when Jesus ascended into heaven after promising us that we would receive power once the Holy Spirit came. He told us we would be witnesses in Jerusalem and even to the ends of the earth. We did not understand but we waited, and we prayed. And then, in the rush of a mighty wind, the Spirit came, and we were filled to the brim with God’s wonder-working power. Yes, the Holy Spirit came and gave to us gifts for the common good. Over time, some of us contributed to God’s kingdom work through the gift of wisdom, some through the gift of knowledge, some through faith. There were those who had gifts of healing, working miracles, while others were given the gift of prophecy or discernment.

 

 

As the mother of Jesus, I had a part to play in God’s salvation story. How could I, a young and lowly girl, have found such favor? Why had the Mighty One done great things for me? Great is the mystery of our faith for his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He scatters the proud; lifts up the lowly; and fills the hungry with good things. Such is the generous nature of our God.[iv]

 

 

As the mother of Jesus, I had a part to play in God’s redemptive story. But the truth is, we all have a part to play. At the wedding, I saw my friends in need, so I went to the one person I believed could make a difference. Isn’t it the same today? Isn’t the world still in need? Aren’t there people, for example, who have “no clean drinking water—let alone fine wine?”[v] When you watch the news on your modern day televisions or electronic devices, and you see a world in which desperate mothers have to say to their children, “We have no food,” don’t you want to join me? Don’t you want to tug on Jesus’ sleeve and say, “Do something!” I hope you do. I hope you have not come here for your benefit alone—although that’s part of the reason communities of believers gather in Jesus’ name. But haven’t you also come because you love my Son and you want to play your part in making a difference? Aren’t you here to tug on his sleeve and cry out for those in need?

 

 

Maybe, just maybe, God is waiting for you to accept your responsibility in God’s kingdom work. Maybe your job is to recognize the human need that is right beside you and pray. Maybe your work is to encourage others, much like I encouraged Jesus. Maybe your role is to feed the hungry or seek justice for the oppressed. As a baptized believer, each one of you has a calling. Through the grapevine, I have heard there are those here today who have accepted their vocation as leaders of this church—Ruling Elders. You have been called to help lead this church forward. You have been called to help others find their vocation, too. May God bless you on your journey. May your next step and every step, thereafter, bring you closer to God’s will for your life and for the life of this church. May you be filled to the brim with God’s wonder-working power. Amen.

 

 

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. 260.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Adapted from Worship Workbook for the Gospels: Cycle C, Robert D. Ingram, 56.

[iv] Adapted from Luke 1:46-55.

[v] Feasting on the Word, 262.

*Cover Art “Water into Wine” © Jan Richard, used by subscription

 

You are Beloved

You are Beloved

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 13, 2019

Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7

 

Like most everyone in the world, preachers love to be loved. But wanting to be loved can get a preacher into trouble. There is danger in being less prophetic than God asks us to be. What if we make someone angry? What if someone doesn’t like us anymore? Fearful, we may let sin slide, and be tempted to preach the cotton candy gospel, or resist speaking the truth—even when it is in love.

 

 

Feeling a need to be loved is not a problem for John the Baptist (which may be one of the many reasons I love him so). John just tells it like it is—no tiptoeing around this or that. “That’s a sin against God—so STOP it!” Does he offend King Herod? Of course! How about the Romans? Absolutely! John levels his wrath against anyone he deems unjust or immoral or just plain lazy. You might say that John the Baptist is an equal opportunity offender. With wild hair, with his bizarre diet, and with living out in the wilderness, it is unlikely that John has retained the social graces required to live with “normal folk.” But none of this matters to John, who seems to walk a thin line between being prophetic and being utterly mad.

 

 

While John’s behavior is great theater, it is much more than that! Thousands come to hear his rants—many follow up with baptism. Whenever I think of all those people wending their way down to the Jordan River, I can’t help but recall a similar scene in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” People line up…one after the other…and there they go into the river to be drenched with the cleansing waters of baptism—hoping against hope for a new start. Such great expectations! That’s what the people carry in their hearts in the movie. And it is what the people carry in their hearts as they approach John. In fact, Luke tells us they are wondering in their hearts if John might actually be the Messiah. Could he be the one? As if stopping the very thought in its tracks, John sets the record straight. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

 

 

“O John, say it isn’t so! You can’t mean you are going to step down. You can’t mean you are going to give it all up. You’re just getting started.” But step down is exactly what he will do when the time draws nigh, which should come as no surprise since John has always known his place in the world—even before his birth. Luke tells us, you will recall, how John leapt in his mother’s womb when she approached her cousin Mary, who was carrying the Christ Child. Even then, John was filled with joy at the nearness of Jesus. And now, once again, John leaps for joy at the thought of finishing the work he’s been called to do and turning it over to the true Messiah.

 

 

We get another glimpse of John’s character from the Gospel of John when some of his disciples approach him to inquire about this Jesus to whom people are flocking. John responds with such humility,” You yourselves are witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him’…He must increase but I must decrease.”[i] For John, success is not about drawing a crowd or gathering a following. It is not about filling the pews or overflowing the coffers. For John, success is serving the One who is coming after him, the Messiah, the Lord. It is about being faithful to the end.

 

 

These days, though, success is defined differently—mostly in financial terms. And the worship of success causes countless people to spend their lives trying to achieve the unachievable. Although we live in the land of the “pursuit of happiness,” for too many Americans, it’s just that—a pursuit. There is no end—really—to the chase of the almighty dollar. Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller, “Mr. Rockefeller, how much money is enough?” and he replied, “Just a little more.”

 

 

In the eyes of the world, even in 1st century Palestine, John the Baptist was not successful, especially once he lost his head—literally. But then, neither was Jesus, for Jesus had a different viewpoint altogether. We can tell that by the words he spoke at the Last Supper. With his friends gathered around and a bountiful table spread before him, with bread and wine, “This is my body,” he said, “broken for you…this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins…” Doesn’t sound like much of a success, does it? And then, from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” he cries. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 

 

The good news known as the gospel turns the world’s notion of success upside down. John the Baptist gives up his place for the Righteous One coming after him. Jesus gives up his life for rabble-rousers like those disciples who abandon, deny, and betray him.

 

 

I invite you to hear once more these words from Luke, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

 

As I pondered this text a few things caught my attention. First, the phrase, “when all were baptized.” Jesus, who of all people does not need to have his sins washed away, enters the water WITH the people. He identifies with everyone who is broken and frightened and sinful to the core. One scholar notes, “I like to consider this [act], his first miracle; the miracle of his humility. The first thing that Jesus does for us is go down with us. His whole life will be like this. It is well known that Jesus ended his career on a cross between two thieves; it deserves to be as well known that he began his ministry in a river among penitent sinners.”[ii]

 

 

Another thing strikes me about Jesus’ baptism. Imagine that you are on the bank of the River Jordan with this strange looking John the Baptist and people all around. You expect things to go along as they have—people enter the water, John rants at them about their sinful ways, maybe he offers a prayer, and then he baptizes them. They return to the bank dripping wet to consider their life from henceforth. Simple enough! But when this fellow in front of you enters the water, something extraordinary happens—from the heavens a voice booms, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So here is my quirky thought: If you are next in line, what in the world do you do? Do you run? Do you stick around? I wonder.

 

 

The voice from heaven—now that must have been something to hear! Oh, to hear it again! On this topic, Henri Nouwen wrote,

 

 

Many voices ask for our attention. There is the voice that says, “Prove that you are a good person.” Another voice says, “You [ought to] be ashamed of yourself.” There also is a voice that says, “Nobody really cares about you,” and one that says, “Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.” But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear.[iii]

 

 

That still small voice that says, “You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you,” is the voice I yearn for us to hear as we approach the font this morning, touch the water, and embrace the new life that is ours. Hallelujah! Amen!

 

 

[i] John 3:28-30

[ii] Dale Brunner, Lectionary Preacher Workbook, ed. Carlos Wilton, 61.

[iii] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas, used by permission

Home by Another Way

Home by Another Way
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 6, 2019
Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

 

 

For years, you and your buddies have gathered once a week at a local eatery for breakfast. It’s such a good time to catch up and enjoy one another’s company. Over time, strong friendships have developed—good friends are hard to find. But on this particular morning, with holiday obligations and all, only you and Tim, a relative newcomer to the group, show up. It’s just as well, you think, for you have a honey-do list a mile long: take the Christmas decorations to the garage, break down boxes for recycling, take Janice’s gift by since she was sick and didn’t make it by the house… You and Tim get your coffee and breakfast and amble over to sit at your “reserved table” and you begin swapping stories, like the one about the Christmas fruit cake that, sure enough, showed up again!

 

 

It doesn’t take long, however, for the conversation to come to a lull, because it doesn’t take long to realize something is troubling Tim. Finally, not one to mince words, you ask straight out, “So, Tim, how are things, really?” He hesitates for a moment and then says, “Things are tough. Sally and I’ve been married for 10 years—some good—some not so good. Lately, it’s been more of the “not so good” years. To tell you the truth, Sally wants a divorce. Last year she wanted us to go for counseling, but I refused. No way was I going to share private matters with a stranger. But now, I don’t know. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done things differently. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s too late for us. I just can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t know where to turn.”

 

 

You listen carefully. You don’t know Tim too well, but he strikes you as a good guy, and you hate to see anyone going through hard times—especially around the holidays. You take a sip of your coffee—and then another—buying time to ponder what to say, how honest to be. You remember that time in your own life when things got tough. And you remember how your church family prayed for you and encouraged you. For too long the road ahead looked bleak, but somehow a new path opened, a path that took you home by another way.

 

 

Several years ago, James Taylor and Timothy Mayer composed a song entitled “Home by Another Way.” It tells of the wise men of old who traveled from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. It begins, “Those magic men the Magi, some people call them wise, or Oriental, even kings, well anyway, those guys. They visited with Jesus; they sure enjoyed their stay. Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme, they went home by another way.”

 

 

Wise men from the East learn about the birth of baby Jesus and travel a long, long way to fix their eyes upon him. Who are these men anyway, and what do we know about them? Well, in the case of the Magi, it’s easy to preach “almost Bible.” It’s easy to get the story askew, deducing things that may or may not be true. For example, in later Christian tradition, the wise men became known as kings, probably influenced by Psalm 72:10, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.” Or perhaps influenced by Isaiah 49:7, “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One… ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord who is faithful…’” Another detail handed down by Christian tradition is that there were three wise men. And how did we deduce such a thing? Well, there were 3 gifts, so of course, there were 3 wise men. Furthermore, did you know that we also have names and descriptions? In a piece written around the year 700, Melchior is described as an old man with white hair and a long beard, Gaspar is young and beardless with a ruddy complexion, and Balthasar is a black-skinned, heavily bearded fellow. Finally, the gifts of the magi have also been interpreted: gold represents an appropriate gift due to a king, frankincense symbolizes “an oblation worthy of divinity,” and myrrh testifies to the Son of Man who is to die.

 

 

While all these deductions are fascinating, they should not overshadow what is truly important about the story. The arrival of the wise men from the East represents the Gentile world, in all its racial diversity, who now come to Christ, who now are welcome at the cradle of the Son of God. The magi foreshadow the Gentile Christians of the early Christian community. The magi foreshadow us.

 

 

The wise men come…they see…and now they must return home. But how? Will they do King Herod’s bidding? Will they return via Jerusalem and give the evil king a full report? Taylor’s song continues: “…they went home by another way… Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too, and go home by another way. We can make it another way. Safe home as they used to say. Keep a weather eye to the chart on high and go home another way.”

 

 

Barbara Brown Taylor notes that it’s time to “rescue the magi from their fixed places in the annual Christmas pageant and restore them to their biblical roles as key witnesses to both the threat and the promise of the Christ child.” No doubt, the Christ child offers promise to the world, the promise of light and hope and love. But this child also poses a real and certain threat. Make no mistake! King Herod is frightened! He investigates and learns that this baby will shepherd the people of Israel. He knows of another shepherd-king—David—loved and blessed by God. Oh no, there will be none of that! Herod knows how to handle messianic movements and revolts. There will be no late-night debates over fiscal cliffs—instead, with lighting speed he orders the slaughter of every baby in town. “That takes care of that!” or so he thinks.

 

 

James Taylor’s song continues: “Steer clear of royal welcomes; Avoid a big to-do. A king who would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you. He really, really wants those presents. He’ll comb your camel’s fur. ‘Til his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.”

 

 

Of course, we know that Herod is after more than frankincense, gold and myrrh. Herod will stop at nothing less than sovereign reign and power. Herod cannot know, cannot see that this baby will change the world. By him and through him all things are changed. No more will the “Herods” of the world rule. No more will darkness overcome the light. At the birth of Jesus, simple shepherds, angels and, later, the wise men, look upon the child with amazement and wonder. Because now, there is hope. Even in the darkest of times, there is hope for a home that can be reached by another way. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus who, as a grown man, will sit with his disciples around a table of simple food and declare, “This is my body broken for you…this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood…” (Sealed in the blood of the Lamb—not in the blood of the Herod’s of the world!) It’s a new day and we can reach home by another way!

 

 

So, there you sit at the table with Tim, coffee cup still in hand. And you know that you need to tell him your story. Because in your heart, you know there are times when every man, woman, and child needs a wise friend to point them toward the star that still burns bright. Slowly you tell Tim about a time in your life when the darkness closed in on you. You admit your faith was weak and meager. You tell him about being depressed and nearing despair until some way, somehow, God’s light broke forth in the night sky. The Word became flesh in your life, so that now, you believe that for God all things are possible. You’re quick to add, “That doesn’t mean everything always works out just the way we want. But no matter what—God’s love is with us. No matter what—God’s love is for us—and now, it is possible to go home by another way!”

 

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Miracle of Grace

The Miracle of Grace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:1-16

 

In the Letter of Paul to Titus we read, “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.” But what is grace? Grace has been defined as the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it. It is an expression of God’s good will and care toward humanity. It is generous—totally unexpected and undeserved—and it takes the form of divine love. Tonight, we celebrate the hidden grace that is now made wonderfully visible—more than that—seeable, hearable, touchable, huggable, adorable—in the form of baby Jesus resting in his mother’s arms.

 

During the Season of Advent, as a church we examined Jesus’ family tree. The first chapter of Matthew includes names we would expect—like Abraham, Jacob, and David. But then there are unexpected names. Along the way, we learned that Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of names, though. Instead, it is a way of revealing to us individuals with unique stories and experiences: Tamar, a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba, affected by circumstances over which she had no control; Ruth, a foreigner, who remained loyal to her mother-in-law no matter what their future might hold; Rahab, a harlot, who offered protection to the spies of Yahweh regardless of the danger to herself.

 

The genealogy of Jesus displays for all to see, how the grace of God works. Amazingly! Unpredictably! Loving, touching, and enriching lives—that’s been God’s work of grace down through the ages. That’s why such unexpected names appear in the Christmas story.

And then…and then…there’s Mary—a young woman of humble birth who is not even married. What in the world could God be thinking to call such a person to INDWELL the child of God Almighty? Not at all what we would expect! But surely no one before or since has experienced Emmanuel, God-with-us, like Mary did. She, who watched the Son of God grow and move inside her own belly. Scholar, Timothy George, in an essay on Mary, reflects, “Mary was a disciple of Christ before she was his mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.”[i] Mary’s faith too is not the achievement of merit, but the gift of divine grace.”

 

Grace is God’s healing, liberating, ever-present gift. It is not something we find wrapped up with pretty paper and bow, lying beneath the Christmas tree. It cannot be bought by holy prayers or good deeds or “correct” theology, whatever that is! God’s grace or unmerited favor is given—freely. It is available for all people—living and active and immeasurable.

 

Often people talk about the salvation story as if the grace of God was absent from the world until Jesus died on the cross.[ii] But on this precious, holy night, let me suggest that the grace of God has been with us from the beginning of human history. God has always been with us! God has always been for us! No doubt, God’s grace reached its perfect work on the cross, but it was not a new thing God was doing. The cross became the visible, ultimate accomplishment of something that has always been flowing from the heart of God. Surely, even when God’s works have been hidden from human eyes, God has been active in human souls. Grace recognizes no obstacles and will not be confined to any limits—even those we might deem necessary. But grace is costly—to think otherwise is to embrace a theology of cheap grace.

 

The unexpected happened that night so long ago in Bethlehem. There in a smelly stable, a young woman of little importance to the world gave birth to a child—the God-child. Now grace has another name. Now we see it, hear it, cuddle it, love it, adore it. Jesus is born!

 

At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” May the following poem, “In the Know,”[iii] bring you closer to God’s perfect grace on this most blessed night:

 

From the first day you’ve cared for us,

shaping the soul,

by your Spirit through long ages,

knowing us well,

grieving our sins and sharing our joys,

loving us all.

 

Now you know us in a new way,

in our flesh cast,

cradled in a young mother’s arms,

suckling her breast,

learning in the hard school of life,

as creatures must.

 

Now we know you in a new way,

God with no mask,

tasting all of our hopes and fears,

from dawn to dusk,

a weakling in a hard, strong world,

a child at risk.

 

Of that which human ears have heard,

our carols ring,

for that which eyes have seen and loved,

all joy be sung,

to that which hands have touched and nursed,

we now belong.

 

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

[i] “Profile on Mary,” The Life with God Bible, NRSV, 103.

[ii] http://bruceprewer.com/DocC/C05xmase.htm

[iii] Inspired by Luke 2:1-20 and 1 John 1:1-4. © B.D. Prewer 1994

*Bulletin Art: by Stushie; used by subscription

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 23, 2018

4th Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6; Genesis 38:1-30; 1 Kings 1:15-31

 

A while back there was a documentary on television about the British Royal Family. The topics discussed included the risk of losing the “magic and mystique” of the nature of Royalty since now days there’s too much revealed about the everyday lives of the members of the Royal Family. They’ve become too ordinary, too familiar, too much like us. To quote one narrator, “We shouldn’t let too much daylight in on magic.”

 

These four weeks of Advent have been leading us toward the wonder and magic of the birth of a baby who is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. In some ways, we may wish to preserve the magic of that event, by not knowing too many details of Jesus’ family history. But we really have no choice. The genealogy of Jesus, spotlighted in Matthew and Luke, contains details aplenty—and sometimes, as in the account of Tamar and Judah, there is more revealed than we feel comfortable hearing. I mean, do we really need to hear all the family gossip? Aren’t some things better left unsaid—hidden away in a dark closet? Maybe—for our comfort’s sake! But in this case, the darkness has been exposed and it might benefit us, on our faith journey, if we are brave enough to look into the light.

 

The story of Tamar and Judah is not a pretty story, but it is part of our salvation history and it reveals something of the “strange righteousness” of a God who uses ordinary people to accomplish God’s purposes. So, let’s lean in for a closer look.

 

Judah, a son of Jacob, moves away from the family into the land of Canaan. He has three sons. When his first son comes of age, Judah gives him a wife named Tamar—like the gift of an iPad on Christmas morning. In other words, it’s doubtful she has much of a choice in the matter. Tamar finds herself married to a wicked man—but not for long—because God intervenes. According to the Levirate marriage law, the second son becomes Tamar’s husband after the death of his brother. Unfortunately, the second marriage doesn’t work out any better than the first, and again, Tamar is widowed. Probably, Judah blames Tamar for the death of his two sons. Still, Judah promises Tamar his last son, Shelah, when he comes of age. Tamar is sent to her father’s house to remain a widow and to wait. Make no mistake, Judah has no intention of ever bringing Tamar back. Case closed! Good riddance!

 

The plot thickens when a few years pass, and Tamar realizes she has been deprived of her legal right. You might wonder why she is eager to marry Shelah. After all, the first two brothers were evil. Why bother? But here is a woman whose rights have been disregarded from the beginning. Remember, she is “given” by Judah to her first husband—passed on like a Christmas present under the tree. Then, she is likely blamed for the death of Judah’s two evil sons and, finally, forced to return to her father’s house and spend the rest of her days waiting for a fiancé who will never appear.

 

No wonder Tamar is driven to desperate measures when she learns that her dishonest and recently widowed father-in-law is visiting nearby. Tamar knows the only way she will ever be properly acknowledged by Judah is to publicly shame him into admitting his wrongful treatment of her. So, she acts as a temple prostitute and waits for Judah to pass by. Apparently, she is a good judge of his character because everything goes according to plan—her plan—not his. Tamar walks away with Judah’s signet ring, cord, and staff—all proof of his actions. Then Tamar returns to her father’s house to wait—just like she has been instructed to do—but this time it is on her terms and this time the waiting will not be in vain. When Judah hears Tamar is pregnant, he pronounces judgment: “Bring her out! Burn her!” But it isn’t Tamar who gets burned. It’s Judah—forced to face his own wrongdoing in broad daylight.

 

Now if that isn’t enough juicy family history, we have one more person to consider—Bathsheba. The story of David and Bathsheba uncovers the greatest shame of the greatest king of Israel. It is a tale of lust and adultery and murder that goes like this: King David sees a pretty woman, desires her, and with all his power in tow—he takes what he wants. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David is unable to trick her husband into thinking the baby is his, David plans a military maneuver to get Uriah killed in battled. All through the story, Bathsheba is a passive participant in her own life, having no power and little influence. Even Matthew underscores her passiveness, listing her not by name, but as “the wife of Uriah.”

 

With the passing of time, David changes—so does Bathsheba.  By the end of David’s life, it is Bathsheba who takes matters in hand, along with the prophet, Nathan, to make sure that she gets what she has been promised—her son, Solomon, on his father’s throne. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, has thrown himself an “I will be king” party. Little does he know that while his guests are having cocktails and goat cheese on bruschetta, Bathsheba is having a word with King David. David may be old but he’s not dead yet. So, after conferring with his trusted friend, Nathan, David declares to Bathsheba that he will keep his promise and Solomon will sit on his throne beginning that very day.

 

How do you suppose Bathsheba changes from a passive pawn to a king-maker? What is with her new-found courage? Could it be that David’s feelings for her have changed over the years so that “I want” has become “I love”? Could it be that David’s own love for God has affected Bathsheba so that she now realizes that she, too, is loved by Yahweh? And doesn’t knowing God’s love in your life make you stronger? Doesn’t it empower you to work for justice—to try to make the world a better place?

 

The stories of Tamar and Bathsheba are flooded with surprising openness to all that’s human—passions, guilt, selfishness, trickery, paternal anxiety, fear, hope, and love—all revealing with shocking clarity just one family’s history. No one earns a spot on the family tree—you just sort of appear like one more apple on the branch. And whether you are exceptionally sweet or rotten to the core—there you are.

 

Matthew’s genealogy includes some unexpected names—names like Tamar and Bathsheba, and Ruth and Rahab. But Matthew does not simply make a list of faceless names. Instead, he invites us to ponder individuals with unique stories and experiences. Tamar is a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba struggles through circumstances over which she has no control; Ruth, a foreigner, remains caring and loving to her mother-in-law; Rahab, a harlot, offers protection to the spies of Yahweh even though it might cost her life. No, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of faceless names. The list displays, for all to see, how the grace of God works. God’s love touches these women and God’s grace transforms their lives. That’s why their names appear in the Christmas story.

 

At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. That miracle of grace often begins in the most unlikely circumstances—times when we feel without hope or purpose. But when we are baptized into the family of God, we are grafted into the tree of life. It doesn’t make any difference who our mother or grandfather is. Anyone can get into the family because, one night, long, long, ago, in the little town of Bethlehem, the light came into the world and with it came all the magic and wonder of God’s love! Not at all what we might expect. Thanks be to God!

[i] Modeled after a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.

*Cover Art by Stushie Art; used 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/