Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Can You See Anything?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Can You See Anything?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 12, 2020

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8:22-26

Scripture is filled with readings that invite us to celebrate. Psalm 150 comes to mind:

Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple….praise him for his excellent greatness…. praise him with lyre and harp, timbrel and dance; with strings and pipe…with resounding cymbals…. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.[i]

What a grand worship service the psalmist portrays. Yet, if we are honest, there are times when we gather as God’s people and we do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God, who seems to have left us on our own. When this happens, the psalmist has other words for us:

O God, you have shaken the earth and split it open; repair the cracks in it for it totters. You have made your people to know hardship…. Save us by your right hand and answer us…Hear our cry, O God, and listen to our prayer. We call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts.”[ii]

We have been livestreaming worship in the safety of our home for the past four months. During that time, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the globe. Our nation has recorded over 134,000 deaths due to the virus; our economy has been shaken to the core; and there seems to be no end in sight. With heaviness in our hearts, we have cried out to the Lord. And another cry has reverberated around the globe, the cry of one man, George Floyd, who pleaded for his mother even as a police officer held him in a choke hold until he could breathe no more. In that moment, a seismic shift occurred that sent shock waves around the world. Since then, we have been inundated with heartrending images of alarming behaviors, flashing before us like lightning strikes in the midnight sky. So much tragedy, so much sorrow. O God, we call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts…repair the cracks in the earth for it totters…

When faced with systemic problems that threaten to destabilize our fractured nation, we could easily fall into despair. We could let our lives be governed by anxiety that leads to loss of sleep and loss of perspective. As Christians, we know in our hearts that with Christ’s resurrection, all things are made new. But we also recognize that not yet are things as they will be when Christ returns. We live in the in-between times. In these in-between times, when we look at the world and wonder why evil continues to happen, it behooves us, whether virtually or in person, to gather with other believers and with all the saints who have gone before us to turn our eyes upon Jesus. In the presence of the Word, the Water, and the Table, dirt and grime that keeps us from seeing with heavenly eyes can be washed away. In community, we can re-gain perspective—re-gain holy perception.

Perception—the ability to see, hear, understand, or interpret something through the senses—is the focus of today’s gospel reading. On Jesus’ preaching tour, parables are told, storms are calmed, and people are healed. Doing the work of his Abba Father, Jesus feeds the multitudes and, just for kicks, he walks on water. Actually, business is booming until Jesus reaches his hometown of Nazareth. Then, because of the unbelief of the people there, only a few are healed.

When Jesus enters the village of Bethsaida, some folks bring a blind man to him and beg Jesus to touch him. Jesus responds by taking the man by the hand and leading him away—maybe Jesus wants a little privacy. Then Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on him but when Jesus asks him if he can see anything, the man answers, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” The man can see—something—but his perception is impaired until Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again. Finally, his eyesight is restored, and he can see clearly.

Jesus’ healing ministry is writ large over the landscape of the gospels but there is something unusual about this story found in the Gospel of Mark alone. It is the only miracle Jesus performs that happens in two stages—as if he fails to get it right the first time. We are left scratching our heads, and as you might imagine, scholars have varied opinions about the meaning behind Jesus’ 2-step recipe for healing. Some suggest that Jesus’ power is affected by the lack of faith he finds in the people. Others propose the man’s own spiritual condition is a factor.

Of course, we cannot know why Jesus offers a second touch before the man’s sight is fully restored. But if we look closely, we may recognize a metaphor for the faith that Jesus finds in those around him. After all, even his disciples see through a glass dimly. Truth be told, the incident mirrors the faith journey of every believer because no one sees everything clearly in a flash. Instead, if we set our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we may come to see more clearly—learn to see with spiritual eyes—moment by moment, day by day.

Learning to see with spiritual eyes—it is a process!  James Fowler wrote a book about this process entitled Stages of Faith. In it he proposes that there are 6 stages of faith that begin when we are toddlers and continue through maturity. The progression is from blind faith, to seeing the world in black and white, to learning to see the world through the eyes of our peers and others around us. Then we gain some autonomy and begin to take responsibility for our own beliefs and attitudes—even as we develop a gnawing sense that life is too complex for us to rely on our judgment alone. By the time most of us reach mid-life, we accept that there are contradicting truths in the universe that we can never explain. We gain a capacity to make meaning in new ways and we learn to appreciate symbols and rituals and myths. The final stage that Fowler proposes—the sixth stage—is one most people never reach. The rare folks who do, live out their faith in absolute love for all people. They are engaged in spending and being spent for the transformation of the present reality. They are often honored more after their death than during their life—think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Of course, there is no greater example of faith fully realized than Jesus who demonstrates how we are to live into our baptism—loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

If our desire is to progress in our own faith journey, we may have to turn down the voices of the world that scream over our news channels and news-feeds—voices that encourage us to have fear instead of faith—voices that urge us to hate rather than love—voices that make it hard for us to see that the stranger is also made in the image of God—voices that keep us mistaking people who do not look like us or people who do not agree with us—as little more than trees, walking.

Maybe, though, we are satisfied with our vision. Happy with the status quo, we are comfortable with our prejudices, and we do not want God messing in our lives. If so, the last thing we want is for Jesus to show up and spit in our eyes to provide a different point of view. But whether we want it or not, clarity—clear vision—is what the world needs. It is what our nation needs. It is what we all need. And God is calling every believer to wake up to the wonder of what God might do with us, among us, through us, and for us. “Well, that sounds fine in a sermon,” you might say, “but in the real world…” As part of Adam Hamilton’s survey of “Christianity’s Family Tree,” he reflects on how Orthodox Christians see “the real world.” He notes,

The Orthodox remind us that our daily lives (our jobs, our schooling, our relationships) are not the real world. The real world is heaven, God’s eternal kingdom; and real life is found in participating in that divine kingdom now, here on earth; we are, in the words of Scripture, just pilgrims and aliens here. There is a heavenly realm that we cannot generally see. It is invisible, but it is all around us; and if we really knew and understood this, if we participated in this realm, our lives would be radically different.

What a wonderful way to see “the real world.” Would we behave differently if we imagined God constantly at our side? If we imagined the Holy Spirit within us and the heavenly saints cheering us on? How might we react to seemingly insurmountable challenges if we were convinced that there was something more real of which we are a part?

Yes, if we are honest, there are times when even the faithful do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God. Yet, we need not despair because in life and in death, we belong to God, and Jesus is our guide. With just a touch, he can help us see more clearly. He can help us love more fully. And if our hearts are open, he can show us our role to play in changing the world for his sake. In these dismal days, Christ stands before us and beckons us to speak love and not hate; to wage peace and not war. Let the transformation begin and let it begin with me! Amen.

[i] Adapted from Psalm 150, The Book of Common Prayer

[ii] Adapted from Psalm 94-95, The Book of Common Prayer

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “But the other nine, where are they?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“But the other nine, where are they?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 5, 2020

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  As he enters a village bordering Galilee and Samaria, he is approached by ten lepers who live at the boundaries of the region. They are outsiders. Once upon a time, they may have been divided by such things as profession, religion, or nationality, but now they are united by a common goal—survival. Together they seek their most basic needs for they are at the mercy of others.

 

Perhaps the day begins like any other as the ten lepers wander from their dwelling place to approach—as close as they dare—the people passing by—people on their way to family—on their way to friends—on their way to lives. But the ten lepers have none of those options available to them. Instead, they make their way along the familiar trek to plead for crumbs from society.

 

The lepers have heard about Jesus—this One who calls himself the Son of Man—this one who has amazing healing powers. So, they rush toward him and call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!  Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  We can only imagine the anguish in their voices. Here is their one chance—their one shot at being healed. So, they cry out. They do not care about social norms, about proper behavior, about what people will think of them. What man cares about social graces when he has already lost everything?

 

The lepers cry out from the depths of their hearts in sheer desperation. Desperation often has that effect on us. When we come up against something in life over which we have no control, when the diagnosis is cancer, when the marriage is about to end, when hopes and dreams go up in smoke—we are likely to fall to our knees with tears streaming down our faces. In that place of darkness, we too, plea for mercy from the depths of our soul. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!”

 

Jesus sees the lepers, this sampling of broken humanity, and he has compassion for them. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he says. They do not even stop to ask for clarification. They just go—maybe a little slowly, at first. After all, slow may be the only speed they are capable of—with extremities deadened by disease. Then transformation begins. They start to feel a tingling sensation in their fingers and toes. Strength returns to arms and legs. Smiles appear on faces that are no longer distorted. With each step their pace quickens. They near the temple, eager to receive the stamp of approval that will allow them to return home—home to family—home to friends—home to lives.

 

Except for one. One man restored to health turns to leave the other nine. He retraces his steps because he feels compelled to go back to the Source of his healing. His heart is nearly bursting with joy as he approaches Jesus but this time, this time he does not stand off at a distance. This time he goes right up to Jesus and proceeds to fall on his face at his feet. With hands and face gripping the dirt beneath Jesus’ feet, he gives thanks and praise!

 

And he is a Samaritan! To many Jews, he is considered “unclean” with or without leprosy. Yet, with one word from Jesus he is no longer unclean—no longer unaccepted. Instead he is made well. With his restored body, he has gained a new way of being in the world. And from this point on, what he does with his life will be his gift back to God. So, he begins the best way he knows how—with praise. The Samaritan, the foreigner, praises God and gives thanks to Jesus who is the source of his healing. In response, Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?

 

“The other nine, where are they?” Well, they are off doing exactly what Jesus told them to do—showing themselves to the priests—and along their path to obedience they are healed. Still, we cannot help but consider Jesus’ question: Where are the other nine?

 

Imagine with me for a moment: A cure for COVID-19 has been found and we are safely gathered to worship in our lovely sanctuary. Now, in your mind’s eye, notice the empty pews in the balcony and on the main floor. Finally, notice how few young people are in our midst. Where are the other nine?

 

In the introduction of her book, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Carol Howard Merritt shares her story about being a child of the 70’s attending a conservative church with her family—every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other time the doors were open. She did not mind—quite the opposite—she loved the church—and could not wait to reach the age when she could participate more. She was particularly interested in mission work. But things changed when she went to college and began to delve deeper into her faith. As a feminist who believed that in Jesus Christ “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” she had to face the fact that in her church her spiritual gifts were not acknowledged. She saw herself as an environmentalist, yet the church was more concerned about the great by-and-by than in being good stewards of God’s great land. And how was she to resolve her experience of people outside the church being more gracious, loving, accepting, and responsible—more Christ-like—than the people who gathered inside the church?

 

Eventually, Merritt experienced God’s grace and was nurtured in her faith through the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her journey is not uncommon for people of her age-group. But the truth is, today there are many folks of all ages who are looking for a place where their ideas on environmentalism, economic equality, and justice for all people can be heard and where their connection to God can be nurtured.

 

The other nine, where are they?

 

When it comes to young adults, while many have left the church, others are seeking a place to call their spiritual home. So, what is it that draws them to the church? A special issue of Presbyterians Today entitled “Young Adults: Their Vision for the Church” reveals that there is a shift in what young people are seeking in worship. Instead of amusement and entertainment, they are interested in worship that points them to God and fills them with a sense of the sacred. On this theme, Rachel Held Evans wrote, “We’re not leaving church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there…What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

 

Nathan Proctor who is an associate director of music in a Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, wrote the following:

 

I am a millennial who unabashedly loves worship. I love the energy of being around people, singing hymns together, hearing new ideas from Scripture, and then discussing it all over lunch…Authenticity is essential…We have too often experienced church as a social group busy with the work of going through the motions…Now is the time for something real! We want to feel the joys and sorrows of those around us instead of being met with the happy Sunday church face. Church leaders: tell us something about faith or this church that really matters. Help us discover what is new in Scripture, moving us toward deeper understanding. Make us feel the world Jesus inaugurates. Challenge us; give us something new to think about.

 

“The other nine, where are they?”

 

Seekers young and old are challenging the church to redefine what it means to BE the church. For example, while many of us have questioned the value of new technology like Facebook, months of livestreaming may have changed our opinion. How can we ignore the fact that our church is reaching three and four times more people via livestream than we do for in-person worship on any given Sunday? And when the pandemic is over and we are able to return to “church as normal,” will we continue to welcome people into our midst, virtually? Will we learn the languages of Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom to discover new ways to share Christ’ love with those who may never darken the door of 313 N. Patterson Street? Might we even be open to offering hybrid educational experiences that welcome in-person and distance learning?

 

Especially in these trying times, folks are searching for more of God. They need hope. They yearn for a space that will allow them to listen for the still, small voice of God. They want to be inspired by beauty and wonder—so much so—they cannot help but fall at the feet of Jesus to offer their own word of thanks and praise.

 

“The other nine, where are they?”

 

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

 

(Let us keep silence.)

 

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

 

 

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 28, 2020

4th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2:23-3:6

During seminary I attended a lecture series given by Bonnie Thurston. Her theme was Paul as a mystic—a man of fervent prayer, a man through whom the Holy Spirit works mightily. In the academic realm, Dr. Thurston is an interesting blend of the head and heart. While she is a New Testament professor, author, and accomplished speaker, she is also a contemplative who is drawn to the holiness of the everyday. She is a spiritual teacher and a wise soul.

 

Although it is not easy to define wisdom, people generally recognize it when they see it. The information hub, Wikipedia, defines wisdom in the following terms: It is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. To act wisely requires an understanding of people, things, events, situation, and the willingness as well as the ability to apply perception and good judgment.

 

Pondering the topic of wisdom makes me exceedingly grateful for the wise individuals God has placed in my life. I am also thankful for the wisdom I have found in books written by deep spiritual thinkers—from the works of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, to monastics across the ages, to more modern-day writers. Brother Lawrence comes to mind. He was a 17th Century French monk who, by grace alone, learned to practice the presence of God at all times. Listen to these wise words he shared with someone in his community:

 

Let us think often that our only business in this life is to please God, and that all besides is but folly and vanity… I am filled with shame and confusion when I reflect, on one hand, upon the great favors which God has done, and incessantly continues to do me; and on the other upon the ill-use I have made of them, and my small advancement in the way of perfection.[i]

 

In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote:

 

If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.[ii]

 

Concerning the ministry of listening, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

 

The first service that one owes to others…consists in listening to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear…Christians…so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others… They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.[iii]

 

In these challenging times in which we live, times that beckon us to be a part of the change we want to see, listening may be our most important work—that is, if we intend to act wisely.

 

Another author that graces the shelves of my study is Cynthia Bourgeault. An Episcopal priest, she has written several books but the one that fascinates me most is The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. It was through her eyes that I first began to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher, as a sage. In her words:

 

There has always been a strong tendency among Christians to turn [Jesus] into a priest….but Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him. His message was not [about returning] to the covenant. Rather he stayed close to the perennial ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked those timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself? These are the wisdom questions and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.

 

Today marks the beginning of a sermon series entitled: Questions Jesus Asked. Jesus, who asks eight times more questions than he answers, is the master of asking good questions that challenge cultural norms and lead to a place where transformation can occur. He refuses to accept the status quo. Instead, he fearlessly walks into potential conflict with the intention of turning people’s world view upside down.

 

In our gospel reading, for example, Jesus is in trouble with the Pharisees because his disciples have walked through a field and plucked some grain to eat on the Sabbath. It seems simple enough—they are hungry, and they eat what is available. But the Pharisees interpret their act as work. Jesus tries to help them reinterpret the meaning of Sabbath by pointing out that the Sabbath was made for humankind—not humankind for the Sabbath. But they miss the point.

 

Afterward Jesus enters the synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watch closely. Unimpressed with Jesus’ power to cure, they are concerned with whether or not he will heal someone on the Sabbath. So, Jesus poses a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” Then, without performing any physical action, without even touching the man, he instructs him to come forward and stretch out his hand. The man does so and is healed. Jesus speaks words of healing on the Sabbath and for that the Pharisees plan to destroy him.

 

Ultimately, Jesus will challenge every legalism that makes of the Sabbath a burden to bear rather than renewal for the road ahead. But nowhere in Scripture does he dishonor the Sabbath. Addressing the holiness of the day, Bonnie Thurston’s writes,

 

I think a mark of our distance from God and God’s image is that we often do not know when to stop. We keep working until it is counterproductive. In fact, we have found it hard to take seriously God’s command to rest. And it is a command, not a polite request…God is so gracious to us that God has commanded us to rest. The Hebrew word for ‘rest’ literally means ‘to catch your breath.’ God has commanded us to take time to catch our breath…[Quoting Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Thurston continues:] ‘Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.’[iv]

 

Jesus is interested in “the seed of eternity planted in our soul.” He is not interested in religious leaders who habitually choose the letter of the law rather than God’s love within the law.

 

In 2009 I had the privilege of walking the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem with a group of 23 pastors. Throughout this sermon series, our bulletin cover art will be photographs taken by a clergy friend on that pilgrimage. It is my hope that they will help us get a lay of the land, the Holy Land from which Jesus poses many questions—questions that are harder to answer than one might imagine. For instance, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” But wait a minute Jesus, on which day of the week is it lawful to do harm?

 

(Let us keep silence.)

[i] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 50.

[ii] Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 134.

[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classis Exploration of Faith in Community, 97.

[iv] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 68-73.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Glory of the Father

Glory of the Father

Romans 6:1b – 11

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Jane Shelton, CRE

First Presbyterian Church

June 21, 2020

 

It is certainly appropriate on this Father’s Day Sunday that we recognize and look to the love of our earthly fathers and father figures in our lives.

Fathers come in all areas of lives.  Some are called Daddy, others are called grandpa, uncle, brother, cousin and friend.

Fathers who have sacrificed so we might have comforts such as food and clothing.  Fathers who have provided love and understanding.  Those who shared knowledge and direction in our lives that helped get us where we are today, and helped us be who we are today.

Yet greater than these is our Heavenly Father who sent Jesus, so he could walk with us and teach us how to live.  Our Heavenly Father, who raised Christ from death so we too might walk in newness of life.  Like Christ and because of Christ, we are alive to God, the Father.

In our newness of life, we are servants who trust in God, receive forgiveness and receive steadfast love.

When we experience uncertainty, fear, heartbreak, death and loneliness, our Heavenly Father is with us, and when we cry out, our Father in Heaven listens and responds.  In our anguish, God consoles us, and in our fear, our Lord gives us strength.

 

I remember looking through old family photographs with my parents and siblings many years ago, and among these black and white photographs were pictures of a family reunion at my mother’s parent’s home.  My siblings and I would point to all our cousins and name them, and the aunts and uncles and grandparents.  Mama filling in the ones we couldn’t name.

In this series of photos, I was being held by my Father in all of them.

It didn’t matter how many times in my life we sat down to look at these photographs, my mother would tell the story about how I would not have anything to do with anyone but my Daddy.

You see, we lived in South Carolina at the time, and had come to Georgia to visit my mother’s family, which was very large.  And I’m sure that those some 40 strangers to a two year old probably felt like a mob of 80 people or more!  I was overwhelmed, and I sought the comfort of the strong arms of my Daddy who I knew would protect me….much to my mother’s disappointment!

I’m sure, she simply wanted to share me with her family.  But I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.  Safe within my Daddy’s strong arms I found my refuge.

 

Is it not this same security we find with our Heavenly Father?  Always there to embrace us, care for us and protect us from the dangers we face today.  Dangers such as hate from people we’ve never met; dangers of diseases that create havoc in our communities and around the world; dangers of loneliness and isolation.

And joyously, we can be reminded that we have a new life given to us by the glory of the Father in Heaven!

In our scripture, Paul tells us that just as Christ was raised from death, we too might walk in newness of life.

Through our baptism, we have been given newness of life to walk, not in our same day-to-day activities of life of our past, but with a new focus and identity in Christ Jesus.

We cannot experience change, unless we are willing to embrace this new identity.

Paul believed that right identity preceded right actions.

Right identity before right actions.  What does it mean to have a new identity?

 

Shawnthea Monroe, a writer of a Pastoral Perspective in one of my commentaries tells a story about her cousin who entered a medical school,

“students were instructed to call each other “doctor” from day one.  They were not really doctors, but people who were living, learning, and growing into this new identity as doctors.  Using the title was a way to remind them of the goal toward which they were striving.

In the same way, I once knew a minister,” she continues, “who always addressed his congregation as the “saints of God.”  While I am relatively certain few of these people considered themselves saints in the popular sense of that word, just hearing themselves called saints made them feel ennobled and reminded them of who they were.  Like those medical students, they were living, learning, and growing into a new identity.”

 

It is by the glory of the Father that we have been baptized into a new identity, and one that when embraced brings the power to shape our behavior and move us into action.  Action that reflects the life of Jesus.  A life of forgiveness, understanding, love and teaching.

The question for us today is what new identity do we need to claim for ourselves?

Our day to day lives only change if we embrace our new identity that we have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ.  God loves us and accepts us where we are right now.  Once we accept this new identity we are made new and are Christ like, then we can move forward in right actions as servants of God.

By the glory of the Father, like Christ, we are empowered to walk in this new life we have been given through our baptism.

This identity does not demand a change, but creates a glorious possibility to be alive to God.  What good news!

 

I’m sure if you talk to most anyone today, they would like a do over on 2020.  This year has been filled with confusion, disappointments, bewilderment, and many struggles that we must come to grips with in our lives.

As we live through these struggles we are faced with, how do we respond?  Out of anger and hatred?  Out of resentment toward an evil action or force beyond our control?  Where do we turn for help and answers?

As we heard the pleas from the Psalmist’s writing that Dick read from Psalm 86, “I am poor and needy….preserve my life….save your servant who trusts you”….and the pleas go on until the last sentence, “because you, Lord, have helped and comforted me.”

The Psalmist is embracing the role as servant, recognizing God’s ability to fill the soul with the power to sustain us with good.

Through Christ and by the glory of the Father we have been given a new life to be alive in God.  A God who sustains us with good, not anger and violence.  Like Jesus, we can teach others how to walk away from sin of hatred and violence through our actions of love.

We have a new identity to which we can live in that is not violent, rather a life filled with love and peace.  All we have to do is claim it and live a life alive in God.  Glory be to the Father.

*Cover Art Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-00903-OL, ‘The angels rejoice at Jesus’s Ascension as He returns to the Father in Glory’, copyright © Radiant Light 2006, www.radiantlight.org.uk

Compassion & Prayer

“Compassion & Prayer”

Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

Jane Shelton, CRE

First Presbyterian Church Valdosta

June 14, 2020

 

 

When I began writing this message, I thought what better time to receive this message than in the middle of a pandemic.  And now in addition to a pandemic, we have unthinkable horrors in our country of murder, violence and destruction.

 

As I think back to Jesus’ walk in and around the regions of the Sea of Galilee, I imagine the peace and calm that he brought to the turmoil around him.  The hope that must have been imagined as he showed compassion in the turmoil of the time.

 

Only a few times in our scripture do we see the anger of Jesus with events that were going on around him; however, as we live in the injustices of our world and communities, it is so easy to be angered and saddened at events going on around us today.  Things seem out of control and beyond our control.  Yet like Jesus, and his disciples after him, we have been commissioned to focus on those who are harassed and helpless.

 

In Jesus’ time and today, humanity is being launched on a new trajectory, and we have an opportunity through our compassion to teach the ways of a new kingdom.  A kingdom of love and hope.  A kingdom of prayer and compassion.  As Jesus commanded the disciples, it is now left to us to lead people forward from ordeals of the past and present to a future full of brightness and hope.

 

Jesus wants us engaging with vigilant eyes and ears to the cry of suffering, bringing balm to wounded places in peoples’ lives.  People of all race, age and demographics.

 

We see bad actors in our world, whether it is evil dictators, corrupt leaders, racist or misguided people making bad decisions.  And while we feel helpless to stop these events from continuing to happen, we have the ability to help those around us who are harassed and helpless.

 

In verse 38 of our scripture reading from our NRSV Bible, scripture tells us to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  And I like the way the King James Bible states it, “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest,that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.”

 

Pray, then go.

 

While we may not be able to stop the evil around us as it is happening, we can pray for laborers to provide compassion for those in need around us.  We can pray to God for intervention from barbaric behaviors and decisions of those made with selfish motives that lead to destruction.

 

This is no different than what Jesus was dealing with in his time, and this is indeed why God sent his Son, Jesus to save his people.

 

If you remember last year, Dr. Rev. Glenda requested we pray for the harvest to bring laborers into the church to continue the work of Jesus.

 

Is it too much to ask ourselves to continue our prayers for more laborers?  Is it too much that we find time to make this a daily prayer, or at least a weekly prayer?

 

It seems easy enough to find a group willing to follow a mob.  So are we as earnest to find a group of laborers to show compassion to those who are harassed and helpless?

 

The news brings us so much evil around us that if we are not careful, we can become overwhelmed and lose our focus to remain vigilant in our labor for the harvest of the Lord.

 

I recently picked up a book entitled, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book” by Diane Muldrow.  These books were written during the dark days of World War II.  And as I flip through the pages, I read sentences like, “so go on a picnic, and make music a part of your life,” “the simplest things are often the most fun!” and “Be open to making new friends….even if you’re very, very shy.”

 

In the introduction of the book, Diane Muldrow writes,

“Our country has faced some hard times of late, and we’ve been forced to look at ourselves and how we’re living our lives.  Ironically, in this health-conscious, ecologically (echo logically) aware age of information, many of us have overborrowed, overspent, overeaten, and generally overdosed on habits or ways of life that aren’t good for us—or for our world.  The chickens have come home to roost, and their names are Debt, Depression and Diabetes.

 

How did we get here?  How, like Tootle the Train, did we get so off track?  Perhaps it’s time to revisit these beloved stories and start all over again.  Trying to figure out where you belong, like Scuffy the Tugboat?  Maybe, as time marches on, you’re beginning to feel that you resemble the Saggy Baggy Elephant.

 

Or perhaps your problems are more sweeping.  Like the Poky Little Puppy, do you seem to be getting into trouble rather often and missing out on the strawberry shortcake in life?”

 

I’m sure you remember the Little Golden Book series when you were growing up. For Christmas one year, my grandmother gave me “Prayers for Children” which I simply poured over day after day to learn prayers before meals, bedtime prayers, and more.

 

My personal favorite Little Golden Book was “The Little Red Hen.”  In this story, The Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat and proceeds to plant it asking for help from her friends, the Duck, the Goose, the Cat, and the Pig; yet they all respond “Not I,” to which the Little Red Hen responds, “then I will plant it myself.” On the continued journey of the harvesting of the wheat, taking it to the mill to be ground into flour, bringing the flour home, and baking the bread, the Little Red Hen continues to ask her friends each step of the way if they will help, to which they all continue to respond, “Not I,” and to which Little Red Hen responds, “Then I will do it myself.”

 

So when the bread comes out of the oven, and the Little Red Hen places the hot bread in the window to cool and the wonderful aroma sails out the window, she asks, “Who will help me eat the bread,” to which she receives a resounding, “I will help you eat the bread!” from her friends.

 

But the Little Red Hen Responds, “No, I will eat it all by myself.  And she did.”

 

When Jesus asks us to pray and have compassion on the harassed and helpless, are we responding “not I,” or are we willing to help plant and harvest the grain so that it can be milled into something to which a beautiful aroma will be revealed that provides sustenance and continued growth of compassion and love from one person to the next?  Would we find ourselves less angered and depressed about violence and injustices if we were actively focused on praying for the harvest and seeing the compassion and love spread from one person to the next.

 

We are called to pray; to ask the Lord of the harvest for laborers to go to the lost sheep, and have compassion for the harassed and helpless.  Instead of “Not I,” may our response be, “yes, Lord, send me.”

 

*Cover Art “Christ Healing the Sick” Wiki Commons, public domain

Unending Love

“Unending love”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 7, 2020

Trinity Sunday

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

The first time I preached on Trinity Sunday, I was an Associate Pastor who, generally, preached once a month. As I remember, I spent nearly the entire month preparing for that one sermon. And the more I tried to prepare, the less prepared I felt. How do you explain the unexplainable. How do you convey the importance of our Triune God when the word “Trinity” is not even in the Bible?  Sure, we have formulas to aid our understanding: Father/Son/Holy Spirit or Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer. Metaphors come in handy: water that occurs as a liquid, a solid, and a gas; a rope that has three strands; a 3-leaf clover.

 

Many years have passed since that first Trinity sermon. While explaining the doctrine of the Trinity is no less challenging, I am less interested in explaining Trinity and more interested in helping believers experience Trinity. What matters most is that we welcome God’s relationship with God’s own self as an invitation to join the dance of endless love—for God, for one another, and for ourselves. In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us a glimpse of God’s endless love when he prays to his Abba Father on behalf of his disciples,

 

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.[i]

 

On our search for knowing God more deeply, formulas and metaphors may help—poetry and prayer even more so. At the core, the sacred mystery of the Trinity can be stated in one word: LOVE! UCC minister, Dr. Rachel Keefe offers a “A Poem for Trinity Sunday” that demonstrates God’s sacred, mysterious love:

 

Holy One,

I contemplate the sacred dance
and wonder when I will learn the steps
steps of peace, healing, hope
not just for a few
for all who yearn for freedom

You created all that is
as the Spirit hovered
and the Word spoke
and Wisdom beaconed
and the whole of You delighted in Creation

 

now we are tangled up in the limits of our language
trying to make You three and one
when You are always so much more
a Sacred Mystery breathing Life
and stirring visions

our lips have been burned clean
our sins have been blotted out
yet we remain outside your realm
(with guns in hand and fear holding us still)
which is close enough to reach
and too far for us to embody
because we have yet to believe
that which has always been:

 

Your love for us never ends
we can refuse to see it or claim it
we can deny it and avoid it
yet, we cannot separate ourselves from Love

 

what if the day is coming when our world is shaken
by the power of your glory
shaken so hard that we fall from doubt and disbelief
fear and hatred
apathy and ambivalence
into the truth of your delight in us?

 

what if we hover with the Spirit over Creation’s waters
and see only Love reflecting
an invitation to learn the steps of the dance
right now?

 

what if we hear the Word that sears our lips
and speak only grace, hope, and joy
echoing the song you’ve been singing from Earth’s beginning
longing for us to listen?

 

what if we follow Wisdom’s way
and create justice and offer mercy
until the world finds its rhythm
without violence
without destruction
without division?

God-in-Community,
may you remain patient with humanity
remain steadfast
until we claim your Love
share your Love
embody your Love

continue to shower us with forgiveness
until we know the truth
of your claim on us
and have the courage
to see you
in ourselves
in each other
in the whole of Creation

teach us to seek justice for all people
to love with your patience and compassion
and rely on You when we encounter the limits
of our bodies
of our minds
of our human ways

during this Pentecost season
blow through our lives
and set our holy heads on fire
that we may be the Church-Made-New
born again
born from above
born anew

Amen.

 

We are the recipients of God’s endless love. As followers of Christ, we are called to share God’s love—a love that dissolves boundaries and divisions—a love that is available for everyone—rich and poor, adult and child, male and female, red and yellow, black and white, for we are all precious in God’s sight. In the Trinity, we see God’s love flowing from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And if we have ears to hear, we recognize the voice of God inviting us to come and be nourished at God’s Table of ever-flowing love. For the journey, Paul’s closing words in his letter to the church in Corinth seem fitting:

 

…listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss…The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.[ii]

[i] John 17:20-23

[ii] 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

*Cover Art Iona Cross

 

Come, Holy Spirit

“Come, Holy Spirit”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 31, 2020

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

“Flame of the Spirit,” by David Adam:

 

Flame of the Spirit,

Burn within us,

Set our hearts on fire,

And we shall be changed.

 

Wind of the Spirit,

Blow through us,

Move us by your power,

And we shall be changed.

 

Breath of God,

Fill our lives,

Inspire our actions,

And we shall be changed.

 

When the shutters are drawn and the doors closed,

When we are dried up and all hope is gone,

When chaos rules and we live in fear,

When our resources are gone and we cannot cope,

When we are restricted and it feels like the grave,

Come, fill us, Holy Spirit.

Come, inspire, refresh, renew us.

 

Today is Pentecost—the birthday of the church. It is a festival day of our faith that is meant to be celebrated. But first, let us back up for a moment to recount events prior to Pentecost. You will recall that after Easter, Jesus shows himself to many of his followers. He knows he will not be with them for long, but he has promised he will not leave them stranded. “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” Then, right before his ascension, Jesus offers last minute instructions, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”[i] The disciples and other believers stand watching as a cloud takes Jesus out of their sight. Then, they return to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they have been staying—all together in one place. They pray and they wait. They wait and they pray.  The next move is up to God.

 

Don’t you hate that?  I mean, don’t you just hate when you get to a place where ALL you can do is wait and pray. All you can do is wait on God to make the next move. Waiting is hard for us. Often, praying is hard, too. We long for something to do. But sometimes in life, we find ourselves in a place where all we can do—all we are supposed to do—is wait and pray. “Be still and know that I am God,” the Psalmist advises.

 

After a time, at the suggestion of Peter, the disciples pray for discernment and a replacement for Judas is found. Then, once again, they wait, until suddenly from heaven there comes a rush of a violent wind and divided tongues, as of fire, rest upon each of them. The Holy Spirit comes upon the people like a wildfire and the church is born. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages—languages that just moments ago were foreign—even to them. Divided tongues, as of fire, unite people who have been scattered as everyone hears about God’s deeds of power in their own native language. Through the divided tongues, as of fire, the rush of the violent wind and the sound of every language of every land, God’s presence is both seen and heard with God’s sending of the Holy Spirit.

 

The people are amazed and perplexed. Some accuse the disciples of being drunk. In response, Peter jumps up, raises his voice, and proclaims to the people gathered around that this is nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken long ago from the lips of the prophet, Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

The disciples have followed Jesus for three years—witnessed his many miracles, heard his mighty teachings. Now he has gone—but he has not left them alone. For where the Holy Spirit is—Jesus is present in a special way.  Where the Holy Spirit is—God is present in a special way.

 

Perhaps you have heard the story about the little girl who had a nightmare one night. Convinced that there was a monster in her room, she ran crying to her mother. After her mother calmed her down, she took her daughter back to her bedroom and said, “You do not need to be afraid, you are never alone. God is right here with you in this room.” The little girl replied, “I know that God is here, but I need someone in my room that has some skin on!” We all yearn for a God with skin on—a God we can meet in the kitchen, on the golf course, at work, in the hospital… We yearn for a God who can comfort us, guide us, and empower us to do God’s will. We cannot do it on our own—we know—we’ve tried.  But we are not alone. The Holy Spirit is the source of life and brings life into the world—whole life, transformed life, everlasting life. The mission of the Holy Spirit is the mission of new life[ii] —no longer based on age, gender, or nationality. New life for all!

 

Peter gets a new life. Although Jesus’ first and last recorded words to Peter are, “Follow me,” that does not keep Peter from failing time and time again. But when the Holy Spirit takes hold of Peter, Peter is transformed. The Peter who, after Jesus’ arrest, follows at a safe distance, now stands at the head of the pack. The Peter, who, three times, cannot find the words to admit he is a follower of Jesus, now stands with the Eleven, raises his voice and proclaims the truth boldly. He addresses all who are present—believer and unbeliever alike—and declares that this was all foretold in Scripture, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that God has sent the empowering Holy Spirit to continue God’s work in the world to all people, for all people. Peter has failed miserably in the past, and there will be mistakes in his future—such is life. Nevertheless, Peter is different. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter becomes what Jesus says he is—Peter becomes the Rock!

 

At Pentecost, Emmanuel, God-with-us—once again takes on flesh—our flesh—and enters humanity in a whole new way. In the great mystery of our faith, God takes on skin—our skin—and becomes dependent on us to make God known to the world. The temple of the Lord now dwells in the heart of every believer—man, woman, child—no more class, race, or gender distinctions—radical equality in the making! What a glorious day! A day that still reverberates through history as God is still present, still working through the church to impact individuals, communities, and even the world, for Christ. Even one person, with the power of the Holy Spirit residing in her, can make a difference for the kingdom of God here on earth. And if one person, filled with the Holy Spirit, can make a difference, the church—oh, the church, filled with the Holy Spirit—the church can change the world—has changed the world—and will continue to change the world.

 

No doubt, the church looks different today than it did even 3 months ago—but make no mistake—the Spirit is still equipping us to make God known to the world—in new and exciting ways. So, dear church, celebrate! Dance for joy! God’s Spirit is on the loose and we will never be the same! Hallelujah! Praise God!

[i] Luke 24:49

[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 19-20.

*Cover Art “Pentecost” by Ira Thomas via Catholic World Art, used by permission.

Going Home

“Going Home”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 24, 2020

7th Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:1-11

The liturgical calendar marks this past Thursday as the Ascension of the Lord—a day that seldom gets the recognition it deserves. Some say that Christ’s ascension is every bit as important as his resurrection—because, in that moment—those standing on the Galilean hillside see that Jesus not only comes from God, he also returns to God. Because of Christ’s ascension, the veil between earth and heaven is lifted to reveal the promise of coming and going in a new way—for Jesus and for all who choose to follow in his footsteps. [i]

 

In a modern-day psalm, David Adam speaks of the wonder of Christ’s choice:[ii]

Hail to the King: blessed is he.

Coming to share in our humanity.

Upon the cross and in the grave,

Facing our loss, coming to save.

Risen again, never to die,

Ascended Lord, Christ on high.

Hail to the King: blessed is he.

Coming to share in our humanity.

 

Before losing his battle with cancer in 2010, David M. Bailey was well known as a 14-year survivor of a Glioblastoma brain tumor that was to have killed him in 6 months. [iii]  A passionate Presbyterian folksinger, he wrote songs that inspired people to believe and to hang onto hope. David had an uncanny way of making even complex theological teachings understandable. One example, “The First Breakfast,” is a ballad that imagines the Trinity gathered for the very first breakfast and chatting about—of all things—us. The song offers a glimpse of the deep love that resides within the Trinity—a deep love that is available to us. So, I invite you to sit back, relax, and listen to the lyrics of “The First Breakfast.”

 

At the very first breakfast in the world, Jesus and God sat down to eat. Spirit put on some coffee and joined them at a table set for three. They talked about what had been created and God said, “I still think it’s good.”

Jesus said, “Yes, but I feel nervous.” Spirit said, “Well, I guess I would be too, if I were you. And I am…so I do.”

 

Later, God said “Son, we need to have a Word. I got this little job lined up for you. Gonna send you on a visit down to our creation to do something you might not want to do.” Jesus said, “Somehow I knew you’d say that. And I’m ready; just tell me when to go.”

 

God wiped a tear from His face and said, “This hurts me more than you’ll ever know.” Jesus said, “Dad, it’s OK. We both know it’s what has to be done.” God said, “That does not make it easy: after all, you’re still my only Son and we are One. Well, I’d do it myself if I could. But you know, it would not be the same. So, I’m sending you instead, like I always said I would; you’ll have a face, a family, and a name. Call it a special assignment. The trip will last you 33 years—a drop in the bucket in light of forever.” Jesus smiled and said, “I’m all ears.”

 

So, God reviewed the details one more time. And Jesus—he kinda winced and shut his eyes. He said, “It’s not too late to change your mind.” God said, “This should come as no surprise. I’ve thought about it forty ways till Sunday. I’m gonna turn it upside down and inside out. A costly demonstration of unexpected love will be proof beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

 

Jesus said, “I’m with you all the way. Just thought it might be worth a second look.”

 

God said, “We could look at it forever. In the end, we gotta do it by the Book.”

 

Jesus said, “The Spirit’s awfully quiet. She’s already been to the Holy Land.” God said, “She’ll go back after you return; Trust me, it’s all part of the Plan.” So, Jesus took a slow sip of his coffee, He looked up and said, “I’m ready to go.”

 

With pride in his eyes; sorrow in His voice, God said, “A few more things you should know. Your mom will be a quiet gal named Mary. She’s quite an amazing soul. Her husband, he might seem a bit confused, but he’s a good man. His name is Joe. And it’s going to take some time just getting used to doing something they call ‘growing up.’ But when you hear a voice calling from the desert, you’ll know you are ready for my cup.

 

I’ll get a dozen guys to help you. I promise you will never be alone—except for one evening right towards the end. But by then, you’ll be just 3 days from home.” Jesus said, I’ll do my best; But I never thought Love would feel like this…Strange how the end, the end of the beginning, will all be started with a kiss.’ God said “I understand your feeling but this is how it has to be. My house of many rooms is ready and you, you will be the key.” With those words the breakfast was over, followed by a bittersweet peace. The Bread, the Wine, that would come later, on the way to the final, forever, banquet feast.

 

Truly, Christ’s gift to us is more than we can comprehend. As I have pondered Jesus’ home-going this week, an image has stuck with me. The image is of Jesus crossing over into the great mystery of eternity and there, eagerly waiting, are God and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity reunited, once again. I imagine hugs and kisses and dancing for joy. Trumpets blow and angels sing. He, who came from God, has returned home to God, but not before accomplishing his mission—to show humanity how to live—to show humanity how to love. Through Christ we are invited into the family of God. We are redeemed. We are transformed. And by the power of the Spirit, we are swept into the never-ending story of God’s eternal love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Randle Mixon, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] David Adam, Music of the Heart: New Psalms in the Celtic Tradition

[iii] http://www.davidmbailey.com/

*Cover Art “The Great Amen” by Ira Thomas via Catholic World Art, used by permission.