Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 28, 2018
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Mark 10:46-52
(Instruct folks to take out cell phones and hold them up. Take pics of the congregation and the choir. Then have everyone except those assisting later in the service, turn off cell phones.)
When Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Let me see again.” Let me see again. I invite you to ponder these words even as we reflect on this day, this Reformation Sunday. Let me see again.
You may recall that last year marked 500 years of the Protestant era. Good things came from the Reformation—for instance—the corruption of leaders in the church was exposed, Scripture gained authority, grace was elevated as a critical doctrine of the church, the Bible became accessible, and literacy spread. Yes, good things grew out of the Reformation. But, as a reaction against the Catholic church, good things were cast aside—things like stressing the importance of silence and solitude and various prayer practices to help heal the woes of our human condition.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, the church is alive but is the church well? And how is the Presbyterian church doing, in particular? We, who are often called the chosen frozen, have quite a reputation for being a cerebral bunch that leans on head knowledge rather than the knowing of the heart.
There is no doubt, the church, no matter the denomination, hardly looks like it did—even 50 years ago. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Scholars have been warning that a massive cultural shift happens in the church about every 500 years. If that’s true, we are due another Reformation. The thought of such a thing might cause us to freeze in fear or it might encourage us to evaluate our way of being and doing, and to ponder what we might do, not just to survive, but to thrive.
First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta has a long, rich history. Organized in 1864, the cornerstone to this sanctuary was placed in 1907. In 1958, the Fellowship Hall was erected with the Centennial Building constructed in 1964. Our church started 3 congregations in the area—West End Presbyterian Church 75 years ago, Twin Lakes Presbyterian Church 73 years ago, and Trinity Presbyterian Church 33 years ago. We have a long history of supporting foreign missions as well as other missions like Thornwell Home for Children and Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. Additionally, the Break Bread Together Program began 45 years ago, and the Father Daughter Valentine Dance began 22 years ago. What wonderful opportunities God has given us and those who have gone before us. Thanks be to God!
Undeniably, our story is rich and inspiring, but, by the grace of God, our story is far from over. For surely, we do not intend to rest on our laurels and go down in history as the church that “used to” be one of the large downtown churches, as the church that “used to” have resources aplenty, as the church that “used to” have a reputation for planting new churches and new ministries. No. Words like “used to” are words that do not serve us well. Instead, your Session and I have been encouraging you to try some new words, words like creativity and celebration, words like gratitude and generosity, words like explore and experiment.
These words have compelled us to start the First Friday Contemplative Service, to experiment with a multi-generational Sunday school class that allows us to pool our resources and learn together no matter our age, to try spiritual retreats and a variety of spiritual practices on Wednesday night and during Holy Week, and to dream of what wonderful things God might have in store for us. Some things we try on Christ’s behalf will succeed. Others will fail. But how will we know if we do not give it our all. Either way, we will press on. As a church, we will press on because being faithful is our goal, growing into the likeness of Christ is our goal, following the way of the Spirit is our goal—so yes, we press on to share the love of Christ whenever and however we can.
Making the love of Christ known is our reason for paying attention to our use of social media. The world of technology has exploded over the past decade—which is why most of you have a smart phone on your person. There is nothing like it to spread news quickly. Allow me to demonstrate. With my iPhone, I am going to send a text message to some folks in our midst. Let’s see what happens.
(Text 6 people, whom I contacted earlier in the week, a snapshot of the words of “Jesus Loves Me,” and one by one they will stand to say their line.)
Modern technology! It’s incredible! Of course, we may resist technology, and yearn for the good old days, but the truth is, technology—in one form or fashion—has a history of being used to spread the gospel. For example, the famed Roman Roads of the Ancient Empire were among the foremost technological advances that helped Christianity spread after Pentecost, when the work of the apostles, including Paul, really began. The construction of the Roman roadway system started in 500 B.C. and ultimately spanned over 250,000 miles. While the roads enabled the Roman Empire to grow, they also propelled the Gospel.[i]
Fast forward through time to 1448 when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. Gutenberg’s printing press meant more access to information and more widespread criticism of religious authorities. For Martin Luther, this new technology was something truly glorious. He praised its timeliness and encouraged its potential. Luther recognized a new “road.” [ii]
The Roman roads and Gutenberg press of today are the internet, the smart phone, and social media. Faithful church folks and even those who claim to be spiritual but not religious take advantage of Bible apps, prayer apps, and daily devotional apps on their cell phones. Make no mistake, people are plugged in, so it behooves us to recognize the “new road” that is before us. If we have eyes to see, we will learn to utilize new technology that God has provided for such a time as this.
Allow me to demonstrate. How many of you have Facebook accounts? I invite everyone who wishes to do so to simply log onto Facebook and check in. (Allow a moment.) What just happened? We just let our friends and family know that on this Lord’s Day—when we could be most anywhere doing most anything—we chose to be here worshiping God together. With just a few taps of a finger, we have played the role of evangelist. We did not go knocking on doors. We did not mail out stacks of flyers. No. Just tap, tap, tap. And we were witnesses for Christ.
Perhaps you are sitting among us thinking, “I have no use for modern technology. I don’t have email. I don’t even have a cell phone. Furthermore, I want no part of any of it.” No worries. No worries at all. Because here is the crux of the matter: social media and new technology like Facebook will NEVER take the place of face to face interaction. If social media isn’t your thing, then do evangelism the tried and true way. Sit down with a friend over coffee or tea and tell her how Christ has changed your life. Mail a First Friday Contemplative Service invitation to someone who is having a hard time. Call your grandson. Invite him to church the second Sunday of next month so he can stay for Friends out Front and we can get to know him, and he can get to know us. Whether with friends or strangers, take every opportunity to share a smile and a listening ear. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we want to remain a relevant voice for this community, there is work for us all to do and it will take all of us to do it.
Dear saints of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, in my prayers for you, I have asked God to let me see what we might do together in the coming months and years. When I close my eyes and imagine our future, I envision us planting something new right here on Patterson Street. I see the sanctuary filled with people who have a passion for Christ and an eagerness to grow in faith and love. I see us employing Facebook to stay connected but also to evangelize, thereby impacting more people for Christ. I envision new technology that allows us to livestream worship services on Sundays. I imagine people coming to the church during the week to pray. In my dream, the church has earned a reputation for being a place where people have the courage to seek new ways of being the church in these rapidly changing times. We are known for feeding the hungry—in body and in spirit. For the church and wider community, we offer day retreats and weekend retreats that allow sacred space for spiritual growth. And we have financial blessings that permit us to start new ministries and to renovate our lovely sanctuary and adjacent buildings as needed.
Reformation Sunday is a good day to celebrate, to reflect, and to ponder. But, it is also a good day to pause and hear Jesus’ question for us, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord Jesus, help us see again. Give us courage to embrace your vision for our future.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art “Sunflowers” by The Georgia Photography Fanatic; used by permission.
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 21, 2018
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Stewardship Commitment Sunday
Psalm 121; Romans 11:33-36
The word “doxology” comes from the Greek δόξα, meaning “glory” and λογία, meaning “saying”—so the literal translation is “saying glory.” A doxology is a short hymn of praise, typically sung to the Triune God. Each Sunday we sing a version of the Doxology during worship but is inside the church the only place where such praise is appropriate? This question was taken up by Fred Craddock in a sermon entitled, “Doxology” –a sermon that has been preached around the world—by him and others. Fred Craddock, who passed away a couple years ago, was one of the greatest preachers of all time. He was a minister, professor, writer, storyteller, but above all else, he was a lover of God.
Often churches have visiting preachers for Stewardship Sunday, but instead of doing that, I want to share Craddock’s “Doxology” with you. Why? Because I believe it reflects why it is important to be good stewards of our God-given resources—to give glory and praise to our Triune God. So, nearly in its entirety, I offer you Fred Craddock’s “Doxology”:
In the fall of the year, even after the days grow short and the air crisp, I still go out on the patio alone at the close of the day. It usually takes only a few minutes to knit up the raveled sleeve, quietly fold it, and put it away. But those few moments are necessary; everyone needs a time and place for such things.
But this particular evening was different. I sat there remembering, trying to understand the painful distance between the day as I planned it and the day as it had been. The growing darkness was seeping into mind and heart, and I was at the night. Looking back on it, I know now that it was the evening on which the Idea came to me. But frankly I was in no mood to entertain it.
It was not really a new Idea, but neither was it old. It was just an Idea. And it returned the next evening. I was relaxed enough to play with it a little while before it went away. The following evening I spent more time playing with the Idea and feeding it. Needless to say, I grew attached to the Idea before long, and then I had the fear that it belonged to one of the neighbors and that I would not be able to keep it. I went to each of the neighbors. “Is this your Idea?” “No, it isn’t our Idea.” I claimed it for myself and exercised an owner’s prerogative by giving it a name. I named it Doxology.
I took Doxology inside to our family supper table. Supper is family time, and conversation is usually reflection upon the day. If all are unusually quiet, I often ask, “What was the worst thing that happened today?” John answers, “The bell rang at 8:30.” “Well, what was the best thing that happened?” “It rang again at 3:30.” Tongues are loosed and all of us—Laura, John, Nettie, and I—share our day. Supper is a good time and pleasant, and the whole family agreed Doxology belonged at our table.
The next day Doxology went with me downtown for some routine errands. But somehow they did not seem routine. We laughed at a child losing a race with an ice cream cone, his busy tongue unable to stop the flow down to his elbow. We studied the face of a tramp staring in a jewelry store window and wondered if he were remembering better days or hoping for better days. We spoke to the banker, standing with his thumbs in vest before a large plate glass window, grinning as one in possession of the keys of the kingdom. We were delighted by women shoppers clutching bundles and their skirts at blustery corners. It was good to have Doxology along.
But I had to make a stop at St. Mary’s Hospital to see [Marva]. [Marva] was dying with cancer, and the gravity of my visit prompted me to leave Doxology in the car. Doxology insisted on going in and was not at all convinced by my reasons for considering it inappropriate to take Doxology into the room of a dying patient. I locked Doxology in the car.
[Marva] was awake and glad to see me. I awkwardly skirted the subject of death.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I know, and I have worked it through. God has blessed me with a wonderful family, good friends, and much happiness. I am grateful. I do not want to die, but I am not bitter.” Before I left, it was she who had the prayer.
Back at the car, Doxology asked, “Should I have been there?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I did not understand.”
Of course, Doxology went with the family on vacation. This summer we went to the beach down on the Gulf. What a good time! A swim before breakfast, a snooze in the afternoon sun, and a walk on the beach for shells in the evening. Doxology enjoyed watching the young people in dune buggies whiz by and spin sand over an old man half-buried beside his wife, who turned herself in the sun like a chicken being barbequed. It was fun to walk out into the waves. These waves would start toward us, high, angry, and threatening, but as they drew near, they began to giggle and fall down. By the time they reached us, they had rolled over, we scratched their soft undersides, and they ran laughing back out to sea. There is no question: Doxology belongs on vacation.
Too soon it is school time again. I return to seminary classes, explaining all the while to Doxology that really Doxology is unnecessary, superfluous at seminary. After all, do we not spend the day every day talking about God, reading about God, writing about God? We do not need Doxology when we are heavily engaged in theology.
I was leading a group of students in a study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The class soon discovered, however, that in this weightiest and most influential of all Paul’s letters, the argument was often interrupted by Doxology. Early in the letter, in the midst of a discussion of the spiritual state of all those who live out their lives without Bible or knowledge of Christ, Paul insets a burst of praise to the “Creator who is blessed forever. Amen.”
After a very lengthy treatment of the tragic situation concerning the Jews, from whom came the Christ but who had not believed in him, Paul breaks off his argument suddenly and begins to sing: “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.”
Time and time again Paul breaks the line of thought with a doxological reservation, as though suddenly reminding himself of something. Why?
Probably because Paul is aware that the Doxology is most appropriate to his task as a theologian. Theology begins with words not about God but to God. People discern first what is sacred, and from there move to what is true and right and good. Worship does not interrupt theological study; theology grows out of worship. And we do not attach chapel services to seminary life in order to provide something extra; we worship because of what has already been provided. A mother does not put a ribbon in her daughter’s hair to make her pretty, but because she is.
But more especially, the Doxology is appropriate for Paul’s own life, who he is. Who is Paul that he should write of the grand themes of creation, the history of salvation, and redemption in Jesus Christ? He is himself a creation of the very grace of which he speaks. He offers himself as Exhibit A in evidence of the effective love of God. Why not break into song now and then?
Nothing, in my opinion, could be more appropriate for any of us, whoever or wherever or however. Whether we spend our time at sticky café tables talking revolution or sit in calm indifference on suburban patios, Doxology is not out of place.
While on sabbatical in Germany a few years ago, I was taken by friends to a small hotel near Salzburg, Austria, where we had dinner and heard a young woman sing. She was Julie Rayne, a Judy Garland-type singer from London. Her songs were English, German, and American, and so many of my old favorites were included that I soon melted and ran down into the cracks of the floor. During her performance, Miss Rayne sang one number of unfamiliar tune but very familiar words: I lift up my eyes to the hills; from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
What is going on here? If entertainers move into the field of religion, some of us will soon be out of work. I asked to speak with Miss Rayne and she consented. My question was, Why? Why in the midst of popular songs, Psalm 121? Did it seem to her awkward and inappropriate? Her answer was that she had made a promise to God to include a song of praise in every performance. “If you knew what kind of person I was, and what I was doing,” she said, “and what has happened since I gave my life to God, then you would know that Psalm 121 was the most appropriate song I sang.”
…Is there ever a time or place when it is inappropriate to say, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”?
It was from the class on Romans that I was called to the phone. My oldest brother had just died. Heart attack. When stunned and hurt, get real busy to avoid thought. Call the wife. Get the kids out of school. Arrange for a colleague to teach my classes. Cancel a speaking engagement. And, oh yes, stop the…paper, the mail; have someone feed the dog. Who can take my Sunday school class? Service the car. “I think I packed the clothes we need,” the wife said as we threw luggage and our bodies into the car.
All night we drove, across two states, eyes pasted open against the windshield. Conversation was spasmodic, consisting of taking turns asking the same questions over and over. No one pretended to have answers. When we drew near the town and the house, I searched my mind for a word, a first word to the widow. He was my brother, but he was her husband. I was still searching when we pulled into the driveway. She came out to meet us, and as I opened the car door, still without a word, she broke the silence: “I hope you brought Doxology.”
Doxology? No, I had not. I had not even thought of Doxology since the phone call. But the truth is now clear: If we ever lose our Doxology, we might as well be dead.
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”[i]
[i] Sermon by Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority, 131-136.
*Cover Art “So That You May Know the Hope” © Jan Richardson Images, used by Subscription.
The Jesus Effect
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 7, 2018
20th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 8; Mark 10:2-16
Last Sunday evening, Kinney and I settled on the sofa to watch the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Truth be told, I’ve been dying to see it since it was released, and I was thrilled when it became available on Amazon Prime. The film offers an up close and personal look at America’s favorite neighbor, Mr. Rogers. The informative and moving documentary goes beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe into the very heart of a creative genius who inspired and encouraged generations of children to imagine and dream and reach for a world of goodness and hope and love—even if that didn’t happen to be the reality in which they found themselves.
Born in 1928, Fred Rogers was a television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. He became the creator, composer, producer, head writer and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that ran from 1968 to 2001. On his way to becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, he recognized that television was the perfect medium to reach children in a healthy, positive way as opposed to the way television was addressing them at the time. Later, he would complete his seminary training, but his ministry remained the same—to be an advocate for children.
Over the past few months, I have noticed that so many people have become infatuated with Mr. Rogers. In fact, did you know that a movie is to be released next year with Tom Hanks playing the role of Mr. Rogers? Yes, it seems we are infatuated by Mr. Rogers! What is it about him that has caught the attention of a nation? While there are many possible answers, what really captures my imagination is the way in which he embodied the way of Jesus—the way of kindness and goodness and compassion—making time for those whom society considers insignificant—blessing children.
That is what we see Jesus doing in today’s gospel reading—blessing children. The disciples scold parents for bringing them to Jesus. The disciples have other ideas of how Jesus should divide his time—not waste it on insignificant children. But Jesus is indignant and tells his disciples, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” It’s noteworthy that this comes on the heels of Jesus addressing a question about divorce—the dividing up of a home. Then Jesus turns his wholehearted attention to those so often effected by the tragedy of divorce—the children. Jesus will unify. It’s us who will divide.
For quite some time, an idea has been churning in my heart and mind—an idea that simply will not let me be and the idea is this: If ever there was a time for the church to step up to the plate it is now. Now is the time for us to stop acting like the world—arguing, bickering, turning Christianity into a civil religion more than anything else. Now is the time for us to model for the world how we might be unified in love—unified in faith—unified in our goal to change the world for Christ’s sake. Of course, there are things over which we will disagree—even strongly disagree. But what might happen if the church were to show the world how to disagree in love?
Consider Mr. Rogers. He spent his life practicing the opposite of what we see plastered over news or social media sites every day. He practiced humility and kindness and gentleness. When he was just a boy and he would see scary things on the news, his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And at some point, Fred Rogers became such a helper. He often said, “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” Fred Rogers was determined to live out his faith—even on the big screen. But instead of doing things the way other “successful” shows were doing them, he chose to do the exact opposite: low production values, a simple set, and an unlikely star. Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? Always going against the grain. Always the paradox. Always the upside-down gospel that the first will be last and the last will be first, that to really have life you must lose it.
Oh, dear Christian, in these days of cultural turmoil, we have work to do—serious work—and we have a much better chance of being successful if we put aside our differences—differences between other people in the pews beside us—differences between us and the church down the street. Instead, we might turn our hearts and minds and strength toward what we share—the Spirit of God coursing through our veins.
Today we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with our brothers and sisters around the world. Some of us refer to this sacrament as the Eucharist, others the Table of the Lord, others simply Communion.[i] Some of us will use wine at the Table, some grape juice, while others will offer both. Some will break a small piece from a large loaf of bread and dip it into the common cup while others dip bread that has been pre-cut. Some will have homemade bread. Some will have unleavened wafers placed into their opened hands. Others will remain seated as trays of the elements are passed to them.
There are many ways to celebrate this feast and there are different ways to interpret it. Presbyterians hold that The Lord’s Supper is the sign and seal of eating and drinking in communion with our crucified and risen Lord. In other words, in a mysterious way we cannot understand, we believe that Christ joins us here at his Table. Here we are nourished. Here we are blessed. Here we are sustained by Christ’s pledge of undying love and continuous presence with us. And here we are united with all the faithful in heaven and on earth.
Unity—it’s what World Communion Sunday is all about. It’s how it all began. The idea came out of the work of the stewardship committee at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It was an attempt to bring believers together—a way to remember how important the Church of Jesus Christ is—and how each congregation is interconnected. While the celebration was adopted as a denominational practice in 1936, by 1940 it was adopted by the National Council of Churches. Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating we are one in the Spirit and one in Christ.
That, dear friends, is the Jesus Effect. The love of Christ can change everything and everyone. That is what the church has to offer the world. Not division. Not arguments. Not disrespect. But love and hope and peace and joy and forgiveness. It’s what the world needs. It’s what we need. It’s what our children need.
Artist, author, and United Methodist pastor, Jan Richardson, has written a blessing for the church on this special day. It’s a poem entitled, “And the Table Will Be Wide.”[ii]
And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
And our sorrow
will be met
And we will open our hands
to the feast
And we will turn
toward each other
And we will give up
And we will taste
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
will be the feast.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] “The Things We Share,” by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005
*Special Thanks to Elise and Evan Phelps, who provided our bulletin Cover Art.
Where is Your Treasure?
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 30, 2018
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 121; Matthew 6:19-21
<Read children’s story, You Are Mine, by Max Lucado>
There’s a Punchinello inside most of us, isn’t there? An urge for other’s approval, a drive to be like the rest of the crowd, a need to show off all our “stuff.” And like Punchinello, there are many times we don’t count the cost until the cost becomes too great.
Today marks the beginning of our stewardship campaign. It’s not the most popular time of the church year because, let’s face it, we don’t want anyone to tell us what to do with our stuff. But if we look at it as a time of preparation, a time of self-examination, we might experience it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. After all, doesn’t our stuff really belong to God? Not 5% of it. Not 10% of it. But 100% of it!
Billy Graham once said, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” What might our checkbook or checking account say about our priorities? Where is our treasure? If we desire to seek the will of God before anything else, do we need to change how we spend our time and talents and financial resources?
Most of the time, I sense God calling me to speak to God’s people as a preacher but occasionally God challenges me to speak as a prophet. I prefer not to speak as a prophet. I know what happens to prophets. They get tied up and imprisoned and stoned and run out of town! Nevertheless, a prophetic word is mine to proclaim.
Some time ago, a Catholic priest and I were talking about declining attendance in the churches and he declared that the church has lost its witness. He said, “Churches are filled with people who are physically in their second half of life, but spiritually speaking, they are still in their first half of life. And we have ourselves to blame. It’s the church’s fault that people are stagnated in their faith.”
Many experts agree with the Catholic priest’s claims, insisting that the churches’ declining membership is, at least in part, due to low expectations for its members. Leaders are afraid to do hard things—like speak the truth in love—like refuse to accept bad behavior as the norm—like require more out of the people of God because they are, after all, God’s people! But we are afraid. Afraid someone will get mad. Afraid someone will leave. And God forbid—afraid someone will stop giving money. Surely, we should expect more. Surely God expects more!
The Book of Order states that a faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved RESPONSIBLY in the ministry of Christ’s Church. What does responsible involvement look like? It looks like: sharing Christ’s love through what we say and do; taking part in the life and worship of a congregation; lifting one another up in prayer and supporting one another; studying Scripture and important issues of Christian faith; demonstrating a transformed life; responding to God’s activity in the world by serving others and working for peace and justice for all people, and finally, by supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents.
There’s a Punchinello inside most of us, isn’t there? An urge for other’s approval, a drive to be like the rest of the crowd, a desire to show off all our “stuff.” And like Punchinello, we need to be reminded from time to time that it’s not what we have that counts. It’s whose we are! We belong to the Most High God. Therefore, giving should be a way of life because no matter how much we give, we can never out-give God. Amen.
*Cover Art via Unsplash; used with permission
Roots of our Faith
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 23, 2018
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37
In our gospel reading, Jesus attempts to quietly move through Galilee, while preparing his disciples for what is ahead. And what is ahead? His death, which he predicts to the disciples for the 2nd time. Failing to understand, the disciples turn their attention to “more important” matters—like who is the greatest among them. Aware of their antics, Jesus calls them on their behavior. “What were you arguing about on the way?”
Recognizing the need for a teaching moment, Jesus calls the disciples to him to provide an object lesson through a child. While embracing the child, the one considered least in society, Jesus points to the greatest, his Abba Father, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” A little child will lead the disciples to new understanding—whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. That’s the upside-down gospel Jesus proclaims.
Although, in our culture, a homeless person might be a better metaphor of the lowest and least because things have changed drastically in 2000 years. No longer are children held in such low regard. These days, parents and grandparents-to-be prepare for months for a new born baby to arrive. Our daughter, Sarah, is an artist and the baby room she created for Harper six years ago would have put Leonardo da Vinci to shame. One painting read: “With your first breath you took ours away!” Truly, children are far from the bottom of the totem pole in most families. But as much as we want them to have a full life—with love and happiness and vast opportunities—we fail them if we do not help them understand that greatness comes through serving God and serving others. To help children grow in Christian faith, to help them develop deep, spiritual roots, that will carry them through wind and rain and sun and storm—that is of the utmost importance. It is of eternal importance. Children need to be rooted in their faith—rooted like a tree planted by streams of water.
One of my favorite spiritual practices is to read and meditate on the Psalms. Generally, I prefer the Book of Common Prayer that divides the psalms into morning readings and evening readings and allows for the entire Psalter to be covered each month. Often, when the first day of the month rolls around, I sit with my coffee, open the Psalter and feel lightness in my heart because I know it is time to reflect on Psalm 1 again. I know it is time to ask myself, “What kind of tree am I?”
Hear these words again: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of the scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on this law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do they prosper.”
If I am a tree planted by streams of water—what sort of tree might it be? There are days when I feel like an oak—sturdy, strong and true. Other days I long to be a dogwood tree—with a floral display in the spring, green foliage in the summer, scarlet berries in the fall, textured bark contrasting against the new-fallen East Tennessee snow. Some days I feel a bit droopy—my head bows low and my arms hang at my side—on these days, I must be a weeping willow. A tree planted by streams of water—today, what sort of tree might you be?
The righteous are said to be like fruitful trees nourished by streams of water. But what about those who choose to live in other places besides God’s streams of water? Let’s continue reading from Psalm 1, “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
While the righteous may be like rooted trees, the wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away. This simile from the world of farming offers the image of thrashing time, when a farmer scoops up the grain and lets it fall to the ground, allowing the wind to blow the scrap—the chaff—away. Unlike the righteous, the wicked are not nourished. They have no roots to hold them steady; therefore, they’re scattered about to and fro.[i]
In God’s creation, are we trees or are we chaff? Thomas Merton said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. It ‘consents’ to His creative love. It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind. So the more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him.” To live the Christian life is not to pretend to be somebody else. The tree doesn’t try to be a peacock or a jack hammer. A tree is content to be a tree. You and I, however, tend to struggle with our identity—our true self. We find it hard to embrace the person God intends for us to be. It’s difficult for us to accept the truth that our lives are not our own, that we are dependent on God for sun and rain and breath.
Maybe we feel that God has created us, and we are left on our own to be the best that we can be. But do we really have that much power? Without God’s grace, the best we can muster doesn’t amount to much! Even with our best intentions, we are incapable of “getting it all together” on our own. As one commentator notes, “A changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit;” not “the fruit of my good intentions.” “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”[ii] While being transformed by the Holy Spirit, we begin to feel our arms stretched upward giving glory to God, our roots growing deeper, watered by the grace of our baptism, and swayed only by the wind of the Spirit.[iii]
“Happy (or blessed) are those who delight and meditate on the law of the Lord….” This is the beginning of Psalm 1, which sets the tone for the entire Psalter, inviting us to use the book as a guide to a blessed life. The instruction to delight in the law will seem odd to us if it brings up images of legal rules and prohibitions. But, ultimately, the way of God’s law (or the Torah) is the way of love. The law is our instruction book for wise living—so that we may learn the way and will of the Lord and allow God to shape our hearts and minds. That’s why the law is a cause for delight.
But God’s law of love won’t be a delight for everyone. Some will reject it and take the path that leads to sinfulness and cynicism. Their way is an illusion—with no more depth than the chaff that the wind blows away—because they aren’t connected to the source of life.[iv]
In America, it’s common for preachers to preach the “cotton candy gospel.” Promises are made that if you have enough faith and do A and B and C—you’ll have everything your little heart desires. Since this false teaching is so prevalent in our culture, it’s important to stress Psalm 1 is not a recipe for prosperity. We know wickedness sometimes prevails. But in the grand scheme of God’s love story for humanity, those who delight in the Lord, know theirs is a God who acts in history to free people from the bondage of sin. In the words of one commentator: “God is genuinely concerned about the way real people spend their precious God-given years on this earth. God cares. God provides. We can choose to take to heart God’s gracious will for humanity and allow God to use us in the grand unfolding of God’s [plan]. Or we can choose to live as if God were not actively caring and providing for God’s people—which is to say, we can opt out. God’s blessing belongs to those who opt in, centering their lives on Gods law (torah).[v]
Still, sometimes bad things happen to good people. That’s true! That’s true because sometimes bad things happen to ALL people. And when they happens, we may go to the Psalter in search of other songs that need to be sung—songs that give us words for lament and fear and loss. But Psalm 1 captures the wisdom needed for us and for our children and for our children’s children: How we choose to live our lives matters, and a life lived in relationship with a good and loving God is a life that bears fruit.[vi]
[i] Carol J. Dempsey, OP, Feasting on the Word, 85.
[ii] Galatians 5:22
[iv] James L. Mays, Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Psalms, 40-44.
[v] Ruth L. Boling, Feasting, 82.
*Cover Art © Jan Richardson Images, “Between Heaven and Earth”; used by subscription
Count the Cost
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 16, 2018
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 8:27-38
Our reading from Mark places us in the center of the gospel. A journey of some 15 miles puts Jesus and his disciples near Caesarea Philippi, a city rebuilt to honor Caesar, a very Roman place. From this point onward, Jesus will focus his attention on his disciples. Actually, from here on, they will be enrolled in something like Intensive Discipleship Training. Important issues must be considered: What is Jesus’ true identity? What is his true mission? What will be the implications for his disciples’ own identity and mission?[i]
On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. One commentator puts it well when she writes, “The scene looks to us like a stopover on a political campaign, where the candidate and his entourage are checking on the results of their focus groups along the way. What are folks saying? Are they getting the message?”[ii] Evidently, the disciples have heard people’s opinions. They respond: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”
However, when Jesus shares his definition of “Messiah” foretelling of his own death, it’s too much for Peter. You see, Peter may have the right title, but he doesn’t understand what it means. He doesn’t want to hear about a suffering Messiah. Like many others, in all probability, Peter is more interested in a Messiah who will establish God’s rule; provide honor and glory to his followers—a just reward—NOW![iii] So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t turn out well for Peter who gets called Satan before all is said and done.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus excels in many things, one of which is to draw a crowd. Wherever he goes; whatever he does, there’s a crowd near by. Today’s text is no exception. Why are they there? Might they expect a political march just around the corner? Maybe. Do they want healing? Could be. Do they suspect they are in a funeral procession? Not likely!
Now imagine, Jesus is walking along, followed closely by his disciples and he sees all those people following him. He knows their hearts. He knows many have come for the wrong reasons. It’s time for a teaching moment, so he says to the disciples and the crowd: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
If Jesus knows how to draw a crowd, he also knows how to get rid of one. Who wants to stick around for this? Take up a cross? Lose their life? But that’s exactly what Jesus will do—all for the sake of the gospel. Jesus will deny himself. Jesus will choose to follow the will of God—all the way to the cross. Jesus will practice what he preaches.
Taking up one’s cross is often misunderstood; trivialized by popular use. Today, we are likely to point to our arthritis, or an ill-tempered spouse—and say, “I guess that’s my cross to bear.” But Jesus isn’t talking about something that miserably happens to a person. He’s talking about a lifestyle. Through the grace of God, the cross we bear is the way we choose to look at and live out every day of our lives, while seeking to become more and more like Jesus.[iv]
Jesus offers a cautionary word to those gathered around him: “Before signing up, count the cost!” We, too, should take heed—we who are followers of the way. Are we willing to give up that which is dearest to us, our plans, our hopes and dreams, our resources, and toss them aside if it means that not to do so will keep us from the path God has chosen for us? Are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and live a cross-bearing life?
It’s certainly not a popular way of living. One writer notes, “In America we don’t know much about self-denial. We know about self-fulfillment. We know about selfishness. We know about consumerism. Two roads stand before us today. There is the way of the divine things, which is the way of Christ. And there is the way of human things. There is a way to save your life, but you will lose it there. And there is a way to lose your life for the sake of the Kingdom, and there you will find it.”[v]
“Losing your life” defines the whole of Jesus’ ministry and mission. And like Jesus, at one time or another, haven’t we experienced losing our life only to receive it back again? Allow me to provide an example: When our church provides food to someone though our Break Bread Together program, we are giving something away, right? We are “losing” time. We are “losing” resources. Yet, don’t we receive even more? We feel joy because we are participating in a story bigger than ourselves—the gospel story of caring for the needy for Christ’s sake. We know God’s blessings because we are doing the work of our Abba Father and it is good.
David Lose calls this way of receiving unexpected rewards through sacrifice “inverted logic.” It’s a logic that goes against the logic of the world. The wisdom the world offers will have us believing that there is security in possessions and power. The world’s logic operates on the notion of absolute scarcity. We are pitted against one another in a winner-takes-all competition for goods, meaning, and love. Yet, the way of Jesus is a different “way.” Jesus will have us give of ourselves; Jesus will have us put others first; Jesus will have us take up burdens on behalf of another. Lose concludes that it’s no wonder Jesus is rejected by the people. He’s not just an unusual king—he’s the anti-king—almost the opposite of the kings of the world. I suppose it should come as no shock that his kingdom is still having trouble attracting applicants.[vi]
So, what is the cost for us? Some of us may face unpleasant comments about church being a waste of time or the rehashing of the latest scandal involving some preacher—with the conclusion that all Christians are hypocrites. Some of us may have to reconsider our priorities—how do we use the time, financial resources, and spiritual gifts that God has given each of us? For people on the way—every day—there are choices to be made.
In a poem, Robert Frost writes,
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…”
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[vii]
Will we choose the way less traveled; the way of Christ? Hardships? There will be some. But bounteous blessings will be ours, too—poured down like rain—in this life and in the next when we will see Jesus in all his glory, seated with his Abba Father and the holy angels.
But for now, here we are, fellow travelers on the way. We have the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and our Guide. We have the church as a community of faith to celebrate with us when joys abound; to help us see life and love and hope when our vision gets a little cloudy; to hold us up when we can’t stand on our own, to give of ourselves—our time, talents and treasures—all for the love of Christ. The church, the Bride of Christ, is just one of the many gifts Jesus offers to the world. How blessed a people we are—to know Jesus as our Brother, our Lord, our Messiah, our Savior! Amen.
[i] The Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 230.
[ii] Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, 71.
[iii] Harry B. Adams, Feasting on the Word, 70.
[iv] Van Harn, 403-406.
[v] Mickey Anders at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/09/pentecost-16b-september-16-2012.html
[vi] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=616
[vii] Robert Frost at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/09/pentecost-16b-september-16-2012.html
*Cover Art by Stushie; used by Subscription
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 9, 2018
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Mark 7:24-37
A few weeks ago, Kinney and I took a day trip to Jacksonville Beach. Moses, our new puppy, went with us. Upon reaching our destination, we gathered our stuff on the beach—chairs, towels, a picnic lunch, drinks, water for Moses, and, of course, Traveling Jesus. I had high hopes for Moses. I imagined he would enjoy playing in the sand. Although I did not expect him to dive into the ocean, I did expect him to at least tolerate it—to at least walk with us along the water’s edge. I was wrong. What ended up happening was a comedy of errors—Kinney and me eating our food hastily rather than leisurely. And me—pulling and tugging on Moses who was having none of it. None of any of it. “No!” to the water and “No!” to the water’s edge and “No!” to a walk in the sand. “No…no…no…” It was like dealing with a toddler. Nonetheless, the sun was shining, the waves were rolling in, and even Moses choosing to have a temper tantrum rather than play in the “Red Sea”—even that could not dampen the joy of being out in God’s wondrous creation—getting away—resting—being replenished.
Occasionally, all of us need some time away—time to rest and be replenished. For those in ministry or other care-giving professionals, it’s crucial. Without it, things go awry: spiritual, mental, physical health begins to show wear and tear and then…a crisis is inevitable. Yes, sometimes a respite is what is most needed.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark reveals a very human side of Jesus—he, too, needs rest. At least, that seems the most likely reason for Jesus to travel all the way to Tyre, where, hopefully no one knows him. In fact, the text makes it clear that Jesus enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know his whereabouts. Even so, a woman whose daughter is ill finds him. The woman, a Gentile of Syrophoenician birth, bows before Jesus to make her request. And how does Jesus respond? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you get that? Jesus makes a racial slur toward the woman, calling her no less than a dog! This isn’t like Jesus at all. When has he ever spoken to anyone like this? Is Jesus afflicted with compassion fatigue? Is that what’s going on here?
To say that this is a complicated story is an understatement, so it won’t surprise you that wells of ink have been spilled over it. Some have suggested that Jesus is teasing the woman, calling her a “puppy” instead of a dog. Others have suggested that this is a test, much like the story of Job and because the woman responds so cleverly, her request is honored. After wrestling with this text, I am convinced that there is more to the story. I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus is calling the woman a puppy. Folks, dog means dog and that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. What’s more, there’s no indication that Jesus is testing the woman. This isn’t a test. This is life.
Jesus is fully divine—but also fully human! Keeping that in mind may be critical to our understanding. Having said that, could it be that at this point in his life, even Jesus doesn’t fully know everything there is to know about his earthly ministry? Could it be that he learns something about himself when he encounters this foreign woman who bears her heart and soul to him?
Jesus’ response about the children being fed first indicates his belief that the Jewish people, his family, will be fed first. He’s come for his own people’s salvation—first. That doesn’t mean that the gentiles won’t be included later. So, it may be that Jesus isn’t telling the woman, “No,” as much as he is saying, “Not yet.” But she’s a mother with a sick child! So, she receives his derogatory comment and digs in her heals. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In that moment, it seems that Jesus’ eyes are opened to this woman who has been silenced in her own culture. Who else will see her, if not him? Who else will hear her, if not him? Might his message of hope, even now be for all people? It will certainly be so for her child, because Jesus heals her from afar. Miraculously, the child has hope and a future, because of the tenacity of her mother and the mercy of the Lord.
As strange as it may seem, from here Jesus goes to another place where predominately Gentiles reside. Is Jesus taking the next step, expanding his ministry even now? (I wonder.) A deaf man with a speech impediment, presumably, also Gentile, is brought to him. Using a technique common in healing stories of the day, Jesus uses a sort of “spit-bath” to heal a man who is physically unable to hear and unable to speak clearly.
The Gospel of Mark is known for telling a story within a story, sandwiching one within the other. Could it be that this man’s impediment actually mirrors that of the woman? Are the two stories linked? Even if she speaks, as a woman in her culture, who cares? Who hears her? Who understands? Like the deaf man, she has no voice. But Jesus has a way of giving voice to the voiceless, doesn’t he?
The movie, “The Help,” which came out a few years ago, is a period piece set in the 1960’s. It tells the story of Aibileen, a black woman who works as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi. A widow, she is devastated by the death of her son. Although she takes pride in the 17 children she has helped to raise, there’s an emptiness inside her. This begins to change when Skeeter, a young white woman, returns home from college. Unlike her peers, Skeeter wants a career, so she gets a job as a newspaper columnist. Through a turn of events, Skeeter begins to really see the domestics in her town. She realizes they have no voice in the way they are treated—not really. So, she comes up with a plan to write a book filled with the stories of the experiences of the domestics in Jackson. For safety sake it is to be written anonymously. She convinces Aibileen to share her story; then her friend, Minny, joins in; then others step forward.
Of course, once it’s published, the book creates a scandal and in no time, the people in Jackson figure out the source of the stories as well as the writer. In the end, the dark truth is brought to light and the voiceless are given a voice—though not without great cost. But hasn’t it always been true that giving voice to the voiceless is risky business? Just ask the one who hung on the cross for love’s sake!
Recently, I’ve been reading the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, they speak against the ways of the people in their day. The way that the rich take advantage of the poor, the way that God’s law of love is put aside for personal gain. In God’s time, God will judge how the poor and weak and hurting are treated. That’s a part of our story that we might prefer to gloss over, but Jesus won’t let us. In his ministry, Jesus cares for the poor and the sick and the outcast. Even when it means that he will miss his holiday weekend, by the power of God, he is able to muster up enough strength to hear one more voiceless person’s need and heal her daughter; he is able to have compassion on one more voiceless man and restore him to health.
It’s interesting that when Jesus cures the man he says, “Be opened,” and immediately the man can hear and speak plainly. “Be opened.” Perhaps, it’s the word we all need to hear: Be opened, oh closed heart that is willing to love the person like me, but not the one who is different. Be opened, oh closed mind that will not accept new teaching, so sure of my own wisdom. Be opened, oh closed lips that could share the love of Jesus but hesitates to do so.
Today, when we look around us, what do we see? Do we see someone marginalized by society, being treated badly? Maybe we’ve been less than gracious to someone who is “different” than us. Maybe we’re prejudiced against people of other races—unable to accept that there’s only one race—the human race. Maybe we hold grudges toward those we perceive as “milking the system” or we might have hard feelings toward “those people born of privilege who know nothing about the real world.” What might we have to confess to the Lord? Then, how might we go about setting it right?
Jesus is fully human; fully divine. Can we handle such a Savior? Can we handle Jesus changing his mind? Can we handle Jesus growing in ministry as he takes on each new task given to him by his Abba Father? Or, with clinched fists, must we hang on to a Jesus who knew everything from the moment he was born and struggled to hide his divinity from the other little children? But, didn’t Jesus wear diapers? Didn’t he need to be fed and cared for and disciplined? And didn’t he have a mother who would do just that?
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there at the cross. She refused to leave her son. In that moment, if she had the option to approach a stranger who looked down on her, a healer who might call her a dog—if that had been a choice for Mary in order to save her son’s life—she would have been there in a heartbeat. Of this I’m sure. I know because I’m a mother, too. Call me any name in the book—just heal my child. It’s the love mothers and fathers have for their children. And as fierce as that love is—God’s love for each one of us is fiercer still. God loves us more than we can fathom. God will move heaven and earth to get to us. God will send his Son to rescue us. Fierce, holy love—it’s ours for the asking! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman,” via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission.