Employed by God

Employed by God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 20, 2020

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16

 

While Presbytery meetings are generally informative and worthwhile, I am sure to enjoy them more when we have someone being examined for candidacy as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. You see, at this point in the ordination process, men and women are given an opportunity to share their call story. It is amazing to hear the various ways God has worked in their lives, thus far. For me, call stories echo the truth that the Spirit is still on the move, nudging, awakening, compelling… And no two stories are alike—God is creative like that! Some folks recognize a call in their teens. Others hear the voice of God calling them during college. Others, like me, enter ministry as a second career—in quite unexpected ways.

While I enjoy all the stories, I admit my favorites are from the young folks who have just completed college and are in seminary. They spark a romantic notion within me of a future filled with possibilities. Honestly, though, there was a time when I reacted to their stories with a twinge of regret on my own behalf—somehow wishing I had showed up earlier for the party—envisioning what it would have been like to set out on this road in my 20’s with a clearly defined call. But that is not my story and I have accepted it—more than that—I’m pleased about it. For, overtime, God has opened my eyes to the importance of diversity in all things—even in something like when, where, and how, a person accepts a call into ministry. We all have different roles to play. While mine is not one of the starry-eyed glow of youth, I still have something to bring to the party. I have life experiences; I have a sense of humor for which I thank God! And I am humbled when, every now and then, God uses me to speak a word of wisdom.

As a community of believers, we all have a part to play. We all bring something different to the party. Isn’t it wonderful? Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12. Hear these words as translated in The Message:

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.

We all have a role to play but sometimes we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. We begin to feel that since we are not gifted with A, B, or C, we have little to offer. And if we keep going down this path, we will find ourselves adrift in the story of someone else, wishing that their gifts and their successes were ours. Margaret Thatcher once said, “The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” And Proverbs 14:30 tells us, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” To grasp the fullness of this statement, let’s consider some context provided by a modern-day writer.

Bones were a reference to the whole body, the fullness of life. To say that envy rots the bones is to say that it breaks down and destroys the whole self. It tears life apart. Beyond that, the word used for bones in this particular verse comes from the Hebrew word meaning “where the strength is.” Bones provide structure, stability, power. Envy infects and decays that strength like an infectious disease. As with anything that opposes life, it is deceitful. It keeps us staring at others, resenting our apparent weaknesses, but meanwhile, it is literally boring a hole into our strengths, ripping apart the meaningful stories we are created for…When we look at the talents, titles, successes, and influences of our peers with anything less than pride and support, trying to mold ourselves into their image, we choose to let envy drill away at our God-given purposes.[i]

In today’s gospel reading Jesus offers a description of the kingdom of heaven. It is like a landowner who gives jobs to those who have no work. Some he hires at 9 in the morning, some at noon, some at 3 in the afternoon, and some at 5. But when quitting time comes, the landowner has such a big heart—he pays everyone a day’s wages. They get the same amount—no matter whether they worked all day or just a few hours. Of course, the human sense of fairness can’t stand such generosity so some of the workers grumble against the landowner. But the landowner comes right back at them with something like, “Wait just a minute here, friends. You agreed to the daily wage—so take it and get out of here. I will give as I see fit—it’s my money! I can be generous to whomever I wish to be generous. What business is it of yours?”

Jesus gives us an interesting story to ponder. Likely, you have heard sermons over the years dealing with one detail or another. Maybe you have heard it preached from the angle of the Pharisees and Jews who are jealous that with Jesus on the scene even the Gentiles have a place at the table of grace. Some have looked at the text and reflected on the struggle in certain churches where some people feel they pull the lion’s share of God’s work while too many others sit idly on the pews. Good, hard-working people look at the story and wonder what kind of God would be so unfair as to give the same reward to those who have earned it and those who have not. It boggles the mind, really. But as God reminds us through his prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[ii]

While our human nature may lead us to look at the story through critical eyes and wonder how in the world God got to be such a lousy bookkeeper, it might behoove us to stand back and behold the broader picture Jesus is painting of his Abba Father. For in the kingdom of heaven, God gives everyone work to do. So instead of getting caught up in our favorite pastimes—comparing ourselves to others and grumbling against God—we might give thanks to God for the prize that is ours. Being employed by God is our reward—in and of itself! We are on God’s payroll.

Surely there is no better way to spend our time, talents, and treasures than in the pursuit of bringing the kingdom of heaven to all the earth. And the kingdom of heaven is not just some place to which we go in the sweet by and by. The kingdom of heaven is now. And in this time and this place—there’s work for us all to do. It isn’t work that we are bent on getting out of—rather it’s work to be honored. We have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard. With God as our employer—it is the job of a lifetime. And it is a waste of energy to compare our work with someone else’s work. Instead, let us cultivate our talents and passions. Let us celebrate and even complement each other’s gifts! Let us foster a spirit of gratitude because the Lord of the Vineyard so generously provides for us all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] http://www.relevantmagazine.com/life/problem-with-purpose-envy#yrc4dhjIWdLtb6Hk.99

[ii] Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV

*Cover Art via Unsplash, used with permission; Music CCLI 20016020/13

Cloth for the Cradle

 

Cloth for the Cradle

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 15, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 2:1-12

This morning we consider a text generally reserved for Epiphany—the story of the wise men following a star from the East to pay homage, or to honor baby Jesus. No doubt, a lot of what we assume about the wise men comes from Christian folklore rather than Scripture. For example, tradition tells us that the wise men were three and that they were kings, that they were named Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, and that their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh signified a gift worthy of a king, a gift worthy of divinity, and a spice foretelling of Christ’s death, respectively.

 

While the wise men play a significant role in this story, so does the star burning bright—the star that leads them to their destination. With Christmas so commercialized these days, I daresay, we still need a star to find our way to Jesus. One scholar puts it this way:

Because we are almost blinded by the culture, the star is a sign, a wonder, a revelation, a guidepost, a traffic light, a tracking device, and a GPS that brings us to the point and place of divine revelation about the Messiah. For the real meaning of Christmas, we must “follow the star.” [i]

 

While tradition might have us focus on the star and on the three wise men, the real point to the story is, of course, paying homage to Christ. Before the wise men present their gifts to the child, they kneel and worship him. First, they give themselves completely to Christ. Then they offer their gifts.

 

Interestingly, when it was time for the wise men to return home, there is no indication that the star guided them. Could it be that they no longer needed it? Could it be that once they saw the child, the external light became internalized as hearts aflame? Moreover, shouldn’t it be true that when we follow the star to the Christ-child, when we behold the Messiah, when we bow, worship, and give our gifts to the child, we, too, leave with hearts aflame?

 

Today, led by the star, we have come to worship the Christ child. We come, we kneel, we worship, and we offer our gift. What is your gift to bring? My gift is to stand before you and point you to the Christ-child. Others bring gifts this morning.

 

Elise Phelps brings a gift for the Christ child. She brings the gift of a story.

Zachary Routsong brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of music.

Evan Phelps brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of laughter.

Jaxson Routsong brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of a song.

 

Take a moment to reflect on what gift you bring to Jesus. [Silence] There is a cradle on the Lord’s Table and there are strips of cloth available. When the music begins, you are invited to come forward, take a strip of cloth, and lay it in the cradle to symbolize your gift. While the choir leads us, singing the verses of “Cloth for the Cradle,” we will join in the refrain as we come to the cradle.

 

[Cloth for the Cradle experience]

 

We have followed the star and the way of the wise men. With joy we have bowed, we have worshiped, and we have presented our gifts to the Christ-child. Now, may we leave with our hearts aflame and may we never forget what we have seen. Amen.

 

[i] Frank A. Thomas, Feasting on the Word

 

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

 

Let Healing Begin

Let Healing Begin

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 28, 2018

4th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28

 

The writer of the Gospel of Mark has a way of moving us rapidly through time, so much so, in the very first chapter we learn:  John the Baptist prepares the way; Jesus is baptized; the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he’s tempted by Satan and cared for by the angels; John is arrested; Jesus comes to Galilee to preach the good news and, by the Sea of Galilee he calls out to four fishermen, “Come with me and I will teach you to fish for people.” Twenty verses of Scripture bring us to the synagogue on the Sabbath where Jesus is about to inaugurate his kingdom campaign.

 

One of Mark’s favorite words is “euthys” which is translated “immediately,” “at once,” or “right away.” Like a newspaper reporter, Mark rushes us from place to place to witness Gospel-making, life-changing history. Unfortunately, in many translations, the “immediacy” of Mark’s gospel is lost. However, Eugene Peterson does an excellent job capturing the essence of Mark. Here this short reading once more, from The Message:

 

Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars. Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.

 

It’s no surprise news of this travels fast. Jesus speaks with authority AND he makes things happen! Truly, Jesus teaches in a way that astounds the people. At this point we might be tempted to give the teachers of the law (the scribes) a hard time. But before we go off on a tangent, let’s note that in this passage, while the scribes are mentioned, we are not sure if they are even present. Since people are gathered in the synagogue on this Sabbath, we assume scribes (biblical scholars of the time) are there—but we don’t know. Another thing to remember is that even later, when tension escalates between Jesus and the religious rulers, Jesus seems less concerned with what they teach and more concerned with how they live.

 

In today’s reading, what is crystal clear is Jesus’ teaching carries an authority unlike anything the people have ever heard. Keep in mind—Jesus doesn’t have to rely on “borrowed” authority. Moreover, Jesus does not just offer information. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers transformation. Now that is something both new and amazing!

 

You may have noticed the people are not alone in their amazement. In fact, the one who may see the situation more clearly than anyone else is the unclean spirit. Translations vary here—unclean spirit, evil spirit or demon. One scholar explains: “In biblical language, “impure” means, simply, contrary to the sacred. All that is against the sanctity of God is considered impure.”[i]  So regardless of how we choose to think of it or name it, the important thing to recognize is that this presence is against the things of God. Still it is the unclean spirit that speaks the truth, interrupting Jesus like a heckler at a campaign rally.

 

It is safe to say everyone in the synagogue is riveted to the scene being played out before them.  The unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit is disturbed, for good reason, because he recognizes Jesus for who he is. Evil has come face to face with the source of its ultimate demise. Two questions are put to Jesus. The first is “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” I like the way The New American Standard Bible and The Message translate this question: “What business do we have with each other, Jesus?” Business—yes, there is business to be done!

 

Then, lo and behold, the unclean spirit speaks an even greater truth: “Have you come to destroy us?” In a word—Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what Jesus has come to do. Jesus has come to destroy all that is broken in humanity. Jesus has come to restore all God’s people to whole and abundant lives. Jesus has come to shut down the powers of darkness and Jesus can—because he is exactly who the unclean spirit says he is—the Holy One of God.

 

Basically, Jesus responds to the evil spirit with something like, “Shut up!” A more literal translation is: “Put a muzzle on it!” Isn’t it ironic that Jesus, who is possessed by the Spirit of God, faces off with a man, who is possessed by a demon? [ii] Ultimately, Jesus’ authority is made known when what he speaks comes to fruition—word and action unite, and the evil spirit is silenced and cast out of the man. And in a moment, the healing ministry of Jesus begins. With at least 13 miracles of healing documented in the Gospel of Mark alone, there is no denying that for Jesus a strong relationship exists between faith, healing, and wholeness.

 

But returning to the man with the unclean spirit, don’t you wonder what he is doing in the synagogue in the first place? Wouldn’t that be the last place an evil presence should want to hang out? It makes me wonder, in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed by something evil and beyond his control, is there something that draws the man to a place where he might find a glimmer of hope? Is that how he happens to be among the people that day?

 

And while the brokenness of this man and his need for healing are so obvious, doesn’t he in some way represent all of humanity? Whether by anger, greed, selfishness, anxiety, hatred, pride; whether by discouragement, despair, depression; whether by obsessions, addictions, disease—aren’t we all broken in some form or fashion? But for the possessed man, and for all who meet the person of Jesus, a muzzle is offered for our brokenness. Through Jesus, there is hope for healing and wholeness.

 

Jesus comes to the synagogue and makes the gospel message real. It’s not the same old story about a prophet or a king or some people back in the day. No, Jesus brings transforming power into the room! And the news spreads like wild fire. As one scholar put it, from the very first chapter of Mark, we are put on notice: “the boundary-breaking, demon-dashing…Son of God has arrived in the person of Jesus, and he expects of his followers far more than amazement. [iii]

 

Bonnie Rackley is a friend of Sissy Almand’s who has become a regular at our First Friday Contemplative Service. Last month she shared a story that she has given me permission to share this morning. Bonnie’s sister’s first and only grandchild, Archie, is 6 months old. Late last year he started wheezing. After many tests the pediatricians discovered Archie had a cyst growing near his vocal chords. Surgery was scheduled the first Sunday in December. Bonnie said she thought it strange that surgery would be scheduled on a Sunday until she learned it was a Jewish hospital. On the Friday evening before the surgery, Bonnie came to our Contemplative Service and lit a candle and offered a prayer for her grand-nephew. Then Sunday, when the doctors took Archie in for surgery, much to their surprise, the cyst was gone. Bonnie’s sister called to give her the good news and Bonnie responded: “God answered my prayer. It was the votive candle I lit and the prayer I prayed. It was those Presbyterians!”

 

Jesus was in the business of healing. Still is! But do we believe it? Or are we like one of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who has gotten so used to doing the same old thing in the same old way with the same old result that the very idea of Jesus breaking into our lives and into the lives of others—well, it’s unfathomable?

 

Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual—we are all in need of healing. We need transformation and Jesus has the authority and the desire to fix what ails us. Sometimes healing comes through spiritual practices like laying on of hands and different forms of prayer. Sometimes healing comes through the God-given wonders of modern medicine. Sometimes healing arrives through the blessing of a community of believers who surrounds us with love and light—even in our darkest hour. Sometimes—it happens through all the above. And sometimes healing may begin in this life only to be completed in the life to come. Yet, no matter the circumstances, for everyone who meets the person of Jesus, there is hope.

 

Richard Foster has penned the following prayer that, perhaps, speaks words of truth for each one of us:

Lord Jesus Christ, when I read the gospel stories I am touched by your healing power. You heal sick bodies to be sure, but you did so much more. You healed the spirit and the deep, inner mind. Most of all I am touched by your actions of acceptance that spoke healing into those who lived on the margins of life, shoved aside by the strong and the powerful. Speak your healing into me, Lord, body and mind and soul…Heal my heart, Jesus, heal my heart.[iv]

 

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

[i] Ibid. 310.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Ofelia Ortega, 312.

[iii] Ibid., Gary W Charles, 313

[iv] The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, Richard Foster, 148-149.

*Cover Art by Elise Phelps of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta