Welcome to the Party

Welcome to the Party

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 15, 2017

19th Sunday after Pentecost

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


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


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


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


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


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


Thankfully, there’s another invitation!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


It’s time to get dressed for a celebration.


Which party will you attend and what will you wear?


[i] The Message

[ii] NRSV

[iii] The Message

[iv] Psalm 150, NRSV


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


Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 8, 2017

18th Sunday after Pentecost

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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





The Authority of Jesus

The Authority of Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 1, 2017

World Communion Sunday

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


One Body.

One Baptism.

One Table.

Thanks be to God!

Cultivate Gratitude

“Cultivate Gratitude”

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

16th Sunday after Pentecost

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


[i] John 21:18, The Message

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

God’s Grace in Your Life

“God’s Grace in Your Life”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; Sept. 3, 2017

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 23; Hebrews 11:1-6; 12:1-2


Over the course of the summer, we’ve been searching for God’s grace in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. We looked at Jeremiah who is called at a young age to bring a tough message to God’s people. Even though the people pay him little mind, Jeremiah presses on because he recognizes the hope available for all who repent. Esther showed up in our survey. When given a choice of protecting herself or protecting her people, Esther seeks justice no matter the cost. In the person of Rahab, we witness God’s redemption provided for insiders and outsiders because all who believe are welcomed into God’s loving embrace. Daniel lives a life at odds with Babylon. At a young age, he stands up for what he believes in. As an old man, he continues a life of disciplined prayer—come what may. Hannah is without child.  Incessantly mocked by Penninah (Elkanah’s other wife), no one can help her so Hannah takes her plea to God and God has mercy. Joseph is his father’s favorite—a fact that is made quite obvious to his siblings every time they see him walking around in his special coat.  Through trial and adversity, eventually, Joseph grows into his coat and becomes a man of substance through whom God accomplishes amazing things. We examined the life of Enoch.  Enoch’s story is simple: Enoch walks with God.  Enoch’s story is extraordinary: Enoch walks with God and then he is no more for God took him. Moses resists God’s call. But in the presence of the Great I AM, Moses is transformed into a man who eagerly seeks the face of God. Ruth, a woman from Moab, a foreigner, a widow, speaks incredible words of love and commitment to her mother-in-law—words that redefine the meaning of family and faith—words that demonstrate what the loyalty of God looks like.


As a church, we have been searching for God’s grace. Surely, we have found it! God’s unmerited favor abounds—which brings us to those oh-so-familiar words penned long ago by the psalmist:


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. The shepherd is in control. Often, we want control. Don’t we? But the role of the Shepherd is already taken. We are the sheep—our job is to follow.


He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. When will we lie down in green pastures? Not when we feel threatened but when we feel protected and cared for. And this right path? It may not be a path to earthly fame but it is a deeper path set before those who long to be near our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. The Lord carries the staff in hand. When need be, the Lord carries us.


You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Imagine a lovely meadow with a stream passing through it.

There sits a rough-hewn table and chairs and, lo and behold, God appears with a tablecloth to spread across it. Then God looks at you and me and beckons us to come forward.  God prepares the table—oh what a gracious and hospitable God we serve.


Yes, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.


God’s grace abounds for all who have faith. And what is faith? Scripture tells us faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. Faith in the Living God shaped the lives of the Hebrew people. It shapes us, too, if we have the courage to answer the call to be ambassadors for Christ.


Christ the King Catholic Church in San Diego has a statue of Jesus on their property. In 1980, the members of the church were astounded when it was damaged. Vandals broke off Jesus’ hands so that his arms now end at the sleeves.  Although there were many offers to repair the statue, after much prayer and consideration, the church decided against it. Instead, they placed a plaque at the base of the statue that reads, “I have no hands but yours,” a reference to the well-known poem by St. Teresa of Avila:


Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.


Christ has no body—Christ has no hands—but yours!


As I worked on the sermon this week, I kept thinking about the work of your hands. I imagined Sissy Almand preparing the elements for Communion today; Kerri Routsong, Tom & Sue Miller, Libby George & Carol Busch chopping onions and peppers, galore, for delicious salsa to be sold at the Christmas Toys & Treats event. Donna Gosnell came to mind because with her hands awe-inspiring music pours forth from the piano and the organ and the flute. With their hands, Elise Phelps and Chasey Grodecki create beautiful drawings that are works of art. I thought of Brian Almand who made the swivel stand on which our sanctuary Bible rests and Grayson Powell who built the clock that graces the church office. Becky Stewart came to mind because she has the creative gifts to make everything around her more beautiful. Then I imagined all of you pitching in to help whenever and wherever needed—serving on Session and church committees, organizing events, singing in the choir, assisting with the Father Daughter Dance, the Bun Run, Break Bread Together, or Stop Hunger Now. And finally, I thought of the good work you do out in the world—caring for people, offering medical care or legal or financial advice, planting and harvesting and tending to God’s creation, providing needed services like accounting, teaching, or making travel arrangements for 21 people who are about to journey to Scotland. There is no doubt, in innumerable ways, you are the hands of Jesus in the world.


And Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith beckons us onward.


What’s that in your hand, O Lord, our Shepherd?  All that you need, my child.


What’s that in your hand, Jeremiah? My excuse note.  Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.


What’s that in your hand, Esther? My purpose, which is to do the will of God at such a time as this, even if I should lose my life in the process.


What’s that in your hand, Rahab? A crimson cord that will bring God’s saving grace to all who are hidden safely in my house—even though I am a foreigner.


What’s that in your hand, Daniel? Only hands stretched out in prayer and praise for the God whom I serve, who has come in the night to shut the mouths of the hungry lions.


What’s that in your hand, Hannah? A baby.  I have named him Samuel for I have asked him of the Lord.


What’s that in your hand, Joseph? I hold forgiveness in my hands—forgiveness for my brothers who intended to do me harm, but God intended it for good.


What’s that in your hand, Enoch? Just an old staff I use when I go on my daily walks with God, through the fields of wildflowers and honey suckle, just over the ridge…forever.



What’s that in your hand, Moses? A shepherd’s hook for God has given me another flock to care for—God’s flock—God’s people.


What’s that in your hand, Ruth?  The hand of Naomi for where she goes, I will go. Where she lodges, I will lodge. Her people shall be my people and her God shall be my God.


What’s that in your hand, Jesus? The bread and the cup.  They tell my story.  They tell your story. Do this in remembrance of me.



What’s that in your hand, my sisters, and brothers in Christ?  The power to continue the story of God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s grace in a world desperate for shalom—healing, wholeness, a full life.


At this time, let us turn our attention to our hands—those instruments that are a gift from God. 1 Peter 2:9 instructs, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” Presbyterians believe in the priesthood of all believers so it’s not just the Minister or the Church Staff or the Elders who work in the Body of Christ. It’s all of us and it is all kinds of work. I invite you to join me in the litany printed in your bulletin after which we will humbly receive the anointing oil as a symbol of God’s blessing upon our hands of labor.

*Cover Art “A Tender and Grimy Grace” © Jan Richardson; Subscription.


God’s Grace in the Life of Ruth

“God’s Grace in the Life of Ruth”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 27, 2017

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Ruth 1:1-17

I love weddings. I love the beauty, the hope, and the possibilities they foreshadow for the future of two people who commit to join their lives one to the other. And I can be quite sentimental about them—so much so—I can cry at the wedding of strangers. In fact, I have been known to cry over many weddings portrayed on film. Just ask my husband! So…imagine my dilemma when I was asked to officiate at my very first wedding—that of our only daughter, Sarah. While I would have enjoyed playing the role of “mother of the bride,” sitting sweetly on the front pew of the church with tears streaming down my face—it was not to be.


When I began to prepare for the big day, there was one thing I knew for certain: If I cried, Sarah would lose it. So I knew I must not cry! And, sentimental fool that I am, what were the chances of that happening? Well, as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” so in the weeks leading up to the wedding, I enrolled in a crash course in the art of self-care. I meditated and prayed daily. I took long walks. I had frequent massages. I intentionally removed myself from as much stress as possible. Then, when the big day arrived, by the grace of God, there I stood before Sarah and her fiancé with joy and peace and “narry” a tear to shed. It was a miracle.


Since that day, I have officiated at many weddings, each, in their own way, a miracle to behold. And, interestingly, more than a few couples have chosen to include, as part of their wedding ceremony, words from the Book of Ruth: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” We may wonder why these words are often “taken out of context,” as it were. I believe it is because they are heartfelt words of unfathomable love—regardless of the fact that they are first uttered by a widowed daughter-in-law to her widowed mother-in-law.


The Book of Ruth is a Hebrew short story about the great-grandmother of King David. It is set in a dark time in Israel’s history. Moses and Joshua are long gone and kings of Israel like David and Solomon, are yet to come. These are the in between years of Israel’s history marked by all the people doing what is right in their own eyes.


In Bethlehem (which literally means “house of bread”) there is no bread. Consequently, Elimelech takes his wife, Naomi, along with their two sons, to find bread in a foreign land. But it is not just any foreign land, it is Moab and there is a long history of enmity between Israel and Moab. Yet, in time, the sons of Elimelech take wives from the land of Moab. Then, calamity strikes. Elimelech dies leaving Naomi a widow. Then, more tragedy occurs when both of Naomi’s sons die—leaving two widows in their wake. Destitute and broken hearted, a family is rent asunder.


The life of a widow in biblical times allows minimal prospects for living—let alone thriving. There will be no completion of an advanced degree, no joining the work force to make minimum wage.  Things look dire, to say the least. As a result, Naomi encourages the women to return to their people and their god—perhaps to seek mercy from their own people. Orpah agrees and departs. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to leave Naomi’s side. Instead, she clings to her mother-in-law and makes one of the most remarkable pledges of loyalty in Scripture: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die—there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me and more as well if even death parts me from you.”  Ruth, the woman from Moab, the foreigner, the enemy of Israel, demonstrates what the loyalty of God looks like. By word and by deed, she exhibits God’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”


Ruth’s incredible words of love and commitment redefine the meaning of family and faith for all time. Bloodline does not necessarily a family make. We see it played out now, maybe more than ever. In our modern-day mobile society, with jobs taking us from state to state, with divorce decimating over half of American families, traditional family events are often shared with fewer blood relatives and more “families” of our own making like neighbors and friends and co-workers. It brings to mind Jesus’ response to the question, “Who is my family?”


You remember the story. Jesus is speaking to the crowds when his mother and brothers come, likely to “talk some sense into him.” When he is told that they are standing outside, Jesus responds, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Through these words, Christ foretells of the Kingdom of God here on earth where gender, skin color, family history, and all that divides is rent asunder. Thanks be to God! God’s love covers it all. God’s love covers us all.


Ultimately, Ruth and Naomi, journey onward together. No doubt, their future looks grim, but looks can be deceiving, and often are when God’s provision ever so gently moves into action. And God’s nature is revealed as the Almighty who is concerned about the everyday life of humanity: the grief of a widow who has buried her husband and sons—the broken heart of a woman left childless, without a husband, and living in a strange land. In the end, Ruth puts her hope in Naomi and in Naomi’s God. Doing so is always a good idea!


When the women reach their destination, it is the beginning of the season of harvest—a season of opportunity—a season of optimism. With just a seed of hope in her heart, Naomi sends Ruth into the fields of a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband. There Ruth gathers up leftover barley and Boaz happens to notice her. Boaz goes out of his way to treat her with kindness, assuring her safety and provision. Evidently, his actions are enough to push Naomi’s matchmaking skills into high gear for soon she orchestrates another encounter. Hear these words found later in the Book of Ruth:


Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”[i]


Following Naomi’s instructions to the letter, leads to the happy ending for which we have been yearning. Later, we learn:


Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.[ii]


With Ruth and Boaz a royal dynasty begins that will, eventually, include David and the very Son of God, Jesus the Christ—Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of our faith—Jesus, God’s love revealed in human form! Emmanuel! God with us!


In preparation for our upcoming pilgrimage to Scotland and Iona, I have been reading (or as the case may be, re-reading) some of the works of John Philip Newell. Newell served as the churchwarden of Iona Abbey in Scotland for a time. Poet, scholar, teacher, he has written many books about Celtic Spirituality. In A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, he shares the following:


An American rabbi was once asked what he thought of the words attributed to Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The rabbi replied, “Oh, I agree with these words.” To which the surprised questioner asked further, “But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” “Because,” answered the rabbi, “I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father except through love.”[iii]


No one comes to the Father except through love. The story of Ruth is a story of love. Ruth becomes a wife again and Naomi becomes a grandmother. The story of Ruth is a story of God’s gracious hand at work in the details of life for those who put their trust in God. Ruth, a woman, a widow, a foreigner, puts her hope in Naomi and in Naomi’s God. Doing so is always a good idea!




[i] Ruth 3:1-5, NRSV.

[ii] Ruth 4:13-17, NRSV.

[iii] John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul, 119.

*Cover Art “Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab” by William Blake via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain


God’s Grace in the Life of Moses

“God’s Grace in the Life of Moses”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 20, 2017

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 3:1-21

Something dramatic gets Moses’ attention one day when he is out in the wilderness keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law at the foot of Mt. Horeb (also known as Mt. Sinai). Moses is intrigued when he sees a power of nature—fire—revealed in a bush.  Likely it is not a beautiful azalea or camellia—it is, after all, in the desert. Likely it is just a rough, scruffy looking bush, from which the holy appears. Moses is about to become a firsthand eyewitness to the holy for Moses is about to encounter his Divine Creator.


Let’s ease up for a closer look. Moses sees the bush that is on fire but it does not burn up. He surely thinks, “What’s going on here? I’ve never seen anything like this before!” (I believe we can safely say that God has Moses’ attention.) Then God calls out, “Moses, Moses,” and Moses responds, “Here I am.” Just in case Moses is not aware the magnitude of this moment, God offers a warning. “Don’t come any closer. Take off your sandals. You are on holy ground.” There Moses stands, barefoot before God, and Moses hears the voice from the bush saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Barefoot Moses hangs his head for he is afraid to look at God.


It turns out that God has seen the misery and injustice the people of Israel are suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. God, filled with compassion, is about to respond to their cry for help. It will be Moses’ mission to go to Pharaoh, lead the Israelites out of slavery, and travel with them to the Promised Land.


At first, glance, as all stories go, this one looks routine. You know the pattern: God calls. The person objects. “I can’t,” they say. “Yes you can,” God answers. This may look like a typical call story unless we consider how resistant Moses is to the call. He puts up quite a fight. If we examine today’s reading, and then on into chapter 4, Moses raises some objection to God’s call—not once or twice—but five times!


First, Moses says to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” This is a question of identity. Who am I? But, who better than Moses to go to Egypt? He has been raised there. He has inside information. And in God’s economy—none of our experiences are wasted. God knows who we are and from where we have come, which is exactly why God calls us to go…say…do…. And we need not fear because God does not call the equipped. God equips the called.


On to Moses’ second objection to God’s call: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and tell them all this great news and they’re a tad skeptical, you know, to the point of asking just who this God is who sent me. What am I going to tell them?” It is an understandable, reasonable question except that it’s not just a question. It’s a power play—subtle—but a power play, nonetheless. In ancient biblical times, it is believed that a name reveals the character of a person so to know another’s name is to have some control over them. With his question, then, Moses is probably trying to hold on to a little control of his own. Moses wants to wile the name out of this divine being because to know its name is to have a certain power over it. Which is what makes God’s answer so perfect: “I AM WHO I AM!”[i]  A better translation is I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. It seems God won’t play this game of manipulation. Poor Moses, his control is slipping away.


“Now be on your way,” God says, “Get the elders together and tell them what I have told you. They will listen to you.”


Again Moses objects. “They won’t trust me. They won’t listen to me. They are going to say, “There is no way God appeared to you—no way!” Moses is filled with self-doubt. Maybe he’s thinking about that day when he murdered an Egyptian who was beating his kinsman—back when he lived in Egypt—back when he was still known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Maybe he thinks since they know he was raised behind the palace walls. They won’t trust him. To this objection, God responds with one miracle after another. “What’s that in your hand, Moses?” “A staff,” and then God turns the staff into a snake, has Moses grab it by the tail and it becomes a staff again. Then God makes the very hand of Moses leprous—then heals it. In essence, God proves, “The elders will believe you, Moses. I will make sure of it.”


Still riddled with self-doubt, still so aware of his own shortcomings, Moses says, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, in the past nor even now. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” By now God is getting fed up. “And just who do you think made the human mouth? Isn’t it I? So get going. I’ll teach you what to say.”


Poor Moses, slow on the uptake, has yet to figure out there will be no denying the call of YHWH on his life. But in one last effort, he gives it a try and says what is really on his mind:  “O my Lord, please send someone else, anyone else…” Completely frustrated with this unwilling servant, God provides a mouthpiece for Moses through Aaron, Moses’ brother, and God sends Moses away with his staff in hand.


It just looks like a bush on fire—but Moses encounters God on holy ground and Moses will never be the same. We may think of Moses as larger than life. How can we relate when, the truth is, most of us do not see ourselves as the stuff of which faith-heroes are made? But that’s probably because we haven’t been reading our Bibles very carefully. Remember David? He is one of the most revered characters in the Bible—described as a man after God’s own heart. Yet, he lies, he steals another man’s wife and then has her husband executed. His sins are many but he turns to God and God forgives him.


And what about the Apostle Paul? Before he has his little “Jesus meeting” on the road to Damascus, he is a ruthless crusader intent on destroying Christianity in its infancy. But he ultimately dedicates his life to spreading the message of salvation to the world.


Then there is Peter. Peter walks with Jesus—learns from Jesus—witnesses Jesus in action—yet he denies Jesus in his hour of need—denies him three times. Yet, recall what Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church…”


The truth of the matter is few of the characters God employs—including Moses—are the stuff of heroes. Yes, Moses is a murderer. Yes, Moses resists God’s call. But along the way, if we examine the life of Moses throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we see an imperfect man who just happens to love God—more and more with each passing day.


Moses, this hero of our faith, what can we learn from him? In the presence of God, Moses is transformed from a man who resists the Holy to a man eager to seek God’s face. Oh, the road isn’t always easy. Leading God’s people turns out to be more of a challenge than Moses could have ever imagined. Still, he sticks with it and he sticks with God—who sticks with him! At the end of his life, Deuteronomy tells us: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”


God meets Moses where he is, a runaway living in Midian, a shepherd for his father-in-law’s flock. God meets Moses where he is but he does not leave him there. God has another flock for Moses to tend—the flock of God’s people. Moses struggles with his own identity. He struggles with God’s identity. He is filled with self-doubt—so much so that he pleads with God—send someone, send anyone else. But over time, Moses becomes a man who is changed and who changes the lives of the people whom God calls him to lead.


Isn’t it remarkable? God has a way of using frail, fallible, ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. By faith, Moses stands barefoot before the holy. By faith, Moses walks with God, staff in hand. By faith, Moses leads the people out of captivity and into freedom. And every step he takes he is accompanied by an outpouring of God’s amazing grace and love.


None of us deserve it—this amazing love! Nonetheless, we are recipients of it. And God has called each of us to be about God’s work of love in the world.


Around the 2nd Century, Christians came under suspicion. Rumors began to circulate about what they were doing when they met together. Tertullian, a church leader in Carthage came to Christianity’s defense, indicating that it was out of jealousy that the church was being criticized—because Christians displayed character the outside world did not possess. He wrote, “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See how they love one another, they say…how they are ready even to die for one another…”[ii]


I wonder what it would be like today, if people outside this church looked at us and said, “Those people at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta—see how they love one another! See how they love their friends and family, their co-workers and their neighbors! See how they love the stranger, the homeless, the prisoner, the outsider, the one no one else loves! See how they share the love of Christ at every opportunity!”


None of us deserve it—God’s amazing love! Nonetheless, we are recipients of it. And God has called each of us to be about God’s work of love in the world. What is your work of love to do?


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


[i] David Lose, Lutheran Seminary—preaching professor www.workingpreacher.org

[ii] The Apology, Chapter 19.

*Cover Art “The Burning Bush” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.


God’s Grace in the Life of Enoch

“God’s Grace in the Life of Enoch”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 13, 2017

10th Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 5:21-24; Hebrews 11:1-6


Nearly every First Friday for the past six months, visitors have attended our new Contemplative Service. This month, though, we had a few repeat visitors, which is always something to celebrate. When I told one woman I was glad to see her again, she replied, “Well, you told me to come back and to invite my friends. I invited 49 people. Some came—but I’m sure the rain kept a few away.” Another woman, Bonnie, a friend of Sissy’s, who enjoys the service, commented how much she liked one of the chants we sing, “The Jesus Prayer.” She said she keeps a bulletin in her car and sings it when she drives. Sissy, who happened to be standing nearby, said, “I know! I keep singing it, too. I even wake up with it going through my head like an ear worm. But it occurred to me, I could have worse things going through my head!”


One of the benefits of learning chants and other short refrains is that they can get into our heads and move into our hearts. Then as we go about our lives, the words may arise of their own accord or we can draw them up when we need them most. One such refrain has often ministered to me. It is from a CD collection of morning and evening prayers. The words are printed in your bulletin. Let’s take a moment to learn it:


I will walk in the presence of God in the land of the living.

I will walk in the presence of God. (Repeat)


Walking in the presence of God—for as long as we are alive on the planet—what a beautiful image—an image that might bring to mind the life of someone like Enoch. Scripture does not tell us a lot about him other than in Genesis: “Enoch walked with God …then he was no more because God took him.”  Also, we learn that he was the father of Methuselah.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us:  “By faith, Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death…he was not found because God had taken him…for he had pleased God.”


If we look outside the Christian canon, we find that Enoch has been attributed the apocryphal text, The Book of Enoch. Actually, 1st Enoch is quoted in The Letter of Jude. Other resources credit Enoch as the inventor of writing, and arithmetic—not to mention the eyed metal needle used in sewing, which explains why some believe he earned his livelihood as a tailor.


No, Scripture does not give us much—just enough to leave us wanting more. We want to know what about Enoch pleased God so much. We want to know why he was so special that he did not taste death. We want to know exactly what it looks like to “walk with God.”


These days, walking is considered more of a scientifically proven, healthy, aerobic exercise than a means of transportation or a simple form of leisure. Honestly, how often do most of us take relaxing strolls through parks or meander through the neighborhood to simply enjoy the crisp morning air?  I cannot help but wonder what Enoch, Moses or even Jesus would think of our aerobic exercise. Certainly, brisk walking is good for our health because it strengthens our heart and lungs, sharpens our mind, and boosts our overall sense of well-being.  It also gives us the added benefit of getting us out from “under roof.”  Then, if even for a short time, we are no longer in our office, in our fast-moving vehicle or even inside our homes taken captive by the television or computer. Instead, for a while, we are outside in God’s wondrous creation.


All this leads us back to something Enoch knew—but something we may have forgotten:  Walking with God is good for our spiritual health. But the heart of the matter isn’t even really the walking. (We could just as easily be rocking on the front porch!) The heart of the matter is making time to intentionally be present with God our Creator. It is spending time with God in the midst of our joys as well as our struggles. It is staying connected to our Heavenly Father who has a way of guiding us and helping us put things in perspective. And it’s sharing our faith journey so others may come to know this Great God we serve. Failing that, we just might bypass the most important things of life. How, then, can we truly please God?


Over the years, I have often thought of Enoch and imagined his life. I wonder if his story goes a little like this:


Enoch had a powerful love of God. He also had lots of responsibilities to occupy his day. Although having enough money to fill up his automobile with gasoline was not on the top of his list of priorities, he had other worries that were just as real to him. He had a family—wife, children—and an occupation. But somehow, Enoch always had time for God. Each day he would rise early, sometimes with back aching and bones creaking. He would rise early because he knew God was waiting for him. Off he’d go, toward the fields of wildflowers and honeysuckle, just over the ridge where he would meet God and they would walk together. What wonderful talks they had. Enoch shared his delight in his son, Methuselah, saying something like, “He’s strong and healthy; he’s going to live for ages and ages.”  And God smiled. He spoke of his wife, their love and the good life they shared and he thanked God.


Some days Enoch had doubts and problems to share with God—an old friend had wronged him—how could he make amends?  A child who didn’t share his faith in God—why?  A mother who went into a deep depression when her husband died—could God give her peace? Neighbors who did not know God—how might Enoch share his faith with unbelievers?

Other days were spent in simple companionship. Enoch loved stories and God loved telling them. God told of how the world was created, the joy of the first man and woman and tons of other incredible stories. They spoke of the natural beauty of the land, the gardens and springs and all the creatures that made life so interesting. Enoch never tired of praising God for God’s creative nature. And God never tired of pouring out his love upon Enoch.

Day after day, Enoch, a man of faith, walked with God, which pleased God so! One day, without them even noticing it, their walk had taken much longer than usual. Turning and looking at Enoch with such pride, God said, “Enoch, you know, we’ve walked together for years and today we’ve walked farther from your home than ever before.  Actually, we’re closer to my place now.  How about you come on home with me?  Enoch smiled and together God and Enoch walked just over the ridge…forever.


We are all on a journey, a pilgrimage. There are problems that we face that will challenge us, no doubt. But we gain strength by remembering the great cloud of witnesses who are a part of our faith story. We gain strength by remembering Enoch who pleased God. We gain strength by remembering that we never walk alone. Even when we face a crossroads when the journey ahead is unclear—God is already there. Along these lines, Thomas Merton is often quoted from Thoughts in Solitude:


My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


“Enoch walked with God …and then Enoch was no more.”  Unlike Enoch, unless the Lord returns in our lifetime, we will face death. But even death, we need not fear. Because of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who lived, died and was resurrected—death has no hold on us. We need not fear the journey ahead. We need not fear the destination for it’s just over the ridge…forever!


As long as we have breath, as long as we are in the land of the living, may we walk in the presence of God! Let us sing:


I will walk in the presence of God in the land of the living.

I will walk in the presence of God. (Repeat)


*Cover Art  via Google Images


God’s Grace in the Life of Rahab

“God’s Grace in the Life of Rahab”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 6, 2017

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Josh 2:1-21; 6:15-25



Born in 1722, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, eventually came to live with her family in a farming area near Charleston.[i]  Her mother died. By the age of sixteen, Eliza was left to care for her siblings and run three plantations for her father. Having a passion for botany, she asked her father for resources to cultivate and process indigo. Off-handedly, he agreed. But later he was overheard explaining his decision: “Well, we have land enough—she’s a mere girl—let her have her fancy.” It would be Eliza Lucas Pinckney who started the indigo trade that became second only to rice as a cash crop at that time. Tremendous wealth was the result of an experiment by a mere girl—a mere girl who became so well thought of President George Washington served as one of the pallbearers at her funeral.


After the death of Moses, Joshua, his assistant, must lead God’s people into the land which the Lord their God will give to them.  In his “Installation Ceremony,” Joshua is given a charge—to be strong and courageous. He’s given a mission—“Cross the Jordan and put Israel in possession of the land.”  And he’s given a promise from God—“I will be with you.”


In time, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to investigate the walled city. The spies end up in the home of Rahab the prostitute, who hides them upstairs under some stalks of drying flax when the king’s men come calling.  “Well, yes, the men did come here,” she tells them, “but I don’t know where they came from and they’ve already left.”  She sends the king’s posse on a wild goose chase. You can almost hear her saying, “They went that away!”


Having gotten rid of the king’s men, Rahab turns her attention to the two spies. Obviously, Rahab knows how to bargain—so she bargains for her life and for the life of her family.


I know that the Lord has given you the land.  There is fear all around.  We’ve heard the stories of the parting of the Red Sea and how Yahweh brought your people out of Egypt. We’ve heard of what you did to the kings of the Amorites, whom you destroyed.  Indeed, your God is God over heaven and earth. Now I’ve dealt kindly with you. Swear to me that you will, in turn, deal kindly with my family and spare us.


The men agree: “Our life for yours.  If you’ll keep our business here a secret, we will deal kindly with you and your family when God gives us the land.” Rahab helps the men escape out her window. As they leave, they instruct her to tie a red cord in the window and to bring all of her family under her roof. Safety is promised only for those in the house of Rahab.  After three days spent hiding in the hills, the spies return to Joshua with their report.


At the appointed time, by the Lord’s command, Joshua has the warriors march around the city, and on the 7th day they march 7 times, priests blow the trumpets—the air vibrates with the sound—and after a long blast the people give a loud shout and the walls of Jericho come tumbling down.  Joshua has made special arrangements for Rahab who showed kindness to his messengers.  He calls the two spies aside and says, “Bring out Rahab and all who belong to her just as you swore to her.”  And so it was.


Our modern day sensibilities may lead us to frown upon Rahab and her chosen profession unless we take a moment to consider that her profession was probably not chosen at all.  Poverty was by far the most common cause of prostitution in the ancient world, and an unmarried, unprotected woman had few choices other than slavery and prostitution.  Hear again Rahab’s negotiation with the spies:  “Spare my father and my mother, my brothers and sisters and all who belong to them.” Could it be that somehow Rahab has become responsible for her entire family?  Could it be that this mere girl has been forced to support her family’s financial needs through prostitution—the only profession available to her?  Could it be that Rahab’s fate is woven into the fate of her family and she’s a prisoner of circumstances beyond her control?


Rahab must have grown up fast and in the process, became quite clever—clever enough to ward off the king’s men and finesse the safety of her family.  It’s possible that she had other business ventures—one wanders why a prostitute would have flax drying up on her rooftop.  Well informed of the news of the day, Rahab knows what the people are saying about the God of Israel and she knows fear has fallen upon the city like a heavy fog.  Could it be that through the spies of Israel, God provides Rahab her first ray of hope?  She is offered a way out.  A crimson cord hanging out her window will be the sign that will bring the rescuers to Rahab and her family—a red cord, perhaps symbolic of the blood on the door posts of that first Passover night, which told the Angel of Death to pass over the children of Israel and keep them safe.


Through the grace of God, Rahab the prostitute, a stranger in a strange land, saves herself and her family from destruction. What must her first night of freedom been like, when the trumpet blasts sounded no more? Did the sunset seem a bit brighter? Did she anticipate a new life with a new people? Did she hope for a stronger relationship with the God of Israel who had saved her, along with her family?


What happens next for Rahab?  Scripture doesn’t tell us but in rabbinical tradition Rahab marries Joshua and 7 kings and 8 prophets come from her lineage.[ii] In the Gospel of Matthew she is named as the mother of Boaz and therefore in the line of King David, and therefore, an ancestor of Jesus. In Hebrews chapter 11, we are told, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient because she had received the spies in peace.”  Through the power of a Sovereign God, Rahab the prostitute, a mere girl, is given a new life and her story is remembered to this day.


I daresay each of us, at sometime in our life, have felt like a mere someone…a mere spouse…a mere parent…a mere grandparent…a mere teacher…a mere neighbor…a mere friend…a mere retiree…a mere student…a mere caregiver…a mere employee…a mere child…a mere teenager…But in the hands of a loving God, we are far from a mere anything. We are people called to make a difference in this world, in this church, in our community, in our work place, in our school, and in our home. And as children of a compassionate and gracious God, we are equipped to make a difference—to love our brothers and sisters in the faith and to reach out to those who sit in darkness. As God’s people we must never underestimate what may seem like the smallest act of kindness done in the name of Jesus—a kind word, a loving embrace, a listening ear, a fervent prayer.


The Book of Joshua tells the story of God and God’s people and nestled within the story of the battles and struggles is the salvation story of a prostitute and her family.  God can change the world with someone who has a willing heart. Rahab had faith in a God about whom she had only heard rumors. She had faith and took action. She didn’t sit on the sidelines waiting for something good to come her way—she recognized the good that was right in front of her. Rahab models how faith…works!


It is through faith that we gather today around the table. None of us come because we are deserving for we have all fallen short of the glory of God. Nevertheless, we are invited to come to the Table of our Lord.  We are invited to come and see—come and remember—the Lord is good!


[i] This story was told by Darla Moore in a speech given at her induction into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame

[ii] Interpretation: Joshua, Creech, 36

*Cover Art  “Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua” : Anonymous; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.


God’s Grace in the Life of Daniel

“God’s Grace in the Life of Daniel”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 23, 2017

8th Sunday after Pentecost

Daniel 6:1-28


Mystery surrounds the book of Daniel. We don’t know who wrote it or exactly when it was written. It is part story and part vision; written partly in Hebrew and partly in Greek. Hungry lions, kings with unpronounceable names, death and salvation in unlikely places[i]—the stories of Daniel are wondrous and I want to preach them all.  I want to preach about young Daniel and a few others, who are taken into captivity into Babylon. When they are told to eat royal rations of food and wine—Daniel sees this as an unclean practice—so he proposes an alternative. “Give us vegetables to eat and water to drink—after 10 days, compare our appearance to those who are eating the royal rations.” The palace master agrees to the test—and Daniel and his friends pass with flying colors.


 Is it no wonder that I want to preach about the time King Nebuchadnezzar makes a huge golden statue and he gathers the peoples to hear the herald proclaim, “When you hear the music, fall down and worship the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever doesn’t fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” All the peoples fall down and worship—all—except for Daniel’s friends—Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. They will not bow down, even when the king spells it out for them: “If you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Still, they refuse. The king is enraged—so much so he has the furnace heated up 7 times its normal temperature.


The young men are tied up and thrown into the furnace—clothes and all. It’s so hot, the men who toss them inside are killed. But when the king looks in expecting to see 3 men ablaze, lo and behold—he sees not 3 but 4 men—unbound—walking in the middle of the fire—unharmed—and the fourth looks like a god.


And who wouldn’t want to preach about the times Daniel interprets dreams and happenings for the kings of Babylon—when no one else can—particularly when King Belshazzar has a festival. Intoxicated, he throws caution to the wind and commands that the vessels of gold and silver, which were taken from the temple in Jerusalem, be brought out so that the partiers can drink from them. And drink they do—all the while praising the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. It would be a bit like someone coming into our sanctuary, taking the bowl from the baptismal font and saying—let’s use this for our salad luncheon as we praise the gods of the harvest! What a mockery! In those days, too, such behavior is a mockery—and God will not be mocked. Immediately God’s wrath is revealed as a disembodied hand begins writing on the wall. The king sees the hand and the writing; he turns pale; his knees begin to shake and he cries out for the diviners and all the wise men of Babylon to come and read the writing on the wall.


No one can interpret it, no one that is except Daniel who is known for interpreting dreams. Daniel comes and reads the words that pronounce God’s judgment: “The days of your kingdom are numbered; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting, and you will lose your kingdom to the Medes and Persians.”


Yes I want to preach all these wonderful stories found in the book of Daniel but I see Jeff Stewart has started twitching and I imagine you came to hear just one sermon—so let’s move on to our reading from Daniel chapter 6—another incredible story.


By this time, Daniel is likely a man of ripe old age. He’s been in Babylon for many years. He’s seen kings come and kings go. While there have been changes aplenty, God has remained the same. So has Daniel’s passion for God. E.M. Forster has been quoted as saying, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”[ii] Rest assured—Daniel is more than merely interested when it comes to his relationship with God.


It’s noteworthy that even though he is a Jew, Daniel has risen to high rank in this foreign country. Along the way, he has made some friends and (have no doubt) he has made some enemies—enemies who set this story in motion because they’re jealous of Daniel. They want to see him lose his power—more than that—they want to see him lose his life. So they devise a plan.


Now imagine for a moment that you are the king and your loyal subjects come to you—seemingly eager for everyone to know how important you are. Your chest puffs out, and you smile with satisfaction, when you hear the plan: “Establish an ordinance that whoever prays to anyone divine or human, for 30 days, except to you, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Yes, yes, a splendid idea! And without a second thought, you sign on the dotted line. Little do you know you’ve just walked into a carefully made trap.


Soon, the king learns that Daniel has been praying and seeking mercy before his God and—clang—the doors of the trap are shut tight. Evidently during the exilic period, praying toward Jerusalem and down on one’s knees becomes the custom for private prayer. It is Daniel’s custom—and he is not about to sway from it because of a decree signed by an earthly king.  Daniel’s citizenship in God’s kingdom concerns him most.  So he goes to the upper room in his house, with the windows open, down on his knees, facing Jerusalem, and he prays and he praises his God—like clockwork, three times a day.  Now you may be wondering couldn’t he have shut the blinds?  Couldn’t he have gone to a secluded place to pray?  No, in this area of his life, Daniel isn’t about to compromise.


So the trap is set. Daniel walks into it and kneels down.  And the king, well he’s there too—not literally, of course—but he is powerless to extricate himself from the situation—for we are told that according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, once the king signs a law into effect, it cannot be revoked.  So there they are—locked in a trap set by those who seek evil instead of good.


Of all people, the king is probably the most shocked by the circumstances.  Honestly, I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Yes, he made an unwise decision. Yes, he let his ego get the best of him. But here is a person who is supposed to be the most powerful man in the nation yet his hands are tied. We know he’s very fond of Daniel. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep. He probably paces the floor all through the long night and what a long night it must have been.


Waiting—it’s so hard, isn’t it?  When our middle son, Seth, was a baby he was diagnosed with strabismus. The muscles in his eyes were not working well together so surgery was needed to fix the problem. By this time, I had worked in the hospital a few years—long enough to have just enough knowledge to make me dangerous. In great detail, I remember that morning, standing outside those daunting double doors, waiting to hand our baby over to the surgical team. Just prior to the procedure, the surgeon came out to speak to Kinney and me.  He could sense my anxiety and he said, “Glenda, it’s a simple procedure, probably won’t take more than an hour—you work in the hospital—you know how this goes.”  And I said to him, “Well, yes, but I’ve always been on the other side of those doors.”  It took only an hour or so…but the time passed so slowly.


It makes a difference, doesn’t it?  When we are the one sitting—waiting—praying. It is a hard place to be.But wait the king does—until the break of day. At first light, the king rushes out to see what has happened to his friend. Has Daniel made it through the night?  Have the lions devoured him?  The king runs and calls out as he nears the den, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?”  And a voice calls back, “O king…my God has sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths…”  The trap is opened—both the king and Daniel are freed by the hand of God—and quick as a flash—those who set the trap—find themselves in it.


Daniel is loyal and obedient and God’s salvation story is worked out in his life in wondrous ways. Through him we find hope for our own faith walk. But we are wise to fight the temptation to moralize the story, taking it to mean that if we are faithful enough, things will go our way and we’ll rise to places of power and success just like Daniel. We only have to look to one person—Jesus—to see that isn’t always so.  We only have to look to one place—Golgotha—to see that isn’t always so. Yet, resurrection hope is still ours for remember, Jesus is only held in the trap of the tomb three days. Three days and then victory of victories because even death cannot stop God’s ultimate plan for good.


In addition to Daniel’s way of life, we can learn something from Daniel’s friends’ behavior, too. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are about to be thrown into the fire, essentially they say to the king, “If our God is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, let God deliver us. But if not, know this, we will not serve your gods and we will not worship your golden statue.” These young men would rather take their chances with God than anyone else. It sounds like the Apostle Paul, doesn’t it?  “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[iii] What wonderful news—we can’t lose—no matter what, we are the Lord’s. No matter what, Daniels friends will bow to no one but God and no matter what, Daniel will let no one sway him from his passion for God.


You see, Daniel has seen kings come and he has seen kings go—but one thing remains the same—God.  So come what may, Daniel goes to his upper room and kneels toward Jerusalem and he praises God and he prays and he prays and he prays. Amen.



[i] Daniel Commentary from The Life with God Bible, NRSV, James M. Rand

[ii] Quoted in The Best Advice I Ever Got, Katie Couric

[iii] Romans 8:14.


*Cover Art  “Daniel’s Answer to the King,” Thomas Agnew and Sons, 1982; Public Domain