Wilderess Wondering

Wilderness Wandering

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 18, 2018

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

 

The paraments are purple, again. Did you notice? It seems like only yesterday they were the same liturgical color leading up to Christmas. Maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the liturgical calendar. That was not the case for me. In fact, I learned about celebrating Advent and using an Advent wreath with candles of purple, pink, and white through my mother-in-law—a life-long Presbyterian.

 

Many years have passed, and I have celebrated the liturgical calendar from season to season with Kinney and our children and with our church family. Along the way, I have learned a few things—one of which is—there are people in every church who grew up celebrating the church calendar with all its color and rhythm and poetry. And there are those for whom such practices are still quite new. With this in mind, I want to take a few moments this morning to consider the use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons, which became a common practice in the Western church in about the 4th century. Although the colors varied somewhat at first, by the 12th century they were systematized by Pope Innocent III. It will not come as a surprise that the practice of using liturgical colors in worship was rejected by the Reformers after the Reformation. But by the 20th century, many ancient Christian practices—including this one—gained new life in Reformed Churches. I guess it finally dawned on us that we had thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water; discarding too much of the poetry and heart of our faith story in the process.

 

The Presbyterian Planning Calendar explains that the liturgical colors of the Christian year are white, purple, red, and green. White is used for the special days or seasons in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, such as Christmas and Easter. Red is the color for Pentecost and is often used for ordination services. Green is used for Ordinary Time—periods that are not marked by a specific festival or season and Purple marks the seasons of penitence and preparation—Advent and Lent.

For most of us, Advent hardly seems like a time for penitence or preparation, though. Oh, we give a nod to the prophets of old and we listen to the yearning of the people of Israel for a Messiah. We even sing Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” But we hardly wait to sing Christmas hymns until Christmas Day and the twelve days following. Rest assured, if I chose only Advent hymns for the Season of Advent, I would hear about it and so would every member of the Worship Committee.

 

Utilizing the church calendar, though, we recognize Advent and Christmas have come and gone—as has Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, and Transfiguration of the Lord. Now, by the mark of ashes on our foreheads, we have entered the Season of Lent—a penitential time of 40 days—a time set aside for us to follow the footsteps of Jesus as we journey toward Easter. The time is meant to be self-reflective in nature. We may feel led to give up something that will allow us more time to pray, fast, read Scripture, serve others, make amends…

Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we gather in worship to hear a reading from one of the gospels about Jesus in the wilderness. The telling from the Gospel of Mark stands out for its brevity. As is his minimalist nature, Mark rushes us through the scene at break-neck speed, which is one reason why we should pay attention to every word because every word counts. So, let’s take a closer look at the intensity of Mark’s account. First, as Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, the heavens are torn apart.  After the voice calls from the heavens, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There, for 40 days, Jesus has some extraordinary company: Satan and wild beasts and angels. Only after the time of preparation is complete does Jesus set off to do his Abba Father’s business of proclaiming the good news.

If we want to know more about Jesus’ wilderness time, and of course, we always want to know more, we might look to other gospels to fill in some of the blanks. But maybe we have enough to ponder—even with Mark’s bare-bones story-telling style. For instance, we might consider the sky being torn asunder. Who’s doing the tearing? It appears that it is the Holy One who is doing the tearing—an act that will be repeated later in the gospel when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross. Yes, God is doing the tearing. God is doing a new thing through Jesus for us and our salvation. What wondrous love is this!

Pondering this text further, we might wonder why the Spirit is doing the driving—driving Jesus out into the wilderness. The Spirit does so for a purpose—a divine purpose. I daresay, if we examine our own lives we realize every wilderness brings with it lessons to be learned. In what desert place have we chosen to grow, lately? Well, you see, that’s just it. None of us voluntarily chooses to go to the wilderness. We aren’t eager to struggle. But struggle and temptation and darkness—well, they come to us all at some time or another. Do we trust God to be present in such times? Do we see that even though God does not cause our misery, God is at work in us and through us and around us—even in our darkest hour? What have we learned in the wilderness? What might we learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness?

One biblical commentator notes that what’s most important in Mark’s telling of the wilderness event is how:

…Jesus is retracing the steps of Israel’s history in order to rewrite her story. Whereas Israel in the wilderness stumbled and wandered for forty years in sin, rebellion, and distrust, longing again for the chains of slavery, Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the wilderness for forty days. [Then] he announces that the time has been made full, and God’s rule has come near. All of the old obligations to the priests, to the temple, to Herod, and to Rome have been canceled, not only for Jesus, but for all those who repent and follow him into God’s rule.[i]

All the old obligations have been canceled and, in the darkness—whether Jesus’ or ours—we learn we are merely dust. Truly, we need help and it is our Abba Father who comes to our aid. It is God who makes us new. It is God’s Spirit who journeys with us to show us the way and keep our enemies at bay.

What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Jesus lets go of human things and fully embraces the will and way of his Abba Father. In the wilderness, he struggles physical and spiritually, but he comes forth from the darkness a new man—filled with the Spirit and equipped for the humble revolution he is about to lead.

The lectionary links today’s story with the story of the flood—a story that comes about because of the downfall of the order of things established at creation. The future now belongs to a small group of people, who live under the covenant of the rainbow cast in the sky by God’s own hand. Jesus, too, inaugurates a new day, a new covenant, a new structure. “The way things have always been” will be no more. A new empire is being built right before the eyes of Jesus and his disciples. Out on the horizon, we stand as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ. Through the waters of our baptism, we have a new identity and a new mission. We are free. We are filled with the Spirit. We are equipped to make a difference. Are we making a difference?

Lent offers an opportunity to take stock of our lives but, in the words of Rev. Sarah Dylan:

Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time—chocolate, beer, swearing, or some such—drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as “good,” and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we’re on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered the desert with wild animals and angels…and we are striving to follow him.[ii]

Striving to follow Jesus, we have entered the desert of Lent on our own spiritual quest. How will we wander onward? Will we rush through the 40 days ahead as if there is nothing of value to be learned? Will we continue to turn our faces toward anything but God? Or will we tread upon the earth at a different pace…listening…watching…praying…obeying?

Jesus is not alone on his journey. Neither are we. Let us go forth boldly. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, let us be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Then, when we gather here on Easter morning, with paraments of white marking the occasion of the resurrection of Christ, our Lord—we will have even more to celebrate!

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

[i] Stanley P. Saunders, Feasting on the Word, 49.

[ii] Rev. Sarah Dylan @sarahlaughed.net, First Sunday in Lent, Year B.

Jesus on Tour

Jesus on Tour

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 4, 2018

5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                        Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

 

The ministry of Jesus is in full swing. After astounding the people in the synagogue with his teaching and healing the demon-possessed man, Jesus enters the home of Simon and Andrew. He learns of Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever and raises her up, restoring her to health. Notice, Jesus touches the woman—the Son of God touches the woman. The healing power of touch cannot be denied. Study after study has revealed how human touch and community affect the overall quality (and, often, quantity) of life. It was true in the days of Jesus and it is still true today. But isn’t that what incarnation is all about—Jesus entering the world taking on human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. The kingdom of God is at hand.

 

Through the power of Jesus, Simon’s mother-in-law and is made whole. Although we don’t even learn her name, there are important lessons to be learned through her. For one thing, she represents our need for wholeness. In Bethlehem, in 400 A.D., Jerome preached on this very text saying:

 

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand; for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees (Corpus Christianorum, LXXV, 468).[i]

 

While I may feel no obligation to ask the apostles to beseech Jesus on my behalf (since Jesus is our High Priest—that hardly seems necessary), still, I appreciate Jerome’s sentiment for don’t we all have fever? And when Jesus comes to us and touches us, aren’t we changed?

 

Another important lesson we can learn from Simon’s mother-in-law comes through her response to healing. The Gospel of Mark introduces her as the first deacon (diakoneo) of the New Testament. This word (diakoneo) is used earlier, after the Temptation in the wilderness, when the angels tend to or care for (diakoneo) Jesus. In our reading for today, it is Simon’s mother-in-law who responds to the healing touch of Jesus by rising from her sick bed and caring for others in service and love. Is there any better response?

 

Of course, the news of Jesus’ healing power spreads like wildfire. So many others, who are sick or possessed by demons, are brought to him that by sunset, the whole town is standing outside the door. So many people; so little time!

 

Imagine what would happen here in Valdosta if Jesus came into our midst, touched a few of us, and healed us, quick as a flash. Wouldn’t we all be dancing for joy? Wouldn’t we call our neighbors and friends? We would send the good news out via mass email, the Valdosta Daily Times, our church website and Facebook page, you name it! Jesus is touring Georgia and he has started here, at First Presbyterian Church! Now imagine this place next Sunday. Have no doubt; you would need to arrive early. Don’t even plan to sit in your favorite seat. In fact, if you don’t arrive at the break of dawn, bring a nice, warm jacket because you will be forced to stand outside and listen from a distance—all the while just hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus the Master Preacher and Healer.

 

In Capernaum, at the home of Simon and Peter, the people are pressing in on Jesus from every side. He heals, he casts out demons and then, and then, and then, it’s morning and he’s nowhere to be found. Jesus is so passionate and his ministry is just getting started, but wait a minute! Where did he go? In the early morning (it’s still dark outside) Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray. Why do you think Jesus goes off to pray? When we think of Jesus praying, we might envision him kneeling, holy and still, in perfect peace, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe teaching and healing the people has drained him. As a pastor, I can bear witness that preaching can be exhausting. In fact, the responsibility of attempting to speak God’s word to God’s people can take every ounce of energy a person can muster.

 

Part of my doctoral work at Columbia included research about pastors and their preaching practices. Some of my research involved conducting interviews—one of which I will never forget.  While interviewing a woman pastor serving in Holston Presbytery, I asked: “So, tell me, what do you enjoy most about preaching?” Without missing a beat, she answered “12:05.”  Cracked me up! The honest truth is that for most of us, preaching is rewarding but it is also challenging. With that in mind, I can’t even fathom what it was like for Jesus who was preaching with a power and an affect never before seen on this old earth. 12:05, indeed!

 

Jesus looks around and there are people in need—everywhere. And like a new star in town overtaken by paparazzi, the only way he can find a moment of peace and quiet is to slip out of the house while everyone is asleep. Surely, he needs refreshment and renewal. Here and in other places in the gospels, in times of stress, temptation and decision, Jesus returns to God for guidance and strength. Time and time again, he shows us the need for balance in life: work, rest, prayer, and, yes, even play.

 

But his prayer time is cut short when Peter and his companions interrupt him. One scholar notes how most translators are gentle with Peter and his friends saying that they “hunted” or “searched for” or “went after” Jesus. But, in fact, the word used here implies hostility. In other words, Peter and his friends are astonished at Jesus’ behavior, and they’ve come to set him straight.[ii]

 

As I imagined this scene, in the happenings in the synagogue and in the home of Simon and Andrew, Jesus is the main attraction. However, Simon and Andrew are probably getting quite a bit of attention, too. Is it going to their heads? Are they toying with the idea of becoming Jesus’ managers? They seem to think they know what Jesus needs to be doing—and solitude and prayer—well, that’s not it. The tension between what the disciples think Jesus has come to do and what he has, in fact, come to do builds throughout the gospel. But Jesus will not be swayed. He will be the one to set the tone for his ministry. Instead of allowing the disciples or even the people to set his agenda, Jesus will follow the leading of his Abba Father. So, early in the morning, he goes off alone to be refreshed, renewed, and rekindled by Yahweh, so that he can go out and do ministry led by the Holy Spirit. The people’s ways will not be his ways. Not then and not now. “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do,” he tells them.

 

Jesus does not come to be the Savior of Capernaum, or the Savior of Galilee or the Savior of Jerusalem for that matter. Jesus comes to be the Savior of the world.  Jesus comes in human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. Jesus comes to cast out darkness, and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

 

God’s ways are always grander than we can fathom. It’s something the prophet Isaiah knew well:

 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.[iii]

 

In the person of Jesus, God enters the world to raise us up, to renew our strength. With the Spirit within us, we mount up with wings like eagles; we run and do not grow weary. The kingdom of God is at hand. This is the message of Jesus—the Bread of Life—who comes to heal and save the world. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, may he touch us, and may we rise as servants of our Lord! Amen.

[i] Ibid, 55.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, Gary W. Charles, 337.

[iii] Isaiah 40:28-31.

*Cover Art “Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife” by John Bridges, 1839; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Dear James and John

Dear James and John

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 21, 2018

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3:1-5; Mark 1:14-20

 

Often, when I begin to prepare a sermon, I sit quietly in my prayer room at home with Scripture before me. Using the ancient practice of lectio divina (or sacred reading) I read the text and then sit in silence, listening for a word or phrase that speaks to my heart. I generally read through the passage several times, and prayerfully listen after each reading. Using this process for our gospel reading today, I notice it is set at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been arrested and then Jesus sets off for Galilee. Walking alongside the sea, Jesus calls two sets of brothers to join him.

 

When I close my eyes to meditate further on this scene, I am taken back to a beautiful, sunny day in 2009. Walking along the banks of the Sea of Galilee with other clergy, a holy presence is palpable. I can almost hear Jesus’ voice to those would-be disciples, “Come, follow me, I will make you fish for people.” Hopefully, you noticed the photograph on the front of your bulletin. It was taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley, a dear friend who was also on the Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Looking at it this morning, doesn’t it suggest to you another time and place? Two men—gone fishing! Simon and Andrew? James and John?

 

Jesus approaches first Simon and Andrew, and then James and John. “Follow me,” he says. And they do.  As simple as that!  Or is it? Eventually, my holy pondering cause me to settle on one person in the scene—Zebedee. Imagine with me for a moment, Zebedee, sitting in the boat with his sons and a couple of hired hands. Then along comes Jesus and takes his sons away. What must that have been like for Zebedee? His sons’ decision surely affects him deeply.

 

Such ruminating compels me to invite you on a journey. Off to the Galilee we go—to the Sea of Galilee Public Library. In the room of archives, we pilfer through ancient documents. And there, on something like papyrus, we happen on a letter addressed, “Dear James and John.” Wait! Could it be our James and John? Looking closer, we realize that, yes, it is. And, lo and behold, it is written in English. (My oh my, Jesus really did speak in King James English…just kidding…) What insight might we gain from this ancient document? Let’s take a closer look.

 

Dear James and John,

I miss you both, still. Some evenings I sit by the Sea of Galilee and remember those days long ago when we worked as successful fishermen alongside Simon and Andrew. Even then, you had the look of wanderlust in your eyes. I knew about your visits to the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach. I knew you were captivated by his passionate message. I kept silent, but oh, how I worried.

 

Then along came Jesus. You never stopped talking about him. Of course, in due time, you weren’t the only ones talking about Jesus. Everyone was!  Initially, I admit I was skeptical. Other Zealots had come through and preached hellfire and damnation, eager to take up arms to overthrow the Roman government; eager to set things right for our people—no matter what! I guess it’s no wonder then that, at first, I was concerned about your relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. I feared he might be a Zealot, too!

 

On the day he came along the banks of the seashore and invited you to follow him, I couldn’t believe you did it. Without hesitating, you left me sitting there with only the hired hands to keep me company. My heart was broken. We had dreams for the future of our family. We had plans to expand the business. As you well know, fishing is one of the few lucrative enterprises available for those of us under Roman rule who live by the sea. But in a moment, everything changed. When you left, I sat in that boat, with my head in my hands, fighting back tears, for what seemed like forever. What was I supposed to do and how could I do it without you?

 

Thankfully, as the months went by, you visited your mother and me whenever you were nearby. You kept us posted about what was going on in the life of Jesus, yourselves and the other disciples. It didn’t take long to realize that Jesus was not a Zealot, at all. Oh, he spoke his mind against evil and against the religious authorities who cared more about themselves than the people. But he showed no signs of wanting to take up arms; lead a revolution; overthrow the Roman Empire. Quite the opposite! All this humble, compassionate man wanted to do was demonstrate Yahweh’s love, call us to repentance, and offer forgiveness and new life. Abundant life! The signs were everywhere! The sick were healed, the blind gained their sight, outcasts were invited back into the fold—no Zealot here—only the Son of Man zealous to do his Father’s bidding.

 

As a father myself, I dreamed of grand things for your future. From the time you were both young lads, I urged you to strike out on the unpredictable seas. I wanted the best for you and I thought I knew what that meant. In retrospect, I confess I was blinded by my own ambition. On that day when you stepped out of our boat and bounded after Jesus, all I wanted to do was call you back, “Don’t go on those seas, my sons, don’t go!” I thought all was lost but nothing was lost, and everything was gained—for us and for all who have ears to hear! What you found was Jesus who first found you and called you. I thank Yahweh that you listened and obeyed. Because you did, you are part of the wonderful story of redemption—repenting, believing, following, and fishing. You have learned to keep time in a different way.[i]

 

Unquestionably, there have been difficult days since Jesus returned to his Abba Father’s side. But you have witnessed God’s power in ways I can only imagine. Oh, what I would give to have been there with you on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came into the world in power and might. What a day that must have been!

 

For all time, for all the world, Jesus the Messiah, changed everything. I see that now. At first, when you left, I worried about you leaving the family business. I worried about having to do it all alone or ending up alone. But now I know I am never alone. Christ is with me. I have learned that the love and invitation Jesus offered you that day is now available for everyone—even me—and I praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit!

 

Words can hardly express how proud I am of you both. You followed Jesus. You followed your hearts. What courageous men you have become. No doubt, you stumbled many times along the way, disappointing Jesus and yourselves. But every time you fell, Jesus was right there beside you to pick you up and set you on the right path. He gave you strength for your journey of faith. He still does! Remember that!

 

Even though you have faced more than your share of challenges already, it’s not over yet.  Now, more than ever, there are those who want to silence the message Jesus proclaimed. There are those who will try to silence you, too, before all is said and done. But you will not back down; of this I am sure. With all your heart and soul, you have cast your lot with Jesus who gave his life for the poor, the lowly, the marginalized, the forgotten. Because of Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

 

On Easter morning, when news began to spread that Jesus was missing, it didn’t take long for the report to reach Galilee. All seemed lost.  But then we began to hear rumblings that something miraculous had happened. Jesus was not dead because no tomb could hold the Son of God. Oh, how we rejoiced! In my heart, I know that the empty tomb still speaks to you. It speaks to me, too. Jesus’ victory over death means that death is nothing to be feared. It’s only temporary—for Jesus and for everyone who believes.

 

So, my sons, do not fear the days ahead. Whatever you do, in word and deed, do it for the glory of God. Continue to spread the good news that new life is possible—for us, for our children, for our children’s children. It is my prayer that this message rains down through the pages of history—never to be silenced—never to be lost! To point the way to Jesus has been your vocation since that beautiful morning by the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus the ultimate fisherman, caught you in his net.[ii] And just as he said he would, he has made you fishers of people. Well done, my beloved sons, well done!

 

Your devoted father,

Zebedee

[i] Feasting on the Word, Ted A. Smith, 287.

[ii] Ibid. Lee Barrett, 286.

 

*Cover Art Photo “Sea of Galilee” taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley in 2009 when she, Dr. Glenda Hollingshead, and several other clergy were on a Holy Land Pilgrimage.

 

Greater Things

Greater Things

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 14, 2018

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

I Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51

 

After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, it is time for Jesus to choose his disciples.  He heads off to Galilee, finds Philip, and extends an invitation: “Follow me.”  Philip can’t wait to share the news with Nathanael. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  But Nathanael has doubts, and asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” At this point, Philip doesn’t try to defend Jesus, he merely extends the invitation: “Come and see.”  Then when Jesus says to Nathanael, upon his approach, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” and explains that he saw him under the fig tree even before Philip called him, Nathanael is taken aback. And just like that, he becomes a believer.

 

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” It appears that Nathanael’s easily impressed. Jesus must think the same for he responds with what must have been laughter in his voice. “You believe because I told you I saw you under a fig tree? You’ll see even greater things…”

 

One of the best-kept secrets about the life of Jesus may be this: Jesus had a sense of humor! Think about it for a moment. Could Jesus have been truly human without having a sense of humor? I don’t think so. Honestly, I cannot read today’s passage without smiling. It’s funny! First, Nathanael can’t believe anything good can come out of Nazareth. Then, when Jesus reveals that he has a little supernatural information, Nathanael is blown away. That’s all it takes! Well, Nathanael, hold on to your horses!

 

While life is filled with challenges, it is also filled with joy. Take, for example, last fall when our Mission & Evangelism Committee met to discuss, among other things, items to include in our new visitor’s bags. Since our marketing guru, Jane Shelton, had already emailed me a few ideas, I got the conversation started by sharing them. We might include some candies beautifully wrapped with a note that reads, “How sweet of you to drop by!” Another idea: a packet of hot chocolate during the cooler winter months, with a note that says, “Your visit warmed our hearts!” Or maybe a packet of nuts, labeled, “We’re nuts that you chose to worship with us today. We hope you come again soon.”

 

The thought of including nuts in the gift bag raised concerns for Kerri Routsong (who happened to be wearing her “Good Mother” hat that evening). She suggested sunflower seeds instead, to which—without batting an eye—Libby George exclaimed, “And we can add a label saying, ‘We SEED you here and we hope to see you again!” We SEED you here and we hope to see you again. By this time, we were all in stitches. It still makes me chuckle—every time I think of it! In fact, Libby and I have gotten into the habit of greeting one another with, “I SEED you!”

 

The Christian life is worth living, and along the way, how much better it is to journey with our brothers and sisters and enjoy a laugh or two. Make no mistake; Jesus is not a sour person. He does not go through life glumly and without joy. Remember—he and his disciples are called wine-bibbers and gluttons. That’s not a reputation you get by being solemn and serious all the time. Furthermore, I ask you, when you get together with friends to eat a meal and enjoy one another’s company, isn’t laughter one of the best parts?

 

In James Martin’s book, Between Heaven and Mirth, he speaks of Jesus’ full humanity and his fully developed sense of humor. Says Martin, “[Jesus] told clever stories, made funny asides, and welcomed apostles who had a sense of humor. Indeed, his sense of humor may be one largely unexamined reason for his ability to draw so many disciples around him with ease.”[i]

 

When Nathanael hears that the Messiah is from Nazareth, he cannot believe it—and he says exactly what he thinks. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It’s a slur regarding the insignificance of this little backwater town is. But does Jesus scold Nathanael for making fun of his hometown? No, instead he says to Nathaniel, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” In other words, “I can trust you. You will tell me exactly what’s on your mind.”[ii] Then, when Nathaniel seems so impressed that Jesus even knows where he was sitting when Philip finds him, in essence, Jesus says, “Wait until you see how this story turns out—I’m just getting started.”

 

To Nathanael, in whom there is no deceit, Jesus declares, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now we move from the humorous to the holy, because what Jesus is alluding to is another story in another place. It is the story of Jacob—you remember—the one in whom there was plenty of deceit! He lied and tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright, and had to run for his life. One night, while using a stone for a pillow, Jacob goes to sleep. He dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it.  Then, Yahweh renews the covenant that had been made with Abraham saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac…all people shall be blessed in you …I am with you.”

 

Many years have passed under the old covenant, but now, in Jesus, a new covenant begins.  “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” he says to Nathanael.  The ladder has been replaced by Jesus himself who connects heaven and the earth. Jesus is the center point between this world and the world to come—Jesus, who is both human and divine, Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel.

 

The humorous and the holy mark the life and ministry of Jesus. Hopefully, they mark our lives, too. As we journey forth together, may we find moments to stop and give thanks for the ways in which Christ enriches our lives through one another. Without a doubt, we live in individualistic times—maybe now more than ever. People claim to be spiritual and not religious. People find endless things to do on Sunday morning besides gathering with other believers to sing and pray and worship God. But wise ones who have gone before us—wise ones like Martin Luther King Jr. have left us words to ponder: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” The broader concerns of all humanity—we need each other just like Jesus needs his disciples—for the work, yes, but also for the fellowship and the laughter and the abundant life available for us all.

 

You may have noticed that both our Old and New Testament readings for today are call stories—Samuel as a little boy, laying in the Temple, and Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree. It does not matter where they are, God knows, and God calls. Thankfully, they listen. Today we have three elders who have responded to a similar call.  A few months ago, the Nominating Committee began to meet and pray about whom God might be calling to lead our church. By the Spirit’s leading, each candidate was approached: “In you, we see spiritual gifts for leadership that our church needs. Will you join with us?” Thankfully, these three answered yes to the call. (Actually, two of them are serving a second term.)

 

We need good leaders. Along with the other seven who are currently serving on session, our new ruling elders will help us seek both the holy and the humorous to bring us closer to God. They will help us explore the way ahead. They will pray and work and listen for the voice of God. They will help cast a vision for the coming days of our church life. All of us are invited to join in the work—to create something even more beautiful!  “Greater things than these!” Jesus said. All to honor Jesus—the Good One who came out of Nazareth—the Good One who connects heaven and earth with the new ladder of salvation. Greater things, indeed!

 

[i] Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, James Martin, SJ 58.

[ii] Ibid. 54.

*Cover Art “Come and See” © Jan Richardson; Subscription.

 

A New Day

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 7, 2018

Baptism of the Lord

Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

 

4John the baptizer is on a mission. Even before his conception, the mission is foretold to his soon-to-be father, Zechariah. The angel Gabriel brings the message: “…your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…he will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him…to make ready a people for the Lord.”

 

Our reading today brings us to the edge of the River Jordan. Here the grown man (John the Baptizer, he’s called) appears in the wilderness. In your mind’s eye, can you see him? Wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, and a leather belt, and living on the most meager of rations—John is on a mission and he has a strong message to deliver. Without a doubt, John will never be accused of preaching the cotton candy gospel. There is nothing sweet and syrupy about what he has to say as he calls for repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Luke’s Gospel, John goes so far as to call the crowd gathered around him a brood of vipers!

 

Now be honest, if you came to church this morning and I called you a snake and yelled at you about your dirty, filthy ways—would you come back? Would you even stay for the rest of the service to see how it all turns out? Probably not! Yet people do come, and they do stay. They are drawn to this wild and crazy guy. Why? Could it be that they are starving for a word of truth from God? In the life of the people of Israel, God has been silent for so long. Then this wild man comes from out of the blue. The people see his strange ways and they are reminded of the prophets of old. They hear his words and the passion with which he delivers them, and their hearts burn within them. Could it be that only the grace-filled waters of baptism will cure what ails them and point them in the right direction?

 

Although we tend to think that baptism is a Christian invention, it is an ancient Jewish practice. The ritual of immersion was required for all kinds of things—like after giving birth to a child or after touching the dead. The ritual bath, or mikvah, is still practiced by many Jews today—particularly Jewish brides in preparation for their wedding day. In our reading from Mark, John the Baptist uses the mikvah, as a way of symbolizing repentance, using physical water to demonstrate spiritual purity.[i]

 

The people come to the Jordan River and hear the message proclaimed. They repent and participate in a ritual cleansing. And all the while, John reminds them that this is only a foretaste of wonders to come—the Wonder to come!  “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

With these words still floating overhead, Jesus comes to be baptized. Jesus, the One without sin, comes to the cleansing waters. Why? Marcus Borg says that in baptism Jesus identified “with the faults and failures, pains and problems, of all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan river. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us.”

 

The renewing waters of baptism hearken us back to another beginning…in the beginning of creation when the earth was formless and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” In the beginning, order is created out of chaos and the first day is inaugurated. With his baptism, Jesus’ earthly ministry officially begins—it’s his inauguration. Creation takes part, as the heavens are rent asunder. The Spirit descends like a dove, and for us and all creation, a new day dawns.

 

After Jesus’ baptism, a voice comes from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased.” Before any test is passed, before any deed is done, God declares his pleasure with his Son. And while God expects great things of Jesus, so does John. It is why John remains faithful to his mission. John expects something to happen and it does. Do we? Do we expect our baptism to mean something; to equip us for something?

 

The truth is Baptism is our inauguration—our beginning—our new day. It is a pivotal event in the life of any Christian—whether administered to those presented for Baptism as children or those who profess their faith later in life. In the Book of Order we read, “In Baptism, we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Baptism, we die to what separates us from God and are raised to newness of life in Christ. Baptism points us back to the grace of God expressed in Jesus Christ, who died for us and was raised for us. Baptism points us forward to that same Christ who will fulfill God’s purpose in God’s promised future.[ii]

 

As a community of believers, we gather here this morning around the renewing waters of baptism. By the waters of our Baptism, we are marked for service, we are filled with the Spirit and we are commissioned to go forth to spread the love of Christ in our little corner of the world. Using the litany provided in the bulletin, together, let us reaffirm our baptismal covenant.

 

REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM

Brothers and sisters in Christ, united by faith in Jesus Christ, we remember the waters of lifestreaming forth to make all things new. Now, through the remembrance of our baptism, let us recommit ourselves to lives overflowing with love, justice, and righteousness:

 

In the beginning, O God, you separated the waters from the earth and saw that it was good. By the care of your hands, creation flourished. You provided grain; you watered earth’s furrows and softened it with showers and blessings.

(Silence is kept.)

For your life-giving waters,

O God, we give you thanks and praise.

Creator God, you gave us the breath of life and the freedom to choose your way. Instead, we followed our own heart’s desires, but you did not turn away from us. You sought after us and through prophets, like Ezekiel, you spoke words of hope: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you…a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…”

(Silence is kept.)

For your life-giving waters,

O God, we give you thanks and praise.

When we failed to listen to your prophets and priests and kings, you sent your blessed Son to beckon us back to you. You led Jesus to the river’s edge to be baptized and as he came up from the water, the heavens opened, and your Spirit descended like a dove.

(Silence is kept.)

For your life-giving waters,

O God, we give you thanks and praise.

Later, Jesus proclaimed to those gathered around him, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

(Silence is kept.)

For your life-giving waters,

O God, we give you thanks and praise.

Faithful God, we praise you for Jesus, for his baptism; for his life, death, and resurrection that sets us free and gives us new life. We rejoice that through the waters of baptism, you make us holy and whole. And, by the power of your Spirit, you equip us to live into our baptism.

(Silence is kept.)

For your life-giving waters,

O God, we give you thanks and praise.

INVITATION TO THE FONT

At this time, you are invited to come forward to take a stone from the Baptismal Font. May the stone remind you that through the life-giving waters of God, you are a new creation. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

 

 

[i]  http://web.me.com/lindyblack/Sermon_Fodder/Lectionary/Entries/2012/1/8_First_Sunday_after_Epiphany.html

[ii] Book of Order, W-2.3002.

The Light of Christmas

The Light of Christmas

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 24, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Psalm 126; Luke 1:26-38

 

Mary is a young girl, likely only 12 or 13 years of age. She is betrothed to Joseph, which means, among other things, the bride price has been paid. By our accounts, they are “married” but Mary will continue to live with her family for a year before the marriage is consummated. In essence, Mary is living in an “in between” time, caught between life as a daughter and life as a wife.

 

Then one day, Gabriel appears with a message for this young girl—a girl with no outstanding pedigree and little to offer—it seems. “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you,” the angel declares. “The Lord is with you.” These are the same words spoken to mighty warriors like Gideon and to godly prophets like Moses and Jeremiah when they are called by God to do extraordinary things. “The Lord is with you.” Following these words, I imagine there’s a great pause…and then…and then…the commission. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God…you will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Mary is called by God to bear a child—but not just any child, God’s child.

 

“How can this be?” When Mary raises a question, as nearly all prophets do, she is reassured that God is at work and, ultimately, will be glorified when the Holy Spirit overshadows her with the resulting birth of the Son of God. If these words of assurance aren’t enough, like Gideon, Mary is given a sign. The angel Gabriel directs her attention to Elizabeth—old, barren, yet in her second trimester! You see, nothing is impossible with God.

 

Mary is called to do an incredible thing. If unwed pregnancy attracts gossip today, imagine what it would have been like in 1st Century Nazareth. Nevertheless, she responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary joins her voice to those of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaiah: “Here I am.” Mary says, “Yes,” to her mission of motherhood. Mary says, “Yes,” to her vocation to become the Bearer of the Light of the World.

 

I invite you now to listen to a children’s story—one that captures the essence of bearing light for the world. Written by Richard Paul Evans, it is entitled The Light of Christmas.

 

<Story is read>

 

The Keeper of the Flame offers Alexander the invitation to “Light our Christmas, dear boy, light our Christmas.” It’s an invitation for us as well—to continue to light Christmas—to be lights of hope and peace for those who sit in darkness.

 

While reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Way of Knowing, I came across something that might help us see our role in God’s salvation story a little more clearly. Imagine this candle—it is made of wax and wick—simple enough. [Candle is placed on the pulpit and a match is struck.] But, the energy and effectiveness of the candle is revealed when the match is struck and the candle begins to burn. Only then can we see what it really is. While its outer life is nothing more than wax and wick, its inner life is flame.

 

Becoming flames for God, giving light to the world, well, it will cost us. But as we are “burned up” for the love of God, we become the people God yearns for us to be. Through the flame of the Holy Spirit burning bright within us, we are transformed, thereby shining forth generosity and love and kindness and mercy.

 

Maybe we think we don’t have the resources to burn brightly for God, but Mary, the bearer of Light, had little to offer—except herself. And remember, God did not send Gabriel to a queen or a princess, but to a young girl engaged to a carpenter. Our Abba Father—well, God has a fondness for working through ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

 

Today, on this 4th Sunday of Advent, on this Christmas Eve morn, I invite you to ponder how you might carry forth the light of Christmas into the world. Is there someone in your life who needs a word of encouragement? A reminder of God’s amazing grace? Too readily, we look at the brokenness all around us and we feel overwhelmed. But God doesn’t call us to light the whole world.  God only asks that we start burning right where we are. So light our Christmas, dear Christians, light our Christmas!

 

*Cover Art: Advent Candle Art Week 4 by Stushie

*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/

 

The Legend of the Christmas Stocking

The Legend of the Christmas Stocking

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:5-25

 

Zechariah is a priest in the days of King Herod.  He and his wife Elizabeth are getting up in years and though they are righteous before God, they have no children.  One day, Zechariah is chosen to enter the Sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense.  He steps inside while the people stand outside praying—just another day in the life of a priest—that is until the angel shows up beside the altar.  Zechariah is, undoubtedly, terrified, which is why the angel quickly responds, “Do not be afraid.”  Then God’s messenger continues with the task at hand—delivering God’s message to Zechariah: “Your prayer has been heard.  Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.”

 

After providing instructions for the boy’s upbringing, the angel foretells how the child will prepare the way for the Lord. Zechariah, dumbfounded, asks, “How will I know that this is so?  I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”  Displeased by Zechariah’s reaction, the angel declares, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” (Ah, an angel with attitude!)  Gabriel who appeared to Daniel in the days of old; Gabriel who will soon appear to Mary; this Gabriel now stands before Zechariah. “I have been sent to bring you this good news…but now because you did not believe my words, you will be unable to speak until the day these things occur.”

 

No doubt, for many years Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for a child but it is unlikely they offered such a prayer that morning. And, with his advanced old age, Zechariah’s shock is reasonable—from our perspective. But how often is our perspective—well—wrong? Could it be that we need another point of view—prehaps from the eyes of a child?

 

Even though children are considered little more than property in the days of Jesus, he holds them in high regard. You will recall how Jesus responds when the disciples ask him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[i] Later, when children are being brought to Jesus for his blessing, the disciples assume children are a waste of his time but Jesus strongly disagrees, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”[ii]

 

So, this morning, I invite you to listen to a children’s story, The Legend of the Christmas Stocking, written by Rick Osborne. Together, let us open our hearts and minds to a child’s point of view.

(The children are invited to come forward and the story is read.)

 

Oh, to see the world through a child’s eyes; to experience a sense of wonder; to be overcome with anticipation. Such is the world of a child, and, as Jesus teaches, “It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belong.”

 

Regarding our gospel reading, I have often wondered why the angel seems to have no patience for Zechariah’s doubting spirit. Maybe Gabriel lets old Zechariah have it because Zechariah is a priest. He is in the God-business so if anyone is familiar with the wonders of God, it should be Zechariah. But somewhere along the way, Zechariah has lost his sense of wonder—his sense of anticipation for God making the impossible possible.

 

Might we be in the same boat as Zechariah? How often have we diligently prayed for something to happen and when it does, we are shocked? Why are we surprised when God does wondrous things? And might God do even more wondrous things if only we asked, believed, expected?

 

Something else I’ve been pondering: Is it possible that one reason society has become so enamored with Saint Nickolas and reindeer and gifts galore is that the church has lost her sense of wonder? The story of God’s love coming in the flesh to save all of humanity—it is a story that remains the same from generation to generation—and during the season of Advent, we have endless occasions to share it. Ample props are all around—the evergreen tree that demonstrates God’s ever-present love; the Chrismons that tell the story of Jesus through symbols; Christmas stockings that speak of hope and generosity.

 

Wonder of wonders, just as the Angel Gabriel foretells, a son is born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. At the naming ceremony, when the priest looks to Zechariah to confirm the baby’s name, the mute Zechariah asks for a tablet on which he writes, “His name is John.” With the scribbling of a few words, his silence is broken, his tongue is freed, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the old priest praises God like never before.

 

Like Zechariah, maybe it is time for us to open our mouths and speak the wonder of our faith. People are drawn to stories of wonder—always have been—always will be—because people are forever searching for a word of hope. Truly, through the waters of baptism that claim us and the bread and cup that sustain us, we can do more than we imagine. With God’s grace, we can pay attention to our faith and glimpse God moving and working. With the hope, peace, joy, and love brought into the world through the Christ Child, and with the Holy Spirit empowering us, surely, we can speak our truth—surely, we can sing our song of praise for someone to hear.

 

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

 

[i] Matthew 18:3

[ii] Matthew 19:14

*Cover Art: Advent Candle Art Week 2 by Stushie; 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/

 

The Legend of the Christmas Tree

The Legend of the Christmas Tree

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

 

Jesus is a Master Teacher known for getting his point across by the simplest of means. Frequently he uses similes and metaphors as teaching tools. With metaphors, Jesus helps people get a handle on complex theological ideas. Similes work because people tend to think in terms of comparisons of things, people, and ideas that are already familiar. Take, for example, the various ways Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven is like the sower who planted good seeds in his field but while he slept an enemy came and sowed weeds. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that is the smallest of seeds, yet it grows into a tree big enough for the birds to make their nest. Jesus uses many other simple things to teach important concepts.

 

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses something as unassuming as a fig tree as a teaching tool saying, ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Repeatedly Jesus uses whatever is on hand to point people toward the way, the truth, and the life.

 

As we journey through Advent in this day and time, what better metaphor do we have on hand to tell the story of Jesus than a simple evergreen tree? So, this morning, I have recruited Jaxson and Chasey to light our Christmas trees. Afterward, they will join me down front for the reading of a simple children’s story entitled The Legend of the Christmas Tree.[i]  (Story is read.)

 

Many traditions have a long history that is impossible to trace back to their source. In my study on the topic, I learned that apples were actually used as ornaments at one time. I learned a few other things as well. For example:

 

Since very ancient times, long before the advent of Christmas, primitive people would take evergreen plants and flowers into their huts, seeing in them a magical or religious significance. The Greeks and Romans decorated their dwellings with ivy. The Celts and Scandinavians preferred mistletoe, but many other evergreen plants such as holly, butcher’s broom, laurel and branches of pine or fir were considered to have magical or medicinal powers that would ward off illness. This belief was found especially among the inhabitants of the northern regions with cold climates and long, dark winters; it was almost as if these plants revived thoughts of the coming spring while everything around them lay dormant.

 

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it—originating—many say—with St. Boniface (mentioned in our children’s story). Martin Luther (also mentioned) is widely credited for adding lighted candles to a tree. As the story goes, he was walking home one winter evening, composing a sermon, when he was overcome with awe at the brilliance of the stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he set up a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.[ii]

 

In early American culture, Christmas trees didn’t catch on at first. The New England Puritans held Christmas as a sacred holiday—so much so all frivolity was penalized—Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that dishonored the holy event. In 1659, a law was passed in Massachusetts that made any observance of December 25 a penal offense and people were fined for hanging decorations. This way of thinking continued until the 19th century when there was an influx of German and Irish immigrants who brought their own traditions with them across the ocean blue. Finally, in 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in a popular London newspaper standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was so popular with her subjects, what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain—but with the fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. [iii]

 

Here in our church, our Christmas trees are made complete by the addition of Chrismons—a tradition that began at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia in 1957 when Frances Spencer designed monograms and symbols for Jesus Christ. Because the symbols have been used by followers of Jesus since biblical times, they are the heritage of all Christians. Soon other churches were carefully Chrismons—mostly of white and gold—to represent the purity and majesty of the Son of God. Mrs. Spencer often said that a tree is only finished when someone uses the ornaments to share the story of Christ.[iv] During Advent, we wait and we watch. What better time to tell such stories?

 

Jesus warns that the time will come when the sun and moon and stars behave in unexpected ways. Then the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. For centuries, rivers of ink have been spilled over the specifics of the end times. But while Jesus gives more than a nod to the matter, his overarching message is less about the future and more about the present because what really concerns Jesus is how we live our lives now—how we love God and our neighbor.

 

The story of Emmanuel—God with us—is the greatest story ever told. How might we continue telling it—not just here on Sunday morning, but in other places through simple and humble ways? After all, with something as ordinary as a fig tree, Jesus points to signs of the future. With something as simple as an evergreen—the story of Jesus’ birth has been told for ages. So keep awake—pay attention to the wonders all around you. Who knows when the Spirit might inspire you to tell the story in a fresh, new way? Amen.

[i] Rick Osborne, The Legend of the Christmas Tree.

[ii] http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] http://www.chrismon.org/chrismons-ministry.html

*Cover Art: Advent Candle Art Week 1 by Stushie

*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/

 

Risking, for God’s Sake

Risking, for God’s Sake

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 19, 2017

24th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 123: Matthew 25:14-30

 

Our church is blessed with people who possess talents galore. Sherrida Crawford is detail oriented and an amazing organizer who shares her talents with us in numerous ways. Royce Coleman lends his financial expertise to our Presbytery by serving on Flint River Presbytery’s Finance Committee. Grayson Powell, Nelda Harris, Eve Renfroe—are all gifted encouragers. Sue Miller, Libby George, Sissy Almand, Carol Brotherton, Julie Stout, and Jenny Williams employ their talent for hospitality here in our midst—or at The Center—or both. And have you tasted some of the delicious food the folks in this church provide for covered dish meals? Truly, there are a vast array of talents among us. But what does the word “talent” mean? More importantly, what did it mean originally?

 

From the Greek language, the word “talent,” initially referred to a unit of money. It wasn’t until the mid-15th Century that it came to mean a gift or skill—largely because of Jesus’ parable of the talents. In Jesus’ day though, a talent was worth about 15 years of earnings for a day laborer. Thus, when the wealthy master in our gospel reading entrusts the first slave with 5 talents—it’s the equivalent of 75 years of labor; the second man is given 2 talents equivalent to 30 years of wages, and the last is handed over 1 talent equal to 15 years of wages.  In other words, all 3 slaves are given a lot of money.

 

No doubt, this text lends itself to sermons that encourage followers of Christ to discover their talents and use them wisely. However, this morning I want us to dig a little deeper to reflect not only on the recipients of the talents, but on the giver as well. Let’s begin by turning our gaze toward God. Since everything begins with God—love, faith, and our very lives—it might behoove us to start there!

 

God’s Son is on a roll, teaching about the end times. Prior to today’s story, Jesus warns about the need to be watchful. Then he cautions those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven to keep their lamps trimmed and burning. Finally, he tells a parable about a wealthy man who departs on a long journey. Before the master leaves, he distributes his property to three slaves—each according to his ability. After a long time, the master returns to settle accounts. In his absence, the first two slaves act wisely, making investments that double their money. The master is pleased. The third slave takes a different approach. He digs a hole and buries his treasure because he does not trust his master and he is afraid of taking a risk. While we might look at the man’s behavior as understandable, the master sees things differently. The master chastises the slave and sends him to outer darkness. It seems a harsh punishment. What are we to make of it all? Rev. John Buchanan, a Presbyterian pastor offers some food for thought.

 

I cannot help wondering how it would have turned out if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus does not tell it that way, but I cannot but imagine that the master would not have been harsh toward them, and might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It’s about living. It’s about investing. It’s all about taking risks…

 

It’s about being a follower of Jesus and what it means to be faithful to him, and so, finally, it is about you and me. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything…The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe…[i]

 

The greatest risk of all is not to risk anything…to play it safe. Each man in the story is given a generous gift but only two are commended. The third, frozen by fear, plays it safe. Could it be that what the Master wants more than anything else is for those who await his return to risk everything for him in the meantime?

 

Who of us can look back over the years without feeling some regret—wishing we had done otherwise—wishing we had more to show for our God-given life? Maybe we have played it safe too often. Maybe we have taken our God-given treasures and buried them in the back yard out of fear. But look where that got the man in the parable—cast away from God’s presence. With God, the lover of our souls, there’s no room for fear. Our God is a risk taker. He risked his own Son for us and our salvation. And, made in God’s image, we are called to be like God. We are called to be risk-takers. If we will trust, and live with courage, the greatest bonus of all will be ours when we see our Heavenly Father and hear, “Well done! Come and enjoy your Master’s delight.”[ii]

 

On the topic of taking risks, a Christian blogger states that one of the most difficult questions we ask is: “Am I trusting God or am I just being foolish?” It’s a reasonable question. There’s a fine line between faith and recklessness. But if we hope to look to Scripture for help, we may be surprised. Take Abraham, for example. Is it faith or foolishness that makes him set out with his family to a place he’s never been to before, risking everything because of a voice he thinks he hears? Is it faith or foolishness that makes Moses stand up to Pharaoh—the most powerful king in the land? Is it faith or foolishness that makes Daniel pray to God three times a day as is his practice even when doing so will land him in a lion’s den?  Is it faith or foolishness that drives Peter, James, and John to leave their families to follow a man whom some are calling the Messiah? Is it faith or foolishness that leads Paul to go from place to place and prison to prison because he refuses to keep his mouth shut when it comes to Christ? So if you were advising one of our biblical figures, what would you say? What makes for a godly decision? When do you take a risk? When do you play it safe?[iii]

 

A while back, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Barbara Brown Taylor about faith and her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Taylor is an Episcopal priest who, for the past 19 years, has been a professor of religion at Piedmont College in north Georgia. She enjoys being surrounded by young adults who are eager to find their way—their path. They ask lots of questions and explore new ideas so the college classroom can become a lab of sorts. But some of the young people aren’t eager to embrace the unknown. Instead, their focus is on finding that one sure path.

 

In the interview, Taylor said she thinks we’d like life to be a train. You get on. You pick your destination and you get off. But life doesn’t work like that. It’s much more like a sailboat ride. “Every day, you have to see where the wind is and check the currents and see if there’s anybody else on the boat with you who can help out. It’s a sailboat ride—the weather changes and the currents change and the wind changes. It’s not a train ride.” She confesses, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to accept in my life. I just thought I had to pick the right train—and I worked hard to pick the right train. And darned if I didn’t get off at the end of it and find out that was just a midway station.”[iv]

 

Life is like a sailboat ride—the weather changes—the wind takes us first in one direction and then another. Could it be that living boldly for God means sometimes stepping out on faith and doing the very thing that scares the daylights out of us?

 

At last month’s session meeting, I mentioned that I believe doing something brave—stepping outside our comfort zone for God is what spiritual growth is all about. An example that comes to mind from my own spiritual journey happened while I was still serving Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia. After completing my doctoral work, I had no intention of returning to the classroom as a student. But the Spirit began tugging on my heart to apply for Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Attending would mean a commitment of my two weeks of Study Leave for the next two years, two intensive residencies, and loads of assignments. In addition, the cost of the program was more than I could afford with one son still in college. Nevertheless, God kept nudging. For weeks I prayed about the decision and sought counsel from clergy friends and my Spiritual Director, but I resisted making the decision until the last minute. Why? Because what I really wanted to do was buy a ticket for a train ride. I wanted to start out in Petersburg, get off in Alexandria, and catch the Metro into D.C. I wanted to know my destination and hold the itinerary tightly in my hand. But trust in God to provide what was needed? Set sail for the unknown? That was risky business.

 

Yet, how can I be a spiritual leader for Christ’s church and ask you to live boldly for God if I refuse to do the same? Ultimately, I filled out the application, put it in an envelope, and sent it on its way. Over the next two years, I was provided both the time and resources to complete the program. In the end, it was all in God’s very capable hands. But is there any better place to be than in the hands of a generous God who risks everything for us?

 

When you imagine God, do you imagine God with a clenched fist or an open hand? The Message translation of Psalm 145:16 has this to say about God: “Generous to a fault, you lavish your favor on all creatures.” So, you see, not only humans—but all living things—are blessed by God’s open-handed nature.

 

During our vacation last week, Kinney and I spent a few days at Mexico Beach. Ah—the beach in November—so quiet—so peaceful. We had such a restful time. While Kinney probably enjoyed his runs on the beach most of all—for me one of the highlights was star-gazing from our balcony at night. I was awestruck by the sparkling lights that appeared in abundance. It reminded me once more of the majesty of God’s creation. A few hundred stars in the sky would be more than enough but several thousand stars can be seen with the naked eye. And to count the stars in the universe would be like trying to count the grains of sand on the beach.

 

God, who holds in his hands—all that lives and moves and breathes—urges us to live courageously—urges us to take risks for God’s sake. How will we respond? Will we live in fear and bury our treasures for safekeeping? Or will we risk it all—for God’s sake?

 

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

 

[i] John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, 310.

[ii] Bruce Prewer @ http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocA/63Sun33.htm

[iii]Carey Nieuwhof @ http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/11

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/07/barbara-brown-taylor-analogy-future_n_6122188.html?&ir=Religion&ncid=tweetlnkushpmg00000055

 

*Cover Art “Horn of Plenty” © Walt Curlee; Used by permission.

God’s Children Now

God’s Children Now

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 5, 2017

All Saint’s Service

Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3

 

Like most clergy, I love books. I have since I was a child—and still today—I enjoy children’s books. For me, books written for children invite the reader into the story, capture the attention in vivid ways, and let’s not forget—they have pictures!  When my children were small, it may be true that I enjoyed story time more than they did. I loved Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Alexander begins the morning with gum in his hair, and things go downhill from there. Even the title of the book makes me want to give him an “FPC of Valdosta Cultivate Gratitude” bracelet.

 

Another favorite was The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, written from the wolf’s perspective. In it, the wolf declares that down through the ages, he has gotten a bad rap. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see, he had a dreadful cold, and he went to the little pigs’ house hoping to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny a cake. It was not his fault that those ham dinners—I mean pigs—built such flimsy houses!

 

And then there’s the story of Stone Soup. Versions of this story abound, but my favorite tells the story of two strangers who happened upon a village, hoping for food. But times were tough and hoarding food was more common than sharing it, so the fellows decided to trick the villagers. They found a huge cooking pot, filled it with water, built a fire beneath it, and dropped in a large, round, stone. When the villagers passed by, they asked, “What are you cooking?” The quick reply was, “Stone soup.” Of course, no one had ever heard of stone soup so they were intrigued. The two strangers promised, “Oh, it’s delicious. We’ll let it cook up for a while and then you’re welcome to join us.” As anticipated, people began offering a little something extra to throw into the pot: “Oh, I have some potatoes—how about a few onions—some carrots—spices—I have a few chunks of meat…” One by one, ingredients were added that resulted in a delicious Stone Soup—enough for everyone!

 

Stone Soup is a children’s story that has been used to teach the importance of sharing, generosity, and hospitality. Remember, however, the story began as a practice of manipulation, even desperation. While it is only a children’s story, today it may provide a lens through which to examine the church. In a world filled with cafeteria-style approaches to God and all that is holy, with declining numbers in churches across the country, many churches, filled with fear and anxiety, behave like the only thing we have to offer the world is the beginnings of stone soup. We act as if the only way to get the world to stop and pay attention to the church anymore is to stir up a pot full of empty promises.  “We have to be fresh, modern, and new. Nobody wants to hear that old, old story anymore!  Come on in and do as we do, and you’ll have your every desire. You will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Come on in and we will entertain you. We will teach you how to think happy thoughts. Most importantly, and we won’t require anything of you. It is all about you, after all!”

 

But before we drag out the pot, fill it with water, stoke up the fire, and throw in a stone, let us stop and read the words from I John once more:

           

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

 

Because some have departed from the community of faith, spreading a distorted message, the author of I John writes a letter, a homily of sorts. He wants to clarify the gospel message that a believer’s life must be marked by love—love for God and love for one another. He wants to encourage believers, and he uses phrases like “you know,” “we know” or some variation over 23 times in this letter. [i] John urges Christians to stay the course; stay with the message they have heard from the beginning; and continue to believe in the Son of Man, the Son of God—and in the saving value of his death.

 

The world (those who live apart from God), the world does not know what we know! And what is it we know? We know God is our Father and God has revealed his steadfast love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

We know we are children of God even if the world fails to recognize it. This is not a promise only for the future. It is a promise for the present because we are God’s children NOW. As children of God, we may live in a particular nation, community, or family, but our identity is in none of those places. Our identity is as children of God, and holiness is our goal.[ii]

 

There is something else that we know: We know someday we will be like him. Even though we are children of God now, we are not finished projects. We must grow in our faith to be purified. Like a runner training for a race, we make certain habits or practices a part of our disciplined life. Consider Scripture reading—is the Bible woven into the fiber of our being?  It won’t be unless we consistently spend time with God’s Word. What about prayer? The Apostle Paul instructs the church to “pray without ceasing.” Instead of a literal interpretation, we might consider weaving prayer throughout our day—morning, noon, and night—with additional specific prayers spoken throughout the day. We can pray while in line at the checkout counter, while waiting at the doctor’s office—eyes open—eyes closed—God doesn’t care. (Except if you tend to pray while driving—then definitely—eyes open.)

 

Other spiritual disciplines that might lead us toward more holy living include things like meditation, keeping a prayer journal, Christian service, and worship. Some people yearn to connect with the Holy on days of silent retreat or on a pilgrimage to a special place. Sacred places, in the Celtic Christian tradition, are often called “thin places.” There’s a Celtic saying that heaven and the earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even smaller. In thin places, boundaries of time and space fade away.[iii]

 

Thin places are often associated with beautiful vistas: the seashore, the mountains, and other wonderful sanctuaries of creation. From such places we may return refreshed, renewed, and more aware of the thin places in all of life. Soon the birds outside our window capture our attention in a new way. Suddenly we are filled with wonder and we cry out with the psalmist, “I will bless the Lord at all times…O taste and see that the Lord is good!” And the beauty of “thin places” is that even when we are unable to physically return there, we can return to them in our memory and in our imagination.[iv]

 

When my prayer and meditation time feels dry, I like to imagine that I am walking by the Sea of Galilee again, and suddenly my spiritual bucket is filled with living water. When I’m overcome with tedious details and endless tasks, I close my eyes and return to Mt. LeConte in Tennessee or to the James River in Jamestown, Virginia. When I want to move beyond time and space to re-live God’s gifts beyond my wildest imaginings, I pause, breathe deeply, and envision taking that first step onto the island of Iona in Scotland and, once more, I know the abundance of God’s blessings.

 

On a Sunday like this, when we gather to celebrate All Saints’ Day, it is good to ponder thin places, where boundaries of time and space fade away. It is good to pause and give thanks as we imagine our loved ones who have gone on before us and who now dwell in the world just beyond this one. It is good to reflect on John’s reason for writing, revealed in chapter 5, verse13, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

 

Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have the promise of being called children of God now and the promise of an eternal future in his presence. All Saint’s Day is a joyous day to remember the saintly ones who have gone before and to renew our commitment to holy living. Those who have crossed from this world into the next have left us with an amazing inheritance. And, as one writer puts it, “through their love and compassion, their instruction and correction, their laughter and tears, their honesty and humility, their sacrifice and dedication, and most of all, their faith, they are still speaking. What a great legacy to claim for ourselves and to share with the world!”[v]

 

We are children of God, now. We are saints in the making. So next time we are tempted to drag out a pot, pour in the water, stoke up the fire, and stir up a batch of Stone Soup for the world, let us remember that we do have something to offer. In fact, our hope is built on nothing less than the One Stone—the Stone the builders rejected; the Stone that has become the Chief Cornerstone, Christ our Lord. And Christ calls us brothers. Christ calls us sisters—because we are Children of God—NOW!

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Annette G. Brownlee, The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and Epistles, 583

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, 230-235.

[iii] Rev. Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale http://day1.org/1117-glimpsing_heaven_in_thin_places

[iv] Sylvia Maddox http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html

[v] William N. Jackson, Feasting on the Word, 232.

*Cover Art via Google Images