Like a Dove

Like a Dove

Jane Shelton, CRE; January 9, 2022

Baptism of the Lord

 

Imagine standing along the river Jordan among the crowd of people who have been listening to John the Baptist, listening to this strange man who lived in the wilderness, who ate locust and honey, but yet wondered….is this man the Messiah?

 

Yes, the people wondered if John was the Messiah.  He told them no, one would come that was greater than he, one empowered by the Holy Spirit.

 

As John baptizes Jesus, it’s not that Jesus was in need of forgiveness of sin, rather as the heavens open and the dove descends upon Jesus, he is anointed by the Holy Spirit.  It is in this moment that Jesus’ ministry begins.

 

Thinking about this symbol of the dove descending got me to thinking about exactly what type of bird the dove is.  Whatever you came to hear today about the baptism of our Lord, it probably wasn’t anything that had to do with the dove, right?!  But I was just so curious…why wasn’t it the eagle that soars so beautifully and is so majestic, or the hawk with it’s stealth abilities and strength, or even the wise owl…why did the Holy Spirit come like a dove?  So I did a little research.

 

First, doves are known for their precise flight patterns, so there is no doubt that the dove that descended from heaven was guided directly and accurately to the one with whom God was well-pleased, his beloved son, Jesus.

 

During their flight, the dove can reach speeds up to 55 mph and create a whirring sound with their wings.  A perfect example of the Holy Spirit on fire.

 

Doves are used as messengers and associated with love and peace, the same messages that Jesus delivered to those he encountered.

 

Doves are capable of living all over the world, with the exception of Antarctica.  They are hardy birds, and a perfect example of why the dove was chosen as the symbol of the Holy Spirit because there are no boundaries for the Holy Spirit which can reach all areas of the world, including Antarctica.

 

So just a few fun facts to help us understand more about the Holy Spirit.  It’s sent by God, it accurate, it can come with great speed bringing messages of love and peace, and it has no boundaries as to where it can spread.

 

Now, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is marked by his baptism, and he was baptized with ten of the rulers of the land…..no, no, no….that’s not right….he was baptized with the chosen few….no, that’s not right either…..Jesus, we are told, was baptized with “all the people.”

 

The dove was never expected to be in one place in our world and neither was Jesus.  He was always with all the people…not a special few.  The message he delivered for peace and love is also for all people.

 

Jesus puts himself in the midst of all the broken and sin-ridden people along the Jordan, not in another special place or an isolated place along the Jordan River.

 

His message was one of hope and at his baptism, he identifies the very people in need of hope, in need of forgiveness, of love, of healing and peace.

 

We have to ask ourselves today, are we identifying with the people who are in need around us?  Are we meeting them in their need where they are the way Jesus did?

 

Are we examining our own actions in our churches today?  Have we become so focused on membership numbers and how to maintain our buildings that we’ve forgotten about the needs of those outside the church?  Where is the Holy Spirit whirring around us?  Being responsible for our church building and grounds is definitely important, and something we can do, AND we can also take care of those around us.

 

Attitude is a powerful thing.  I’m sure Jesus didn’t walk to the river with the attitude, “Gosh…here are all those broken people again….maybe if I don’t look at them or if I don’t talk to them, they will not ask me anything.”

 

Are our pews no longer filled because we didn’t see the need to come to church because we missed the need of the person that was seated next to us?  Are they empty because people came longing to be involved in something, but found nothing going on to be involved in, so they moved on.

 

Jesus put himself out there among the people.  He listened to their needs.  He fed them when they were hungry and clothed them when they were naked.   And most importantly, he loved them when they didn’t think they were worthy to be loved.

 

In this week’s Presbyterian Outlook, Teri Ott refers to a book written by Christian Wiman called, “My Bright Abyss, in which he writes, ‘In any true love – a mother’s for her child, a husband’s for his wife, a friend’s for a friend – there is an excess energy that always wants to be in motion.  Moreover, it seems to move not simply from one person to another but through them, toward something else.  This is why we can be so baffled and overwhelmed by such love:  it wants to be more than it is; it cries out inside of us to make it more than it is.  And what it is crying out for, finally, is its essence and origin: God.”

 

After Jesus is baptized, he prays…….  I can think of 100 things he could have been praying, but that is not known.  What is known is that he found his strength in his Heavenly Father, and God knew Jesus needed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit for what was to come.

 

What a blessed connection of the Trinity.  A connection that still empowers us and works through us today.  A love in motion.

 

Are we praying to God to make a difference in a life, and waiting for the Holy Spirit to empower us to act?   Are we asking ourselves, how do we make a difference?  Where do we start?  Do you have ideas that have already been planted by God, but are afraid to voice them?

 

Just imagine if we sat down to brainstorm about someone we know that needs help, and how do we as a church body help that person?  If each of us had one person that we know with a need, and we share that with our church family, think about the lives that might be changed in 2022 right here in our community!

 

Think about how others might be so inspired by your actions, that they want to know about where you go to church so they can become involved and help someone.

 

So how do we become like Jesus?  I dare say that all of you have the Holy Spirit whirring around inside you, waiting to burst forth into action.  Maybe you’re just not quite sure how to set it in motion.

 

Where are the hungry so we can feed them?

 

Where are the naked so we can clothe them?

 

Where are the lost so we can love them?

 

As Jesus prayed to God for a spiritual connection after his baptism, he shows us an intensely spiritual posture which remained throughout his ministry.

 

Be among the people so you know their needs, pray for guidance and strength, allow the Holy Spirit to empower you to action in love and peace.

 

Jesus knew his strength to help others came from his Father in Heaven, and the Heavenly Father knew he needed the Holy Spirit.  So do we.

 

God sent Jesus, the Messiah, to bring his message of love to all people.  You are my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  We also are God’s beloved with whom he is well pleased.

 

Who around us is waiting for that same affirmation today?  To know that they are loved and accepted by God.  My prayer to God is that he sends the whirring dove with speed and accuracy to empower us with the tools of action to find these people.

 

Believe, The Mystery of God’s Will

Believe, The Mystery of God’s Will

Jane Shelton, CRE; January 2, 2022

2nd Sunday of Christmas

First Presbyterian Church Valdosta

 

 

Happy New Year!

 

It’s so good to be with you here at the beginning of this New Year!  I hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas with family and friends, and had time to sit and reflect; hopefully, time to ponder the new life we are promised as we celebrated the birth of Baby Jesus.

 

Looking back a minute over the Advent Season, we remember the beautiful words of Advent:  Hope, Love, Joy and Peace.  No doubt, words only experienced fully through the grace of God.

Today, I want us to think about another word.  This is also a word we see a lot through the Christmas season, although it is not an Advent word we celebrate.

 

It’s on our shirts and towels, on our mantles and walls.  It’s in the songs we sing and cards we read.  You may have seen it flashing in the window in neon.  This word is often told to children about Santa Claus, or the magic of Christmas.

 

This word, most importantly, however, is found in the Apostle’s Creed that we often recite as our Affirmation of Faith on Sunday.    The word is…..Believe.

 

Believe.  What are we to believe?  The magic of Christmas?

 

Could that magic be the miracle story of the Christ child.  Can we and do we believe in the mystery and joy of a savior born.  Can and do we believe in the love God has for us and a hope of a life eternal….. Believe.

 

Today, let’s BELIEVE a step further.  Let’s go back in history to a time of joy, praise and dancing.  All the way back to Jeremiah when it is told the Lord gathered his people and provided them with his bounty so they might be satisfied and never languish again.  The Lord turned their mourning into joy and replaced their sorrow with comfort so that the people rejoiced and danced and were merry.

 

Be radiant over the goodness of the Lord for your life shall be like a watered garden.  What a beautiful statement.  Be radiant over the goodness of the Lord……

 

Now even if you are not a sophisticated gardener, you all have experienced a wilted plant that looks as if it is going to die, and you make that last ditch effort to save the wilted plant by adding a little water.  Maybe you place the plant in an area to receive more light, or add a little fertilizer for nourishment.  Maybe you talk to it.

And what happens?  The flower springs back to life!  It becomes radiant in the goodness of it’s caretaker.

 

We are those plants in the care of our Lord.  It is from him we receive his goodness so that we shine and become radiant.  Because of his light within us, we languish no more.  However, it is important that we remember when we begin to wilt, when we get beat down, that we must look to the Lord’s goodness to be revived.  We must believe so that we know where to turn in times of sorrow and disappointments.

 

In our New Testament scripture in Ephesians, Paul reminds us to Believe.  Believe in God the Father who sent his son, Jesus Christ, to again save his people.

 

Believe that our Lord chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

 

Because of the good pleasure of God’s will, he blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.  And note, it’s not one or two spiritual blessings, but EVERY spiritual blessing.

 

So what are spiritual blessings?  According to Ephesians 1, God’s redemptive blessings are “according to” God’s good pleasure, his grace, his purpose, and his will (Eph 1:5,7,9,11).  God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.  It is our inheritance because he loved us and bestowed this blessing upon us through his grace.

 

I picked up a new book this Christmas by Stephen Mitchell, titled “The First Christmas, A Story of New Beginnings.”  In his book, Mitchell takes on the characters of each of those at the Nativity, including the ox and the donkey.  He writes, not only from the Christian perspective, but also for Jews and Muslims, taking the stories back to the time of the birth of Jesus.

 

The chapter, however, that drew my attention and became thought provoking for me, is the story from Joseph’s perspective, or Yosef as he is called in Mitchell’s book.

 

As you would expect, the chapter on Joseph reflects on when Mary comes to tell Joseph of her pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction to this news.  How he struggles with his disbelief, his anger and his doubts about the woman he is in love with and to be married.

 

Then Joseph was visited by the angel telling him to marry Mary.  Being a man of God’s word which he had dedicated his life to living, he realizes that all the agitation and despair of the previous day had come from his lack of trust.  Indeed, his own thinking had created the dreadful barrier between himself and Mary.

 

Once Joseph was able to trust that God was leading both his and Mary’s path in life, he could even rejoice in the news of a great birth that was to come.  He would adopt the child in his heart.

 

Adopt the child in his heart….is not this the same message we have from God?  Just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.

 

Why?  We are adopted by God according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestows on us.

 

We have redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ because God willed it.  Not because of anything that we have done, but because God desired it be so.

 

Because we have been forgiven and provided an inheritance, and because we believe, we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.  This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s will of his goodness for us, we are his FOREVER.

 

By the Holy Spirit, we are showered with wisdom and insight, hearts that have been enlightened to know the hope to which we are called.  We have been created for good works, and don’t misunderstand…we do not have salvation by our good works, but God’s purpose for us is that we do good works so that others may see the light as we have seen.  That others may know there is good in the world.  And, boy, do we need a lot of Light to shine these days!

 

Believe, be the Light, so that others believe and we become a community of believers.

God has revealed to us the mystery of his will, all we have to do is Believe.  Believe in the birth of Jesus, God’s only son.  Believe in the goodness of God’s will to have the fullness of time through his son Jesus Christ.  Believe in God’s word of truth and the gospel of your salvation.  Believe you are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.  Believe in your inheritance given you by your Heavenly Father.

 

We have the Light….we just need to remember to let it shine bright!

 

Young Jesus

Young Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 26, 2021

1st Sunday of Christmas

Psalm 148; Luke 2:41-52

 

For the past few weeks, we have journeyed through Advent to reach the Season of Christmas. But for most of us, for all intents and purposes, it feels like Christmas has come and gone. Carols have been sung; bounteous food has been consumed; visitors have packed their donkeys and headed home, trailing ribbons, and wrapping paper behind them; and now we are left to consider settling in for a long winter’s nap. But first, on this Sunday after Christmas, we have gathered to worship, gathered to remember the greatest gift of Christmas—a baby born in Bethlehem.

 

But it is not Baby Jesus who catches our attention this morning. It is Jesus, the child. Thinking of Jesus at this stage of his life reminds me of one of the best Christmas gifts I ever got from my children. It was several years ago. Samuel had graduated from high school and our youngest, Shane, was in kindergarten. It was Samuel’s clever idea, but he needed help. So, he called his favorite high school teacher who just so happened to also be a photography. Then our eldest rounded up his siblings and drove to her house for a photo shoot. It was a wonderful idea, of course, but Samuel had one last challenge to overcome. He had to convince his three younger siblings to keep it all a secret. Actually, I count it a Christmas miracle that no one whispered a word to me beforehand. So, when I opened the big box filled with framed pictures of my children, well, you know what happened, I cried like a baby. Still today, those pictures are among my most treasured possessions. They are snapshots that have frozen in time something special my children once worked together to achieve on their mother’s behalf.

 

Today, our Scripture reading offers us a snapshot of sorts, providing a glimpse of young Jesus at the age of twelve. Luke is the only gospel writer who tells this story. In fact, he’s the only one to include anything about Jesus’ childhood. But it isn’t much, is it? I mean, don’t you wish we had more stories? Maybe an album? Or, at the very least, a box of framed pictures to fill in the blanks? If this is how you feel, you are in good company for there are many who have come before us who have suffered from the same desire. As a result, there are some ancient writings, apocryphal in nature, that didn’t make it into the Bible that tell stories of amazing events from Jesus’ boyhood: bringing a dead bird back to life or punishing bad neighbors with miraculous feats. Some Bible-related movies have imagined things like Jesus working in the carpenter shop with Joseph or sitting on Mary’s lap listening to stories.

 

Luke’s story is quite ordinary—nothing magical or miraculous about it—but then there’s not much magical or miraculous about being twelve years old, is there? Twelve is an in-between time—not yet fully grown but no longer a little kid. In some countries, though, twelve-year-olds are working full-time, earning pennies a day for their families. A little closer to home, do you know someone who’s twelve? Think about it for a moment. Do you see the boy with air pods in his ears? What is he thinking about as he moves to the rhythm of the music? What about the girl who feels pressured by social media to look a certain way? How are those photoshopped images affecting her?

 

In many ways, Jesus lived in simpler times. When he was twelve, he and his parents went to Jerusalem just like they did every year for the festival of Passover. Like lines on the door frame marking a child’s growth, Luke marks Jesus’ life by scenes in the temple. Earlier in this chapter Jesus was dedicated in the temple. It was then that aged Simeon held Jesus in his arms and said, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…for my own eyes have seen your salvation.” It was then that the prophet, Anna, an 84-year-old widow who never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer both day and night, began to praise God at the very sight of the Christ Child. Between that day and age twelve we know nothing except this: Jesus lived with his parents and their lives were marked by the rhythms and rituals of Jewish life, so it is natural-even ordinary-that the next scene brings us again to the temple.

 

In the rhythm of Jewish life, age twelve would be about the time of the rite of bar mitzvah, meaning “son of the law.” No longer will others speak for Jesus—not angels—not Simeon—not Anna. Now Jesus will speak for himself—and so he does. There in the temple he listens and asks questions, but he also speaks and gives answers—answers that amaze his teachers. While his understanding may be impressive, his decision to stay in the temple for so long causes his parents days of panic. And when they do finally find him, Jesus is hardly the picture of consideration: “Why were you searching for me?” If you’re a parent, you’ve heard something like that. “Why were you worried? I knew where I was.”

 

Jesus’ motive for remaining behind in the temple is unclear. Maybe he loses track of time, like any boy caught up in something he loves. Maybe he has had enough of childish things and wishes to mark his maturation with an exclamation point. Maybe he does not think he is lost. Regardless of his motive, we see Jesus at the beginning of his budding adulthood, in a sort of self-devised confirmation class, exchanging questions with teachers in the temple, and absorbing what he needs most for the days ahead.

 

Since the pandemic began, our young folks have not been able to regularly worship with us in person. We miss them. No doubt. But just because they are not here in our midst, that doesn’t mean we have nothing to offer them. Far from it! We have the love of Jesus; we have the stories of our faith; we have our experiences. “But how can we do that if they are not here?” you may ask. First, you can make a commitment to pray for our young folks every day. And then—do what we are all doing to stay connected to our loved ones amidst a global pandemic—get creative! Send a note to Madison, Jaxon, Zachary, Elise, or Evan and let them know you are thinking about them. Go old school and give their parent’s a call (or new school and text) to ask how they are doing.

As believers in this faith community, we are part of the extended family of God. Jesus’ parents fail to miss him for so long because they are not traveling as a nuclear family. They are traveling with a caravan of extended family and friends. When they return to the temple, they find Jesus happily relating to an even-further-extended circle made up of those who teach Torah in his Father’s house. Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will widen the boundaries of his “family” circle beyond the house of Israel, offering the good news of God’s embrace to everyone within the sound of his voice—offering that grace even further still—to eventually include all of us.

Luke offers us a glimpse of Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy. Sure, we would prefer more—maybe an album or, at the very least, a box of framed pictures to fill in the blanks. But we have enough. We have enough to realize that Jesus, fully human yet fully divine, had some growing pains of his own. We have enough to see Jesus as a young man on his way to becoming the person God created him to be, someone whose character, words, and deeds still capture our imagination. We have enough to make us yearn to give ourselves to Jesus—heart, mind, and soul—so that we, too, may one day become all that God created us to be. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art by Ella Hawkins, used by permission

Leap for Joy

Leap for Joy

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 19, 2021

4th Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:39-55

 

Our reading from Luke’s gospel is a familiar and beloved text that describes Mary’s visit with her relative, Elizabeth. Immediately, we see the Holy Spirit at work, for we are told that when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, her unborn child leaps in her womb and, filled with the Spirit, she pronounces a blessing: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy…” With these words, Elizabeth becomes the first human witness to the good news the angel brought to Mary.

 

Recently, I heard someone say that in a few months, we will begin our 3rd year living with a global pandemic. Hearing those words broadcast aloud made my heart sank. There is so much pain in the world. Many of our friends and family members are struggling through difficult times. Some in our own church family are suffering, too.  When we feel like the darkness will swallow us whole, where can we turn for light? Hope? Joy? Perhaps, Luke has just what the doctor ordered—a pre-Christmas gift of the story of two women pregnant with significance, pregnant with the messenger and the message; the story of two women who encourage each other and find the light, hope, and joy they desperately need.[i]

 

As I pondered our reading for today, one phrase jumped out at me: “leap for joy.” The unborn child, John, leaps when the unborn, Jesus, approaches. Elizabeth recognizes something miraculous is happening so she blesses Mary who will, in time, bless us all. Joy and the promise of joy for generations to come is worth leaping for, isn’t it? But I ask you: when was the last time you leapt for joy? Can you remember? I don’t recall seeing anyone leaping for joy as you entered the church this morning. And me? Well, I happen to know what the sermon is about, and I didn’t leap up here, either. Well, Presbyterians aren’t known for leaping, we might say. Not decent! Hardly in order! But I think the Spirit is begging to shake things up, to startle us to attention, to remind us who we are and whose we are. We are siblings of the Christ-Child. We are indwelled by God’s Spirit, and though the darkness is real, it cannot destroy the light of Christ.

 

If we need a precedent for leaping for joy, there’s plenty of Scripture references to spur us on. In 2 Samuel, for example, when the ark of the Lord enters the city, King David leaps and dances before the Lord.[ii] In Isaiah, we are told that when the salvation of the Lord comes, the lame will leap like a deer and the mute will shout with joy. [iii] Jesus proclaims in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”[iv] And in Acts, when Peter heals a lame man at the entrance of the temple, with a leap he stands upright, and enters the temple, walking, leaping, and praising God.[v]

 

Mary Oliver provides an interesting perspective on leaping for joy in her poem, “The Storm.”

 

Now through the white orchard my little dog

                        romps, breaking the new snow

                        with wild feet.

            Running here running there, excited,     

                        hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins

            until the white snow is written upon

                        in large, exuberant letters,

            a long sentence, expressing

                        the pleasures of the body in this world.

            Oh, I could not have said it better

                        myself.

 

In response to the coming birth of the Christ-child and the new kin-dom he will usher in, Elizabeth and Mary offer blessing and praise. Surely, a leap for joy is in order for us as well because we know the rest of the story. We know what this child will accomplish and is still accomplishing. We know that just as Elizabeth and Mary find community and encouragement in each other’s presence, we have that too—here in person and through the miraculous medium of digital streaming.

 

When we look out at the world, we recognize that we live in the in-between times. Christ has come for the salvation of the world, but the world is not yet as Christ longs for it to be. There are still dark days. And still, the reality for too many people around the globe includes the lack of food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, and community. As God’s children who long to ease the suffering of others, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. We may be tempted to give up. But now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to lift our voices in song and praise and to leap, yes, leap for joy every chance we get.

 

Rev. Cathlynn Law reminds us of the very real tension that is present in choosing to rejoice while still acknowledging the broken world in which we live. She writes,

 

It’s easy to become cynical and lose heart. It’s at that point that we especially need to remember Mary’s song and know that God is greater than the violence that is so evident in the world. In all the chaos and confusion, in the midst of pain and suffering in the world; in all the uncertain, fragile times in our lives; the song IS louder and stronger. God comes to us in Jesus and shines the light of love upon us. Even in those dark times when we are hurting and hopeless and angry and afraid, when nothing makes sense, the song is still louder, and it is waiting to be sung. We must keep singing. The confusion and chaos easily consume us. The uncertainty and anxiety, grief and pain can threaten to break our spirit and steal our joy. But the song within us, the song of hope and faith and confidence in God, the song of God’s love forever coming to life within and around us—that song is still stronger—and that is why we must keep singing it. [vi]

 

As we near the end of our Advent journey and gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us be seekers of joy. Let us recognize our blessings and share them with others. Let us greet loved ones and strangers with love in our heart and joy in our step. And let us keep company with those who embrace the Mystery and long to sing and, yes, even leap for joy.

 

 

 

 

[i] Stephen A. Cooper, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] 2 Samuel 6:16

[iii] Isaiah 35:6

[iv] Luke 6:22-23

[v] Acts 3:8

[vi] Rev. Cathlynn Law @ http://ucup.org/multimedia-archive/leaping-for-joy-advent-ii/

*Cover Art by Ella Hawkins, used by permission

Preacher John

Preacher John

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 12, 2021

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-18

 

We might describe Preacher John as clear, focused, and painfully honest. We certainly would not describe him as a preacher of the cotton candy gospel. Although I have often heard how important it is for pastors to love the people whom God calls us to serve, at first glance, it appears John neither loves nor likes his audience. It’s worth noting that Luke clumps the “crowd” together as one entity, referring to the whole lot as a brood of vipers, while the writer of the Gospel of Matthew has John referring specifically to many of the Pharisees and Sadducees whom John sees coming for baptism. So, even though John directs his venom to some in the crowd, it’s not necessarily all of them. Still, this is strong language. But when John looks out at the people, he sees them for what they are—instead of who they are pretending to be. So, Preacher John offers a reality check: “You think you’re something because of your pedigree…because you can trace your bloodline back to Abraham. God can make children of Abraham out of these stones.”

 

“Even now,” John says, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In the original Greek, the word for “bear fruit” comes from the root word “poieo,” and it means “to make, be the authors or cause of, to prepare, make ready, to produce, to do…” John looks at the crowd and says they must bear fruit. Their bloodline doesn’t matter. Wealth and possessions are of no regard. Every one of God’s children must bear fruit. Period.

 

The crowds ask, “What then should we do?” Interestingly, the word here for “do” is the same word John uses for bear: “poieo.” As a result, the question might be understood as “What then should we bear? What fruit are we responsible for producing?”  The tax collectors ask John the same question. “Then what should we do?” Finally, soldiers come forward, “Then what should we do?” Three times John is asked to clarify “What should we do?” and, in the words of one commentator,

 

The preacher from the desert addresse[s] the crowd, tax collectors, and soldiers, with an uncompromising demand for fairness and justice. Generosity and unselfishness [are] the proper ‘fruit’ of repentance. This is nothing less than a mental and spiritual U-turn, true metanoia [repentance]. For the Baptist, repentance [has] less to do with how fervently one prays or faithfully attends the worship service; instead, it [has] everything to do with how one handle[s] riches, execute[s] public service, and exercise[s] stewardship.[i]

 

But, truth be told, don’t you imagine those who pose the question already know the answer? After all, the people of Israel grow up with a steady diet of Hebrew Scripture. From the birth of God’s chosen people until the very day John stands by the River Jordan baptizing, words of prophets like Micah resound in their ears: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

 

Most of us, most of the time, we know what to do, don’t we? We know as believers in Jesus, we should be defined by generosity, fairness, and justice. We know what to do, still, too many times, we fail; we may even give up hope. But John the Baptist proclaims a new message of hope—a new way of living made possible through Jesus.

 

When John the Baptist appears on the scene, Israel has been waiting 400 years for a word from God. We don’t know much about John, except that God’s hand is upon him before he is born, and John is called to an important task—one to which he devotes his entire life. The people are used to a different kind of teacher, though, someone sitting safe and sound in the synagogue or temple, someone wearing long-flowing robes and boasting of their own righteousness. But here comes John, wearing his camel skin and eating his insects and wild honey. Yum…yum… John gives up a comfortable home and a comfortable life because he is filled with a message that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops and proclaimed by the water’s edge. All that John does and says points others to Jesus. It might be said that John serves as a hinge of our faith history—closing the door of one way of thinking—and cracking the door open to a new way empowered by the Holy Spirit—a way made possible through Christ.

 

John the Baptist does not come to claim some high and mighty position. No. Filled with the Spirit of God, John comes to serve. He comes to “bear fruit” of the eternal kind. In the new kingdom breaking forth, pedigree matters not one bit. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. It doesn’t matter who your mother and father are. It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are. What matters is how you live your life—how you behave. Sure, it’s great to believe—but the question is—how does your believing affect your behaving?

 

While studying this text, I found Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message to offer a fresh perspective. I invite you to hear it now:

 

When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”

Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”

The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!

Can anyone tell, by observing our lives, that we bear the mark of Christ? Are we governed by honesty and concern for others? In our heart of hearts, though we know what to do, we cannot do it on our own. We must be changed from the inside out—something that begins at the waters of our baptism and continues until we draw our last breath.

 

There is a story of a pastor who makes a habit of addressing an infant after he has baptized her: “Little child, you belong to God; you always have and you always will, and now the mark of Christ is upon you.” The church of Jesus Christ believes that the baptismal waters cleanse, renew, and change us forever.[ii] Furthermore, we believe we are sent from the font out into the world to serve—to do justice—to love kindness—and to walk humbly with our God. Yes, we know what to do!

[i] Feasting on the Word, Veli-Matti Karkkainen, 68.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Kathy Beach-Verhey, 73.

*Cover Art by Ella Hawkins, used by permission

Out of the Silence

Out of the Silence

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 5, 2021

Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:67-79

 

I still remember our middle son’s first Christmas living on his own—mostly because of the flurry of text messages I got from him one evening. Seth is our quiet son—a true introvert who can go for days working on a project all by himself—perfectly happy. Because Seth is so quiet by nature, when he was growing up, I quickly learned to pay attention when he was in the mood to talk. Sometimes that meant starting a conversation at 11 o’clock at night and practicing my listening skills with my eyes half open. But no matter. When Seth started talking, as a mother I felt compelled to listen—and to listen carefully.

 

Zechariah is in the talking business, we might say. A priest in the days of King Herod, his vocation is to talk about Yahweh. Maybe he has even gotten into the habit of talking TO Yahweh more than he listens. We just don’t know. But we do know that when they were young, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, prayed for a child. They prayed and they prayed. But when old age came to visit, understandably, they gave up on that prayer. In God’s time Zechariah is chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. There he is—about the business of Yahweh—when the angel Gabriel shows up and scares him out of his wits. The angel tries to relieve his fears with that—oh so familiar angel phrase: “Do not be afraid.” Then Gabriel delivers God’s message: “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.”

 

Zechariah is dumbfounded and asks, “How will I know that this is so?  I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” In other words, “Are you kidding me?” While Zechariah’s question seems reasonable to us, for some reason the angel is not in the mood to be questioned—at least not by a priest of Yahweh—a man who is supposed to be in the business of believing the unbelievable. So, Gabriel hands down a shocking sentence to Zechariah: “Because you did not believe my words, you will be unable to speak until the day these things occur.”

 

Zechariah, a priest in the talking business, will talk no more—not for a while—not for 9 months or so. In essence, Zechariah is sentenced to a time in the wilderness—alone in silence. The text actually indicates that not only can Zechariah not talk during his wilderness time—he can’t hear either. Why else would the people have to motion to him concerning his son’s name?

 

I daresay most of us have little exposure to time in the desert or the wilderness. Throughout Scripture, however, wilderness time is good time. It is listening time. It is learning time. Moses comes upon the burning bush and, thereby, God, in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that Elijah learns a very important lesson: God is not found in noise and chaos. God is found in a still, small voice. Zechariah’s own son, John, will dwell in the wilderness and it is from the wilderness that he returns to hand on to others what he has learned there: Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand! Jesus, too, spends 40 days in the wilderness. There he is affirmed in his mission to stand against Satan wherever Satan may be found.

 

Zechariah enters his wilderness time and from that quiet place, he sees the hand of God working in wondrous ways. Elizabeth does in fact become pregnant. During her pregnancy, Mary comes to pay a visit. Sitting in silence, dwelling upon how, through God, all things are possible, I wonder what Zechariah thinks of Mary’s story: “An angel of the Lord came to visit me. He said I had been chosen and that the Spirit of God would come upon me—and it was so.” How can Zechariah doubt the angel’s visitation on Mary when he, himself, has just had such an encounter?

 

Evidence of God’s mighty hand is ever present as with each passing day the baby in Elizabeth’s womb grows. Finally, the words of Gabriel come to pass, and Elizabeth gives birth to a son. At the “Naming Ceremony,” there are those present who assume the baby will have a family name, but Elizabeth is adamant. Unconvinced, they turn to the mute Zechariah who asks for a tablet—on which he writes, “His name is John.”  And with the scribbling of a few words on a tablet, Zechariah ends his wilderness time, his desert time, his silence. His mouth is opened, his tongue is freed, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the old priest praises God.

Zechariah offers a word of praise and prophecy. He praises the Covenant God of Israel, recalling God’s redeeming acts in the past. Then he speaks of the future—of the Redeemer who will bring freedom and holiness and righteousness. He speaks of salvation and a light breaking forth from the shadow of death. A new era has come. Zechariah weaves together the promises of old and the promises about to be fulfilled. He believes—oh, now he believes. His mind—once filled with doubt—no longer underestimates the love and power of God. His boy, John, will announce the arrival of the Redeemer. God’s promises are here! There is much to sing about! True joy is silenced by unbelief.  Zechariah knows something about the silence caused by unbelief.  And Zechariah knows something about the joy of faith renewed.

Perhaps you have heard me say my favorite Christmas movie is the classic It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Steward and Donna Reed. It just so happens that It’s a Wonderful Life was the topic of Seth’s text messages. On the evening of his flurry of text messages, he had just finished decorating his Christmas tree. Among the text messages, Seth sent me pictures of the lights adorning the outside of the house and the lovely Christmas tree in the living room. I responded with what I thought was adequate enthusiasm. But I was missing the real message. “No, Mom,” the text read. “Look at the tree skirt.” Finally, I saw it. Seth’s tree skirt was a woven throw I bought many years ago picturing the town of Bedford Falls. It’s the setting of the movie in which George Bailey has his own wilderness time. Thinking all is lost, he is about to give up but the prayers of people who love him result in a gentle angel, Clarence, coming to earth to offer George the help he desperately needs. With the gift of a vision to see things from a different perspective, George realizes that his life has mattered. His life has been truly wonderful. Because of George’s wilderness time, his faith is restored and renewed.

 

Still today, we are drawn to stories like these because we are people still searching—searching for light amidst shadows and darkness. Some days it feels like the world is addicted to anger and hatred and fear, so much so, we may be tempted to stick our heads in the sand until the storm passes over. But it shows no signs of abating. With so much pain—within us and around us—our hearts are broken asunder. What is ours to do? What is ours to say?  While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I know who does, and so I bang on the doors of heaven—just like you do, I imagine.

 

Could it be that one person who can show us the way forward is none other than Zachariah, who lived through his own wilderness time?  Might his experience light the way for us? Perhaps what Zachariah has to teach us is that there are times when it’s best to speak less and sit in silence more. Maybe, out of the silence we can truly hear the leading of the Spirit. If we are brave enough to enter the wilderness, we might be amazed by the still small voice that leads us into the light.

 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to offer another perspective—something other than faith in all that glitters. At the very least, we can affirm our belief in the enchantment and wonder of Almighty God entering the world as a helpless baby—who came to right the wrongs in the world and to teach us to do the same.

 

For a time, Zechariah sits in silence, but his mute state ends with a clear mind and a loose tongue. Ultimately, he is transformed. His doubt takes a back seat to faith—faith in the God of Israel who made a holy covenant with Abraham—faith in the God of Israel whose plan of salvation includes Zechariah’s only son. John is born with a mighty task—he will prepare the way for the Lord—he will lift up Christ as the light to those who sit in darkness—he will guide their feet into the way of peace. In the end, Zechariah’s song of praise is a joyful, triumphant invitation to people living in darkness: Embrace the light. Be released from the shadow of death. Believe and be silent no more.

 

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

*Cover Art by Ella Hawkins, used by permission

Watch and Hope

Watch and Hope

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 28, 2021

First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

 

Although this is the first Sunday of Advent that will lead us to Christmas morning, Christmas trees and decorations have filled the stores for weeks. Christmas carols have been playing since Halloween. And this year there is the added sense of urgency for shoppers since shipping delays are expected because of the pandemic. But if you have come to worship this morning, expecting more of what our culture has to offer, you are in for a surprise. There is no Santa here. Neither Mary, nor Joseph have arrived. There are no shepherds watching, nor angels singing. And if it is the sweet baby Jesus that you are expecting, well, he is nowhere to be found. Instead, the key player today is an adult Jesus, who paints a picture of the entire universe turned upside down.

 

Advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and our Scripture readings offer an opportunity to prepare for two arrivals. First, there is the arrival of God upon the earth in human form—the infant Jesus—whom we await each Christmas. Second, there is the return of Christ in all his glory—his second arrival, his second coming. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says, “but my words will not pass away.” In this season of peace, Jesus’ words seem anything but peaceful. At first glance, they are troubling, worrisome words. In essence Jesus says, “The end is not yet, but the end, in fact, is coming. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars—people will be overcome with fear and the heavens will be shaken—then, then the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and glory.” Jesus commands disciples of every time and place to be on guard, to stay watchful, to be alert.

 

Advent is a season of preparation, a season of watching and waiting, which serves as a reminder of the people of Israel who await the birth of the Messiah. It also reminds us that part of our task, as the church, is still one of waiting and preparing for Christ’s return. These days, for what are you watching and waiting? For many of us the latest crisis—whatever that may be—keeps us riveted to the news. We watch as people lose their homes, their families, their lives. We watch as something as innocent as a Christmas parade turns into a deadly tragedy. We watch as our country grows more divisive by the day. We can’t help but wonder: “Will things get worse before they get better?”  We watch and we worry—because we sense what might be at stake: our future as well as the future of generations to come.

 

No doubt, we are alert. We are keeping watch! But today’s gospel reading calls us to a different kind of watching.  As Christians we are called to watch for signs of hope in the midst of chaos for, even when all evidence is to the contrary, day by day the kingdom of God is breaking in. Consider the destruction of the temple. For the Jewish community, it is the central location for hope. When it is destroyed, there is utter chaos. But for Christians, the temple’s destruction becomes a sign of God’s kingdom breaking in for a new time. We do not find hope in a temple. We do not find hope in a church—or any structure for that matter—no matter how grand! Our hope is in Christ—who will one day return to make all things new. So, we wait. We watch. We hope.

 

Without a doubt, there are those who have given up hope—weary from Christ’s delay—so much history between Jesus and us. But for all the evils history has brought, it has also brought a host of witnesses, an array of meaningful worship, a multitude of wonders of God’s mercy. If history had stopped at the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, then there would have been no St. Augustine, no St. Francis, no Julian of Norwich, no Martin Luther, no John Calvin, no Karl Barth, and no Mother Teresa. Come to think of it there would be no First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta and no us.  Maybe instead of being bothered by the delay of Christ’s return, we should be grateful that God has given the church such a long history—even as we continue to watch and work and wait and hope.

 

But, as the church of Jesus Christ in this day and age, it’s easy to fall asleep at our watching posts.  We can get awfully drowsy as we listen to the ways of the world—as the jingling bells of Christmas draw us into more of a secular celebration—until Christ, the true reason for the season, gets lost in the shuffle. Ah, the world is at play with godly things!

 

Sometimes I fear that we have become like people who have lived by the train tracks so long that we can no longer hear the train. Have we gotten so used to the sounds of the season that it no longer fills us with joy? As children, we could hardly wait for Advent and Christmas, and the God to which they pointed. But now, the hustle and bustle of our lives threatens to deafen us to delight and wonder. We may sleep as the whistling engine rushes by. If we aren’t careful, we may sleep right through the coming of Christ altogether—the same Christ who warned, “Be alert at all times!”

 

The seasons of our life pass so quickly. From out of the holiday festivities, the gospel reminds us to be awake to God. After enduring nearly 2 years of the effects of a global pandemic, we may have lost faith in the world around us. But then, as Christians, that was never where we were supposed to put our faith. As Christians, we hope for a new day and a new way of life. As Christians, we pray for our church, our country, and the world but, ultimately, we put our hope in the One who willingly left the halls of glory to come save us. We put our hope in our God who loved us so much that he left his Son in the hands of mere humans who have a way of making such a mess of things.

 

“Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus says, “but my words will not pass away.” Jesus offers words of hope to those who expect too much, to those who expect too little, and to those who may have forgotten to expect anything at all.

 

Hear now a prayer for Advent:

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, O Promised One

Once again, we come to this time of Advent and await your presence.

Give us patience to seek the meaning of these busy days.

Give us courage to wait in times of pain and trouble.

Give us compassion to wait for one another.

Give us faith to wait for the Messiah when we are threatened by the Herods of this world.

Give us hope to wait for the Savior even when we cannot hear the angels singing.

Give us love that does not wait when it meets Christ in our neighbor.

Amen. [i]

 

Through the light of the first Advent candle, we are drawn into the past as well as the future:  Christ has come, and Christ will come again! As we enter the season of waiting, let us remember God’s gift of salvation through Jesus, his Son. Let us stay open to the nudging of the Spirit for ways to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Let us keep watch and remain hopeful as we look forward to that day when we shall see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

[i] Prayer by Maren Tirabassi

The Best Is Yet to Come

The Best Is Yet to Come

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 14, 2021

25th Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

 

Our reading from the Gospel of Mark is often referred to as the “little apocalypse,” a short version of warnings about the end of the world. Herein, Jesus foretells of dreadful times ahead—times that are just the beginning of the birthpangs to come. Let us begin our exploration by first defining the word “apocalypse.” Merriam-Webster defines it as one of the Jewish and Christian writings marked by symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom. It may also be defined more simply as a prophetic revelation.

 

Most of you know that I began attending church at the age of 12 with my uncle. The church was conservative and fundamentalist. So, it may not surprise you that I heard sermon after sermon on the end times, the mark of the beast, numerology, etc. While I would not say the preachers that filled the pulpit were obsessed with apocalyptic literature, I can say in all honesty that I heard way more sermons on eschatology (the study of end times) than on more important matters like God’s grace. As a result, when the lectionary delivers me a text like this one from Mark, I have a little post-traumatic flashback. I believe in God’s mercy, grace, and goodness, in Christ’s redemptive love, in the Spirit’s power to transform all of life. Furthermore, I believe that people who choose to follow Jesus out of fear are not really following Jesus. They are just trying to avoid calamity. Though I often miss the mark, I prefer to look at life with hope and optimism. If optimism is your cup of tea, you might agree that this is not the text for us. However, if we also believe that all Scripture is useful for teaching, surely there is something for us to learn from Jesus’ words.

 

I am reminded of the story of the pony in the pile. Have you heard it?  Once upon a time there were five-year-old twin boys, one was a pessimist, a gloomy sort of “Eeyore” fellow. The other was an optimist, a bubbly, joyful sort. Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike on the outside could be so different on the inside, their parents took them to a child psychiatrist. The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high with new toys, expecting the boy to be thrilled, but instead he burst into tears. Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, “Don’t you want to play with these toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did, I’d only break them.” Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure. The boy squealed with delight, climbed to the top of the pile, and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop, tossing the manure into the air with glee. “What on earth are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked. “Well,” said the boy, beaming, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”[i] I invite you to join me on a search for “the pony.”

 

One of my fondest memories of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land is visiting the Wailing Wall. It is the only wall remaining from the temple and it is where faithful Jews (and visiting Christians, like our group) still come to pray. Many follow the custom of writing prayers on pieces of paper, praying them at the wall, and then tucking the paper into the crevices between the huge stones. Quite happy to follow the custom, for days I pondered what names and yearnings to write on my little sheet of paper. And I admit, it was a holy moment—leaving my prayers there in that sacred space from which millions of prayers have risen to Yahweh. So, if I was this impressed by the one surviving wall of the temple, no wonder the disciples were impressed.

 

Of course, the temple in question is the second temple. The first, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians 500 years before Jesus’ time. The second temple was built after the return from exile, and then it was enhanced by King Herod in the decades just before Jesus’ ministry. By all accounts, it was magnificent. The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold, a “temple of immense wealth.” Its enormous stones mystified many, and the surrounding complex included sprawling courtyards, colonnaded courts, grand porches and balconies, covered walkways, and monumental stairs. Herod the great builder built it to impress the wealthiest and most powerful rulers of the day, and he succeeded. [ii]

 

From the Lectionary, prior readings from Mark have been set in the temple, too. From inside, Jesus has criticized the way the scribes have exploited the poor and he has noticed the generosity of a widow who put all that she had into the treasury. Now Jesus walks outside with his disciples and one of them points out the architecture. “Look Teacher, what great stones!” They are certainly surprised by his response. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Later, sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew can’t help but ask Jesus, “When will this be, and what will be the signs?” Jesus tells them many will be led astray…there will be wars and rumors of wars…there will be earthquakes and famines. He warns, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

 

At first glance, Jesus’ prophetic words, which continue through the end of the chapter, are filled with bad news: not one stone will be left, nation will rise against nation, brother will betray brother, there is danger of being led astray. Fortunately, though, in the pile of bad news there is comfort and good news: Do not be alarmed when you hear of wars, when nations rise against nations, when there are earthquakes and famine. Jesus offers hope amidst the pile of pains, pangs, and persecution. Jesus reminds the disciples that the Holy Spirit with be with them, and he promises salvation to those who endure. Jesus’ message is that his followers need to prepare to participate in his suffering and eventual victory by being witnesses to the truth. His words are meant to give them hope and to encourage them to be steadfast when challenges come.

 

Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ words, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” The process of birthing a child is not easy—thus the phrase—birth pangs. But somehow the painful details evaporate with one glance at the sweet, wrinkled, newborn. The pain of giving birth is a necessary step toward the greater good of bringing a child into the life of the family. In this world there are wars going on at any given time. Suffering and pain are woven into the fabric of life. As Christians, we know this full well. It is a cross, after all, that marks the center of our tradition. We might be tempted to lose hope if not for the rest of the story. Jesus leaves the realm of glory to enter the world as a helpless baby to be the Great Hope of our past, our present, and our future. In Christ, there is new life. Jesus comes to do what the temple has been unable to do—show us how to live and equip us to do so. Jesus comes to break God out of the box the Jewish people have placed God in.

 

In time, the church is born—a place where all people—Jews and Gentiles—can come to learn, to grow, to be equipped to share their faith, and to care for one another. In the beginning, the walls of the church are fluid—all are welcome—all find a place of love. The church has a united purpose to share the gospel with the world. Because of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God’s love, grace, mercy, and hope—they are ours. A new way of life is ours. In the centuries since the birth of Christ’s church, mistakes have been made, to be sure. Again and again, we have been guilty of trying to put God back into a box of our own making. But God will not be contained. Change continues to be a hallmark of our existence—for the world and the church—but that doesn’t make it easy. Sometimes, it may even feel a little like giving birth. But if we are open to the movement of the Spirit, God’s purpose may be fulfilled in us and through us.

 

In the trying times in which we live, it’s easy to focus on the negative, especially when news strikes of more death, destruction, and devastation. Presbyterian pastor and scholar, Rodger Nishioka offers a remedy. Instead of focusing on signs of the times, we can focus on:

 

…[T]he one who is to come—the one who enables us to look up after devastation and claim the certainty of blessing. Things may seem to have fallen apart. It may appear that anarchy has been loosed on the world. Nevertheless, the center will hold and—much to our amazement—we will discover that we have much faithful work to do.[iii]

 

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

[i] http://www.wilsongrowthpartners.com/finding-the-pony-in-the-pile/

[ii] Robert A Bryant, Feasting on the Word.

[iii] Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word.

*Cover photo by Sarah Elizabeth Ray, used by permission

For All the Saints

For All the Saints

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 7, 2021

All Saints’ Day Worship Service

Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

 

In a blogpost, pastor and professor David Lose wrote about how strange certain children’s songs and prayers are—to our modern way of thinking.[i] For example: “Rock a bye baby on the treetop. When the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the storm rages, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.” Thinking back, I can’t believe I sang that song to my children. And what about the familiar prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” What! We have taught our children a prayer that mentions dying in their sleep. Well, that’s comforting.

A modern rendition of the prayer has been altered: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guide me safely through this night, and wake me with the morning light.” Well, that does seem a bit more reassuring, doesn’t it? But, on the other hand, is there something deeper going on? Was the change made to protect children or to protect adults? To what degree does the change simply reflect our changing times? Lose notes that while we seem to have an insatiable appetite for graphic images of violence and death when it comes to TV, the news, movies, and video games—as a society we appear to be in a state of denial regarding the everyday common variety of death which will, ultimately, touch us all. I mean—none of us gets out of this alive, right?

The refusal to accept death is all around us. Hospital personnel speak of patients expiring rather than dying. Generals in the armed forces don’t record how many of their solders are killed—they note the number of casualties. In some churches, more contemporary marriage services do not have couples pledge “until death do us part,” but rather something a bit softer, after all, it is a wedding. Yet, here we are, gathered to celebrate All Saints’ Day. It seems an odd affair not at all in keeping with our culture’s insistence that just the right diet or the right pill or the right surgery—will keep us young forever! But on All Saints’ Day, the church has the opportunity to be counter cultural.

Today we recognize the reality of our mortality, and we celebrate those who have died in the faith—not those who have expired. And notice the color of the paraments. They are white—the color of Easter and celebration. Why? Because today we don’t just acknowledge death, we put it in its proper context. For we worship the One who has power over death, the One who raises Lazarus from death, the One who’s own death and resurrection bears witness to the trustworthiness of the promise that one day God will bring an end to death, cause mourning and suffering to cease, and wipe every tear from our eyes.

In March of this year, English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran lost a mentor and father-figure. While Sheeran was quarantined in Australia for two weeks, awaiting the funeral, he wrote a song entitled, “Visiting Hours.” (Hopefully, you have had a chance to watch the music video that was posted on our Facebook page and sent to you via email.) I invite you to listen to the lyrics:

I wish that Heaven had visiting hours
So I could just show up and bring the news
That she’s gettin’ older and I wish that you’d met her
The things that she’ll learn from me
I got them all from you

Can I just stay a while and we’ll put all the world to rights?
The little ones will grow, and I’ll still drink your favorite wine
And soon they’re goin’ to close, but I’ll see you another day
So much has changed since you’ve been away

I wish that Heaven had visiting hours
So I could just swing by and ask your advice
What would you do in my situation?
I haven’t a clue how I’d even raise them
What would you do?
‘Cause you always do what’s right

Can we just talk a while until my worries disappear?
I’d tell you that I’m scared of turning out a failure
You’d say, “Remember that the answer’s in the love that we create”
So much has changed since you’ve been away

 

I wish that Heaven had visiting hours
And I would ask them if I could take you home
But I know what they’d say, that it’s for the best
So I will live life the way you taught me
And make it on my own

I will close the door, but I will open up my heart
And everyone I love will know exactly who you are
‘Cause this is not goodbye, it is just ’til we meet again
So much has changed since you’ve been away

Sheeran’s song, written during a time of deep sorrow, tenderly demonstrates how losing someone we love rips our hearts asunder. Grief is hard. Where can we turn? As Christians, our faith story reminds us that the darkness of death is to be experienced through the light of Easter morning. Christ’s resurrection gives us courage—not to deny death—but to defy its ability to distort our lives. The Risen Christ has promised that death does not have the last word. Recall the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do you not know that all those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the power of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 5:3-4).

Hopefully, we have all been blessed by spiritual guides who, while they still walked the earth, showed us how to walk in newness of life. Who comes to mind for you—and why? Who has touched your life, encouraged you, given you strength—and how? (Time to share for those in person and online…)

Followers of Jesus have been promised a share in his resurrection. So, while we mourn the death of our loved ones, we also celebrate their victory, for they now rest from their labors and live with Christ in glory. Also, we give thanks that through Christ, our life is sanctified. We, too, are made holy and given a purpose. For you see, saints are not only those people in the Bible or Church history who did great things. Nor are saints only those who died for their faith or who had extraordinary courage. Rather, saints are also—and especially—those who have been baptized into Christ—and set apart for the Lord’s purpose.

In Holy Baptism, each of us is consecrated, named, called, and commissioned to be God’s co-workers in the world. Therefore, our lives have meaning—all of our lives—and all of the roles we may play in them—parent, spouse, child, citizen, employer, employee, co-worker, volunteer, friend, neighbor, student, teacher, mentor… In endless ways, we are set apart by our Creator to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbors. And if we die before we wake, we know our souls the Lord will take. Amen.

 

[i]http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/all-saints-sunday-b-look-twice/

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas via Catholic World Art, used by permission

The Next Chapter

The Next Chapter

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 31, 2021

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 119:1-8; Mark 12:28-34

 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These are words to live by—as individuals and as a church. But let’s be honest, the commandment is not easy. It never has been.

At the time of the Reformation, the church was failing miserably. Instead of being guided by love, the church was guided by a thirst for power and money. When Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, it marked the beginning of a protest that would lead to the Reformation and to the protesters being known as Protestants. Good things came from the Reformation. Corruption of leaders in the church was exposed, Scripture gained authority, grace was elevated as a critical doctrine of the church, the Bible became accessible, and literacy spread. Yes, good things grew out of the Reformation—including the Presbyterian Church.

I want to take a few moments to allow those gathered here and those joining us virtually to share something that you appreciate about our denomination. (Time to share.)

Kinney’s grandfather and uncle were Presbyterian ministers, and one of the happiest days of his mother’s life was the day I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Since Kinney has such deep roots in the Presbyterian Church, I asked him what he learned about the denomination growing up. He said one of the things that he appreciated was how the church is governed by elected elders (session) so that everyone has a voice. Interestingly, Kinney grew up with women ministers so he was surprised to learn in his teens that other churches refused to allow women any leadership roles. Another thing that meant a lot to him and his family was the value placed on education for ministers. And finally, he learned to appreciate how open the denomination is to learning from other denominations or even other faith traditions, when it comes to the things of loving God and loving neighbor.

Because of Kinney’s rich Presbyterian heritage when we were married that is the place we landed. But after three years, I was no closer to knowing what it meant to be a Presbyterian. It was as if everyone in the little church already knew the ins and outs of their tradition, and they failed to see the importance of handing down their faith story to newcomers. It was only in seminary, decades later, that I came home to the place I had always belonged. It all started in a doctrine class that introduced me to a book of creeds which led me to the Presbyterian Creeds and Confessions. And here is what spoke to me—the contents, of course—but also the number of footnotes found at the back of the book supporting those creeds and confessions—footnotes that were made up of verse after verse after verse of Scripture. I was in awe of the saints who were trying to work out their beliefs and supporting those beliefs with the word of God—to the very best of their ability.

Something else that made me fall in love with the Presbyterian Church was the Book of Order. Trust me, there’s some really good stuff in here but what I value the most is the Directory for Worship. In this section of the book, you will find things like: Christian worship gives all glory and honor, praise and thanksgiving to the holy, triune God. God acts with grace; we respond with gratitude. God claims us as beloved children; we proclaim God’s saving love—this rhythm of divine action and human response—found throughout Scripture, human history, and everyday events—shapes all of Christian faith, life, and worship.

By this time in my own faith journey, I had heard the Presbyterians referred to as the frozen chosen. But through the denomination’s Book of Order, I saw that was far from the truth for there is built in the very landscape of Presbyterian worship, open space for the Spirit to move and speak and prompt. Based on the movement of the Spirit and the gifts of the people, in Presbyterian churches near and far, fixed forms of worship are welcome, but so are spontaneous approaches. Prayer is understood to be the heart of worship—a gift from God, offered through Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit. Prayer may be spoken, silent, sung, or enacted in physical ways. Participation in worship (regardless of age, race, or gender) may involve a range of actions: kneeling, bowing, standing, lifting hands, dancing, drumming, clapping, embracing, joining hands, anointing, and laying on of hands. Indeed, every action in worship is to glorify God and contribute to the good of the people. Doesn’t sound like the frozen chosen to me. Rather, it sounds like a model for growing into the kind of people God wants us to be.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Over 500 hundred years after the Reformation, the church is alive but how closely are we following Jesus’ mandate?  There is no doubt, the church, no matter the denomination, hardly looks like it did—even 50 years ago. But is that a bad thing?  Scholars have long believed that a massive cultural shift happens in the church about every 500 years which is why many refer to the time in which we now live as the “New Reformation.” Whether we like it or not, the church is changing. But facing the changes does not mean caving into fear. Instead, it may mean accepting an invitation to look around us with curiosity and wonder—and to listen for our assignment in God’s next chapter for the church.

First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta has a beautiful history. Organized in 1864, the cornerstone to this sanctuary was placed in 1907. In 1958, the Fellowship Hall was erected with the Centennial Building constructed in 1964. Our church has started 3 congregations in the area—West End Presbyterian Church, Twin Lakes Presbyterian Church, and Trinity Presbyterian Church. We have a long history of supporting foreign missions as well as other missions like Thornwell Home for Children and Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. Additionally, the Break Bread Together Program has served the community for over 4 decades. What wonderful opportunities God has given us and those who have gone before us.

Undeniably, our story is rich and inspiring, but, by the grace of God, our story is not over—unless we decide to rest on our laurels and go down in history as the church that “used to” be one of the large downtown churches, as the church that “used to” step out on faith to plant new churches and start new ministries. Words like “used to” are words that do not serve us well. But other words—creativity and celebration, gratitude and generosity, experiment and explore—these words invite us to be open to the prompting of the Spirit. Such words have compelled us to start the First Friday Contemplative Service, to start a multi-generational Sunday school class that allows us to pool our resources and learn together no matter our age, to try various spiritual practices and retreats and on a variety of platforms, to offer virtual opportunities like Bible studies, the Book Club, and occasional committee meetings through Zoom, to host something as radical as Pub Theology to engage with each other, yes, but also to engage people in our community who may never darken the door of a church.

Whenever we courageously try something new, there are no guarantees. Some things succeed. Others fail. But how will we know if we do not give it our all. Regardless, we press on. As a church, we press on because being faithful is our goal, growing into the likeness of Christ is our goal, following the way of the Spirit is our goal—so yes, we press on to share God’s love whenever and however we can.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we want to remain a relevant voice for this community, there is work for us all to do and it will take all of us to do it. Reformation Sunday is a good day to celebrate and to reflect. But it is also a good day to pause and ponder the commandment nearest and dearest to the heart of Jesus: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. How are we doing? And how might we do better?

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

*Cover Art “St. Giles Cathedral” in Edinburgh, Scotland by Jonathan Wheeler