You are Beloved

You are Beloved

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 13, 2019

Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7

 

Like most everyone in the world, preachers love to be loved. But wanting to be loved can get a preacher into trouble. There is danger in being less prophetic than God asks us to be. What if we make someone angry? What if someone doesn’t like us anymore? Fearful, we may let sin slide, and be tempted to preach the cotton candy gospel, or resist speaking the truth—even when it is in love.

 

 

Feeling a need to be loved is not a problem for John the Baptist (which may be one of the many reasons I love him so). John just tells it like it is—no tiptoeing around this or that. “That’s a sin against God—so STOP it!” Does he offend King Herod? Of course! How about the Romans? Absolutely! John levels his wrath against anyone he deems unjust or immoral or just plain lazy. You might say that John the Baptist is an equal opportunity offender. With wild hair, with his bizarre diet, and with living out in the wilderness, it is unlikely that John has retained the social graces required to live with “normal folk.” But none of this matters to John, who seems to walk a thin line between being prophetic and being utterly mad.

 

 

While John’s behavior is great theater, it is much more than that! Thousands come to hear his rants—many follow up with baptism. Whenever I think of all those people wending their way down to the Jordan River, I can’t help but recall a similar scene in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” People line up…one after the other…and there they go into the river to be drenched with the cleansing waters of baptism—hoping against hope for a new start. Such great expectations! That’s what the people carry in their hearts in the movie. And it is what the people carry in their hearts as they approach John. In fact, Luke tells us they are wondering in their hearts if John might actually be the Messiah. Could he be the one? As if stopping the very thought in its tracks, John sets the record straight. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

 

 

“O John, say it isn’t so! You can’t mean you are going to step down. You can’t mean you are going to give it all up. You’re just getting started.” But step down is exactly what he will do when the time draws nigh, which should come as no surprise since John has always known his place in the world—even before his birth. Luke tells us, you will recall, how John leapt in his mother’s womb when she approached her cousin Mary, who was carrying the Christ Child. Even then, John was filled with joy at the nearness of Jesus. And now, once again, John leaps for joy at the thought of finishing the work he’s been called to do and turning it over to the true Messiah.

 

 

We get another glimpse of John’s character from the Gospel of John when some of his disciples approach him to inquire about this Jesus to whom people are flocking. John responds with such humility,” You yourselves are witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him’…He must increase but I must decrease.”[i] For John, success is not about drawing a crowd or gathering a following. It is not about filling the pews or overflowing the coffers. For John, success is serving the One who is coming after him, the Messiah, the Lord. It is about being faithful to the end.

 

 

These days, though, success is defined differently—mostly in financial terms. And the worship of success causes countless people to spend their lives trying to achieve the unachievable. Although we live in the land of the “pursuit of happiness,” for too many Americans, it’s just that—a pursuit. There is no end—really—to the chase of the almighty dollar. Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller, “Mr. Rockefeller, how much money is enough?” and he replied, “Just a little more.”

 

 

In the eyes of the world, even in 1st century Palestine, John the Baptist was not successful, especially once he lost his head—literally. But then, neither was Jesus, for Jesus had a different viewpoint altogether. We can tell that by the words he spoke at the Last Supper. With his friends gathered around and a bountiful table spread before him, with bread and wine, “This is my body,” he said, “broken for you…this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins…” Doesn’t sound like much of a success, does it? And then, from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” he cries. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 

 

The good news known as the gospel turns the world’s notion of success upside down. John the Baptist gives up his place for the Righteous One coming after him. Jesus gives up his life for rabble-rousers like those disciples who abandon, deny, and betray him.

 

 

I invite you to hear once more these words from Luke, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

 

As I pondered this text a few things caught my attention. First, the phrase, “when all were baptized.” Jesus, who of all people does not need to have his sins washed away, enters the water WITH the people. He identifies with everyone who is broken and frightened and sinful to the core. One scholar notes, “I like to consider this [act], his first miracle; the miracle of his humility. The first thing that Jesus does for us is go down with us. His whole life will be like this. It is well known that Jesus ended his career on a cross between two thieves; it deserves to be as well known that he began his ministry in a river among penitent sinners.”[ii]

 

 

Another thing strikes me about Jesus’ baptism. Imagine that you are on the bank of the River Jordan with this strange looking John the Baptist and people all around. You expect things to go along as they have—people enter the water, John rants at them about their sinful ways, maybe he offers a prayer, and then he baptizes them. They return to the bank dripping wet to consider their life from henceforth. Simple enough! But when this fellow in front of you enters the water, something extraordinary happens—from the heavens a voice booms, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So here is my quirky thought: If you are next in line, what in the world do you do? Do you run? Do you stick around? I wonder.

 

 

The voice from heaven—now that must have been something to hear! Oh, to hear it again! On this topic, Henri Nouwen wrote,

 

 

Many voices ask for our attention. There is the voice that says, “Prove that you are a good person.” Another voice says, “You [ought to] be ashamed of yourself.” There also is a voice that says, “Nobody really cares about you,” and one that says, “Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.” But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear.[iii]

 

 

That still small voice that says, “You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you,” is the voice I yearn for us to hear as we approach the font this morning, touch the water, and embrace the new life that is ours. Hallelujah! Amen!

 

 

[i] John 3:28-30

[ii] Dale Brunner, Lectionary Preacher Workbook, ed. Carlos Wilton, 61.

[iii] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas, used by permission

Home by Another Way

Home by Another Way
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 6, 2019
Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

 

 

For years, you and your buddies have gathered once a week at a local eatery for breakfast. It’s such a good time to catch up and enjoy one another’s company. Over time, strong friendships have developed—good friends are hard to find. But on this particular morning, with holiday obligations and all, only you and Tim, a relative newcomer to the group, show up. It’s just as well, you think, for you have a honey-do list a mile long: take the Christmas decorations to the garage, break down boxes for recycling, take Janice’s gift by since she was sick and didn’t make it by the house… You and Tim get your coffee and breakfast and amble over to sit at your “reserved table” and you begin swapping stories, like the one about the Christmas fruit cake that, sure enough, showed up again!

 

 

It doesn’t take long, however, for the conversation to come to a lull, because it doesn’t take long to realize something is troubling Tim. Finally, not one to mince words, you ask straight out, “So, Tim, how are things, really?” He hesitates for a moment and then says, “Things are tough. Sally and I’ve been married for 10 years—some good—some not so good. Lately, it’s been more of the “not so good” years. To tell you the truth, Sally wants a divorce. Last year she wanted us to go for counseling, but I refused. No way was I going to share private matters with a stranger. But now, I don’t know. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done things differently. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s too late for us. I just can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t know where to turn.”

 

 

You listen carefully. You don’t know Tim too well, but he strikes you as a good guy, and you hate to see anyone going through hard times—especially around the holidays. You take a sip of your coffee—and then another—buying time to ponder what to say, how honest to be. You remember that time in your own life when things got tough. And you remember how your church family prayed for you and encouraged you. For too long the road ahead looked bleak, but somehow a new path opened, a path that took you home by another way.

 

 

Several years ago, James Taylor and Timothy Mayer composed a song entitled “Home by Another Way.” It tells of the wise men of old who traveled from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. It begins, “Those magic men the Magi, some people call them wise, or Oriental, even kings, well anyway, those guys. They visited with Jesus; they sure enjoyed their stay. Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme, they went home by another way.”

 

 

Wise men from the East learn about the birth of baby Jesus and travel a long, long way to fix their eyes upon him. Who are these men anyway, and what do we know about them? Well, in the case of the Magi, it’s easy to preach “almost Bible.” It’s easy to get the story askew, deducing things that may or may not be true. For example, in later Christian tradition, the wise men became known as kings, probably influenced by Psalm 72:10, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.” Or perhaps influenced by Isaiah 49:7, “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One… ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord who is faithful…’” Another detail handed down by Christian tradition is that there were three wise men. And how did we deduce such a thing? Well, there were 3 gifts, so of course, there were 3 wise men. Furthermore, did you know that we also have names and descriptions? In a piece written around the year 700, Melchior is described as an old man with white hair and a long beard, Gaspar is young and beardless with a ruddy complexion, and Balthasar is a black-skinned, heavily bearded fellow. Finally, the gifts of the magi have also been interpreted: gold represents an appropriate gift due to a king, frankincense symbolizes “an oblation worthy of divinity,” and myrrh testifies to the Son of Man who is to die.

 

 

While all these deductions are fascinating, they should not overshadow what is truly important about the story. The arrival of the wise men from the East represents the Gentile world, in all its racial diversity, who now come to Christ, who now are welcome at the cradle of the Son of God. The magi foreshadow the Gentile Christians of the early Christian community. The magi foreshadow us.

 

 

The wise men come…they see…and now they must return home. But how? Will they do King Herod’s bidding? Will they return via Jerusalem and give the evil king a full report? Taylor’s song continues: “…they went home by another way… Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too, and go home by another way. We can make it another way. Safe home as they used to say. Keep a weather eye to the chart on high and go home another way.”

 

 

Barbara Brown Taylor notes that it’s time to “rescue the magi from their fixed places in the annual Christmas pageant and restore them to their biblical roles as key witnesses to both the threat and the promise of the Christ child.” No doubt, the Christ child offers promise to the world, the promise of light and hope and love. But this child also poses a real and certain threat. Make no mistake! King Herod is frightened! He investigates and learns that this baby will shepherd the people of Israel. He knows of another shepherd-king—David—loved and blessed by God. Oh no, there will be none of that! Herod knows how to handle messianic movements and revolts. There will be no late-night debates over fiscal cliffs—instead, with lighting speed he orders the slaughter of every baby in town. “That takes care of that!” or so he thinks.

 

 

James Taylor’s song continues: “Steer clear of royal welcomes; Avoid a big to-do. A king who would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you. He really, really wants those presents. He’ll comb your camel’s fur. ‘Til his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.”

 

 

Of course, we know that Herod is after more than frankincense, gold and myrrh. Herod will stop at nothing less than sovereign reign and power. Herod cannot know, cannot see that this baby will change the world. By him and through him all things are changed. No more will the “Herods” of the world rule. No more will darkness overcome the light. At the birth of Jesus, simple shepherds, angels and, later, the wise men, look upon the child with amazement and wonder. Because now, there is hope. Even in the darkest of times, there is hope for a home that can be reached by another way. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus who, as a grown man, will sit with his disciples around a table of simple food and declare, “This is my body broken for you…this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood…” (Sealed in the blood of the Lamb—not in the blood of the Herod’s of the world!) It’s a new day and we can reach home by another way!

 

 

So, there you sit at the table with Tim, coffee cup still in hand. And you know that you need to tell him your story. Because in your heart, you know there are times when every man, woman, and child needs a wise friend to point them toward the star that still burns bright. Slowly you tell Tim about a time in your life when the darkness closed in on you. You admit your faith was weak and meager. You tell him about being depressed and nearing despair until some way, somehow, God’s light broke forth in the night sky. The Word became flesh in your life, so that now, you believe that for God all things are possible. You’re quick to add, “That doesn’t mean everything always works out just the way we want. But no matter what—God’s love is with us. No matter what—God’s love is for us—and now, it is possible to go home by another way!”

 

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Miracle of Grace

The Miracle of Grace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:1-16

 

In the Letter of Paul to Titus we read, “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.” But what is grace? Grace has been defined as the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it. It is an expression of God’s good will and care toward humanity. It is generous—totally unexpected and undeserved—and it takes the form of divine love. Tonight, we celebrate the hidden grace that is now made wonderfully visible—more than that—seeable, hearable, touchable, huggable, adorable—in the form of baby Jesus resting in his mother’s arms.

 

During the Season of Advent, as a church we examined Jesus’ family tree. The first chapter of Matthew includes names we would expect—like Abraham, Jacob, and David. But then there are unexpected names. Along the way, we learned that Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of names, though. Instead, it is a way of revealing to us individuals with unique stories and experiences: Tamar, a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba, affected by circumstances over which she had no control; Ruth, a foreigner, who remained loyal to her mother-in-law no matter what their future might hold; Rahab, a harlot, who offered protection to the spies of Yahweh regardless of the danger to herself.

 

The genealogy of Jesus displays for all to see, how the grace of God works. Amazingly! Unpredictably! Loving, touching, and enriching lives—that’s been God’s work of grace down through the ages. That’s why such unexpected names appear in the Christmas story.

And then…and then…there’s Mary—a young woman of humble birth who is not even married. What in the world could God be thinking to call such a person to INDWELL the child of God Almighty? Not at all what we would expect! But surely no one before or since has experienced Emmanuel, God-with-us, like Mary did. She, who watched the Son of God grow and move inside her own belly. Scholar, Timothy George, in an essay on Mary, reflects, “Mary was a disciple of Christ before she was his mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.”[i] Mary’s faith too is not the achievement of merit, but the gift of divine grace.”

 

Grace is God’s healing, liberating, ever-present gift. It is not something we find wrapped up with pretty paper and bow, lying beneath the Christmas tree. It cannot be bought by holy prayers or good deeds or “correct” theology, whatever that is! God’s grace or unmerited favor is given—freely. It is available for all people—living and active and immeasurable.

 

Often people talk about the salvation story as if the grace of God was absent from the world until Jesus died on the cross.[ii] But on this precious, holy night, let me suggest that the grace of God has been with us from the beginning of human history. God has always been with us! God has always been for us! No doubt, God’s grace reached its perfect work on the cross, but it was not a new thing God was doing. The cross became the visible, ultimate accomplishment of something that has always been flowing from the heart of God. Surely, even when God’s works have been hidden from human eyes, God has been active in human souls. Grace recognizes no obstacles and will not be confined to any limits—even those we might deem necessary. But grace is costly—to think otherwise is to embrace a theology of cheap grace.

 

The unexpected happened that night so long ago in Bethlehem. There in a smelly stable, a young woman of little importance to the world gave birth to a child—the God-child. Now grace has another name. Now we see it, hear it, cuddle it, love it, adore it. Jesus is born!

 

At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” May the following poem, “In the Know,”[iii] bring you closer to God’s perfect grace on this most blessed night:

 

From the first day you’ve cared for us,

shaping the soul,

by your Spirit through long ages,

knowing us well,

grieving our sins and sharing our joys,

loving us all.

 

Now you know us in a new way,

in our flesh cast,

cradled in a young mother’s arms,

suckling her breast,

learning in the hard school of life,

as creatures must.

 

Now we know you in a new way,

God with no mask,

tasting all of our hopes and fears,

from dawn to dusk,

a weakling in a hard, strong world,

a child at risk.

 

Of that which human ears have heard,

our carols ring,

for that which eyes have seen and loved,

all joy be sung,

to that which hands have touched and nursed,

we now belong.

 

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

[i] “Profile on Mary,” The Life with God Bible, NRSV, 103.

[ii] http://bruceprewer.com/DocC/C05xmase.htm

[iii] Inspired by Luke 2:1-20 and 1 John 1:1-4. © B.D. Prewer 1994

*Bulletin Art: by Stushie; used by subscription

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 23, 2018

4th Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6; Genesis 38:1-30; 1 Kings 1:15-31

 

A while back there was a documentary on television about the British Royal Family. The topics discussed included the risk of losing the “magic and mystique” of the nature of Royalty since now days there’s too much revealed about the everyday lives of the members of the Royal Family. They’ve become too ordinary, too familiar, too much like us. To quote one narrator, “We shouldn’t let too much daylight in on magic.”

 

These four weeks of Advent have been leading us toward the wonder and magic of the birth of a baby who is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. In some ways, we may wish to preserve the magic of that event, by not knowing too many details of Jesus’ family history. But we really have no choice. The genealogy of Jesus, spotlighted in Matthew and Luke, contains details aplenty—and sometimes, as in the account of Tamar and Judah, there is more revealed than we feel comfortable hearing. I mean, do we really need to hear all the family gossip? Aren’t some things better left unsaid—hidden away in a dark closet? Maybe—for our comfort’s sake! But in this case, the darkness has been exposed and it might benefit us, on our faith journey, if we are brave enough to look into the light.

 

The story of Tamar and Judah is not a pretty story, but it is part of our salvation history and it reveals something of the “strange righteousness” of a God who uses ordinary people to accomplish God’s purposes. So, let’s lean in for a closer look.

 

Judah, a son of Jacob, moves away from the family into the land of Canaan. He has three sons. When his first son comes of age, Judah gives him a wife named Tamar—like the gift of an iPad on Christmas morning. In other words, it’s doubtful she has much of a choice in the matter. Tamar finds herself married to a wicked man—but not for long—because God intervenes. According to the Levirate marriage law, the second son becomes Tamar’s husband after the death of his brother. Unfortunately, the second marriage doesn’t work out any better than the first, and again, Tamar is widowed. Probably, Judah blames Tamar for the death of his two sons. Still, Judah promises Tamar his last son, Shelah, when he comes of age. Tamar is sent to her father’s house to remain a widow and to wait. Make no mistake, Judah has no intention of ever bringing Tamar back. Case closed! Good riddance!

 

The plot thickens when a few years pass, and Tamar realizes she has been deprived of her legal right. You might wonder why she is eager to marry Shelah. After all, the first two brothers were evil. Why bother? But here is a woman whose rights have been disregarded from the beginning. Remember, she is “given” by Judah to her first husband—passed on like a Christmas present under the tree. Then, she is likely blamed for the death of Judah’s two evil sons and, finally, forced to return to her father’s house and spend the rest of her days waiting for a fiancé who will never appear.

 

No wonder Tamar is driven to desperate measures when she learns that her dishonest and recently widowed father-in-law is visiting nearby. Tamar knows the only way she will ever be properly acknowledged by Judah is to publicly shame him into admitting his wrongful treatment of her. So, she acts as a temple prostitute and waits for Judah to pass by. Apparently, she is a good judge of his character because everything goes according to plan—her plan—not his. Tamar walks away with Judah’s signet ring, cord, and staff—all proof of his actions. Then Tamar returns to her father’s house to wait—just like she has been instructed to do—but this time it is on her terms and this time the waiting will not be in vain. When Judah hears Tamar is pregnant, he pronounces judgment: “Bring her out! Burn her!” But it isn’t Tamar who gets burned. It’s Judah—forced to face his own wrongdoing in broad daylight.

 

Now if that isn’t enough juicy family history, we have one more person to consider—Bathsheba. The story of David and Bathsheba uncovers the greatest shame of the greatest king of Israel. It is a tale of lust and adultery and murder that goes like this: King David sees a pretty woman, desires her, and with all his power in tow—he takes what he wants. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David is unable to trick her husband into thinking the baby is his, David plans a military maneuver to get Uriah killed in battled. All through the story, Bathsheba is a passive participant in her own life, having no power and little influence. Even Matthew underscores her passiveness, listing her not by name, but as “the wife of Uriah.”

 

With the passing of time, David changes—so does Bathsheba.  By the end of David’s life, it is Bathsheba who takes matters in hand, along with the prophet, Nathan, to make sure that she gets what she has been promised—her son, Solomon, on his father’s throne. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, has thrown himself an “I will be king” party. Little does he know that while his guests are having cocktails and goat cheese on bruschetta, Bathsheba is having a word with King David. David may be old but he’s not dead yet. So, after conferring with his trusted friend, Nathan, David declares to Bathsheba that he will keep his promise and Solomon will sit on his throne beginning that very day.

 

How do you suppose Bathsheba changes from a passive pawn to a king-maker? What is with her new-found courage? Could it be that David’s feelings for her have changed over the years so that “I want” has become “I love”? Could it be that David’s own love for God has affected Bathsheba so that she now realizes that she, too, is loved by Yahweh? And doesn’t knowing God’s love in your life make you stronger? Doesn’t it empower you to work for justice—to try to make the world a better place?

 

The stories of Tamar and Bathsheba are flooded with surprising openness to all that’s human—passions, guilt, selfishness, trickery, paternal anxiety, fear, hope, and love—all revealing with shocking clarity just one family’s history. No one earns a spot on the family tree—you just sort of appear like one more apple on the branch. And whether you are exceptionally sweet or rotten to the core—there you are.

 

Matthew’s genealogy includes some unexpected names—names like Tamar and Bathsheba, and Ruth and Rahab. But Matthew does not simply make a list of faceless names. Instead, he invites us to ponder individuals with unique stories and experiences. Tamar is a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba struggles through circumstances over which she has no control; Ruth, a foreigner, remains caring and loving to her mother-in-law; Rahab, a harlot, offers protection to the spies of Yahweh even though it might cost her life. No, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of faceless names. The list displays, for all to see, how the grace of God works. God’s love touches these women and God’s grace transforms their lives. That’s why their names appear in the Christmas story.

 

At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. That miracle of grace often begins in the most unlikely circumstances—times when we feel without hope or purpose. But when we are baptized into the family of God, we are grafted into the tree of life. It doesn’t make any difference who our mother or grandfather is. Anyone can get into the family because, one night, long, long, ago, in the little town of Bethlehem, the light came into the world and with it came all the magic and wonder of God’s love! Not at all what we might expect. Thanks be to God!

[i] Modeled after a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.

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

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Rahab & Ruth

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 11, 2018

2nd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6; Joshua 2:15-24; Ruth 1:22-2:12

 

What to expect when you’re expecting—that’s the theme of our Advent sermon series.[i] Again this morning, through the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, we reflect on those included in Jesus’ family tree. Of course, there are people named whom we would expect—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Solomon. But what about Ruth and Rahab, Tamar and Bathsheba? How unexpected! This morning we will focus on two of these women—Rahab and Ruth. How odd to find their names listed—after all, they’re foreigners, pagans, outsiders!

 

First, let’s turn our attention to Rahab—a most unlikely hero. A retelling of her story may be found in the lines of the following poem entitled simply, “Rahab.” [ii]

 

Rahab, a scarlet cord

binds you to the Cross

seven centuries before the nails

pierced the Carpenter’s hands.

You, one of the four women

named in His genealogy.

How could this be?

 

You kept a wayside house

on the Jericho wall,

providing favors for all

before it fell down.

The location known far and wide,

perhaps a rosy string latched the door.

How could this be?

 

Was life so hard,

reputation so bloodied,

money so short,

pride long lost,

fear for survival,

no hope for tomorrow?

How could this be?

 

Hearing of the Hebrews’ God,

how the Red Sea had stood aside,

trembling, for His people

were advancing in your land.

Wondering if their God

would protect you too?

How could this be?

 

Before the gate was shut

two enemy spies came.

Lying, to protect them,

flax-hidden on your roof,

revealing your tender heart

melting in the fiery sun.

How could this be?

 

Rumors ran rampant

‘round the walls,

of Amorite kings’ crimson robes,

washed in the blood of battle

against Israel’s army.

Would they do the same to you?

How could this be?

 

Pledging a vow of kindness,

to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

pleading salvation for the family

gathered beneath your roof,

letting down the scarlet cord

you bid the spies godspeed.

How could this be?

 

Becoming a woman of faith

before the trumpet blast,

lauded in the book of Hebrews

for courage to believe.

The royal red line included you

by God’s power,

who brings all things to be.

 

The God who brings all things to be weaves the life of Rahab into the story of Joshua—the one chosen by God to lead God’s people into the Promised Land, after the death of Moses. When Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River, they find the territory held by powerful kings, over cities large and small. According to God’s instruction, Joshua sends spies to survey the city of Jericho. Once the two spies arrive, they are welcomed into the home of Rahab—who just so happens to be a prostitute. She’s heard of the previous successes of God’s people. She shares how her own people are frightened beyond belief. Not only does she assure the spies, she risks her own life to protect them. When the king’s soldiers come looking for them, Rahab hides her visitors on the roof, sends the authorities on a wild goose chase, strikes a deal with the spies securing the safety of her family and herself, and lays out a plan for the spy’s safe escape.

 

Most assuredly, something happens to Rahab when she hears the stories of Yahweh. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below,” she proclaims.[iii] Rahab comes to believe in the power of God to deliver—even her—and her faith is rewarded. Because when Israel comes to destroy Jericho, Rahab and those in her family are spared. Furthermore, Rahab is given the unexpected honor of becoming an ancestor of Christ.

 

God chooses an unlikely hero, a harlot in Jericho, to help the invading Israelites. Through her, God demonstrates, once again, that a person’s past has no bearing on what God can do in her future—once she surrenders her heart and soul to the Living God. Hiding enemy spies, lying to government officials, making a deal with the enemy, using a scarlet cord to insure her escape—it sounds more like the script of a James Bond movie than a Bible story. Especially since the hero of the story isn’t our idea of a model biblical character.

 

Nevertheless, here Rahab is, right in the middle of the Bible story about Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. It’s worth noting that Rahab is mentioned not only in the book of Joshua. She is praised for her faith in the Book of Hebrews. She is commended for her works in The Letter of James. Ultimately, the inclusion of Rahab in our gospel reading supports Matthew’s view that Jesus came to bring all nations—not just Israel—under his reign. Rahab is a witness to the truth that salvation is an act of God’s grace—not dependent upon merit. And, it’s fitting for Matthew to include her in his gospel, because there but for the grace of God goes every sinner—including you—including me.

 

The God who brings all things to be, works mightily in the life of Rahab. God works mightily in the life of Ruth, as well. Nowadays, when someone says, “Let me tell you about my mother-in-law” we know what’s coming—a joke in which a mother-in-law gets nailed! But the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi is quite the opposite. Ruth is a Moabite woman, who marries into an Israelite family after they move to Moab because of a famine in Israel. Her young husband and his brother die. With their father already deceased, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, decides to return home to Israel. She urges Ruth to stay put and remarry, but Ruth refuses, telling Naomi, “Where you go I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.”

 

Ruth faces an unpromising future as she journeys to Bethlehem with Naomi. But through Naomi, God works a miracle in Ruth’s life, putting her in the right place at the right time so that she becomes the wife of Boaz. And her son, Obed, becomes the grandfather of King David, another ancestor of Christ.

 

The story of Ruth and Naomi is one that is held together by the strong cord of commitment and the willingness to care deeply. Their story is one of love and loyalty—despite the cost, which makes their story a wonderful part of the story of salvation, don’t you think?  Ultimately, God’s faithfulness to Ruth and Naomi, a pair of destitute widows, results in great blessing for the whole world. For just as Ruth and Naomi are committed to one another, God cares and commits God’s self to us, by giving us a Savior, Jesus, Emmanuel—God-with-us!

 

As Christians, it might behoove us to take a good, long look at Rahab and Ruth. Because you see, God has a way of acting in unexpected ways, accepting those we might refuse, loving those we might turn away—including outsiders and foreigners. Time and time again, God reaches out to those on the fringe of society with Good News—something God invites us to continue! Whether we like it or not, God doesn’t play by our rules—a manger instead of a motel, a God of soldiers, a God of prostitutes, and kings, and spies. A God of all people—even us. Not at all what we would expect! Thanks be to God!

[i] Modeled after a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.

[ii] Joyce Carr Stedelbauer @ https://www.thoughts-about-god.com/poems/rahab.html

[iii] Joshua 2:11 (NRSV).

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

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

What to Expect When You’re Expecting[i]

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 2, 2018

First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:1-6, Luke 1:26-35

 

In case you haven’t noticed, Advent has arrived. Advent, which literally means “coming” is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. While we wait, we listen intently for this story of Christmas to unfold. But Advent is not so much THE story as the preview for coming attractions. It is the time when everyone leans forward in their seats, eager to hear what happens next. But with this most familiar of all biblical stories, how can we possibly hear it afresh?  This is a question Dr. Sarah Nave, my clergy friend from Virginia, and I were discussing one day. While we were chatting, she happened to mention a project from her doctoral work entitled “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Don’t you just love that title? I do—so much so—it will provide the framework for this Advent’s sermon series. So, I want to thank my friend for her early Christmas gift.

 

Indeed, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is an interesting title, and we know, titles matter! They’re meant to grab our attention and coax us closer so that our hearts and minds might be opened to a good story. Good stories bear up even when they’re repeated. Ken Burns, famous film-maker and producer, says that the best stories are about “One plus one equals three.” A good story is more than simply a sum of its parts; more than words and data.[ii]

 

Over the years, Kinney and I have had the opportunity to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in all its glory. TSO is an American rock band that is known for stretching the boundaries of rock music. They are also known for their wondrous Christmas productions. The last concert we attended was entitled “Lost Christmas Eve.”[iii] It was a musical tale of loss and redemption, with a rundown hotel, an old toy store, a blues bar, a gothic cathedral, and the people who inhabit them on a particular, enchanted evening in New York City. The storyteller, Brian Hicks, with his deep, booming voice, came upon the stage and held the audience in the palm of his hand from beginning to end. But there were many stops along the way. Mr. Hicks would tell a portion of the story, then walk away while incredible music was performed and then re-enter the limelight again. Each time he put thousands of people on the edge of their seats—eager to hear what happened next.

 

The story started with a teardrop of infinite sorrow falling from the heavens toward a business man whose heart was frozen by grief. God’s youngest angel, sent to earth on a mission, traveled from place to place, and finally stopped by a blues club where the jazz music turned people’s sorrow around. But the brokenhearted man, who happened to be there, left the yule tide cheer behind to drop along the snow-covered streets, a trail of unwept tears that only an angel could see.

 

The angel learned that the man had not always been like this. He had grown up in a good Christian home where he was taught that all people are created in God’s image. But, during the birth of his child, things went terribly wrong and he was left without a wife. More than that, his newborn son would likely never grow up to function fully. Enraged, the man, unable to recognize anything of God in his child’s image, screamed toward the heavens. Then, he left the child with the nurse; left the child to be put in a state-run facility.

 

But on this winter night, an encounter with a little girl left him wondering about his son. Eventually, he arrived at the hospital, of all places, where he found his son, now grown. And what was his son doing? He was busy doing what he did most of the time—rocking to sleep babies born to addicted mothers. When the man asked if his son could talk, the nurse said, “No, but he’s a good listener.” After so many years, father and son were reunited.

 

Truly, good stories fascinate us. They hold us in their power until we reach their end. And Christians hold a treasury of them inside the sacred book we call our Bible. There was a young woman, for example, whose name was Mary, and God sent an angel to her. And what did the angel say? And how did she respond? And what happened next? And how did it all end?

 

Why do stories capture our imagination so? Because good stories give us a glimpse of life in its fullness. They remind us that life has meaning. Good stories draw us in to see if maybe, just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of ourselves in them. We listen, and we watch for clues.

 

The story of Christianity claims to provide us more than clues. This story claims to hold the very meaning of life—the meaning of God and God’s enduring love for those God created. In one sense, the story is so simple Hallmark can easily get the whole thing on a Christmas card. In another sense, though, the story is so complex and wonderfully rich, the whole Bible only gets us started.

 

From the Gospel of Luke, we hear the story of Mary, a young woman, chosen to do a most important task. She will give birth to the Son of God. Mary’s story is our story—it is God’s story of salvation that God planned way back even before, “Once upon a time…”

 

From the Gospel of Matthew, through a genealogy of Jesus’ family, we are given not so much a story as its background. And what I want us to pay attention to is who is named in the family roll call. Are these folks we would expect to be included?  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob? Absolutely! David and Solomon? Of course! But Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba? How unexpected! There must be something more going on here—and in the coming weeks, we will investigate our Sacred Book for clues. But for now, we return to the story of Mary visited by an angel, who tells her about God’s plan. Although Mary is startled at first, once she catches her breath, she gives herself fully to God’s intentions. Then she heads to her cousin Elizabeth’s house to share her news. Elizabeth is glad for the company because it has been awfully quiet around the house since Zachariah had his meeting with Gabriel in the Temple.

 

A few months later, in the middle of a long, cold journey, the story continues with Mary giving birth to a baby boy. She and Joseph name him Jesus because that is what the angel told them to do. So, Jesus was born, and they all lived happily ever after. Right? Well, we all know that’s not the way the story ends. In fact, Jesus being born isn’t the end of the story at all. It brings us only to the beginning because the good news, that God sent Gabriel to tell Mary, wasn’t just that she would have a baby but that her child was to be the long-expected Messiah. “Once upon a time in Bethlehem,” is where the story begins, but we must never forget, it ends on the cross. Or does it?

 

Right about now, you may be thinking, “Oh, come on Glenda, don’t be a Grinch! Let us enjoy Christmas. Why talk about the cross now? Can’t that wait until Easter?” But you see, it is the cross that makes Mary’s story our story. Without the cross, the story of Jesus’ birth is just something lovely we look at from afar—like a nativity scene on our neighbor’s lawn. It remains something that happened long, long ago. But when we find the storyteller, Luke, doesn’t stop at the story of Gabriel and Mary—but moves ahead with how Jesus grew up, loved people, died and rose again—then we glimpse the meaning of Jesus’ life, the purpose of his death, and what all that means for us.

 

Advent is upon us and it is time to reflect on the birth of Jesus once more. It’s no story of fantasy or make-believe. This story of God’s love coming to the earth is more real than anything else we will ever discover. “Once upon a time in the life of a young girl in Nazareth” continues to this day. Because when the angel told Mary of God’s plans, it became her story. When God’s Spirit reveals to us the good news of salvation made possible through Jesus, the Bread of Life, and we accept the offer, it becomes our story.

 

During this season of preparation, as you lean forward in your seat, eager to hear what happens next, may you be filled with joy knowing that when Christmas comes, it is not the end. It is only the beginning! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Inspired by a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.

[ii] http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2012/07/ken-burns-on-the-power-of-story.html

[iii] Details of the storyline adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_Christmas_Eve

*

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

 

Faithful Waiting

Faithful Waiting

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 11, 2018

26th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

Here we are in the middle of November, approaching a national holiday. Are you in the mood for Thanksgiving? I’m guessing you are! But will our reading from the Gospel of Mark with Jesus predicting wars and the destruction of the Temple put a damper on our enthusiasm? Surely such a reading can’t possibly put us in the holiday spirit, or can it?

 

In just two weeks, Advent inaugurates a new church year—an event we will celebrate with a beautifully decorated sanctuary: purple paraments, red poinsettias, an Advent wreath and Advent candles, and lovely Christmas trees adorned with lights and Chrismons. But before we get too excited about Advent, before we even get too excited about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie, there’s some unfinished business at hand—business like tearing down of a few temples.[i]

 

In our reading from Mark, the temple in question is the 2nd Temple. The 1st Temple, you will recall, is built during the reign of King Solomon. Later, in Israel’s history, the temple is destroyed only to be rebuilt after the people of God return from Exile. Although the 2nd Temple never reaches the glory of the original, it is still grand by the standards of the day. It’s about a mile in circumference and it has walls lined with gold and silver. Just picture what it looked like with the rays of the sun reflecting on it! For the people of Israel, the Temple was the holiest of places made by human hands for the purpose of making sacrifices and worshiping Yahweh.

 

It’s this grand structure that the disciples stop to admire. “Look Teacher, what great stones?” Imagine their surprise when Jesus responds—not with equal admiration—but by foretelling of its very destruction. Just like that… “Do you see these great stones? Not one will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

 

“Wait a minute, Preacher!” you may be thinking, “What about putting us in the mood for Thanksgiving? I thought we came to hear some good news?” Indeed! What is all this about throwing down stones and the end of time.  What’s hopeful about Jesus saying, “Many will come in my name and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…”

 

Ah, do not be alarmed! Hang onto that thought for a moment while we travel back in time to another temple—a temple located in Shiloh.  It’s the setting for the story of Hannah. Shiloh was once the religious capital of Israel and it is here that Elkanah and his wives, Penninah and Hannah, come to worship and make their sacrifices to the Lord. But, the story goes, each year is torture for Hannah because she is barren. Penninah makes fun of her, jeers at her. Marci Auld Glass says that this may be “the ultimate family Thanksgiving of dysfunctionality. You can remember this story this week when your own family goes over the river and through the woods. We can’t catch the dialogue, but I suspect it went something like this. “Penninah: ‘Hannah, aren’t you excited to go to Shiloh? So we can say thank you to God for all our blessings, for all of our children? Oh, wait. You don’t have any children, do you?”[ii]

 

Distraught Hannah goes into the temple to beg Yahweh for a child. As she prays, her lips move but no sound comes out. So, Eli, the priest, mistakes her passion for drunkenness. Once he realizes his mistake, though, he says to her, “Go in peace. The Lord of Israel grant the petition you have made.” And God does just that. Hannah has a child whom, in her petition, she has promised to the Lord. Once he is weaned, she does as she promised. She takes him to the temple to leave him there. It’s then that she offers a prayer to God, a prayer that we know as the Song of Hannah:

 

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed…The Lord kills and brings to life…The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts… For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world… The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.

 

In Hannah’s future there will be five other children, but as Marci Auld Glass notes, Hannah doesn’t know that when she sings her song. What faithfulness! She makes a sacrifice…not of doves or cattle or harvest. Hannah offers to God her one and only son and the foundation is laid. The foundation is laid for great things in the future. Samuel grows up to be one of the most prominent figures in the Hebrew Bible. Dedicated to the Lord, he will anoint David to be the King of Israel. David’s son, Solomon, will build the First Temple in Jerusalem. From the line of this same David, a Messiah will come into the world. But Hannah knows nothing of these things. Even while leaving her son at the steps of the temple in Shiloh, she knows only one thing: her heart is overflowing with gratitude, so she does all she knows to do. She praises God!

 

In this world there are wars and rumors of wars. Truth be told, pain is woven into the very fabric of our lives. Surely, heavy on all our hearts these days are those who have recently experienced pain and destruction beyond measure—people in Florida and Georgia who are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Michael; people in California who have lost homes, transportation, animals, and even their very lives to the fires that have ripped through the region. We reel from such news. There are times we might even be tempted to give up hope, were it not for our hope in Jesus the Christ.

 

Jesus left 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 hope. In Christ new life is possible—in this life and in the life to come.  When Jesus foretells of the temple’s destruction, could it be that, on one level, he’s declaring an end to all the grand things that humans erect for comfort and protection? With Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, earthly temples and high priests are a thing of the past. Love, mercy, grace, hope—these are our present—these are our future. A new way of life—it’s ours for the taking. As one scholar notes, “Over the centuries, people have looked for signs and made predictions about the end of the world. Jesus is much more concerned about how we live our lives each day. Teaching, proclaiming, healing, feeding—these are our daily acts of discipleship.”[iii]

 

Still, is it important to keep alert, as Jesus advises later in the gospel? Of course! But there’s no need to worry. Remember Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t be alarmed!” For if we live faithfully, loving God and loving our neighbor the best way we know how, of what do we have to be afraid? We are not to live out of fear. We are to live out of humble gratitude.

 

Next Sunday marks the end of the Christian calendar when we gather to celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Soon, another song will be sung in our midst when Mary of Nazareth echoes the Song of Hannah, praising God, who has a way of working wonders in extraordinary ways.

 

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…

 

Soon, Advent, the time of waiting will be upon us. But as we turn our faces toward turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie, let us also turn our hearts and minds toward heaven with words of thanks and praise. No matter what we face today—as individuals, as a congregation, or as a nation, still we serve a great God. Yes, there are wars and rumors of wars, yes there is pain, but maybe we can take Jesus at his word and believe there is no cause for fear. Jesus, our Savior, has gone before us. Jesus has made the crooked straight and the wrong right. Jesus has conquered death—and so we keep moving toward the Promised Land—knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Surely that is reason for thanksgiving!

 

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

[i] “Pouring Out Our Souls” A sermon by Marci Auld Glass, “Lectionary Homiletics,” Oct-Nov 2012.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Kimberly Clayton Richter, commentary in The Life with God Bible, 88.

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Nevertheless

Nevertheless

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 11, 2018

25th Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

 

By the church calendar, we are nearing the end of this year’s readings from the Gospel of Mark. Soon we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday and begin another year in the life of the church with the Season of Advent. But for now, we recognize an important time approaching in the life of Jesus. Soon he will turn his face toward Jerusalem. Soon soldiers will come to take him away.   Soon he will be falsely accused, judged, and found guilty—soon and very soon—which makes today’s gospel reading even more poignant.

 

Most of us have heard sermons about the widow’s generous offering. It makes for an excellent stewardship message. I have certainly preached the text from that point of view and a lot of good can come from it. But this morning I want us to entertain a broader perspective of what Jesus is attempting to convey. Nearing the end of his ministry, Jesus happens to be in the temple observing the goings-on. He notices the scribes who have built up quite a reputation. They love wearing flashy robes and saying long-winded prayers that have about as much heart as they do. Known for taking advantage of helpless widows, they insist on being greeted with a respect they hardly deserve. Essentially, these scribes represent a temple-system that is broken beyond repair.

 

After Jesus criticizes the behavior of the religious leaders, he sits down to get an up close and personal view of what transpires in his Father’s house of prayer. Watching the people put money into the treasury, he notices the widow’s offering. There she is, just being herself, and Jesus catches her at it.  Never one to miss a teaching moment, Jesus tells his disciples to look at this woman who literally has only 2 cents to rub together—nevertheless she gives her all. She has no robes. She garners no respect in the marketplaces or the synagogue. She does not sit in the place of honor at banquets. In fact, no one notices her—no one except Jesus. Jesus notices. Jesus sees.

 

Undeniably, we don’t know much about the widow, other than she no longer has a husband to support her and she is poor—extremely poor. Maybe she has children, maybe not.  Maybe she is responsible for herself alone. She may live nearby and have a habit of visiting the temple every day because she yearns to be in Yahweh’s house.  But she wouldn’t have to be in the temple that often to pick up on what the scribes are all about. Building their wealth on the back of widows and orphans and other helpless people in the Jewish community, their reputation has no doubt preceded them. Surely, even the widow knows their character. As I imagine the widow, I see a faithful woman of God, who recognizes the temple system for what it is—broken in many ways—nevertheless, she remains faithful.  When it comes to the things of God, she will be generous no matter what.

 

At this point, we can’t help but wonder what good the widow’s sacrifice accomplishes though. Does her generosity simply add to the coffers of religious leaders in the temple system who are eager to exploit those who are vulnerable? Is Jesus pointing to her as an example of what to do or is he simply observing the contrast between the scribes who seem to have it all and the widow who seems to have nothing? Or both?

 

Jesus watches the widow give to an institution that has become perverted and he draws his disciples’ attention to this woman who gives “all that she has.” Interesting choice of words from someone who is about to follow suit, literally giving all that he has—his own life—for something that is broken and corrupt—the temple, yes, but also—all of humanity. Jesus sees things clearly—nevertheless, soon Jesus will suffer and die. Nevertheless, soon Jesus will give his all for love of his Abba Father, for love of all peoples of the world.  In that moment, he will cry out, “It is finished,” and the curtain of the temple will be torn asunder.

 

In his life and ministry, Jesus is all about disrupting systems. Still today, we live in a world of systems that have gone awry—systems that desperately need the disrupting power of Christ. Who can deny that in our current economic system, the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer? Who can deny the brokenness of our educational system that puts pressure on teachers to test rather than teach? Who can deny the brokenness of our healthcare system that allows life-saving technologies and medications to be inaccessible to too many people? Who can deny the brokenness of the church that, in too many places, has become so focused on NOT dying, we have failed to teach people how to live?

 

So much around us is broken. We see it on the news—particularly with our recent mid-term elections. We feel it in our finances. We recognize it in our own families and other close relationships. Honestly, how do we keep from being overwhelmed by powers over which we have little control? Can our two cents possibly make a difference?

 

The world may seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, nevertheless we are called as children of God to do whatever small good we can. That’s it—really. Day by day, decision by decision, we walk into the light and help others do the same. It’s our life. It’s our mission for we are called to be a sign in and for the world of a new reality made possible through Christ. The PCUSA Book of Order informs us of ways the church serves as such a sign: By…

 

ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, the powerless…

engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice…

giving itself to the service of those who suffer…

sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world.

The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life.”[i]

 

Because of Christ’s sacrifice we live in the new reality, but not yet do we see it in its fullness. There may be an over-abundance of things broken all around us, nevertheless, we who are marked by baptismal waters, have been claimed as God’s own. We have been called to try to right whatever wrongs we see. How then, shall we spend ourselves? How, then, shall we spend our two cents?  Day by day, may we grow into the likeness of our Lord, giving all that we have and all that we are for God’s service to the world.

 

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

[i] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order 2005-2007, G-3.0200-3.0400.

*Cover Art “Widow’s Mite” by James Christensen

 

Saints Alive

Saints Alive

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 4, 2018

24th Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints’ Service

Isaiah 25:6-9; Rev 21:1-6a

 

While All Saints Day actually falls on the first day of November, I am grateful that we can gather on this Lord’s Day to remember loved ones that are no longer with us but who, in a mysterious way, journey with us, still.  Already this morning, we have named saints who have entered the eternal presence of God in the past year. We remember them and give thanks for the endless ways they enriched our lives. We give thanks for their goodness and for other qualities that, perhaps, made them “saints” for us.

 

It may be that our only experiences of the word “saint” are in relation to All Saints’ Day or in relation to those who have been canonized by the Catholic church, like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Teresa of Calcutta. For the purposes of our worship experience this morning, though, I want us to expand our understanding of the meaning of “saints” to include those still living who have demonstrated holiness or a closeness to God—anyone who is in Christ and in whom Christ surely dwells. In my proposed definition of saint, then, we may include those who have helped guide our faith, those who have shown us the face of Christ in ways large and small.

 

To help us along, I have recruited three church members to identify someone in our church who has played the role of “saint” for them. Please recognize that my intent is not to leave anyone out, but since I know how much you like short sermons, I’m convinced you will be happy we have chosen only one saint each. So, at this time, I invite Donna Gosnell, Bart Greer, and Jane Shelton to come forward to share their “Saint Alive” story.

 

(Donna Gosnell spoke of Jesse Spencer, who might be mistaken for St. Nicholas because of his beard and his generous heart. He might also be considered a saint of details since he has a reputation for being so organized. But, for Donna, Jesse is a saint because of his faithfulness—to God, to his church, to his family, and to his responsibilities as a chemistry professor at VSU, and to her—as a friend and mentor.)

 

(Bart Greer chose Eve Renfroe as his “Saint Alive.” Bart spoke of Eve’s gracious spirit that, for him, has been a vehicle of God’s grace in his life. He mentioned Eve’s generous heart, her welcoming nature, and her habit of reaching out to those who need a word of encouragement. For Bart, Eve has been an anchor and for that he is forever grateful.)

 

(Jane Shelton spoke of Libby George Clanton, who is known for her loving and accepting nature. Even on a recent cruise taken by Jane, Libby and a few others, Libby demonstrated her openness and friendliness by making friends with strangers upon hours of boarding the ship. Jane mentioned she was especially grateful that Libby had taught her how to be happy in the MORNING!)

 

When I think of saints in our midst, I see so many of you in my mind’s eye. I see Betty Tillman, Grayson Powell, Catharine Minor, Carol Busch. I see Florence and Lamar Cole. I see Gus and Sister Elliott, Grady and Judy Folsom. I could go on but I, too, had to choose only one Saint Alive so I chose Betty Sanders. Betty is pure joy. She has the greatest sense of humor. Two years ago, she showed up at the Tricks & Treats Costume Party and Potluck dressed as a woman of ill repute—pregnant. With a large pillow stuffed under her sweatshirt, she was a sight to behold. Another example of her humor came into play when she heard that Libby George Clanton was engaged. Betty couldn’t wait to reach out to Libby to offer her assistance. “Oh, Libby, I want you to know that Catharine Minor, Betty Tillman, and I would just love to be your flower girls. What do you think?”

 

While I adore Betty’s sense of humor, for me she has played the role of “saint” for another reason. You see, Betty Sanders has my cell phone number on speed dial and I am grateful. Often, she is the first person to call to let me know when my presence is needed at the bedside of someone who has been admitted to the hospital. Occasionally, for some reason, an individual or a family has preferred to handle whatever is going on in their lives, privately. When that has been the case, Betty has been good to explain the situation. She has been a truth-teller and, Betty, every pastor, everywhere needs truthtellers like you in their lives. Thank you for being that person for me. Thank you for being a saint in my life.

 

When we recite the Apostles Creed, we say we believe in “the communion of saints.” And during an All Saints’ worship service, we sing songs about our eternal home. We sing songs of the saints of God “who are patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.” In doing so, we express our belief in the communion of saints and we express our hope in being part of that communion someday—along with the Apostles, Augustine, Martin Luther, Mother Teresa, and a host of others. But let us not wait until that great by and by to make a difference in the lives of those around us. Let us seek a saintly life—even now.

 

By the grace of God, we are part of God’s salvation story. We are saints in the making. But some days we don’t feel much like saints, do we? We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. If that’s how it seems, though, we may take comfort in Robert Louis Stevenson’s definition of saints: The saints are the sinners who keep on going.  I love that! The saints are the sinners who keep on going. We aren’t saints because we’re so good. We’re saints because we are children of God, and day by day, God fashions us into what we could never be on our own so yes, we keep on going. Saints alive! Thanks be to God!

*Cover Art “ The Communion of Saints” by Ira Thomas; used by permission.

New Vision

New Vision

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 28, 2018

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Mark 10:46-52

 

(Instruct folks to take out cell phones and hold them up. Take pics of the congregation and the choir. Then have everyone except those assisting later in the service, turn off cell phones.)

 

When Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Let me see again.” Let me see again. I invite you to ponder these words even as we reflect on this day, this Reformation Sunday. Let me see again.

 

You may recall that last year marked 500 years of the Protestant era. Good things came from the Reformation—for instance—the corruption of leaders in the church was exposed, Scripture gained authority, grace was elevated as a critical doctrine of the church, the Bible became accessible, and literacy spread. Yes, good things grew out of the Reformation. But, as a reaction against the Catholic church, good things were cast aside—things like stressing the importance of silence and solitude and various prayer practices to help heal the woes of our human condition.

 

Five hundred years after the Reformation, the church is alive but is the church well?  And how is the Presbyterian church doing, in particular? We, who are often called the chosen frozen, have quite a reputation for being a cerebral bunch that leans on head knowledge rather than the knowing of the heart.

 

There is no doubt, the church, no matter the denomination, hardly looks like it did—even 50 years ago.  But is that necessarily a bad thing?  Scholars have been warning that a massive cultural shift happens in the church about every 500 years. If that’s true, we are due another Reformation. The thought of such a thing might cause us to freeze in fear or it might encourage us to evaluate our way of being and doing, and to ponder what we might do, not just to survive, but to thrive.

 

First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta has a long, rich history. Organized in 1864, the cornerstone to this sanctuary was placed in 1907. In 1958, the Fellowship Hall was erected with the Centennial Building constructed in 1964. Our church started 3 congregations in the area—West End Presbyterian Church 75 years ago, Twin Lakes Presbyterian Church 73 years ago, and Trinity Presbyterian Church 33 years ago. We have a long history of supporting foreign missions as well as other missions like Thornwell Home for Children and Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. Additionally, the Break Bread Together Program began 45 years ago, and the Father Daughter Valentine Dance began 22 years ago. What wonderful opportunities God has given us and those who have gone before us. Thanks be to God!

 

Undeniably, our story is rich and inspiring, but, by the grace of God, our story is far from over. For surely, we do not intend to rest on our laurels and go down in history as the church that “used to” be one of the large downtown churches, as the church that “used to” have resources aplenty, as the church that “used to” have a reputation for planting new churches and new ministries. No. Words like “used to” are words that do not serve us well. Instead, your Session and I have been encouraging you to try some new words, words like creativity and celebration, words like gratitude and generosity, words like explore and experiment.

 

These words have compelled us to start the First Friday Contemplative Service, to experiment with a multi-generational Sunday school class that allows us to pool our resources and learn together no matter our age, to try spiritual retreats and a variety of spiritual practices on Wednesday night and during Holy Week, and to dream of what wonderful things God might have in store for us. Some things we try on Christ’s behalf will succeed. Others will fail. But how will we know if we do not give it our all. Either way, we will press on. As a church, we will press on because being faithful is our goal, growing into the likeness of Christ is our goal, following the way of the Spirit is our goal—so yes, we press on to share the love of Christ whenever and however we can.

 

Making the love of Christ known is our reason for paying attention to our use of social media. The world of technology has exploded over the past decade—which is why most of you have a smart phone on your person. There is nothing like it to spread news quickly. Allow me to demonstrate. With my iPhone, I am going to send a text message to some folks in our midst. Let’s see what happens.

 

(Text 6 people, whom I contacted earlier in the week, a snapshot of the words of “Jesus Loves Me,” and one by one they will stand to say their line.)

 

Modern technology! It’s incredible! Of course, we may resist technology, and yearn for the good old days, but the truth is, technology—in one form or fashion—has a history of being used to spread the gospel. For example, the famed Roman Roads of the Ancient Empire were among the foremost technological advances that helped Christianity spread after Pentecost, when the work of the apostles, including Paul, really began. The construction of the Roman roadway system started in 500 B.C. and ultimately spanned over 250,000 miles. While the roads enabled the Roman Empire to grow, they also propelled the Gospel.[i]

 

Fast forward through time to 1448 when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. Gutenberg’s printing press meant more access to information and more widespread criticism of religious authorities. For Martin Luther, this new technology was something truly glorious. He praised its timeliness and encouraged its potential. Luther recognized a new “road.” [ii]

 

The Roman roads and Gutenberg press of today are the internet, the smart phone, and social media. Faithful church folks and even those who claim to be spiritual but not religious take advantage of Bible apps, prayer apps, and daily devotional apps on their cell phones. Make no mistake, people are plugged in, so it behooves us to recognize the “new road” that is before us. If we have eyes to see, we will learn to utilize new technology that God has provided for such a time as this.

 

Allow me to demonstrate. How many of you have Facebook accounts? I invite everyone who wishes to do so to simply log onto Facebook and check in. (Allow a moment.)  What just happened? We just let our friends and family know that on this Lord’s Day—when we could be most anywhere doing most anything—we chose to be here worshiping God together.  With just a few taps of a finger, we have played the role of evangelist. We did not go knocking on doors. We did not mail out stacks of flyers. No. Just tap, tap, tap. And we were witnesses for Christ.

 

Perhaps you are sitting among us thinking, “I have no use for modern technology. I don’t have email. I don’t even have a cell phone. Furthermore, I want no part of any of it.” No worries. No worries at all. Because here is the crux of the matter: social media and new technology like Facebook will NEVER take the place of face to face interaction. If social media isn’t your thing, then do evangelism the tried and true way. Sit down with a friend over coffee or tea and tell her how Christ has changed your life. Mail a First Friday Contemplative Service invitation to someone who is having a hard time. Call your grandson. Invite him to church the second Sunday of next month so he can stay for Friends out Front and we can get to know him, and he can get to know us. Whether with friends or strangers, take every opportunity to share a smile and a listening ear. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we want to remain a relevant voice for this community, there is work for us all to do and it will take all of us to do it.

 

Dear saints of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, in my prayers for you, I have asked God to let me see what we might do together in the coming months and years. When I close my eyes and imagine our future, I envision us planting something new right here on Patterson Street. I see the sanctuary filled with people who have a passion for Christ and an eagerness to grow in faith and love. I see us employing Facebook to stay connected but also to evangelize, thereby impacting more people for Christ.  I envision new technology that allows us to livestream worship services on Sundays. I imagine people coming to the church during the week to pray. In my dream, the church has earned a reputation for being a place where people have the courage to seek new ways of being the church in these rapidly changing times. We are known for feeding the hungry—in body and in spirit. For the church and wider community, we offer day retreats and weekend retreats that allow sacred space for spiritual growth. And we have financial blessings that permit us to start new ministries and to renovate our lovely sanctuary and adjacent buildings as needed.

 

Reformation Sunday is a good day to celebrate, to reflect, and to ponder. But, it is also a good day to pause and hear Jesus’ question for us, “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

“Lord Jesus, help us see again. Give us courage to embrace your vision for our future.”

 

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

 

[i] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-c-crosby-dmin/the-new-roman-roads-techn_1_b_1577636.html

[ii] https://classroom.synonym.com/impact-did-invention-printing-press-spread-religion-6617.html

*Cover Art “Sunflowers” by The Georgia Photography Fanatic; used by permission.