I Will Be Confident

I Will Be Confident

2nd Sunday in Lent

Psalm 27

Luke 13:31-35

Jane Shelton, CRE; March 17, 2019 – First Valdosta



Have you ever had someone tell you, you need to have more confidence?


How do we respond to that statement, and do we really even know what the word “confidence” means?


Someone who has too much confidence, may be considered arrogant or boisterous, while someone with too little confidence may be considered timid or shy, or just insecure in what they know or believe about something.


So where is the balance?


The dictionary defines confidence as “full trust, or belief in the trustworthiness or reliability of a person or thing.”


So let’s think about this.  Why is it hard for us to have “full” trust of something in our lives?  Is it because we have been laughed at when we expressed an opinion or thought?  Have we felt scorned, judged or wrongfully accused?  Is it because we have been disappointed by someone or something that we fully trusted and that has now made us weary?  Perhaps.


But in today’s scripture readings, both in Psalms and in Luke, we meet two people who are fully trusting in what they know and believe.


First, in our Old Testament scripture, the Psalmist, believed to be written by or for David during his early reign as King, lays out a remarkable profession of faith in God.


He recounts his adversarial encounters, and then states, “yet, will I be confident,” and then another statement of a rising of adversaries, followed by an affirmation of what he believes:  I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.


It is important to note in this Psalm that we can see in David’s lament and exhortation of his faith in God, faith and trust do not come without difficulties as God’s servants, yet we are also equipped by God with hope and courage, despite these difficulties.


Will we have light or will we have darkness.  Fear or faith?  Trust or doubt?


Over and over again we see the blessings or saving presence of God as light.  The psalmist affirms the desire and intention to live in God’s light…in God’s presence.


In his writing, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Present Concerns, C. S. Lewis wrote:


“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.  They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”


  1. S. Lewis was attempting to express upon his audience that when we surround ourselves with “Oh, the sky is falling” attitudes, we begin to believe that indeed it is, and everything around us becomes suspect.

These negative and fearful thoughts interfere with our Christ journey, causing us to look inward to ourselves rather than looking toward Christ for a new and positive direction.


Lent is a journey that causes us to look both inward and outward. 


We look with deliberation at our spiritual lives.  We ask ourselves:


– How can we further our relationship with God?


– How can we deepen our connection to God and grow the ministry of Jesus?


– Where do we find new direction to give our lives more meaning and hope in the promise of a risen Christ?


– How can we expect to grow Jesus’ ministry when we don’t take the time to grow our relationship with God?


– How can we find ways to grow spiritually?


It could be that while we are searching for new ways to bring new energy and direction to our lives, that we can participate in ways that God has set before us here at First Presbyterian Church Valdosta, such as Centering Prayer on Wednesday evenings, Generations of Faith Sunday School, a First Friday Contemplative Service, or a Christ Walk study during Lent.


These are ways we can learn to grow spiritually, both individually, and with one another, if we are only willing to risk a new way of life, a new experience with God.


We find it so hard to change our habits and learn new ways to explore our relationship with God, yet this is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.


Jesus brought a new and exciting way of thinking about God, something beyond just the written law of the Old Testament.  A new way of thinking that caused people to feel loved and accepted.  Something experienced in the heart.


As we turn our attention to the Gospel of Luke, we see two pronouncements in our scripture:   Jesus will not die out of season, and he will finish his divinely appointed mission in Jerusalem.


We see the Pharisees characterized as those who “rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”


In this scripture it is not made clear whether Herod and the Pharisees were working together to run Jesus out, but it is hard to believe that with all the other stories of the Pharisees’ dealings with Jesus that they were here to advise him of any favors.


I’m guessing they wanted Jesus to be gone as soon as possible from their sight so they could get back to things as normal.  Their normal, with them in control rather than having Jesus teaching people to think for themselves, to think outside the norm of control by the law, as taught by the Pharisees.  A norm to benefit their rule and the rule of Herod, not the kingdom of God.


Herod, the “fox”, as Jesus called him.  Herod, the sly, cunning and destructive character on the scene along with the Pharisees certainly saw Jesus as a threat to their control over the people of Jerusalem.


However, in his divine faith and confidence in his mission given to him by God, Jesus does not let Herod deter him from completing the work set before him.  Jesus continues to cast out demons and heal the sick – acts that show the divinity of Jesus and his connection to the kingdom of God.


Both Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his death there will be controlled by his faithfulness to God’s redemptive purposes, not by Herod.


In Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he remains obedient to God’s direction.


His reference to a prophet not being killed outside Jerusalem, is a direct statement of fact in how Jerusalem has consistently killed prophets sent to Jerusalem to save God’s people, yet they turn away from these prophets again and again.  They turn away from growing their relationship with God.


In Jesus’ statement, “How often I have tried to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you are not willing!” shows his frustration with their ignorance; their inability to see the obvious.  Their unwillingness to see the direction of God for their lives.


My mother used to use a phrase to emphasize how mad someone might be as, “they were as mad as an old, wet settin’ hen.”


Growing up with chickens at our home, I knew exactly what she meant, because you never wanted to disturb a hen that was setting upon her eggs, or one that was guarding her baby chicks under her wings!


It is the ultimate example of protection of the love of a mother over her young.  Jesus uses this example to show the extent of his love and the love of God for his people.


Today, we ourselves, do not want to miss the efforts of those who are trying to gather us under their wings, to protect and save us from those who wait to devour, those who lurk behind the scenes with gossip and words that tear down rather than build up the kingdom of God for their own selfish gain.  We must ask ourselves, do we want to be a Pharisee or a disciple of God?


We, too, must be careful who we allow in our hen house, in our Jerusalem.  Do we want a fox, sly and cunning?  Or the loving and protecting wings of God?


Jesus’ divine confidence leads us to look toward the one who loves us, the protector and savior, the one who covers and shields us from the ever present dangers of evil.  Our adversaries lurk around us, sly and cunning like a fox working its way into the hen house, but we can be confident and obedient to God’s direction in our lives.  We can have the same confidence as Jesus, not arrogant or boisterous about what we know, but committed and faithful to God’s direction in our lives.


Recently in our Generations of Faith Sunday School Study, we covered a chapter on Loving Self.  In this study, the writer, Brian McLaren, wrote:


“You have this self.  What you do with it matters a lot.  You can be self-absorbed, self-contained, self-centered, selfish, self-consumed — and your closed-in self will stagnate, spoil and deteriorate over time.  Or you can engage in Spirit-guided self-examinations, self-control, self-development, and self-giving — and your self will open and mature into a person of great beauty and Christ-like maturity.”


McLaren went on to say, “God isn’t a divine killjoy.  God wants to love you the way God loves you, so you can join God in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation.  If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole.  That’s the kind of self-care and love of self that is good, right, wise and necessary.  And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: to journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love.  There we find God.  There we find our neighbor.  And there we find ourselves.”


When reading this, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus as he journeyed ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love.  There, he knew he would find God.


Why do we find it difficult to journey there?


How do we find the confidence that that the Psalmist had, that Jesus had in knowing God’s divine purpose for their lives?


Risk taking is often difficult, yet often rewarding.  If you haven’t been to Centering Prayer or First Friday Contemplative service, risk to be there to commune with God among friends.  It may feel strange or odd at first, but God will be there to give you comfort.


The Psalmist knew how to get self out of the way so that he experienced God’s divine purpose.  He was not deterred by adversaries and woes of life, not that he did not experience them, but he was so focused in knowing that God was ever present, confident that God would lead him, protect him, and love him no matter what life brought his way.


In his response to Herod and the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to trust rather than fear.  When we turn our attention in the direction of God, we find light, life, strength, and courage.  We find confidence in one that never leaves us alone.


We find God in the presence of our lives.


The Psalmist told us “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”  The Gospel of John (1:5) tells us “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


In the light of God, we find both faith and hope that give us life and peace.


Jesus displayed this in the confidence with which he walked and in what he taught his disciples and others around him.


Waiting for God is active, and the season of Lent is a reminder for us to be active in waiting for God.  Active in our study of scripture, active in our time for prayer, and active in recognizing God’s path for us.  Trust and not fear.


Jesus followed a “divine timetable,” and in so doing, he followed the will of God according to God’s schedule.  Jesus had work to do, and he was confident in his journey with God.


Just as Jesus was confident in his mission, we are called to be confident in our relationship with God and to follow his will for our lives.   Jesus has given us the example…..Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Shall we be confident in our journey?




Jesus Leads the Way

Jesus Leads the Way

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 10, 2019

1st Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13


“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” For those who gathered for our Ash Wednesday service, these are the words you heard as you were marked with the sign of the cross: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” As Maggie Dawn notes so well, “The ashing ritual is a symbol of the fact that we are quite literally made of dust—billion-year old carbon from burnt out stars, as Joni Mitchell sang in the 1970’s.”[i]


The Season of Lent is a time of preparation. It’s a time to walk the earth more gently and more wisely. It’s a time to step out of the rat race of life and face our own humanity squarely in the face. But must we really begin with words so somber, so gloomy: From dust you came and to dust you shall return? Must we begin with words spoken at a funeral? Is it necessary to dwell on our sinful, fallen, broken nature? Where is the gospel light in that?


Jesus enters the wilderness to face off with the devil. His fast of 40 days is not one of repentance, rather as one commentary puts it, “[It symbolizes] Jesus’ fullness of the Spirit and helplessness…and humbling of self before an omnipotent God who generously gives and sustains life.”[ii] Jesus, the Son of God, comes to earth to do the will of his Father, but he doesn’t just wake up one morning, roll out of bed, and start preaching. Even for Jesus, training is necessary. He is trained in Scripture. We know this because he uses it so often and so well. Jesus is baptized and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit accompanies him into the wilderness. (Jesus isn’t dropped off to fend for himself.) After a 40-day fast, Jesus is drained, vulnerable, and famished. So, of course, this is the opportune time for the devil to slink onto the scene.


Essentially, the temptations are not invitations to do bad things—the devil is much too sly for that. No, the temptations are tests to see whether even good things will lure Jesus away from God’s will.[iii] First, there is the obvious test—Jesus, fully divine, is also fully human—so he is hungry, and wouldn’t a piece of bread be mighty tasty right about now? Perhaps if we listen very carefully, we will hear an echo in the air of another man famished who succumbed to temptation—remember Esau who, driven by his appetite, gave up his birthright—all for a bowl of porridge? But when a similar temptation is set before Jesus, he will have none of it. Can’t you just see the devil smiling, “How about it, Jesus—with the snap of a finger you could set up your own bakery right here in the wilderness?” Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy and refuses to let his physical needs control him.


With the second temptation the devil offers authority and power over the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus recognizes the lie that pours from the devil’s lips—for nothing belongs to the devil. And any power he has is borrowed for a time—until that day when evil will breathe no more. Again, quoting Scripture, Jesus refuses to be led astray.


Finally, the devil assails Jesus from another angle, tries to beat Jesus at his own game, so as a last-ditch effort he pulls out a few words from the Psalms. It appears the devil can quote Scripture, too. It just isn’t something he lives by! Nevertheless, Jesus is not swayed. Defeated and out of ideas to bring Jesus down to his level, the devil slips away until an opportune time presents itself. Oh, it won’t take long. In fact, throughout Jesus’ ministry the powers of evil show themselves because they know full well what is at stake. Their time of rule upon the earth will soon come to an end and it will happen through Jesus, who will not be outwitted by that liar of all liars.


With our modern-day sensibilities, we may perceive Jesus’ time out in the wilderness as simply dreadful. But what happens, during those 40 days and nights, gives Jesus the strength he needs for the journey ahead. There in that quiet, desolate place, Jesus is being formed. Jesus—Emmanuel—God with us—has come to do the Father’s will—not his own. Because of this time of preparation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, the new Adam, vanquishes the powers of evil. Through his trust and faith in his Abba Father and his reliance upon God’s word as his weapon against evil, Jesus shows us the way ahead. He is our model because he is our brother and he has gifted us with the Holy Spirit, too.[iv] Great is the mystery of our faith. During Lent we look our mortality in the face. It is a good time to consider who we are and whose we are. It is a good time to consider what we are doing with this one life we have been given.


Twenty years ago, I was beginning to feel God’s call to vocational ministry. Our eldest son, Samuel, was a freshman in college.  In his second semester, tragedy struck when a dear friend of his died in her sleep. It was Valentine’s Day and Blakely did not wake up. A beautiful, bright, talented young woman, who loved God and all God’s children, went to her heavenly dwelling, leaving behind a gaping hole where once she stood. The funeral was held in a church that seated well over a thousand people—still, it was standing room only. Instead of a traditional service, there was lots of music and singing, liturgical dancers and readings from Scripture and from Blakely’s prayer journal. The theme of the evening was God’s love for Blakely and Blakely’s love for God. In the midst of a most somber and sad occasion, the light of God broke forth like the morning sun and all within its rays were blessed beyond measure.


As for me, I left the service pondering life—Blakely’s and my own. How could such a young soul hold so much love? How did she become so wise in her short 19 years on this earth? While she had made an impression on me during her life—it was the witness she left behind that remains with me still. Because of her, I began keeping a prayer journal as a spiritual practice. Oh, sometimes my writings are less like Blakely’s and more like my own version of holy whining. Yet, the discipline has helped me to start the day gazing toward God. Often, it has allowed me a place to examine how I am living this one life I’ve been given.


In a meditation on this season of the church year, Maggie Dawn offers words of encouragement:


Pausing to contemplate our mortality [and our true nature during the Season of Lent] is not for the sake of making us bleak, but to startle us into an awareness of the gift of life. We’re neither perfect nor immortal; we are merely and yet wonderfully human, and we need to know who we are in our imperfections as well as our gifts in order to live every day as if it counts for something. The call to repentance isn’t supposed to leave us dour or morbidly obsessed with our failings. Instead, it’s a call to turn away…from what keeps us from God, alienates us from other people and stops us from living well. Lent [offers] a challenge to clear out the mental and spiritual clutter and so discover how to live life to the full.[v]


Jesus has a short but full life, with a ministry that lasts about 3 years, yet the impact he has on people in his own time and the impact he still has today is beyond comprehension. With lying lips, the devil offers the false hope of dominion and power—over the physical, political, and spiritual world. But Jesus will not waver. He will keep his eyes on his Father. He will life his life pointing to the Father with every fiber of his being.


The temptations offer Jesus an opportunity for instant gratification. But Jesus does not settle, and he will give his life so that we do not have to settle either. All this, and much more, Jesus endures and for what? For us…lowly humans who are often better at giving God a hard time than anything else. But Jesus wants us to have it all—abundant life—here on this earth and in the life to come.  Jesus’ whole life and ministry demonstrates the bigger picture of God’s plan for as one scholar puts it,

Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he does feed the hungry. Though he refused political power, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice and peace is the focus of his preaching and teaching. Though he refused to jump off the temple to see if God would send angels to catch him, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life will trump the world’s decision to execute him.[vi]


Being faithful to God day in and day out isn’t easy. But if we choose the Lenten journey, if we choose to make ourselves available to the grace of God, “we will encounter a faithful God who leads us not only into the wilderness, but through the wilderness.”[vii]


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

[i] Maggie Dawn, Giving it Up, 13.

[ii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 688.

[iii] Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, 47.

[iv] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 688.

[v] Dawn, 15.

[vi] Ringe, 49.

[vii] Jeffery L Tribble, Sr., Feasting on the Word, 48.

*Cover Art “Spiritual Warfare” Ira Thomas; Catholic World Art; used by permission


A Glimpse of Glory

A Glimpse of Glory

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 3, 2019

Transfiguration of the Lord

Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-18, Luke 9:28-36


It seems like Moses is always trekking up or down a mountain!  Our reading from Exodus puts us in the midst of a fascinating story. Earlier, when Moses is up on the mountain getting the tablets of the covenant, God sees the Israelites doing the most astounding thing down below and God is furious. Moses hightails it down the mountain with the two tablets in his hands—the word of God for God’s people—and when he reaches the camp and finds the people dancing around the golden calf that his brother Aaron has made, Moses is so mad, he throws the tablets and breaks them.


When Moses cools down, he does what he so often does—intercedes to God on behalf of this stiff-neck people. Afterward, God and Moses spend time together, talking of weighty issues. But then, Moses asks an extraordinary thing of God—he wants to see God’s glory. Surprisingly, God has Moses stand in the cleft of the rock, so that Moses can see God passing by. Later, God tells Moses to make two new tablets and come up the mountain again. Moses does as instructed—goes up the mountain—but he returns with more than the new covenant. He returns with his face glowing so brightly, it frightens the people. Turns out, these mountain top experiences changes Moses. Seeking God’s face, talking and listening to God—gives Moses the wisdom and strength to do the task set before him—to lead God’s people forth.


Elijah has quite a different mountain top experience. He appears in the Bible during the reign of Ahab. He’s the one whom God commands the ravens to feed with bread and meat in the morning and the evening. A great drought comes upon the land; in fact, it is Elijah who announces that it will last for a long time. (It doesn’t make him too popular, but then when have prophets ever been popular?) At this time in Israel’s history, they have taken up with Baal, the Canaanite god for storm and rain—but Yahweh will show them just who controls the rain.


In the end, God demonstrates power in mighty ways and God uses Elijah to kill all the prophets of Baal. As a result, Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, is furious. She sends a message to Elijah that he is about to die! So how does this mighty prophet of God respond? He takes off running into the wilderness. But God leads him to a mountain and tells Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain because God is about to pass by. There is a great wind—but God is not in the wind. There is an earthquake—but God is not in the earthquake. There is a fire—but God is not in the fire. Then comes the sound of sheer silence—and out of the silence comes the voice of God.


And this brings us to another mountain top experience—this time for Jesus and his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. Jesus leaves the noise and distraction of the world behind and goes up on the mountain to pray. While in prayer, his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, and they begin talking about the glory of Jesus and his departure, which is to happen in Jerusalem.


Exhausted and befuddled, when faced with the glory of God’s son, Peter, James, and John are nearly overcome. And Peter does what Peter does best—he opens his mouth. He offers to build three shelters (a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles—one of the three biblically mandated feasts for the Hebrew people). Although Peter has good intentions, he has most assuredly not been listening because Moses, Elijah, and Jesus have been talking about Jesus’ departure. If Jesus is leaving, a place to dwell is a non-issue. Could it be that even though Peter has seen Jesus break down barriers time and time again, he still wants to put Jesus in a box?


Notice what happens next.  With Peter still talking, a cloud overshadows them and God interrupts Peter, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” Listen to him—God says. Maybe learning to listen will be Peter’s first step toward spiritual maturity.


While poor Peter makes an easy target, is it really any different for us? Are we any better at listening? Does God have to interrupt us while we chatter away endlessly, even in our prayers? Do our prayers sound like a laundry list of requests rather than a holy time of communing with God?


In Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster writes about our wandering minds—how we are so wired into noise, media and technology—but all this is really a symptom of a deeper problem—distraction. Foster notes,


Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day…The fact that our schedules are piled high and we are constantly bombarded by multiple stimuli only betrays that we have succumbed to the modern mania that keeps us perpetually distracted. The moment we seek to enter the creative silences of meditative prayer, every demand screams for our attention. We have noisy hearts.


Furthermore, Foster recognizes that even our Christian worship services have become productions that distract rather than draw us into the presence of God. What are we to do?


Over the past couple of years, here at First Presbyterian Church we have incorporated moments of silences in worship—the First Friday Contemplative services, for sure, but also in morning worship. We have a moment of silence after our Music for Preparation and after the sermon. Silence is incorporated into our morning prayer.  In addition, silence is key to Centering Prayer—a meditative practice that is offered each Wednesday. Silence allows our hearts and minds to settle down so we can truly be present and listen to God instead of rushing in and chattering away. Maybe if we are able to silence our religious chatter, we, too, may come away blinking from a glimpse of God’s glory.


The movie, “August Rush,” tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who is tragically separated from his mother at birth. Both his parents are gifted musicians—but they are unaware that a son, who has inherited their gift of music, is even alive. Even though August grows up in an orphanage where he is bullied, he refuses to deny his passionate belief—that his real parents want him and will find him with the help of music. Driven by the sounds of the music, he runs away from the orphanage in search of a new life with his family. At one point in the movie August says, “Sometimes the world tries to knock it out of you…but I believe in music the way some people believe in fairy tales…music is in the wind and sky…can you hear it? Open your heart and listen; you’ll believe too.”


As a Minister, I see another layer of meaning in the movie for my passionate belief, my faith, is in the power of God to change lives—but sometimes the world will try to knock that faith out of us. Still, God is all around, and if we listen, truly listen, we just might believe and be changed.


While praying to his Abba Father, Jesus’ face is changed. Sometimes prayer changes circumstances. Sometimes prayer changes us. In our spiritual journey, a trek up a mountain may not be necessary—but we still must make an effort to come away from the noise of the world—to sit in silence and listen. Otherwise, how can we truly know our Lord?


To capture the miraculous event of the Transfiguration, poet and novelist, Madeleine L’Engle has written these words:


Suddenly they saw him the way he was,

the way he really was all the time,

although they had never seen it before,

the glory that blinds the everyday eye

and so becomes invisible. This is how

he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy

like a flaming sun in his hands.

This is the way he was—is—from the beginning,

And we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,

came manifest to us; and there on the mountain

they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.

We all know that if we really see him we die.

But isn’t that what is required of us?

Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.


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

*Cover Art: “The Transfiguration” by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain



Forgiveness and New Beginnings

Forgiveness and New Beginnings

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 24, 2019

7th Sunday after Epiphany

Genesis 45:3-11; Luke 6:27-38

One of the most remarkable stories of transformation in all of Scripture occurs in the character of Joseph as told in Genesis. Although today’s reading gives us a picture of him as gracious and wise and compassionate—it was not always so. Around the age of seventeen, even though Joseph is the “helper” of his older brothers in shepherding the flock, they hate him.  Why?  Because he brought a bad report of them to his father. In other words, Joseph is a tattletale. To make matters worse, Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other children—a fact he broadcasts for all the world to see by giving Joseph a special coat—an outward symbol of favoritism that surely effects his brother deeply.  And while the symbol effects Joseph’s siblings, it also effects Joseph, who grows into the persona of the precocious favored son of the family, strutting around in his special coat, sharing his dreams of superiority—dreams which imply that his brothers as well as Jacob will one day bow down before him.


One day, at the request of his father, Joseph goes to check on his brothers. In Shechem, a man finds Joseph wandering in the fields like a sheep without a shepherd. He can’t find his brothers.  “They have gone to Dothan,” he is told. And that is where he finally catches up with them. They recognize him from a distance.  “Here comes the dreamer,” they say. Quickly, they devise a plan to kill Joseph and his dreams along with him.  But their plans change, and, although his brother, Reuben, tries to intercede, Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver to a caravan of Ishmaelites. Now what will they tell their father? Another plan is devised…a lie that will haunt them for years.  Having stripped Joseph of his coat, they dip it in goat’s blood and send it to their father. Jacob recognizes the bloodstained coat immediately and assumes a wild animal has devoured his most beloved Joseph.


Of course, Joseph isn’t dead. In Egypt he’s sold to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. He finds favor because, we are told—God is with him.  But the favor is short lived. He is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and spends 2 years in prison. But even there, Joseph excels, becoming overseer of the prisoners, for we are told, the Lord was with Joseph. After a time, Joseph, the dreamer, interprets the dreams of two of the prisoners. And then, finally, he is called upon to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh himself.


You know the rest of the story. Ultimately, Joseph becomes the 2nd in Command in all of Egypt. He is instrumental in saving his father, Jacob, and his entire extended family from death by famine. Joseph’s dreams do come true. His brothers do come and bow before him, but they are sorely troubled when they learn that this ruler of Egypt is, in fact, their brother. They fear for their lives but Joseph reassures them, “Come closer to me…I am your brother…do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…”


Joseph’s brothers did an unspeakable evil to him when he was just a young boy. But now, years later, when he has the perfect opportunity to get even, he turns the other cheek. More than that, he says to them, “Come closer to me…” With forgiveness in his heart, Joseph declares to his brothers that no matter what they might have intended, God used their actions for good… In the larger scheme of things, God has been working to preserve life. Most definitely, God has also been working on Joseph’s heart to help him bless even those who once cursed him. Mercy upon mercy. Grace upon grace.


It’s interesting that in Martin Luther’s study of the Joseph story, he saw Joseph as a Christ figure—betrayed, mistreated, handed over to death, unexpectedly revealing himself as alive, he offers forgiveness and a new beginning. Forgiveness and new beginnings are highlights of our gospel reading, set in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, a sermon in which Jesus is painting a picture of radical discipleship. It is important to remember that Jesus’ audience is not the crowd of people. Instead, his audience is the disciples, in other words, believers, in other words, the church.


Jesus continues to create a picture of what radical discipleship looks like: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Do not judge…Forgive…give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Yes, this is what radical discipleship looks like and Jesus offers what might seem like absurd instructions to his closest followers. As one author puts it, “This is a clarion call to swim upstream.”


But is this really how we live? Do we swim upstream or are we more likely to go with the flow—behaving like those in the world who make no claim to be Christian? The very idea of forgiving someone who has wronged us, or someone we love, runs against our inclinations, for sure. How can we possibly pray for someone who has abused us or cursed us? Only by the grace of God!  How can we possibly open our hearts and show mercy when no mercy is deserved?  Only by the grace of God!


Sadly, Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us has often been used wrongly by the church as a way of keeping the downtrodden, well, down. For instance, misguided religious leaders have insisted that women and children must stay in abusive situations because Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek. How ridiculous!  Jesus is speaking to his followers—people who have already heard the blessings and woes—those who already know his love and are, day by day, being transformed by it. In no way is Jesus suggesting doing wrong to the least of these and getting away with it. To believe so is to miss his point, entirely.


Yet, no matter the circumstances, because of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we can live lives of radical discipleship. We can learn to love the un-loveable. We can reach a place of forgiveness that brings us peace. The thing about refusing to forgive is that it keeps us tied to the past—it keeps us harnessed to something that will not let us go. In time, unforgiveness can be very costly. It can eat away at us like a cancer. But the coming of Christ into the world and into our hearts makes all the difference—in how we live, in how we speak, in how we respond—even to someone who has harmed us. No longer does our response to others depend on their behavior. In fact, our response may be diametrically opposed to how they behave. And we are free to choose to swim upstream because Jesus has shown us the way and the Spirit has equipped us to be merciful just as God is merciful.


Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. Next Sunday we will celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration. Reflecting over the Season of Epiphany, we may recall the wise men followed the star to Bethlehem to see the holy child. Not only did they return another way, they returned transformed. In the words of one scholar,


What God has done in history, God has made real [in the lives of the wise men], so that their lives became the mangers in which Christ was born. The admonition of Luke to love even our enemies is not just a good idea where we try our best to make it happen. It is not a call to grit our teeth and make a resolution to be nicer even to those who are not nice to us. Rather, the call of Luke is to live in a way contrary to our human nature, a way that is possible only as we “live out” of a new power born from above.[i]


In time, Joseph comes to live contrary to his human nature. His heart is changed and he forgives that which might seem unforgiveable. Although he suffered tremendously because of his brother’s hatred, he treats them with love and kindness. In time, Joseph is blessed to be a man at peace with his past and with his present. Although we are given no specifics, along the way, Joseph was sure to have had doubts.  Where was God when his brothers threw him into a pit?  Where was God when he was unfairly imprisoned?  Where was God?


We still ask, “Where is God?” when evil appears to be winning out but it would behoove us to remember things are not always what they seem.  We may draw comfort from the story of Joseph, which reminds us God’s hand may be moving long before God’s hand is revealed.  We may draw comfort from the promise of Jesus, “Forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into you lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”


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


[i] Charles Bugg, Feasting on the Word.

*Cover Art “Beloved is Where We Begin” © Jan Richardson, used by subscription


A Plain Sermon

A Plain Sermon

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 17, 2019

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26

The verses preceding our reading from the Gospel of Luke tell us that Jesus has been on the mountain praying to God all night, seeking wisdom regarding his choice of disciples. When morning comes, he calls his disciples and chooses twelve of them, whom he also names apostles. Then Jesus comes down with them and stands on a level place—or on the plain—as it is sometimes translated. A great multitude from far and wide gathers to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Finally, Jesus looks up at his disciples—not at the multitude of people—but at his disciples—and delivers a series of blessings and woes.


If I felt compelled to write a series of blessings and woes this morning, I might come up with something like: Blessed is the preacher who does not preach guided by the lectionary and woe to the preacher who does. Or, how about blessed is the preacher who is on vacation the 6th Sunday of Epiphany and woe to the preacher who is not. Now, why would I think such thoughts? Because this is a very challenging text. So much so, I tried everything in my power to convince Jane Shelton, our Commissioned Ruling Elder, that today would be a perfect day for her to preach. She refused to buy what I was selling.


So, why is this gospel reading challenging? Because it seems to pit Jesus against anyone who is wealthy, satisfied, happy, or favored by the world. Could Jesus really hold the rich in disdain when his own ministry is supported by certain women of wealth? Could Jesus really show love to some people more than others when, throughout the gospels, he proclaims that God’s love is for all people? Surely there is something more going on here.


Let’s take a closer look. The Greek word for “blessed” is μακάριος, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, well off, happy. The word for “woe,” οὐαί, is an exclamation of grief as in, “woe” or “alas.” These words spoken by Jesus are, it would seem, polar opposites. When we hear Jesus’ list of blessings and woes preached in his Sermon on the Plain, surely our minds hearken to another text, found in the Gospel of Matthew—the Sermon on the Mount. It is a much longer sermon that begins with the Beatitudes. While Matthew’s Beatitudes give us only nine blessings, Luke pairs four blessings with four woes, contrasting the rich and poor, the hungry and full, those who weep and those who laugh, those who are hated and those who are esteemed. Furthermore, while Matthew speaks of the poor in spirit, Luke simply speaks of the poor. While Matthew speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Luke speaks clearly of those in real physical need. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount feels gentler, more spiritual, if you will—not so, the Sermon on the Plain. On the plain, Jesus speaks plainly. He offers no cotton candy gospel. Rather, Jesus portrays a radical way of discipleship that will turn the world upside down.


In many ways, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain echoes the radical words of his mother in the Magnificat, found also in Luke. “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.” Mary continues, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Radical words, indeed!


Prior to his Sermon on the Plain Jesus takes care of the needs of the people and then turns his attention to the needs of his disciples. At this point, Jesus’ audience is the disciples. In other words, Jesus’ audience is the church. So, what is Jesus trying to convey to believers?  In the new kingdom Jesus is ushering in, why does Jesus speak woe to the rich? Does God really bless the poor and exclude the rich? Does God play preferential games like we are prone to do—only in reverse? Of course not! The miracle of the fishes and loaves is ample evidence that God is a God of abundance—not scarcity. In God’s reign, there is enough for everyone.


Then why the seeming disdain for the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, and those well thought of in the community? Maybe because such people—those who SEEM to have it all—are less likely to recognize their NEED for God. Consequently, wealth can be a stumbling block to a heart open to God. It’s a danger—thus—a woe. The poor, the hungry, those who weep, or are derided, on the other hand, are in a better position to receive and respond to God’s promises. Out of necessity, they may be more able to recognize they are not self-sufficient. Out of necessity, they are more likely to depend on God to provide the blessings they crave.


Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord speaks these words: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water…” Radical trust and dependence upon God—that’s the root of all blessedness. And to be a disciple is to take up the cross of Jesus and travel differently in the world.  Make no mistake, it is a blessed and a costly endeavor. As one scholar puts it,


God asks for—indeed demands—our all. Everything. Material goods and money are but a part of what God expects us to give up and give over. God wants the entirety of our lives. The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God. God watches over them and blesses them abundantly in God’s way, not the way of the world: they will be filled, and they will laugh, and they will inherit the kingdom of God. To be disciples is to follow in this way. To be blessed of God is to have nothing but God.[i]


Truly, to be blessed of God is to have nothing but God. Once more, let us open our hearts and minds to Christ’s teachings by hearing our gospel reading as translated in Eugene Peterson’s The Message:


Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke: You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning. Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get. And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.


Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and then he returns to a level place—to a place with the people—not above them—but with them. He then turns to the disciples to give a plain and simple sermon based on the reality of what is and the hope of what can be. Jesus’ vision of radical discipleship turns the ways of the world upside down. Blessed are believers who yearn for God more than anything else in this world and woe to believers who do not.


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


[i] David L. Ostendorf, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1


*Cover Art “Litany of the Blessed” © Jan Richardson, used by subscription


Jesus Asks for Help

Jesus Asks for Help

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 10, 2019

5th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 138; Luke 5:1-11


Our gospel reading brings us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he calls his first disciples. Already, though, his reputation has spread far and wide. We know this because we are told that by the lake of Gennesaret the crowd is pressing in on Jesus. Seeing two empty boats at the shore of the lake, Jesus gets into one of them—the one belonging to Simon—and he asks Simon to put out a little way from the shore. Simon does so. Safe from the crush of the crowd, Jesus begins to instruct the people.


While there are many teaching opportunities in this text, this morning let us examine two matters of significance. First, notice how the crowd is pressing in on Jesus. Word is getting around about his ministry and, no doubt, he is feeling the stress and strain of it all.  We live in days of stress and strain, too.  A recent poll of the American Psychiatric Association suggests almost 40% of us are more anxious than we were at this time last year. Roughly 18% of us have an anxiety disorder. We are anxious about keeping ourselves and our families safe. We are anxious about our health. We are anxious about our finances. We are anxious about the future of our nation. Yes, we are an anxious people.[i]


If we stroll back through history, though, we may find that every generation since the beginning of time has suffered from anxiety of one kind or another. Let’s consider 1907, for example, the year the cornerstone of FPC was put in place. In 1907, Americans had a much shorter life expectancy than we do today. 1907 was the year that typhoid spread through water and food supplies, ravaging the nation.  America was at war with tuberculosis—a disease that killed hundreds of people before a cure was found. Finally, the worst mining disaster in American history occurred in 1907 when an explosion killed 362 men and boys, leaving 250 widows and over 1000 children without support.


Most assuredly, people in New Testament times had cause for anxiety, too. The Jewish people found themselves occupied by Roman rule. There was no middle class. Poverty was visible and common. Rome cared little for the poor and disabled.  High taxation caused many peasants to lose land and livelihood. Moreover, improving one’s circumstances was near impossible.


While we may feel overly stressed in the 21st Century, all peoples down through the ages have experienced stress and strain. Jesus feels pressured, too. How does he respond? Well, first Jesus recognizes the situation—the pressing crowd is creating a problem. Then he finds a way to get some distance between himself and the cause of the stress. He looks around to see who can help him. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God asks for help. Seeing two empty boats at the shore of the lake, he gets into one of them and asks Simon, who will later be called Peter, to push off a little from the shore. From that vantage point, he teaches the crowd. Jesus finds release from his predicament because he humbles himself enough to ask for help. How are we at asking for help? How do we feel about accepting the generosity or welcome or support of another? Do we feel ashamed because we are convinced, we really ought to be able to manage things on our own? Jesus didn’t!


This weekend has been quite busy for our church. The 23rd annual Father Daughter Valentine Dance, was held Friday and Saturday nights—with two dances each night. Over 4200 fathers and daughters gathered in the James Rainwater Conference Center to make memories, and dance, dance, dance. It’s hard to believe that such an event began in the upstairs auditorium of this very church. Soon the event was bigger than the space allowed which necessitated a move to another location. With the increased space came exciting opportunities to enhance the overall experience for fathers and their precious daughters. But it would not have happened without Jeff and Becky Stewart recruiting lots of help. Yes, Jeff and Becky asked for help and help they received. I daresay most of you have helped this past weekend in one way or another. Maybe you prayed for the event, shared information about the event with your neighbors and friends—face to face—or through social media. You may have hung posters in your place of business. Perhaps you baked cookies—hundreds and hundreds of cookies or washed grapes—bunches and bunches of grapes or hung balloons—dozens and dozens of balloons or scanned tickets—oodles and oodles of tickets.


Over the years, helpers for the Father Daughter Valentine Dance have included people like John Plowden and his friend Rick who have fashioned incredible pieces of art for the event: larger than life wooden hearts—and intricate pieces that fold out into trees! Matt Phelps has been critical for his engineering skills because we all know that Becky can dream up some incredible things that might, to the common eye, seem impossible. But with Becky’s imagination and Matt’s skills—it all comes together.  Dawn Toth rolls up t-shirts—boxes and boxes of t-shirts—then she and her family work the t-shirt table during the dances. Troy Toth oversees the drink station. It’s a happening place! Deborah Taylor and Katherine Phelps—along with other volunteers—oversee the food trays, assuring there are always delicious treats available. John Vick sets up and manages the coat check area. Of course, there are dozens of people I haven’t named—people from our church and the community who come together to make something incredible happen—something that blesses families far and wide—all because God gave Jeff and Becky a vision and they pursued the vision—asking for help all along the way.


Jesus asks for help, too. In doing so, he makes himself vulnerable. Research professor, Brene Brown, who has done a lot of work on the topic of vulnerability, has this to say:


One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow, we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.[ii]


Yes, the truth is, we are both! When we think of Jesus, we can easily muster up images of him helping others—healing the sick, raising the dead, loving the un-loveable, but rarely do we imagine Jesus asking for help. Yet, Jesus does just that. “Can I borrow your boat for a moment? Would you row it out just a bit so I can tell the pressing crowd about the love and mercy and grace of my Abba Father?” Throughout his ministry, Jesus is on the receiving end of help—wealthy women contribute financially to his ministry, people invite him over for meals, others offer a place for him to sleep.


The theme of help continues in our story when, after Jesus finishes teaching, he asks Simon to put out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Since Simon and his friends have been fishing unsuccessfully all night, Simon is understandably skeptical. Still, there is something about Jesus that compels them to follow his instructions. And what happens? They catch so many fish, their nets begin to break. And what do they do? They signal their friends in the other boat to come and help them. When the boats begin to sink because of the weight of all the fish, Simon is so overcome, he falls at Jesus’ feet and Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”


And this brings me a second matter of importance. “Catching people,” or what we commonly call “evangelism” has gotten such a bad rap—largely due to experiences of street-corner-preacher-types inquiring, “Are you saved?” plus the downfall of too many televangelist-types who appear to be concerned about people’s souls when their real motivation is people’s wallets. But let’s not allow bad press to put us off. Instead, let us consider the original meaning of the phrase, “catching people.” When Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching people,” he is not saying, “You will be entrapping people.” He is not saying, “You will be tricking people or pressuring people.” Instead, in the original Greek, the idea of “catching people” indicates Simon and the other followers of Jesus will be rescuing people; they will be saving people; they will be inviting people to live full lives, governed by the love of Christ.


It all begins with a risk on Jesus’ part because Simon could have said no. James and John, the sons of Zebedee could have said no. God, in Christ, asks for help. “Can I borrow your boat?” And God, in Christ, is still asking for help, “Will you rescue others? Will you invite others to the full life I can give? Will you?”


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


[i]A Lot of Americans Are More Anxious Than They Were Last Year, a New Poll Says,” published May 8, 2018. http://time.com/5269371/americans-anxiety-poll/

[ii] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

*Cover Art “Miraculous Catch of Fish” Jan van Orley; Public Domain; via Wikimedia Commons


Jesus Picks a Fight

Jesus Picks a Fight

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 3, 2019

4th Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jesus returns home for a visit and ends up in the synagogue where he gets a chance to share his mission statement—so to speak—through the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” All eyes are fixed upon Jesus. The people speak well of him and are amazed. They seem proud of their hometown boy made good until Jesus says something so horrible and so true, it cuts to the bone. Then, in a flash, the mood changes, and it’s “Throw him over the cliff!”



So, what happened? Let’s try to put it in perspective. Imagine our very own Zachary grows up and feels the call to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Following his undergraduate work at UGA, he attends Princeton Seminary and excels in everything. (Of course, he does, he is Zach, after all!) Time passes and he’s called to pastor a big church in Atlanta. But one Sunday when he’s in town visiting his parents, we are honored to have him preach from this very pulpit.



In preparation, we advertise near and far—emails go out, posts appear on the church Facebook page and on Instagram, an article is printed in the church newsletter and The Valdosta Daily Times. When the day arrives, the church is packed. And at the appropriate time in worship, Zachary approaches the pulpit, dressed in his robe and stole. He stands before us, reads Scripture and then begins his sermon—a word from God for the people of God.



Everyone is smiling—beaming really—because this is Scott and Kerri’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a baby. We are so proud—until he gets all fired up and begins pointing fingers. He broadcasts for everyone to hear how we have failed as a church. He uncovers our prejudices and lets us know, in no uncertain terms, how we have tried to contain God’s love for ourselves. We’ve made God in our own image, defined God by our standards. But whether we like it or not, God’s love is bigger than our minds can comprehend. God’s love isn’t just for us or for people we like—people who make us comfortable—God’s love is for everyone.



Now be honest, how would we respond?  How about something like, “That little whippersnapper—just who does he think he is? We knew him when he was just a little boy practicing his cup stacking routine in the Fellowship Hall, and running through the church with his big brother, Jaxson. What he said might have had some truth to it—but who cares about the truth!”



Jesus reads from Isaiah, sits down and begins to speak and the people remark, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” While there are scholars who propose the question is derogatory in nature, that is not necessarily the case. Instead, it may have been a compliment uttered with a sense of pride. Especially since we are informed that the people speak well of him. Others have suggested that the people are aggravated because Jesus has not performed miracles for them—but that is not likely since they have not asked for anything, yet.



Ultimately, it is as if we have walked into the middle of a story and we are left trying to make sense of it all. Much is unclear. But one thing is crystal clear—Jesus is the one who changes the tone in the synagogue. As one commentator notes, “The congregation is filled with rage only after Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing out of left field [and] who could blame them?”[i] If Jesus really does return home and pick a fight with his own people, surely, he has good reason. But what in the world might it be?



Well, here is a wild and crazy thought: Could this be a continuation of the temptation narrative, which occurs earlier in the same chapter of Luke? You recall how Jesus is in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan for 40 days. Verse 13 reads, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Could now—now when everyone is praising Jesus and adoring him—could this be one such time? People LOVE him and all Jesus has to do is preach warm messages, heal folks, and multiply a couple of fish sandwiches. “Oh Jesus, be careful. Don’t rattle any cages. Don’t make folks mad. Don’t be a prophet because you know what happens to prophets!” So, if Jesus is facing the temptation to accept people’s praise and maintain the status quo—he excels once again—for he will not succumb. Jesus will not be adored on the people’s terms. Instead, he takes up his mantle as a preacher and prophet to speak a truth that is so difficult, there is not enough sugar in the world to make his medicine go down smoothly.



The two examples Jesus uses in his tongue-lashing concern miracles that happened to Gentiles, but we dare not interpret his overall message as one of Gentile versus Jew. Rather, Jesus’ message is about the marginalized—those whom the Israelites would ignore even though that is never what God intended. Recall God’s words to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[ii]



Truly, God’s love is beyond our imaginings and God seems to have a special love for the poor, the downcast, and the outsider. Could it be that what Jesus is doing here is setting the record straight? Because if Israel can’t accept that God’s love is for all people, how can they accept the mission of God’s Son?



Jesus does not leave heaven’s glory to come to the earth to make people comfortable. Jesus comes to speak the truth. In his hometown, the response is quick and sure. The people are enraged that one of their own has the audacity to suggest that they will not be “the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative.”[iii] How ironic, now, Jesus the insider, becomes Jesus the outsider. But that won’t stop Jesus. He will not be tempted to water down his message to garner praise and adoration. Instead, Jesus points his own people toward the light. Could it be that he is trying to startle them into accepting the love he has come to offer? Through his surprising behavior, is Jesus really saying something like, “I am not for you alone. I am for all people. But you want a Savior who will guarantee you are healed, you have no drought, and there will be endless bread on your table. That may be what you want, but what you need is something more. What you need is faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love—the kind of love for which I will die.”



In Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, she claims she does not know much about God and prayer but over the last 25 years, she has realized that keeping it simple is best. In the “Wow!” chapter, she writes:



Sometimes—oh, just once in a blue moon—I resist being receptive to God’s generosity, because I am busy with a project and trying to manipulate Him or Her into helping me with it…But God is not a banker or a bean counter. God gives us even more which is so subversive. God just gives, to us, to you and me. I mean, look at us! Yikes.



God keeps giving, forgiving and inviting us back. My friend Tom says this is a scandal and that God has no common sense. God doesn’t say, “I have had it this time. You have taken this course four times and you flunked again. What a joke.” We get to keep starting over. Lives change, sometimes quickly, but usually slowly…If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark…if you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.



When nothing new can get in, that’s death…But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing—we had all this figured out, and now we don’t.[iv]



The people of Nazareth think they have it all figured out. They think they know Jesus. But what turns out to be truer is this: Jesus knows them! And Jesus knows us! We have come to this place to worship a God who will not be boxed in, confined to our temples, synagogues, churches, or stories. God will rattle our cages and shake us up. And God still calls us to care for and love those marginalized by the world: the migrant worker, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill. Because if we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, we are like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol—faith, hope, and love abide—these three—and the greatest of these is love. Amen.



[i] Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, 311.

[ii] Genesis 12:1-2

[iii] Feasting, 310

[iv] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essentials Prayers, 85-86.

*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.


Jesus Is in the House

Jesus Is in the House

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 27, 2019

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21


Our reading from the Gospel of Luke gives us a bird’s eye view of a synagogue service. Actually, this account is the oldest and most detailed description we have. Although other gospel writers place this event later in the ministry of Jesus, Luke puts it near the beginning in order to announce Jesus’ mission, right up front. Luke wants everyone to know, without question, who Jesus is, what his ministry is about, and what the likely response will be to both Jesus and, later, to the church. [i]



Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returns to Galilee. By this time, people from far and wide have heard of him. When he arrives in Nazareth, he is among family and friends. This is where Jesus grew up, where he played, and where he worshiped. On the Sabbath, Jesus does what he always does, he goes to the synagogue. Fred Craddock notes that it was during the exile that the synagogue came into being as a sort of temple surrogate, minus the altar or priest. “Led by laity, the Pharisees being the most prominent among them, the synagogue became the institutional center of a religion of the Book, not the altar…the synagogue was not only an assembly for worship but also a school, a community center, and a place for administering justice.” [ii]



So, Jesus returns to Nazareth and enters the synagogue. But notice that he does not simply show up. He participates. An attendant hands him the scroll of Isaiah and he stands to read it. Unrolling the scroll, he finds the place from which he wishes to read:



The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.



Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant and sits down to interpret what he has just read—something like a homily, if you will. With the eyes of everyone upon him, Jesus says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”



While our reading today ends on a calm note, when we take up the story next Sunday, we will see that the temperature in the synagogue changes quickly. In a flash, the people will move from “every eye is upon Jesus” to “Let’s throw him off the nearest cliff.” But for now, let’s keep our attention on what has transpired up to this point. Jesus has come home to Nazareth to proclaim his mission statement to his family and friends. It will amaze, encourage, challenge, and comfort—but, before all is said and done—it will get him killed.



What is a mission statement anyway? A mission statement is a statement of purpose for a person, committee, organization, or church. In the case of a person, it guides her actions, spells out her overall goals, and provides a path to help guide decision making. With all eyes upon him, in essence, Jesus proclaims, “What I have read today—it’s who I am—it’s what my ministry will be about, for today, the year of the Lord’s favor begins. Today!”



The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee, something God laid out for Israel in the book of Leviticus:



You shall count off…forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud…on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.[iii]



The people of Israel know about captivity. They know about slavery and the harshness of life. They look forward to a day when all will be made right. Over the centuries, they begin to hope for the day when the Messiah will come, and jubilee will reign forever. And there in their midst sits Jesus, “Today,” he says, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”



In other words, Craddock points out:



The age of God’s reign is here; the eschatological time when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s purpose comes to fruition has arrived; there will be changes in the conditions of those who have waited and hoped. Those changes for the poor and the wronged and the oppressed will occur today. This is the beginning of jubilee.[iv]



Jesus, a Jew, is steeped in his own tradition. He knows the teachings of the prophets. He sings psalms. Yet, throughout his earthly ministry, he refuses to be cemented to the past. His mission is about today—not yesterday—not even someday—but today!



As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I have long recognized that there was a time in the life of the church when we felt pressured to become more contemporary. But things, well, they are a-changing. Now, “contemporary” is old hat and what seems to be drawing more people into the church is not something new and flashy, but that which is ancient and tried and true! Millennial blogger, Amy Peterson, puts it this way, “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s market. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”[v] It turns out, young and old alike, who are searching for ways to deepen their faith, are being drawn to churches that offer classes on spiritual practices. Contemplative style worship services are becoming more common. People want to experience God in new, old ways—centering prayer, walking a labyrinth, lighting candles, silent and other spiritual retreats. We are living in a time when people are starving to death to connect to the holy. As a church, how are we helping? What is our mission—our mission statement? The mission of First Presbyterian Church is to celebrate God’s grace and to share Christ’s love through worship, study, and service. If we focus on our mission and remain open to the movement of the Spirit to guide us forward—then, surely, we will continue to be a beacon of light that draws people to the holy.



When Jesus enters the synagogue, we might say, “He goes to church.” There he demonstrates his faithfulness to his own tradition, but he also helps people see things fresh and new. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we have our traditions, too. Some are specifically reformed Presbyterian traditions, some are our very own. Repeatedly, though, over the past 2 ½ years, I have found joy in the way you are willing to embrace the new: singing old hymns and new ones; accompanied by organ, piano, guitar, handbells, flute, or recorded music; implementing the First Friday Contemplative Service that includes a variety of prayer practices; being willing to try a multi-generational Sunday school class; and taking the huge leap to support social media and live-streaming as ways to reach more people for the sake of Christ. Indeed, it is clear Jesus is in our church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is among us, teaching us to hold on to the old traditions while exploring new ways of telling the story TODAY! For still today, there are people in dire need of good news. Still today, there are those who are held captive by the chains of addictions, unforgiving spirits, feelings of rejection, hatred. Still today, there are people oppressed by systems over which they have no control, oppressed by lies that would have them believe there is no hope. Still today, there are those who are blind to the way of Jesus and they need someone—anyone—to point them to the light.



Presbyterian missionary, Dick Gibson, tells a story about his days in Cairo, Egypt in the early 1970’s. On a street in a desperately poor neighborhood, with few modern conveniences, a church had requested a film on the life of Christ. The missionaries drove there, set up a screen in the sanctuary, and turned on the projector. As the church neighbors in this poor Muslim neighborhood walked by and saw the image of Jesus moving and speaking on the screen, there was pandemonium. It was the first movie most of them had ever seen. One of the women, who had entered the church out of curiosity, came bursting out the door and down the steps, shouting to anyone who had ears to hear, “Come and see! Come and see! They have Jesus in the church!” [vi] Oh, to hear our neighbors say that about us! “Come and see! Come and see! They have Jesus in First Presbyterian Church!”



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



[i] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, 60-63

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Leviticus 25:8-10

[iv] Craddock, 62.

[v] Rachel Held Evans, “”Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.21d662739d7e

[vi] Adapted from Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Series VIII Cycle C, Carlos Wilton, 70-71.


*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.


The Next Step is Yours (Preached as a Dramatic Monologue)

The Next Step is Yours (Preached as a Dramatic Monologue)

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 20, 2019

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Elder Ordination & Installation

1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11


Disgrace! It is an emotion I know well. Even though, in my head, I understood why people talked, my heart was broken many times. You see, in my day, getting into what might be referred to as “my predicament,” brought with it not only shame—but the potential for execution. So of course, people talked and, occasionally, I felt shamed because of it. But the man whom I had chosen to wed was a good man—such a good man—and he refused to end his covenant with me. No doubt, the Angel of the Lord had something to do with that. I mean, really, wouldn’t you obey Gabriel if he came knocking on your door?



The child was Yahweh’s. Joseph knew it. I knew it. But few others believed us. As people have a way of doing, they thought the worst. Some whispered that I had been unfaithful. Others said that it was Joseph’s child and we should just own up to our behavior. Regardless of what others thought or said, Joseph and I remained resolute. We knew that God had spoken, and we relied on God and one another.



Still, being disgraced left its mark on my heart. Maybe that’s why I behaved as I did when things went awry in Cana. The wedding was beautiful, and it was special to have Jesus there, along with his disciples. Overall, everything went well—until it didn’t. In those days, a newly married couple did not have a honeymoon. Instead, the bride and groom celebrated the marriage with a seven-day wedding feast at the groom’s home.[i] It was a grand affair of tremendous social importance. Everything had to be just right. So, when it came to my attention that those lovely people were about to run out of wine, I realized if there was anything I could do, anything at all, well, I had to do it! And I knew just where to turn. Jesus could keep our friends from being disgraced. So, I did what mothers have done since the beginning of time—I offered my child a little encouragement, a little nudge if you will, realizing that the next step would, or course, be his to make. It was possible that he would deny my request, but somehow, in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t. Somehow, I knew that this was the day of new beginnings.



Although he was hesitant at first, Jesus came through with flying colors. “Fill those jars with water,” he told the servants. The huge pots were generally used for religious purification purposes, and collectively, they held 120-180 gallons of water. Make no mistake, to fill them was hard, back-breaking work. It took time and effort, but fill them, the servants did, all the way to the brim. Then Jesus said, “Now take some to the host,” and it was done.



Two simple instructions—Fill those jars with water—Take some to the host—and the result was astounding. It was a moment of extravagance—not a little wine—or enough wine—but wine filled to the brim! Not average wine—or good wine—but the best we had ever tasted! (Isn’t that so like the divine generous nature of our God?) Of course, the servants were amazed because they had witnessed this sign first hand. The host was amazed by the wine’s quality. But the disciples—they were more than amazed. They caught the first glimpse of Jesus’ glory and they believed.



Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Later, I wondered why his first sign of glory would occur in such a setting and here is what I finally grasped: Turning water into wine was the perfect first miracle because it showed all people of all time—it is God who puts joy into life and God thinks it’s worth a little divine intervention to help us keep a party going to celebrate it.[ii]



From his first breath until his last, I watched over my son. I prayed for him—oh, how I prayed! I was there when people were moved by his love and care and provision. I was there when people believed because of his many miracles of healing. And I was there when things began to take a turn and his life was in danger. Surely you know that I was there at the cross, a witness to the cruelest of deaths—an innocent man hanging on a tree—more than a man—my son—more than my son—the Son of God.



Remarkably, it was on the 3rd day that we gathered for the wedding feast—the 3rd day in a long line of 3rd days for our people: For on the 3rd day, God revealed to Abraham the place where he was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. On the 3rd day, God came down upon Mt. Sinai and Moses led the people forth. On the 3rd day, Jesus revealed his glory for the first time, turning water into wine. And at the end of his ministry, Jesus was mocked and beaten and crucified, but on the 3rd day, he rose from the dead and brought salvation to all who believed—including me, his mother.[iii]



Then the day came when Jesus ascended into heaven after promising us that we would receive power once the Holy Spirit came. He told us we would be witnesses in Jerusalem and even to the ends of the earth. We did not understand but we waited, and we prayed. And then, in the rush of a mighty wind, the Spirit came, and we were filled to the brim with God’s wonder-working power. Yes, the Holy Spirit came and gave to us gifts for the common good. Over time, some of us contributed to God’s kingdom work through the gift of wisdom, some through the gift of knowledge, some through faith. There were those who had gifts of healing, working miracles, while others were given the gift of prophecy or discernment.



As the mother of Jesus, I had a part to play in God’s salvation story. How could I, a young and lowly girl, have found such favor? Why had the Mighty One done great things for me? Great is the mystery of our faith for his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He scatters the proud; lifts up the lowly; and fills the hungry with good things. Such is the generous nature of our God.[iv]



As the mother of Jesus, I had a part to play in God’s redemptive story. But the truth is, we all have a part to play. At the wedding, I saw my friends in need, so I went to the one person I believed could make a difference. Isn’t it the same today? Isn’t the world still in need? Aren’t there people, for example, who have “no clean drinking water—let alone fine wine?”[v] When you watch the news on your modern day televisions or electronic devices, and you see a world in which desperate mothers have to say to their children, “We have no food,” don’t you want to join me? Don’t you want to tug on Jesus’ sleeve and say, “Do something!” I hope you do. I hope you have not come here for your benefit alone—although that’s part of the reason communities of believers gather in Jesus’ name. But haven’t you also come because you love my Son and you want to play your part in making a difference? Aren’t you here to tug on his sleeve and cry out for those in need?



Maybe, just maybe, God is waiting for you to accept your responsibility in God’s kingdom work. Maybe your job is to recognize the human need that is right beside you and pray. Maybe your work is to encourage others, much like I encouraged Jesus. Maybe your role is to feed the hungry or seek justice for the oppressed. As a baptized believer, each one of you has a calling. Through the grapevine, I have heard there are those here today who have accepted their vocation as leaders of this church—Ruling Elders. You have been called to help lead this church forward. You have been called to help others find their vocation, too. May God bless you on your journey. May your next step and every step, thereafter, bring you closer to God’s will for your life and for the life of this church. May you be filled to the brim with God’s wonder-working power. Amen.



[i] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. 260.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Adapted from Worship Workbook for the Gospels: Cycle C, Robert D. Ingram, 56.

[iv] Adapted from Luke 1:46-55.

[v] Feasting on the Word, 262.

*Cover Art “Water into Wine” © Jan Richard, used by subscription


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