In the House

In the House

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 10, 2018

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Mark 3:20-35


Being a part of a family is not easy. From the beginning of Scripture in Genesis, our story begins, not with nations and tribes, but families. And from the beginning, dysfunction is palpable. As one preacher notes, “It gives one pause at the phrase ‘biblical family values.’”[i]  Of course, later, other metaphors are used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people—king and subjects comes to mind. But the people do not always want God as their king. Then, as now, people tend to want their own way rather than the way of God.


We get a glimpse of such behavior in our reading from the book of 1st Samuel. Israel is yearning for something they do not have—an earthly king. But, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Israel has been handpicked by God to be God’s chosen people—yet they decide that instead of being led by Yahweh, they prefer an earthly king like the other nations.


Samuel is upset by the people’s request, but God points out that it is God being rejected, not Samuel. Essentially, God says, “They’re acting like they’ve been acting from the beginning—forsaking me, serving other gods. Now, I’m going to give them what they ask for, but before I do, go and tell them what earthly kings are good for!” And Samuel does! Samuel tells them that an earthly king will make servants of their sons and daughters; some will even be made slaves. The king will take the best of the fields and orchards himself and a tenth of whatever harvest is produced—that’s what an earthly king is good for! And when all this happens, don’t even bother crying out to God.” The people ignore Samuel’s warning, crying, “No! We want to be like the other nations. We want a king.” And, so it was.


Being God’s people and understanding what that means, well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? But Jesus steps in to simplify things—put things in order—if you will. Jesus comes to redefine what it means to be God’s people, but it will not be without great cost!


In recent months, following the church calendar, we have traveled through Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. We are now are in the Season of Pentecost—what has been traditionally known as “Ordinary Time.” In the weeks and months ahead, we will focus on the extraordinary acts of Jesus in the day in and day out of his life in ministry and we will reflect on our own lives as his faithful disciples.


Again, the lectionary places us in the Gospel of Mark. As you likely remember, Mark, wastes no time in getting to the point. He doesn’t bother with birth narratives and such. Instead with a single-sentence introduction, he gets right to it, announcing the coming of John the Baptist and the One greater than he, who is to follow. By the time we get to chapter 3, Jesus has been baptized and tempted and his ministry is in full swing. He has called his disciples, healed one person after another (of whatever has kept them from leading full, whole lives), and he has passionately preached the good news of God’s love and power breaking into the world. By now, there are people everywhere—so much so—he and his disciples can barely get a bite to eat.


Jesus has drawn a crowd, and in the crowd, there are friends, family, and foes. In today’s reading, Jesus is wrongly accused by not only his foes (we would expect that) but also his family. His family has heard rumors about Jesus. They think he’s gone out of his mind—the translation is more literally, “to stand outside of,” as in “to be outside oneself.” Jesus’ family may hope to control him. Perhaps, they are genuinely concerned for his mental health. At the very least, they would prefer he not embarrass the family name.


Then there are the scribes (foes of Jesus) who have come a long way from Jerusalem to examine this young upstart. They come. They see the authentic results of Jesus’ ministry and conclude that Jesus has Beelzebul! There’s no other explanation. He’s possessed with a spirit of a demon. He’s kin to Satan. That’s how he is able to cast out demons.


Always ready and able to trip up the religious authorities, Jesus responds with something like, “Pray tell, how can Satan cast out Satan?” In a flash, Jesus makes the point that since his exorcisms are defeats for Satan, they can hardly be performed through Satan. And any entity—be it kingdom, house, or Satan—divided against itself cannot stand! By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus binds Satan (the strong man) and Jesus sweeps in and plunders his house. No, Jesus is not kin to Satan. Jesus is his sworn enemy! [ii]


Overall, Jesus’ engagement with the Scribes disproves charges made against him both here, during his ministry, and even after his death. Jesus is not out of his mind. Jesus is not possessed by a demon. Jesus is not an agent of Satan. Quite the opposite! Jesus, the Stronger Man, has come to bind Satan and sin and free God’s people.[iii] Jesus has come to demonstrate his power over the house of Satan.


The image of Jesus’ “house” serves as a symbol for the church. With that in mind, who is inside the house? Who is outside?  Those who are criticizing him—the scribes and his family stand outside.[iv] They are the very ones who should know better—yet there they are—outside, creating quite a ruckus.


Why is it that wherever Jesus goes, storms are a-brewing? Why does his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing create such controversy? Could it be that Jesus is so far out of the reach of the religious ruler’s imagination, they simply can’t accept him? He doesn’t fit their categories, so he must be abnormal or possessed. As scholar, David Lose, comments, “We assume that what we know, have experienced, and hold to be true is normal, natural, and God-ordained, and that becomes the standard by which we measure—and judge—the thoughts and actions of others.” [v]

Jesus has come into the world to bring a new vision of God’s family tree. The old definition with genealogies tracing back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—no longer applies. It’s a new day! And at the heart of the Jesus’ vision is nothing less than God’s love because God desires nothing less than shalom—peace, wholeness, health—for all God’s creation. God is with us! God is for us! All of us!  Lose continues, “This is why Jesus sets himself against all the powers that would rob humanity and creation of the abundant life God intends—whether those powers be unclean spirits; disease that ravages the mind, body or spirit; illness that isolates and separates those who suffer from community; or whatever. Jesus introduces a new vision of God and a new way to relate to God…and it’s not what any of those, make that any of us, religious folk expect.”[vi]

There’s an old saying that blood is thicker than water. Jesus breaks through this way of thinking. Jesus, the Stronger Man, through his life, death, and resurrection, flings open the doors and windows so that we all can come in. Now, everyone who does the will of his Abba Father receives an invitation. Imagine! When we do the will of God we get the chance to be the brother, the sister, even the mother of Jesus!


Oh, things aren’t perfect inside the house—on this side of eternity, we all bear the marks of our brokenness. Truth be told, at times we may look more like a bunch of misfits than anything else. Yet, the house of Jesus is our home and here, day-by-day, we are growing more into the likeness of Jesus, our holy kin. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are becoming a holy family.


On our best days, we yearn to do the will of our Abba Father and we gratefully recognize the faith and baptismal waters that unite us. On our best days, some fruit of the Spirit is evident in the way we live—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. On our best days, we bring honor to God, who is with us; God, who is for us; God, who through his Son, opens the doors of the family home and says, “Come on in!”


[ii]Interpretation: Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr

[iii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 604-605

[iv] Feasting on the Word, 116-121

[v] David Lose @

[vi] Ibid.

*Cover Art “House Dreaming” by Jan Richardson Images; Subscription.


Making a Way

Making a Way

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 3, 2018

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6


The Book of Samuel opens with Hannah praying with all her heart and soul for a son. Eli, the priest, believes her to be intoxicated. But after she explains that she has been pouring out her heart and soul before the Lord, Eli instructs her to go in peace. Then, he pronounces a blessing. In due time, Hannah delivers a son, Samuel, whom she gives into the service of the Lord, just as she had promised. Hannah leaves her little boy in the care of Eli, the priest, and day by day, the little boy learns to minister unto the Lord.


It just so happens that Eli has sons of his own, but Scripture tells us that they are scoundrels. They have no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priesthood. In fact, when people come to offer their sacrifices, Eli’s sons take meat from the pot for themselves—whatever their evil heart’s desire. Eli, who is very old, hears about all that his sons are doing—how they treat the offerings of the Lord with contempt—how they lay with the women who serve at the entrance of the meeting house. What does Eli do? He scolds his sons, but he does nothing more to reign in their behavior. Yahweh responds quite differently, though. Yahweh sends a messenger to Eli to prophecy the outcome of Eli honoring himself and his sons more than he honors the Lord. All the members of Eli’s household will die by the sword.


While Eli and his household move further away from the will of the Lord, Samuel grows in stature and favor until one night, God comes calling. Samuel thinks it’s just Eli wanting him to perform some temple duty. “Samuel, Samuel,” God calls. Samuel runs to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” After this occurs three times, Eli, realizes it is God who is calling the boy, so he tells Samuel to go and lie down and if he hears the voice again to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”


How ironic! For the mission at hand, God does not call upon an adult candidate—not Eli—nor his sons. No. God has more faith in a child than he does in them. It seems that God is not looking for experience or privilege. God is looking for an open heart—a vessel through which the word of God may be delivered. God will make a way where there seems to be no way. Such is the way of God.


Fast forward through time. God sends priests and prophets and kings to turn God’s chosen people back to the way of God—the way of steadfast love—the way of being a blessed people who will bless the nations. That does not happen. Instead, the people continue to make their own path. They choose other gods. They mistreat one another and fail to follow God’s laws of love. Until, once again, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread.


But then, one night, the cry of a newborn baby is heard, and angels sing, and shepherds leave their flock to see for themselves—how God is, once again, making a way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, enters human history to right the wrongs than have been done, to give hope to the hopeless, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. Sadly, his way is not met with open arms. Instead, there is skepticism, and doubt, and anger. Ultimately, the more Jesus acts like the God who sent him, the more the religious rulers want to kill him—which is exactly what happens in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.


Here, we find a two-part confrontation, a two-part wrestling match between Jesus and the Pharisees. First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on a Sabbath. (Minding their own business, we might say.) When they get hungry, they pluck some grain to munch on. The Pharisees pounce—inquiring of Jesus why they are breaking the Sabbath law. But Jesus tells them that humankind was not made for the Sabbath; Sabbath was made for humankind. In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a gift, a blessing, a day of rest—for one’s household, for one’s servants, even for one’s animals. Constant work enslaves us to our own efforts. It was true then. It is still true today.


The Pharisees are enslaved to something other than the Sabbath, though. They are enslaved by their own understanding of a set of rules and regulations—rules and regulations that mean more to them than the Sabbath—rules and regulations that mean even more to them than compassion and mercy and love. So, on another Sabbath, when Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand, sadly, the Pharisees’ actions are hardly a surprise. Jesus knows full well he is being watched. Regardless, he calls the man forth and asks the Pharisees if it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill. They refuse to answer. Heartbroken and angry, Jesus restores the man’s hand. And what do the religious leaders do? Well, they go out and immediately conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. I suppose, to them, healing is not an acceptable activity for keeping the Sabbath holy—but plotting a murder is just fine.


Undeniably, we have little trouble making the Pharisees out to be evil. I mean, it’s so easy to consider their unreasonable behavior and side with the “good guy,” who usually turns out to be Jesus. But by hastily doing so, we may miss a golden opportunity for spiritual growth. For the truth is, these Pharisees are likely good people (though somewhat misguided) who are trying to preserve their laws, rituals, and traditions—things that mediate their faith for them. And isn’t it true that we are prone to behave in similar fashion when our favorite worship practices are threatened, or when someone interprets a Scripture passage much differently than we do, or when some preacher comes in who has a proclivity for trying something new—AGAIN?


The Pharisees are not wrong to uphold the Sabbath. They are wrong to allow their definition of keeping the Sabbath rightly to override the greater law of love. Nothing is more sacred than God’s love. The true spirit of the Sabbath is the spirit of love. Love that looks upon a man with a withered hand and gives thanks when he is healed—no matter what day of the week it is. Love that makes a way where there seems to be no way.


Which brings us back to the place where we began in Mark’s gospel—with Jesus and his disciples making their way through the grain fields; plucking off heads of grain to feed their growling stomachs. In other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that it is acceptable for a traveler to pick and eat if they find themselves hungry. So, plucking and eating on the Sabbath may not really be the issue. The real issue may be that they are “making a way” for it is against sabbath rules to make a road. Yet, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the fields, forging a path, trampling wheat, making a way. And Jesus and his followers, well, they are just getting started. They will make their way to healing more people, setting more crooked paths straight. They will create a path where there is food aplenty. They will make their way to abundant life—for themselves and for all people. They will bring forth a time when healing and visions and a word from God are common—rather than rare. Through Jesus, Yahweh forges a path—a path of love. Jesus’ way is always the way of love and Jesus comes to show the religious rulers and all people how to live in love—how to choose love.


On the Sabbath and on every other day of the week, we are given choices to make. Will we choose love, or will we choose our own selfish desires? Will we stick to our own understanding, or will we be open to God giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear? Every day, we choose. What is the path we are making for our life? Are we dining from the Table of the Lord? Are we growing in kindness and steadfast love?  Or are we sticking to a set of rules and regulations that always make us out to be the good guy whenever someone disagrees with us? Are we intentional about keeping the Sabbath as a holy day—to worship and rest and spend time with family and friends? Or is it just another day of doing and grabbing and getting? On the Sabbath and on the other six days of the week, we have choices to make.


God called Samuel—a boy. God wasn’t looking for the experienced, the privileged, the all-knowing. God was searching for an open heart—a vessel through which God’s love might be delivered. Samuel was such a vessel. Christ was such a vessel. And you—you who have been baptized into the family of faith—you who are indwelled by God’s own Spirit—you are such a vessel. Go forth and make a way in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


*Cover Art “Heaven’s Highway” by Stushie; Used by subscription.


A Whole God for the Whole World

A Whole God for the Whole World

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17



Some years ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to bring us the Indiana Jones trilogy, beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Do you remember the hero in the movies—Indiana Jones?  Played by Harrison Ford, he was a courageous, somewhat single-minded archaeologist. Whether Indy was on a quest to obtain the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, the adventure was sure to have many obstacles—crypts full of mice, underground caves and castles brimming with snakes not to mention narrow escapes from enemies aplenty! Danger was everywhere, but in the end, the treasure was found—usually bathed in a mystical light.


Today is Trinity Sunday, or “God Sunday,” and preparing to preach about the Trinity is much like going on an archaeological dig with Indy. There are obstacles and danger aplenty. Yet, if we are brave, we may bypass what hinders us and reach the sacred treasure of a deeper understanding of the Trinity—a deeper understanding of God.


What is it that makes preaching about the Trinity so difficult?  First, for a church that generally follows the lectionary, this is the only day of the year that calls us to examine a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. No doubt, our reading from Romans reflects the Three-in-One doctrine, but it is biblical support for a word (Trinity) that cannot be found in Scripture.


Second, how can we mere mortals even attempt to explain the mystery of God?  Gregory Nazianzen says to speak of the Godhead is like crossing the ocean on a raft.  Augustine, one of the greatest minds of the western world, wrote about the Trinity. It took a decade and 15 books.


Third, how important is it for us to explain the mystery of God, anyway—God revealed in three distinct ways: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Mysteries explained cease to be mysteries, right? The truth is God’s ways boggle our minds. And, we don’t need to try to explain all the mysteries of God—as if we could!  But we do need to explain, in faithful and articulate language, what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. For many Christians, the language of the Trinity has been a useful tool for doing just that.  It’s how the doctrine of the Trinity began in the first place.


Although the term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the 3rd century, there were hints before then. Take our scripture passage from Romans, for example, in which Paul notes our connection to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here, and in other places in Scripture, building blocks were formed from which the historic doctrine of the Trinity was crafted. We experienced God’s extravagant Triune Love, and as a result, we naturally started speaking of God as Trinity. It was the same God that we had experienced as the Creator of the world, the Father of Israel.  Now we experienced God in the flesh as Son, and as the power flowing from God—the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity began as a way to give words to our faith. The early Christians, living in a hostile world, needed to find some definitive language to express what they believed Christ had revealed to them. For the sake of unity, they needed a common language, a common confession.


This is still helpful for us today.  As Christians, we claim that there is one God—in three Persons—all of the same substance, the God-substance. We worship a God who is still creating among us, who has redeemed us through Jesus Christ, and who works among us through the Holy Spirit. God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.


William Willimon recommends that we think of the Bible as a long story of God’s attempted conversation with humanity. We keep rejecting God’s words. We keep turning away. We worship false gods. We run, and we hide.  But this doesn’t stop God. God keeps coming back to us. God comes to us in the lives of the patriarchs, the prophets, in the gift of God’s law. Then, stopping at nothing, God comes to us as the Son, comes to us as Jesus. Then, even when we kill his Son, hang him on a cruel cross, thinking that probably ends relations between us and God, in three days, God comes back to us as the risen Christ. God keeps coming back, again, and again.


But here is where it can get a little messy. Our theology—what we perceive to be true about God—can become hazy—so much so, communicating it to others can cause more harm than good. Allow me to offer an illustration. Once upon a time there was a boy who attended a revival. He had been going to church all his life, but this night he heard something new. The preacher placed a dirty glass on the pulpit and said, “This is you, all dirty and sinful inside and out.” Then he raised a hammer and said, “And this is God in his righteousness and God’s justice can only be satisfied by punishing and destroying sin in the world.” Then the preacher slowly drew back the hammer to make the deadly blow, but a miracle happened. At the last moment, he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck the pan with a crash. The preacher held up the glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other and said, “Jesus died for your sins. He took the punishment that should have been yours and by doing so, he satisfied God’s righteousness.”


The boy couldn’t sleep that night. (Imagine that!) After thinking about what he had seen and heard he decided he could not love a God like that. He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him, but that hammer-swinging God—no way!  Other thoughts troubled the boy. Was it right for Jesus to be punished for what other people had done?  And what good had it all done in the end since the glass was still just a dirty glass?


Now we sense that there’s something wrong with this theology—but what is it?  Is this a picture of the whole God who loves the whole world?  The illustration comes from Shirley Guthrie’s book, Christian Doctrine. In it, Guthrie continues by providing a clearer picture of God the Father and God the Son, in regard to the doctrine of atonement. He begins by acknowledging how painful it is to imagine God as a wrathful God demanding a blood sacrifice for our sins. The picture he paints is of God as the Judge who looks over the bench and pronounces the death sentence, but the death of Christ for us means that this same Judge comes around to the other side of the bench to accept the sentence on behalf of those who deserve it—on behalf of us. The Judge rules that the debt must be paid—then the Judge pays the debt. To complete the picture of the Trinity on this God Sunday, this same Judge leaves the courtroom with us to lead us to abundant life—now and forevermore.


This is the extravagance of God—this overflowing quality of God. Everything in creation screams the extravagance of God. Not one kind of flower—thousands of flowers.  Not one star—millions of stars. Though God is often beyond our understanding, historically, it has been through the Trinity that the church has spoken of this extravagant God who loves us beyond our imaginings.


Over the years, the Trinity has been expressed in many ways:  as water that may be present as a liquid, a solid, or a gas; as an apple that consists of the peel, the flesh and the core—yet all is of the same apple.  Also, the Trinity may be expressed as a circle where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in community with one another—interacting with one another—the Father giving to the Son, the Son offering praise to the Father and the Holy Spirit constantly drawing everything back to the Father and the Son. Within this community, we are invited to experience the flow of God’s endless love.


No doubt, the doctrine of the trinity is complex—feels a bit like going on an archaeological dig with Indiana Jones with obstacles and danger aplenty. But it’s worth the effort. Eugene Peterson proposes that using “Trinity” language can help us keep our conversations of Christian life personal and focused. For as the Christian community, we are people called into a personal experience in personal terms of love and forgiveness and hope. Everything about us—our worshiping and learning, talking and listening, teaching and preaching, obeying and deciding, working and playing, eating and sleeping—everything takes place in the presence and among the operations of our Triune God.[i]


In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” What an incredible picture of our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!


God the Father made you.

God the Son redeemed you.

God the Spirit empowers you.

This is the good news that is ours to share.

A whole God—for the whole world!


[i] Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

*Cover Art “Trinity” Andrei Rublev; Public Domain

The Breeze Remains

The Breeze Remains

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 20, 2018

Day of Pentecost

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21


For weeks I’ve been searching for a guest speaker to deliver our Pentecost message. Neither Peter, Paul, nor Mary was available. However, Joanna, a witness to the resurrection mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, has accepted the invitation to come and share her story.

<Put on head covering>


Shalom and thank you for allowing me to be with you this morning—crossing time, space, culture, and all that implies. Oh, do I have a story to tell you—a story of wind and spirit and hope! Where shall I begin? How about long, long, ago, sitting at the feet of my father. As a little Jewish girl, I adored my father. So did everyone else because my father was a great storyteller. He had a love for our Hebrew Scripture and he had a dramatic flair that could make the old stories come to life. I think, tucked away in his heart, he had every tale of our people. Although I loved all the stories, nothing held my attention like Yahweh directing Ezekiel to prophecy to the dry bones.


A little background is in order. This story is set at a time when disaster had fallen on Israel. Because of the unfaithfulness of my people, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The traumatized survivors, who witnessed the massacre of loved ones, were taken into captivity. Ezekiel was among them. In Babylon, Ezekiel the priest became Ezekiel the prophet to the exiles. The people were dejected. They had lost all hope. The Temple, the home of the Presence of God had been destroyed. What of the spiritual life now?


In retrospect, the truth is my ancestors had developed a pattern in their behavior toward God. In times of desperation, they cried out to God and God heard them and came to their assistance. For a while, my people worshiped God and obeyed God, but after a while, they forgot God’s goodness and God’s laws and returned to their own stubborn ways. Essentially, they thought they could handle God, manage God, call upon God like a genie in a bottle and all their wishes would come true. But Yahweh would have none of it. The destruction of the nation, the city, the Temple—well, it was inevitable.


It is into this dark, hopeless place that God sent Ezekiel, setting him down into a valley of dry bones. My father would tell this story with such energy and enthusiasm. I can hear his voice even now:


Our people had given up saying, “All is lost. We are dead.” But Yahweh was not finished with Israel. God said, “No! There is still hope.” Then Yahweh provided a demonstration. He put Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones and God said to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God…I will cause flesh to come upon you…cover you with skin…put breath in you and you shall live.’ Ezekiel prophesied and suddenly the bones began to rattle and the bones began to shake—clickety-clack—as if finding a long, lost friend, they came together, bone to bone. Then tendons appeared, and muscle and then skin that wrapped it all up, just so. Again, God spoke, telling Ezekiel to prophecy to the breath and say, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these…that they might live.” Ezekiel did as he was told and the breath, the wind, the spirit, the ruah came upon them and they lived and they stood at attention.


What a wondrous scene—a prophecy and a promise of things to come for the people of Israel—for the people of God. To be sure, all hope was not lost. I remember my father saying that in another place Ezekiel spoke these prophetic words of God: “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you…and you shall be my people and I shall be your God.”[i]


I grew up hearing stories like these but how could I know that they would one day become my story and that I would witness their fulfillment when God’s holiness came to dwell among mere mortals? From the first time I saw Jesus, hope began to grow in my heart. I watched Jesus change lives, heal the sick, feed the hungry, work miracle after miracle. He walked the streets of Galilee and Nazareth and Jerusalem. Everywhere he went people flocked to him. People began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the dry bones of God’s people might rise again. However, many could not accept this humble king of kings. They wanted another kind of ruler—one who would give power to the powerless with a shield and a sword. But Jesus refused to bow to their limited understanding. Jesus had another plan—a plan for all people—a plan provided by his Abba Father. Looking back, it was inevitable that Jesus, the humble Son of God, would be silenced. The rulers of the world were not ready for his message. Would they ever be?


I was there. I saw my Savior hanging on a cross and, like everyone around me, I thought it was the end. But God had other plans. God—who will not be managed—managed to breathe life into his Son once more. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? A new day dawned when on that morning, I, along with Mary Magdalene and other women arrived at the tomb to find it empty. Empty! And then Jesus appeared—alive and well. He walked among his followers and spent time with us. But soon, too soon, he told us he must return to his Abba Father’s side.


Beforehand, he gave us instructions to wait to be clothed with power from on high. Even though we didn’t really know what he meant—we waited. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, there was some business to take care of. Matthias was chosen to replace Judas, and the disciples—representing the tribes of Israel—once more numbered 12.


Before we knew it, the Jewish festival of Pentecost was upon us. In our tradition, on Pentecost we remembered the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai so there were people from every land wandering throughout the city. Those of us who were followers of Jesus were all together in one place. Then, suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And the wind, the spirit, the ruah ripped through the house. Divided tongues like flames of fire rested upon each one of us. We were glowing with the Spirit of God and we began to speak in languages we did not know! It was like a roll call of nations that symbolized how God’s Spirit would be for the whole world.[ii]


Devout Jews heard the commotion and came to investigate. In their own language, they heard the gospel message of God’s wonder-working power. They were amazed. They were perplexed. Some even claimed: “They’re drunk, that’s what this is!” But it wasn’t true. Oh, we were drunk, all right, but not on wine from the earth’s bounty. We were drunk from the heavenly wind that swept through us, giving life to dry, weary bones.


Peter jumped up, raised his voice, and proclaimed to the people gathered around that this was nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken long ago from the lips of the prophet, Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”


The Holy Spirit rushed in and changed everything. The Temple of the Lord now came to dwell in the heart of every believer—man, woman, child. No more class, race, or gender distinctions! Radical equality in the making! The church was born! What a day of celebration!


There are those who criticize the church today, saying that if the church was obedient to the will of God, every day would be like that day. But it isn’t so. The Spirit moved and changed the world with thousands added to our number. It was the beginning of God’s presence in the world in a new way. But God is still present, and God’s good work will continue through the church until Christ returns in all his glory. These days, the wind may not be so thunderous, so earth shaking, but the breeze of the Spirit remains.


Churches, small and large alike, can still impact their communities and their world for Christ. Some people have given up hope saying that churches are no more than dry bones. It isn’t so! Here in this church and in churches throughout the world, faithful people continue to work on behalf of God’s kingdom. It’s what you do with every prayer, with every act of kindness, with every act of love. Every time you share with someone what a difference God has made in your life, you proclaim the salvation story again.


The church must continue thinking wondrous thoughts and dreaming marvelous dreams. God is a nudging, urging, moving, creating God. To what new work might God be calling your church? To what new work might God be calling you? Watch for it. Wait for it. And when you feel the Spirit move—have courage and ride the wind wherever it leads. You never know! Those old bones may begin to rattle and those old bones may begin to shake and the four winds may blow and the breath, the spirit, the ruah may give you new words to say and new works to do that prove to this old world—the Temple of the Lord has come to dwell in the heart of every believer! Hallelujah! Amen!

[i] Ezekiel 36:26, 28, NRSV.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 4.

*Cover Art © Stushie Art; used with subscription


God the Gardener

God the Gardener

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8


Guinn and Janice Hollingshead, Kinney’s parents, were incredible gardeners. Honestly, I think they could have brought dead twigs back to life. When they retired, gardening became the task that drove them from sunrise to sunset. Rose gardens, flower gardens, an herb garden, a vegetable garden—everything was neat and tidy—hardly a weed in sight. They even had holding beds of plants that they would relocate at the perfect time to assure there was always something blooming on the front lawn for visitors to enjoy.


Gardening was Guinn and Janice’s passion. It is a passion of God’s as well. God the Gardener, God the Vinedresser—these are images of God that are woven throughout Hebrew Scripture. And Israel is often likened to God’s chosen vine. In a covenant made with Abraham, promises are made. God keeps them. Israel does not. God’s chosen vine repeatedly disobeys and disappoints—refusing to allow the Master Gardener to lead, guide, and direct. Judges warn of God’s pruning hand. Prophets offer reminders of what God requires: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[i] But the people refuse to listen. All seems lost until, in God’s good time, a new vine is planted—Jesus. Jesus will not disappoint but will humbly bow to the will of his Abba Father’s hand. He will remain faithful to the Master Gardener to the end, which, of course, will be only the beginning.


Our Gospel reading for today gives us the last I AM statement Jesus makes to his disciples: “I AM the true vine, and my father is the vine grower…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” As one commentator puts it, Jesus makes clear he is not God, but he is intimately connected to God. Without God, even Jesus recognizes, he has “no life, no ministry, and no mission.”[ii] God is the vine grower…Jesus is the vine…we are the branches. Herein, we are offered an invitation to examine our lives and consider whether we are abiding in Christ—for abiding is our one duty. If we obey, then the fruit will grow of its own accord.


But what does it mean to abide? It means to remain, to stay, to live, to dwell. In remaining close to Jesus, the vine, a kind of abiding in God occurs that results in shalom—peace, wholeness, health. As the church, by abiding in Jesus, we become woven into the texture of one another’s lives. Obviously, we come to the church as individuals. I haven’t had your life experiences. You haven’t had mine. Yet here we are, branches, learning day by day to live and grow together. Too often though, people approach the church with one question in mind, “What can this church do for me?” without ever asking the follow-up question, “And how might I contribute to this community?”


For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is all about community—a community characterized by living in love and bearing the fruit of love—a community characterized by interconnection and interdependence. In the words of an African proverb, “Because we are, I am.” Only by abiding in Jesus and growing together can we become a community that produces a bountiful harvest—a bountiful harvest for God, the Vine-grower. For in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s about bringing glory to the Gardener as we abide in Jesus and grow more and more into his likeness.

While it is our work to abide, it is the vine grower’s job to prune; to cleanse; to cast off the dead wood. But the idea of being pruned, cut back, or made to grow in a direction not of our own choosing seems harsh. We don’t want to be cut back. We don’t want to be pruned.


Years ago, Kinney’s parents gave us two Rose of Sharon shrubs. Although they started out small, in time they began to bloom, profusely. The blossoms would appear in June and remain throughout most of the summer. One lovely fall day Kinney decided to prune the Rose of Sharon shrubs. I didn’t think much about it—but I should have. You know where this is going, don’t you? A little while later, I walked out the back door to find my two lovely Rose of Sharon shrubs cut nearly to the ground—the forsythia, too. Needless to say, Kinney does not “prune” much anymore. In fact, one year when we were making plans to vacation in Tennessee, our oldest son, Samuel, texted: “Mom, don’t worry. I am pruning the shrubbery before you arrive!”


But even when pruning is done correctly, the process often leaves vines, shrubs, or trees looking a bit forlorn. Yet those who know a lot about vineyards say that the sweetest fruit is found near the root of the plant, where the nutrients are most concentrated. Pruning focuses the growth of the vine to where it needs to be, close to its life-source. And while pruning is necessary for plant health, it’s necessary for our spiritual health, too. Jesus says to those who follow him, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” Then he continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” The pruning tool of the Father-vine grower is the word. When this word shapes us, the result is a life that produces good fruit in abundance.[iii]


But notice, by the grace of God, we don’t bear fruit on our own. Kinney’s mom and dad’s vegetables didn’t plant themselves or make themselves grow. Neither can we make ourselves bear fruit. We are unable to muster up the energy and power alone. Instead, we are to remain close to Jesus and allow our Source of strength to bring forth fruit through us. This is how we, the branches, will bear fruit that will bless others, fruit that will show the world what a community built on love really looks like!


John’s Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” These words describe Jesus, who invites us to abide in him. Oh, the mystery of God’s love. Jesus calls us close. He calls us to be honest with him, with ourselves, and with one another. In the presence of Christ, we can learn to dwell—sharing our hopes and fears, our dreams and disappointments, our successes and failures. Jesus, the Son of God, reveals to us the deep love the Father has for this world. And because of his love and acceptance of us, we can love and accept one another, knowing that we are all imperfect and yet, beloved.


Jesus, the True Vine, calls us to abundant life that is made possible because of his obedient sacrifice. Remember his words on that last night in the Upper Room, “This is my blood, poured out for you.” At the Last Supper, the fruit of the vine became the drink poured out, representing the amazing bearing of fruit Jesus was about to accomplish. Still we gather around the table as branches to be nourished by this one True Vine. Indeed, as the church, we are a Eucharistic Community. Like Jesus, we are poured out for others. Like Jesus, we are nourished by God and equipped by the Spirit to produce a bountiful harvest.


I invite you to hear the words of Jesus once more, from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:


I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken. Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.


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

[i] Micah 6:8.

[ii] Barbara J. Essex, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2.

[iii] Joyce Ann Zimmerman, ed. at

*Cover Art “True Vine”  © Stushie; used with subscription


The Shepherd and the Wolf

The Shepherd and the Wolf

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18


“I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says, echoing Yahweh’s response to Moses at the burning bush. God’s name will be the calling card Moses uses to enter enemy territory and rescue God’s people from oppression. Tell Pharaoh, “I AM” sent you. In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers seven sets of names to help would-be followers to understand just whom they’re following. I AM the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, the vine, and, I AM the good shepherd. Each of these metaphors helps us understand the nature of God’s grace in a deeper way. “The triune grace,” writes Marva Dawn, “that rescues, restores, establishes, nourishes, indwells, enlightens, guides, protects, saves and raises us.”[i]


I AM the Good Shepherd! For those of us who have never tended sheep (and I do not think I am going out on a limb here to say that’s most of us)—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what it means to be a shepherd. Most people, on this side of the globe, have a romantic notion of the whole thing. We may imagine young David, sitting with his sheep, pulling out his mini-harp and singing lullabies to his fluffy flock. Perhaps when we think of a shepherd, what comes to mind is Jesus with a helpless lamb draped around his shoulders, caring so tenderly for it—and thereby, for us. However, the truth is being a shepherd in the 1st Century was not a warm and fuzzy affair. It was dangerous, risky, hard work. Also, keep in mind, by referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus aligned himself with the least socialized, least educated, and least polished of society. Most assuredly, the Pharisees and scribes are not lining up at the Temple University registrar office dying to take a class in “The Wonders of Wool.” One commentator claims that a modern-day equivalent of Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd,” might be, “I am the good migrant worker.”[ii] Yet, this is the image Jesus offers, for the Son of God has always been and will always be concerned about the most vulnerable in society.


If Jesus is the good shepherd, what does that make us? If we are living as we should, that makes us the dutiful sheep. Although sheep are not known for their intelligence, we need not take offense at being referred to as sheep. Truly, there are aspects of their nature that we would be wise to imitate. For example, when Barbara Brown Taylor compares the behavior of cattle to sheep, she notes that cows are herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys. On the other hand, sheep prefer to be led. In fact, if you stand behind sheep making noises, they’ll just run around behind you. Taylor writes, “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”[iii] And what are the tools of the shepherd? The shepherd uses a rod to ward off evil and a staff to snatch the sheep from danger. This is the care that the sheep depend upon so, have no doubt, they know the voice of their trusted shepherd.


Another character in this story is the hired hand; the hireling. This is someone, who is not emotionally connected to the sheep, so when danger comes, he darts off in a flash.  In the historical context, it is likely that he represents the religious leaders of the day who are not caring for God’s people as they should.


And then, there is the wolf —the big, bad wolf. It’s easy to overlook him in the story, but he bears a second glance. Listen once again to Jesus’ words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd, and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” The wolf snatches. The wolf scatters. Who is the wolf? The wolf represents anything that intentionally seeks to harm the sheep—think Satan—think the Devil—think Evil—its names are legion.


If we spend much time at all considering Satan—the Devil—Evil—we may end up at the final battle fought between good and evil as it is played out in Revelation. Let me just say, with a background in a conservative, evangelical tradition, I have heard some dreadful sermons preached from Revelation. But a dynamic Presbyterian preacher renewed my faith that good preaching from Revelation is possible. The sermon, preached by Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, focused on Revelation 12. In the text, the woman gives birth and the dragon comes after her, with tail sweeping; seeking to devour the baby. But the child is snatched away and taken to God, and the woman is protected. But the angry dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children, the rest of the children of God. With our modern-day sensibilities (being so smart and all) we have trouble taking this dragon stuff seriously. After all, Dr. Blount admitted, “There’s no such thing as a dragon…not in Rwanda, not in Baghdad…not in Somalia, not in North Korea, not in Iran…[not in Syria], NOT in the United States, not in the real world…There is no such thing as a dragon.”[iv]


And if there is no dragon threatening the world, surely there is nothing to worry about in the church. But look at the church! Dr. Blount shared that with all the gasping and heaving going on in the church, it reminded him of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point in the movie, the sunlight betrays the ghostly figure of the villain Captain Hector Barbossa and he says to the lovely Miss Elizabeth Swan, whom he has kidnapped: “You best be believin’ in ghost stories, Missy. Cause you’re in one.”[v]


Essentially, John is saying to those of us who read his Revelation: “You best be believing in dragon stories, Christian. Cause you’re in one.” It reminds me of the dangerous character alluded to in our text from the Gospel of John. Now, you might say that wolves are real, and dragons aren’t. Point taken! But they both represent evil; they both represent the powers that are eager to harm anyone who follows the Good Shepherd. So as your pastor, let me offer a word of warning, “You best be believing there are wolves, Christian, cause they are lurking about.”


With an increase in secularism, with many churches too small to even afford pastors, with a world that seems to be spinning out of control—yes, you best be believing there are wolves, Christian. Now, lest you think your pastor has had some mysterious religious experience that has left her a card-carrying Holy-Roller, take heart. It isn’t so! But I concur with C.S. Lewis who wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”[vi]


We are foolish if we think there is nothing rushing about to and fro threatening the church of Jesus Christ. But we are even more foolish if we do not recognize who has ultimate power. Five times in our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to laying down his life. Furthermore, he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”


While there are many things in the world and in our culture that threaten to undo us, there is danger inside the church, too. There is danger when we fight with one another and lose our witness to the world. There is danger when we rest on our laurels because we are convinced change is unnecessary—we have always done it this way—and this way is fine, thank you very much! There is danger when we pretend everything is okay and refuse to speak the truth in love—instead of dealing with issues that are sure to arise wherever fallen, forgiven people (aka Christians) gather.


If the church—if we—are under spiritual attack, what should we do? Well, we could start by acting like sheep, staying as close to the shepherd as we can get. We need to hear his voice, and I know of no better way to do that than to be people of fervent prayer—calling out to the shepherd and listening for the response. Now here’s where the preacher goes from preaching to meddling. Let’s stop for a moment and examine our prayer life. Are we praying for one another? When I was installed here as your pastor, you promised you would pray for me and I promised I would pray for you. How are we doing in this regard? Consistently, are we praying for the life and health of First Presbyterian Church? Are we praying that when challenges come our way, we will speak the truth in love? Are we praying to be a witness to God’s mercy and grace in this community and beyond?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will speak. He will guide. He will protect. He has the power. At the cross, Jesus did not have his life stolen from him. He offered it freely. And for what? For a bunch of clueless, helpless sheep in need of a Good Shepherd! O, that we may hear his voice and follow! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Marva J. Dawn, Gospel of John Commentary in the Life-With-God Bible, NRSV, 154.

[ii] Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 450.

[iii]Blakely, Feasting on the Word, quoting Barbara Brown Taylor, 450.

[iv] Dr. Brian Blount, “Call of Duty” preached at Seminary Sunday, Richmond VA, 4/22/12

[v] Ibid.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

*Cover Art Stained Glass Window at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, GA;

“Easter Affirmation” written by John Birch, and posted at


Easter Life

Easter Life

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 8, 2018

2nd Sunday of Easter

                          Acts 4:32-35 and John 20:19-31



Easter has come and gone. Or has it? The liturgical calendar tells us that we are now in the Season of Easter—7 weeks that conclude at Pentecost—50 days for us to examine what it means to be Easter people—what it means to live an Easter life!


Our reading from the Gospel of John occurs on the first day of the week. It is still Sunday. Earlier in the chapter, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. They run to the tomb and find that her words are true. Peter and John return to their homes, while Mary stands at the tomb weeping until Jesus appears. She only recognizes him when he speaks her name, “Mary.” Then Mary rushes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”


That same evening the disciples are in the house together. If they really believed Mary’s story it has had little impact because they are still locked behind closed doors in fear of the Jews. Then, Jesus comes among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. To prove his identity, he shows them his hands and side and then, “Peace be with you,” he says again. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, transforming them, as one commentator puts it, from those who follow (disciples) to those who are sent (apostles).[i]


They will now represent Jesus to the world. Yet, a week later, they are still behind closed doors. Not much has changed except they have told Thomas they have seen the Lord. He refuses to believe them though, going so far as to say that he will need to do more than see the wounds to believe; he will have to touch them. Into their midst, again Jesus appears offering words of peace and offering himself to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A better translation might be: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”[ii]


Down through the ages, Thomas has been stamped with the name Doubting Thomas, but who Thomas is in the story is not nearly as important as who Jesus is. Certainly, Jesus has every right to scold Thomas since he has been told repeatedly by Jesus himself that Jesus will return. At the very least, we might expect Jesus to show his disappointment in Thomas, and all the others for that matter. But that is not what Jesus does. Instead, he walks through a closed door to get to Thomas. Jesus meets Thomas where he is, and Jesus does what he does so well—he offers himself, in love.


The disciples receive the Easter message and they are called to respond to it. Just as he was sent by his Abba Father, Jesus sends them into the world to spread the good news. These are big shoes to fill. Are they up to the task? Not at first! A week after Jesus makes his resurrection known, the disciples remain paralyzed by their circumstances. They may have been called to live as Easter people, but they are not yet capable of doing so. But, in time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we know that they do.  Eventually, these same men who fell asleep when they should have been praying, who denied Jesus when they should have proclaimed him as Lord, who abandoned him when they should have clung to his side—these same men become so sure of Resurrection hope for all people, that most of them will die as martyrs because of their faith in Christ as the Risen Savior.


Today, some 2000 years later, how do we represent Jesus to the world? How do we live the Easter life? Do we live like we believe that Jesus has made all things new or do we celebrate Easter as just another holiday on the calendar? Do we live in hope or do we look at the state of the world and the state of the church and let a vocabulary of death creep in and push Easter out the door?[iii] Through the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s children. We are followers of Jesus, and even in our crazy mixed-up world, we are witnesses. We can be a witness by serving as a missionary in a far-away land or by serving the needy in Valdosta. We can teach a Sunday school class, sing in the choir, share our own experience of God’s love with someone who needs a word of hope…In large ways and small ways, we participate in God’s story of love for all people.


Erich, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, was in his early 50’s by the time I became his pastor. Soon health problems began to emerge so that he was frequently away on Sunday mornings due to an illness or a hospital stay. But when he returned—let me just say—he did so with flair. Bursting through the doorway with arms flung wide, Erich would announce at the top of his lungs, “I’m back!” You see, Erich loved church. In fact, his mother was convinced he would have been a preacher if things had been different. For Erich, being in God’s house was special, so special he insisted on wearing his suit coat and tie. Everything had to be just right and then, “I’m back!”  By his actions, he showed his heart’s yearning to be in God’s house. Erich was a witness!


Day in and day out, we have a choice to make. How will we live this Easter life? In our modern world when there are so many choices of places to be and things to do on any given Sunday morning, one radical, counter-cultural way that we can be faithful witnesses is simply to show up.[iv] Think about it! Perhaps just being here says the thing we need to say most: Gathering as a community of believers to pray and confess and hear God’s word, and worship—it matters. Just showing up matters. And if we are away for a while, returning is important! We might even return with a little flair, “I’m back!”


Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! And not only on Easter. Christ is risen every day of our lives, every day for all of eternity. We stand in a long line of saints who have proclaimed to the watching world: “Jesus has made a difference in my life and he can make a difference in yours, too. There is hope! Come and see!”


One week after his resurrection, Jesus meets Thomas where he is and provides what he needs. Neither Thomas’ skepticism nor the closed door can keep Jesus out. Finally, when Thomas recognizes him and proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who will come to believe down through the ages. He pronounces a blessing upon us. Through God’s grace we have accepted the Easter message as true: Jesus has been raised from the dead and now life can be lived—not in fear—but in joy because nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.


It is a messy world we live in. Wars continue; the global economy shifts from day to day, and the future of our young people causes us concern. Yet, there is hope if we take up the mantle handed to us and continue to love in the name of Jesus. As representatives of Jesus to the world, we are called to live an Easter life! And, by the power of the Holy Spirit, living an Easter life transforms us—inspires us.


Joseph T. Nolan has written a poem that speaks of the hope Christ planted in our hearts with his words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”


We have not seen…and we believe

We believe in God whom we do not see

because of Jesus who was seen

and people who live by his Spirit.


We believe in God whom we do not see

because of truth and beauty,

love, goodness, and integrity,

which makes the divine a part of human life.


We believe in the Spirit we cannot see

because we see the Creator Spirit

at work in our lives

and hear the Spirit’s voice in our silence.


We believe in the earth and its people

in spite of the evil we see

because we have shared their goodness.


We believe in the church we see

with its saints and sinners

because it has given us the Word

and gathered us in the breaking of bread.


We believe in a providence we do not always see

because God made us,

and here we are,

with [countless] years behind us.


We believe in the resurrection

in spite of the death we see

because we have been raised up many times,

and passed from death to life.


We believe in God whom we do not see

because of the One who said,

“He who sees me sees the Father.”


We have seen him in our humanity,

in his risen body,

and we believe. [v]


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

[i] Ibid, D. Cameron Murchison, 402.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.2, Beverly Roberts Gaventa

[iii] Feasting on the Word, Gail R. O’Day, 405

[iv] A prophetic word shared by Father David Teschner during Lectionary Group

[v] Joseph T. Nolan, Let the Earth Rejoice: Scripture, Prayers and Poems for the More Abundant Life, Thomas More Publishing, 2002, pp.23-24.

*Cover Art “Christ Shows Himself to Thomas” by Rowan and Irene LeCompte from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

The Risen Son

The Risen Son

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018

Resurrection Sunday

Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8


Without a doubt, the most challenging sermon to preach in the entire Christian year is the one preached Easter Sunday. For one thing, because the message is critical to our Christian story, there is a lot of pressure to tell it rightly. For another, Easter tends to draw all sorts of people into the church—those who have heard the story a thousand times; those who have seldom heard it; even those who have never heard it. Yes, this is an important day in the life of God’s people. With so much hanging in the balance, maybe the best approach is the KISS method—you know, “Keep it Simple, Silly.” Using the KISS method, then, it seems to me the pressure is off because the simplest and the most important words have already been spoken: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” With these words still hanging in the air, then, I guess my work is done. Happy Easter! (With hands raised in blessing, start to leave the pulpit.)


April Fool!


Isn’t it bizarre that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year? On the other hand, maybe there is no better pairing. After all, the joke is on Satan, the joke is on Evil, the joke is on Death. In her book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner writes:


Jesus’ crucifixion was layered with…irony—calling Him king, clothing Him in mock-royal garb. But if Jesus’ elevation was mocked by the Roman [authorities], that very mocking was in turn undone by the resurrection. It was not the Romans who had the last laugh.[i]


It was not the Romans who had the last laugh. It was not the religious leaders who had the last laugh. It was God! For with the rising of God’s Son, Christ was victorious and through him, abundant life is available to all of us for all time! Therefore, in a host of different languages, today the greeting resounds around the world: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”  Easter marks the beginning of Christianity. Without Easter, there would be no Gospel; no Good News to proclaim. Without Easter there would be no reason for us to be here this morning in this church—there would be no church—and all would be lost.


All seemed lost that first Easter morn, when Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome headed out to tend to the body of their Lord. These same women, along with others, had looked on from a distance that Friday that seemed anything but good. They had watched while all their hopes and dreams of new life were nailed to a cross!   In 1st Century Palestine, it naturally fell to women to care for the bodies of the deceased. So, after the Sabbath, they rose with the sun, to perform the natural only to be met with the supernatural.


Imagine their distress, when they entered the tomb and were greeted by a young man, dressed in white, who said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End!


The End? What’s this? Another April Fool’s joke? Surely there’s more to the story. Surely Mark doesn’t mean to leave us hanging with a resurrection scene minus Jesus, minus the disciples, minus Peter.  Well, if we look carefully at our Bibles, we notice that not one, but two additional endings have been supplied—a shorter one and a longer one. How strange—we have choices!


Do you remember the children’s book series “Choose Your Own Adventure”? My children loved them. They were more than books—they were games. The books were designed to allow the reader to select different actions for the characters. For example, if the reader wanted to go in one direction, he might have the option to leave page 7 and resume the story on page 11. If another action was preferred, page 19 might be the better place to continue. The creator of the book series came up with the idea while telling bedtime stories to his daughters about this character named Pete, who had wild and fun adventures. But one night, the father ran out of ideas, so he asked his daughters, “What should happen next?” With enthusiasm, they came up with different paths for the story to take…and thus, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” was born.[ii]


I wonder if that’s what happened with the ending of Mark. Maybe one monk, and then, later, another, encountered the ending and thought it to be a terrible way for the adventure to conclude—with no resurrected Jesus, no disciples, no Peter… Surely the REAL ending was lost, surely the REAL ending went a little like this…. Regardless of how it transpired, Mark 16:8 is widely considered to be the end of Mark’s gospel: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”


If we allow this conclusion to stand on its own, we may find that instead of an incomplete ending, it provides the perfect beginning. In her commentary on Mark, Kimberly Clayton Richter points out two major themes woven throughout this gospel.[iii] First is the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of God, who preaches, teaches, heals, and loves all people. He embodies the authority and power of his Abba Father. Jesus embodies that which the powers of the world will stop at nothing to silence!


The second major theme relates to the disciples. At first, they act like models of faithfulness, dropping everything to follow Jesus. But repeatedly, they are portrayed as fellows who just do not get it. They misunderstand; they doubt; they are filled with fear. And even though Jesus speaks of suffering and of being last and least, his disciples want to know which of them is the greatest, and who will sit on his right and his left in glory. They fall asleep when he needs them most. By the end of the gospel, one of them has betrayed Jesus, one has denied him, and all have fallen away.


Surprisingly, in Mark’s telling, it is the women who are portrayed as “getting it” more times than not. Yet, the women witness the empty tomb only to run away in fear and tell no one! So, the dilemma is this: Who will go and who will tell? Only the reader is left! Thus, Mark’s ending sends us back to the beginning of the story to re-read Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”


WE are left to share the good news and continue the mission of Christ in the world. Along the way, like the disciples, we may doubt. We may fear taking up our cross and following Jesus. Often, we will prefer glory to suffering. Instead of watching and praying, we may fall asleep. Nevertheless, it falls upon our shoulders to receive and believe Jesus’ resurrection promise: “He is going ahead of us. We will see him.”[iv]


Where do we expect to see Jesus, the Risen Son? At home, at work, at school? Do we expect to see Jesus in the faces of loved ones AND strangers? Do we expect to find Jesus in the baptismal waters; in the spiritual food provided at the Table he has set for us all? Where do we expect to see Jesus? If we look, we will see him. For no matter where we go, Jesus is already there. He has gone ahead of us!


On that first Easter morning, the women knew that the sun God placed in the sky had risen; they knew because of the light it provided for their trek to the tomb. They would soon learn that God’s only begotten Son had also risen—risen to be Light for the world! Hallelujah! The Son is risen and on this day around the world, in a host of different languages, the greeting rises from the midst of God’s people—Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

[i] Lauren Winner, Wearing God, 198.


[iii] Mark Commentary, The Life with God Bible, NRSV, Kimberly Clayton Richter, 62-63.

[iv] Ibid, Richter.

*Cover Art “Christ is Risen” ©Stushie Art; Subscription


“A Different Pace”

A Different Pace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

Psalm 118; Mark 11:1-11


Recently, I’ve been rushing through life too quickly.  I know this because—well, because several of you have told me so. Take, for example, Jesse Spencer who, at our last Session meeting, said something like: “You mean we aren’t having something special EVERY day of Holy Week,” or Bart Greer’s suggestion that I not only rest up for Holy Week but that I also be sure to take my vitamins. And if your comments haven’t been enough to get my attention, there have been other signs—like the fact that I forgot to text Sissy Almand as soon as I arrived at the office Tuesday—something I assured her I would do. I remembered at 5:30 that evening when I was getting ready for Tuesdays at the Table. Oops!  Yes, I admit it. I’ve been rushing through my life too quickly.  It is a common refrain though, isn’t it?  How often we walk through our days—“run” might be a better term—and in all our rush and hurry we miss the signs.  In our urgency, we can, in fact, miss life.


As you may have heard me say before, one of the most frequently used phrases in the Gospel of Mark is “kai euthos” which is translated in the NRSV as “and immediately.”  There’s a sense of movement and urgency as Jesus goes from place to place. Looking back over the first 10 chapters of Mark we find: The Spirit immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness; As Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus immediately calls Simon, Andrew, James and his brother, John and they follow him; When a leper begs for healing, Jesus touches him and immediately he is made clean; When Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the sabbath, the Pharisees go out and immediately conspire against him; When the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years touches the cloak of Jesus, immediately she is healed and immediately Jesus is aware of it; When Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John and they come down from the mountain, the crowd sees Jesus and they are immediately overcome with awe.


All this motion, all this urgency, brings us to our text today —which happens to include the phrase “and immediately” twice.  Yet it is a phrase that will be used seldom in the remaining six chapters of Mark because with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, things slow down. Mark alters the pace for us to accompany Jesus slowly and intentionally through his last days—days we call Holy Week. Truly, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, our gospel reading invites us, entices us, begs us to slow down enough to really be present for this week of events that will change the world—that will change us—if we only let them.


Those of you who attend the First Friday Contemplative Service are familiar with Lectio Divina.  Lectio Divina (Latin for “Sacred Reading”) is an ancient practice in which a small section of Scripture is read, pondered, and prayed over—allowing time for the Holy Spirit to reveal new understanding. The process is sometimes described as ruminating over Scripture much like a cow chews cud.  The reader reads the same short passage over several times, perhaps aloud, allowing for quiet moments of reflection in between the readings.  Another approach is to read the passage several times but to imagine, each time, that you are a different person in the scene.


While preparing this sermon, I was struck by how our gospel reading lends itself to the practice of Lectio Divina, especially if imagine ourselves in the story—playing different roles, different parts.  So I invite you to sit with me for a while to ruminate over Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.


While we hear verses 1-9 again, let us imagine we are one of the disciples who has been instructed to fetch the donkey. Following the reading, we will have a moment of silence and then share with one another.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that had never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

[Silence & Sharing: What was it like to be asked to fetch the donkey? Would you have preferred something more glamorous? Did it make you uneasy? Has Jesus ever asked you to do something that made you feel uneasy?]

Although not named in the text, we might consider the owner of the donkey.  Let us imagine we are the owner.  Following this second reading, again we will keep silence and then share our experience with one another.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

[Silence & Sharing: How did it feel to have something Jesus needs? Isn’t it true that we all have a donkey? We all have something Jesus needs to build up his kingdom here on the earth.]

Now let us imagine we are in the scene as the “many people.”  Eager to praise this king, we throw our cloak on the road. Perhaps we race into the field to cut down branches. Perhaps we have nothing to offer but our voice, so we shout, “Hosanna, Hosanna!” I invite you to hear the reading once more.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

[Silence & Sharing: What did you do as Jesus passed by? How did you participate in the story? While these people shout “Hosanna” today, what will they shout when Friday comes?]

With the practice of Lectio Divina, we approach Scripture slowly and reverently.  It is, in fact, the way we might approach this entire week—this week we call Holy.  Maybe this is the best week to slow down enough to experience what God has in store—through prayer and Scripture reading, through one of the options available here at the church this week—like Tuesdays at the Table, walking the labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, or participating in the Maundy Thursday meal and Tenebrae Service. With the celebration of Palm Sunday, our Gospel reading invites us, entices us, begs us to slow down enough to really be present for this week of events that will change the world—that will change us—if we only let them.

*Cover Art “Where the Way Leads” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription

Death on a Pole

Death on a Pole

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 11, 2018

4th Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21


Do you have any family secrets?  Has an uncle been caught selling moonshine in the mountains of North Georgia or has some distant cousin been arrested for something shady?  Most of us have a skeleton or two in the closet—some dirty laundry we would prefer to keep tucked away.  But in today’s gospel reading, instead of safely keeping family secrets, Jesus chooses to air some of his family’s dirty laundry.  We happen upon Jesus in the midst of a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  If we back up a few verses, we learn that Nicodemus, who comes in the cover of night, says to Jesus, “We know you are a teacher.  We know you have come from God.”  Jesus quickly shows Nicodemus how little he really knows.  Jesus speaks of salvation, the kingdom of God, being born of water and the Spirit, being born from above.  Nicodemus fails to understand. And it is a bit amusing when Jesus uses Nicodemus’ own words against him, “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen…” Then Jesus reaches back into the history of his own people and drags out a bit of dirty laundry. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”


A serpent lifted up?  What is the significance of this ancient tale Jesus resurrects from the Hebrew Scriptures?  Let’s take a closer look. In Numbers, the plight of the Israelites is recorded. The people of Israel flee from Egypt under the direction of Yahweh. For sustenance, God offers manna from the heavens and water—even in a dry, barren land. Although God provides, the people grumble and complain. Because the Israelite’s are unable to have faith in God, they are eventually condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. No, this generation will not enter the Promised Land.


Just prior to the reading from Numbers, the Israelites reach Kadesh.  Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom requesting permission to travel on the King’s Highway, an old caravan route, but the king refuses to allow them passage. So, they must travel along the western border of Edom, a more treacherous path. With each step, the people grow more frustrated and impatient, and they speak out against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out here in the desert to die?  There’s no food, no water.  By the way, we hate this miserable food!”


God hears their grumbling, gets angry, and sends poisonous snakes to afflict them. (Interestingly, the word “poisonous” literally means “fiery,” a vivid description both of God’s anger and of the painful experience of being bitten.)  What the people of Israel fear most—death—comes to pass. They realize “they’ve done it now” so they run to Moses.  “Help us.  We’ve sinned.  Pray for us so that Yahweh will take away the snakes.”  So, Moses prays for the people and Yahweh answers, but the answer comes in a most unexpected fashion. God tells Moses to make a bronze image of a snake and place it on a high pole. Moses obeys. “When anyone is bitten and looks at the image,” the Lord says, “they will live.”  Looking and believing—the people are saved.


God takes the instrument of death—the serpent—and has Moses place it on a pole for everyone to see.  Death on a pole!  God takes something bad—the worst fear of the people—death—and out of it, brings something good—life, salvation. But humans, well, we are prone to do the exact opposite. We tend to take something good and make something bad of it, which is exactly what the Israelites do a few centuries later. In Second Kings we find that Moses’ bronze serpent (or perhaps a replica of it) is still a part of Israel’s worship.  But King Hezekiah, as part of his reform, must destroy the serpent on the pole because the people come to the temple to worship—you guessed it—the pole! They worship the pole God provided instead of the God who provided the pole.


The whole thing sounds like dirty laundry, doesn’t it?  I imagine anthropologists would have a field day with this story. Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole!  They would flip open their notebooks and chalk it all up to a talisman, a good luck charm.  “Such things are used in primitive cultures,” they might write, “to ward off plagues and evil spirits.”  Yet, it was Yahweh who introduced this “talisman!”  What a shocking story to find in Scripture!


Maybe this ancient tale would have remained buried in the Old Testament, squirreled away like some skeleton, were it not for the fact that Jesus raises it up in the middle of his famous dialogue with Nicodemus, in the middle of speaking about life that is eternal. I can almost see poor Nicodemus scratching his head, trying to understand. We, too, are left scratching our heads, as Jesus trots out this old tale of Moses and his snake-on-a-stick.  What does Jesus mean when he says, “the Son of Man will be lifted up?”  Is he talking about the cross or the resurrection or the ascension?  Although each of these interpretations have merit, it is most likely that Jesus is speaking of the cross—since the cross bears the closest resemblance to what this ancient object probably looked like. By referring to this tale, Jesus foreshadows his own crucifixion.


Of course, there’s another common theme between the stories: fear—fear of death. Lisa Nichols Hickman writes, “Everyone bitten by those fearful snakes in the wilderness were made to look straight in the face of what they were most afraid of as they gazed upon a serpent of bronze posted on a pole.”  No doubt, fear is a factor in the story of the bronze serpent on a pole—fear, not of the serpents in and of themselves, but fear of the death that the serpents cause. In fact, the issue of death is what started all the grumbling to begin with. Remember their complaint, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to DIE?”  The people of God fear death and, in essence, God says, “Put this thing you most fear upon the pole. Take a good, long look at it. You have grumbled because you fear death. I have sent death by way of the snakes. I will lift up death before you on a pole, and you will see that I am God. Death is not the victor! I am the victor!”


After Jesus tells of the Son of Man being lifted up like Moses’ snake in the wilderness, he speaks what has become the most famous verse in the New Testament. It has been called “the gospel in miniature.” John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Jesus offers to Nicodemus—to us all—not death, but life eternal.


Jesus will be raised up on the cross for all to see so the people of the world may look on him and live. As believers gazing upon God’s crucified Son, we know there is no human suffering that is utterly beyond the reach of our Lord’s healing and sustaining love. Just as the bronze serpent is a way for ancient people to deal with their fear of snakebites, the cross of Jesus Christ offers a way for people of every age to deal with their own fears. Because we know death does not have the last word. Christ is raised from death. Christ ascends into heaven. Christ sits beside the Father. Christ prays for us. And Christ will come again for us.


Matthew Arnold has said that humans are like animals in that they must die; but they are more miserable than animals for they long to see life steadily and see it whole. We long for life to have meaning, to see some thread of purpose neatly winding from past to present to future. We yearn to peer beyond the veil that hides God’s purposes from our understanding. We want to know. We want to control. We want to be free of the fear that imprisons us.


Poet Wendell Berry offers a word of wisdom concerning our worries and our fears:


A man with some authentic worries

And many vain and silly ones,

I am well-schooled in sleeplessness;

I know it from the inside out.

I breathe, and I know what’s at stake.


But still sometimes I am sane and sound,

However heart or head may ache;

I go to sleep when I lie down.

With no determined care to breathe,

I breathe and live and sleep and take


A Sabbath from my weariness.

I rest in an unasking trust

Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.

The long-arising Day will break

If I should die before I wake.[i]


All of humanity has been bitten by death—it is our mortal condition. From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Of course, we fear things other than death. We fear the world in which we live: crime, poverty, wars and rumors of wars.  We fear sickness; failure. We fear the things we do not know; the things we cannot control.  But God is not a God of fear—God is a God of love and sound mind.


What are your fears?  In today’s Scripture reading, in the retelling of an ancient tale, we are invited to bring our fears to the cross—no matter what they are—bring them to the cross. Put them up on the pole and take a good, long, look. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Children of God, lift high the cross, gaze upon the promise of new life, and be at peace.

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

[i] Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, 187.

*Cover Art “The Serpent in the Text” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription