Authority in Christ

Authority in Christ

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 27, 2020

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:23-32

 

As many of you know, I have had a spiritual director for most of my ministry.  Because of my appreciation for the practice, a few years ago I earned a certificate in Spiritual Direction from Shalem Institute in Washington, D.C. And just recently, I started facilitating a Spiritual Direction Clergy Support Group for our Presbytery. Since meeting with a spiritual director is not a common practice, you might be wondering what it’s all about. Well, a spiritual director is a friend with whom you sit in prayer and in quiet conversation, together trying to discern the direction the Holy Spirit might be leading. It’s less like a counseling session and more like a “spiritual listening” session.

 

As a minister, I can honestly say that meeting with a spiritual director has been invaluable. Doing so, helped me find my way into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It helped me hear God’s call to Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church and then, over 4 years ago, FPC of Valdosta. The practice of spiritual direction has helped me to become more courageous as a leader on behalf of God’s kingdom work. It has helped me claim the authority I have been given (through my baptism and ordination)—authority to live fully as a seeker of God’s face—authority to encourage others to do the same.

 

Authority. It is the issue at hand for Jesus in our gospel reading. The chief priests and elders have been watching him. By this time, in Matthew’s telling, Jesus has entered the temple, overturned the tables of the money changers, and in righteous indignation proclaimed, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” While we might imagine Jesus as meek and mild, here we witness him at the onset of his ministry, as a truth-teller who stirs up trouble with the powers that be. And the powers that be do not relinquish their control without a fight—never have—never will. But that does not stop Jesus.

 

In today’s reading we find Jesus again in the temple. And the chief priests and elders approach him with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Make no mistake, they are not acting out of curiosity. They are acting out of a desire to bring Jesus down to size. In today’s vernacular think: “Who said you could do that? Who do you think you are? You’re too big for your britches. You need taking down a peg or two…”  When it comes to questioning someone’s authority, it is rarely an act of observation or casual interest. Rather, as in our story today, there is an ulterior motive at work. In the case of the chief priests and elders, they have come to trap Jesus. But what do they hope to accomplish by questioning his authority? Their motivation isn’t clear, but there’s one thing that is—things don’t turn out like they plan.

 

In the commentary, Feasting on the Word, Charles Campbell, Professor of Homiletics at Duke University, tells the following story:

A few years ago, while channel surfing, I paused and watched part of an interview with television psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil. At one point the interviewer asked Dr. Phil, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.” As soon as Dr. Phil spoke, I remember thinking, “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.

 

As the chief priests and elders discover, conversations with Jesus can be dangerous. Especially when, like a good rabbi, he answers a question with a question:

“What do you think?” he begins and then tells a story about a man with two sons. In the parable, the father asks each son in turn to go out to the vineyard to work. The first says he will not but then he has a change of heart and goes to do his father’s bidding. The second says he will, appearing to be the obedient son, but then he does not follow through with his promise. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the chief priests and elders say, “The first.” Herein, Jesus seems to be getting at something worth remembering: What matters is not talking the talk—it’s walking the walk. Then comes the punch line…wait for it…wait for it…“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Did you get that? Jesus has just told the “authorities that be,” the very “keepers of the law,” that they will enter God’s kingdom behind sinners whom they hold in contempt.

 

The Letter to the Hebrews is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. Of unknown authorship, originally, it was written to newly converted Jewish Christians to stress the superiority of Jesus to anything in heaven or on earth. Jesus is superior to the angels and heavenly beings. Jesus is superior to the prophets of old, even Moses. Jesus is superior to the priests. In other words, Jesus is THE AUTHORITY! In all that he says, in all that he does, Jesus is concerned with being the power—the power of God—the power of love! And Jesus uses his authority to model his own command: “Love the Lord your God with all your strength and all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus uses his authority to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.

 

One biblical scholar makes an interesting observation[i]: Jesus has authority because it is given to him by his Abba Father. In point of fact, authority is always given. This is the primary difference between power, which is the sheer ability to do something or bring something about—and authority, which is one’s ability to do or say something because they have been given that ability. In other words, a person has the authority to do things because he has been authorized to do them by the author, or the one with the actual power.

 

Authority may always be given—but it is given in two ways. Authority is given by those “above” with the power. It is just as often given by those “below” who decide to accept it. And here is the thing: in about 99% of the cases of our lives, those with authority over us have it only because we give it to them. The colleague who slighted us, the child who disappointed us, even the spouse or parent who abandoned us—yes, in each case the person in question may have actually done something harmful, even devastating; nevertheless, the way we regard that action and person over time is something we get to determine. If we are still angry, hurt, disappointed, or upset, it is because we have decided to give authority to that person or event to continue to influence and even dominate our lives. We may have been victimized, but we choose whether or not we will live as a victim.

 

When it comes to the religious rulers who question Jesus, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon to ridicule them. But it might be wise to take a moment to consider how we use or misuse our own authority. We are, after all, baptized believers, and through the work of Jesus Christ, we have been given authority. So how are we using it? Are we following in the path of Jesus? Do we use our authority in God’s kingdom work—in whatever measure we have been given—to look to the interests of others, rather than our own? Do we have the same mind that is in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited?

 

Love, selflessness, humility, regard for the other, vulnerability—these are not at all the characteristics associated with authority. But such is the way of Jesus who uses his last ounce of human authority to gaze upon those who’ve put him on the cross and say with all the strength he can muster: “Forgive them Father. They know not what they do.” This is love in action. This is power with a purpose.

 

As we walk in the path set before us by Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, day by day may we, too, grow into the authority given to us at our baptism—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Adapted from blogpost by David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-16a-open-future/

*Cover Art Christ the Savior (Pantokrator) via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace

Endless Love, Boundless Mercy, Amazing Grace

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 13, 2020

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

 

On any given Sunday, as disciples of Jesus we gather virtually or in person to worship God, to encourage one another, and to be equipped to return to the world to fulfill our Lord’s command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. During worship, in response to God’s word for us, we pray The Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When we do so, when we call upon the name of our great and glorious God, are we cognizant of the sacred ground upon which we stand?

 

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard, who grew up in the Presbyterian Church, once wrote a book of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. In one essay, Dillard broaches the subject of holiness. In one of the best-known quotes from the book, she writes these words:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? The tourists are having coffee on Deck C. Presumably someone is minding the ship, correcting the course, avoiding icebergs…watching the radar screen, noting weather reports…No one would dream of asking the tourists to do these things. Alas, among the tourists on Deck C, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts, we find the captain, and all the ship’s officers, and all the ship’s crew…The wind seems to be picking up.

On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[i]

 

As seekers of the holy, should we proceed with caution? Is it hazardous to call upon the Creator of the Universe, willy-nilly? Is there danger in praying “Thy will be done,” if that is not what we really mean in our heart? In The Lord’s Prayer, we continue by asking for daily sustenance—daily bread—and then, then, things get dicey when we dare to speak the words: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Oh, my! Now we are in deep water. We may be in over our heads.

 

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how forgiving we really need to be. In the story, a certain king realizes it is time for the end of year audit. He contacts the accounting experts in his kingdom. In no time flat, they realize there is an outlying account that needs to be settled. A certain man owes the king an exorbitant sum—one that could hardly be paid off in 100 lifetimes. The king calls the slave on the carpet. Realizing the man is in way over his head and will never be able to pay him back, the king instructs that the man, his wife, his children, and all that he owns be sold. The man falls on his knees and begs for mercy. In a shocking turn of events, the king shows him mercy.

 

The slave departs, grateful for the mercy that has been bestowed upon him. Or is he? All evidence is to the contrary for when he meets another slave who owes him the sum of 100 days of labor (a sum that could reasonably be paid back) he grabs the fellow by the throat. Even when the man falls on his knees and begs for mercy, no mercy is shown. Instead, the debtor is thrown into prison. Upon witnessing this tragic state of affairs, some of the fellow slaves report to the king what they have seen with their very own eyes. Understandably, the king is outraged. Now, any mercy that has been extended to the first slave is retracted—denied—refused.

 

Jesus concludes the story with: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

As a Presbyterian pastor, I am eager to preach words of grace and joy and hope. But I would not fulfill my obligation to preach the entirety of the gospel if I did not also proclaim that one day there will be a reckoning. One day we will all stand before God to give an account of our words and deeds. So, it is in our best interest to take Jesus seriously in this matter, and to ponder those familiar words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

 

For most of us, passing judgment on others comes as easy as falling off a log. But Jesus does not call us to an easy life. Jesus calls us to a life of goodness and love—and, often, living in such a way is anything but easy. Forgiveness is hard—extremely hard. Peter knows that full well, which is why he approaches Jesus with the dilemma in the first place. And he may be quite proud of himself when he generously suggests forgiving someone seven times. But 77 times or as it is sometimes translated 70 times 7? That is nigh impossible. Surely Jesus is not serious. While Jesus may be using hyperbole—an exaggeration to make a point—he is still dead serious. The heart of his message is this: “Stop keeping score. The life to which I am calling you does not allow for small-minded, stingy behavior. Think bigger—think better—think endless love; boundless mercy; amazing grace!”

 

Through the life of Jesus, we are invited to move outside the law of self-righteousness and condemnation—into a great commonwealth of love. By telling the story of the king and the two indebted slaves, Jesus offers a picture of what it means to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is a brave and risky prayer that begs each of us to consider: “How willing am I to forgive the person who wrongs me? And with whatever measure I “grade” other’s behavior—am I comfortable with God using that same measure on me?

 

Unquestionably, having a forgiving spirit, is not about sweeping bad behavior under the rug. There are times when we must hold others accountable. But there are also times when, empowered by the Holy Spirit, healing can begin—day by day—step by step.

 

Thankfully, God does not deal with us in the way we deserve. Instead, God offers us forgiveness beyond measure. And as followers of Jesus, rather than tallying up the errors of others, we would be wise to enter the throne of glory, giving thanks to God AND showing our thanks by forgiving others as we long to be forgiven. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, 52-53.

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Do you love me?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Do you love me?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 30, 2020

13th Sunday after Pentecost

John 21:15-23

 

While I enjoy photography as a hobby, even more so I enjoy looking at other people’s photographic art—sunrises, sunsets, mountains, oceans, and old trails. I have a friend who is an attorney by trade—but his passion is photography. He takes mesmerizing photos of people he meets on random strolls through little towns and villages. He likes to shoot things that promise to tell quite a tale—if they could only talk—like dilapidated houses and buildings. I particularly enjoy his black and white photos of old farmers with their faces lined by the sun. Beautiful. And who knows why, but I am drawn to photographs of hands. One glance and I am pondering the lives the hands represent. I think of the clasped hands of newlyweds and the future they hold, and the hands of children with all their innocence and hope for tomorrow. A woman’s hands lifted in prayer; a man’s hands as he repairs the engine of his car or refinishes that special piece of furniture; a mother combing her daughter’s hair; a father holding bicycle handles while he teaches his son to ride.

 

Loving hands of my childhood include those of my grandmother rolling out biscuits as the sun began to rise in the morning sky; hands of teachers pointing me toward college and a future; hands of an uncle playing a guitar and singing songs about a Jesus whom I would come to love…

 

Later, my years working in the hospital as a medical technologist would show me other hands at work: hands of EMTs hoisting patients from gurney to bed; hands of nurses in the Emergency Room starting IVs so that medicine could be administered to sick patients, hands of doctors setting bones and sewing up wounds. Frequently the night shift brought in angry hands—hands scarred by barroom brawls, hands scuffed when resisting arrest, hands broken when the airbag deployed in the car accident. Sometimes when I worked a slow night at the hospital, I visited the nursery under the guise of seeing a nurse/friend, but really, it was about the babies. There I watched caring hands cleaning up newborns after delivery, gently patting backs after a feeding, offering loving care to precious babes at a vulnerable stage of life.

 

Of my 16 years in the medical profession, I was happiest when I worked at UT Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. I loved being a part of a teaching hospital—there was such a positive energy about the place. Surprisingly, I returned to work there when I was doing my CPE training during seminary. (You might think of it as a chaplaincy internship.) But this time my role had changed. Instead of caring for the body, I was to care for the soul. Instead of using my hands to handle specimens and gather data, my hands were offering support when someone faced, perhaps, one of the scariest moments of his or her life. Often my hands held a book of psalms. Sometimes they tightly held the hands of the other in fervent prayer.

 

It was while I was at UT Medical Center in the chaplaincy program that I assisted with my first Blessing of the Hands service. The hospital chapel was set up with soft instrumental music and a few candles glowed in the dimly lit space. Throughout the day, surgeons, nurses, administrators, support staff, and technicians of every ilk streamed in to have their hands anointed. It was a moving experience. Later when the students got together to talk about it, our supervisor mentioned that her church held a similar service on Labor Day weekend. My heart skipped a beat. I knew if I ever got a chance to do such a thing, I would. And since graduating from seminary, I have led a Blessing of the Hands service almost every year.

 

The first one I led was at First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, Tennessee and I will never forget what one of the women of the church said to me that morning. With a big smile on her face, enthusiastically she reported, “O, Glenda, we usually go to the cabin Labor Day weekend, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to get my hands blessed. And I washed them extra-clean for the occasion.” She even held them up for me to examine—in case there was any doubt. When I was the pastor at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia, women of the church created a Blessing of the Hands banner. And now, at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, we are about to celebrate our 4th Blessing of the Hands service next Sunday. Out of necessity, this one will be virtual. But we will not let a pandemic stop us for there is still much good work for our hands to do.

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to several of his followers. As he approaches his final leave-taking, he shows up by the Sea of Galilee and makes breakfast for his disciples with his very own hands. It is a sacred meal—the last they will share together. Afterward, Jesus knows it is time to hand over his ministry to this ragamuffin band, so he turns to Peter. Peter, the one who has a habit of speaking when he should be quiet—Peter, who has remained silent when he should have spoken.

 

Three times Peter denied his Lord and three times his Lord poses the all-important question, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.” As one scholar notes, “If we have carried away from the Gospel the idea that the final thing to remember about Peter is his unfaithfulness, [here we are reminded] that far more important than Peter’s denials is the grace of Christ: the divine willingness to engage and entrust the ministry, even to someone whose life so far has been marked by impetuosity and denial.”[i] Jesus hands over his ministry to someone like Peter—someone like us. Amazing grace—how sweet the sound!

 

In light of Peter’s profession of love, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” for you see, being a follower of Jesus is not just about what we profess. It is also about what we do. It is not that we must earn our salvation—Jesus has taken care of that already. Yet with grateful hearts we are compelled to respond by obeying the command Jesus staked his life on: Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

For believers who choose to follow the way of Jesus, he does not promise the road ahead will be easy, which makes it even stranger when preachers preach the Cotton Candy Gospel. If you just have enough faith—in return, you’ll get everything your little heart desires. But that is nothing more than a lie. Look at Peter—one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers—who ends his life with outstretched hands—being led where he does not wish to go. Tradition tells us Peter is crucified but because he does not feel worthy to die in the same fashion as his Lord, Peter dies upside down on his cross.

 

No, there are no pie-in-the-sky guarantees for those who follow the path Jesus trods. Some people will die young and some will die old. Some will have an easier path to walk while others will be martyred for their faith. There is no rhyme or reason to it all. And while Jesus’ interaction with Peter might lead us to believe that those who love the most get the highest rewards—let us never forget that the highest reward may look something like death on a cross.

 

The end of John’s Gospel is a witness to the curtain coming down on the earthly ministry of Jesus. But the real-life drama of Christ continues in Peter. It continues in the other disciples. It continues in the church that is born on the day of Pentecost. It continues in Paul who meets the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It continues in all the saints who come after—including each one of us.

 

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. Do we? How then do we live? Day by day, are we praying to become more like Jesus, abounding in love and faith? Do we seek the good of the other more than our own selfish desires? Do we recognize that what we say matters, so we try to speak words of love and encouragement? Is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi our prayer—Lord, make me an instrument of your peace? Do we claim the work of our hands as God’s work?

 

Tending to the lambs of Jesus is the most tangible way to stay connected to Christ—as well as the surest way to show our love for him. This holy love knows no boundaries. It is love for the insider, the outsider, the poor, the rich, the business owner, the teacher, the plumber, the street-walker, the tattooed biker, the homeless addict, the physician, the lawyer, the stay-at-home mom, and every child of the world—red and yellow, black and white—they are all precious in Jesus’ sight! Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[i] Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, 425.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 23, 2020

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 27:45-56

Repeatedly, Jesus uses the art of asking good questions to turn people’s worldview upside down. In essence, he seeks to create a reality from the words his mother sang before he was born. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…his mercy is for those who fear him…he has scattered the proud…he has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly…he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”[i]

 

Jesus comes to make all things new, but his mission will only be accomplished by helping people see the world and their role in it differently. A paradigm shift is what Jesus is after, and nothing less. But change does not come easy, and sometimes, change comes at great cost. So, for all his good deeds and his endeavors to expand the thinking of those around him, Jesus ends up hanging on a tree. It is a ghastly scene. And surely the most difficult of Jesus’ questions is spoken from this place—directed not to an individual—but to his Abba Father.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” All seems lost because Hope is dying on a cross. Now what?

 

Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His book entitled Night, records many of his memories. He witnessed the death of his family, the death of countless strangers and friends, and the death of his own innocence. In addition, he experienced despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the evil of mankind.

 

In his book, Wiesel tells about a particular incident that happened one day in the camp—a hanging. As horrible as it is to imagine—hangings weren’t uncommon but there was something different about this one because a young boy was one of the three to be hanged and to hang a child in front of hundreds of onlookers was no small matter. In fact, the regular executioners refused to go through with it, so others stepped forward to do the deed.

 

In Wiesel words:

All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows…“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over…Then came the [obligatory] march past the victims…Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where—hanging here from these gallows…”[ii]

 

God hanging from a tree. God with us—Emmanuel. Great is the mystery of our faith! Still we cannot help but ask, “Why?” From The Letter to the Hebrews we read:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…. Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…[iii]

 

Jesus suffers as we suffer. Jesus is tested as we are tested. And the final result of his incredible sacrifice and boundless mercy is this—we are set free from bondage to all that would threaten to undo us. And through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ we can rest assured that there is nothing we go through in this life that God does not go through with us.

 

But we look at Jesus on that Friday we call good, and we cannot help but think it should have been otherwise. Surely there is a sense of numb disbelief as we gaze at our Lord nailed to a cross. Any second, we expect him to unleash the power at his disposal and come down. It is what his followers expect. But instead, moment by moment, the life blood of Jesus drains from him and he grows weaker, until finally, it appears he has given up on himself and on his Abba Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 

When Jesus breathes his last breath, the curtain of the temple is ripped asunder. One writer explains,

At that moment our souls are torn in two. At that moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two. But this is not the end of the story. Hopes and dreams may have been cast to the earth, but other things are destroyed—things that need to be destroyed. Now, “the barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection, which is just three days away.[iv]

 

As Jesus hangs from the cross crying toward the heavens, we see the darkest moment of his life—of God’s life. But let us never forget, this is not the end—quite the opposite.

 

Woven into the story of Jesus’ anguishing death, there is another story worthy of reflection—the way creation participates. As if in solidarity with Jesus, the earth quakes and rocks split asunder. Creation joins in the lament of God’s own Son being rejected by those whom God created.  But if we delve deeper, we realize that creation has always been a part of God’s Story. Genesis starts out with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind.” Then later, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”

 

One of the most poetic narratives in the Bible comes near the end of the Book of Job when God tires of Jobs questions and starts asking a few of his own. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” These words speak of God’s adoration of God’s created earth.

 

Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. And as a final point, Revelation concludes with the theme of God’s creation participating in God’s salvation story as a river of the water of life appears, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and on either side of the river is the tree of life with twelve kinds of fruit and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

 

Healing? It is what the nations need—have always needed—and it is through Jesus the Christ that healing comes.  But healing is not needed for people, only. It is also needed for creation—rivers that are now filled with trash, rain forests that are disappearing before our eyes, mountain sides that are being stripped bare. What have we done to God’s good earth? A Native American Proverb comes to mind: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” But I ask you, “What will we have to hand over to our children in another generation?” It all seems hopeless—too far gone—how could we possibly make a difference? Yet, isn’t it exactly when all hope seems lost that God is at God’s best? Remember Paul’s words, “For whenever I am weak, God is strong.”

 

On that Friday we call good, there is no doubt that Jesus is in anguish when he cries out to his Abba Father. No wonder the rocks split, the earth quakes, and the temple curtain is torn in two. All seems lost but things are not always as they seem. Friday, it may be, but let us never forget, the joy of resurrection is just three days away. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] Adapted from Luke 1:46-55

[ii] Elie Wiesel, Night, 64-65.

[iii] Excerpts from Hebrews 2.

[iv] The Rev. Whitney Rice @ http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2014/03/23/palm-sunday-a-2014/

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 16, 2020

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 26:36-46

[Insert Sunday’s art]

 

The end of Jesus’ earthly ministry is drawing nigh. At the conclusion of the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, they sing a hymn together and then head toward Gethsemane. When they reach their destination Jesus tells them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” Then he takes with him those in his inner circle—Peter, James, and John. Jesus, our Jesus, is in anguish and he admits it. “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” It seems a simple request, but the disciples are likely filled with worry and exhausted, too. So, with Jesus a stone’s throw away crying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” his closest friends fall fast asleep.

 

It is hard to think of Jesus being this vulnerable. It is easier to imagine him healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. But Jesus begging his friends to keep watch with him in his hour of need and then those same friends failing him, is heart wrenching. “So, you could not stay awake with me one hour?” While we might be tempted to judge the disciples for their behavior, we would probably have been there snoring right beside them—I mean we’re human, too, and failing one another is something we do more often than we care to admit. In this moment of Jesus’ life, he openly displays his human vulnerability. He shows us that even God-in-the-flesh is susceptible to being wounded and hurt. Oh, the great mystery of our faith and oh, the frailty of us all.

 

I returned home from a church function on August 11, 2014 to find four text messages on my cell phone—one from each of our children. In essence they read, “Have you heard? Robin Williams has died. Apparent suicide.” Like most of us, my children were crushed by the news. Kinney and I were dating when Mork & Mindy was a hit. Later, as avid movie-goers, our family fell in love with Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin. How we enjoyed Popeye and Hook. What inspiration we found in such works as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society, Patch Adams, and Good Will Hunting.

 

Proverbs tells us that a cheerful heart is good medicine and I believe this to be so. Yet, a man who brought so much laughter to the world could not heal himself with laughter. Instead, a man, who lived the life of fame and fortune, who loved God and was generous and caring, reached a dark, dangerous place out of which he was unable to climb. It is well-known that Robin Williams suffered from bi-polar disorder, characterized by drastic mood swings. But when things progressed beyond anything he had experienced, he reached out again for help. But numerous tests and a brain scan came back negative. It was not until after his death that the autopsy revealed the underlying cause: Lewey Body Dementia, a rare brain disease that can cause hallucinations, motor skill problems, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

 

I once heard someone say, “You never know what goes on in a person’s mind. Monsters can live there.” This must have been the case for Robin Williams, who struggled with addiction and depression even before something as devastating as a rare brain disease came calling.

 

Regarding mental illness and addictions, we know a lot more about them than we once did. Nevertheless, there is still a stigma attached to them—as if they are a mark of disgrace. Yet, we find in Scripture that Moses, Elijah, Job, Jeremiah, and David suffered from depression. Then there are historical figures to consider like Abraham Lincoln who wrote, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell…To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better, it appears to me.”[i] Charles Spurgeon was tormented by depression. Beethoven and Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder, and the list goes on and on.

 

Mental illness is real, and it is painful but, thankfully, it is often treatable with the right combination of drugs and therapy. Regardless, people hesitate to discuss it for fear of what people might say or for fear of losing their job or for any number of other very real concerns. It turns out that being vulnerable is risky. Look where it got Jesus—praying alone—heart-broken and afraid—and, ultimately, crucified. Still, to be the church of Jesus Christ compels us to be vulnerable—to be authentic. For the truth of our human condition is: We all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive.

 

One summer when I was about 6 years old, my mother traveled from New York to visit us on my grandparent’s farm in North Carolina. She was eye-catching with her red hair and porcelain skin, but I could not help noticing numerous horizontal scars that marked her arms. When she caught me glancing at them she softly explained, “When your father and I got a divorce and I knew I had lost you both, I didn’t want to live anymore, so I tried to hurt myself.” So lovely on the outside—but inside so fragile.

 

Fast-forward a few years and I was 16 when a trusted physician took me aside to explain: “Although your father is high-functioning, he suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia.” There I sat, weeping for what seemed like an eternity. For years, I had been convinced that the chaos around me was my fault, but in a moment, everything changed.

 

Mental illness has affected many of us. If we have not suffered directly, we may be close to someone who has. In case there is any doubt, as your spiritual leader, allow me to make something clear. Our faith community is a safe space to share our challenges and our hurts, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Life is wonderful but it can also be difficult. Why not lean on one another!

 

Anne Lamott, an author (and a Presbyterian), who has been open about her own struggles with addiction and mental illness, writes:

 

If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction…life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of the abyss…

 

In [all suffering]…we see Christ crucified… The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, ‘Oh it will all make sense someday.’ The thing is, it may not. [Nonetheless], we still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water…

 

Try not to squander your life…Get help. I did. Be a resurrection story…Gravity yanks us down…We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up toolboxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity…[ii]

 

What can we do to help those who suffer from mental and emotional illness? What can we do if we need help ourselves? Maybe, we can start by breaking the silence. Maybe we can celebrate the gifts of every person because every person is made in God’s image. And could we do this: Could we treat everyone with kindness? We should—because—you see—we all suffer from something—and none of us get out of this alive. Amen.

[i] Quoted in Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded, Dwight L. Carlson, 24.

[ii] Anne Lamott as share on Facebook.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “What are you looking for?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“What are you looking for?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020

10th Sunday after Pentecost

John 1:35-42

 

The Gospel of John starts 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, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Then we are told, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”[i]

 

Once John the Baptist’s ministry is in full swing, priests and Levites come from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to ask, “Who are you? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” John tells them he is not the Messiah. Rather, “I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

 

The next day, John sees Jesus approaching, and he testifies to the truth he knows in his heart: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When he baptizes Jesus, he sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove from the heavens. Then, the very next day John stands with two of his disciples as Jesus comes near. Again, John testifies, “Look, here is the lamb of God!” John’s disciples are so convinced of his testimony, they leave John’s side and turn toward Jesus. Jesus sees them and asks, “What are you looking for?” Instead of answering him, they ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” They come and see where he is staying and spend the day with him. Andrew, one of the disciples, is persuaded that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah so he rushes to find his brother, Simon. Jesus takes one look at him and gives him a new name: Peter.

 

In this text we see people who witness Jesus, are changed by Jesus, and are compelled to go and tell others what they have experienced. Come and see. Go and tell. But what about Jesus’ question for these first seekers, “What are you looking for?” Wouldn’t the logical question be, “What do you want?” But maybe this story is not about what people want. Maybe it is about what people need—deep in their hearts and souls. What are you looking for? “Come and see,” is Jesus’ invitation. The disciples take Jesus up on his offer and stay long enough to realize Jesus is “the real McCoy,” as we say in the South. So, they rush to tell others. They cannot wait to share the good news.

 

What are you looking for? Come and see.” Then, “Go and tell.” This is the evangelistic model that continues to propel the church forward, but how are we doing at our “going and telling.”

 

While perusing the internet, I happened upon a blogpost about traits of churches that will impact the future.[ii] Those who study church trends agree that there is a cultural shift happening and for the church to remain relevant, it must change. But it is important to recognize that it is not THE STORY that needs to change—just the method of sharing it. (One is sacred—the other is not!) So, what are some hallmarks of churches that will likely make an impact over the next decade? Those in good standing will be flexible and welcome experimentation. They will embrace innovative strategies—knowing full well that some things will work while others will not. They will accept that bigger is not always better. God calls us to thrive whatever our size, so small churches need to get over the idea that they will only be successful when they grow up and become the big church down the street, or the big church that they once were. Smaller venues actually allow for deeper relationships to form—another hallmark of the church of the future. Churches that provide a place where questions are welcomed instead of silenced will be in good stead. While these are all good traits, there was one on the list that really stood out for me: The need for the church to prioritize a “for you” instead of a “from you” culture.

 

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Too often, that is not the question that is on our lips. Rather, we gaze upon too many empty pews and in panic mode we look out into the world, and ask, “What can we get from them? Our numbers are dwindling, and we need them to come and save us.” But we do not need them to save us. Christ has done that!

 

Many of you have heard the story of my encounter with a Pastor Nominating Committee over a decade ago. They came to hear me preach and invited me out for lunch. Although things went well, I had a strong conviction that the church they represented was not the church to which I was being called. Maybe that is why I was able to be blatantly honest with them when they posed the million-dollar question.  “We’ve got $1M debt from the new sanctuary we just completed. What can you do to bring in people to help us pay off that debt?” Wow! The question sort of takes your breath away. Doesn’t it?

 

Folks, if we look out into the world at people who are struggling and have no faith community, and all we see is what we can get from them—then we are on a crooked path that will lead us nowhere near Jesus Christ. But, if our heart’s desire is to be a thriving church of the future, we will be passionate about what we want FOR people—not FROM them! We will want every person of every age and race and background to know Jesus. We will want to help people become part of something bigger than themselves—with Christ at the center of their lives. We will embrace the opportunity to build relationships with people in person and through online platforms. We will model how to share the wondrous story of the transforming power of God, made perfect in Jesus, and made available to us through the Holy Spirit. Along the way, “Come and see. Go and tell!” may become our motto. If so, we may look to Peter as our guide. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.[iii]

 

Concerning the importance of the church, one writer notes that churches are “the kitchens where Christians are ‘cooked’ into the sort of people God intends us to be. We worship, study, pray, and share meals, knitting us closer to God and each other. Congregations matter because Christians would not be Christians if we did not have people with whom to practice loving God and loving neighbor.” [iv] The work of the church is important. The work of our church is important. And if we want our work to matter to future generations, it behooves us to be open to new ways to share the gospel story.

 

Even so, it is possible for a church to do all these things—and more—and still not grow numerically. But it seems to me that God is less interested in the numerical growth of the church and more interested in the spiritual growth of the church. God’s desire is for believers to become loving, mature, effective Christians. I daresay, there is not a person in our church family who does not long for us to grow in numbers, and if that happens, we will give God all the glory. But if it does not happen, let us remember that numbers are not everything. I mean, Jesus did just fine with a dozen fellows and a few faithful women. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Excerpt from John 1:1-7, NRSV.

[ii] Carey Nieuwhof blogpost at http://careynieuwhof.com/2013/05/11-traits-of-churches-that-will-impact-the-future/

[iii] 1 Peter 3:15b, NIV

[iv] David L. Odom blogpost at http://www.faithandleadership.com/blog/07-21-2014/why-do-congregations-matter

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Do You Want To be Made Well?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Do You Want To be Made Well?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020

9th Sunday after Pentecost

John 5:1-9

 

During Jesus’ ministry, he asked many more questions than he answered. Following in his footsteps over the last few weeks, we have considered some of those questions: Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? The other nine, where are they? Why are you afraid? Are you not of more value? Good questions—all of them. But the question we focus on today seems almost ridiculous. Imagine with me—a man has been ill 38 years. When Jesus sees him lying by the pool of Bethzatha, the question Jesus poses is: “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to be made well? I want to be made well when I have a cold that hangs around for more than 38 hours so if I were ill for 38 long, grueling, life-limiting years—there is no doubt in my mind—I would want to be made well. Wouldn’t you? What an odd question.

There is something else unusual about this story—the text itself. Ancient manuscripts of the original Greek are quite confusing—something that is most evident in the addition of verses 3b-4 in some later manuscripts. Both the NRSV and NIV add this as a footnote to describe why people gather around the pool with its five porticoes in the first place. Thus, in the NRSV verse 3 reads, “In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed,” to which ancient manuscripts add, “waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” How interesting!

The man to whom Jesus directs the question, “Do you want to be made well?” is crippled in some fashion. We know this because he tells Jesus he does not have anyone to put him into the pool when the water is stirred up. In other words, whenever he tries to make his way into the pool, someone steps ahead of him—someone else gets the blessing. Thus, there is no way the man can possibly be healed—on his own. But Jesus, the Healing One, has a habit of going beyond what is possible to create new life and wholeness. As they say, “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.” Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

You will recall the story of the enslaved people of Israel who grow in such number in the land of Egypt that Pharaoh sees them as a threat. As a result, he decides to eliminate their number one male child at a time. The people cry out to God and God intervenes by raising up one of the male children to lead them out of Egypt. After many signs and wonders, the Israelites are granted permission to leave. When Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them with all his military might in tow, God intervenes. God makes a way where there seems to be no way and saves the people. They respond by singing and dancing and worshiping on safety’s shore. Then, with God as their guide, the people begin their journey to the Promised Land. Soon, though, the daily grind of traveling toward a land flowing with milk and honey loses its luster and they begin to grumble. “Where are the melons and grapes we left in Egypt? Remember the fresh fish and fresh bread? Is it too much to ask for basic necessities like bread and water? Moses, did you bring us here in the wilderness to die? We could have died just as easily and in better living conditions as Pharaoh’s slaves.”

The people of Israel cry out to Yahweh for years, “Come, save us!” Yahweh answers—but not in the way they want. They want God to fix everything; to make life easier for them—immediately. And could it be—they have no desire to do their part? “Fix it God but let us have only the good and not the bad. Fix it, God! But do not ask too much of us. Do not ask us to change. Just be our genie in a bottle—come when we say come—leave when we say leave!”  But God is not a genie in a bottle and God will not be used. God loves us and meets us where we are—but God never intends for us to stay there. God intends for us to live and love and grow. And, along the way, God expects us to participate in our own wellness, and in the wellness of others. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus sees a man who is waiting by a pool of water, waiting for an angel of God to move the water. By some miracle, the man hopes and prays he might be the first to feel the cool, healing water upon his skin. Even though he does not ask Jesus for healing, that does not keep Jesus from doling out God’s grace. Once the man is healed, Jesus offers instructions: “Stand up. Take your mat and walk.” The healed man is now called to respond. Now what? Where will his next steps lead? Is he headed down the yellow brick road of life without a care? Sadly, there are those who say so. There are those who believe that if we are followers of Jesus—if we have enough faith—then Jesus will touch us and make our lives picture perfect—now and forever more. Eugene Peterson warns against such an understanding:

I want to go over some old ground here, repeating what seems—in our culture, anyway—to need frequent repeating: entering into a life of faith…following Jesus, centering our life in the worship of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. Christians get cancer in the same proportion as non-Christians. Believers are involved in as many automobile accidents as nonbelievers. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior as it did before. I don’t take any particular pleasure in writing this. I would feel better if I could promise that being a Christian gave us a distinct edge over the competition.[i]

So, enough faith does not assure our heart’s desires! If that were the case, wouldn’t we be in control of God? But God will not be controlled. God is God and we are creatures made in God’s image to love God and to care for ourselves and one another.

For the crippled man, new life is his and new life comes with new freedoms, new joy, and new responsibilities. Things will be expected of him that were not expected before. Likely, he will have to go to work; get involved in his community. For the first time in 38 years, he can worship with other believers and joyfully bring a tithe of the first fruits of his labor. Though everything has changed, and his life has been transformed, there will still be hurdles aplenty. Such is the way of life. Always has been. Always will be.

On a spiritual level, this healing story offers another insight worth pondering. Isn’t it true that in one way or another, life has a way of crippling us all? Someway, somehow. So, I ask you: What is crippling you? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Fear of change? Disbelief that God can still make a way where there seems to be no way? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Do you doubt God’s love for you? Have you gotten caught up in negative behaviors like cynicism, gossip, bitterness, or other habits that cause harm to your body, mind, or spirit? What keeps you stranded on your mat? A false belief that you already know all you need to know about God—so prayer, Scripture reading, meditating and other spiritual disciplines—well, they are just not for you? What keeps you stranded on your mat?

In this moment, could it be that Christ’s Spirit is calling each of us to participate in our own healing in some form or fashion? Does Jesus have a word for us about standing up and walking boldly into a new future? How will we react to God’s grace—for we, too, are beneficiaries of God’s favor, and we, too, are called to respond. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.

[i] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 195.

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Questions Jesus Asked Summer Series  Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith? 

July 26, 2020

8th Sunday after Pentecost

Questions Jesus Asked Summer Series

Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?

Mark 4:35-41

Boat Jesus

Recently, a charming little sign showed up on Instagram with the following printed on it:  “Do Not Be Afraid” is written in the Bible 365 times.  That’s a daily reminder from God to live everyday fearless.”

Well, when we see amazing stories spread like wildfire on social media, it is good to be skeptical!

Let’s take this charming Instagram message.  A little fact checking uncovered it isn’t actually true!  Shocking, right?!!

Depending on what, if any, variations are included in the count, the number of “fear not” references in the Bible are actually between 100 and 300 – hardly a year’s worth!

But does that make it any less true?  Would the admonition to not fear be any less true if it only occurred once in the Bible?  After all, God only had to say “Let there be light,” once and that was enough!

 

In our gospel lesson, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and he needs a break.  “Let’s take a trip across the Sea of Galilee,” he says to his disciples.

In his book, “The Journey,” Alister McGrath explains that in the New Testament the earliest term used to refer to Christians was “those who belong to the Way,” based on Acts 9:2.”

McGrath goes on to say, “Thinking of the Christian life as a journey through the world offers a vivid and helpful way of visualizing the life of faith.”

He provides two points to consider:

“1. The image of a journey reminds us that we are going somewhere.  We are on our way to the New Jerusalem.  It encourages us to think ahead and look forward with anticipation to the joy of the arrival.  One day we shall finally be with God, and see our Lord face-to face!

2. Traveling does more than lead us to the goal of our journeying. A journey is itself a process that enables us to grow and develop as we press on to our goal.

To travel is thus about finally achieving journey’s end, with all the joy and delight that this will bring—but it is also about inducing personal and spiritual growth within us as we travel.  Journeying is thus a process that catalyzes our development as people and as believers.

In one sense, people who complete the journey are the same as when they began it.  Yet in another sense, they are different in that they have been changed by what they experience.  A journey is a process of personal development, not simply a means of getting from A to B.  The journey allows us to understand ourselves better.”

 

In our scripture journey today, we know that at least four of Jesus’ disciples are experienced fishermen so when a storm arises that terrifies them, we can safely assume it’s a dreadful storm.  As the water rises inside the boat, so does their sense of doom.  And if you’ve ever been in a boat filling up with water, you can certainly identify!  They are scared out of their wits!

With hair standing on end, they’re quaking in their sandals convinced that disaster is at hand, while their beloved Miracle-Worker is undisturbed by the tumult, fast asleep on a nice soft cushion.

“Are you kidding me?!” they must have thought.  They reach over and shake him.  “Jesus! Jesus!  Wake up!  Look’s what happening!  We are about to die!  Don’t you care?!”

Jesus wakes up and realizes that his disciples are in a tizzy.  So Jesus calms the storm that’s causing the ruckus, “Peace, Be Still!”  The storm listens.  The storm obeys.  Then Jesus turns to address his companions:  “Why are you afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”  They are dumbfounded.  How is it that even the wind and sea obey the Teacher?

Now I’m sure all of you have noticed the yard signs around our neighborhoods that read, “Faith over Fear,” and I’m sure Jesus was holding up this sign at this moment in the boat!  Yet, isn’t it so much easier to read it or think it, than to live it?!

While in one sense this incident may be foreign to us — on another it’s quite familiar.  Because even if we have no experience of being on a boat in a storm — the story resonates with us for it depicts chaos without – the storm at sea – and chaos within – the disciples’ fear.  Yet – Jesus isn’t afraid.  Instead, Jesus takes a nap.  One commentator has this to say:

‘This story offers meaning on literal and figurative levels.  The world of nature can and sometimes does bring terrible storms, and we must take necessary precautions.  On a figurative level, there are many “storms” in life that cause us to feel swamped indeed, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Often, one of the first casualties when we are afraid or uncertain is our ability to sleep peacefully and restfully.  Yet here Jesus sleeps in a storm of wind and waves at peace and unafraid.  Jesus sleeps in trust and confidence, because he knows that in life and in death, he belongs to God.  God has power over everything, including nature itself.  Jesus’ word to the wind and waves is also his word to the disciples then and now, “Peace! Be Still!”  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God and has the power to save us replaces fear with trusting confidence, allowing us to sleep in peace.’

‘Does this mean there’s nothing to be afraid of?  No doubt the disciples have good reason to respond as they do to a very real danger just as the frail vessels we call our lives respond in fear at the wind and waves that assail us from time to time.  In our individual lives, in our life together as a church, as a nation—we have plenty to fear:  disapproval, rejection, failure, our own insignificance, disease, and of course, we fear death – our death, and the death of those we love.’

There is more than enough to make us afraid, and if we keep up with the news, our fears are multiplied with things that are happening in our neighborhoods, cities, and country, as well as tensions around the world.

So what are we to do?  Pretend things are okay and bury our fears deep inside ourselves until we explode with anxiety?  The disciples certainly could not muster up the faith in the face of the storm to rest their heads on a soft cushion.  Rather, Jesus calms the storm and Jesus calms them with the power of his presence.

On our life journey, in the face of wind and rain, in the face of stresses in our lives, are we waking Jesus up?  Are we turning to Jesus, the Lord of wind and wave, and saying, I am afraid, please calm the storm?

There are plenty of scary things in life, but no matter how scary something may be to us—it does not—it cannot—have the last word because ultimate power belongs to God Almighty!  Are we training ourselves to look forward with anticipation of the joy of arrival?

Recall the words of the Apostle Paul, “…in all these, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We should paint that on our garage walls so we can read it as we drive out into the world every day!

We should tattoo on our forearm Peace!  Be Still! so we can glance down at it every time fears rise inside us.

“Peace! Be Still!”  The truth is fear doesn’t get the last word of who we are and whose we are.  Surely, there are real and fearsome things in life but they need not paralyze us for no matter what boat we’re in—we’re not alone.  Being still and knowing God is God—–that’s something we need to remember—365 days a year.

 

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Are You Not of More Value?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Are You Not of More Value?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 19, 2020

7th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 6:25-34

 

Normally, Stephen was a happy fellow—content with life and hopeful about the future. But lately, things had taken a turn. What once had brought him joy, now left him despondent. “Could this be a midlife crisis?” he wondered. Stephen was an attorney and he, along with his wife and a college-friend, had a lucrative law firm just south of Atlanta. To outsiders, Stephen had it all—but in his heart—he knew that was not the truth—not the real truth. He had reached an impasse. He needed something more. But what?

A sense of gloom permeated Stephen’s waking hours and disrupted his sleep. He could go to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow; he just could not stay asleep. So, there he would be, lying beside his sleeping wife, Sally, with his mental wheels spinning. On good nights, memories carried him back to the days of his childhood. He grew up with two loving parents who made sure Stephen had every opportunity. He wondered if they would be concerned if they knew what he was going through—all this worry and dread—over only God knew what!

God—now that was a subject for Stephen to ponder in the midnight hours. Raised in the church, as a child he loved being there as much as his parents did. But when he got older and began questioning some of the teachings of the church, he did not feel welcome anymore. By the time he graduated from law school he had lumped “those Christians” into one category—a group of people who were judgmental, anti-intellectual, and mean-spirited. He wanted nothing to do with people who claimed to be followers of Jesus but seemed to identify less with Jesus and more with whatever they happened to be against at any given moment.

But when he and Sally married, she wanted them to be involved in a church—as a couple. He tried. Really, he did. But to no avail. He still loved God, but his way of loving God would not allow him to check his mind at the door. Nor could he accept that God’s message for him had anything to do with a blueprint for a happy life, 5 steps to success, or excluding people different from him.

Besides the church, Stephen’s parents had another passion—being outdoors. They enjoyed hiking, swimming, biking, kayaking, and camping. Actually, they loved nature so much that early in their marriage they made a pact to visit every national park in the United States. Since they were both teachers with ample time off in the summer, the plan was challenging, but it was also achievable. What wonderful adventures they had traveling from coast to coast as a family. Oh, how Stephen missed those days.

One rainy evening, Stephen was catching up on some reading when his friend, Joe, called. They had attended college together and had been friends ever since. They had a lot in common—not least of which was a love of hiking, so much so, they spent one whole summer hiking along the Appalachian Trail. They had talked about doing it again sometime, but never got around to it. On the phone, Stephen and Joe caught up with one another. “How’s the family?” “How’s work?” that sort of thing. Finally, Joe got to the point of his call. “I have two weeks of vacation coming up and I wondered if you would like to go hiking with me in the Smoky Mountains? We always said we would take another trip. Let’s do it!”

Stephen hesitated, mentally clicking off a litany of reasons why he could not go. But then he realized none of his reasons were valid. He was in between cases at his law firm, and there were others who would gladly pick up the slack—especially Sally. She would be thrilled he was doing something—anything—to improve his somber demeanor.

The trip came together quickly and even before everything was loaded into the SUV, Stephen’s heart began to beat a little easier. So off they went, driving through Georgia and into Tennessee. The plan was to begin the trek at Newfound Gap Road outside of Gatlinburg and hike Alum Cave Trail up to Mount LeConte. From there, they would take in every noteworthy vista they possibly could—rain or shine.

Stephen brought along a small book that contained a variety of nature poems and excerpts from writings of people like John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist who advocated for the preservation of the wilderness in the United States. After their first day of hiking, the two friends sat on a cliff at Mount LeConte, eating their dinner and waiting for the sun to set. Stephen pulled out his nature book and found words written by John Muir nearly a century before:

The mountains are calling and I must go…I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains and learn the news…Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

Stephen yearned for nature’s peace—peace in his heart and mind and soul. He did not know where to start. Or did he? Maybe this was the place to start. So out on the trail, hiking and resting and eating and breathing in the splendor all around, Stephen talked to Joe about his life—the truth of how lost he felt. He told Joe that he believed in God and missed being with other believers. But when it came to organized religion, well…

Stephen could not have turned to a better person to talk to about faith because after college, Joe attended seminary to become a chaplain. Joe was a Presbyterian—the only Presbyterian Stephen had ever known. Yet, even as a chaplain, he never pushed his faith on anyone. Instead, he listened. He was such a good listener. For the next few days, the two friends had long talks over miles of mountainous terrain. Joe shared teachings of the Reformed tradition of which he was a part. He talked about how everyone was welcome at Christ’s Table. No one was excluded. He mentioned that different ideas were not only appreciated, they were expected. Joe shared the emphasis Presbyterians place on the sovereignty of God and on God’s grace—poured out for every human being. “Everything begins and ends with God,” he said, “and it is our life’s work to glorify God in whatever we say; whatever we do.”

When the trip was over and the two friends were about to part ways, Joe casually invited Stephen to church. Stephen promised to think about it and, sure enough, the following Sunday, he and Sally showed up at Joe’s church. Stephen was nervous but then, isn’t everyone nervous when they enter a church for the first time? They were greeted at the door by someone with a smiling face and a kind voice. It had been a long time since Stephen had been in a church and he had never been in a Presbyterian Church. The people were friendly and welcoming, and he sensed prayer was important to them, because so much emphasis was given to prayer during the service. Although the hymns were unfamiliar, there was one he really enjoyed: “God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars…”  And when the minister opened the Bible and began to read from the Gospel of Matthew, Stephen’s heart skipped a beat—it was one of his favorites: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Look at the birds of the air.”

Stephen had read it many times but this time something new caught his ear. It was the question Jesus asked: “Are you not of greater value than these?” Immediately visions of all the wonders of nature he had seen since his childhood flashed across his mind like a vivid slideshow. There was the view from Mount LeConte, the Grand Canyon, the beautiful valleys of Yosemite and Shenandoah, and the geysers of Yellowstone. “Really, God? I’m more valuable to you than these?” In his heart, he heard the answer, “Yes, my child, more valuable than every wonder of creation your eyes have seen—and countless ones you have not. You are more valuable to me than any of them.”

On a Sunday morning, in a quiet place of worship, Stephen was surprised by God’s grace. Tears filled his eyes as he experienced God’s love washing over him. He remembered how Joe had described the people of his church—as loving, caring, and accepting. Were they, really? Could they honestly accept people with differing views and still love them? Would they welcome him—along with his questions and his doubts? Could this place offer a respite for his soul? Was there that much room around the Table? Stephen did not know the answers to his questions. But he knew this: he would be back to find out.

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

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked “Can You See Anything?”

Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked

“Can You See Anything?”

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 12, 2020

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8:22-26

Scripture is filled with readings that invite us to celebrate. Psalm 150 comes to mind:

Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple….praise him for his excellent greatness…. praise him with lyre and harp, timbrel and dance; with strings and pipe…with resounding cymbals…. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.[i]

What a grand worship service the psalmist portrays. Yet, if we are honest, there are times when we gather as God’s people and we do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God, who seems to have left us on our own. When this happens, the psalmist has other words for us:

O God, you have shaken the earth and split it open; repair the cracks in it for it totters. You have made your people to know hardship…. Save us by your right hand and answer us…Hear our cry, O God, and listen to our prayer. We call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts.”[ii]

We have been livestreaming worship in the safety of our home for the past four months. During that time, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the globe. Our nation has recorded over 134,000 deaths due to the virus; our economy has been shaken to the core; and there seems to be no end in sight. With heaviness in our hearts, we have cried out to the Lord. And another cry has reverberated around the globe, the cry of one man, George Floyd, who pleaded for his mother even as a police officer held him in a choke hold until he could breathe no more. In that moment, a seismic shift occurred that sent shock waves around the world. Since then, we have been inundated with heartrending images of alarming behaviors, flashing before us like lightning strikes in the midnight sky. So much tragedy, so much sorrow. O God, we call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in our hearts…repair the cracks in the earth for it totters…

When faced with systemic problems that threaten to destabilize our fractured nation, we could easily fall into despair. We could let our lives be governed by anxiety that leads to loss of sleep and loss of perspective. As Christians, we know in our hearts that with Christ’s resurrection, all things are made new. But we also recognize that not yet are things as they will be when Christ returns. We live in the in-between times. In these in-between times, when we look at the world and wonder why evil continues to happen, it behooves us, whether virtually or in person, to gather with other believers and with all the saints who have gone before us to turn our eyes upon Jesus. In the presence of the Word, the Water, and the Table, dirt and grime that keeps us from seeing with heavenly eyes can be washed away. In community, we can re-gain perspective—re-gain holy perception.

Perception—the ability to see, hear, understand, or interpret something through the senses—is the focus of today’s gospel reading. On Jesus’ preaching tour, parables are told, storms are calmed, and people are healed. Doing the work of his Abba Father, Jesus feeds the multitudes and, just for kicks, he walks on water. Actually, business is booming until Jesus reaches his hometown of Nazareth. Then, because of the unbelief of the people there, only a few are healed.

When Jesus enters the village of Bethsaida, some folks bring a blind man to him and beg Jesus to touch him. Jesus responds by taking the man by the hand and leading him away—maybe Jesus wants a little privacy. Then Jesus puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on him but when Jesus asks him if he can see anything, the man answers, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” The man can see—something—but his perception is impaired until Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again. Finally, his eyesight is restored, and he can see clearly.

Jesus’ healing ministry is writ large over the landscape of the gospels but there is something unusual about this story found in the Gospel of Mark alone. It is the only miracle Jesus performs that happens in two stages—as if he fails to get it right the first time. We are left scratching our heads, and as you might imagine, scholars have varied opinions about the meaning behind Jesus’ 2-step recipe for healing. Some suggest that Jesus’ power is affected by the lack of faith he finds in the people. Others propose the man’s own spiritual condition is a factor.

Of course, we cannot know why Jesus offers a second touch before the man’s sight is fully restored. But if we look closely, we may recognize a metaphor for the faith that Jesus finds in those around him. After all, even his disciples see through a glass dimly. Truth be told, the incident mirrors the faith journey of every believer because no one sees everything clearly in a flash. Instead, if we set our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we may come to see more clearly—learn to see with spiritual eyes—moment by moment, day by day.

Learning to see with spiritual eyes—it is a process!  James Fowler wrote a book about this process entitled Stages of Faith. In it he proposes that there are 6 stages of faith that begin when we are toddlers and continue through maturity. The progression is from blind faith, to seeing the world in black and white, to learning to see the world through the eyes of our peers and others around us. Then we gain some autonomy and begin to take responsibility for our own beliefs and attitudes—even as we develop a gnawing sense that life is too complex for us to rely on our judgment alone. By the time most of us reach mid-life, we accept that there are contradicting truths in the universe that we can never explain. We gain a capacity to make meaning in new ways and we learn to appreciate symbols and rituals and myths. The final stage that Fowler proposes—the sixth stage—is one most people never reach. The rare folks who do, live out their faith in absolute love for all people. They are engaged in spending and being spent for the transformation of the present reality. They are often honored more after their death than during their life—think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Of course, there is no greater example of faith fully realized than Jesus who demonstrates how we are to live into our baptism—loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

If our desire is to progress in our own faith journey, we may have to turn down the voices of the world that scream over our news channels and news-feeds—voices that encourage us to have fear instead of faith—voices that urge us to hate rather than love—voices that make it hard for us to see that the stranger is also made in the image of God—voices that keep us mistaking people who do not look like us or people who do not agree with us—as little more than trees, walking.

Maybe, though, we are satisfied with our vision. Happy with the status quo, we are comfortable with our prejudices, and we do not want God messing in our lives. If so, the last thing we want is for Jesus to show up and spit in our eyes to provide a different point of view. But whether we want it or not, clarity—clear vision—is what the world needs. It is what our nation needs. It is what we all need. And God is calling every believer to wake up to the wonder of what God might do with us, among us, through us, and for us. “Well, that sounds fine in a sermon,” you might say, “but in the real world…” As part of Adam Hamilton’s survey of “Christianity’s Family Tree,” he reflects on how Orthodox Christians see “the real world.” He notes,

The Orthodox remind us that our daily lives (our jobs, our schooling, our relationships) are not the real world. The real world is heaven, God’s eternal kingdom; and real life is found in participating in that divine kingdom now, here on earth; we are, in the words of Scripture, just pilgrims and aliens here. There is a heavenly realm that we cannot generally see. It is invisible, but it is all around us; and if we really knew and understood this, if we participated in this realm, our lives would be radically different.

What a wonderful way to see “the real world.” Would we behave differently if we imagined God constantly at our side? If we imagined the Holy Spirit within us and the heavenly saints cheering us on? How might we react to seemingly insurmountable challenges if we were convinced that there was something more real of which we are a part?

Yes, if we are honest, there are times when even the faithful do not feel like singing and dancing. Instead, we feel like lamenting, falling on our knees and crying out to God. Yet, we need not despair because in life and in death, we belong to God, and Jesus is our guide. With just a touch, he can help us see more clearly. He can help us love more fully. And if our hearts are open, he can show us our role to play in changing the world for his sake. In these dismal days, Christ stands before us and beckons us to speak love and not hate; to wage peace and not war. Let the transformation begin and let it begin with me! Amen.

[i] Adapted from Psalm 150, The Book of Common Prayer

[ii] Adapted from Psalm 94-95, The Book of Common Prayer

*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a

Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009