The Gift of Time

The Gift of Time
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Before becoming a lab supervisor, my time as a medical technologist was spent in a certain way. I waited for specimens to spin down in the centrifuge. I waited for test results to come off one instrument or another. I spent time titrating chemicals, examining cells under the microscope, or preparing units of blood or plasma for patients. Time was of the essence and time was carefully documented on each requisition since turn-around time was, often, of critical importance.

It just so happened that my watch stopped working around the time I left the medical profession. “That’s alright,” I thought, “My heart yearns to beat at a different pace anyway.” So instead of replacing my watch, I strung time together with Anglican prayer beads in hopes of walking the earth with my eyes on God rather than on the almighty clock. Well, that was my intention. But lo and behold, life takes on similar constraints for the minister who needs to plan weeks—even months—in advance. Of course, there’s no busier time for the pastor (and everyone else, for that matter) than this time of year. Years ago, a clergy friend said something that stays with me to this day: “Make no mistake, I love baby Jesus BUT I hate Christmas.”

Time—how it flies and how often we’re convinced there’s never enough of it. Children, however, experience time differently. Frederick Buechner writes,

For a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless… What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity…Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything in before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money…

After the innocence of childhood ticks away, most adults experience time with some sense of anxiety. Not even retirement allows the freedom we expect. How often I’ve heard it said in one form or another, “Now that I’m retired, I’m so busy I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Regardless of age, if I were allowed a peek at your calendars this morning, I’ve no doubt there would be days filled to the brim with: sports studying, travel plans, folks in for the holidays, family obligations, volunteering, and numerous church related activities. Then there’s important things like work, school, and other day-to-day commitments.

I think we would all agree we are living in ridiculously busy times—times governed by the clock and the calendar. Jim Forest, a writer and peace activist once accompanied Thick Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, on a speaking tour. As they stood waiting for the elevator to open, Forest noticed the monk studying the clock just over the elevator doors. The Buddhist said, “A few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” Well, not anymore!

Maybe an in depth look at how we regard time is in order. Toward this end, as part of our Advent journey, we will be guided by Scripture and Bonnie Thurston’s book, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time. Hopefully, by doing so, we may consider time from a theological viewpoint. We might even get an attitude adjustment regarding time, so that we can learn to view it as an extravagant gift of a generous God, “who always provides not only the bare essentials, but usually a feast.”

In her book, Bonnie Thurston tells a story of an African explorer who was hurrying through the jungle. For days the men he had hired to carry his equipment kept up with him, but on the third morning, they sat down and refused to budge. The explorer was confused by their behavior and, understandable, displeased. After much bantering back and forth, this is what the group leader told him: “We have moved too quickly to reach here; now we must wait to give our spirits a chance to catch up with us.” Thurston asserts that now more than ever, modern Americans need to pause to give our spirits time to catch up with us.

No doubt, in our Western culture, we scramble about as fast as we can, certain that we’re running out of time. The Book of Ecclesiastes, however, reminds us of the seemingly endless progression of time, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The writer of Ecclesiastes notes the cyclical nature of time—that which is—already has been. Yet, God also gives us an awareness of time in the sense of past, present, and future. This is a linear perspective on time, a perspective enhanced in the modern world with the human invention of clocks. What might it be like to begin to see time differently—to experience the gift as more than hands on a clock or days on a calendar?

A Christian theology of time will have us dig deeper since time has a built-in eternal nature. “That is why,” Thurston asserts, “it’s possible for earthly worship to be a preparation for heavenly worship of the sort that St. John envisioned around the throne of the Lamb in the book of Revelation.”

In Christian worship, time is pivotal to what happens when we come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion. Around Christ’s Table our hopes and fears, our aspirations and disappointments are made sacred. When we gather around the Table, we do not gather alone—we do not even gather as First Presbyterian Church alone. Instead, eternity breaks in and the bread and cup are celebrated on earth and in heaven—and all time is contained in the present moment. Thurston says it so well:

God entered time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, took it into the Divine self, redeemed it and filled it with [hints] of eternity. After the resurrection, time and eternity [connected] in wondrous and mysterious ways…This is especially true at the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper is an event in the present that proclaims an event from the past which assures our future. It is a moment when Jesus is present with the church…Past becomes present and future.

At the Lord’s Table, we experience time in at least three ways. First, we remember the historical Jesus—come to the earth as a humble baby—all for the love of fallen humanity and we recall that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Second, we experience the present as Christ present with us now, nourishing us, encouraging us, and equipping us. Finally, at the Table, believers receive a foretaste of what it will be like when Christ returns—when with joy we will see him as he is—when we, too, will be invited to sit at his Table. Then all of time will be redeemed.

A time is coming when neither clocks nor calendars rule our days.

A time is coming when anxiety, stress, and fear no longer rule our nights.

A time is coming!

[1] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 11.

[1] Ibid, 6.

[1] Ibid, 2-3.

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[1] Thurston, 86-87

[1] Ibid, 88-89.

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription

Time to Testify

Time to Testify

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 17, 2019

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 12; Luke 21:5-19

 

As you know, most of the time our worship services are guided by Lectionary readings. Each week, the Lectionary calendar provides an offering from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a text from a Gospel and an Epistle. Supposedly, selections are provided that share common themes. Sometimes the connections are obvious. At other times, the pastor is left scratching her head, wondering, “What in the world were ‘they’ thinking?” I admit, at first glance, our readings from Isaiah and Luke seem like an odd pairing. Allow me to explain.

 

Overall, the book of Isaiah is a prophetic meditation upon the city of Jerusalem and the faith of ancient Israel, and, by extension, our faith. In poetic fashion, Isaiah weaves two threads into the fabric of the story of a chosen people. First, Yahweh, the God of Israel, has made deep, abiding promises to the line of David—promises of abundant blessings. In wondrous ways, God keeps God’s promises. The second thread of Isaiah’s story is an awareness that Jerusalem has fallen short and is constantly in jeopardy of judgment. Thus, through the eyes of the prophet, divine promise and divine judgment are linked.

 

Isaiah chapter 11, which precedes today’s reading, offers a glimpse of the peaceable kingdom that will spring up from the root of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord will rest upon God’s chosen king and peace and harmony will reign. The obvious response of such hope and restoration is the song of Thanksgiving found in our reading for today.

 

We happen upon quite a different scene in our reading from the gospel of Luke. While Jerusalem and the temple are still key to the faith of God’s chosen people, with Jesus a new day is dawning. For good reason, there are those who are impressed by the beautiful stones and the grandeur of the temple. Jesus, however, is not one of them. He is sick and tired of those in leadership who have used the temple system and their own positions to bully and oppress the vulnerable. A new day is dawning and with courage Jesus tells it like it is. In essence, he says something like this:

 

You see this building that you admire so much, well, a time is coming when it will be nothing more than a heap of rubble. It will be destroyed for the old world is passing away. But don’t be afraid—even when you hear of wars and rumors of wars—even when it looks like the end is drawing nigh—even when false prophets rise up. Oh, they will say they know the ins and outs of my Father’s plan. Don’t believe them! Don’t follow them! Nation will rise up against nation and there will be natural disasters that can’t possibly be explained. Hold fast! Before Abba’s plan is complete, there will still be work to do. Those who believe in me will be handed over to people in authority. And then you will be given the greatest of opportunities. You will have a chance to testify. Even then, don’t be afraid because I’m going to be right there beside you, giving you the wise words you need. They won’t know what hit them. It won’t be easy. You may be betrayed by your own kin. Hatred will rise against you—so much so—some will be put to death. Regardless, the bigger picture is this: every detail of your body and soul—even the hair on your head—is in my tender care. Stay with it! That’s what is needed! Stay with it and you won’t be sorry. Instead, you’ll be saved.

 

At first glance, the readings from Isaiah and Luke appear to be miles apart. But as I reflected on them, one thing kept glaring back at me. In a time of celebration, thanksgiving and praise, twice Isaiah proclaims, “You will say in that day!” Then from Luke, Jesus foretells of a time of chaos and destruction that will provide the perfect opportunity to testify. In other words, in good times, testify to God’s goodness throughout the earth. In bad times, don’t keep your faith bottled up; instead open your mouth and testify!

 

Testify—the word gets a bad rap in our tradition, doesn’t it? Likely, it brings up images of some Bible thumping man on the street corner, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Have you been saved?” In an article in Presbyterians Today, Lynn Hasselbarth, a student at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, admitted that when she thinks of evangelism, what comes to mind is a cartoon character of a car blaring its horn. Beep! Beep! Hasselbarth said in the past she felt more comfortable sharing her faith—quietly, politely, and avoiding conflict at all costs. But somewhere along the way her faith took her to an unexpected place—a place that helped her see evangelism differently. She realized that simple conversations about her call and the process of becoming ordained gave her just the opening she needed to talk about the things of God. She explains,

 

While I find myself more and more compelled to share the good news of God’s love for us, I continue to want to slam on the brakes, for fear of honking the horn of evangelism too loud. But I’m learning that the sound of evangelism is not [fundamentally] noisy or aggressive, nor is [a] …subdued or silent form of witness [best]. I yearn for an evangelism that sings like a set of wind chimes, ringing with different voices, tones, and pitches—not from our own doing but because of the stirring of the Holy Spirit.[i]

 

The truth is, in the way that we live out our faith, no matter what is going on—be it good, bad, or somewhere in between—we are a witness for God—albeit, too often, a silent one.

 

In her book, Tell it Like it Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, Lillian Daniel claims that all congregations and all churchgoers have faith stories. But most people of mainline traditions have for too long believed it is impolite or rude to talk about religion. People think being reverent to God means being silent and serving others. “It’s better to walk the walk than talk the talk” we say. One of the results of such thinking is we have lost our vocabulary of faith—we have lost our voice.

 

No doubt, we, who stand in the light and love of Jesus Christ, have a story to tell. And Jesus said we would have an opportunity to testify. But will we? Will we trust the Holy Spirit to help us find the words? “When things are going well,” you might be thinking, “I can muster up a few words of hope and love. Telling about good times and good things, sharing how God made a way when there seemed to be no way—that kind of testimony seems reasonable. I think I can learn to do that.” But what about when we stare darkness and pain in the face? Can we muster up a testimony then? Might it be that at such times, the world needs our witness even more?

 

No doubt every generation has speculated if the end of time is drawing near. In recent years, we have surely witnessed our share of wars, natural disasters, and political chaos, which might lead us to wonder: “Are these the last days of which Jesus spoke?” But Jesus does not want us to fret about such things. No matter what happens, our instructions remain the same: Do not be afraid…this is the perfect opportunity to testify.

 

But what kind of testimony can a faithful person give in the face of death and destruction? One scholar notes: “The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering. Great suffering changes some people and defeats others, but for those who endure—their very souls are gained. Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope.”[ii]

 

Thomas Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1889. He was an amazing song writer, and gospel and blues musician. As a young man he moved to Chicago where he made a living playing piano in churches, clubs, and theaters. Eventually, he devoted his career to the church. In August of 1932 he left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to St. Louis to be the featured soloist at a large revival. After the first night, he got a telegram with the news, “Your wife just died.” He raced home to learn that his wife had died during childbirth and his son had died the next day. Crushed, Dorsey refused to compose or play music for a long, long time. Eventually, however, sitting in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed over him. That very night, Dorsey recorded his testimony—one that has struck a chord in the hearts of people ever since.[iii]

 

Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand;

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light;

Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.

 

We are all on a pilgrimage. There are days when the light shines and hope reigns. There are days when the bottom falls out and we stagger, unsure of which way to turn. Nonetheless, our instructions remain the same: It’s time to testify about the love and mercy and grace of God Almighty—the God who counts the hairs on our heads—the God who holds our hands—and, yes, the God who leads us home!  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Lynn Hasselbarth, Presbyterians Today, Nov. 2013, 8.

[ii] Nancy Lynne Westfield, Feasting on the Word, 310- 312.

[iii] Ibid.

*Cover Art, Stushie Art; used by subscription

 

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 10, 2019

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 98; Luke 20:27-38

 

Recently a cartoon made its rounds on Facebook. It was a picture of the fairy godmother holding Cinderella’s hands, looking kindly into her eyes. The caption read, “And when the clock strikes midnight, Halloween will end, then bam, Christmas carols everywhere.” Of course, it will be a while before the tunes of Christmas ring out in our morning worship. Nevertheless, as I began preparing today’s sermon, reading and re-reading Psalm 98—well it put me in the mood for Christmas. The words of “Joy to the World” kept running through my mind—maybe because this is the very psalm that inspired Isaac Watts to put pen to paper 300 years ago to write what has become a most beloved Christmas hymn.

 

 

Let’s be daring. Let’s be bold. Even before Advent begins, let’s raise our voices and sing the first verse together:

 

 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.

Let every heart prepare him room.

And heaven and nature sing; and heaven and nature and sing;

And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

 

 

Such words—don’t they make you want to sing and shout for joy?  From Watt’s perspective, the birth of Jesus is just the kind of event proclaimed in Psalm 98.

 

 

Indeed, joyful worship is in order. I imagine the psalmist as a dynamic worship leader, who has been given the important job of gathering God’s people to worship with a new song. First, he calls the people to praise the Lord. “Make a joyful noise to Yahweh,” he cries, “for he has done marvelous things.” The people respond with singing and dancing but that’s not adequate praise for Almighty God whose right hand and holy arm have given victory. “More! More!” The psalmist urges. “Strike up the band—let the instruments—the lyre, the trumpet, the horn—broadcast the joyful noise up to the heavens.” Sounds of jubilation break forth. Still, that’s not enough for the Lord who is known for steadfast love and faithfulness. “More! More!” God’s cheerleader cries. “Let creation join in with seas shouting, floods clapping, and hills singing.” God has done marvelous things and all the earth responds.

 

 

What a worship service!  But a call to joyful worship isn’t for the people of Israel, alone.  Nor is it just for the high holy days of Advent, Christmas, and Easter. Surely, of all people, followers of Jesus should excel at raising the roof and making some noise! Praise should be our calling card. It has been said that praise is our best response to the evil in the world. Praise is the cure for despair and loneliness. Praise is contagious because praise begets praise.

 

 

What a delight to be part of the song and dance of joy for the Lord. Joining earth’s celebration glorifying God, every creature adds its own distinct voice. The seas and rivers, meadows and hills add their response. “Sing praises to the Lord. Make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!”

 

 

That the whole earth participates in the song reminds me of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a lowly colt. When he approaches the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude begins to praise God, singing and shouting for joy. Some of the Pharisees are upset by the ruckus so they tell Jesus to make the people stop singing and shouting. Listen to Jesus’ response: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”[i]

 

 

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Jesus’ words have often made me wonder, in this day and age, are we guilty of praising God so little, the earth may have to respond on our behalf?

 

 

Some years ago, Babbie Mason came out with a song entitled, “Keep the Rocks Silent.”

 

 

I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—one more day.
I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—oh, one more day
I don’t know about you, but I’ll keep praising his name, and I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—one more day!

 

 

The words of the song continue:

 

 

Well there’s all kinds of trouble weighing me down, I hear the voice of confusion, trying to turn me around. But I’m bound and determined to see this thing through. Until the end of my struggle—here’s what I’m gonna do—I’m gonna keep the rocks silent—one more day.

 

 

The words of the final verse are:

 

 

Now I don’t know much of nothing, about the end of my days, but I know a little something, about the power of praise. Cause I’ve been bound and determined, right from the start, to keep a rock in my right hand and praise in my heart.

 

 

I know a little something about the power of praise. The psalmist, by all accounts, knows a little something about the power of praise. But why should we praise? We should lift our voices in praise because of our amazement at God and God’s greatness. We should lift our voices in praise because of our awareness of both the power and the gentleness of the Creator. Praise moves us from an attitude of “Woe is me!” to an attitude of “How great Thou art!”

 

 

Psalm 98 praises the Lord for the marvelous things he has done. Of course, the most marvelous “thing” God does is come to the earth as Emmanuel—God with us. Jesus, by simply taking on flesh—by teaching, touching, suffering and rising—was and is marvelous. Jesus is the victory of God, and our only reasonable response is praise. One preacher put it this way:

 

 

In Christ Jesus the Lord’s power is on display as never before. Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables. Watch Jesus wash the feet of those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last and then quite fantastically show up three days later. [ii]

 

 

God’s greatest gift is Jesus Christ the Messiah! How can we keep from joining the song of all creation—the moon and sun and the stars, the frogs and crickets, the dogs and birds? How can we keep from singing?

 

 

Advent and Christmas are just around the corner. Soon we will gather to sing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and yes, Joy to the World. But let’s not wait until then to raise our voices in praise. Let us sing a new song to the Lord and let us begin even now.

[i] Luke 19:40

[ii] James Howell @http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=693

*Cover Art “Rejoice and Be Glad” by Jan Richardson; used by subscription

 

Today

Today

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 3, 2019

All Saints’ Worship Service

Ps 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

 

Time flies when you’re having fun, or so they say. It seems like only yesterday Kinney and I were running along the sandy shore of Myrtle Beach enjoying our first vacation together. Then, the pages in our little story book began to turn and we were running after four children, barely able to keep up.

 

 

When I think back on the life and times of our family, like vivid snapshots, moments frozen in time appear in my mind’s eye. Like the day Samuel, our first delight, was on the front walk riding his tricycle when I heard him calling out to someone. I walked outside to see him standing there with a serious expression on his face, chewing on a little stick and repeating to the gentleman mowing the church lawn, “Old man! Old man! Would you like a drink of water?” The “old man” was not really that old, but he gladly accepted Samuel’s kind offer—an offer that cemented a long friendship.

 

 

I can’t think of little Sarah without recalling her boundless joy for life. Often, in the mornings, we would awaken to a familiar sound: clu—clunk, clu—clunk, clu—clunk… It was Sarah jumping up and down in her crib, bursting with excitement, eager to greet the day.

 

 

Seth was a quiet, easy-going child. Maybe that’s why this snapshot remains with me. One day a bee stung him between his eyes, which sent us racing to the doctor. To say the prednisone shot and dose pack affected Seth’s personality—well, that’s an understatement. Later, Seth, Sarah and I were in the living room. Sarah was innocently sitting on the floor, coloring and watching television. I was reading. And out of nowhere, Seth jumped off the couch, raced across the room, and slapped Sarah across the head. Needless to say, the rascal had to be put on a short leash until the drugs wore off.

 

 

One of the pictures of Shane that I carry around in my heart is of him giving the best hugs in the whole wide world. I can still feel his little arms and legs wrapped around me in a grip that said, “I’m never going to let you go.”

 

 

It seems like only yesterday. The days come and the days go. How easy it is to take them for granted—instead of embracing each one as the gift that it is. Foolishly, we assume there will always be another day. Poet Jane Kenyon offers words of wisdom in a poem about a certain day even while she is well aware one day such days will no longer exist.

 

 

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise.  I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach.  It might

have been otherwise.

 

 

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate.  It might

have been otherwise.

 

 

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks.  It might

have been otherwise.

 

 

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.[i]

 

 

“Teach us to number our days,” Scripture tells us. No doubt, it would be unhealthy to contemplate the day of our death all the time. However, since today we have gathered to worship God and celebrate All Saints’ Day—it is the perfect time to consider, when we leave this earthly dwelling, how will we be remembered? Will we be likened to those people who witnessed Jesus’ love and compassion toward the tax collector and grumbled? Or will we be remembered as someone who was so eager to dwell in the light of Jesus, we’d do anything, even climb a tree, just to get close to him? Will we be remembered as someone who raced through life, rarely spending time with people we say we love? Or will someone reminisce about the day we sat with them over a cup of coffee to share the story of how we first met Jesus? How will we be remembered?

 

 

When I reminisce over loved ones who have gone before, I are sure to remember my cousin, Kevin. He and Kinney loved going antiquing together. In my memory, Kevin’s laughter still reverberates through the air. A gifted RN, he died in his sleep at the age of 39 because of a heart condition he didn’t even know he had. Kinney’s best friend Doyle lived life with gusto but his plans for a long retirement never came to fruition—a diagnosis of lymphoma cut short too many of his dreams. Today we pause and we remember.

 

 

Like a snapshot frozen in time, Zacchaeus is remembered as the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree poised to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Probably, Zacchaeus awakes expecting this day to be like all the others. But one word from Jesus and Zacchaeus is forever changed. “Zacchaeus hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This day, Jesus said, we’ll sit at your table and dine together. This day!

 

 

In response, Zacchaeus shimmies down the tree even faster that he climbed it, keen on having Jesus as his guest. Furthermore, he is keen to make amends for his sins; so much so he volunteers to give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back 4 times as much to anyone he has cheated. Then Jesus speaks those oh-so-important words, “Today, salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” This is how we remember the wee, little man, Zacchaeus. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, how do you want to be remembered?

 

 

Today, in the sanctuary, we have a Christ Candle and then 14 other candles representing friends and family who, over the past year, crossed the threshold into their eternal dwelling place. To the great communion of saints, these different lives have been added—ordinary lives—beautiful lives. Today, we pause, and we remember others. Someday—hopefully many years from now—others will pause and remember you and me. What will they remember? Will they remember that salvation lived in your house?

 

 

This week I have pondered how I want to be remembered. Of course, I want to be remembered as Kinney’s wife, the mother of four incredible children, and grandmother to two little girls who have stolen my heart!  But I also hope when my life is over and someone lights a candle on my behalf—I hope they remember I was an heir of God’s grace, a seeker of God’s face, a believer in the power of Jesus to transform all of life, and a witness of the Spirit’s power to make a way where there seems to be no way.

 

 

Today we pause and we remember. Amen.

[i] Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise,” in Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 41-42.

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission

 

A Matter of the Heart

A Matter of the Heart

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 27, 2019

19th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

 

A few years ago, a novel penned by Joanne Harris was made into a movie. The cast of “Chocolat” included such names as Johnny Depp and Judy Dench. Set in 1959, the movie begins once upon a time in a little French village known for its tranquility—that is until a sly north wind blows in Vianne, played by Juliett Binoche. Vianne is about to do the unthinkable—open a chocolate shop across from the Catholic church during the season of Lent. The town is run by Comte de Reynaud, whose family has ruled the village down through the ages. Comte de Reynaud is the mayor and because he thinks of himself as the moral authority of the land—he even writes the sermons that young Father Henri delivers like a reluctant puppet on a string.

 

 

It’s no surprise that Reynaud isn’t amused by Vianne’s sweet temptations—nor does he appreciate her generous, compassionate nature that attracts people to her almost as quickly as her sweet confectionary treats. When Reynaud sees Vianne, he sees an adversary—a woman who’s leading his people astray.

 

 

At first it seems odd that the people follow Reynaud’s lead without question. Eventually, though, it’s clear that they aren’t evil—they’re just living unexamined lives, like tranquil sleepwalkers following the path of least resistance—that is until they wake up and smell the coffee, or in this case, the chocolate. In time Reynaud’s arrogance and anger get the best of him, and his reckless words influence a troubled man of the village to set a dangerous fire. When Reynaud realizes what he’s done, he’s brought to his knees—an act that starts him on his way toward a transformed heart—opened by love—touched by grace—shaped by mercy—and bent toward compassion.

 

 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is again teaching through use of a parable. But this time he isn’t targeting his disciples or the crowds that are gathered. Instead Jesus is bent on opening the eyes, and perhaps the hearts, of some who pride themselves in their righteousness while looking down on others with contempt. We read the parable and it’s meaning is crystal clear. If we want to follow the right path, we’ll align ourselves with the humble tax collector. But as is usually the case, whenever Jesus’ teaching seems crystal clear, it’s reason to pause and ponder.

 

 

So, let’s examine the text more closely, beginning with the Pharisee. Going up to the temple, he stands by himself, and prays ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ It’s interesting to note that the Pharisee stands by himself—not with the community. Also notice how many times the Pharisee says, “I.” I thank you…I am not like others…I fast…I give…His prayer is all about himself. It sounds as if he’s come to the temple to remind God just how fortunate God is to have him worshiping at all![i]

 

 

But let’s give the fellow his due. Likely he does lead a blameless life according to the law and is seen by others as a religious expert. He gives 10% of his income to the Lord and fasts twice a week. Dedicated to his faith, generous—surely, we’d love to have him as a member of FPC, wouldn’t we?

 

 

What, then, is his fault? First, while the Pharisee may be right about the kind of life he’s living, he’s confused about the source of that life. He is confused about God’s grace. Second, he fails to show compassion for others. So, while he prays to God, his prayer concerns himself. He misses the source of his blessing and he misses the opportunity to be a blessing. In the end, the Pharisee leaves the temple with a heart just as empty as it was when he came through the doors.

 

 

What about the tax collector? He, too, goes to the temple to pray. Standing far off, he doesn’t even look up to heaven when he says, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He approaches God with an entirely different demeanor. But even here, in Luke’s telling, Jesus messes with our expectations because we expect the tax collector to promise to make amends—promise to give his own 10% —promise something. Make no mistake, the tax collector is not painted as a nice guy. His very profession defines him as a wealthy, low life who makes a living by collecting taxes for Rome, and it’s presumed, extorting profit for himself. There’s no doubt that the sins of the tax collector are real. And even though he enters the temple to pray, he doesn’t pledge to leave his employment or make restitution. He doesn’t even promise he’ll try to do better tomorrow. But what he does is open his mouth and speak words that reveal his heart. Somehow, someway, he recognizes his dependence on God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: Above all else, he needs God’s mercy and grace.

 

 

We hear this parable and, no doubt, we yearn to be in the place of humility instead of the place of arrogance but there’s still cause for caution. From the depths of our hearts, we dare not turn our eyes toward heaven and say, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.”[ii] Once we make that shift, we cross the line.

 

 

It is our human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for others isn’t it?  “Now wait a minute,” you might say. “I’m a good Christian. I am committed to Jesus and to this faith community. I give of my time by attending worship regularly. I give of my talents by singing in the choir and serving on a committee. I give generously of my income to support God’s work—here and in the world.” That’s a wonderful testimony, for sure. But Jesus, I believe, would ask one question, “How is your heart?” For being committed to the ways of God, is a matter of the heart. As Christians, we can tithe, we can fast, we can be Spiritual Masters, but we can still fail to be faithful.

 

 

Being faithful to God was the driving force of the Reformation which happened over 500 years ago. No doubt, many good things came out of the Reformation. Corrupt leaders of the Roman Catholic Church became less powerful. Scripture became available to people in their own languages. Bibles and other books became more plentiful, literacy grew, and schools and universities multiplied. However, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died gruesome deaths for their beliefs. Religious art and religious institutions were destroyed. The unity of the Western church was broken. Sadly, division has become the hallmark of the Protestant movement which is evident by the 9000-plus Protestant denominations now found throughout the world. We have divided over the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, over forms of church government, over worship styles, over the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament; over being welcoming and affirming to all people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and let’s be real—even over really important things the color of the carpet. We have divided and we keep dividing. This is a far cry from what the Reformers had in mind and surely, there is work still to be done!

 

 

But here is some good news to share: There is every indication that we are in the midst of a New Reformation. The Holy Spirit is on the move—challenging us to be courageous—challenging us to seek reconciliation rather than schism—nudging us, once again, to take the gospel out into the streets. The body of Christ was never meant to be housed in a building—neither in St. Peter’s Basilica, nor in First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta. Believers and seekers alike enter a sacred space like this one to worship, to pray, to learn, to grow, and then to return to the world equipped to BE the church. YOU are the church! YOU are the church when you shop at Publix or Home Depot. YOU are the church when you go to work or to school and or to a restaurant or to a movie. YOU are the church when you volunteer for Break Bread Together or for other ministries of compassion. You are the church when you provide words of encouragement on social media. YOU are the church when you seek justice for those who have no voice. YOU are the church when you obey the words of Jesus—to love God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

 

 

Today we give thanks for the Reformers of the past—even as we look forward to the future of Christ’s church. And on this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, we have the privilege of rededicating ourselves to the Lord—all that we have, all that we are, and all that we hope to become. In a moment, we will bring forward our prayer/pledge cards. How will we come to the Table?  Will we come trusting in our own abilities? Or will we come fully aware that more than anything else, we need God’s mercy and grace? On this Lord’s Day, may we approach our Loving God humbly, with a deep yearning for a transformed heart—opened by love—touched by grace—shaped by mercy—and bent toward compassion.

 

 

[i] Feasting on the Word, E. Elizabeth, Johnson, 215.

[ii] Bruce Prewer at http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C59sun30.htm

*Cover Image: Stushie Art; Used by subscription

 

Ora et Labora

Ora et Labora

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 20, 2019

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:1-8, Matthew 28:16-20

The title of today’s sermon is Ora et Labora. Ora et Labora is Latin for “Prayer and Work,” a saying that originated in the Middle Ages when it became an essential principle of the Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Church. The idea behind living a life guided by the practice of Ora et Labora is that prayer and work alternate so that work is blended with prayer and prayer is blended with work.

 

 

We are nearing the end of our 2020 “Pray for the Harvest” Stewardship Campaign. The theme is taken from Luke 10:2 in which Jesus tells his followers to pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers. Jesus, who has faith in the abundance of the harvest, gives the instruction—to pray—which is what we have been doing all month—or, at least, I hope that is what we have been doing. In addition to wearing the wristband designed to help me remember to pray each day, I have set my phone alarm for 10:02. So, at 10:02 I stop whatever I am doing and offer up a three-part prayer: Lord, I pray for our church—that you will send more laborers to help us gather a great harvest in Valdosta and beyond. I pray you will provide the resources we need to accomplish your harvest work. And I pray for your will regarding my own contribution of time, talents, and treasures.

 

 

Ora—we pray! Then, Labora, we work! How do we work? After doing our most important work of prayer, then we go forth trusting God for the harvest. Along the way, we remain open to growth—planning, organizing, and working in a way that anticipates growth—rather than impedes it. [i]  Our mission is one of peace, wholeness, and goodness. We are not guided by selfish desires. Instead, we are guided by Christ’s love for those who need a word of hope, compassion, and mercy. Ora et Labora.

 

 

Since the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as a praying man, it isn’t surprising that Luke includes a parable to help believers remember the importance of persistent prayer. In the parable, an unjust judge grants a widow’s request—not because he cares about justice—but because the widow refuses to give up. Day after day, she returns to make her legitimate appeal until, finally, she wears him down and he acquiesces. At first glance, we might think the judge represents God in the parable. But is God like the judge—ignoring us and wishing we would just go away and leave God in peace?  Quite the contrary! The nature of God is that of love and mercy and justice. So, the point of the parable is that if a person of poor character (the judge) can be persuaded to act justly in the face of persistent pleading, how much more can God be trusted![1]

 

 

Our first work, then, is prayer. But beyond the work of prayer, there is more to be done, which brings us to our second reading, otherwise known as The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:

 

 

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

 

The Great Commission is a well-known text. However, I imagine it is not a well-understood or an eagerly practiced text. Why?  Maybe it’s because it makes us feel unequipped, uncomfortable, guilty. I mean, how can we possibly measure up to Christ’s expectations? Preacher and scholar, Tom Long, has this to say on the topic:

 

 

The scene [of The Great Commission] is one of near-comic irony. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” but nothing in the surroundings seems to support such a claim. If Jesus had been speaking to vast multitudes, rank upon rank stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye could see, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir humming the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the background, perhaps it would seem plausible. However, Jesus is on an unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee with a congregation of eleven, down from twelve the week before, and even some of them are doubtful and not so sure why they have come to worship this day.

 

 

What Jesus tells them presses credulity even further: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” …Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to herd all the peoples of the earth toward Mount Zion in the name of Jesus would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, “Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.”

 

 

That is the point…The very fact that the task is utterly impossible throws the disciples completely onto the mercy and strength of God. The work of the church cannot be taken up unless it is true that “all authority” does not belong to the church or its resources but comes from God…

 

 

Ora et Labor! Understanding that all authority comes from God, what is our work to do in fulfilling The Great Commission? Might we be open to NEW WAYS of connecting the faith we talk about in here, with the way we live it out there? Might we try to be MORE GENEROUS this year than last?  Might we PRACTICE TELLING OTHERS where we see God active in our life and in the world? Could we make it a goal to INVITE SOMEONE to a church-related activity once a month? If we take just one step toward obeying Christ’s command, we may gain confidence to take another. Then, in time, we may entertain the possibility that, like Jesus’ disciples, we too are not only called, but also equipped and prepared, to go out into the world and make other disciples by our encouraging, teaching, preaching, merciful acts, and other ways of sharing God’s abundant love.[ii]

 

 

So it is. Ora et Labora. We pray and then, by the power of God’s own Spirit, we go into the world with everything Jesus has taught us. As pilgrims on a journey, may we be encouraged through the following entitled, The Commission[iii]:

 

 

At first it feels like a circle closed, a journey completed,
this reminder of the mountain where Peter, James and John saw the Lord transfigured,
speaking with Elijah and Moses, the voice that thundered from the enclosing cloud
filling the disciples with fear.
It is Christ himself who speaks to us here, the Lord crucified and now resurrected,
proclaiming his authority, and for a moment the apostles might be tempted to think the mission, surely, is accomplished, goal achieved: God reigning through Christ;
and perhaps the eleven look around the peak to see if Moses and Elijah will again appear
for congratulatory clasps of the hand.

 

 

But the circle has not closed; the journey has not finished, it is open-ended as the arching sky and as the road below that leads to the distant horizon; open as the mission that here Christ gives us, as the promise he makes to be always with us, from now to the end of days. For disciples must be made in and from every nation, taught Christ’s ways and words and sent anew to serve the men and women of the earth.

 

 

See how the slanting sun, moving across these Galilean hills, takes its seat on the rim of the wider world, inviting our eyes to seek, not the shades of prophets past, but the shimmer of the new world to come.  See how, as we lift our heads in the gaze that follows Christ’s lifting from the earth, we discover no mystifying cloud, nor faces from only scriptural glory. Rather see the shapes of the yet-to-be appearing in the echoes of his words.

 

 

There we see Paul, in conversation with Peter; and there is Barnabas, and Phoebe, and Lydia speaking with Thomas, who will travel to India; we can see Boniface, and Patrick, and Columba, standing beside Francis and John and Charles; a little further over: Dorothy Ripley who labored for slaves in America; Mary Slessor, who served so faithfully in Nigeria…just a few among hosts of other men and women come to this summit, hearts receiving Christ’s commission for them; whose long shadows shine, but in whose shadow – look, just over here – stands another familiar figure who, like them, will be helping to re-shape the world that so needs our obedience to Christ’s love. Yes. It is you.

 

 

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

[1] Ibid.

[i] David Lose, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] David Lose @ http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1584

[iii] “The Commissioned” by Andrew King @ https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/poem-for-the-sunday-lectionary-trinity-sunday/

*Cover Art: Creative Commons Free Bible Images; Used by permission

 

Pray for the Harvest

Pray for the Harvest

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 6, 2019

17th Sunday after Pentecost

World Communion Sunday

Psalm 30, Luke 10:1-11

 

Today is World Communion Sunday, which started in 1933 in a Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, for the purpose of reminding believers that, through Christ, we are connected. Our faith story does not belong to the Presbyterians or the Methodists or the Episcopalians or the Baptists down the street. We are all nourished at the Table of our Lord and we all have a role to play in God’s plan for the world.

 

While it is World Communion Sunday, today also marks the beginning of our 2020 Stewardship Campaign. “Pray for the Harvest,” is the theme, taken from today’s gospel reading, specifically Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Notice how Jesus has faith in the abundance of the harvest. In fact, the harvest is so plentiful, there are not enough workers to accomplish the task at hand. But how can we recruit new workers? Well, we do not, in good Presbyterian style, begin by forming a committee. Instead, we pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers.

 

Additionally, it is important to pay attention to who’s in charge of the harvest. Scholar, David Lose, points out, “God is responsible for the growth of our communities. We are called to be open to this growth; to plan, organize, and work in a way that anticipates, rather than impedes, such growth…”[i] Therefore, since the harvest is God’s, the last thing we should try to do is manipulate or coerce others. Instead, we trust God to provide and we pray. Prayer is how we gain access to the will and power of God to get the work done. Prayer is how we partner with God to bring heaven down to earth.

 

Then what do we do? Well, we don’t have a seat and leave the work up to everyone else. The language of harvest indicates something is coming to fruition that has been planted long ago. There is a sense of urgency because now it is harvest time—so it’s all hands-on deck. Imagine a field of vegetables ready for picking. If not picked immediately, they will be lost. Each vegetable is worth money to the farmer, and he is anxious to get them to market. Now imagine he calls on his workers to go quickly into the field to harvest—but instead they sit around complaining about the conditions on the farm or the inadequacy of the tools. Maybe they second guess the farmer because, well, the farm isn’t what it used to be. But now is not the time for such childish behavior.  Now is the time to be obedient to Christ’s command.

 

2000 years have come and gone since the days Jesus walked upon the earth. Certainly, a lot has changed. But one thing that remains the same is people are still desperate for the love and mercy and grace of God. If there is any doubt in your mind, look at the news on any given day. There are stories of corruption, suicide, addiction, murder, rape, theft, bankruptcy, genocide, just to name a few. Still today the harvest is great. Still today, people are hurting and are in need of the peace of Christ. Still today, people long to be cured of what ails them in body, mind, and spirit.

 

Instead of pointing fingers and criticizing “those people,” we have the privilege of going into the world on a mission of peace, wholeness, goodness—God’s shalom. We cannot go with an agenda—intent on filling our pews and overflowing our coffers. No, we must go with love and compassion as our guides and with no desire for personal gain because we are on a holy mission. In the words of Henri Nouwen:

 

When the message has been delivered and the project is finished, we want to return home to give an account of our mission and to rest from our labors. One of the most important spiritual disciplines is to develop the knowledge that the years of our lives are years ‘on a mission.’[ii]

 

The mission requires sacrifice. With thankful hearts, we give up some of our time, some of our resources. And to whom will our mission take us? Some people say, “All of my friends already know Jesus.” Well, make some new friends. Others say, “Everyone I know has heard about Jesus and already has some opinion about God.” Maybe so, but might there be those who have been misinformed or misled, who have been damaged by the church or turned off by the religious nonsense often promoted as Christianity? Actually, it is estimated that in any given community, 60% of the people are un-churched. While some have never attended church regularly, others have tried the church, found it lacking, and have gone home. Some folks feel they do not have time for church, or church is no longer relevant to their lives—so worshiping at St. Panera or St. Starbucks has become their Sunday morning practice.

 

Then, what are we to do? What is our mission? Recognizing the harvest is God’s, and trusting God for the increase, we pray for others to join us in the fields of God’s bounty. Remember, Jesus promises the harvest is abundant. Do we believe him? Or have we given up? Have we settled on just getting by? The truth is we are not put on this earth only to eke out an existence. We are meant to thrive. What would it look like for First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta to thrive? What is your vision of our future together? I envision abundance. I see the church alive, spiritually maturing day by day, and busy harvesting the bounty God has provided. I see us going into Valdosta and our neighboring communities to share Christ’s love with open minds and open hearts.

 

If you believe First Presbyterian Church has already had her day in the sun, then you are not trusting in the Lord of the Harvest to work big things through us. We possess the greatest story ever told—the story of God’s powerful love that will stop at nothing to save the world. To imagine we cannot be a part of the harvest in this time and place, is to have a pretty low view of the power of the gospel.

 

Knowles Shaw was an American author and composer of gospel hymns. Born in Ohio, he was a member of the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. A prolific evangelist, he baptized over 11,000 people in is lifetime. Of the numerous songs he wrote, the most popular was “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve, waiting for the harvest and the time of reaping, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

 

As a church, how can we bring God’s harvest home? First, we pray. To help us remember to do that, the children are about to pass out wristbands. And here is your invitation: Throughout October at 10:02 (taken from Luke 10:2), pray for our church—that the Lord will send more laborers to help us gather a great harvest in Valdosta and beyond. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will provide all the resources that our laborers need to accomplish the harvest work to which we are called. And pray for God’s will regarding your own contribution of time, talents, and treasures.  Let us join our brothers and sisters around the world, harvesting what God has provided. Then, may we, too, come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] David Lose, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: Reflections for Every Day of the Year, 132.

*Cover Art: Stushie Art used by Subscription

 

True Riches

True Riches

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 29, 2019

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 91:1-6,14-16, Luke 16:19-21

 

When studying Scripture, it’s helpful to take note of what happens around a particular reading. If we do so today, we notice that Jesus has been talking about money all through this chapter. We also learn that because the Pharisees are lovers of money, they are none too happy about it. So how does Jesus react? Does he try to avoid conflict? Does he run from a fight? Far from it! Jesus, who is often imagined as meek and mild, is frequently anything but! He’s brave. He’s radical. And he pulls no punches when faced with injustice and greed.

The Gospel of Luke is filled with images of great reversals of fortune—beginning in the very first chapter. Recall the words spoken by Jesus’ soon-to-be mother in what we commonly call the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…he has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.[i]

Later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus proclaims:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.[ii]

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is nothing new for Jesus. It’s in line with his teaching and it’s in line with the Gospel of Luke’s overall relentless “concern for the faithful stewardship of goods.”[iii]

Once upon a time there was a rich man and a poor man. The unnamed rich man lives inside the gate of abundance—dressed in purple, residing in the lap of luxury with everything he could possibly want at his fingertips. The poor man lives a very different life. The poor man, named Lazarus, lives on the other side of the gate, dressed in sores and he would give anything for a crumb or two from the rich man’s table. But no crumb will be forthcoming.

Eventually, as is the case for every living soul, Death comes knocking and both men leave their earthly dwelling. In an ironic twist, Lazarus is taken by the angels to rest in the bosom of Abraham at the great banquet table. The rich man now resides in the fires of hell from where he sees Abraham and Lazarus off in the distance. Anguished, he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with just a drop of water. But Abraham says,

Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.[iv]

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the behavior of the rich man prior to his death. He doesn’t intentionally harm the poor, pitiful beggar. He doesn’t even order him to get off his property. In fact, he shows no compassion whatsoever. The love of money has turned his heart cold and numb. Archbishop Helder Camara once wrote,

I used to think when I was a child that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the danger of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on ones’ eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts.

 

The rich man has endless resources, but he doesn’t try to change social structures. He doesn’t start Break Bread Together or a soup kitchen or a food pantry. He doesn’t search for ways to equip and empower the needy so that they can become self-sustaining. No wonder. From his perspective, there is no need to change the status quo. It serves him quite well (thank you very much). But, oh, the eternal cost. Day by day, inch by inch, the rich man has been digging a trench between himself and the needy of this world—a trench that expands to a great chasm over which nothing and no one can cross. [v]

Essentially, to the rich man, poor Lazarus is invisible and sadly, as one commentator notes, the rich man is none the wiser for his death experience. Notice when he calls for relief from the fires of hell, he never directly addresses Lazarus. He still acts like he’s king of the castle and Lazarus is nothing more than a servant when he requests that Abraham order Lazarus to serve him.[vi] Even from Hades, his attitude hasn’t improved. Lazarus is still nothing more than an object; still nearly invisible. Which begs the question: “Who is invisible to us?”  We may not have a beggar living on our door step, but are there other people around us whom we fail to really see?

Recently, I came across a compelling op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle written by Brené Brown. Addressing how our crazy-busy, anxiety-fueled lifestyles affect others, she wrote:

Last week, while I was trying to enjoy my manicure, I watched in horror as the two women across from me talked on their phones the entire time they were getting their nails done. They employed head nods, eyebrow raises, and finger-pointing to instruct the manicurists on things like nail length and polish choices. I really couldn’t believe it.

I’ve had my nails done by the same two women for ten years. I know their names…their children’s names, and many of their stories. They know [the same about me]. When I finally made a comment about the women on their cell phones, they both quickly averted their eyes. Finally, in a whisper, the manicurist said, “They don’t know. Most of them don’t think of us as people.”

On the way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble to pick up a magazine. The woman ahead of me in line bought two books, applied for a new ‘reader card,’ and asked to get one book gift-wrapped without getting off of her cell phone. She plowed through the entire exchange without making eye contact or directly speaking to the young woman working at the counter. She never acknowledged the presence of the human being across from her…

[Too often] I see adults who don’t even look at their waiters when they speak to them. I see parents who let their young children talk down to store clerks. I see people rage and scream at receptionists, then treat the bosses/doctors/bankers with the utmost respect.

And I see the insidious nature of race, class, and privilege playing out in one of the most historically damaging ways possible—the server/served relationship.

Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a hand basket. I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a hand basket. When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and our own.[vii]

I think Jesus would agree, don’t you? For in all of life, Jesus beckons us to follow him as he embodies what the Lord requires of us: to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Inherent in the Gospel of Luke is the great reversal of fortunes—so that the first become last and the last become first. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a cautionary tale that offers us the golden opportunity to reflect on our relationship with our money and with those who are less fortunate than we are. Perhaps, at the very least, it might nudge us to be more diligent in showing basic common courtesy to every human being we encounter—no matter his or her status. Surely, if we try, we can find ways to see—really see—one another. No doubt, the Holy Spirit can show us how to break through the gates that would separate us so we can offer a smile, a kind word, a helping hand…

One day may these oh-so-familiar words be directed to each one of us:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[viii]

If we seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, when our time comes to leave this old earth, we need not fear. We, too, shall rest in the bosom of Abraham. Amen.

[i] Luke 1:46,52-53

[ii] Luke 6:20-26

[iii] Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word, 116

[iv] The Message

[v] Rev. Bruce Prewer @ http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm

[vi] Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Feasting on the Word, 118

[vii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, via KindleFire 148-149

[viii] Matthew 25:34-36

*Cover Art “The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Door” by James Tissott; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Squandering

Squandering

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 22, 2019

14th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13

Luke chapter 16 begins with Jesus telling his disciples a parable about a dishonest manager—someone who is squandering property that is not his to squander. The pericope ends with the now famous words, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Then the Pharisees get a dressing down because in their hearts they are lovers of money. Finally, the chapter closes with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In other words, throughout this entire chapter, Jesus talks about money.

No doubt, of all Jesus’ teachings, the parable of the dishonest manager is the most confusing. It appears the main character in the parable is a shyster—a lazy, conniving, self-centered manager who’s out to get all he can—no matter the cost. We wait and watch—eager to applaud when the fellow gets what he deserves. Understandably, we’re shocked when his perverse plan works. Moreover, his master commends him for his dishonest shrewdness.[i]  This is a parable that has stumped even the best and the brightest of scholars. So, if you’ve come expecting me to iron out this convoluted tale, I daresay you’ll be disappointed. Instead, let’s focus on one portion of the text.

Hear these words again:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’”

As I pondered these sentences, what struck me most was the word “squandering,” found in the first verse. The man was squandering his master’s property. The word comes from the Greek word diaskorpizō, which means to scatter abroad, to disperse. The NIV translates diaskorpizō: to waste. As I sat with this story a little longer, I began to wonder what it would be like to be on the receiving end of such an encounter with Jesus. I invite you to wonder with me. I invite you to put yourself in the story.

Imagine Jesus walks into our midst and he says to each one of us, “It’s time for a reckoning. Come forward my brother, come near my sister. Tell me how have you’ve spent the gifts my Father has given you? Have you squandered your time? Have you wasted your gifts and talents?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager to have this conversation with Jesus. I am certain that in such an encounter, I would be found wanting. “So Glenda, I’ve given you property to manage—my property—a healthy body, a healthy mind, 24 hours in every day of your 58 years, spiritual gifts and talents to help you become my faithful disciple, and I’ve given you money and other resources to care for yourself, your family, and others. How are you managing my property?”

I hear myself stuttering: “Well, Jesus, you see, there just never seems to be enough…enough time…enough talent…enough resources…enough me.”

Time is a precious gift but oh how eager we are to waste it—and we waste it in endless ways. [ii]  We waste time watching television, surfing the internet, texting or talking on the phone in long conversations about nothing at all. We waste time with social media. While all these ways of interacting or being entertained are good in themselves, when we stop using them as tools to enrich our lives and start using them as ways to keep from doing what most needs doing, then we are wasting time.

Another way we tend to waste time is by dwelling on what other people are thinking about us or doing to us. We dissect some recent conversation and we worry about what the other person is saying about us. We fear being misunderstood. All this anxiety uses up a lot of energy and a lot of time. Also, we waste time by harboring past pains and grudges. When we resist forgiving and letting go, we are saddled with negative thoughts and we rob ourselves of productive time that could be used otherwise. We are given but a handful of days on this old earth. How sad it is if we waste even a moment—especially since we have important matters on which to focus—in our families, our church, our community.

Still, we never seem to have enough time. These days it’s interesting to think about what it means to “have enough” or “be enough.” In her book, The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist writes about how, as a society, we have bought into the lie of scarcity—a lie that robs us of peace and purpose.

For me, and for many of us, our first waking though of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is, “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies [and] our greed…

Never enough time, we may think—and never enough to offer the people around us. But the Bible says that baptized believers are given spiritual gifts for service. From Ephesians 4 we read:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Each believer is equipped to make a difference in this world—through spiritual gifts and God-given talents. How are we doing? Are we spending our time and talents wisely? Are we squandering our financial resources?

A few years ago, I attended a Credo Presbyterian Retreat in Indiana. One of the retreat leaders, a pastor/CPA, led the financial component of Credo. A humble, precious man of God, he also had a twisted sense of humor—which, of course, made me like him even more. One day he said, “I’m convinced that most people would rather walk down Main Street stark naked than talk honestly about their finances. We’ll gladly talk about sex, politics, anything but money!” While that may be true, consider this: Jesus had very little to say about sex and politics—but he had a LOT to say about money. As I mentioned earlier, this entire chapter of Luke is about money. “But it’s my money,” we say, “I will do what I want with it.”

John Calvin had this to say on the topic: “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor…” This includes our money. When we think about our role in giving to the church, the emphasis tends to be on the money. But the real uniqueness of Christian giving is, perhaps, best captured by Dietrick Bonhoeffer who wrote, “Giving is not God’s way of raising money. It is God’s way of raising children.”

Let us consider once more Jesus’ words to his disciples; this time from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things;
If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.
If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?
No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second
Or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.[iii]

Everything we have—everything we are—it’s all God’s. So, the question isn’t how are we managing our property; it’s how are we managing God’s property? Are we living with love and generosity as our guides or are we squandering that which is not ours to squander? Someday there will be a reckoning. Someday the manager will come calling. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Feasting on the Word, 92.

[ii] See more at http://julettemillien.com/3-top-ways-we-waste-time-what-to-do-about-it/

[iii] Luke 16:10-13, The Message.

*Cover Art “Merchant Taking Accounts” from Art in the Christian Tradition; Used by permission

 

Even Though

Even Though

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 15, 2019

14th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

 

Just before today’s reading, Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Ironically, the tax collectors and sinners do just that, unsettling the Pharisees and scribes so much they can’t keep from grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Recognizing this as a perfect teaching moment, Jesus proceeds to share three parables about his Abba Father’s relationship to the lost. This morning we will consider only the first two: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These stories invite those who have ears to hear to slip on someone else’s dusty old sandals and venture into un-chartered territory.  And if the invitation feels a bit strange to us, it was nearly as strange to the original hearers—particularly the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

 

Though it may seem that the Pharisees and religious leaders are against everything Jesus is for, they are likely faithful Jews trying to live out their love for Yahweh to the best of their ability. They wait in hope of the coming Messiah and it is their understanding that while they wait—they are to study, interpret, and apply the Law of Moses. Therefore, they must maintain laws of cleanliness, which includes not affiliating with the unclean and sinners. For them, the unclean and sinners are those who habitually break the Law and do dishonorable work, like that of a tax collector or a leather tanner or a shepherd.[i]

 

Nevertheless, Jesus has the gall to ask these “righteous” leaders to slip on the dusty sandals of a shepherd and to imagine one of their 100 sheep goes missing. “Wouldn’t you leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the lost sheep? And when you find it, wouldn’t you throw it over your shoulder, take it back home, and celebrate with your friends and neighbors?”

 

If asking the religious leaders to identify with a dirty shepherd isn’t enough, Jesus continues by asking them to slip on the sandals of a woman who loses a coin. Surely Jesus realizes these Jewish leaders begin each day with the prayer: “Blessed are you, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile, for not having made me a slave, for not having made me a woman?”  Sure, Jesus knows, but that does not stop him. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, and sweep until she finds it? And when she finds it, doesn’t she call her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her?” Jesus concludes, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

If the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not already offended by Jesus’ teaching, they are now.  But Jesus does not care because he yearns for them to see “kingdom living” in a different light.  He wants them to know it isn’t that God’s doesn’t love and care for the righteous. It’s just that God also cares for the precious soul who loses his or her way and through the grace of God, reaches a place in life where being found is possible. Indeed, there is joy in the presence of the angels when the lost are found.

 

While I have read these parables many times and have preached them more than a few, not until this week, did I really see God as the key player in them. Instead, I have tended to focus on what is found—a lost sheep and a lost coin. But in both instances, God is the seeker. The sheep does nothing to find itself. The coin has no capacity to find itself. No! God does the seeking and the saving and the calling for a celebration. The Pharisees and scribes, however, are unable to celebrate because they see no need to seek nor to save. Why bother? Who cares about one sinner? God—that’s who! In the eyes of God, each coin and each sheep matters. In the eyes of God, each man and woman and child matters. In the eyes of God, both the righteous and the unrighteous matter.

 

As you have likely heard me say before, I was twelve when I was baptized into the family of God. In the conservative Baptist church I attended with my uncle, the path to salvation was made clear every Sunday. If a person wanted to be saved, he or she must make the decision to repent from sin and profess to the preacher and the congregation his or her faith in Jesus Christ. To this day, I can recall the morning I took that first step down the aisle. My hands were sweating, and my heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest. Still, my desire for the light and love of Jesus outweighed any fear that could keep me in my seat.

 

In the years to come, I had many questions about the act of “getting saved.” For example: Why did the preaching of my childhood focus on “getting people saved” almost to the exclusion of teaching people how to live as disciples of Christ? Why was there more emphasis on eternal life than the life we are called to live now—loving God with all our heart and mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Why did I witness the condemnation of people of other traditions because they were baptized as infants or, perhaps, because they could not recall the exact moment Jesus came into their heart? Thankfully, many of my questions were answered through the Reformers of our Presbyterian tradition, who recognized that even the DESIRE to know Jesus is pure grace. We cannot even muster up the will to profess Jesus without the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And though none of us deserve such love—it is doled out like manna from heaven for anyone who wants a taste.

 

Years before I met Rodger Nishioka at Columbia Theological Seminary, I read his book, The Roots of Who We Are. A Presbyterian preacher, seminary professor, and Christian educator, Nishioka’s reformed theology felt like a breath of fresh air to me and there is one story, in particular, that I carry with me still today.

 

Following a key-note address at an event, Nishioka was approached by a man and woman who were surprised that he was a Presbyterian since he talked about Jesus so much. He replied, “Well, he is kind of the point.” Then they asked him, “So when were you saved?” He responded, “Oh, I’ve always been saved. You see my parents love God and Jesus Christ, and from my earliest memory, I have known that God loved me and Jesus was my Savior.”

 

“Yes, but when were you saved?” they asked again.

 

“Well, if I had to name a day and time, I guess it would be when I was confirmed in our church. That is when I stood up in front of everyone and said that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior.”

 

“So that’s when you were saved?” they asked.

 

“Well,” I explained again, “I really believe I have always been saved, but that is a special time when I proclaimed it to my family and church.”

 

“Well,” they said, “That’s not good enough.” And they both walked away. What Nishioka came to realize in further discussions with them is that they had a very specific idea of what it means to be saved. They believed you could only be saved or converted in a dramatic way. But you see, there are different ways to be found by God—through a dramatic conversion, yes, but also through a nurtured conversion, like that of Rodger Nishioka, and like that of many of you, I daresay.

 

Undoubtedly, the most compelling example in Scripture of a dramatic conversion comes through the Apostle Paul. One moment he is going out of his way to terrorize Christians and the next he is preaching Christ to anyone who has ears to hear. In his first letter to Timothy, we find words of gratitude to Christ who strengthen him and called him into service EVEN THOUGH Paul had been a man of violence. Hear his words again, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

 

Even though Paul was a man who persecuted Christians, he was found by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Even though the sheep had gotten lost in the wilderness and the coin had fallen through the cracks, they were found by the God who seeks and the God who saves. For you see, it is only by God’s grace that anyone is found—that anyone is saved. And it is only by God’s grace that we know what our response should always be—rejoicing and celebrating. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Roger Van Harn, The Lectionary Commentary Series