The Jesus Effect

The Jesus Effect

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 7, 2018

20th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 8; Mark 10:2-16

 

Last Sunday evening, Kinney and I settled on the sofa to watch the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Truth be told, I’ve been dying to see it since it was released, and I was thrilled when it became available on Amazon Prime. The film offers an up close and personal look at America’s favorite neighbor, Mr. Rogers. The informative and moving documentary goes beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe into the very heart of a creative genius who inspired and encouraged generations of children to imagine and dream and reach for a world of goodness and hope and love—even if that didn’t happen to be the reality in which they found themselves.

 

Born in 1928, Fred Rogers was a television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. He became the creator, composer, producer, head writer and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that ran from 1968 to 2001. On his way to becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, he recognized that television was the perfect medium to reach children in a healthy, positive way as opposed to the way television was addressing them at the time. Later, he would complete his seminary training, but his ministry remained the same—to be an advocate for children.

 

Over the past few months, I have noticed that so many people have become infatuated with Mr. Rogers. In fact, did you know that a movie is to be released next year with Tom Hanks playing the role of Mr. Rogers? Yes, it seems we are infatuated by Mr. Rogers! What is it about him that has caught the attention of a nation? While there are many possible answers, what really captures my imagination is the way in which he embodied the way of Jesus—the way of kindness and goodness and compassion—making time for those whom society considers insignificant—blessing children.

 

That is what we see Jesus doing in today’s gospel reading—blessing children. The disciples scold parents for bringing them to Jesus. The disciples have other ideas of how Jesus should divide his time—not waste it on insignificant children. But Jesus is indignant and tells his disciples, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” It’s noteworthy that this comes on the heels of Jesus addressing a question about divorce—the dividing up of a home. Then Jesus turns his wholehearted attention to those so often effected by the tragedy of divorce—the children. Jesus will unify. It’s us who will divide.

 

For quite some time, an idea has been churning in my heart and mind—an idea that simply will not let me be and the idea is this: If ever there was a time for the church to step up to the plate it is now. Now is the time for us to stop acting like the world—arguing, bickering, turning Christianity into a civil religion more than anything else. Now is the time for us to model for the world how we might be unified in love—unified in faith—unified in our goal to change the world for Christ’s sake. Of course, there are things over which we will disagree—even strongly disagree. But what might happen if the church were to show the world how to disagree in love?

 

Consider Mr. Rogers. He spent his life practicing the opposite of what we see plastered over news or social media sites every day. He practiced humility and kindness and gentleness. When he was just a boy and he would see scary things on the news, his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And at some point, Fred Rogers became such a helper. He often said, “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.” Fred Rogers was determined to live out his faith—even on the big screen. But instead of doing things the way other “successful” shows were doing them, he chose to do the exact opposite: low production values, a simple set, and an unlikely star. Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? Always going against the grain. Always the paradox. Always the upside-down gospel that the first will be last and the last will be first, that to really have life you must lose it.

 

Oh, dear Christian, in these days of cultural turmoil, we have work to do—serious work—and we have a much better chance of being successful if we put aside our differences—differences between other people in the pews beside us—differences between us and the church down the street.   Instead, we might turn our hearts and minds and strength toward what we share—the Spirit of God coursing through our veins.

 

Today we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with our brothers and sisters around the world. Some of us refer to this sacrament as the Eucharist, others the Table of the Lord, others simply Communion.[i] Some of us will use wine at the Table, some grape juice, while others will offer both. Some will break a small piece from a large loaf of bread and dip it into the common cup while others dip bread that has been pre-cut. Some will have homemade bread.  Some will have unleavened wafers placed into their opened hands.  Others will remain seated as trays of the elements are passed to them.

 

There are many ways to celebrate this feast and there are different ways to interpret it. Presbyterians hold that The Lord’s Supper is the sign and seal of eating and drinking in communion with our crucified and risen Lord. In other words, in a mysterious way we cannot understand, we believe that Christ joins us here at his Table. Here we are nourished. Here we are blessed. Here we are sustained by Christ’s pledge of undying love and continuous presence with us. And here we are united with all the faithful in heaven and on earth.

 

Unity—it’s what World Communion Sunday is all about. It’s how it all began. The idea came out of the work of the stewardship committee at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It was an attempt to bring believers together—a way to remember how important the Church of Jesus Christ is—and how each congregation is interconnected. While the celebration was adopted as a denominational practice in 1936, by 1940 it was adopted by the National Council of Churches. Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating we are one in the Spirit and one in Christ.

 

That, dear friends, is the Jesus Effect. The love of Christ can change everything and everyone. That is what the church has to offer the world. Not division. Not arguments. Not disrespect. But love and hope and peace and joy and forgiveness. It’s what the world needs. It’s what we need. It’s what our children need.

 

Artist, author, and United Methodist pastor, Jan Richardson, has written a blessing for the church on this special day. It’s a poem entitled, “And the Table Will Be Wide.”[ii]

 

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.

And we will open our hands
to the feast
without shame.
And we will turn
toward each other
without fear.
And we will give up
our appetite
for despair.
And we will taste
and know
of delight.

And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
And everywhere
will be the feast.

 

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

[i] “The Things We Share,” by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005

[ii] http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/09/30/and-the-table-will-be-wide/#sthash.aCBRdGDQ.dpuf

*Special Thanks to Elise and Evan Phelps, who provided our bulletin Cover Art.

 

Where is Your Treasure?

Where is Your Treasure?

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 30, 2018

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 121; Matthew 6:19-21

 

<Read children’s story, You Are Mine, by Max Lucado>

 

There’s a Punchinello inside most of us, isn’t there? An urge for other’s approval, a drive to be like the rest of the crowd, a need to show off all our “stuff.” And like Punchinello, there are many times we don’t count the cost until the cost becomes too great.

 

Today marks the beginning of our stewardship campaign. It’s not the most popular time of the church year because, let’s face it, we don’t want anyone to tell us what to do with our stuff. But if we look at it as a time of preparation, a time of self-examination, we might experience it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. After all, doesn’t our stuff really belong to God? Not 5% of it. Not 10% of it. But 100% of it!

 

Billy Graham once said, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” What might our checkbook or checking account say about our priorities? Where is our treasure? If we desire to seek the will of God before anything else, do we need to change how we spend our time and talents and financial resources?

 

Most of the time, I sense God calling me to speak to God’s people as a preacher but occasionally God challenges me to speak as a prophet. I prefer not to speak as a prophet. I know what happens to prophets. They get tied up and imprisoned and stoned and run out of town! Nevertheless, a prophetic word is mine to proclaim.

 

Some time ago, a Catholic priest and I were talking about declining attendance in the churches and he declared that the church has lost its witness. He said, “Churches are filled with people who are physically in their second half of life, but spiritually speaking, they are still in their first half of life. And we have ourselves to blame. It’s the church’s fault that people are stagnated in their faith.”

 

Many experts agree with the Catholic priest’s claims, insisting that the churches’ declining membership is, at least in part, due to low expectations for its members. Leaders are afraid to do hard things—like speak the truth in love—like refuse to accept bad behavior as the norm—like require more out of the people of God because they are, after all, God’s people! But we are afraid. Afraid someone will get mad. Afraid someone will leave. And God forbid—afraid someone will stop giving money. Surely, we should expect more. Surely God expects more!

 

The Book of Order states that a faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved RESPONSIBLY in the ministry of Christ’s Church. What does responsible involvement look like? It looks like: sharing Christ’s love through what we say and do; taking part in the life and worship of a congregation; lifting one another up in prayer and supporting one another; studying Scripture and important issues of Christian faith; demonstrating a transformed life; responding to God’s activity in the world by serving others and working for peace and justice for all people, and finally, by supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents.

 

There’s a Punchinello inside most of us, isn’t there? An urge for other’s approval, a drive to be like the rest of the crowd, a desire to show off all our “stuff.” And like Punchinello, we need to be reminded from time to time that it’s not what we have that counts. It’s whose we are! We belong to the Most High God. Therefore, giving should be a way of life because no matter how much we give, we can never out-give God. Amen.

 

*Cover Art via Unsplash; used with permission

Roots of our Faith

Roots of our Faith

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 23, 2018

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus attempts to quietly move through Galilee, while preparing his disciples for what is ahead. And what is ahead? His death, which he predicts to the disciples for the 2nd time. Failing to understand, the disciples turn their attention to “more important” matters—like who is the greatest among them. Aware of their antics, Jesus calls them on their behavior. “What were you arguing about on the way?”

 

Recognizing the need for a teaching moment, Jesus calls the disciples to him to provide an object lesson through a child. While embracing the child, the one considered least in society, Jesus points to the greatest, his Abba Father, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” A little child will lead the disciples to new understanding—whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. That’s the upside-down gospel Jesus proclaims.

 

Although, in our culture, a homeless person might be a better metaphor of the lowest and least because things have changed drastically in 2000 years. No longer are children held in such low regard. These days, parents and grandparents-to-be prepare for months for a new born baby to arrive. Our daughter, Sarah, is an artist and the baby room she created for Harper six years ago would have put Leonardo da Vinci to shame. One painting read: “With your first breath you took ours away!”  Truly, children are far from the bottom of the totem pole in most families. But as much as we want them to have a full life—with love and happiness and vast opportunities—we fail them if we do not help them understand that greatness comes through serving God and serving others. To help children grow in Christian faith, to help them develop deep, spiritual roots, that will carry them through wind and rain and sun and storm—that is of the utmost importance. It is of eternal importance. Children need to be rooted in their faith—rooted like a tree planted by streams of water.

 

One of my favorite spiritual practices is to read and meditate on the Psalms. Generally, I prefer the Book of Common Prayer that divides the psalms into morning readings and evening readings and allows for the entire Psalter to be covered each month. Often, when the first day of the month rolls around, I sit with my coffee, open the Psalter and feel lightness in my heart because I know it is time to reflect on Psalm 1 again. I know it is time to ask myself, “What kind of tree am I?”

 

Hear these words again: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of the scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on this law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do they prosper.”

 

If I am a tree planted by streams of water—what sort of tree might it be? There are days when I feel like an oak—sturdy, strong and true. Other days I long to be a dogwood tree—with a floral display in the spring, green foliage in the summer, scarlet berries in the fall, textured bark contrasting against the new-fallen East Tennessee snow. Some days I feel a bit droopy—my head bows low and my arms hang at my side—on these days, I must be a weeping willow. A tree planted by streams of water—today, what sort of tree might you be?

 

The righteous are said to be like fruitful trees nourished by streams of water.  But what about those who choose to live in other places besides God’s streams of water? Let’s continue reading from Psalm 1, “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

 

While the righteous may be like rooted trees, the wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away. This simile from the world of farming offers the image of thrashing time, when a farmer scoops up the grain and lets it fall to the ground, allowing the wind to blow the scrap—the chaff—away. Unlike the righteous, the wicked are not nourished. They have no roots to hold them steady; therefore, they’re scattered about to and fro.[i]

 

In God’s creation, are we trees or are we chaff? Thomas Merton said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. It ‘consents’ to His creative love. It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind. So the more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him.” To live the Christian life is not to pretend to be somebody else. The tree doesn’t try to be a peacock or a jack hammer. A tree is content to be a tree. You and I, however, tend to struggle with our identity—our true self. We find it hard to embrace the person God intends for us to be. It’s difficult for us to accept the truth that our lives are not our own, that we are dependent on God for sun and rain and breath.

 

Maybe we feel that God has created us, and we are left on our own to be the best that we can be. But do we really have that much power? Without God’s grace, the best we can muster doesn’t amount to much!  Even with our best intentions, we are incapable of “getting it all together” on our own. As one commentator notes, “A changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit;” not “the fruit of my good intentions.” “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”[ii] While being transformed by the Holy Spirit, we begin to feel our arms stretched upward giving glory to God, our roots growing deeper, watered by the grace of our baptism, and swayed only by the wind of the Spirit.[iii]

 

“Happy (or blessed) are those who delight and meditate on the law of the Lord….”  This is the beginning of Psalm 1, which sets the tone for the entire Psalter, inviting us to use the book as a guide to a blessed life. The instruction to delight in the law will seem odd to us if it brings up images of legal rules and prohibitions. But, ultimately, the way of God’s law (or the Torah) is the way of love. The law is our instruction book for wise living—so that we may learn the way and will of the Lord and allow God to shape our hearts and minds. That’s why the law is a cause for delight.

 

But God’s law of love won’t be a delight for everyone. Some will reject it and take the path that leads to sinfulness and cynicism. Their way is an illusion—with no more depth than the chaff that the wind blows away—because they aren’t connected to the source of life.[iv]

 

In America, it’s common for preachers to preach the “cotton candy gospel.” Promises are made that if you have enough faith and do A and B and C—you’ll have everything your little heart desires. Since this false teaching is so prevalent in our culture, it’s important to stress Psalm 1 is not a recipe for prosperity. We know wickedness sometimes prevails. But in the grand scheme of God’s love story for humanity, those who delight in the Lord, know theirs is a God who acts in history to free people from the bondage of sin. In the words of one commentator: “God is genuinely concerned about the way real people spend their precious God-given years on this earth. God cares. God provides. We can choose to take to heart God’s gracious will for humanity and allow God to use us in the grand unfolding of God’s [plan]. Or we can choose to live as if God were not actively caring and providing for God’s people—which is to say, we can opt out. God’s blessing belongs to those who opt in, centering their lives on Gods law (torah).[v]

 

Still, sometimes bad things happen to good people. That’s true! That’s true because sometimes bad things happen to ALL people. And when they happens, we may go to the Psalter in search of other songs that need to be sung—songs that give us words for lament and fear and loss. But Psalm 1 captures the wisdom needed for us and for our children and for our children’s children: How we choose to live our lives matters, and a life lived in relationship with a good and loving God is a life that bears fruit.[vi]

[i] Carol J. Dempsey, OP, Feasting on the Word, 85.

[ii] Galatians 5:22

[iii] Rev. James Howell at www.workingpreacher.org

[iv] James L. Mays, Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Psalms, 40-44.

[v] Ruth L. Boling, Feasting, 82.

[vi] Ibid.

*Cover Art © Jan Richardson Images, “Between Heaven and Earth”; used by subscription

 

Count the Cost

Count the Cost

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 16, 2018

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 8:27-38

 

Our reading from Mark places us in the center of the gospel. A journey of some 15 miles puts Jesus and his disciples near Caesarea Philippi, a city rebuilt to honor Caesar, a very Roman place. From this point onward, Jesus will focus his attention on his disciples. Actually, from here on, they will be enrolled in something like Intensive Discipleship Training. Important issues must be considered: What is Jesus’ true identity? What is his true mission? What will be the implications for his disciples’ own identity and mission?[i]

 

On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. One commentator puts it well when she writes, “The scene looks to us like a stopover on a political campaign, where the candidate and his entourage are checking on the results of their focus groups along the way. What are folks saying? Are they getting the message?”[ii] Evidently, the disciples have heard people’s opinions. They respond: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”

 

However, when Jesus shares his definition of “Messiah” foretelling of his own death, it’s too much for Peter. You see, Peter may have the right title, but he doesn’t understand what it means. He doesn’t want to hear about a suffering Messiah. Like many others, in all probability, Peter is more interested in a Messiah who will establish God’s rule; provide honor and glory to his followers—a just reward—NOW![iii]  So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t turn out well for Peter who gets called Satan before all is said and done.

 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus excels in many things, one of which is to draw a crowd. Wherever he goes; whatever he does, there’s a crowd near by. Today’s text is no exception. Why are they there? Might they expect a political march just around the corner?  Maybe. Do they want healing? Could be. Do they suspect they are in a funeral procession? Not likely!

 

Now imagine, Jesus is walking along, followed closely by his disciples and he sees all those people following him. He knows their hearts. He knows many have come for the wrong reasons. It’s time for a teaching moment, so he says to the disciples and the crowd: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

 

If Jesus knows how to draw a crowd, he also knows how to get rid of one. Who wants to stick around for this? Take up a cross? Lose their life? But that’s exactly what Jesus will do—all for the sake of the gospel. Jesus will deny himself. Jesus will choose to follow the will of God—all the way to the cross. Jesus will practice what he preaches.

 

Taking up one’s cross is often misunderstood; trivialized by popular use.  Today, we are likely to point to our arthritis, or an ill-tempered spouse—and say, “I guess that’s my cross to bear.”  But Jesus isn’t talking about something that miserably happens to a person. He’s talking about a lifestyle. Through the grace of God, the cross we bear is the way we choose to look at and live out every day of our lives, while seeking to become more and more like Jesus.[iv]

 

Jesus offers a cautionary word to those gathered around him: “Before signing up, count the cost!” We, too, should take heed—we who are followers of the way.  Are we willing to give up that which is dearest to us, our plans, our hopes and dreams, our resources, and toss them aside if it means that not to do so will keep us from the path God has chosen for us?  Are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and live a cross-bearing life?

 

It’s certainly not a popular way of living. One writer notes, “In America we don’t know much about self-denial. We know about self-fulfillment. We know about selfishness. We know about consumerism. Two roads stand before us today. There is the way of the divine things, which is the way of Christ. And there is the way of human things. There is a way to save your life, but you will lose it there. And there is a way to lose your life for the sake of the Kingdom, and there you will find it.”[v]

 

“Losing your life” defines the whole of Jesus’ ministry and mission. And like Jesus, at one time or another, haven’t we experienced losing our life only to receive it back again? Allow me to provide an example: When our church provides food to someone though our Break Bread Together program, we are giving something away, right? We are “losing” time. We are “losing” resources. Yet, don’t we receive even more? We feel joy because we are participating in a story bigger than ourselves—the gospel story of caring for the needy for Christ’s sake. We know God’s blessings because we are doing the work of our Abba Father and it is good.

 

David Lose calls this way of receiving unexpected rewards through sacrifice “inverted logic.” It’s a logic that goes against the logic of the world. The wisdom the world offers will have us believing that there is security in possessions and power. The world’s logic operates on the notion of absolute scarcity. We are pitted against one another in a winner-takes-all competition for goods, meaning, and love. Yet, the way of Jesus is a different “way.” Jesus will have us give of ourselves; Jesus will have us put others first; Jesus will have us take up burdens on behalf of another. Lose concludes that it’s no wonder Jesus is rejected by the people. He’s not just an unusual king—he’s the anti-king—almost the opposite of the kings of the world. I suppose it should come as no shock that his kingdom is still having trouble attracting applicants.[vi]

 

So, what is the cost for us?  Some of us may face unpleasant comments about church being a waste of time or the rehashing of the latest scandal involving some preacher—with the conclusion that all Christians are hypocrites. Some of us may have to reconsider our priorities—how do we use the time, financial resources, and spiritual gifts that God has given each of us? For people on the way—every day—there are choices to be made.

 

 

In a poem, Robert Frost writes,

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…”

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[vii]

 

Will we choose the way less traveled; the way of Christ? Hardships? There will be some. But bounteous blessings will be ours, too—poured down like rain—in this life and in the next when we will see Jesus in all his glory, seated with his Abba Father and the holy angels.

 

But for now, here we are, fellow travelers on the way. We have the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and our Guide. We have the church as a community of faith to celebrate with us when joys abound; to help us see life and love and hope when our vision gets a little cloudy; to hold us up when we can’t stand on our own, to give of ourselves—our time, talents and treasures—all for the love of Christ. The church, the Bride of Christ, is just one of the many gifts Jesus offers to the world. How blessed a people we are—to know Jesus as our Brother, our Lord, our Messiah, our Savior!  Amen.

[i] The Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 230.

[ii] Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, 71.

[iii] Harry B. Adams, Feasting on the Word, 70.

[iv] Van Harn, 403-406.

[v] Mickey Anders at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/09/pentecost-16b-september-16-2012.html

[vi] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=616

[vii] Robert Frost at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/09/pentecost-16b-september-16-2012.html

*Cover Art by Stushie; used by Subscription

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 9, 2018

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Mark 7:24-37

A few weeks ago, Kinney and I took a day trip to Jacksonville Beach. Moses, our new puppy, went with us. Upon reaching our destination, we gathered our stuff on the beach—chairs, towels, a picnic lunch, drinks, water for Moses, and, of course, Traveling Jesus. I had high hopes for Moses. I imagined he would enjoy playing in the sand. Although I did not expect him to dive into the ocean, I did expect him to at least tolerate it—to at least walk with us along the water’s edge. I was wrong. What ended up happening was a comedy of errors—Kinney and me eating our food hastily rather than leisurely. And me—pulling and tugging on Moses who was having none of it. None of any of it. “No!” to the water and “No!” to the water’s edge and “No!” to a walk in the sand. “No…no…no…” It was like dealing with a toddler. Nonetheless, the sun was shining, the waves were rolling in, and even Moses choosing to have a temper tantrum rather than play in the “Red Sea”—even that could not dampen the joy of being out in God’s wondrous creation—getting away—resting—being replenished.

 

Occasionally, all of us need some time away—time to rest and be replenished. For those in ministry or other care-giving professionals, it’s crucial.  Without it, things go awry: spiritual, mental, physical health begins to show wear and tear and then…a crisis is inevitable. Yes, sometimes a respite is what is most needed.

 

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark reveals a very human side of Jesus—he, too, needs rest. At least, that seems the most likely reason for Jesus to travel all the way to Tyre, where, hopefully no one knows him. In fact, the text makes it clear that Jesus enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know his whereabouts. Even so, a woman whose daughter is ill finds him. The woman, a Gentile of Syrophoenician birth, bows before Jesus to make her request. And how does Jesus respond? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you get that? Jesus makes a racial slur toward the woman, calling her no less than a dog! This isn’t like Jesus at all. When has he ever spoken to anyone like this? Is Jesus afflicted with compassion fatigue? Is that what’s going on here?

 

To say that this is a complicated story is an understatement, so it won’t surprise you that wells of ink have been spilled over it. Some have suggested that Jesus is teasing the woman, calling her a “puppy” instead of a dog. Others have suggested that this is a test, much like the story of Job and because the woman responds so cleverly, her request is honored.  After wrestling with this text, I am convinced that there is more to the story. I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus is calling the woman a puppy. Folks, dog means dog and that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. What’s more, there’s no indication that Jesus is testing the woman. This isn’t a test. This is life.

 

Jesus is fully divine—but also fully human! Keeping that in mind may be critical to our understanding. Having said that, could it be that at this point in his life, even Jesus doesn’t fully know everything there is to know about his earthly ministry? Could it be that he learns something about himself when he encounters this foreign woman who bears her heart and soul to him?

 

Jesus’ response about the children being fed first indicates his belief that the Jewish people, his family, will be fed first. He’s come for his own people’s salvation—first. That doesn’t mean that the gentiles won’t be included later. So, it may be that Jesus isn’t telling the woman, “No,” as much as he is saying, “Not yet.” But she’s a mother with a sick child! So, she receives his derogatory comment and digs in her heals. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In that moment, it seems that Jesus’ eyes are opened to this woman who has been silenced in her own culture. Who else will see her, if not him? Who else will hear her, if not him? Might his message of hope, even now be for all people? It will certainly be so for her child, because Jesus heals her from afar. Miraculously, the child has hope and a future, because of the tenacity of her mother and the mercy of the Lord.

 

As strange as it may seem, from here Jesus goes to another place where predominately Gentiles reside. Is Jesus taking the next step, expanding his ministry even now? (I wonder.) A deaf man with a speech impediment, presumably, also Gentile, is brought to him. Using a technique common in healing stories of the day, Jesus uses a sort of “spit-bath” to heal a man who is physically unable to hear and unable to speak clearly.

 

The Gospel of Mark is known for telling a story within a story, sandwiching one within the other. Could it be that this man’s impediment actually mirrors that of the woman? Are the two stories linked? Even if she speaks, as a woman in her culture, who cares? Who hears her? Who understands? Like the deaf man, she has no voice. But Jesus has a way of giving voice to the voiceless, doesn’t he?

 

The movie, “The Help,” which came out a few years ago, is a period piece set in the 1960’s. It tells the story of Aibileen, a black woman who works as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi. A widow, she is devastated by the death of her son. Although she takes pride in the 17 children she has helped to raise, there’s an emptiness inside her. This begins to change when Skeeter, a young white woman, returns home from college. Unlike her peers, Skeeter wants a career, so she gets a job as a newspaper columnist. Through a turn of events, Skeeter begins to really see the domestics in her town. She realizes they have no voice in the way they are treated—not really. So, she comes up with a plan to write a book filled with the stories of the experiences of the domestics in Jackson. For safety sake it is to be written anonymously. She convinces Aibileen to share her story; then her friend, Minny, joins in; then others step forward.

 

Of course, once it’s published, the book creates a scandal and in no time, the people in Jackson figure out the source of the stories as well as the writer. In the end, the dark truth is brought to light and the voiceless are given a voice—though not without great cost. But hasn’t it always been true that giving voice to the voiceless is risky business? Just ask the one who hung on the cross for love’s sake!

 

Recently, I’ve been reading the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, they speak against the ways of the people in their day. The way that the rich take advantage of the poor, the way that God’s law of love is put aside for personal gain. In God’s time, God will judge how the poor and weak and hurting are treated. That’s a part of our story that we might prefer to gloss over, but Jesus won’t let us. In his ministry, Jesus cares for the poor and the sick and the outcast. Even when it means that he will miss his holiday weekend, by the power of God, he is able to muster up enough strength to hear one more voiceless person’s need and heal her daughter; he is able to have compassion on one more voiceless man and restore him to health.

 

It’s interesting that when Jesus cures the man he says, “Be opened,” and immediately the man can hear and speak plainly. “Be opened.” Perhaps, it’s the word we all need to hear: Be opened, oh closed heart that is willing to love the person like me, but not the one who is different.  Be opened, oh closed mind that will not accept new teaching, so sure of my own wisdom. Be opened, oh closed lips that could share the love of Jesus but hesitates to do so.

 

Today, when we look around us, what do we see? Do we see someone marginalized by society, being treated badly? Maybe we’ve been less than gracious to someone who is “different” than us. Maybe we’re prejudiced against people of other races—unable to accept that there’s only one race—the human race. Maybe we hold grudges toward those we perceive as “milking the system” or we might have hard feelings toward “those people born of privilege who know nothing about the real world.” What might we have to confess to the Lord? Then, how might we go about setting it right?

 

Jesus is fully human; fully divine. Can we handle such a Savior? Can we handle Jesus changing his mind? Can we handle Jesus growing in ministry as he takes on each new task given to him by his Abba Father? Or, with clinched fists, must we hang on to a Jesus who knew everything from the moment he was born and struggled to hide his divinity from the other little children? But, didn’t Jesus wear diapers? Didn’t he need to be fed and cared for and disciplined? And didn’t he have a mother who would do just that?

 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there at the cross. She refused to leave her son. In that moment, if she had the option to approach a stranger who looked down on her, a healer who might call her a dog—if that had been a choice for Mary in order to save her son’s life—she would have been there in a heartbeat. Of this I’m sure. I know because I’m a mother, too. Call me any name in the book—just heal my child. It’s the love mothers and fathers have for their children. And as fierce as that love is—God’s love for each one of us is fiercer still. God loves us more than we can fathom. God will move heaven and earth to get to us. God will send his Son to rescue us. Fierce, holy love—it’s ours for the asking! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Cover Art, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman,” via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission.

 

Hearts and Hands

Hearts and Hands

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 2, 2018

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

After spending several weeks in John’s Gospel, this morning we return to Mark. As a way of getting back into the story line, let’s review events prior to our reading:  Jesus teaches; he heals the sick; he performs many miracles—including feeding the 5000, walking on water, and raising a 12-year-old girl from death to life! It’s no wonder news of Jesus spreads throughout the land. It’s no wonder some Pharisees and scribes come all the way from Jerusalem to witness him in action. Of course, they must check things out. If Jesus is doing all that they’ve heard he’s doing—he’s a force with which to be reckoned. He could usurp their power. He could upset the status quo between the Roman Empire and the Jews. Yes, it’s worth a trip.

 

The religious leaders arrive on the scene. They gather around Jesus and his disciples. In no time they’re out of sorts. What in the world are the disciples doing? Are they really eating without first washing their hands? The word used for “hands” in verse 2 is koinos, which means “common” or “ordinary.” For these Pharisees, food should never be eaten with ordinary hands—only sanctified hands will do![i]  While the complaint is made against the disciples, the quarrel is really with Jesus, who is their teacher.

 

Let’s try to imagine something similar happening here in our midst. Picture our Executive Presbyter, Deb Bibler, has received word that you have a heretic preacher on your hands—espousing all sorts of crazy ideas. The Executive Presbyter calls the president of Columbia Theological Seminary to discuss the rumors. They decide to call in a few other experts. Walter Brueggemann, retired Old Testament professor, is contacted as well as preaching professor, Anna Carter Florence. On the next Lord’s Day, they show up in mass. It just so happens that your pastor preaches a wonderful sermon (now don’t laugh, it could happen!) and we have a church full of people—even the balconies are jam-packed. Seven baptisms, Holy Communion, and the Blessing of the Hands follow the sermon. The music is exceptional. After the service the religious authorities request a meeting with the pastor and session members to discuss the events of the morning. The first thing on their agenda? They want to know why we had a Blessing of the Hands since that isn’t mentioned in the Book of Order. Seriously! In the context of the greater happenings of the day, that’s what our visitors want to discuss?  Ridiculous! Right?

 

While the ridiculous complaint made against the disciples seems to be about hygiene—it isn’t. It’s about the way these particular Pharisees and scribes interpret practices of Jewish ritual purification. Although certain cleanliness practices are required for priests as they prepare for holy work, no Old Testament text says that everyone must wash his or her hands before eating. Probably over time, some religious leaders began to espouse that the rules applying to the priests regarding hand washing should be applied to everyone. Now, obviously the idea hasn’t totally caught on—since the disciples are called on the carpet for their behavior.

 

In response to the claim of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus, never one to mince words, calls it like he sees it. “You hypocrites. Isaiah was right about you when he wrote—this people honor me with their lips when their hearts are far from me.” Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet and changes the conversation. The Greek term “hypocrites” describes an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. Jesus calls the religious rulers on the carpet for living phony lives—paying God lip service while presenting their human teachings as divine commandments.[ii]

 

While Jesus denies any error, it isn’t the Mosaic Law, in general, that Jesus rejects. After all, it’s not as if he’s on the verge of gathering up a busload of people to go across town for a pork chop sandwich! No, what Jesus rejects is any interpretation of the law that clouds the intent of the law. Biblical commands never take precedence over love and compassion. We have learned this slowly—from slavery to the position of women in the church to being inclusive of all people. Without a doubt, we are still learning this lesson. [iii]

 

Later in our reading, Jesus tells the people that uncleanness and evil don’t originate from the outside of a person anyway. They begin from the inside. They begin in the heart. Holiness, too, begins in the heart, which motivates the hands to be about doing the will of our Holy God. For holy living, hearts and hands go together. Because spiritually speaking, no matter how often we wash our hands, they cannot be holy unless our heart is holy.

 

In a moment, we’ll turn our attention to the work of our hands—instruments that are a gift from God. 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God calls us to holy living and holy work. The work may be to prepare the Lord’s Table for our meal this morning, to sing in the choir, to help out with the Generations of Faith Sunday School Class. The work may be outside of the church—at the side of a friend or family member, at the office, at school, while gardening, while caring for a loved one, while preparing or sharing a meal. All kinds of work can be holy work if it is motivated by love of Christ. And Christ needs you to be about his work so that his love will reign—for all people—for all time.

 

In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[The Blessing of the Hands to follow.]

[i] Douglas R.A.Hare, Feasting on the Word, 22-23.

[ii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 611.

[iii] Anders as quoted at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/08/pentecost-14b-september-2-2012.html?m=1

 

The Presence of God

The Presence of God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 26, 2018

14th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43; John 6:56-69

King David, who loves Yahweh with all his heart, yearns to build a Temple for God. However, David reigns during a time of war in Israel’s history. After he dies, his son, Solomon, takes the throne and with him a new day dawns—a day filled with hope and peace. Now, it’s time to put roots down in the land of promise. The presence of God has been “housed” in the Ark of the Covenant, which has been “housed” in the portable Tabernacle. But now, it’s time to worship God in a more fixed location.

 

The story of David and Solomon, which the lectionary readings have been tracing this Pentecost season, concludes this morning with the story of Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Last week we learned of young Solomon asking God for wisdom because he realized he could never lead this great people without wisdom. Some time has passed, and Solomon has taken on the responsibility and honor of overseeing the construction of the Temple. Everything must be exactly right—down to the last detail—all of which God lays out in holy blueprint fashion.

 

Finally, having completed the house of the Lord, Solomon oversees the moving of the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies of the Temple. The elders, priests, and people assemble. Sacrifices too numerous to count are offered and then the Ark of the Covenant is transferred to its new home. The presence of Yahweh enters the Temple, signified by a cloud so thick the priests are unable to continue their work. King Solomon turns to bless all the people assembled. Then he stands before the altar of the Lord, spreads his hands out toward the heavens and prays.

 

In his supplication, Solomon calls on the continuation of God’s steadfast love; the continuation of the promises God made to his father David. Wisely, Solomon proclaims, “But will God dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” God is present. God is accessible. But God has not moved into a permanent address! Solomon and the people realize that. Still the Temple is more than a building to which the people will come to worship. The earthly Temple is the place where the Lord’s name resides; it’s also a symbol of God’s presence with the people.

 

Humbly, Solomon calls upon the Lord to turn toward the Temple night and day to hear his prayers and to hear the prayers of the people. While all of Solomon’s prayer isn’t included in our reading, it’s worth noting that he makes seven petitions, asking God to hear those who pray toward the Temple of the Lord: when the people sin against a neighbor, when they suffer defeat, when there is drought, when there is famine, when they go into battle, when they go into captivity, and (included in today’s reading) even when a foreigner prays toward the house of God.

 

How interesting! Solomon asks that when a foreigner comes from afar and prays toward God’s house, that God will hear. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to us really, for hasn’t that always been God’s mission for Israel—to bless them so that they might bless the world?

 

No doubt, the Temple is more than a building. It is the place where God’s name dwells. It is a symbol of God’s presence among his people. It is a symbol of the Lord who is gracious and kind and hears the prayers of all who turn their heart toward God. The Temple becomes the “spiritual home” for the people of Israel.

 

As Christians, what does our church building mean to us? Why do we gather here to pray and sing and worship? What is it about this space that makes it different, sacred, able to fill a deep yearning? Undeniably, there is something within all of us that draws us outside ourselves toward the holy, if we will only allow it. Brother Lawrence, who served as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris in the 1600’s wrote, “I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD.” To which I would add, I cannot imagine how anyone can!  Augustine said it so well: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Only God can fill our restlessness, yet, how often are we guilty of trying to fill our restlessness with endless things that fail to satisfy: money, power, success, possessions, illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, sex…? Yes, people are searching. We are searching. To whom shall we go?

 

Throughout the Season of Pentecost, we have been reading portions of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. While we have addressed many of Jesus’ teachings, one thing that bears repeating this morning is his response to the question, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he sent.” In other words, we are called to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. That is our work—to believe! Are there teachings of Jesus that are difficult to accept? Yes. In fact, many of his followers are so offended by his words, they depart from him. But when Jesus turns to the disciples and asks if they are leaving too, Simon Peter proclaims, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

 

Peter’s confession is bold and beautiful, and he almost gets to the heart of the matter. I say, “almost,” because what Peter is yet to fully comprehend is that Jesus is the Holy One of God because Jesus IS God! Because when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is saying no less than, “I am Yahweh,” Jesus is God breaking into human history to redeem humanity. Jesus is God’s story of love for each one of us—a story that goes something like this:

 

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, God created man and woman and set them in a lovely garden where God met them day-by-day. At that time, there was no need for a special place to meet God, for the Garden of Eden was truly heaven on earth. But the sin of humanity changed all that. Time passed, and individual altars became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. Time passed and the Tabernacle (which came into being during Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering) became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. Time passed, the people settled down, and the Temple became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. But that is not the end of the story.

 

Eventually, in the little town of Bethlehem, God came to dwell among the people in human flesh, as the baby born to Mary. Jesus felt what we feel, saw what we see, and shared our joys and our sorrows. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, opened blind eyes, and broke bread with sinners, while always drawing people back home—home toward God’s self. Faithful to the end, Jesus gave his life for love’s sake. Then, in God’s good time, the resurrected Jesus returned to his Abba Father and the Spirit of God descended to be “housed” in every baptized believer so that God’s work of love might continue through us.

 

Great is the mystery of our faith! For what wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss, to enter our human brokenness—so that the presence of God might be housed in our hearts!

 

*Cover Art “Love and Revelation” © Jan Richardson; used by Subscription

 

The Beginning of Wisdom

The Beginning of Wisdom

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 19, 2018

13th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; John 6:51-58

 

As we continue reading from the Gospel of John, bread and wine are on the menu once more—but this time the telling leaves little to the imagination. In fact, Jesus proclaims to believers and unbelievers alike: Eat my flesh; drink my blood. Now folks, if that won’t put a damper on a party, I don’t know what will. Is Jesus inviting cannibalism?  Is he prompting the people to go against the Levitical teaching to never consume blood? It all leaves us scratching our heads and wondering why Jesus is being so graphic—so “in your face.” And why, oh why, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus go on an on about being the Bread of Life. We get it!

 

Or do we? More likely, the truth is we can never comprehend what it means that Jesus, the Eternal Wisdom and Word of God, Jesus, the Living Bread of heaven, left the halls of glory to enter our human story. How could we possibly understand why the Son of God, would give up his flesh and blood—for the life of the world—for the life of you and me? With our limited understanding, how can we fathom that this meal is the gateway through which Jesus promises not only full life now, but eternal life to come: “The one who eats this bread will live forever.”[i] Without a doubt, to even nibble along the edge of this amazing grace requires the gift of God-given wisdom.

 

Wisdom! What a topic for our time when our world seems totally lacking in wisdom. Oh, knowledge, facts, information—we have plenty of those. But wisdom—that’s another matter!  When I think about wisdom in Scripture, my mind immediately goes to Solomon, the King of Israel. From our Old Testament reading we learn that David has died and has been buried in the City of David. Now his son, Solomon, sits on his firmly established throne. (Regarding the details that follow, I am indebted to Tremper Longman III, whose commentary I found most valuable.[ii])  Solomon’s name relates to the Hebrew word, shalom, which means peace, wholeness, well-being. It’s a good word for how Solomon’s reign begins. Shalom is, of course, a far cry from the warring days of David who had to defeat the Philistines before claiming the land. Things will be different for Solomon, however, who ascends the throne as a peaceful, discerning, and spiritually sensitive ruler.

 

Solomon’s promising future is evident right away through his love for Yahweh. Surely that is a most important first step. Out of this love, Solomon goes to Gibeon to offer numerous sacrifices. It’s important to remember that this is before the Temple of the Lord is built—when worship at high places is still permissible. Solomon’s demonstration of love for God results in an extraordinary response. One night, in a dream, God says to Solomon: “Ask what I should give you.”

 

Now imagine, you’re king for a day and God comes to you like a genie in a bottle and asks to fulfill your heart’s desire. For what would you ask? Come on! Be honest! I daresay not a one of us would have uttered the words that came out of Solomon’s mouth:

 

You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness…And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil…”

 

Of all the things young Solomon could ask for, he chooses wisdom. Although wisdom isn’t talked much about these days, that doesn’t make it any less valuable. What is wisdom, anyway? Wisdom is not merely intelligence that can be measured with an IQ test. Wisdom is more practical. It involves knowledge, yes, but it also involves good judgment in how, when, and in what fashion to best utilize knowledge.

 

The book of Proverbs is a prime example of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible.  Traditionally, its been attributed to Solomon—although that is probably more of an honorary attribution. Overall, the wisdom taught in Proverbs seeks to build moral character while always, always remaining anchored to God. Reasoning, healthy relationships, facing difficult issues—these are given ample consideration. But if we want to know the key teaching of Proverbs, we need look no further than verse 7 of chapter 1, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Fear meaning awe, wonder, and amazement and yes, even a healthy dose of fear, as we understand it.)

 

Solomon demonstrates his fear of the Lord by approaching God with humility and wonder and awe. God is pleased—so much so that Solomon’s request is granted plus so much more. He is given a wise and discerning mind as well as riches, honor, and the promise of a long life on the condition that he remains faithful. During Solomon’s reign, huge building projects are completed—the palace, the Temple and the Jerusalem wall, and people from near and far come to seek his wise judgment.

 

After a time, though, Solomon goes astray because of his love for foreign women and his proclivity for worshiping their idols. It leaves us wondering how someone so wise could do something so foolish. (Yet, one more great mystery of the Bible.) Regardless of the reason, we can still safely say that having an appetite for wisdom and discernment pleases God. And surely God still grants wisdom to those who ask for it.

 

In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul yearns for believers to possess Christ himself, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If there is to be any wisdom, any true understanding for a Christian, it will come through the treasure of Jesus Christ—which brings us back to the Gospel of John.

 

If Jesus repeats himself, over and over again, about being the bread of life, surely, it is because of the difficulty of truly understanding what’s being communicated—that the Word has been made flesh and that Jesus, incarnate, has gone against everything we thought was true. He has taken on flesh and bone and skin and he has moved in with us and things will never be the same. And as we consume all of Jesus—body and blood, so Jesus will consume us—should consume us—for Jesus wants all of our being—body, mind and soul. Jesus wants no less than to burrow deep within us, flow through our veins, and nourish every nook and crevice and cranny. This kind of relationship cannot happen by calmly considering Jesus from a safe distance. Incarnation means we’ll have to hold out empty hands, chew bread, and gulp that which pours from the cup.[iii] It’s scandalous, but it’s the gospel.

 

One scholar notes that if the shocking words of Jesus—those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life—“mean anything in the life of the church, then at least they mean that when we eat and drink at the holy Table, eternity has broken into time in a unique, unrepeatable way. Eternity keeps on dipping into our time.”[iv] For John, the gospel is a matter of life and death and apart from the Lord’s Supper, apart from this banquet table, we have no life in us.

 

William Willimon tells a story about his friend who teaches theology at Oxford:

 

He says that his toughest task is to ask and answer the question, ‘What is theology about?’ His students tend to respond that theology is about spiritual matters, or about religion, or deeper meaning in life, et cetera. No, he instructs them, theology (at least Christian, incarnational theology, theology in the mode of the sixth chapter of the Fourth Gospel) is about everything. Jesus has come down from heaven with the intention of taking it all back. He wants all of us, and he wants us to have all of him.[v]

 

How wise we will be if we approach God, each and every day, and humbly request a hearty appetite for the true bread and the true drink that brings heaven down on this old earth. Oh, how blessed we will be when Christ has all of us and we have all of Christ.

 

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

[i] Feasting on the Word, O. Benjamin Sparks.

[ii] Tremper Longman III, The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 222-224.

[iii] Feasting on the Word, William H. Willimon, 360-361.

[iv] Feasting on the Word, Sparks, 360.

[v] Ibid, 361.

*Cover Art “Widsom’s Path” ©Jan Richardson; used by Subscription

 

The Eternal Now

The Eternal Now

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 12, 2018

12th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; John 6:35, 41-51

 

You have probably heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. Jesus, a Jew, is faced with a group of his own people who have small minds. They resist the idea that God may act in an unexpected way; they disregard the miraculous events of Jesus’ life thus far. They fail to see the divine nature of this human Jesus. As a result, they complain because of the claim Jesus has made—that he is the bread of life that came down from heaven. They complain because they know him. They know his momma. They know his daddy. He can’t possibly be who he says he is.

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. While life is complicated—so is faith! Just when you think you have God all figured out, God moves in some astounding, unfathomable way. Yes, great is the mystery of our faith! Jesus encounters a group of his own people who are certain they know who Jesus is. Most likely, they are faithful people who know their Scripture, yet they are unable to see God’s gift of manna before their eyes. How easy it is to get to a place where we think we know more than we do. But no matter how dedicated we are to the study of Scripture or the study of life, “real knowing” may still not be achieved because “real knowing” is a gift from God. It is pure grace.

 

When it comes to our book of faith, let’s be honest, that, too, is complicated—filled with strange teachings. For example, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God’s people are instructed: Don’t let cattle graze with other kinds of cattle; don’t have a variety of crops on the same field; don’t wear clothes made of more than one fabric (in other words, cotton and linen don’t mix), and if you find out a city worships a different god, destroy the city—kill everyone. Unexplainable, conflicting teachings continue in the New Testament. For example, in Matthew 28:18, Jesus says, “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth…” but 1 John 5:19 tells us, “the whole world is under control of the evil one.” (Which is it?) In John 9:39 Jesus says, “For judgment I am come into this world.” but in the very same gospel, he says, “I came not to judge the world.”[i] And lastly, a contrast between the two testaments: In Genesis 32:30 Jacob says, ‘I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'” But Jesus proclaims in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God.”

 

And my point? Our Scripture is complex and even people who know it well can use it to go astray—or worse still, to do harm. I’m convinced that the Bible can be used to prove just about anything we want to prove. Simply take a phrase, separate it from its historical context, and “Voila!” you have a faith-based argument. The Bible contains all that is needed for our salvation, and the wise person will approach it humbly, prayerfully and always, always, seek to interpret it in light of the whole of God’s salvation narrative.

 

To those who are complaining about Jesus’ claim that he is the Bread of Life, Jesus counters that it is the Father and not his teaching that draws people to the true bread that comes from heaven—to eternal life—to Jesus. Yes, even the desire to know, the desire to seek the bread of life, even that is a gift—even that is a grace. Grace upon grace! Because Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day…Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. I am the living bread…whoever eats of this bread will live forever…”

 

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…whoever believes has eternal life…” There is a constant tension between how eternal life is interpreted and what it means. Most people think of eternal life as the last day, as the sweet by and by, but in essence, Jesus says, “No, eternal life is standing right here in front of you.” Eternal life is Jesus himself—eternal life begins right now! What difference does the eternal now make to the way we live our lives?[ii] It must be more than a set of rigorous beliefs. Christian faith begins with an encounter and a relationship with the Bread of Life, with Jesus. What is the bread on which we feast?

 

When my children were growing up, I enjoyed making bread. I loved the whole process—measuring, stirring, kneading, waiting and then the wonderful aroma of the bread baking in the oven. The kids were quite happy with Momma’s homemade fare, that is, until they went to a neighbor’s home and ate white store-bought bread. Eventually, it became a struggle to get them to eat the hearty bread at all. Finally, I gave in and made wheat and white bread. However, I did get the last word. Now that they are all grown up and more health conscious they have finally come around to momma’s way of thinking—hearty bread is healthier.

 

When it comes to our spiritual food, it is good to be selective about the bread upon which we feast. As one writer puts it, “It is one thing to survive, to just get by, like the manna that got the children of Israel through the wilderness. It is another to feast on that which will last forever. We are wise to ask ourselves, “What has to move out for God to move in? What do we need to make sure is not a part of our diet?”  To do otherwise is to risk spiritual starvation. Jesus provides for us spiritual, eternal nourishment that begins right now.[iii] Do we believe it? If so, does our life prove it?

 

Some of you have heard a little of the story of my childhood. It’s not something I often talk about—not because I am ashamed but because it really doesn’t make for polite dinner conversation. Suffice it to say, when it comes to my family of origin, I did not win the lottery. Having to overcome being abandoned by my mother, mistreated by my father and finally having no place to really call home—well folks, it was a hard row to hoe, as the saying goes. Who could imagine that the row would end here?

 

As far as church rows go, I prefer the pew near the front on the left. (In fact, Sue Miller, you are sitting in my seat.) But that’s not how things turned out. Instead, every Sunday, I put on this robe and drape the stole around my neck (a symbol of being yoked to God for ministry) and I do this thing that is my greatest fear and my greatest delight—attempt to speak God’s salvation story to those who will hear. For you see, with all my heart and soul, I believe that being baptized into the family of God matters. In fact, it changes everything! These living waters give us a new name and a new eternal address that begins in the here and now. With all my heart and soul, I believe that what happens around the Table of our Lord matters. It matters when the sun is shining, and it matters when there is a storm a-brewin’. For above all else, God’s grace is sufficient to meet our needs. God’s grace is sufficient for new life to be ours in the eternal now. And in this eternal now, God’s Spirit is our guide—instructing us, renewing us, challenging us, and equipping us to boldly embrace abundant life!

 

Søren Kierkegaard told a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left commenting on the message and waddled back home. But they never flew.[iv]

 

What difference does Jesus make in your life? It has been said that to the hungry, (Jesus) is the bread of life; to the thirsty, he is the fountain of living water; to the lonely, he is the friend who is willing to go the second mile; to the sick, he is the Balm in Gilead; to the dying, he is the resurrection and the life.[v] Who is Jesus to you?

 

Hear now a poetic interpretation of Jesus’ words penned by Rev. Ken Rookes:

 

I am the bread,

the bread of living;

come to me.

I have God’s word for you,

food for your heart.

It is a word of joy and of freedom,

surprising in generosity,

intense and glowing.

It tells of peace in the midst of turbulent times,

defiant love in the midst of fear,

hope, when darkness abounds.

This is the word that will answer your hunger,

and confound your emptiness.

I am the bread of life;

in me the journey begins and ends

and finds its shape.

In me you will discover yourself;

you will also find true community

and the friendship of God.

Sing, rejoice, dance and weep:

I am the bread:

the bread of living;

come to me.

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

[i] John 12:47

[ii] Sermon Brainwave, Karoline Lewis

[iii]http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/08/pentecost-11b.html

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, Maxie Dunham

*Cover Art by Stushie; used by Subscription

 

Hard Truths

Hard Truths

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 5, 2018

11th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; John 6:24-35

 

Occasionally a particular word in the English language will send me on a search for its meaning and history, its etymology. Just such a word caught my attention recently—the word “meander.” It’s a good word, don’t you think? To meander is to follow a winding course or to wander without definite aim or direction. You might be interested to know that the term comes from the Meander River of eastern Turkey, which, from ancient times, was a visual metaphor for how to take the longest path between two points. When I think of meandering, I think of long walks on the beach or spending hours in a bookstore seeking new treasures. Kinney meanders on his morning runs.

Certainly, meandering can take us to places of wonder and delight, but meandering can also get us in trouble—take the people in our lectionary readings, for example. David loses his way and meanders into sin—so much so that he is unable to see himself in Nathan’s moral tale.[i]  David meanders into a trap that forces him to face a hard truth: he has committed a terrible sin against God. No doubt, he has sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, and their unborn child. And what about soldiers that might have been under Uriah’s command? Although Scripture does not tell us, it is likely that other innocent men lost their lives because of David’s dastardly deed.  Yes, David meanders into sin.

 

The Bible records other stories of God’s meandering people like the Israelites who wander in the wilderness for 40 long years because they fail to trust in God after their great exodus from Egypt. Because of their sin, they do not enter the Promised Land. Nevertheless, while on their journey they experience God’s provision raining down from heaven as manna to fill their empty tummies.

 

In John’s Gospel when Jesus repeats this miracle of provision (by feeding the 5000 with a boy’s gift of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish), there is no doubt the people are reminded of the story of long ago. We know so because they mention it! Listen to how the people react to what Jesus has done, but this time, I invite you to hear the story through Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 

The next day the crowd that was left behind realized that there had been only one boat and that Jesus had not gotten into it with his disciples. They had seen them go off without him. By now boats from Tiberias had pulled up near where they had eaten the bread blessed by the Master. So when the crowd realized he was gone and wasn’t coming back, they piled into the Tiberias boats and headed for Capernaum, looking for Jesus. When they found him back across the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” To that, they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?” Jesus said, “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.” They waffled: “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jesus responded, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.” They jumped at that: “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!” Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.”

 

The people are eager to find Jesus because they have gotten their tummies full and they want more. They are in the market for immediate gratification. But in the person of Jesus, they must face a hard truth. Living the life that Jesus requires will take more than aimless wandering. In the NRSV, verses 28 and 29 read as follows: “Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  It turns out that believing is, in fact, work!  Believing and living as God would have us to live takes dedication. It takes discipline. At the end of the day, those who meander after Jesus need to find the way, the truth, and the life before they can even find themselves.[ii]

 

How many of us stay up night after night when the Olympics are on television?  Even though I am not passionate about swimming, I still recall watching in awe as Michael Phelps took medal after medal—especially in the 2008 Olympics. How could we not be inspired by the discipline that it takes to get to the Olympics—no lounging in front of the TV, no fast food, no time for much of anything except practice, practice, practice (which, by the way, Scott Routsong knows a little something about since he is currently training to run a marathon).

 

When it comes to remarkable physical accomplishments, we expect nothing less than sold out commitment. However, when it comes to the things of God, “practice” and “discipline” seem foreign notions. How about a dollop of Jesus and we will be on our merry way! Our world spins on a diet of instant coffee, instant grits, and fast food. Immediate gratification are our watchwords—especially when it comes to our spiritual life. There was a time when spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, and Scripture reading were considered important to faith development. But times have changed and, unfortunately, such thinking has gone out of style. But can we really expect to grow in our faith without such practices?

 

To have the mind of Christ is not reached by meandering here and there. The hard truth is this: it takes work—it takes commitment—it takes discipline to grow day by day into the likeness of Jesus. As believers claimed by the waters of baptism and nourished at the Lord’s Table, we are called to participate in our own spiritual growth, our own wholeness. Christian maturity is not delivered to our doorstep wrapped in lovely paper and adorned with a fancy bow.

 

So, what must we do to perform the works of God? Well, if our goal is to be sold out committed Christians we will make worshiping with other Christians a priority in our lives. (Since you are here, I assume this is already important to you.) Gathering with our brothers and sisters, praying, singing, and partaking of God’s bounteous feast is a perfect way to allow God to reset our compasses, readjust our goals. Otherwise, we may become sidetracked like David, letting our desires become more important that God’s desires for us.

 

Other disciplines to enrich your spiritual development might include a renewed commitment to daily Bible reading, fasting, prayer, service to others, or meditating on God’s goodness through music, art, or nature. Perhaps, if you enjoy writing, it is time to begin a prayer journal—recording your thoughts and prayers each day. Hopefully, if you aren’t already participating in Sunday School, you will prayerfully consider joining the Generations of Faith class that starts next Sunday.

 

Oh, you may say, “All that stuff is for other people—radical folks like Pentecostals—not Presbyterians.” I beg to differ. The hard truth is that when we claim to be Christians, we are witnesses for Christ. And like Olympians who with each competition represent their country, we represent Christ to the world. Of course, we may choose to meander hither and yon, or we may decide to go for the gold!

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

[i] Wayne Brouwer, http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788032779&key=kufgb89fPZcjlsma

[ii] Ibid.

*Cover Art “Gathering the Fragments” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.