WWJBD?

WWJBD?

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 19, 2020

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-42

 

Christmas has come and gone. Presents wrapped with paper of red, gold, and green, have been opened and are being enjoyed. By now, most of us have taken down the tree, gently wrapped precious ornaments and decorations, and returned them to their usual resting place in the garage, basement, storage building or up those never-ending steps to the attic. Christmas has come and gone, yet while preparing for the sermon, I happened upon what I can only describe as a belated Christmas gift. It came through the pages of a favorite commentary, Feasting on the Word, in an essay written by one of my favorite professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Rodger Nishioka.

 

 

Before we open the gift, let me tell you a little about Rodger Nishioka. From my perspective, he and I became friends long before we met face to face. If you are a book lover as I am, you’ll completely understand—I first met Rodger Nishioka as the author of a book he had written about youth ministry. In those days, it was his area of expertise and he was in high demand—writing, lecturing and traveling. Through his writings, I came to admire him as a man of humility and wisdom. I am happy to report when I finally sat in his class at Columbia, my earlier impression of him was spot on—he is humble and wise, and he has a wonderful sense of humor.

 

 

One evening he invited our entire doctoral class to his home for dinner—a dinner which he prepared single-handedly. After we had eaten the delicious fare, someone remarked on our host’s culinary skills and he said his mother taught him and his brothers to cook when they were young. Then he shared how they nearly ate their parents out of house and home. After school, they’d be starving but their mother was often still at work. Finally, she decided it was time for them to pitch in since they were teenagers and fully capable of doing their part, so she taught them how to make one of their favorite meals, which included vegetables and a roast of some kind. Imagine her surprise when she got home the next evening and the table was bare. She asked her sons, “What happened, didn’t you cook the roast?”

“Yes mom, we cooked everything you told us to cook.”

“But where is it? Where’s the food?”

“We ate it!”

I guess Mrs. Nishioka should have been a little more specific with her growing boys—that is if she and her husband wished to partake of the evening meal.

 

 

It’s true that as we teach our young people, they teach us, if we will only pay attention. Our youngest son, Shane, has frequently played the role of my teacher—and often it has occurred on a long walk to one of our favorite spots. Generally, as we trek along, I can count on him to turn the conversation toward theology. So, I wasn’t at all surprised one afternoon when he started talking about certain televangelists and other people of celebrity status, who sometimes misrepresent Christianity. Finally, he said, “While I don’t mean to judge them, people who claim God speaks directly to them or insist they KNOW the mind of God, well, they make me a little nervous.”

“Smart boy,” I thought, and I had to agree with him. I went on to say that I believe God can instruct us in an audible voice—God can do whatever God wants to do—God is God, after all. But most of the time, divine guidance comes bit by bit, piece by piece. The Holy Spirit nudges us through the voice of a friend, Scripture, the Word proclaimed, the community of believers with whom we worship, poetry, art, music, prolonged silence, nature…

 

 

Yes, God speaks to us in endless ways, but there is no denying incredible evil has been carried out down through the ages in the name of God, when in fact, God had nothing to do with it! It seems to me that knowing, really knowing the heart of God is not something at which humans excel. Thus, when it comes to discerning the will of God, a little humility and wisdom go a long way.

 

 

Which brings me to our belated Christmas gift. You may recall several years ago when the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD?) campaign (based on a popular novel) was all the rage. Youth leaders near and far encouraged young people to wear WWJD bracelets to help them think before acting. Nishioka, who was working with Presbyterian youth at the time, had an interesting conversation with a high schooler one evening. Someone had given her a WWJD bracelet and she had chosen to wear it, but at the same time she found it disturbing. She shared this with Nishioka, who tried to explain that it was a symbol, a tangible reminder that as followers of Jesus, every step we take, and everything we do should be guided by Jesus. She said that she got that…but what she didn’t get was how in the world she was supposed to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, let alone carry it out. Nishioka tried to explain it all in theological terms, terms that I can hear myself saying to Shane, “Well, we have the Bible and we have a community of believers who help us interpret Jesus’ will…” But that’s not what the young woman was after. She interrupted, “Yeah, but don’t you see? I am not Jesus! I am fully human, but I am NOT fully divine. I just don’t think it’s fair to assume that I could even imagine what Jesus would do because I am not God!” [i] Smart girl—wise and humble!

 

 

16th Century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, toward the end of her life composed the following poem:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;

Yours are the feet which he is to go about doing good;

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

 

 

While being the hands and feet of Jesus should be our life’s goal, still it’s good to acknowledge we are not Jesus and knowing the heart of God is not easy. Sometimes, when we are so certain we are doing the work of God for God’s sake, we can trip and fall on our human nature.

 

 

In Nishioka’s essay, he tells about a time when he was teaching at the seminary. With an overloaded schedule and commitments galore, he was beginning to look a little frayed around the edges. That’s when a friend and colleague insisted on taking him out to lunch. “It’s urgent,” she insisted. When they sat down at the table, Rodger asked what was going on. She smiled and said, “I want you to know the Messiah has come!” He was confused, to say the least. Then she told him she had even better news: “You are not him!” A wise man became a little wiser that day: “The real danger in a distorted incarnational theology is that we come to believe that if we truly are Christ’s body in the world, then if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it.”[ii] Nishioka continues,

 

It may be better for us to ask, not so much WWJD? but rather WWJBD? What would John the Baptist do? Lately, I have been challenging myself and my students to be more like John the Baptist—to call attention to Jesus Christ and then to say to all who are within hearing distance, ‘Hey, look! See! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us and even in spite of us! Behold! The Lamb of God![iii]

 

 

Wise words, indeed!  As baptized believers, we do house God’s Spirit. But for every ounce of the divine running through our veins, there’s a pound of flesh that will readily lead us in the wrong direction. That, for me, is one of the most important reasons we need each other. We need the community to help shore us up when we are weak and to remind us, no matter what is going on, God is alive. God is in our midst. We need to be reminded who we are and whose we are because there are plenty of naysayers who will gladly try to convince us there’s no way we can make a difference in a world so full of pain and brokenness. Yet, if all we do is stand with John the Baptist and point a finger toward Jesus—with what we say—with how we behave—with how we respond when life takes a surprising turn—then we have done a great thing.

 

 

Today, as a church, we install a new class of ruling elders. They will join others on Session to help lead our church toward the life and light of the Messiah, who takes away the sins of the world. Together, we will pray and study and listen and then, with all the faith and hope and love we can muster, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will try to do what John the Baptist would do—point people toward God. “Hey, look! See! God is alive. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through and for us and even in spite of us! Behold! The Lamb of God!”[iv]

 

[i] Rodger Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, 262.

[ii] Ibid, 264.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

*Cover Art by Meister von Gracanica; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

Chosen by God

Chosen by God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 12, 2020

Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-48

 

Through the prophet Isaiah, we hear words of hope as God claims a servant, in whom he delights, to humbly, steadfastly, bring justice to the nations. The same God who spread out the earth, gave breath and spirit to the people upon it, now declares a new thing is on the horizon. God’s chosen One will open eyes, set prisoners free, and dispel the darkness. And just who is this quiet, unassuming servant through whom God will bring about justice and liberation?  It is a much-debated question!  In Hebrew Scripture the servant is often the nation of Israel. To complicate matters, the servant may also have a mission TO the nation of Israel.  In this case, the servant is called by God to bring to the nations the covenant revealed to the Israelites through Moses and championed by the prophets. God’s servant is to bring justice, not by brute force, but gently, quietly, with care and concern for those who are bruised and weak. New things are afoot! 

 

 

The Book of Isaiah is quoted more than 100 times in the New Testament. Susan Ackerman notes that Isaiah is so highly esteemed by the church fathers that they refer to it as their 5th Gospel.  And by the 4th century, Jerome writes, “[Isaiah] should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” By the Middle Ages, Isaiah is regarded as the prophet of the Passion. By the Reformation, the book’s emphasis on the “word of our God” becomes crucial to Martin Luther. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian missionary societies identify with the universal message of Isaiah. More recently, liberation theologians celebrate Isaiah’s prophetic mandate for peace.

 

 

Isaiah, beautifully written, complex in theology, has been used for great good. It has also been used for great harm. Anti-Semitic interpreters over the centuries have cited Isaiah to condemn Judaism as a whole. One has gone so far as to even compare Jews to Sodomites-hardly a message of reconciliation! It interpret Isaiah in a manner that uses it against other nations, to “lord it over them,” if you will, goes back to the question of “who is chosen?” as well as “does being chosen come with special privileges?” That way of thinking misses the point entirely. What is the message of God that we read, particularly in Isaiah 42?  God is sending a servant to bring forth JUSTICE to the nations—and this servant will be so humble as to not break a bruised reed. In other words, he will be gentle. The chosen one will serve the purposes of God and bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

 

 

It turns out that being chosen is not proof of superiority and entitlement!  It is proof of servant hood. But that is not the way of things in the early church. Insiders and outsiders, those who are chosen and those who are not, were designations alive and well in the early church. (And I might add, still alive and well in many places). But, as God says through the prophet Isaiah, former things have come to pass and new things I now declare, before they spring forth I tell you of them. God is about to bring about change, painting with vibrant strokes of color a “new thing.”

 

 

Which brings us to our reading from Acts. Earlier in the chapter, Cornelius, a low-ranking Roman military officer, who fears God and prays constantly, has a vision in which an angel instructs him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter. About noon the next day, Peter, too, has a mystical experience—falling into a trance. In a vision he sees the heavens open and a large sheet descends holding a host of unclean animals. When Peter is instructed to eat, he refuses because he has never eaten anything profane or unclean. The voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times. Afterward, Peter wakes to Cornelius’ men knocking on his door. Peter goes to Cornelius, hears his story, and is amazed when he realizes that God shows no partiality.

 

 

Cornelius, an outsider, has a vision of an angel of God telling him to send for Simon Peter, an insider. Peter, a disciple of Jesus Christ who has witnessed the good works of his Lord, as well as his crucifixion, and resurrection, also has a vision—one that changes his world forever. Let us be clear: neither Cornelius nor Peter act on their own. They are players in a drama being directed by someone far greater than themselves. The script of this drama is being written by God and as William Willimon suggests, it’s difficult to tell if this story is about the conversion of a gentile or the conversion of an apostle.  “The real hero of the story,” writes Willimon, “is not Peter nor Cornelius but the gracious and prodding One who makes bold promises and keeps them, who finds a way even in the midst of human distinctions and partiality between persons.”

 

 

So, God reveals a new thing to Peter, and, in response, Peter preaches the good news. What is the good news that he preaches?  First, Peter declares that God shows no partiality. Peter has learned that anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. Cornelius, a Gentile, is accepted by God because of his faith—his ethnicity has no bearing. Second, God has the power to change people. In fact, the whole point of Peter’s vision is that God can “make clean” those who are unclean. God sees that the human condition needs change and God sends Jesus—the change agent to confront all that is wrong so that hope can be restored. In his sermon, Peter essentially sums up the ministry of Jesus: Upon his baptism, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit and his earthly ministry begins. Jesus does good and heals the oppressed. Even when he is hanged on a tree and all seems lost, God is victorious, raising his Son from the dead on the third day.

 

 

Finally, Peter points out that the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is not made known to all. Only those chosen by God as witnesses eat and drink with Jesus. And those who are chosen are given no special privileges. Instead, they are chosen to serve the purposes of God as they testify to the people that through Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins is now available to everyone.

 

 

Biblical scholar, Andrew H. Bartelt, asserts: In the baptism of Jesus, he is announced to be the one in whom God delights and through whom all righteousness will be fulfilled. Here God is doing a new thing greater than all former things and still in anticipation of something yet to come…. That we might claim a role as humble messengers of this justice and heirs to the very identity of God’s people Israel is our …“new thing,” accomplished through our baptism into the life, death and resurrection of this same Jesus.

 

 

Matthew 3:13-17

Commentary on Gospel by Mark Allan Powell

The Gospel lesson for this day presents the second of seven pericopes in Matthew’s Gospel dealing with John the Baptist:

  • 3:1-12 the ministry of John is reported
  • 3:13-17 John baptizes Jesus
  • 9:14-15 John’s disciples ask why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast
  • 11:2-15 John questions Jesus’ identity and Jesus speaks of John’s role
  • 14:1-12 John is murdered by Herod
  • 17:10-13 Jesus speaks of John following the Transfiguration
  • 21:23-27 Jesus refers to John when his own authority is questioned

A study of these texts reveals that John is an unusually significant figure in this Gospel; he is very much the forerunner of Jesus, to the point that the content of his preaching is word-for-word identical with that of Jesus (cf. 3:2; 4:17) and is echoed in apostolic proclamation as well (10:7). Matthew understands John to be a bridge figure between the old covenant and the new – he brings the era of promise to a close and initiates a new era of fulfillment. The story in today’s text presents a “passing of the baton” from John to Jesus.

 

John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. Why? Many Christians have probably thought it is because his baptism was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Mark 1:4) and, so, would have been superfluous for the sinless Jesus. But such thinking may be foreign to Matthew. John was calling Israel to repentance and, though individuals might have personal peccadillos to confess (3:6), the primary focus was probably on the sins of the nation. Jesus and others were baptized by John to symbolize a new birth for that nation, a cleansing for the people of God.

 

John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is related to a difference in status. John recognizes Jesus to be the “more powerful” one, the one he has been talking about for some time (3:11). John himself stands in need of what Jesus has to offer: a greater baptism of Spirit and fire (3:11); this is probably what he means when he says, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14). John’s water baptism is one of repentance, which prepares the way for the messianic judgment that establishes God’s righteousness. Jesus’ response picks up on precisely that theme: they must do what is proper to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:16). These are the first words that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel and the saying is a bit mysterious. We may at least gather that God has a plan for making everything right and that Jesus is committed to being obedient to that plan. Why did he have to be baptized? That’s a minor question. The big one is, why did he have to die on a cross? Matthew grants that neither makes sense from a human point of view: thus, John tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism and Peter tries to prevent Jesus’ death (16:22).

 

The real focus of this story, however, is on the descent of the dove and, especially, the voice from heaven. Matthew’s Gospel is, of course, about God—every Gospel text in the Series A lectionary is about God—but most of the time God is in the background. People talk about God, and the thoughts of God are often revealed through prophets or angels or through references to scripture, which is “the word of God” (15:6). But there are only two texts in Matthew in which God actually speaks directly, as a character in the story (3:13-17; 17:1-9). One is read on the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the Epiphany season; the other is read on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season. These weeks we call Epiphany are literally framed by two divine pronouncements. What’s really interesting is that both times that God chooses to speak aloud from heaven, God says almost exactly the same thing: Jesus is God’s beloved Son and God is pleased with Jesus (3:17; 17:5).

 

The single most important thing that Matthew’s Gospel wants to say about Jesus is this: Jesus is the Son of God. This is the confession that gives birth to the church (see 16:16-19). It is hidden truth that must be revealed by the father in heaven (11:25-27; 16:17). Why is this so important? For Matthew, the divine sonship of Jesus is what establishes him as one in whom God is present (1:23). But hasn’t God been present in people before – kings, judges, prophets? No, not like this. God is present in Jesus in an absolute sense, so much so that people worship Jesus (see Matt 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 21:16; 28:9, 17; in all these verses the Greek word is proskyne´ō. Radically monotheistic Jews who believe that people should worship no one—no prophet, no king, no spirit, no angel, not even the messiah—no one but the Lord Yahweh (see Matt 4:10) are now worshiping Jesus. How is that okay? Matthew would say, because Jesus is the Son of God, and God is so present in him that worshiping Jesus counts as worshiping God.

 

The season of Epiphany focuses on the worship of Jesus, in whom God is made manifest to us. The revelation of his glorious divine sonship begins with baptism – the revelation to the world began with the baptism of Jesus and the revelation to us typically begins with our baptism. Some such analogy was no doubt intended by Matthew: when we are baptized, we too receive the Spirit and we too are identified as beloved children of God. We are baptized with Christ and into Christ, so that God’s plan of righteousness might be fulfilled in us and through us.

 

 

Contributor Profile

Mark Allan Powell

Professor of New Testament
Trinity Lutheran Seminary
Columbus, OH

How then shall we live; we who have been chosen, through our baptism, to further the plan of God?  We who have been chosen, not through any goodness of our own, but through the act of a gracious God who has chosen us for a life of service—how then shall we live?  How can we be change agents, participants in God’s reconciling work, in our little corner of the world? How can we share the message that God shows no partiality, all can be forgiven, all can be made clean, all are welcome at the Table of Grace?

 

 

It may start with wonder as we learn to blanket our words and actions with prayer. It may start small: choosing to refrain from gossiping and complaining, offering a hand to someone in need, sending a card to someone we haven’t seen in a while, taking the time to listen to a person who is in pain, or making a much needed phone call. It may start here in our church when God provides new avenues for learning, worshiping, and service. It may start at home with more words of kindness and compassion for our children, our parents, our spouse. No matter how it starts, it must start!  It has already started in each believer who is equipped by the Spirit to be an instrument of change in a world that is desperate to hear the good news of Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission

 

The Word

The Word

Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-5, 14-18

First Presbyterian Church Valdosta

Jane Shelton; January 5, 2020

(Epiphany Sunday)

 

Today is Epiphany Sunday.

Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

On this Epiphany Sunday, may we remember the words of John the Baptist who testified to the light of life which came into being in the birth of Jesus, who God sent to be the light of all people.

Might we remember that The Law was given to us through Moses, yet grace and truth through Jesus Christ.

Jesus became the Word in flesh.

Jesus made God known to us, and it is through Jesus Christ that we know God, and not by the law.

In a letter to his friend, Mrs. Johnson, as a reflection on John 1:1, C.S. Lewis wrote

“And The Word Was God”:

  1. S. Lewis said,

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. 

The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. 

When it becomes really necessary (i.e., for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. 

But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.”

 

So it is as C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is Christ himself, not the Bible, who is the Word of God…”

 

So I submit to you today that it is Jesus who is the still the Living Word among us.  Jesus, the light we continue to follow into this new year.

In our first reading this morning, we find a list of ways to live into the truth of the light of Jesus on our journey this year.

Perhaps we might even consider them as 2020 Resolutions from the Lord as written by Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord, your New Year’s Resolution is to:

Sing aloud with gladness.

Proclaim the goodness of the Lord.

Give Praises to the Lord.

Gather All.

Come with weeping and give consolation.

Lead others to the Lord.

Walk by brooks of water in a straight path in which you will not stumble.

Hear the Word of the Lord and declare it.

Be radiant over the goodness of the Lord – grain, wine, oil, young flock and herd.

Rejoice in dance and be merry!

Turn mourning into joy!

Receive comfort and gladness for sorry.

Be satisfied with the Lord’s bounty.

And when we do these things, “your life shall become like a watered garden and you will never languish again.”

 

 

In these words of Jeremiah is the Word of God and the Word that is Jesus Christ in all his truth and grace and mercy for us.

 

As this is Epiphany Sunday, may we follow the light of Jesus the way the magi followed the light of the Star of Bethlehem so that we find Jesus throughout this new year.

Kristin Stroble, a Presbyterian Pastor in Youngstown, Ohio, wrote in an article about a practice she has come to share with her congregation on Epiphany Sunday.

A Sunday when we remember the star that led the magi to Jesus.

Rather than encouraging resolutions for the New Year that often fail and make us feel guilty, she provides her congregation with “Star Words.”

Star Words are words written on a star shaped paper that we receive as a gift from God to help us remember to practice through the new year.

Words such as restraint, joy, and courage.

We might receive the word restraint as a gift to help us remember to hold back on the donuts on the breakfast table on Sunday morning, or restraint from allowing other things that keep us from making good choices such as holding back on second helpings or choices that allow us to omit exercise when we should become better caretakers of our bodies.

Or perhaps we receive the word joy to help us to remember to receive the gift of joy in all circumstances in our life, or as a reminder that we have joy because we belong to God.

Maybe the word we receive as a gift is courage.

Courage to live through difficult times, courage to face another day when dealing with depression, or courage to live through a time of unwanted illness and treatments, or the loss of a loved one.

Courage to recognize that we do not walk alone, but with one that is always there walking with us.

 

Star Words remind us that God sent his Son, Jesus as the Word in flesh to bring us truth and grace to share with ALL.

 

Pastor Stroble wrote that in the year that followed, a coffee reception was prepared following worship, and she was amazed at her congregation’s sharing of experiences with each other, as they shared their journey over the past year with the gift of their Star Words.

With their Star Words, they had replaced the negative feelings of failure and guilt of failed resolutions with positive reflection of the word they had received as a gift.

They were able to share their results of how they had followed their star daily, and how they found Jesus waiting to share his truth and grace in their journey.

 

Today, I have prepared for all of you a Star Word.

May you receive your word as a gift from God as we follow the Star of Jesus today.

I hope that you will place your word where you can see it each day so that it can be a reminder of your journey to Jesus as he waits our arrival again and again in all his glory.

I invite those joining us via live stream to take a moment during our time of silent reflection and thoughtfully receive a Star Word for yourself.

As we receive these gifts, may we also follow the light of Jesus into this New Year so that we shine brightly like the Star of Bethlehem, so that others may be led to the light of Jesus, just as the magi were led all those years ago.

 

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas; used by permission

God’s Presence

God’s Presence

Isaiah 63:7-9 & Matthew 2:13-23

First Presbyterian Valdosta

Jane Shelton; December 29, 2019

 

I am Mary, the mother of the Jesus.

I’m sure you have heard of me.

I am the young girl to be wed to Joseph who is of the lineage of David.

Joseph who was visited by an angel of the Lord who told him “I” was the one chosen to carry the one to come…. the Messiah…. the child of God.

I still do not understand all that has happened.  My head still spins, yet on faith, I have accepted what has been handed to me by my God.  My God whose presence is always near me, and whose presence carries me day to day.

 

My husband, Joseph, ….. a righteous man….has been wonderful and supportive.  After hearing the words spoken to him by the angel in his dream, he had faith to still marry me.

Now, months later,… here beside me in this manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes lies our baby, Jesus, given to us by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, the name Joseph said we were to name him as he was instructed in a dream by an angel.

Joseph said the angel told him our son, Jesus, was to save his people from their sins.  But exactly what does that mean?!

The prophets tell us that his people are the people of Israel.  It is more than I can conceive as I watch my new baby in his manger.

Why we look at Jesus and can hardly believe that he has arrived!

As we watch him coo with wonder, it brings us such joy!

He lies gurgling with such a peaceful glow, a glow so bright….well, it’s as if he’s the light of the world!

We know that Jesus must be special because we have been visited by wise men.  They came from many miles far away, following a star to see our baby, Jesus, here in Bethlehem of Judea.

They even knelt before him paying him homage!

Then to our surprise, they opened their treasure chests and offered our baby, Jesus, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh!

We could only stare in amazement of this event unfolding before our very eyes.

Soon after they left, Joseph comes to me to tell me that we must leave.

“But, why?!”  I ask.

“I’m still recovering from our last journey here to Bethlehem, and I’m enjoying my time with him these last few months, must we go now?!”

I pleaded with him.  But my husband insisted.

Joseph tells me that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and we must go for our safety before something horrible happens.  Before Jesus is destroyed!

Jesus destroyed?!  I can barely consider the words.

Swiftly, I gather up our things, secure Jesus close to my body, and we begin our journey traveling in the night to Egypt, once more fleeing for safety.

 

Over the next few days, we begin to hear rumors that hundreds of children are being murdered in and around Bethlehem by the order of King Herod!

Why is this happening?  Just when we were beginning to settle down with our young son?!

Why must these evil things happen around us?  Is this what we are to expect in our new life with our new child?

So we remained in Egypt until King Herod died, and then… once again… in a dream Joseph was directed to take us to the land of Israel.

But Joseph heard that King Herod’s son was now ruling over Judea, and Joseph became afraid to go into Israel.

As my husband prayed what we should do, he received a warning in a dream and took us to the district of Galilee instead.

There, we made our home in a town called Nazareth.

 

Doesn’t that story just make your heart race?!

Confusion and fear, fleeing and going…and yet in the midst is joy…a new light.

 

We have just celebrated a season of Thanksgiving.  A season of the birth of Christ.  It’s the time of year where we look back at the resolutions we made in January and reflect on goals we had set for this year.

Did we uphold our resolutions?  Did we meet our goals?

Maybe some yes, and maybe some no.

Maybe we have ended up in a new direction in life without even remembering those resolutions and goals we made in January of 2019.

So here we are again, a few days from making our new resolutions for the new year of 2020.  Are you ready?

Will God be a part of our New Year’s resolutions?

Like Mary and Joseph, and the prophets before them, will we listen and watch for the presence of God to direct us for the coming year?

Will we await for the angel of the Lord to speak to us in the quiet of the night?

When life becomes difficult for us to understand, and our burdens become heavy, will we act when God speaks to us the way Mary and Joseph did?

Will the work and love of Jesus be continued through us?

Who will we find in need in 2020?  Who might we meet on our journey in life that we can help, that we can offer a hand up?

Someone that we might pray for?

Someone we can be there for when they are alone and in need of safety?

Will we keep faith that God’s plan will be fulfilled through us as a congregataion, and will we allow ourselves to act when we hear where we are to go and what we are to do in the name of Jesus?

Will we dream dreams of signs and wonders, and through God’s presence, find direction in our lives for 2020?

Or will we fill our heads with our own follies while once again putting Jesus ministry on the back burner?

I would say to you that as we have seen in our scripture this morning, God has a plan for his beloved.  A plan of love and protection for all his children.

Mary and Joseph certainly did not live a “happily ever after” life.

Yet, they did live a life in the presence of God.  A life constantly being given  direction by God.

Mary and Joseph are proof that their lives were far from easy, yet God’s presence was always there, always watching over them, leading them, directing them again and again.

Certainly, we can recognize that no matter what trials we face, whatever evil lurks around us, God’s plan will be fulfilled.

Will you find time from day to day to know what that plan is for you?

Will you listen to your heart and wait for where God sends you, just like he sent Mary and Joseph with Jesus to safety.

At this year’s end, may we be ever grateful that Mary and Joseph listened and acted when God gave them direction.  May we be grateful that God was present and ever watching over them, just like God watches over you today.

May we all acknowledge God’s presence in our lives each hour of every day, and may we get up and go when we feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit calling us to act.

God’s plan will be fulfilled as God provides for his beloved according to the abundance of his steadfast love.  It is God’s presence that saves us over and over again.  He will lift us up and carry us all our days.

 

What will be your New Year’s Resolution?

God’s resolution is love and protection for you,…. all of you.

*Cover Art: Stushie Art, used by subscription

 

The Theology of Time

A Theology of Time

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 22, 2019

4th Sunday of Advent

Genesis 1:1-5, Exodus 4:14-15, Matthew 11:2-11

 

It’s been said that we can learn a lot about ourselves—our goals, our priorities—by examining our check books and our calendars. How do we spend our money and our time? Does it really matter?

 

Regarding money, there are some who claim, “I work for my money—it’s mine—and whatever I have in the bank, in the mattress, or in the Ball jar out in the back yard is nobody’s business. And tithing—giving 10% of my earnings to the Lord—is antiquated, based on Old Testament teachings. Jesus is all about grace so I’m free to give or not to give.” On this topic, a clergy friend once said, “For people who look to Jesus as a way out of tithing, I encourage them to cling to that 10% because Jesus wants more than a mere 10%. Jesus wants it all.” (You may recall Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler who asked what he needed to do inherit eternal life. When he acknowledged to Jesus that he had kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus responded, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”[i] Suddenly 10% doesn’t seem so bad!)

 

What about time? What kind of relationship do we have with time? How do we make use of it? How do we spend it? Whose is it, anyway? Do we ever consult God before making plans for the hour, the day, the week, the year? These are important questions to ask if we yearn to live in in the light and love of Yahweh, our ever-present God. The truth of the matter is—both time and money are resources, but they are not OUR resources. They’re gifts from God. Our talents, our property, our money, our time—it’s all God’s and we are tenant farmers living on land that isn’t ours, spending money and time are on loan.

 

Today we conclude our two-part Advent sermon series concerning time. Abusing the gift of it is what put Bonnie Thurston in the place that led to writing her book, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time. One day, at the end of an academic year, she was out running a few errands when suddenly she was so overcome by exhaustion, she feared she wouldn’t make it back to her house. Thankfully, she was able to get home where she fell into bed and slept for hours. When she woke up, she cancelled all of her engagements for the next few days—days she spent sleeping, resting, reading, walking and praying. During this time, she was led to take a good, long look at her calendar and what she found was appalling. She writes,

 

I had literally scheduled myself into near collapse. Because I am a widow with no children, it wasn’t others’ demands on me that led to this place. I was teaching full time at a college, chairing my department and its Master of Arts in Theology program, writing a book, being deeply engaged with the students, serving as the pastor of a small church and as its spiritual director, traveling to speak and lead retreats, trying to keep contact with my family and friends, as well as attending to a “home life” (cooking, gardening, puttering around home). I enjoyed all these activities; I truly felt “called” to most of them. And yet I had driven myself to the edge of physical and spiritual collapse by means of them.[ii]

 

That’s when Thurston began to ponder a theology of time. She started to contemplate how God might want her to use God’s time. The gift of time is laid out beginning in the very first chapter of Genesis. It was evening and it was morning, the first day. God meant for there to be a rhythm of work and rest—we know this because God worked for six days—but on the seventh—what did God do? God rested. Scripture is filled with admonitions for us to do the same. Are we so important that we can’t bother to keep Sabbath? Are we really in so much demand that we don’t have time to enjoy God’s creation; time to care for ourselves; time to care for others? Just how do we spend our time?

 

It’s sobering to reflect on our responsibility to spend our time well.  Spending time—what an interesting phrase. Thurston highlights several noteworthy phrases often used concerning the use of time, “keeping time,” for example. We might say that someone keeps time with her foot as the music plays. Frequently the phrase is used in the context of sporting events where someone is keeping time or measuring time until the completion of the game. A “timekeeper” is a person who measures time and tells how many hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds have passed. But how can we possibly “keep time”? Time is not a “thing” to be put in jars or pressed between the pages of a book or locked up in a safety deposit box. Truthfully, “keeping time” is impossible.[iii]

 

Then there is the phrase “making time.” Busy people are always trying to “make time” for the next thing but we can’t make time. Only God makes time! The idea behind “making time” is to try to carve out space to do something. It usually suggests a desire to “find the time” to do something. Thurston asks quite directly: “What is it that you would like to make time to do? And why aren’t you doing it?”[iv]

 

Two additional phrases that bear mentioning are “killing time” and “wasting time.” The idea of “killing time” is that the present moment must be tolerated until some better time arrives. However, if time is as limited as we seem to believe—is there ever any time to kill? The idea of “wasting time” is looked down upon in the Western world. In business wasting time is equivalent to wasting money. Yet isn’t it often in those quiet, day-dreaming moments that new ideas are born—ideas that lead to amazing things. In our spiritual lives, sometimes “wasting time” gives the Holy Spirit a chance to suggest a new direction. In quiet “wasting” moments God’s abiding presence and love may be realized in tangible ways. Could it be that we might all be better off “wasting” a little time now and then?

 

To view time through a theological lens, we need to recognize that time is a creation of God—remember how God separated the light from the darkness and called one day and one night. Time is a gift, but do we receive it as such? Thurston questions: Do we experience time as one of the many aspects of creation that we are to enjoy and care for or do we experience time as a taskmaster? Do we manage time or does time manage us?

 

Another theological aspect of time is its sacred nature. The God of Israel is the God of events—of happenings in time. When Jesus enters history as a babe in Bethlehem, all of time becomes holy. Jesus models living in the present moment as he gives sight to the blind, makes the lame to walk, cleanses the leper, heals the deaf and raises the dead. Jesus comes to the earth to share the good news: “Even now, I am with you!” Yes, Jesus makes “now” holy. “If God is not here, in the now, ‘among the pots and pans,’ as St. Teresa of Avila would say, God won’t be found ‘then’ or ‘out there’ somewhere either.”[v]

 

Now and forever, God is a very present God. Remember the name God provides for Moses—“I AM.” Not I was. Not I will be. I AM. God is a very present God and God wishes us to learn to live in the present, too. The present is, after all, the only time we have. We can only remember the past—some moments with fondness—others with sadness. We may plan and hope and fret over the future. But the future is not in our reach other—only today—only this moment. Oh, but how difficult it is to live in the present. This is something we discuss frequently when we meet for Centering Prayer. To sit with God in the moment—to be available for God’s grace to rain down upon us—silent—still—not fretting over some recent slight—not fearing some upcoming struggle—just to be in the present at God’s disposal—it is hard work.

 

The present is the doorway into God’s eternity. The following poem written by one of Thurston’s students offers deep insight into this point.

I was regretting the past and fearing the future.

Suddenly, my Lord was speaking: “My name is ‘I AM.’”

He paused. I waited. He continued.

‘When you live in the past with its mistakes and

regrets, it is hard.

I am not there. My name is not I WAS.

When you live in the future with its problems and

          fears , it is hard.

I am not there. My name is not I WILL BE.

When you live in this moment, it is not hard.

I am here. My name is I AM.[vi]

 

Time is more than the passing of minutes and hours and days and years. Time provides the opportunity to learn to live as human beings rather than human doings. It may be that in slowing down, paying attention, and listening, time will lead us into the ever-present presence of the Great I AM. Surely there’s no better way to spend time. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Luke 18:22b.

[ii] Bonnie Thurston, To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time, 4-5. Note this Advent sermon series is based on Scripture and Thurston’s book.

[iii] Ibid, 32-33.

[iv] Ibid, 34.

[v] Ibid, 43.

[vi] Helen Mallicoat, quoted in To Everything a Season, 47.

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription; Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/

 

Cloth for the Cradle

 

Cloth for the Cradle

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 15, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 2:1-12

This morning we consider a text generally reserved for Epiphany—the story of the wise men following a star from the East to pay homage, or to honor baby Jesus. No doubt, a lot of what we assume about the wise men comes from Christian folklore rather than Scripture. For example, tradition tells us that the wise men were three and that they were kings, that they were named Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, and that their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh signified a gift worthy of a king, a gift worthy of divinity, and a spice foretelling of Christ’s death, respectively.

 

While the wise men play a significant role in this story, so does the star burning bright—the star that leads them to their destination. With Christmas so commercialized these days, I daresay, we still need a star to find our way to Jesus. One scholar puts it this way:

Because we are almost blinded by the culture, the star is a sign, a wonder, a revelation, a guidepost, a traffic light, a tracking device, and a GPS that brings us to the point and place of divine revelation about the Messiah. For the real meaning of Christmas, we must “follow the star.” [i]

 

While tradition might have us focus on the star and on the three wise men, the real point to the story is, of course, paying homage to Christ. Before the wise men present their gifts to the child, they kneel and worship him. First, they give themselves completely to Christ. Then they offer their gifts.

 

Interestingly, when it was time for the wise men to return home, there is no indication that the star guided them. Could it be that they no longer needed it? Could it be that once they saw the child, the external light became internalized as hearts aflame? Moreover, shouldn’t it be true that when we follow the star to the Christ-child, when we behold the Messiah, when we bow, worship, and give our gifts to the child, we, too, leave with hearts aflame?

 

Today, led by the star, we have come to worship the Christ child. We come, we kneel, we worship, and we offer our gift. What is your gift to bring? My gift is to stand before you and point you to the Christ-child. Others bring gifts this morning.

 

Elise Phelps brings a gift for the Christ child. She brings the gift of a story.

Zachary Routsong brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of music.

Evan Phelps brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of laughter.

Jaxson Routsong brings a gift for the Christ child. He brings the gift of a song.

 

Take a moment to reflect on what gift you bring to Jesus. [Silence] There is a cradle on the Lord’s Table and there are strips of cloth available. When the music begins, you are invited to come forward, take a strip of cloth, and lay it in the cradle to symbolize your gift. While the choir leads us, singing the verses of “Cloth for the Cradle,” we will join in the refrain as we come to the cradle.

 

[Cloth for the Cradle experience]

 

We have followed the star and the way of the wise men. With joy we have bowed, we have worshiped, and we have presented our gifts to the Christ-child. Now, may we leave with our hearts aflame and may we never forget what we have seen. Amen.

 

[i] Frank A. Thomas, Feasting on the Word

 

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription; Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/

 

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