Nature Series: The Message of Creation

Nature Series: The Message of Creation

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40

The liturgical calendar tells us that today is Palm Sunday—the beginning of Holy Week. Through the eyes of Luke, we see Jesus entering the city riding on a donkey. It seems such a paradox—the King of kings riding on a humble donkey instead of a mighty steed. No doubt Jesus’ simple procession into Jerusalem is anything but simple. Instead, his act lights a patriotic spark in the souls of the people who hear echoes of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice, greatly O daughter, Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter, Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; humble and riding on a donkey…” The people yearn for a king—but not one like Jesus. They want a warrior king—but Jesus has other plans—bigger plans—holy plans.

 

 

When Jesus approaches the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude begins to praise God, singing and shouting for joy: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” Some of the Pharisees are so upset by the uproar, they tell Jesus to make the people quieten down. Jesus responds, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

 

For Jesus, this day of joy carries bits of sorrow because he knows that the joyous crowd will soon become an angry mob. The cloaks and palms will become a crown of thorns. The donkey that bears Jesus into the city will become a cross that he, himself, will bear. And words of praise will be replaced with shouts of “Crucify him!”

 

 

As modern-day Christians, we are challenged to tell the old story of God’s love in new and inviting ways. If we take the challenge seriously—especially in times like these—we will welcome praise as our calling card. For, you see, praise is the cure for discouragement and depression and despair. Praise is the antidote for what ails us. And wonder of wonders, when all the earth glorifies God, we may join the celebration so that all people and every creature contributes its own distinct voice; and the seas and rivers, meadows and hills add their response, too.

 

 

Over the past six weeks we have tried to listen to what God—who created all that lives and moves and breathes—has to say to us through water, mountains, trees, birds, and animals. An ancient Celtic writing echoes the grandeur of our Creator God:

 

 

I am the wind that breathes upon the sea,

I am the wave on the ocean,

I am the murmur of leaves rustling,

I am the rays of the sun,

I am the beam of the moon and stars,

I am the power of trees growing,

I am the bud breaking into blossom,

I am the movement of the salmon swimming,

I am the courage of the wild boar fighting,

I am the speed of the stag running,

I am the strength of the ox pulling the plough,

I am the size of the mighty oak,

And I am the thoughts of all people,

Who praise my beauty and grace.[i]

 

 

In the Genesis account of creation, repeatedly, God creates, and repeatedly, God “sees that it is good.” Still to this day, God’s wonders and God’s presence rain down blessings. When we are greeted by the morning sun, it is God’s gift. When our heart is moved by the song of the mockingbird, our Creator has spoken. On a walk by the waterside, a soft breeze is like the breath of the Holy Spirit. The wonder of an approaching thunderstorm reminds us of God’s power.  A bike ride along a path of fragrant honeysuckles, suggests the sweetness of Jesus. Yet, day after day, we are so busy looking down, so busy worrying about our little lives that the vastness of God sweeps right past us. Might it be that even during this dreadful pandemic, there is a blessing—a blessing of slowing down to allow ourselves and God’s creation a little time to heal?

 

 

The earth is God’s and we are stewards of it. It would behoove us to embrace the beauty of creation and to preserve it for those who come after us for as the Native American Proverb reminds us, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

 

 

Creation is the gift of our Creator, who is everywhere present, loving, and gracious. God loves us so much he enters the world and becomes one of us. Emmanuel, God-with-us, enters this week we call holy riding on a donkey. With all the courage he can muster, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing where it will end. Ultimately, in his dying and rising again, Christ assures us that one day, he will return to make all things new. But until then, we are given the responsibility and the privilege of caring for the earth. If we look around us, we know we could do better. We know there is something wrong when we are drowning in plastic, when water creatures are dying because of oil spills, when people struggle to breathe because of pollution. Perhaps it is time to take the following prayer of Miriam Therese Winter and make it our own:

 

 

Creator of the earth, and of all earth’s children, creator of soil and earth and sky and the tapestries of stars, we turn to you for guidance as we look on our mutilated planet, and pray it is not too late for us to rescue our wounded world. We have been so careless. We have failed to nurture the fragile life you entrusted to our keeping. We beg you for forgiveness and we ask you to begin again. Be with us in our commitment to Earth. Let all the Earth say: Amen.

 

 

While the task may seem overwhelming, one by one we can join hands around the globe and do our part so that when Christ returns in all his glory, he may find us faithful stewards of the world he came to save. Let it be so. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] The Black Book of Camarthan; quoted in Celtic Fire; edited by Robert Van de Weyer.

*Cover Art by Stushie Art, used by subscription

Nature Series: Animals

Nature Series: Animals

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 29, 2020

5th Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 11:6-9

 

The Vicar of Dibley is a British sitcom set in the fictional village of Dibley. The series begins when an elderly Vicar dies, and the chairman of the Parish Council, David Horton, sends for a replacement. David likes to be in charge and assumes he is and always will be. He’s a Cambridge educated, upper-class, multi-millionaire, who longs for the status quo and tradition. So, when the new Vicar turns out to be a woman, let’s just say—the feathers fly.

 

In one episode, Vicar Geraldine Granger realizes how upset people are when their pets die, so she decides to hold a special service for everybody to bring an animal to church for a blessing. David is outraged by the idea of having an animal church service and puts it down to Geraldine being a woman and a bit crazy. Before long the local and national news get wind of it and a tabloid journalist turns up to belittle the event and the village. The heat is on and before it’s all over, the Vicar, David, and a few others are feeling it. So, imagine their surprise, when on the morning of the service, traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see—and the church is packed. It seems that the Vicar hit on an age-old truth: people adore their pets.

 

The love that people have for their animals has brought a special joy to my heart—particularly these past few weeks when bad news seems to be the only news available to us. It is been like a breath of fresh air to see someone post on social media a picture of their new puppy, or newly hatched chicks, or videos of turtles and ducks, or cat memes that make fun of people for finally catching on to the importance of social distancing.

 

When our children were little, a stray dog showed up one day at the edge of our lawn. She stayed there watching us for two days. On the third day, she appeared on our front porch and never left. We did not choose Copper. She chose us.

 

One day, a couple of years after Copper adopted us, Kinney and I were playing ball with Samuel in the backyard when a man stopped his car on the street, got out, and came toward us. While I don’t remember what the gentleman wanted, I do remember how Copper behaved. As soon as the man approached, she kept her eyes on Samuel. More than that, she kept herself between Samuel and the stranger. If Samuel went to the right, Copper went to the right. If Samuel went to the left, Copper went to the left. Finally, it dawned on me. Copper was guarding our child. If I did not love her before, I did then!

 

Until the day she died, Copper was a beloved member of our family. She was loved by a lot of other people, too, so much so, we began to call her the community dog. Every day she made her rounds. When she greeted Doug Stuart on his daily walk, he was as eager to see her as she was to see him. Copper dropped by Miss Jenny’s because Miss Jenny made a fresh, scrambled egg just for her. Mr. Burgin was known to provide a bit of hamburger meat on occasion. Wanda and Jimmy were sure to have some tasty leftover. Copper was even known to drop by the drug store, peek in on Kinney, and stand guard if she felt the urge.

 

Animals—God’s creatures—oh, how they enrich our lives. They raise our spirits, they make us laugh, and they teach us. This sermon series on nature has given us a chance to reflect on how that God communicates through all of nature. Regarding the animals, when I think about how a stray dog buried herself into the hearts of our family, I realize God still speaks through her today, if I will only listen. Allow me to suggest three lessons we might learn from an old hound dog named Copper.

 

As I said earlier, Copper chose us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples,

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you.[i]

 

Did you hear that? We did not choose Christ. Christ chose us. The knowledge of such great love should comfort, encourage, and empower us to seek do the will of our Abba Father—as Jesus did; to seek to bless others—as Jesus did.

 

Another thing that we might learn from one of God’s creatures is God’s constant love and care. When the stranger showed up in our yard, Copper went into protective mode. She wasn’t about to let anyone get in between her and her little boy. What a picture of God’s love. We worry and we fret. How could we not during these times of distress? Maybe we fear COVID-19 is too big for our God. Maybe we feel God has gone away for a while and may never return. If so, the Apostle Paul’s words might encourage us:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[ii]

 

Of course, this does not mean that it will always FEEL like God is near. How could it, when even Jesus felt forsaken by God as he died on a cross. Yet, in three days, victory! No matter what we might feel, we are God’s chosen in this life and in the life to come.

 

Finally, through a beloved pet, we might learn another important lesson. Copper had a way of “sharing the love.” She went out into the community, and while she brought smiles to many faces, she also benefited from the love and care of others. This picture of being in relationship might remind us that God made us to be in community just as God is in community as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus demonstrated the importance of community as well, by recruiting 12 disciples for the ultimate seminary experience. Afterward, he promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth and show them the way ahead.

 

But when so many of us are practicing social distancing and remaining in our homes as much as we can, community seems nearly impossible. Yet, day by day the Spirit is opening new doors of learning. While we may curse the Coronavirus, we give thanks for highspeed internet. Just this week, I held the Confirmation Class using Zoom, an audio/video conference call platform. While the video quality was poor (likely because of the increased use of the internet right now), we still got to “see” each other, and it was good. The Administration, Finance, and Property Committee met on a Zoom conference call, and I hope to try video conferencing for a virtual Bible Study Monday.  While we continue to offer worship through Facebook Livestream, we are also livestreaming Centering Prayer on Wednesdays. Our Administrative Assistant, Katie Altman, is emailing the bulletin, sermon, and livestream service to help those who are not on Facebook so they can still worship with their church family, and Session members are making weekly phone calls to folks without email to share pertinent information—all in order to help us stay connected as a community of faith. And I am hearing from many of you that you are staying connected to friends and family in creative ways—like taking ballet and yoga via ZOOM and reading stories and sharing videos with grandchildren through FaceTime.

 

No matter what is going on in the world, we are never alone. The God who designed the creatures, designed us for the sake of love and relationship—in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

 

[i] John 15:12-16a.

[ii] Romans 8:35, 37-39.

*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission

Nature Series: Birds

Nature Series: Birds

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 22, 2020

4th Sunday in Lent

Luke 12:4-7; Matthew 6:25-29

HOMILY

A poem entitled “The Cardinal”:

So brilliant in my dreary yard
Before the green of spring.
The Cardinal is back again
A dazzling, scarlet thing.

Here he grabs an old dead twig
There some dry, brown grass.
He tries a dozen different bits
To find one that will pass.

You see he’s building up his nest
To show his love so pure.
He must succeed to claim his prize
Brown, scarlet and demure.

So now he works to build the best
This bright spot in my day.
And as he works the world turns
To green from dullest grey. [i]

While bird poems are plentiful, bird metaphors glide in and out of our common speech. Allow me to demonstrate:

She sings like a ____(bird).

The child is as happy as a ____(lark).

He was running around like a ____ with his head chopped off. (chicken)

She has eyes like an ____ (eagle).

Light as a _____ (feather).

Don’t count your ____ before they hatch (chickens).

Madder than a wet _____ (hen).

That old gentleman is as wise as an ____ (owl).

Naked as a ____ (jaybird).

 

While birds are all around us—physically and metaphorically—they also abound in Scripture. Birds are present in the creation. Ravens feed the prophet Elijah in a time of distress. The Psalms mention them often. Leviticus provides the longest list of birds found in the Bible, including scavengers like vultures, falcons, buzzards, and hawks. The dove is a favorite of ancient Israel, known to nest in the holes of the cliffs. You will recall that Noah releases a dove to de­termine how much the flood waters have fallen. A harmless, peaceful bird, over time it becomes a symbol of the Holy Spirit. A hen with her chicks provides a picture of Jesus’ love and concern for God’s unrepentant people: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” In the book of Revelation, birds are summoned to “the great supper of God.” From beginning to end, birds are part of the biblical landscape.[ii]

 

Another important bird in Scripture is the eagle, the largest bird in Israel with a wingspan of up to 8 feet. In Exodus 19 we read that the Lord calls to Moses from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

 

Finally, there is the sparrow, a small, seemingly insignificant bird, that in biblical times had little sentimental or commercial value. Yet Jesus uses it to teach a valuable lesson. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”[iii]

 

In all times—but especially in times like these—when we are facing challenges we could have never imagined; we can gain strength and courage by meditating on God’s care for the birds. God’s tenderness for them reminds us that we are not alone. God is always with us, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has equipped us to soar like the eagle.

 

Yet, we are wise to take heed because the ways of the world will keep us a-ground, distraught, and fearful. But Scripture tells us that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.[iv] We are not lost. We are not powerless.

 

Furthermore, looking out for number one is not the motto of our faith. As Christians, we are children of the Most High God, and we are created for love. In the name of love, we have choices to make. We can choose to practice social distancing to keep ourselves and others safe. We can choose to wash our hands often and to stay home as much as possible. We can choose to check on our neighbor via phone instead of entering her home. We can choose to show our appreciation for people working in grocery stores. We can choose to gather in worship with other believers, digitally. We can choose to turn off the news and other social media outlets when the strain of being too connected feels overwhelming. We can choose to practice self-care, by going for walks, taking bike rides, creating delicious meals, reading, listening to music, watching the birds….

 

And through it all, we can choose to pray like we have never prayed before—for a cure for COVID-19, for aid to those in need, for business owners and their employees who are facing incredible challenges, for people who do not have adequate savings, and for all our health care workers.

 

In the coming days, may we remember that God is faithful. God knows all our needs and God, who values the sparrows, surely values you and me. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] http://winlake64.wordpress.com/tag/cardinal-poem/

[ii] “The Birds of the Air,” A Gathering Voices by Don McKim

[iii] Luke 12:6-7

[iv] 2 Timothy 1:7

*Cover Art by Stushie, used by subscription

Nature Series: Trees

Nature Series: Trees

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 15, 2020

3rd Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 20:19-20; Psalm 1; Luke 13:6-9

 

From my point-of-view as a child, the most astounding thing about my grandparent’s small farm in Western North Carolina was the vistas from the front lawn. Wonderful views of the mountains were even more spectacular when seen from the branches of my grandmother’s cherry tree. From there I could perch for hours, compete with the blackbirds for the fruit of the tree, and gaze out over the valley into the great beyond. Nearby stood a grand oak tree, with limbs too high for a little girl to master; nonetheless, I welcomed the shade and the breeze its branches provided to cool the skin and warm the heart.

 

Some years later, I learned to appreciate the plants and trees of the mountains even more, when, during my undergraduate studies at Carson-Newman College, I took a May-term class entitled “Appalachian Flora.” It was one of the most fun classes I have ever taken. In my mind’s eye I can still see Dr. Chapman (God rest his soul) walking along naming every plant and tree in sight. Even things that I had previously recognized only as weeds had such interesting names. Two of my favorites were Jack-in-the-Pulpit and the Tree of Heaven—so called, Dr. Chapman joked, because it stinks like, well, you know, that other place.

 

Regarding plants and trees, the Botanical Society of America offers these wise words: Imagine a world where the plants of the planet are harnessed to help its inhabitants find sustainable solutions for some of their most pressing needs—clothing, food, housing, jobs, clean air, and clean water. Welcome to planet earth!

 

Trees provide for us and they fascinate us. We climb them, we use them, we meditate under them, and we write poems about them. Poet Joyce Kilmer wrote the following entitled simply “Trees.”

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

 

In our little-known reading from Deuteronomy this morning, we catch a glimpse of the respect that should be paid to trees—even in a time of war. One Bible commentary points out that sparing fruit trees during wartime is consistent with the general ecological concern of Deuteronomy.[i] I daresay if such respect had continued down through the ages, our planet would be much healthier today.

 

Psalm 1 compares a healthy spiritual life to fruit-bearing trees, planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in their season. If we have eyes to see, trees show us what can be accomplished through time, persistence, and patience. Take the mighty oak tree, for example. It begins as a decaying acorn from which sprouts a tiny twig. The sun shines, the rain pours, the wind blows, and in a great many years, the tree becomes a giant oak—sturdy, strong, brimming with life. The great giants of our faith are a bit like that. Though storms came against them, instead of being uprooted, they dug in deep, held on tight to God, and gained the strength they needed to endure. Spiritually speaking, trees remind us of God’s love, for if God’s special care encompasses trees, how much more so does God care for us?

 

As a community, a nation, and a planet—there is no doubt we are in unchartered territory. Information about the spread of the coronavirus and expected outcomes are changing by the moment. We watch social media and news feeds and see people hoarding food, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper. We witness price-gouging so that a bottle of 88¢ rubbing alcohol costs over $20. We watch countries like Italy that have been forced to go into total lockdown due to rapid spread of COVID-19.  And, to keep similar circumstances at bay in our own country, a national emergency has been declared. With fear swarming like a dark cloud around us, what are we to do?

 

In a recent Facebook post, a clergy colleague shared something Martin Luther wrote when the Bubonic Plague struck Wittenberg in 1527:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely…”[ii]

 

Jesus came to the earth to show us how to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves—but how can we care for our neighbor in such a time as this? Well, we must look for new ways to be neighbors in order to keep ourselves and our community as healthy as possible—while taking whatever steps we can to care for the most vulnerable among us.

 

As Rabbi Rav Yosef put it:

Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.

 

Indeed, we are in new territory. But that is not to say that God is unable to bring good from it. Perhaps now, we may pause to realize that, like the root system of an old oak tree, we are deeply connected as brothers and sisters around the globe. Perhaps now, we may ask the Spirit of Christ to come—dig around the soil of our lives and help us bear good fruit in such a time as this—for love of Christ and love of neighbor. In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 104.

[ii] Luther’s Works Volume 43, pg. 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague”

*Cover Art by Unsplash, used by permission

Nature Series: Mountains

Nature Series: Mountains

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 8, 2020

2nd Sunday in Lent

Exodus 3:1-12, 19:16-20; Matt. 4:23-5:2a

 

“The Bucket List,” is a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays the role of blue-collar mechanic, Carter Chambers and the arrogant billionaire, Edward Cole is played by Jack Nicholson. When a diagnosis of terminal cancer brings them together, sharing a hospital room, things get off to a bumpy start. But after a while, they begin to tolerate each other until, finally, they become the best of friends.

 

 

In light of their circumstances, it doesn’t take long for the issue of God to arise. Edward thinks faith is a bunch of poppycock and compares God to the Sugarplum Fairy. Carter and his wife are people of faith. At one point in the movie, Carter shares a story with Edward about a man who scaled Mount Everest and had a spiritual experience on the mountain. During his climb, a profound silence fell around the mountaineer, and he heard the voice of the mountain. “It was like he heard the voice of God,” Carter says.

 

 

When Carter begins writing a “bucket list” for the things he wants to do before he “kicks the bucket,” it captures Cole’s imagination—so much so, he is willing to join him and cover all the expenses. In time, the two takeoff on a wild adventure that includes skydiving, flying over the North Pole, touring the Taj Mahal, riding motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, and visiting the base of Mt. Everest (which was unfortunately shrouded in clouds).

 

 

Too soon, Carter’s health takes a dramatic nosedive and he dies. Giving Carter’s eulogy in a packed church, Edward explains that he and Carter had been complete strangers, but the last three months of Carter’s life were the best three months of his. It seems that Edward has reconsidered his beliefs for he says, if there is an afterlife, he hopes Carter’s there to vouch for him and show him the ropes on the other side. The epilogue reveals that when Edward dies, his ashes are taken to the summit of an unnamed peak in the Himalayas by his assistant Matthew. There, in a Chock full o’Nuts coffee can, he is laid to rest on a high mountain beside his dear friend. [i]  

 

 

This morning we continue the sermon series on nature by reflecting on mountains. How they fascinate us.  People want to climb them, look down from them, and conquer them, but aren’t they really just elevated chunks of earth and rock? Hardly!  If we have only a touch of mysticism in our soul, we recognize that mountains are charged with the power of symbolism and metaphor. Ancient pagans offered their sacrifices on the high places. The most revered gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans were said to dwell on Mount Olympus. In nearly every religion, mountains have been shrouded in a mist of legend and divine power.

 

 

In our Scriptures, have you ever noticed how often God conveys important information from a mountain top? In Genesis 22 we’re invited to accompany Abraham on a trek to Mount Moriah where he is tested. God instructs him, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Abraham obeys, taking his one and only son up to the mountain, not knowing if it will be the last mountain top experience they’ll share together. Thankfully, God intervenes when Abraham reaches out his hand to kill his son. The angel of the Lord calls from heaven, and says, ‘Abraham, Abraham…do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ Abraham looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Gladly, he offers it up as a burnt-offering and names the place ‘The Lord will provide.”

 

 

In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock when, on Mount Horeb, he witnesses a most amazing sight—a bush ablaze with fire but unconsumed by it. He turns aside to examine the bush. To his surprise, God speaks from it and Moses is given the task of leading God’s people out of slavery and into a land flowing with milk and honey. Later, Mount Sinai (likely another name for Mount Horeb) is the place from which God gives Moses the Ten Commandments—guidelines for how God’s chosen people should live.

 

 

One of my favorite mountain stories appears in 1 Kings 18[ii]. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel have led God’s people to forsake God’s commandments and follow the gods of Baal and Asherah. God has had enough so Elijah is sent to confront King Ahab. Mincing no words, Elijah tells the king to have all of Israel assemble at Mount Carmel. It’s time for a showdown between Yahweh and the prophets of Baal and Asherah who dine at Jezebel’s table. So, the people gather and Elijah essentially tells them that this is the day to decide: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.”

 

 

Elijah asks for two bulls—one to be given to him as a representative for Yahweh; one to 450 prophets representing Baal. The bulls are prepared for sacrifice and placed on the wood, but no fire is set. Elijah tells the prophets of Baal, “You call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” The prophets call on Baal from morning until noon. Nothing happens. At noon Elijah begins to mock them, “Cry aloud! Surely he is god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Desperate, the prophets cut themselves with swords and blood gushes, but no voice, no answer, no response comes.

 

 

Then Elijah tells the people to come a little closer. Let me show you how it’s done—he seems to say. Elijah offers a prayer to the Lord.  He prepares the altar and digs a trench around it. “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood,” he says. Then, “Do it again,” he says. “Do it a third time.” Water runs all around the altar and fills the trench. Then Elijah begins praying, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God…” When Elijah finishes praying, the fire of the Lord falls and consumes the offering, the wood, the stones, and even the dust. The people fall on their faces and cry out, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

 

 

The mountain theme continues into the New Testament. In what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares the principles of his Father’s kingdom, reinterpreting the law, hearkening back to the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. Sitting down, Jesus teaches like a rabbi saying:  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…”

 

 

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on a high mountain where he’s transfigured before them, his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear for a little chat. From a cloud that overshadows them, they hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”[iii]

 

 

On the night of his arrest, Jesus and his disciples gather in the Upper Room. After Jesus institutes the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, they sing a hymn and go out to the Mount of Olives, a hill just east of the city. On the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, they enter Gethsemane and it is there that Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”[iv]

 

 

Our faith story is rich with mountains—both physically and metaphorically. Mountains are places to meet God. Often, for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, mountains are places from which God speaks. Where do you meet God Almighty?  In nature? Among the mountains, hills, rivers and trees? Where do you see the face of Yahweh? Here, among other believers? Is it too much to imagine that every Sunday morning can be a mini mountain top experience: a journey to a place where we gather to see things anew, a journey to a place where we meet the holy God of the mountains?

[i] http://www.pluggedin.com/videos/2008/Q1/BucketList.aspx and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bucket_List/

[ii] 1 Kings 18:17-39

[iii] Matthew 17:1-8

[iv] Mark 14:36

*Cover Art by Unsplash, used by permission

Nature Series: Water

Nature Series: Water

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 1, 2020

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 1

Oh, the wonder of nature: rocks and hills, mountains and valleys, oceans and streams. One of the things I appreciate most about our Celtic Christian ancestors is their love and appreciation for nature. Surely God’s goodness, power, and beauty are on display all around us, if we only have eyes to see.

 

The Psalmist proclaims: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.”[i] In another place, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.”[ii] In Romans chapter 1 we are told that God has revealed God’s own self through nature: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” [iii] Surely the world God created has much to teach us.

 

This morning we begin a sermon series that will carry us through the Season of Lent. The series is on nature—God’s wondrous creation. Along the way, we will consider trees and mountains and creatures—just to name a few. But first, we turn our attention to a theme that flows throughout Scripture: water. Of course, water plays a prominent role in the story of creation—which begins with a wind from God, sweeping over the face of the waters. There’s the story of Noah being instructed by God to build an ark, which he does, on dry land that is soon covered by the waters of the Great Flood. Then there is the story of baby Moses, born on the heels of the Egyptian king’s declaration that all the Hebrew baby boys must be killed to keep the Hebrew population in check. But Moses’ mother will have none of it. Instead she puts her beautiful baby in a basket and places him among the reeds along the river, where Pharaoh’s daughter soon finds him. Later, as a grown man, Moses will be used by God to lead the people of Israel to safety when God parts the waters of the Red Sea to let them pass through.[iv]

 

For the people of Israel, the Red Sea marks their initiation into the faith. In a broader sense, the Red Sea represents redemption from bondage. At some point, we must all leave Egypt—that place of slavery to sin and hopeless weariness. We must leave Egypt—to be redeemed—to enter the Promised Land.

 

Another important body of water in Scripture is the Jordan River. It begins in the far north of Israel, in the high mountains, and continues its winding journey, emptying at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, meandering to the end of its journey into the Dead Sea. In the book of Joshua, just as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to enter the wilderness, they cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land.

 

The Jordan River flows in and out of the story of the people of Israel, and we pick up its trail again in the Gospel of Matthew: “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near’…Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

 

But there is one who comes who has no sin, Jesus, who comes from Galilee the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John hesitates, saying, “I need to be baptized by you….” But Jesus answers him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consents. And there, in the murky waters of the River Jordan, Jesus is baptized and suddenly the heavens are opened, and the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove. Repeatedly in Scripture the River Jordan serves as a marker of crucial moments of decision or resolution. Once the Jordan is crossed, there is no turning back.

 

It’s interesting that Jesus’ first miracle involves water—turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And we can’t follow his life and ministry without jumping into the Sea of Galilee. Surprisingly, the Sea of Galilee is not very big—it’s more like a large lake—about 13 miles across and 8 miles wide. From the summit of Arbel Cliff, high above the Sea of Galilee the magnificent view below encompasses the Plain of Genneseret, Magdala, Nazareth, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum… These are the places where Jesus conducts most of his ministry—around the Sea of Galilee. From here he teaches his disciples how to be fishers of people. In large ways and small, Jesus walks the areas around the Sea of Galilee to meet the needs of people—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, bringing salvation to people who are like sheep without a shepherd.

 

Perhaps the takeaway for us from Jesus’ relationship with the Sea of Galilee is this: just like fish need water and fishermen need fish, people need the Lord. People need to drink deeply of Living Water, lest they die.

 

In an article in Presbyterians Today, “Jesus, Living Water,” David Gambrell writes:

 

From beginning to end—Genesis to Revelation—water flows through the story of salvation… God’s promise is extended to every living thing after a great flood. God’s people are delivered from slavery through the sea. God’s power to redeem from exile is like a rushing watercourse in the desert (Isa. 35:6-7). God’s invitation to abundant life is like a freely flowing fountain. God’s desire for justice and righteousness is like the mighty waters of an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). God’s eternal realm is like a river that flows from the heavenly throne, bringing healing to all nations (Rev. 22:1-5).

 

So when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and asks her for a simple drink of water (John 4:7-15), there is a deep reservoir of meaning and mystery just beneath the surface. The “living water” that Jesus offers is brimming with biblical significance—it wells up from the Source of all life, surges with the promise of the living Word, spills over with the power of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t just a bucket of H20, it is the blessing of the Holy Three-in-One…”

 

When we pass through the waters of baptism, we enter into a new way of life in Christ (Romans 6:3-11). By the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s love has been poured into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). We are called to share this life-giving love, continuing Christ’s ministry of giving drink to those who are thirsty…”[v]

 

Hopefully, in our spiritual lives, we have crossed the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and its ills behind. Redeemed by Christ our Lord, we have been invited into the Promised Land. Marked by the baptismal waters of Jordan, we have been joined to the family of God forever and we have been claimed for service. Until that time when Christ returns in all his glory, we wander the Sea of Galilee on a search and rescue mission to which God has called each of us.

 

Remember the words of Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[vi]

 

By the grace of God, we gather around the Table of our Lord to receive manna from heaven. Here we are nourished to share in Christ’s ministry. Here we are equipped to share Living Water with a world that is dying of thirst.

 

[i] Psalm 24:1-2, NRSV.

[ii] Psalm 96:11-13a.

[iii] Romans 1:20a.

[iv] http://sunlight-and-shadows.blogspot.com/2009/04/sermon-on-water.html

[v] David Gambrell, “Jesus, Living Water,” Presbyterians Today, June 2013, 39.

[vi] Matthew 28:19-20.

 *Cover Art by Unsplash; used with permission. Affirmation of Faith: God of Creation via https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/09/affirmation-of-faith-god-of-creation.html

 

Eyes to See

EYES TO SEE

Transfiguration Sunday

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

Jane Shelton, CRE; February 23, 2020

First Presbyterian Valdosta

 

When I read this Matthew scripture, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Peter.  I could identify with Peter.  The one who would be eager to show hospitality for this person I’m with, this person that I love.  Wanting to give Jesus something that I thought would be important to the moment, or in this case, a monument to remember the moment, the location of this special event.  Yes, I can just see the wheels turning in Peter’s mind, and the excitement he was experiencing!

Peter, in his hospitality and excitement, offers to make three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah, but God had other plans.

Like Peter, I’m one of those who gets so caught up in wanting to do something special, that I sometimes miss what God is telling me to do.

I like to think that as I’ve gotten older, that I am better able to recognize when I am doing something that I think is a good idea from something that God thinks is a good idea, or perhaps I’ve learned to take just a moment to ponder or pray or meditate to see which direction God may be pointing me to go, even when it is a direction in which I am not comfortable.

As Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the high mountain, just the three of them alone, it has been only six days since Jesus has begun to reveal that he is destined to go into Jerusalem, be killed and raised on the third day.

It has only been six days since Peter’s response was to rebuke him for saying so, as he responds to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”

It is heart wrenching to hear this transaction between Jesus and his beloved disciple Peter.

Would any of us have acted differently if our best friend had told us such a thing?

Perhaps it is this very incident that leads Jesus to take Peter with him to the mountain.

And the humor in this moment is when Peter offers to build three dwellings at the moment that Jesus has become transfigured before him.  The moment that Elijah and Moses appears.  I mean these were not just your everyday events that Peter must have been used to.

I just have this picture in my head of these four men, Jesus, James, John and Peter standing at the top of this mountain, and Peter just talking away when he looks up and sees Jesus face shining like the sun.  Jesus clothes have become dazzling white.  And then, if that’s not enough to get your attention, here appears Moses and Elijah who begin a conversation with Jesus!

What a jaw-dropping, remarkable and unforgettable moment.  Perhaps you might even want to hear what they are having a conversation about.

And yet Peter’s response to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

“It is good for us to be here?”  You think?!  Does he think that Jesus doesn’t know that?  Does he think Jesus didn’t know that when he brought him to the top of the mountain in the first place?

I mean, I can just see James and John rolling their eyes as they stand stunned before what is unfolding before them with Peter’s remarks.

And while Peter is still rambling on about how it might be a good idea to build these three dwellings, God decides to get Peter’s attention.

God, comes in a bright cloud and overshadows them.

And to really get Peter’s attention, God speaks from the cloud, and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Basically, God tells Peter to shut up and listen!  We’ve all met those people in our lives that just go on and on, and we get the point in the first sentence but they just go on and on and on.

There it is, those three very important words, LISTEN TO HIM!  Peter, stop your rambling, stop your “I think this is a good idea to build dwellings,” and listen to what Jesus is telling you.  Just stop, and listen.

As God speaks from the cloud, Peter, James and John fall to the ground as they are overcome by fear, and then what happens…..Jesus comes to them, ….and this is my favorite part of the story, ….out of compassion, ….Jesus comes and touches them.  He touches them.

I’m sure they thought they were about to be swallowed up by the great cloud, but Jesus tells them, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

It is not until God comes on the scene that he is able to get the attention of Peter.  Peter so consumed with things of the world that he has not been able to see the divine in Jesus.

Jesus transfiguration affirms his divinity, yet it also begins to give the disciples eyes to see God’s light in the chaos that is to come.

We hear growing up, “Jesus died for our sins so we can be saved, so our sins can be forgiven,” but Jesus’ death on the cross shows us so much more.

It’s not just about us, in fact it is in the chaos…Jesus death, the disciples’ loss of a friend, a mentor, a leader…and through the resurrection….they are able to see the light of God.

God’s light shows the way through the chaos, those dark moments in our lives when we don’t know how we will possibly survive.  It allows us to see beyond ourselves, beyond our pain and loss and fear, so that we can be present with God.  So that we see the light within us to help others through their chaos.

If we become so focused on ourselves, how can we show others the light when we are looking inward instead of shining outward into the world?

We don’t need a monument.  God’s Holy Ground is where he meets us, wherever we are, all we have to do is stop and listen.  See the light of God.

God gave us his Son, Jesus, the Light of God in human form.  A light to build the early church.  Jesus shined the light outward to the disciples so we would know how we are to live, how we are to have compassion and help one another, love one another.  Jesus showed them how to meet with people, gather with people, share with people, heal people.

Do we have eyes to see through the chaos?

Just as the disciples had to learn to live without Jesus’ bodily presence, so do we.

Transfiguration invites us to live in the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)

As the light shines in our hearts, God is made real every day.  He is made real to those around us.

God prepares us in transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world around us, the world of the cross, the world that has the ability to break us.  Yet this world is never beyond God’s redemption.

God gets our attention so that our eyes are open.

Encounters on mountaintops with blinding lights may happen for some, but for most, they happen in the ordinary moments of our lives.  Ordinary moments at home with our family, at work with our employees and co-workers, classrooms, packing and delivering meals for Break Bread, Pub Theology, the Father Daughter Dance, the Bun Run and in other church activities.

Ordinary moments can happen anywhere we make a space for the Holy to be present.

Like Peter, it was when I was consumed by my thoughts for what needed to be done, that my eyes were opened.

On that Saturday morning on my way to the art center with Dick, it was all about me and the chaos in my life.  “I can’t do this,” I remember saying to Dick as I laid out all the reasons as to why I needed to drop my CRE class.

After all, Dick had just had bypass surgery in December, and now in April my sister was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.  I needed to take care of them, I didn’t have time to finish my CRE class, and I was sure that I certainly could not preach, so what the heck was I doing in this CRE class anyway.

I had just wanted to learn all I could about God and Jesus and the Bible, but I had people to take care, a business to run, children and grandchildren.  Surely this CRE path was not the path that I was supposed to be on.

Yet in that art center, God showed me the light and opened my eyes.

It wasn’t about me and the chaos of my life.  In that simple photograph of the sandaled foot, that simple 8 x 10 black and white photograph that got my attention was a scripture.  I was curious enough to pull out my cellphone and look up Romans 10:14-15, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

I remember the exact spot where the photograph hung on the wall to this day, because that became Holy Ground for me.

God’s light allowed me to see that it wasn’t about me.  It’s about doing the work that Jesus started, the work his disciples continued, and the work we are to carry on.

Peter tells his listeners, “We did not follow a myth, but we ourselves heard the voice come from heaven.  So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed.  You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning rises in our hearts.  You must understand,” Peter continues, ”no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” she refers to a prayer in The Book of Common Prayer:

‘Look down, O Lord, from your heavenly throne, and illumine this night with your celestial brightness; that by night as by day your people may glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

She writes, ‘this prayer recognizes a kind of light that transcends both wave and particle.  It can illumine the night without turning on the lights, becoming apparent to those who have learned to rely on senses other than sight to show them what is real.’

She goes on to write about a young French boy, Jacques Lusseyran, who loses his sight in a freak scuffle.  Later, when coming to terms with his blindness, he wrote,

‘I had completely lost sight in both my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore.  Yet the light was still there.  Its source was not obliterated.  I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world.  I had only to receive it.  It was unavoidably there.  It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before.  This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe.  The source of light is not in the outer world.  We believe that it is only because of a common delusion.  The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Lusseyran shared one of his greatest discoveries was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition.  When he was sad or afraid, the light decreased at once.  Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind.  Yet, when he was joyful and attentive, it returned as strong as ever.  He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.

 

When Claude Monet painted his famous water lilies, he used the light to reflect their beauty, moving his easel through the garden to capture the light so he could see more clearly.

In our Contemplative Photography class this past summer, we learned how light reflects into the camera lens to reveal God’s beauty we might miss with our eyes.

In this life we can’t save ourselves from suffering, and we can’t shield ourselves from the light of God that sheds hope in the darkest moments of our lives.  Jesus will come to us, he will touch us, and he will say, get up and do not be afraid.

We do not need a monument or a church building to find God.  God will find us in our homes, in our work places, sharing a meal with someone, leaning over the bedside of someone we care for, sharing through social media and live stream, and yes, maybe even in a church pew.

God finds us when we are broken and when we have joy in our hearts.

God is present in suffering and sacrifice and in the promise and potential of our lives.

Are our eyes open to see the light?  Are our eyes open to experience God’s Holy Ground…wherever we are?

 

*Cover Art “Icon of Transfiguration” by Aliksandar via Wikimedia Commons, used by permission

 

Rabbi Jesus

Rabbi Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 16, 2020

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37

 

In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plays the role of Rabbi. Because he recognizes that being faithful to God takes more than following the Ten Commandments verbatim, Jesus boldly takes the old law and helps the people hear it anew. Jesus engages with the text and makes it applicable to the culture of 1st Century Palestine.

 

In his classic work, Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie notes that being a student of the Bible can be riddled with danger. To read the Bible properly, Guthrie wrote, we must read it with the intention of learning “who God is and how we may live faithfully in God’s presence.” Furthermore, when we encounter difficult passages it is wise to examine other passages that might throw more light on the question at hand. In other words, we must listen to the “total witness of scripture, not just selected passages that support what we already think and want to hear. When anyone argues that ‘the Bible says’ this or that, it is important to ask, ‘Is that all the Bible says…?’”[i]

 

Engaging God’s word—wrestling with the text in new ways—the practice is as old as Scripture itself. Take the Jewish Midrash, for example. Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig explains that the ancient practice of Midrash offers a commentary, generally on the Torah. In this type of preaching, rabbis allow themselves creative license to help explain the story.[ii] The Midrash offers a way of examining Scripture that moves beyond the literal sense of the text, examines it from various sides, and fills in the gaps, all in an effort to penetrate its deepest meaning. You likely noticed that I chose The Message translation for this morning’s gospel reading. I did so because, much like a midrash, Eugene Peterson takes creative license to help us understand the story afresh.

 

When it comes to other styles of preaching, once upon a time, expository messages were all the rage—sermons that took on specific texts and interpreted them verse by verse. Extemporaneous preaching came into vogue in the 19th century, with the preacher saturating himself with details beforehand and then delivering the message without the use of notes. Topical sermons present a specific theme and then examines it using a variety of biblical references. I have a friend who prefers this style although she acknowledges that it sometimes feels like preaching “The Gospel According to Hallmark.”

 

More recently, narrative sermons that rely on stories to tell THE STORY have become popular. One way of using narrative preaching is to tell the story using a 1st person monologue. The most creative monologue I ever heard was on the character of Jonah, told from the perspective of a fly that got stuck on Jonah’s shoulder after he was vomited up on the beach. With one wing stuck in the muck, the fly tried just as desperately to get away from Jonah as Jonah had tried to get away from God. The incredible monologue made the story come alive—for people of all ages.

 

While preaching and teaching styles have changed from generation to generation, so have music styles. When it comes to choosing worship music, I enjoy variety. At our First Friday Contemplative Services, for example, as an offering of prayer, we sing Taizé pieces from the hymnal or short choruses I write to be accompanied by guitar. For Sunday morning worship, tried and true traditional hymns are chosen as well as contemporary pieces that are played on the piano—often as the middle hymn.

 

Contemporary music, in its early years, garnered lots of followers. It had more than its share of critics, too. The criticisms often concerned its lack of theological depth and its focus on individualism. My friend Heather who is a chaplain and accomplished musician calls those years the era of “Jesus is my Boyfriend Music.” Thankfully though, this style of music has greatly improved.

 

Of course, historically, the Psalter was the original hymn book of the Hebrew people. Instead of reading them or reciting them, the people sang them. Psalms flowed through their spiritual blood in ways that, sadly, have become foreign to us. So, in an effort to bring new life to an old practice, this morning I’ve asked Donna and Kinney for assistance. Please turn your attention to the inset in your bulletin underneath the sermon title. To start us off, Kinney will sing the refrain twice and then we will join him to sing it twice. Thereafter, we will read the parts responsively and sing the refrain where noted. Let us sing a new-old song unto the Lord.

 

The Word of God[iii]

Refrain: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. (Sing twice.)

 

Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.

Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me.

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my study.

I am wiser than the elders, because I observe your commandments. [Refrain]

I refrain my feet from every evil way, that I may keep your word.

I do not shrink from your judgments, because you yourself have taught me.         

How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.

Through your commandments I gain understanding; therefore I hate every lying way.    

Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. [Refrain]

 

Whether with words or music, our ways of communicating the message of God’s love are ever-changing—or at least they should be! Down through the ages, biblical interpretations have changed; sermon styles have changed; music has changed, too.

 

In the February newsletter, I wrote an article about our upcoming Lenten practice—something that will require change. From Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday, instead of the usual Wednesday night program and catered meal, we will meet for Wednesday Welcome Table from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. In the style of what new church developers are calling “dinner church,” we will share food prepared by individuals and/or teams who create something healthy and delicious for us to enjoy. Wednesday Welcome Table will begin with a short prayer. Then, as Donna plays contemporary hymns or other arrangements, we will fill our plates—to overflowing—I daresay. Once everyone is seated, we will examine Scripture and other inspiring readings. We will sing songs accompanied by guitar or other instruments. Finally, we will conclude with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and with Holy Communion on the remaining evenings of Lent.

 

To be relevant in each generation, the church is invited to bravely consider new ways of being the church in and for the world. The Wednesday Welcome Table is one such new way—one such experiment—if you will. And here is a personal invitation from your pastor. Even if you never attend our Wednesday programs, come at least once. That way, when we complete our Lenten practice, you can help assess the results. If dinner church does not make enough of a positive impact to continue, we will chalk it up to a good experience, bless it, and let it go. If it holds promise, however, we may consider adopting the model—or portions of it—when we return from our summer break in August.

 

With all the courage we can muster, let us look to Rabbi Jesus for how to take the old and help people experience it anew. Who knows what we might learn by stepping out in faith to try new ways of exploring Scripture? Who knows what we might learn by teaming up to make healthy, delicious foods that appeal to a wider range of people? Who knows what we might learn by including more contemporary songs in a worship setting? Who knows?

 

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

[i] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 10-13.

[ii] Jana Childers, ed., Birthing the Sermon, 185.

[iii] Adapted from Psalm 119: 97-105.

*Cover Art by James Tissot via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Salt & Light

Salt & Light

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 9, 2020

5th Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20

 

It seems that Isaiah is dealing with a real conundrum. Imagine a preacher/prophet who’s leading a congregation and every Sabbath he looks out and sees a full house—standing room only—every modern-day preacher’s dream. Now imagine that the people are praying and fasting and calling on God. It couldn’t get any better than this, right? Well, evidently that is not the case for God is quite distressed at the people’s shenanigans. Yes, they’re crying out to God, fasting and praying, but they’re doing it for their own selfish motives. While their religion looks tasty from the outside, it’s really a recipe for a rotten life—lacking flavor, lacking purpose.

 

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks, who went for a walk one day in the forest. Before long she happened upon a house. She knocked on the door, but no one answered so she walked right in. On the table there were three bowls of porridge which looked and smelled delicious to Goldilocks, who was, by then, rather hungry. So, she tasted the porridge in the first bowl but was taken aback, “Oh, this is terrible. It has no flavor at all.” Then she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “Yuck! This porridge is too salty. Who could possibly eat this?” Finally, she tasted the last bowl of porridge and proclaimed with great delight, “Ah, this porridge is just right,” so she ate it all up.

 

In this adapted beginning of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, clearly, salt matters: too little leaves a dish empty of flavor, too much makes it inedible. But just right—well, that makes all the difference in the world.

 

Matthew’s gospel again places us in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that begins, we noted last week, with words of blessing. Now Jesus turns to the matter at hand which is how to live into a blessed life—how to live holy lives—how to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God. To all those gathered around, Jesus proclaims, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” To say that believers are the salt of the earth implies that we are to bring flavor and healing to the world. To say that believers are the light of the world indicates we are to help others see a ray of hope in the midst of darkness.

 

In Advent Readings from Iona, I happened upon an amazing story that goes like this:

A boy lived in an isolated house on a hill. A God-forsaken place for a young man. But one thing fascinated him. Each night he would look out into the darkness and see a light. It was far away on a hilltop, but this sign of life gave him hope.

One day he decided to go in search of it. It was a long and lonely walk, and it was already dark before he reached the outskirts of a town. Tired and hungry, he knocked at the first door he came to, and explained his search for the mysterious light that had always given him hope.

“I know!” replied the woman who had answered the door. “It gives me hope as well.” And she pointed back in the direction from which he had come. There on the horizon, was a single light shining. A sign of life in the darkness. The light from his own home.[i]

 

You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.

 

As a pastor, I wrestle with what it means for us to be salt and light for one another and for our community. Undeniably, the level of stress and dis-ease around us is skyrocketing. Listen to friends, family, coworkers, teenagers, parents, grandparents—people are anxious. What are we to do? What is the church to do?

 

Reflecting on this weekend, it is easy to see how we are saying yes to Christ’s invitation to be salt and light for the world. As a church with a little less than 100 active members, we went out into the community to host the 24th Annual Father Daughter Valentine Dance for 3700 people. We prayed. We baked. We carried to and fro. We blew up balloons. We greeted. We checked coats. We scanned tickets. We handed out t-shirts. We poured beverages. We set out cookies and cookies and more cookies. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. In addition, we hosted the First Friday Contemplative Service—a worship opportunity that draws folks from our church as well as those in our community who are Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, and even some who have no affiliation to a church. Together, we prayed and sang and examined Scripture and sat in silence and dined at Christ’s table. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. And if that is not enough, yesterday we met for Pub Theology at Georgia Beer Co. Routinely, strangers find us on Facebook or via the newspaper, and they are curious about this brave ministry the Presbyterians have dared to bring to Valdosta. This week’s discussion was on Kobe Bryant, the Halftime show, Christology, and the Coronavirus—so, as you can imagine—our conversation was lively. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.

 

Surely, there are people in our community who are looking for hope. Will they find it because of us? Will they find it among us? One woman, who was hesitant to be a part of a faith community, tells the story of why she began attending a church—a place that ultimately became essential to her life. She writes,

Once I began going to church, the age-old religious rituals marking the turning of the year deepened and gave a fuller meaning to the cycle of the seasons and my own relation to them. The year  was not only divided now into winter, spring, summer, and fall but was marked by the expectation of Advent, leading up to the fulfillment of Christmas, followed by Lent, the solemn prelude to the coming of the dark anguish of Good Friday that is transformed in the glory of Easter. Birth and death and resurrection, beginnings and endings and renewals, were observed and celebrated in ceremonies whose experience made me feel I belonged—not just to a neighborhood and a place, but to a larger order of things, a universal sequence of life and death and rebirth…

Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems—if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time—but it gave me a sense of living in a large context, of being a part of something greater than I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential.[ii]

 

You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. Regarding your faith, what is essential to you? What brings you hope? Where are you nourished when your soul needs refreshment? I hope you find something you need here in the church, and I hope that by being here, you are inspired to be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever you go.

 

Imagine a preacher who is leading a congregation and every Sunday she looks out and sees a full house—standing room only—every preacher’s dream. Now imagine that the people are praying and fasting and singing and calling on God. It couldn’t get any better than this! As the body of Christ in this place and time, we have the ability and the privilege to point people to Jesus. And churches great and small have a part to play. Oh, we will do it differently—that’s part of the tapestry of God’s beautiful plan. But if being just right in the eyes of God is our goal—if we want to be salt—we need to taste the dish we are serving up. If we want to be light—we need to be open to new ways of sharing the gospel. It’s a tall order, but with the love of God, the example of Christ, and the strength of the Holy Spirit, the church has been equipped to fill it. Oh, that God would gaze lovingly upon First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta and proclaim, “Not too little—not too much—but just right!”

 

[i] Brian Woodcock & Jan Sutch Pickard, Advent Readings from Iona, December 17 reading.

[ii] Dan Wakefield in Returning, quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, 478-9.

*Cover Art “Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

He Would Love First

He Would Love First

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 2, 2020

4th Sunday after Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

 

By the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ ministry is in full swing. He has called his first disciples and he has trekked throughout Galilee teaching the good news of God’s kingdom breaking in. And he has demonstrated what that looks like by healing every disease and sickness among the people. It’s no wonder that quite a crowd has gathered. Noticing them, Jesus goes up the mountain, much like Moses, and begins speaking. But instead of offering the Ten Commandments, Jesus provides a new teaching—one that invites hearers to move beyond external obedience to the law toward a new way of life guided by love. Essentially, Jesus’ way of being in the world informs the question posed by the prophet Micah, “…And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[i] To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, well, it looks a lot like Jesus. So pay attention!

Seated on the mountain side, Jesus begins his “Sermon on the Mount” with the Beatitudes. “Makarios,” the Greek word for beatitude, can be translated happy, fortunate, privileged, favored by God, blessed. But notice the people whom Jesus claims to be blessed: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. “Really, Jesus, those are the folks you call blessed?”

If we were asked to come up with a list of people our culture considers blessed, happy, fortunate, privileged, I daresay it would highlight character traits that are very different from meekness, mercy, and poverty. Instead, steeped in the reality of the consumeristic, power-hungry machine that our society has become—the list of beatitudes for our nation in the 21st century might look more like this:

Blessed are those who have more money than God because they don’t have a care in the world; Blessed are those who are not sorry for their behavior because they do not have to ask for forgiveness or make amends; Blessed are the 24/7 news channels with their talking heads for they guide the convictions of the people; Blessed are the mean, hateful ones for they know how to get even; Blessed are the insurance and pharmaceutical companies for they hold the quality of our healthcare in their hands; Blessed are those on Instagram and Twitter who have millions of followers for they have the power to influence the world for good or for ill; Blessed are those who are angry and violent because they use fists and weapons to take care of their problems.

 

Of course, as Christians we know this list is not right. Yet, in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, who wants to worship a God who blesses the poor and the persecuted? We do! We NEED to worship a God who blesses the least of these because it means that we are all included in God’s wide embrace—come what may!  It means God blesses your son who can’t seem to find his place in the world. God blesses your friend who just got a diagnosis that can only be shared in a whisper. God blesses your neighbor who just lost his job and is worried about his future. God blesses you when you sit by your mother’s bedside waiting for her to draw her last breath—waiting for her to enter her eternal home. God blesses! That’s just what God does!

 

While the Sermon on the Mount has provided inspiration down through the ages, even for people of other faiths, like Gandhi, still most of us have difficulty getting a handle on the Beatitudes. As a result, we tend to pay them little mind. Maybe it’s because we fear what they require of us. Maybe it’s because we do not understand them. To complicate matters, an in-depth study of the beatitudes provides a host of interpretations. In recent years, liberation theologians have adopted them as proof that God prefers the poor over the rich. While there is evidence of God’s love for the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden throughout Scripture, there is also ample examples of God blessing those he loves with abundance, long life, and shalom. And when it comes to how Jesus interacts with the wealthy; it is love of wealth that he repeatedly condemns. Moreover, let us not forget the wealthy women who wrote the checks for Jesus’ ministry. Can you imagine Jesus taking their money and in the same breath, condemning them for it?

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking, arguing that something is either this way or it is that way. It is black or it is white. It is the healthy, wealthy, and wise who are blessed, or it is the sick, poor, and foolish. Perhaps the Beatitudes can provide a new lens for us to see that Jesus does not love the down and out more than the up and coming. Jesus does not prefer the poor over the rich. Blessedness, happiness, favor—it’s pure gift—and it is for everyone. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[ii]

With God, blessedness is not a reward for righteousness. It is sheer grace. And in the realm of God, even mourning, poverty of spirit, and meekness can reveal an inbreaking of the abundant life. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we may listen to a woman who is in constant prayer for a friend who has just entered hospice care. “Blessed are those who mourn.” We may have a clergy friend who yearns for his congregation to nurture new seeds of ministry so they may take root and flourish. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We may notice the passion in the voice of our Break Bread Together Coordinator when she speaks of the 40 people a day we are currently feeding and the numerous folks who remain on the waiting list. “Blessed are the merciful.” We may give thanks for our Commissioned Ruling Elder who readily sees the good in both people and circumstances and who longs for love to grow in our midst. “Blessed are the pure in heart.”

Recently I preached a sermon entitled WWJBD? What Would John the Baptist Do? The premise of the sermon was that it is often difficult to know just what Jesus would do (harkening back to the WWJD bracelets, of course). When we are in doubt, though, we can always fall back on what John the Baptist would do. And what is that? He would point others to Jesus. This week the topic of WWJD? bracelets came up again in an email from Katharine Phelps. You see, a young 7th grader at Hahira Middle School is battling cancer, and someone is selling bracelets to raise money for her care. Elise Phelps, who has a heart of gold, was the first in line to purchase a pink HWLF bracelet—touted to be the answer to what Jesus would do. And what is that exactly? HWLF? He Would Love First.

What might “loving first” look like for those of us who happen to have adequate food, clothing, shelter, and resources? It might look like humbly listening to those weighed down by the cares of this world and then, if more than listening is required, doing whatever we can to help. It might look like moving out of our comfort zone to put the needs of vulnerable members of society before ours. It might look like taking Christ’s love out into the world in brave, new ways.

In all that he said, in all that he did, Jesus was guided by a heart overflowing with love. He came to breathe new life into the law. He came to show us how to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And he came to teach us that whether we feel like it or not—we are blessed because we are God’s beloved. May we follow in his footsteps. May we, too, choose to love first. Amen.

[i] Micah 6:8.

[ii] Romans 8:38-39

*Cover Art “View from The Mount of Beatitudes” by Deror Avi via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission;