The Lord Before Me

The Lord Before Me

 3rd Sunday After Pentecost

Jane Shelton, TRE; June 26, 2022

First Presbyterian Valdosta

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch the movie “Chocolat.” You may be familiar with the movie, but for those who are not, in the movie, a mother and her daughter come into town, and the mother opens a chocolate shop.  Soon, you learn the daughter is illegitimate, and the mother/daughter duo have led somewhat of a gypsy lifestyle with their special chocolates.  These chocolates, it seems have special healing properties, bringing the towns’ people…who dare to try them…much joy and happiness.

 

But the mayor, who runs the town, is not satisfied because the mother and her daughter do not attend church, and he just can’t seem to find the good in this woman, who has no intention but to make sure others find happiness when they experience her chocolates.

 

The Chocolatier soon takes under her arm, a battered wife, a deserted grandmother and her grandson, and the wife of a drunkard, who soon finds a relationship with her husband again after a few of the infamous healing chocolates.

 

Now as much good continues throughout the town from the miraculous chocolates, it just doesn’t seem to be enough for the disgruntled mayor, who even writes and directs the sermons for the young, and recently installed Clergy.

 

However, as the movie progresses with many ups and downs for the mother/daughter duo, and much effort by the mayor to eliminate her from his community, the mayor is soon pushed to his limit to resist the temptation of the knowledge behind these mysterious chocolates.  He breaks in to destroy the chocolates in the shop, but hysterically finds himself laying in the shop window overcome in hysterical chocolate bliss.

 

Overcome with hysteria, he is unable to complete the Easter Sunday sermon for the young clergy, who gladly accepts the challenge to do it himself.

 

From his pulpit, the young clergy begins, “I’m not sure of a theme today, Do I speak of the miracle of our Lord’s miraculous transformation?  I don’t want to talk about his divinity.  I’d rather talk about his humanity, you know, how he lived his life here on earth…his kindness, his tolerance.  Listen, here’s what I think…I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do; what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude.  I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.”

 

With this, this townspeople have a wonderful Easter celebration in their town, and welcome with open arms the Chocolatier and her daughter.

 

Inclusion and acceptance, can we find anyone who doesn’t want or need to be accepted for who they are?

 

Paul reminds us in Galations that we are called to freedom, but not for self-indulgence, but through love we should become slaves to one another, or devoted to one another in love.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It is through this love for one another that we find true Joy in the Holy Spirit and with one another.

 

In the movie, as the mayor tries to destroy the female chocolatier, he soon becomes consumed with scheming and hatred that pushes his very soul to the brink of insanity.

 

He became anything less than free to experience any joy and freedom he had presumed he would by eliminating from his town this woman he deemed unfit.

 

Our Psalmist says, “I keep the Lord ALWAYS before me,” and what is the result, a glad heart, a soul that rejoices, and a body that rests secure!

 

Wow!  Who doesn’t want that in their life?!

 

I’m sure you have all followed someone at some point in your life, somewhere you were guided by a leader, and what do you do?  You keep your eye on the leader, because if you glance away for a second, you find yourself lost and searching for where you go from that position?

 

Have you ever found yourself in a situation, whether as a child or as an adult, where you were following a leader, and at some point you became distracted.  You stop to look or listen at something that draws your attention in another direction, and you lose focus on the leader.   When you look up, the leader is out of sight.  You feel lost, maybe even panicked?

 

However, when you keep your eye on the leader on your journey, you feel safe and secure, and maybe you even learn a thing or two along the way.

 

When we keep the Lord before us, we focus our eyes on the Lord.  It’s much easier to follow the Lord whenever we allow his presence before us.  Rather than reacting to what is ahead of us if the Lord is behind us, or beside us, we are following his lead?

 

With the Lord before us, we are in the best capable hands, and in his presence we find fullness of joy.  It’s only when we get ahead of the Lord or lose focus that we become lost, confused and maybe even a little stressed.

 

Let’s picture for a moment, if every day, when we open the door to our garage or our car, we say, “Okay Lord, you go ahead of me, I’m going to follow you today.”

 

How would that change our day?

 

When we walk into our office or sit in our office chair, or take a walk outside to start our day, what if we allow the Lord to go before us.

 

“After you,” we might say to put it into perspective.

 

If we could get in this habit, would we have the same reaction on the road when a car cuts in front of us, or perhaps when we get a disgruntled person on the phone.  When we yield to the driver’s rage and we actually listen to the disgruntled person on the phone, how would the response be different if we picture the Lord there before us.  Would we be more likely to give a response that is less reactive with rather soothing words and tone like the Lord before us?

 

Remember our traveling Jesus that Dr. G created for us to use in our photographs on summer vacations a couple years ago?  What if we put traveling Jesus on a stick and held it out in front of us as we walk through our daily lives, would our attitudes be different?  Would we be as critical and judgmental of others around us?  It’s kind of hard to have that attitude when Jesus is there in front of us.

 

And I don’t see the Lord before me rushing through life, no, he would be taking his time, walking among the people, very much aware of what is going on around him and listening to see who he can help.

 

Delving into the lectionary this week, the Presbytery Outlook wrote:
‘In our lectionary text from Galatians, Paul writes about the nature of Christian liberty. In Christ, we are not freed from responsibility, not freed to do whatever we want, or freed to indulge in self-centered desires of the flesh. Rather, in Christ, we are freed FOR love, freed to care for, respect and cherish all lives. The cross is the symbol of this Christian freedom. Jesus did not pick up a weapon to defend himself from the violent Romans. He went to the cross. In his life, death and resurrection, the transformative power of God’s love for humankind is made known. Nothing can separate us from this love.’

 

When we allow ourselves to put the Lord before us, and be led by the Spirit, we can experience the fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

 

Indeed, we experience fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore!

 

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O God, My God

O God, My God

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Jane Shelton, TRE; June 19, 2022

First Presbyterian Valdosta

What a story!

Picture it – maybe you want to close your eyes and picture it – but picture this….

You are the man possessed with demons, you are naked.  You are dirty and cold.

You have broken your shackles and chains and come out of the tomb.

You’ve escaped the guards and you see the boat approaching the shore.

In the boat is a man in white.  He’s standing in the boat as it moves towards the shore.

Coming out of the dark tomb, the light is bright, you raise your arms and try to shield the sun from your eyes.  You squint and blink…then blink again.

Are you really seeing the man in the boat?

Is the boat really coming to shore?

You race down the hill to meet this man; you sense there is something different about him.

You sense that he can help you.

Just as the man steps out of the boat onto land, you meet him.

And to your surprise, like other people you meet, he doesn’t run the other way, he doesn’t get back in the boat and have his disciples paddle away as fast as they can.

No, he stands there, and meets you where you are in the condition you are in – naked and afraid.

It’s as if he has been waiting for you.

You don’t know what to expect – is he going to strike you down, put you back in chains and shackles?  That’s what all the other people do.  They bind you and keep you in a dark place.

But this man is different.  THIS man called Jesus.

Then demons…the legion of demons…inside me speak to him.  They are afraid.

They beg not to be sent back to the abyss….back to the regions of hell, that deep, dark bottomless space separating them from people.

This legion, being crafty and thinking quickly, devise a plan that they be allowed to enter the swine.

Jesus permits this, and the next thing you see are the swine racing down the steep embankment, and landing in the lake where they drown.

Suddenly, you feel different.  You see yourself for the first time…. and you are standing face to face to this man, Jesus, looking into his eyes when someone approaches you with clothes, clean clothes.  You gratefully accept and put on these clean clothes as you have an awareness for the first time that you have been naked.  No one has ever approached you before unless they were coming to put you back in shackles and chains.  It’s new, it’s different, and if feels good.  You feel whole, like a person of worth.

Your mind is clear, and you can even think of pleasant things.  You are at peace and consumed with joy and disbelief!

You sit down at Jesus’ feet and you listen to him speak to you.  You are so grateful to be in another’s company, to be out in the light of the day…it’s so warm on your skin, and the air is fresh.  The breeze is gentle on your face, and you are calm.  You’ve never felt such peace, and you understand what Jesus is saying to you, and you continue to eagerly listen to him.

Then other people start coming near to see what you are doing.  You don’t know these people, and for some reason they are afraid.  They tell Jesus, YOUR healer, to leave.  But you don’t want him to go.  You love him and what he has done for you.  He doesn’t frighten YOU because you know who he is, and he knows you!

You want to go with him, you beg him to please let you go with him, but he tells you that you must stay and tell others your story, tell others what God has done for you…how he has healed you, loved you, and made you whole.  So being so grateful, you obey, and do what he has told you to do, you declare all these wonderful things to the people in the city so they will know God’s healing power, and God’s amazing love…

WOW!  WHAT A STORY!

But let’s back up a minute.  Why are the people afraid?

Did they not understand the good that had been done?

Were they more concerned with the swine that had been lost than this man who had been healed?  Maybe the swine was their food supply for a month….maybe they thought their grains may be spoiled next.  Maybe they were so concerned for their own well-being they didn’t acknowledge the sacrifice that needed to be made to heal this man that lived in the tomb and was possessed by demons.

Were they afraid because they didn’t know the heart of Jesus?  Did they think Jesus was going to send them down the steep embankment into the lake?

Reading the story, I don’t know about you, but I’m left shaking my head.  How is it possible that these people could be seized with great fear?

And as I began to ponder this very thing, I began to realize, isn’t it our very human nature to fear the unknown.

Maybe even sometimes we fear the very good thing we see before us.  To their credit, they didn’t know Jesus the way we do, and well, we humans, we are such creatures of habit and perceived control we think we have, that are we not also blinded when something changes.  Even when it changes for the good of all, we fear it rather than rejoice and embrace it.

We fear because we don’t understand.

We fear when we can’t comprehend.  We fear because we don’t have faith in our God to deliver us.

We fear when things happen beyond our control.  How many times do we miss the opportunity to look Jesus in the eyes, and sit as his feet because our fear paralyzes us?

Just as the man was “seized” with demons, the people were seized with fear.  So is fear a demon itself?

I believe it can be.  When we allow fear to control us to the point we become paralyzed, and we can’t see our way to Jesus then, yes, I believe it is a demon.

What is causing us fear today?  How do we let go?  How do we break free?

Our fear causes us to enter a dark place, a tomb if you will, and unless we can break out of those chains and the things that hold us immobile, we cannot grow.  We have to reach to the place where Jesus waits, reach out of the darkness into the light…it’s there, in the warm light, not in the darkness of a tomb, that Jesus waits for us to listen to his word.  He desires to be present with us, to teach us, to guide us, and to love us when we cannot love ourselves.

When we step out of the darkness, when we can break free of the burdens that seize us, like the Psalmist, we say, “O send us your light and your truth.  Let them lead me.  Let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the harp, O God, MY God.”

In her book, “Return to the Root,” Joyce Rupp writes a chapter titled, “Breaking the Chains.”  It’s only three pages, and I would like to share it with you.

Breaking the Chains

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,

prisoners in misery and in irons….

They cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and [God] saved them from their distress, [God] brought them out of darkness and gloom,

and broke their bonds asunder.

~ Psalm 107:10, 13-14

I spent most of a week walking for hours each day on the magnifi­ cent Oregon coast. One morning I noticed how much delight I felt. I also observed this in others: a father and daughter screamed in false fright as they held hands and leapt into the incoming waves; a blonde-haired girl in a bright blue party dress laughed at the water circling her feet; people of all sizes and ages smiled as they stooped over to pick up shells and other objects capturing their curiosity; a middle-aged woman lay flat-bellied on her surfboard and erupted with triumphant shouts as the waves lifted her to shore. Everywhere slivers of enjoyment appeared, sounding in the voices of children building sandcastles and in the joined hands of elderly companions as they strolled the sandy beach.

As I walked along, I thought, This place draws forth joy. It seemed to me that the rhythm of the ocean allowed each person there to temporarily leave behind the stress and strain that clog our lives and that people drag around every day. The usual tumbles and turns wrenching away the delight of life and the pressured schedules that clamp down on simple pleasures temporarily halted.

After returning home I wondered if it might be possible to retain the quiet satisfaction that readily took over my spirit at the ocean. The answer came when I joined other women for our Tuesday

morning prayer. Our facilitator that day chose a theme from The Cup of Our Life: “Recognizing Resistances.” The chapter opens with a quote from Macrina Wiederkehr: “I am entirely ready to have the

chains that keep me bound be broken. I am entirely ready for the walls I’ve built around myself to be torn down. I am entirely ready to give up my need to control every situation. I am entirely ready to let go of my resentments. I am entirely ready to grow up.”

As I heard this, I realized, That’s it. If I could live that kind of “read­iness” regarding my dairy tasks and the unwanted aspects, joy would find a more lasting home inside of me. Resisting what is, fighting off what I do not want, trying to force everything to turn out positively, forgetting how the Holy One guides and directs, throwing mental tantrums when life gets messy or painful-yes, all of this and more, are bound to keep the kind of happiness experienced on the shores of the Pacific Ocean from residing in my being.

When I face obstacles, I have a variety of options for how to respond. Some choices de-energize me and shut out joy; others re-energize and enhance joy. When I pause to listen closely, I am most often led to a freeing decision rather than to one that increases the heaviness manacling me to the concrete floor of my ego-the part of me that always wants what it wants when it wants it and throws a hissy-fit when it cannot have it.

When I face these kinds of choices, I know I need to turn to a power greater than myself for assistance to move beyond the restraints. As Psalm 107 indicates, there’s a moment when I find myself crying out to the Holy One that I may have wisdom and strength to break what binds my peace and joy. When this happens, I feel like Peter imprisoned in chains, the angel coming in the dark of night, breaking those restraints and leading the disciple to free­ dom (see Acts 12:3-19).

Nature often teaches me about moving from obstacles to free­ dom from them. When I brought overseas visitors to the area of the Black Hills in South Dakota, I arose early one morning and went by myself to walk the loop around a nearby lake. It was early April, and I missed the sign about possible ice on the path. Not long after I started walking, I faced an unwelcome sight: huge boulders and the path between them filled with a grim layer of ice. I looked ahead and saw more of the same. I had no hiking boots. I knew I could fall and break a bone, which would ruin the trip for my friends. I paused. What to do? In that silence, ever so softly I sensed where I might go.

I turned around, and after a short jaunt, I found a way to walk into the woods. A path there took me on soft pine needles among evergreen trees to a place above the icy boulders where I could look out onto immense pillars of sandstone and beyond to the beautiful valley. In this place I found a small open space among the stones where I could sit, put my head back on the rocks, and rest my feet in front of me on a flat stone. I felt held by those ancient parts of earth and cradled by the One who led me beyond the blockage to that surprising embrace of pleasure.

Sometimes turning away from an obstacle is not easy to do. And sometimes it will not bring immediate relief as the new path did for me. But if we turn inward when something or someone blocks the way ahead, when we pray through a difficult situation, eventually we turn the corner and discover a peace-filled place within ourselves.

The flow of life will not always be upbeat. There will be periods when pain of body, mind, or spirit temporarily thrusts joy aside. This is to be expected. I will not always feel content, but inner peace can remain constant. That is, if my resistances cease and I am ready to have the chains broken. (Rupp, 2021 pg. 58-60)

As we take time this morning for silent reflection, I invite you to consider…by what demons are you seized?  Be it fear, lack of enthusiasm, depression, silence, gossip, not taking care of yourself….whatever your demon might be, I invite you to meet Jesus as the shore, run out of that dark, damp tomb into the warm, bright light, be filled with joy, and declare ALL that God has done for you!

*Cover Art via churchart.com, used by subscription

Rupp, J.  (2021). Breaking the Chains. Return to the Root (pg 58-60). Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books.

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 12, 2022

Trinity Sunday

John 16:12-15; Romans 5:1-5

 

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost as the day the Holy Spirit arrived to birth the church. In many Presbyterian churches, Pentecost is the only Sunday the Spirit gets any attention. It reminds me of a story often told about a Pentecostal woman who happened to walk into a Presbyterian church during worship. She made her way to the front pew and immediately started responding—out loud—to the minister’s sermon. “Amen. Hallelujah,” she said. “Preach it, brother…Praise God… Yes, Lord Jesus…” As her enthusiasm grew, so did the anxiety of the people around her. Finally, when she stood up to raise her hands in praise, an usher appeared at her side and whispered, “Ma’am, is something wrong?” “No,” she said. “Nothing is wrong. I just have the Spirit.” “Well,” he said, “you didn’t get it here.”

 

 

Last week we considered how Pentecost marks the beginning of the work of the church—a work that now falls to believers who commit themselves to the way of Jesus—to the way of Love. Today is Trinity Sunday, or God Sunday, as it is sometimes called. It is the only day of the liturgical year that invites us to ponder a doctrine of the church. While it is true that our Scripture readings reflect the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, since the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, preaching on the topic can be a daunting task. Gregory Nazianzen warned that to speak of the Godhead is like crossing the ocean on a raft.  Augustine, one of the greatest minds of the western world, wrote about the Trinity. It took 10 years and 15 books.

 

 

But, at the end of the day, what does it matter? What does the doctrine of the Trinity matter to people who are still impacted by a global pandemic? What does it matter to someone who is suffering from cancer? What does it matter to the family dealing with a child who has gone astray, or a couple who is headed for a divorce, or a man who has just lost his job, or a woman who has just buried her mother? What does it matter that God is Father, Son, and Spirit when all we really want to know—most of the time—is that God is God and that somehow, someway, God knows who we are, where we are, and what we need to make it through the day?

 

 

While much of the ways of God are and will forever be a mystery, meditating on the Trinity can be helpful because doing so broadens our understanding of God. And as we mature in our faith, it is important to learn how to better articulate what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. For many Christians, the language of the Trinity has been a useful tool for doing just that. It’s how the doctrine of the Trinity began in the first place.

 

 

Although the term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the 3rd century, there were hints before then. Take our scripture passage from Romans, for instance, in which Paul notes our connection to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Or consider Jesus’ words from John’s Gospel about the relationship between Jesus, his Abba Father, and the Spirit of truth. These, and other texts, became building blocks to craft the historic doctrine of the Trinity. We experienced God’s extravagant Triune Love, and as a result, we naturally started speaking of God as Trinity. It was the same God that we had experienced as the Creator of the world, the Father of Israel. Now we experienced God in the flesh as Son, and as the power flowing from God—the Holy Spirit. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity helped give words to our faith.

 

 

When it comes to experiencing God in three persons, it seems that Celtic Christians had no trouble imagining such a concept since trinitarian language is deeply ingrained in the heart and soul of their spirituality. Frequently, the image of three in one is found in Celtic art and poetry. For example:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints of the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes and ice, all water their origin share,
Three Persons in God; to one God alone we make prayer.[i]

 

 

Over the years, the Trinity has been illustrated as water that may occur as liquid, solid, or gas; or as an apple that is made up of the peel, flesh, and core—yet all the same apple. Augustine used a tree as a metaphor saying, “The root is wood, the trunk is wood, the branches are wood; one wood, one substance but three different entities.”[ii] While these are good examples, I prefer to think of the Trinity as a circle in which God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are in community with one another. Herein, there is the idea of constant movement and interaction within the Trinity—the Father gives to the Son; the Son returns praise and glory to the Father; the Father and the Son give to the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit draws everything back to the Father and the Son. It is within this community that we are invited to experience and participate in God’s endless love.

 

 

Chris Polhill of the Iona Community offers these words:

If we see the Trinity as a circle—no beginning or ending, no top or bottom—Jesus can say: ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’ This is the relationship we are invited to join, so that we pray in God and not to God. Here we see God committed to the dance of an equal and unending relationship, willing to suffer rather than force us into relationship. We see the Father and the Holy Spirit in agony with Jesus on the Cross, so close is the relationship…We are invited to be in this relationship, part of the dance, knowing the vulnerability and the joy of love. Instead of constantly searching for the way to God, whenever we pray, we dwell in God, in the Living God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.[iii]

 

 

Through the doctrine of the Trinity, we are offered a panoramic view of God’s wonder. We are given enough of the picture to see that God is God and we are the recipients of a love wider, deeper, and broader than we can ever imagine. Moreover, we are invited to join in the dance of Love. So yes, meditating on the Trinity matters because it helps us remember who we are and whose we are. It helps us remember that as believers in the Triune God, we worship a God who is still creating among us, a God who redeems us through Jesus Christ, a God who continues to sustain us through the Holy Spirit. Great is the mystery of our faith. Thanks be to God!

 

[i] Eleanor Hull, The Poem Book of the Gael, quoted in de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, 39-40.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 44.

[iii] Chris Polhill, Fire and Bread, 210.

 

*Cover by Stushie Art, used by subscription

Pentecost

Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 5, 2022

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

 

Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It is the birthday of the church. While our reading from Acts is one of the most familiar readings in all of Scripture, the circumstances are anything but familiar. Even in the liveliest, most spirit-filled churches I have ever worshiped in, I have yet to see tongues as of fire sitting on anyone’s head. And never, ever have I witnessed 3000 baptisms in response to Spirit-filled preaching—which is what happens later in the chapter. Yet, Pentecost is part of our story, and we are part of the ongoing work of the church that was birthed that day.

 

 

As believers, we continue the work of the church whenever we devote ourselves to the studying of God’s Word, pray, worship, have meals together, and share our common life as a diverse community unified by Christ’s love. When we do these things with glad and sincere hearts and believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit is already ours—already working to make us into the people Christ intends for us to be—there is no end to what we can accomplish in the world. Do we believe? Do we expect transformed lives—our own included? Do we hope the Spirit will grow the church in surprising ways still today? Or have we given up hope?

 

 

Thom M. Shuman is a Presbyterian pastor and poet whose prayers, liturgies, and devotions are used by people throughout the world. I often refer to his written prayers and other lectionary resources. In one resource, Fire and Bread, he contributed a monologue that I wish to share with you this morning. It is entitled, “The Surprising Thing About Pentecost.”[i]

 

 

What?

 

 

Who’s there?

 

 

Oh, it’s you.

 

 

Yes—the Teacher told me you would be coming round. I was waiting for you and must have dozed off. Now, let me see. You want to know what happened on that day. Oh, it was so long ago. Of course, you’ve come to the right person. A lot of folks will tell you they were in the city that day. But I was a lifelong resident of Jerusalem—in fact, my house was right next door to where Peter, James, John and all the rest used to gather for their meetings.

 

 

That fact alone surprised a lot of us. I mean, the followers of Jesus staying in the very city where he had been put to death! Not that they caused any trouble, mind you. They obviously weren’t the band of zealots that everyone had thought—or hoped—they would be. If they were up to something in that city, the authorities would have known about it pretty quick, let me tell you. Between the Roman spies, Herod, and the council of priests, you never knew who was watching you.

 

 

Anyway, it was Pentecost. Nowadays, everyone associates it with this new faith: the great day when the Church was born. But people forget that we Jews have been celebrating Pentecost for a very long time. First it was an agricultural festival—to celebrate the first harvest of the year and to give thanks for God’s blessings. Over the years, though, it became more a celebration of God’s gift of the Law to the people.

 

 

Every year, thousands of Jews from all over the region returned to Jerusalem to celebrate their religious heritage—to dance, to sing, to reminisce, to gather together for worship in the Temple. So, it was not all that surprising that there were so many people around that day, so many excited people, so many people eager to rejoice and party.

 

 

Peter and the others—oh, there were probably only a hundred of them at most—had gathered at the house to pray and worship together… Anyway, they were praying and worshiping—I could hear them through the open windows—when, suddenly, there was the strangest sound. First, it was just a hint, a whisper of a breeze. Then, the wind raced down the streets, rushing past the houses, sounding like a thousand chariots coming at us.

 

 

One of the neighbors later said it sounded like the first day of creation must have sounded when God breathed upon the earth and the waters. I tell you, I dropped my tools and ran out into the street—just like everyone else.

 

 

Huh?

 

 

Of course we were surprised! Actually, most of us were pretty frightened. I’ve never heard a noise like it since that day, and quite frankly I hope I never will. Then I heard someone shout: ‘Look at the house!’ meaning the house where Jesus’ people were. The doors and the windows were wide open—we could see in quite clearly. How can I describe it? It looked as if flames—tongues of fire is what Luke called them later, I think—were dancing about the room. At first I thought the cooking oil had caught fire and exploded. But then I noticed that nothing was burning…and that no one—I mean NO ONE—in the house was hysterical or even frightened. No, they just stood and watched as the flames filled the room; and the flames seemed to touch—without burning them—every single person in that house.

 

 

It was an incredible sight! We were rubbing our eyes, pinching ourselves, looking at one another in wonder and fear. Then—the words came. I think it was Peter at first, but then John, and then someone else, and then another, until all the disciples—every single person in that house—were talking and chattering away.

 

 

A man in the back of me shouted: ‘They must be drunk!’ But a man standing near me said: “No. I understand what he’s saying. He’s speaking a Mede dialect.’ A rabbi corrected him. ‘No, my son, that’s Aramaic.” I heard a woman mutter under her breath, ‘Men! It’s clearly Egyptian they are speaking.’ Me, I’m no good at languages. It was all Greek to me.

 

 

But everybody—and I mean everybody—Roman, Jew, Turk, Cyrenian, Galilean, all the different nationalities that were standing there in the street—heard—each in his or her native tongue—what the followers of Jesus were saying. It was an awesome display of power and majesty. I felt like one of the ancient Israelites must have felt when God spoke to Moses from the mountaintop, in thunder and lightning.

 

 

Well, you know the rest. Peter came out of the house and spoke to all the people standing in the street. He had a quiet crowd—believe me. What a sight: This uneducated fisherman speaking to a crowd composed of every race and nation in the world.

 

 

You know, some say the Church was born on that day. Others say it was the day that the Holy Spirit came down. Me, I think it was the day Peter became the person God intended him to be. What a speech—so simple but powerful. It was so overwhelming that 3,000 people were baptized into the faith! Yes, it was a day of incredible drama, a day of miracles, a day in which lives were changed…

 

 

What? Sorry?

 

 

What surprised me most?

 

 

The most surprising thing about Pentecost was that the disciples WERE NOT SURPRISED! I mean, the wind didn’t scare them, the flames didn’t panic them, the crowds didn’t intimidate them. It was as if they expected it all to happen to them: the rush of wind, the touch of the flames, the speaking in tongues, the powerful sermon, the response of the people. It was as if someone had told them ahead of time that, if they only trusted, if they only believed, if they only had faith, it would happen just like it did.

 

 

[Silent Reflection]

 

[i] Thom M. Shuman, Fire and Bread, edited by Ruth Burgess, 149-152.

* Cover by Stushie Art used by subscription

The Word of the Lord

The Word of the Lord

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 29, 2022

7th Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:16-34

 

Prior to our reading from The Acts of the Apostles, allow me to provide some information regarding today’s sermon, which will be interactive in nature. Dr. Graham Standish, a Presbyterian pastor, church leader, and author has written a book entitled In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship.  In it, Standish asserts that when we gather to worship God on any given Sunday our purpose is two-fold: to offer God honor and praise and to connect to the Holy. From his perspective, what is lacking in too many churches is intentionality in allowing sacred space to connect with the Holy. He believes that too much of our worship is about maintaining what was, satisfying who is already here, attracting who is not here, or adding to our numbers. Instead, he encourages the church to consider how people experience God in diverse ways—through a variety of music styles and art, in words and silence, in performance and participation, through sensory experience and observation.

 

Over the past few years at First Presbyterian Church, we have explored a variety of ways to intentionally allow space to connect to the Holy. While words—spoken and sung—are part of our worship—so are moments of silence. We sing a variety of hymns that are provided in the Glory to God hymnal—hymns that are centuries old, contemporary hymns, Taize songs, African American spirituals, and much more. Another method of engagement that we use, particularly during the Contemplative worship services, is the spiritual practice of lectio divina. Since it is participatory in nature, that how I want us to experience Scripture this morning.

 

So, in just a moment, Walter Elliott will read our text from Acts using the NRSV translation. After a moment of silence, we will share what speaks to us from the text. Afterward, Walter will read it a second time and we will follow the same pattern of reading, silence, and sharing. Finally, I will read the Scripture passage using The Message translation, and we will do the same. Now, as you hear the Word read, open your heart to one word of phrase that strikes you as important. After a moment of silence, we will share with one another.

 

(Walter reads/ Silence/Sharing)

 

Now let us hear this passage again. This time, listen for what surprises you most about Paul and Silas’ experience.

 

(Walter reads / Silence / Sharing)

 

Finally, I will read our text aloud from the more contemporary language of The Message. As you listen, pay attention to a message that God might have for us today?

(Glenda reads / Silence / Sharing)

 

CLOSING COMMENTS

 

Last week we learned that Paul is on his second missionary trip because of a vision he has of a man from Macedonia pleading for help. In Philippi, Paul and his friends search for a place to pray and find some women down by the river doing just that. There, the seller of purple cloth, Lydia, who is already a believer in Yahweh, becomes a believer in Christ and is baptized, along with her whole household. Afterward, we find Paul and Silas again going to a place of prayer day after day. And day after day, they are aggravated by a slave girl who makes her owners a lot of money as a fortune teller. Finally, Paul has enough and says to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” When her owners realize they have lost their profitable resource, they incite the people against Paul and Silas, who are then severely flogged and locked in prison.

 

Although this is surely a dark moment in their lives, Paul and Silas are not deterred. Quite the contrary, they pray and sing hymns to God (not quite the worship setting we would expect). Still, they worship, and even when an earthquake breaks their bonds asunder, they do not escape. One wonders if they are so caught up in worship, they cannot tear themselves away. When the prison guard sees their faith, he is struck to the heart and asks, “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul and Silas speak the word of God to him and to all who are in his house—and that night he and his entire family are baptized.

 

Paul and Silas speak the word of God to them. The word of God is powerful. It is powerful when we approach it humbly and prayerfully during our private devotions. It is powerful when we reflect upon it together and it is powerful when we hear it preached. As Christians, we are people of the Word, dedicated to God’s Word—read, prayed, lived, and shared. Individually and together, let us commit to reading the Word, praying the Word, living the Word, and sharing the Word so that all peoples may come to know the love, mercy, and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

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

 

(Silent Reflection)

 

*Cover Art “Icon of the Apostle Paul” via Wikimedia Commons, used by permission

A Taste of God

A Taste of God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 22, 2022

6th Sunday of Easter

Psalm 67; Acts 16:9-15

 

During the Easter Season we have been taste-testing stories of the newborn church, particularly through the palates of Peter and Paul, and today’s story is especially enticing. Since the best meals begin with an appetizer, we will start off with a delicious selection of pita chips, hummus, and a cheese board adorned with assorted cheeses, berries, olives, grapes, pickles, and of course, peanuts and pecans from South Georgia. The appetizer provided in our story comes in the form of a vision, for Paul is, once again, experiencing extraordinary things. In many ways, Paul seems hard-wired into the Holy Spirit, even though his plans sometimes go awry, even though he sometimes ends up in places he never expects. But the important thing to remember is that no matter where his journey takes him, Paul remains faithful. He does what he believes is his to do, and the Spirit takes it from there. This time, through a vision, he is urged to take the message of the gospel into Europe. “Come, help us,” a man from Macedonia begs and the Spirit sends Paul to do just that. When Paul and his companions arrive, they case out the city, which has no synagogue—perhaps because there is not a large Jewish population in Philippi, and ten Jewish men are required to form a synagogue. So, when the Sabbath rolls around, Paul decides to look for believers in the next best place—down by the river.

 

 

A good meal calls for balance and beauty. How about a leafy green salad with spinach, strawberries, walnuts, and cucumbers, lightly dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette? Tasty! It appears that Lydia and the other women at the river have had a taste of something good, too—a taste of God. That’s why they gather to pray. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, accustomed to dealing with the elite class of Philippi. We know this because only the elite are allowed to wear purple. As a businesswoman, responsible for her household, surely there are other things Lydia could have been doing that day. Assuming she is not a Jew, the Sabbath would be like any other workday. But what Lydia craves will not be satisfied by more work or more riches. So, down by the river she goes with the other women to pray.

 

 

Somewhere, somehow, Lydia has gotten a taste of God. She hungers for more and more is what is about to be provided through the main course. For our culinary pleasure, we have on the menu, a delightful and hearty red lentil stew, cornbread muffins, garlicy red potatoes, and steamed asparagus. The main course is what Lydia has been craving, so Paul sits down and serves it up, just so. With all the passion he can muster, Paul tells the story of Yahweh, who has come in the flesh into the world as Jesus, to show us how to live in accordance with God’s will. Love has come to us, Love lived among us, Love died for us, Love rose again, Love ascended into heaven where Love prays for us, and Love lives on through Christ’s Spirit, who is available to every man, woman, and child who says yes to Love. You can enter into a relationship with Love through the waters of baptism. You can be sustained in your faith through bread and wine—Christ’s body given for you, Christ’s blood shed for you. Lydia listens with rapt attention. She is done with appetizers. She is finished with salads and greens. She is ready for the main course. She eats and is satisfied. God’s grace and Lydia’s longing meet on the banks of the river, and she and her whole household are baptized. Lydia, who becomes the first Christian convert in Europe, is so filled with gratitude, she immediately opens her home to Paul and his friends. Because of her conversion and her gift of hospitality, the church now has a home base for the gospel to spread throughout Philippi.

 

 

But the meal, it is not over. Surely you have saved room for dessert. Since I know that some of you are die-hard chocolate lovers and others are not, you have two choices before you—key lime pie with homemade whipped cream or a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cheesecake—and no, you cannot have both. In our story, dessert comes through a second glance at the mystical power that propels the early church forward. Did you know that in the 1990’s George Gallup asked Presbyterians if they had ever experienced a vision from God? Half the church members and over half of the clergy answered yes.[i]  Are you as surprised by that statistic as I am? And why are we surprised? Maybe it’s because visions from God and nudgings by the Spirit—well, it’s just not something we talk about. People might get the wrong idea. They might think we have joined a cult or something. Furthermore, if we did talk about such things, if we did talk about how God is involved in our everyday lives, we might be expected to live as sold-out, all-in, grown-up Christians, and who wants to make that kind of commitment?

 

 

In last week’s sermon, I spoke about how stories have the power to change lives. When it comes to visions and dreams, not only do they have the power to transform and direct our own behavior, but they may also be confirmation to the world that God is still working among us. Over the years, I have had dreams and other promptings that can only be described as mystical experiences. I daresay many of you have, too. But when and where do we share our stories? Why are we so hesitant to talk about matters of a spiritual nature? We have plenty to say about most anything else! As a minister, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Presbyterians started sharing our stories of experiencing God through deep, intimate, even mystical ways. I wonder!

 

 

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul laments that when he was there, he could not speak to them as grown-up Christians. He had to speak to them as infants because they were not ready for solid food—only milk would do. Friends, the church needs grown-up Christians now more than ever. The time to be sustained by baby food, by watered down Christianity, is over. It is time to step up to the Table where God invites us to a feast that will nourish us in our life as a community of believers. This feast will nurture our relationships with family and friends and strangers. We may even find ourselves creating new dishes to share with others—dishes flavored by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

 

Dear church, if we belong to Christ, we live by the Spirit. We are guided by the Spirit—sometimes through visions and dreams, often through other means. Crucified with Christ, we refuse to rely on mother’s milk anymore. We don’t require a watered-down version of the gospel to make us comfortable. We are ready for the feast. Like Lydia who enthusiastically accepts the truth of the gospel and responds with generosity and hospitality, we are eager to respond to God’s love, mercy, and grace. We want to live as joyful, committed Christians who proclaim the good news in word and deed, who worship with believers in Spirit and in truth, who lift one another up in prayer and show kindness to each other, who study Scripture independently and together, who support the ministry of Jesus through time, talents, and treasures, who demonstrate what it looks like to live a transformed life in the church and in the world, who care for God’s creation, and who work for peace, justice, and freedom for all people.

 

 

This is the heavenly banquet that is ours to share. Make no mistake, there are still people in the world like Lydia who hunger for spiritual food. Might they be nourished through us? Might our story be just what they need to help them on their faith journey? As believers in the God of Love, let us look for opportunities to invite others to the Table of Grace. “Come,” we might say. “Come, taste and see, the Lord is good.”

 

 

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

 

[i] David G. Forney, Feasting on the Word.

*Cover Art “Lydia of Thyatira” by Harold Copping via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Let Love Lead

Let Love Lead

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 15, 2022

5h Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18

 

Jon Batiste is a singer, songwriter, and musician, who has recorded and performed with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, and Ed Sheeran. This 35-year-old Julliard trained musical phenom was nominated for 11 Grammys this year and walked away with 5 of them. While all this is impressive, what draws me to him is his deep faith in God and how he presents that faith to the world. He is like human sunshine, and whenever I watch him perform, I can’t help but think that he is more than a great musician. He is a great human being who uses his energy to add goodness and love to the world. He doesn’t appear to have time for negativity, doom, and gloom. He is too busy sharing his message—which just so happens to be the message of the gospel: That love is our only hope—not only to survive, but to thrive, and love—God’s love—is for everyone!

 

One of my favorite songs on Batiste’s Grammy award winning album is entitled “Let God Lead.” The chorus is an echo of two phrases: “Let love lead,” and “Let God lead.” Here are just a few of the other lyrics:

We begin to breathe when the wounds of others become relieved with the love of others… He who looks around to find who’s in need has made the best investment as a human being…the best investment in his legacy. I say that love will never force; love will never quit; love will never lose; love will never miss. Love stands up when others won’t; love prevails without want; love puts up with anything; God is love and love is God. So here is a formula for every hard situation—just let God and let love lead the way.

 

Our reading from Acts offers a snapshot of the early church and, interestingly, leaders of the church have already decided what Christ’s church will look like—who will be included and who will not. But the Spirit will have none of it which is why the Spirit is so busy in Acts—shaking things up—turning things upside down—showing the people that the Spirit of God will lead the way.

 

The Spirit visits Peter with a vision that we are told about in Acts chapter 10, a vision that is repeated almost verbatim in chapter 11. Since we are given the details twice, it alerts us to pay attention. In the second telling, there is an added caveat: News has spread to Jerusalem that Peter has gone to eat with Gentiles—the uncircumcised—the unclean. The apostles and believers call Peter on the carpet for his misbehavior. We may remember that “on the carpet” is where Peter spends a lot of time when Jesus walks the earth. But this Peter is different. This Peter is empowered the Holy Spirit. He’s seen some things and he is now ready to give account to anyone, anywhere. So, without hesitation he shares how the Lord showed him that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Truly, the love of Jesus is now for everyone—man, woman, child, Jew, Gentile—everyone! When his accusers hear all that Peter’s story, they are dumbstruck. Finally, when they regain their voices, it is not words of criticism that fall from their lips. It is praise to God!

 

Millenia have passed but there is still so much for us to learn from the early church. First, what does this pericope, this selection of Scripture, teach us about how leaders in the early church interacted? What we see is believers willing and able to talk about hard things. Peter comes before his critics, hears their concerns, and then responds. He is not intimidated by his audience, and he doesn’t back down. Instead, he speaks his truth, and the leaders listen with open hearts and mind. But things are much different in modern times. One scholar notes that,

Peter entered the Jerusalem church and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be nice at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to side-step controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our church faces, even as we realize irreconcilable issues. This text reminds us that controversy needs to be voiced, not avoided, and conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored.” [i]

 

Another takeaway from the text is the power of story. It’s a lesson Peter learns from the best for, repeatedly, it is through parables (stories) that Jesus prompts those around him to have a change of heart and mind. Peter follows suit, so when he comes before the leaders who question his behavior, Peter does not argue his point. He just opens his mouth and speaks of his own transformation. You see, not too long ago, Peter agreed with them. He, too, believed that in the newborn church of Jesus, there would be insiders and outsiders. But a supernatural encounter changes him and the church, forever. Of course, Peter could have approached the problem differently. He could have argued theological points and debated doctrinal differences. But, no, he merely tells his story. Like one biblical commentator notes,

…As followers of the rabbi from Nazareth whose primary teaching was through parables, we sometimes forget the power of stories today… If we could only learn to be storytellers and tell compelling stories…we could leave the rest up to the Spirit who takes up where stories end.”[ii]

 

Another lesson we can learn from our reading is the importance of truly listening to one another. The leaders in Jerusalem have valid concerns about Peter’s decision to eat with unclean people but they are open to listening and they are open to change. Through Peter’s vision they learn that it is not in their power to exclude anyone from the message of the gospel. Echoing the words of Peter, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

 

Who are we to hinder God? Henri Nouwen posited that, “…we are so full of our own opinions, ideas, and convictions that we have no space left to listen to the other and learn.” But my brothers and sisters in Christ, listen and learn we must—if we want to participate in the Spirit’s work in the church today—work that will be accomplished—with or without us.

 

If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus so that all might be saved, who are we to limit the mission of God’s redemptive love? My friends, every time we exclude someone, draw a line in the sand to mark who is in and who is out, it would behoove us to proceed with caution because Jesus is always on the other side. Peter’s vision is convincing proof that no one is excluded from the love and care of God—not then—not now—now ever!

 

Maybe a statement like, “God’s love is for everyone,” doesn’t seem like radical news to Presbyterians, but folks, in many places, it is news. In society and in the church, we are still better at building higher fences than building longer tables. It’s one of the many reasons for the great exodus of church members in recent decades. On Twitter last week, a woman shared something her pastor said in a sermon: “People under 40 are not leaving the church because they do not love Jesus. They are leaving because they do, and they can’t find Jesus there.” Wow! There is no denying that the universal church has a bad reputation. We are renowned for what we are against instead of what we are for. We are reputed to be racist, homophobic, sexist, and more energized by political affiliation than by being Christ’s love in the world. Could it be that there are unchurched people who long to be in relationship with a God whose love has no bounds? And might First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta be a place where they can find that message taught and believed and lived out?

 

A few days ago, PBS journalist, Jeffrey Brown, interviewed Jon Batiste. During the conversation, Brown mentioned that when he heard Batiste’s song, “We Are,” it occurred to him that a lot of people do not see much “we” in our nation these days. But Batiste sees it differently. In his opinion we have become focused on global issues to the extent that we have lost touch with our own communities. But in his words, “In schools, hospitals, community centers across the country, there’s a lot of we.” To this I would add, here in our church, there is a lot of “we.” We are not a big church. We haven’t been for a long time. But we are a church filled with love for one another and we have plenty of love to share with the world. And make no mistake, the world is watching. The world wants to know if we have anything to offer other than discord and division. The world wants to know if we can listen to one another with open hearts and minds. The world wants to know if we are more focused on building higher walls or building longer tables.

 

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

 

(Silent Reflection)

[i] Stephen D. Jones, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Ibid.

*Cover photo “Peter’s Vision of the Sheet with Animals” by Henry Davenport Northrop via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Sewing for Jesus

Sewing for Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 8, 2022

4th Sunday of Easter

Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43

 

Last week we explored the conversion of Paul. This week we shift to Peter who, earlier in the chapter heals a paralyzed man, and now, raises a woman from the dead. It seems that Luke is bent on getting his message across and the message is that the God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still at work—healing the sick and bringing hope to those in despair.

 

As the story goes, in Joppa there is a disciple named Tabitha, which is Dorcas in the Greek language. We don’t know a lot about Tabitha. We know she is a disciple. We know she is devoted to good works and charity.  We know she gets sick, dies, and her body is prepared for burial. We know she is beloved by her community because two men are sent by the disciples to fetch Peter, who just happens to be nearby. We know when Peter arrives on the scene, the widows meet him with weeping and a display of garments Tabitha made for them with her own hands. Finally, we know Peter kneels by her bed, prays, and says to her dead body: Tabitha, get up. And get up she does.

 

Tabitha appears in Scripture like a blip on a screen—seemingly small and insignificant in the great scheme of things. But Tabitha has much to teach us about how one person can make a difference in the kingdom of God. She also teaches us that in hopeless times, the Spirit can make the impossible possible. In the words of one scholar,

 

[The story of Tabitha] being raised from the dead challenges our assumption that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments—or, more to the point, that our predicaments are not fixable at all. We live in a world where the familiar nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty has tremendous influence. Humpty Dumpty is broken, and the common assumption is that putting him back together again is an impossible task. That is just the way it is—but not according to Acts. Acts tells us that those who belonged to the Way were empowered to turn the world upside down.[i]

 

Although we do not know a lot about Tabitha, let’s explore what we are given. First, we are provided both her Aramaic name, Tabitha, and her Greek name, Dorcas. Why? It has been suggested that Tabitha had a far-reaching impact as a follower of Jesus—reaching out to the needy in her immediate vicinity and beyond. Second, did you notice that she is named a disciple? In fact, this is the only time the feminine word for disciple, mathetria, is used in Scripture. (I guess those who insist women cannot be leaders in the church because it isn’t biblical forgot to check with Luke.) Third, we know that Tabitha has a particular talent. She can sew so she sews to the best of her ability. Her gift of helps and her talent of sewing are intermingled, channeled to express her faith through good works. She sews to help widows in need. Tabitha sews for Jesus.

 

Have you ever met Tabitha? I have. I have known Tabitha in every church I have served. Here in our faith community, there are those who work for Jesus—using their gifts and talents—sometimes in front of us—but often behind the scenes. Take Kim Dudley and Bryan Almand, for example. Both are incredible woodworkers, and they create beautiful things for Jesus. Kim built a miniature house for us to use when we collect items for certain mission projects. We have used it several times in the past and hope to put it on display again soon. Bryan built the Bible stand, the votive candle holder we use for the First Friday Contemplative Service, and several of the small tables we use throughout the sanctuary. (My favorite is the one he made for our Advent wreath—simple, beautiful, perfect.) Bryan and Kim—woodworking for Jesus!

 

After getting married, Libby George Clanton moved to Fort White, which is about an hour away. Yet, regularly, when she comes to Valdosta to see her mother, she coordinates her trip with Katie Altman, our office administrator, to count the offering, balance the deposit, and sign checks. She has been a wonderful help to Katie since she took on her additional role as bookkeeper. And when Libby can’t be in town for an Administration, Finance & Property Committee meeting, she often joins us via phone or Zoom. Libby—balancing deposits, signing checks, and encouraging others for Jesus.

 

Dr. Donna Gosnell is a chemist by trade—a Chemistry professor at VSU.  She is also our music director and organist. While it is true that she is an employee of the church, I have watched her repeatedly go above and beyond the call of duty to support our musical needs. For instance, she plays piano for the Generations of Faith Sunday School Class each week and she contributes beautiful contemplative pieces for our 1st Friday Service. During the pandemic, Donna embraced new technology to post hymns for us to sing when we were livestreaming the entire service from my home. Since then, she has worked hard to make sure we have a variety of worship music through piano, organ, handbells, flute, violin, soloists and duets. On Easter Sunday when Donna played our gathering music, I was sure I saw the heavens open, and heard the angels sing. Donna—making music for Jesus.

 

If you know our beloved Florence Cole, you know that as well as being a gifted teacher of God’s word, she has the gift of encouragement. She never forgets a birthday or a special event. She is always ready with a note or a card to let her church family know she is thinking of them. She prays for her church family. She prays for me, and I am grateful. She is a wise soul, who makes any group she’s a part of, better! Florence—instructing and encouraging her church family for Jesus!

 

When you think of Kinney Hollingshead, you might be glad he sings for us sometimes. But he does more than that. Often, you will find him restocking our coffee stations, setting up for First Friday, unlocking and locking doors, turning on the sound system to set up mics before worship, leading music for Generations of Faith and 1st Friday, and cleaning up trash on the church grounds. Kinney—taking care of details behind the scenes for Jesus!

 

Three years ago, we partnered with our Presbytery to expand our Facebook presence. One of the first tasks we were given was to create a Facebook Super Group and ask everyone who joined to like, share, or comment on every post added to our page. Carol Busch was one of the first to sign on and she remains faithful to the task. Recently, when she asked to be added to our private prayer group, she had trouble accessing the group. When I offered to help, she apologized and said she is not tech-savvy. I disagree. Sure, clicking like or share or making a comment on a Facebook post daily may not seem like a big deal. But because of Carol’s commitment and the commitment of many others—we are making a difference for Jesus on a social media platform. Carol—leading the way in modern-day evangelism for Jesus!

 

Tabitha was an important disciple of the new-born church. The church is over 2000 years old now, and she has certainly had her ups and down. Neither the universal church nor our own faith community look like they did 50 years ago. We don’t even look like we did 24 months ago! In response, there are surely some among us who fear that the story of Humpty Dumpty is our story. We are broken and putting us back together is impossible. But Acts offers us another story to consider—a story of people of The Way turning the world upside down for love of Jesus. Yes, our community looks different. We meet in person. We meet via livestream and on Zoom. There are those among us we know, and there are people in our virtual community we will never meet. Yet, by the grace of God, here we are—worshiping God—learning and growing and becoming and doing—together.

 

What will this worshiping community look like in 5, 10, 20 years? Only God knows. But this much we know—this much we can count on: No matter how God shapes and reshapes the church, as long as God has good work for us to do and there are Tabithas among us who say yes to the task at hand, we can trust the Good Shepherd to lead the way. The saints of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta can trust that:

 

The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. He makes us lie down in green pastures; he leads us beside still waters; he restores our soul. He leads us in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; for he is with us; his rod and his staff— they comfort us. He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies; he anoints our heads with oil; our cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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

(Silent Reflection)

[i] Feasting on the Word, Joseph S. Harvard

*Cover photo “Saint Peter Raises Tabitha” by Fabrizio Santafede via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Damascus Road

Damascus Road

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 1, 2022

3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-20

 

Liturgically speaking, we are in the Season of Easter. For seven Sundays, we generally consider encounters Jesus has with believers after his resurrection. We may witness his appearance to the disciples who are behind locked doors out of fear of the Jews. We may see him offer his hands and side to Thomas as evidence of who he is. We may journey with Jesus along the road to Emmaus and only realize who he is when he breaks bread at the table. We may join him for a breakfast he prepares along the Galilean shore. While these are all important, there is another encounter that I have in mind for us to explore—one that does not happen immediately after Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, it happens following his ascension when Jesus appears to Saul, or Paul as he is also known, along the road to Damascus. Since Luke tells us of this encounter three times—in Acts 9, 22, and 26—it begs our attention.

 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s look back at what Paul is doing when we first meet him in Acts chapter 7. At the time, the disciples are increasing in number and the word of God is spreading like wildfire. Stephen, full of grace and power, does great wonders and signs. One day, some who belong to the synagogue begin to argue with him. They accuse him of blasphemy, and ultimately, they bring him before the council for questioning. When the high priest asks him to explain himself, Stephen responds boldly with a history lesson about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, about Joseph and Moses, about David and Solomon. He concludes: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Infuriated, the people rush toward him, and drag him out of the city to stone him. Witnesses place their coats at the feet of young Saul, who wholeheartedly approves of the stoning of Stephen.

 

Afterward, there’s no gentle way to put this, Paul, goes wild. He becomes what we would refer to as a terrorist, breathing threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord. He goes to the high priest and asks for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he finds any who belong to the Way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. But on his way to Damascus, his search comes to a screeching halt when a light flashes from the heavens. Falling to the ground, Paul hears these words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” the response is, “I am Jesus—whom you are persecuting.”

 

To say this is a dramatic encounter is putting it mildly. But maybe it’s so dramatic because as Flannery O’Conner put it. “…The Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Well, there is no horse mentioned, but Jesus does come calling and Jesus does knock Paul off course.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus.” Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on other places Jesus has made I Am statements. Seven times in the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims I AM: I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. I am the vine. But here, in response to Saul’s inquiry, “I am Jesus.” It’s the only time it is recorded in Scripture.

 

While all this is happening to Paul, a disciple who happens to live in Damascus is getting instructions for a “change of course” too. Imagine Ananias’ surprise when he has a vision of the Lord telling him to get up and go to Straight Street to meet Paul. Since Paul’s reputation has preceded him, Ananias knows full well who he is, and he is rightfully concerned. How could he not see Paul as a threat? How could he not doubt Paul’s change of heart? But we must never forget that when it is God who initiates change, anything is possible. Obediently, Ananias goes to Paul, and we witness an ordination service of sorts. Ananias lays hands on Paul and tells him he has come so that Paul might regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, the scales fall from Paul’s eyes and his sight is restored—his physical sight, yes—but also his spiritual sight. In place of death threats for those who follow Jesus, now he proclaims to anyone who will listen, “Jesus is the Son of God.”

 

After Paul encounters Jesus, he is forever changed. He comes away with a new job (from persecutor to missionary), and a new purpose (spreading love instead of hatred). It was Oscar Wilde who said: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Well, these words certainly apply to Paul who starts out as a terrorist to the followers of Jesus and becomes one of the most influential leaders of the early church and a prolific contributor to Scripture as we know it.

 

Paul’s conversion is so radical, we may write it off as having nothing to do with us, especially if our faith journey began as a baptized infant, and we have no recollection of a time when we did not know and love Jesus. But the truth is, Paul’s story has everything to do with us because it is a story about what God can do with a life—any life. You see, even though we may think Paul is the main character in this story, the main character in this and any conversion story is God. It is God who is the author of changed lives. Paul’s story may not be typical, but it is critical because it teaches us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace, and everyone is in need of it.

 

Maya Angelou once said in an interview, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” For believers, conversion is an on-going process—or at least it should be. In Christ, we live and move and have our being, and with every step we take, we draw closer to the Beloved or we move further away.

 

We have all taken a wrong turn—certain we were going in the right direction—certain of our destination. We have sacrificed family for getting ahead. We have held onto anger and reaped the rewards of bitterness. We have behaved in ways that were unfair to people who do not look like us or who have not had the same advantages we have had or who do not see the world as we do. We have made demands of others that we have not made on ourselves. We have been stubborn and resisted making changes in our own lives while judging others for doing the same. But what happens when we are blinded by the light of Jesus? What happens when we reach a fork in the road that just might lead to transformation?

 

God is in the business of showing us how to correct what is ailing us. The need for a change of heart may be presented by the Word proclaimed, by a friend confronting our behavior, by a partner who speaks hard truths we desperately need to hear, by a child who tells it like it is—as only a child can, by spending time meditating on God’s word, by anyone or anything the Spirit chooses. Whenever and however it happens, a light shines within us and stops us in our tracks. Then there is a decision to be made. Will we continue on to Damascus behaving in ways that cause Jesus pain? Or will we allow our sight to be restored so that we can truly see? Afterall, Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus is Lord over every nook and cranny of our lives—or at least he should be!

 

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

 

*Cover Art by David Teniers the Elder via Wikimedia Commons used by permission.

And God Laughs

And God Laughs

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 24, 2022

2nd Sunday of Easter

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4; Psalm 2

By the time I had reached my junior year of high school, it would be an understatement to say that I was a serious student. My grandmother had passed away the year before and I had returned to live with my father in Tennessee with one goal in mind—study hard, get a good education, and gain independence! So, I studied, and I studied. I had little time for anything else. My girlfriends, however, had other things on their minds—mostly boys. They sat by the phone at night (you know, back when phones were still attached to the wall), and they dated on the weekends, and in between they re-told each drama in grand detail. I was, oh I don’t know how to say it—bored to tears by the whole process. Rolling my eyes, I would extricate myself from the romantic tragedies being played out before me as soon as I possibly could with my inner dialogue going something like this: “Are you kidding me? I’ve got better things to do than wait around on some foolish boy.”

 

But things took a different turn when this fellow named Kinney Hollingshead asked me out for a date. We knew each other—or at least, of each other. I recall the summer before I had told a friend how cute I thought he was—how kind he seemed—how I loved to hear him sing… So, Kinney asked me out on a date, and I agreed to go. We went to dinner and a movie—seemed harmless enough. We hit it off, right away. Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to make something crystal clear. I wasn’t interested in a boyfriend. I was a serious student taking two science courses per semester plus Latin, plus anything else that would get me the scholarship I badly needed. I had plans for medical school—big plans. Marriage…kids…all that stuff would have to wait. Kinney listened intently. Kinney agreed wholeheartedly. Kinney, oh I don’t know how to say this—the boy lied! At the end of our first date, he dropped by his friend’s house and when Lance asked him how the date went, Kinney answered, “Great! I’m going to marry that girl!”

 

I had plans—serious plans. I wasn’t going to get married—but I was one of the first of my group of friends to do so. I wasn’t going to have children—not anytime soon. I had four—two while doing my undergraduate studies. I was going to be a doctor. Well, it’s true, you can call me Dr. Hollingshead, but I have yet to order my first EKG or chemistry profile on a patient. Oh, the mighty plans we make!

 

Through Psalms, the Hebrew book of prayer, we are invited to a life of prayer and meditation. In Psalm 1 we read that those who meditate on the law of the Lord are like trees planted by streams of water—they bear fruit—their leaves do not wither—everything they do prospers. But by the second Psalm meditation on the law has turned to planning against the law of the Lord. The nations conspire. The peoples plot against God and his anointed. And God who sits in the heavens laughs! Really, what could be more absurd than God’s created beings waving their little fists and planning some sort of coup? Oh, the mighty plans we make—some good—others not so good. All our plotting and planning—how it must make God laugh.

 

A few years ago, I learned of churches having Holy Humor worship services on the Sunday after Easter. The tradition was rooted in the musings of the early church theologians who believed that God played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. For centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and then later in Protestant churches, the week and the Sunday after Easter Sunday were observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with plenty of practical jokes, parties and picnics shared among believers. There’s some debate as to when this practice actually began—perhaps as early as the 12th Century. But it can most assuredly be traced back to the 15th Century when Pope Clement X tried to prohibit the practice. Well, that may have worked for a time, but it’s no longer the case because many churches are resurrecting the Easter custom of a Holy Humor Sunday.

 

We take ourselves so seriously—thinking of ourselves as so clever—so bright. Speaking of bright, do you know how many Roman Catholics it takes to change a light bulb? None. They use candles. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks and one to talk about how much better the old one was. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? None. God has predestined when the lights will be on and off.

 

One day, or so the story goes, Groucho Marx was getting off an elevator when a clergyman came up to him, put out his hand and said, “I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into the world.” Groucho shook hands and responded, “And I want to thank you, Reverend, for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.”

 

But church is serious business—serious! It’s this kind of thinking that likely led to an incident Erma Bombeck wrote about. During worship, she noticed a small child who kept turning around smiling at everyone. “He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, or humming,” she wrote, “He wasn’t kicking, tearing the hymnal, or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater off Broadway, said, ‘Stop that grinning! You’re in church!’ (And) with that she gave him a belt on his hind side. Tears rolled down the little boy’s cheeks as the mother resettled primly into her pew. ‘That’s better,’ she said, as she returned to “listening” to the word of God.”

 

To tamp down the joy of a child in church—to tamp the joy of any person of any age in the church—what a sad commentary on a faith that is ruled by the King of Joy and Love. It was, after all, Jesus who said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Oh, the wisdom of a child!

 

A pastor was speaking to a group of second graders about the resurrection of Jesus when one student asked, “What did Jesus say right after He came out of the grave?” The pastor explained that the Gospels do not tell us what He said. The hand of one little girl shot up. “I know what He said: He said, ‘Tah-dah!’”

 

Terri asked her Sunday School class to draw pictures of their favorite Bible stories.  She was puzzled by Kyle’s picture, which showed four people on an airplane, so she asked him which story it was meant to represent.  “The Flight to Egypt,” was his reply.  Pointing at each figure, Terri said, “That must be Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, but who is the fourth person?  Oh, that’s Pontius—the pilot.

 

After the baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, “The pastor said she wants us brought up in a good Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”

 

A college drama group presented a play in which one character would stand on a trap door and announce, “I descend into hell!”  A stagehand below would then pull a rope, the trapdoor would spring, and the actor would drop from view. During one performance the stagehand pulled the rope, and the actor began his plunge, but he got stuck. No amount of tugging on the rope could make him descend. One student in the balcony jumped up and yelled:  “Hallelujah! Hell is full!”

 

Proverbs 17:22 assures us, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” Yes, indeed, laughter is good medicine—the best medicine. When I was serving Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church, I had a dose of good medicine during an illness that landed me in the hospital in the middle of Holy Week. (Yes, I have excellent timing!) It all started with a sudden loss of vision in my right eye. A trip to the ophthalmologist ended with me in the hospital for overnight IV treatments. With Kinney in Tennessee, I knew that it was up to me to let someone at the church know what was going on. I decided to contact Patty Clark. (Many of you know her through various Zoom gatherings she has attended with us.) So, I texted Patty: “Don’t freak out! I am at the hospital getting IV steroids.” (Her response was in caps, which in “text lingo” indicates the person is screaming at you.)  WHO IS WITH YOU? (So much for not freaking out.)  WHO IS WITH YOU? With a smile on my face, I spelled out “J-E-S-U-S.” Patty answered back: “I know Jesus is with you but I would feel better if someone human were there.” To which I just had to answer, “Patty dear, haven’t I taught you anything? Jesus is fully human and fully divine.”

 

In Scripture, his enemies call Jesus a wine bibber and a glutton. He didn’t get that reputation by being sour and serious all the time. As his followers, we should radiate the joy of resurrection. Christ is no longer in the grave and he has won victory for us—victory over death, fear, and all that would keep us down! The time for weeping is passed. Maybe we can take a lesson from Jesus and allow joy to spring forth from our hearts and laughter to burst forth from our lips. Hallelujah! Amen!

 

*Cover photo by Rara Schlitt, used by permission