A Room Full of Friends: Poets

A Room Full of Friends: Poets

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 5, 2021

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 148

 

It was Emily Dickenson who penned,

Tell the truth but tell it slant—
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
 
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
 

We have come to expect the Truth spelled out—great truths—truths of the universe—truths of humanity—truths of God. And who, pray tell, is doing the telling? Who, pray tell, is doing the listening? This morning marks the end of the summer sermon series, “A Room Full of Friends.” Over the summer I have introduced you to friends who have come to reside on the shelves of my study—preaching friends, writing friends, deeply spiritual friends. But now, we turn our attention to poets. Likely you have heard me state that one of my favorite Evelyn Underhill quotes is this: One of the worst things that happened with the Reformation was we took all the poetry out of religion. She was right. She still is.

Perhaps you recall the Reformation did not begin as a movement to separate from the Catholic Church. No, the intent was to reform things that had gone badly—the selling of indulgences to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica—the way people were refused a biblical text in their own language—and the list goes on. In time it became crystal clear that the church leaders in power intended to remain in power and reform could only happen with the birth of what we now know as the Reformation.

Lots of good things happened with the Reformation—of course—Presbyterians being one of them. But bad things happened too. For example, extremists decided that art like sculptures, paintings, and icons were not art at all, but idolatry—so they went on a rampage and destroyed countless pieces of religious art—Christian art!

Years have passed but we appear to still be suffering from the ramifications of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. In too many churches—in too many ways—we have come to rely on our own understanding rather than the Holy Spirit. We intellectualize our faith. We hide from the Mystery of God. What’s important is what we know—what we can prove—what we can control. But what about a deeper knowing—a wise knowing—a heart knowing? Is there a way for us to get out of the unbalanced bind we are in?

In my opinion—and I know you are dying to hear it—we might go a long way toward a more balanced faith by getting out of our heads for a while and sitting with the work of poets, as well as artists and musicians. Surely that would be a good place to start since poetry and art and music summon us into wonder. It is with a spirit of wonder that I invite you to hear these words written by poet, Maya Angelou.  Her poem entitled “A Brave and Startling Truth” serves as a reminder of how we are created in God’s own image—created to do good!

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

It should be no surprise that poetry has the capacity to lead us into the mystery of our Creator—beyond the bounds of what we can touch—what we think we know. Our beloved Scriptures are filled with lines of poetry, as in our Psalm for this morning: “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him from the heights! Praise him, all his angels.” Then there’s Isaiah—one of the most poetic and beautifully written books of the Bible: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth… those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Could it be what we need now in this world that seems bent on destruction is a little quiet, a little space, fewer words strung together just so—to help us see again? Mary Oliver, in her poem “Coming to God: First Days” says it so well:

Lord, what shall I do that I
can’t quiet myself?
Here is the bread, and
here is the cup, and
I can’t quiet myself.

To enter the language of transformation!
To learn the importance of stillness,
with one’s hands folded!

When will my eyes of rejoicing turn peaceful?
When will my joyful feet grow still?
When will my heart stop its prancing
as over the summer grass?

Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer.

Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible,
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion; even words.

Maybe poetry is just what the doctor ordered. Maybe poets are just what the Spirit provides to help us regain our balance—to help us stop relying on our own understanding and instead, gaze at the wonders that call us toward a greater good—toward our Great God. Oh, the words can be simple—nothing too complicated—even a tree can shower us with wisdom. Wendell Berry says as much in his poem, “Slowly, slowly, they return.”

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

Indeed, let us open our eyes, let us eagerly walk on radiance—amazed! Truly, now may be the time to pay attention to poets. Maybe they are in the best place to tell the truth slant—a little at a time—with gentle explanation—for “The Truth must dazzle gradually—or every man be blind.” Amen.

*Cover Art by Aaron Burden via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Jana Childers

A Room Full of Friends: Jana Childers

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 29, 2021

Luke 11:1-13

 

We are nearing the end of our sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, in which I have introduced you to authors who have come to reside on the bookshelves of my study, and who have, over time, become wise friends. One such friend is Presbyterian minister and author, Rev. Dr. Jana Childers, who is Associate Professor of Homiletics and Speech-Communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The following is a sermon I happened upon while working on my doctoral thesis, “Practices before You Preach.” During those months of research, I read endless sermons but this one entitled, “A Shameless Path,” remains one of my favorites. I pray it blesses you as it has blessed me.

Nearer than hands and feet. That’s what God is when we pray. “Speak to him for he heareth and spirit with spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing. Nearer than hands and feet.” Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The poets have a high view of prayer—some of them anyway. The mere mention of the subject seems to send them running for the card file marked “sublimity” where they pull out adjectives: sweet hours, precious moments, privileged meetings. Before you know it, the violins are swelling and we’re wending our way through a dewy rose garden, walking and talking with a certain Someone whose voice, as one gospel songwriter put it, is so “sweet the birds hush their singing.” Prayer to a poet—or a gospel songwriter—is like romance to Barry Manilow, an irresistible topic.

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love the poets and especially the gospel songwriters, and as much as I want to know the nearer-than-hands-and-feet God, I have to say it: My prayer life is not much like a walk through a rose garden. Not only does Jesus not come to the garden alone to see me, not walk with me and talk with me, not meet me in the garden, lots of times I wonder if I’m even in the right zip code. My prayer life is not much like a dewy garden path. And that’s why I come to today’s scripture lesson with high hopes.

After all, I believe—I think many of us instinctively believe—that there is something to this thing called prayer. We know about what happens in foxholes. We pay attention when a person we admire says she will pray for us. We see prayer working in other peoples’ lives.  And we believe Mother Teresa—don’t we?—when she says, “No prayer, no faith; no faith, no love; no love, no devotion; no devotion, no service.” “Yes,” we say, “I need that in my life!” For once we are right there in the front row of the classroom with the disciples, waving our hands and saying “Lord! Teach me how to do this!”

And Jesus says, in the translation of the New Testament scholar, Anne Wire, “Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks, finds. And the one who knocks, gets in the door.” The Gospel according to Luke is not easy to hear today, not easy to preach, because it is not easy to believe. “Ask and it shall be given you?!” How could Jesus have said such a thing? How could that be true?

If it were true, of course, all the eight-year-old girls in the world would be braiding pink satin ribbons into the tails of their very own ponies. If it were true, all the eight-year-old girls in the world and their brothers and sisters would go to bed every night with just the right blend of fats and carbohydrates and proteins in their bloodstreams. If it were true, all the children of the world would at the least—at the very least—be living in peace. “Ask and it shall be given you” is an outrageous thing, perhaps even an obscene thing to say [in light of things happening in our world today]. How could Jesus say such a thing?

“Oh well,” we say, “maybe this is just meant for the ears of the disciples. Maybe Jesus was making that promise to those who are, you know, the spiritual elite.” I have to say I don’t think you can interpret the text that way, since, in Luke, the disciples are pictured as anything but elite. “Okay,” we say, “maybe Jesus means that eventually, out at the end of time, you will get what you ask for.” But that’s not a very convincing argument either, especially since Jesus goes right on from making the ask-and-receive promise to comparing the whole thing to hungry children asking their parents for food…not an “eventually” kind of thing! “All right,” we say, “maybe it means that if we ask in accordance with God’s will, then we will see our prayers answered.” And maybe that is true. But I don’t see how that helps explain this particular text, because there is no such qualifier in the immediate or larger context of this passage.

Okay, then, how could Jesus say such a thing?

The first thing we notice when we look closely at what Jesus said was that he did not say, “Ask and you will get what you ask for.” What he said was something more like, “Ask and you will get something good.” Notice the syntax of the rhetorical question he asks after he makes the great promise: “If your children ask for fish, will you give them a snake?” Do you see how that is not the same thing as saying, “If they ask for fish, don’t you give them fish?” Even Jesus’ word choice makes it clear that the promise he’s making is not as tit-for-tat as the promise we want to hear.

The second thing we notice is that there is something lost in the translation of the New Testament Greek into English here. The Greek does not say “Ask and you will receive.” It says “Aaaaassssk and keep on asking…Seeeeeek and keep on seeking…Knoooock and keep on knocking.” The Greek verb implies ongoing action. Be persistent, Jesus is saying. Be shameless. Run right up to that door and pound on it. Make a fool out of yourself with your asking.

Finally, the thing that is most often overlooked about the story Jesus tells here is that this is primarily a story about intercessory prayer. One friend goes to another friend on behalf of someone else. This is not a story about little girls praying to get a handsome husband when they grow up. This is not a story about young adults who beseech God for help in getting the right job. This is not even about older believers who bring their legitimate prayer concerns about their own health before God. This is primarily a story about intercessory prayer.

It is this kind of prayer—shameless, persistent, intercessory prayer—that Jesus guarantees.

I hope you have known a prayer warrior. I have. When she died some years ago at the age of eighty-eight, I took the plaque that had hung in her house for more than sixty years and hung it in mine. It says, “Prayer Changes Things.” I fussed and puttered for a while over the question of where to hang it. The front hall seemed so public. The dining room? Too preachy. The den? Well, it looked quite out of place over the big screen TV. I wondered what the people who visit my house would think. Such an old-fashioned thought. The words not even attributable to a respectable theologian. Ultimately, I hung the plaque in my old-fashioned kitchen. I do see people eyeing it sometimes as they chat to me before a dinner party. And I do wonder what they think. Maybe if they know it was my grandmother’s, they think I’m sentimental. And I am. Maybe if they know me well, they think I need help to keep on believing those words. And I do.

It’s not easy to believe. It’s not easy to keep on believing in prayer. But if you’ve known the kind of prayer warriors I have, you have to stay at the table with the question. Because beyond coincidence and synchronicity, beyond luck and happenstance, there is something that Jesus was pointing to and that prayer warriors know, something that changes people if not things. Something our grandmothers called, “answered prayer.” On my own grandmother’s prayer list there were lots of them: the alcoholic son who finds his way home against all odds, the troubled community able to mend its fences despite the things that were said, the word of forgiveness that comes at the last possible moment.

“What is the secret to answered prayer?” the disciples asked Jesus. “What is the secret to answered prayer?” “Asking.” Little by little, and here and there, and now and then, the kingdom of God is breaking in through the efforts of those who ask.

Oh yes, in the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known there are unanswered prayers and prayers that stay on the list for decades. There are seasons of doubt, sometimes even public failures. But there is not much of one thing. There is not much shame. Not much spiritual shyness. There is instead a gung-ho-ness—a readiness to ask, a willingness to throw themselves headlong into a situation of need—to jump off the porch and take off running across the backyard, skirts flying and apron flapping, through the fence and up the steps to that oh-so familiar door. There is a willingness to beat a path, to beat a shameless path to God’s door…in the asking, the prayer warriors say, is the secret.

Last year, I set my foot on an ugly path—a path not entirely my own. I was keeping company with my friend Lucy as she followed out the last twelve months of her life. During those months I learned what many of you who have walked with cancer already know—what a privilege it can be to join your prayers with those of a woman of faith who is facing her death. Time and again last Spring, Lucy urged me to accompany her to heaven’s door, as she rang its bells, rattled its gates, and slammed its knockers, not on her own behalf, but for those she would leave behind. We prayed for her husband, her little girl, her mother, and her father. We prayed. Some of us for lack of anything better to do. Some of us out of hearts full of faith. Some of us because we believed Lucy when she said she could feel our prayers. She was buoyed by them, she said, reminding us of what Charles Williams called the intercessory prayers of believers—”the glorious web.” We did form a kind of a web with our prayers. Me praying for Lucy in Atlanta from my home in California, Ron from Indianapolis, Gene from Kansas City, Pam from Toronto, and countless others.

In the last few months of her earthly life, Lucy’s own prayers were filled with a deep sense of God’s presence. It often came to her, wrapped in the words and music of a hymn. She came out of surgery one time with the words rolling up through her—“The Lone, Wild Bird,” one time, and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” another. Toward the end, she told me, it was the gospel songs that sustained her. As they welled up in her, she gathered visitors around her bed to sing them. This web of song and prayer sustained Lucy until that morning in July when her feet were lifted off the path and she was ushered through the door. The word of Lucy’s death went out quickly over the well-established grapevine, and by the time the hearse came to take her body, fifty-five friends had gathered. They flanked the walk and filled the porches of the little house, and they sang the body out. They sang “I’ll Fly Away.”

In the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known, there is heart break and loss, but there is not much despair. There is instead an invisible web that buoys them up and, ultimately, carries them home. What did Lucy get for all her praying? Did she get remission? Did she avoid pain? Did she see an angel? No. What Lucy got is what we all get. She got God, the God who is nearer than hands and feet.

God’s own presence is the answer to every prayer, the answer that surpasses anything we could ask for. Ask, Jesus says, and it shall be given you. [Amen.]

*Cover art photo by Reiseuhu via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Tom Long

A Room Full of Friends: Tom Long

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 22, 2021

Matthew 7:21-29

 

In this sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, I have introduced you to several people who have come to reside, figuratively speaking, on the bookshelves of my study. Over time, they have become a room full of friends. Because I value good preaching, one of my friends is Rev. Dr. Tom Long. Preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the author or editor of 14 books on preaching and worship. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Dr. Long was named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world by Baylor University. The following is an excerpt of a sermon he preached a few years ago at the Washington National Cathedral.

A sermon, as we all know, is made out of words and I brought some words with me this morning, but even though sermons are crafted out of words, I think it is important for us remember that in every sermon there are two powerful moments of silence. The first of these comes at the very beginning of the sermon. You may have not noticed it; it was brief and fleeting but it was there. The scripture lesson is read [perhaps special music is offered]. Then the congregation sinks back into their seats. The preacher takes a deep and anxious breath and there it is.

It’s so routine we hardly even notice a silence, but down at its depth it is an electric silence full of anticipation and expectation. What’s going on in it? I think the African American church has it right when it says in that moment of silence for everyone, for preacher, for choir, for congregation, there is the wonder: is there a word from the Lord? Amidst all the words of our culture that besiege us, is there a word that can make a difference? A word from beyond that can touch us and heal us? Is there a word from the Lord? It’s in that silence.

I love the way novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner has described this moment of silence. He writes this: “The preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes up his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up the steps. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. The preacher deals out his sermon note cards like a riverboat gambler; the stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely but the silence in the church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening, even the preacher.”

The theologian Karl Barth also talked about this moment of silence at the beginning of a sermon when he said, “When the bells in the church ring and the congregation gathers…what hangs in the air is one question—is it true that God is present? Is it true that there is a word from the Lord today?”

Now I know, I know we preachers often squander the promise of that moment of silence two sentences into the sermon, and the air of expectation has been let out of the room. I think of one of my students who was invited to preach the sermon at a worship service at the nursing home where she was serving as a student chaplain. This nursing home had worship in the big lobby of the nursing home and when she stood up to preach it was crowded with elderly people—some with oxygen tanks, some in wheelchairs. One of the gifts that God gives to people of great age is the freedom to say and do exactly what they want and so she got a paragraph into the sermon when suddenly one of the elderly women listening pulled the joystick on her electric wheelchair, turned it around, went back down the hall to her room, shouting, “Blah, blah, blah!”

We preachers can squander that promise of the first silence, but it’s amazing to me—even congregations who have been numbed into submission decade after decade, they come back the next Sunday and it’s there. The silence of expectation—maybe this time, maybe this time.

But there is a second moment of silence in preaching. If the first one comes at the beginning of the sermon, the second one comes at the end of the sermon. It is much rarer. In fact, some people wonder if they have ever experienced this moment of silence at all. If the first moment of silence in preaching is the wondering—is there a word from the Lord? The second moment of silence in preaching comes when the Holy Spirit has taken the fragile human words of the preacher and turned them into word of God.

When a word penetrates that separates life from death, wisdom from foolishness, blessing from curse and our lives are touched and transformed, when that happens, you can’t simply pick up the hymnal and go casually into the next hymn. Matthew wants us to know that this is the kind of silence that occurred at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. What Matthew says is, “When Jesus had finished speaking all these words, the crowd who heard him were astonished.”

The word in Greek is even stronger; it’s more like dumbstruck, flabbergasted, speechless. And Matthew wants us to know this is not the only time this happened in the preaching ministry of Jesus. It happened all the way through. It happened at the end of his ministry when he preached to the crowds in Jerusalem. They were dumbstruck by his words. It happened in the middle of his ministry when he was preaching to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. They were flabbergasted at his wisdom. And it happens at the beginning of his ministry when he preaches the Sermon on the Mount. They were left astonished and silent.

And Matthew tells us the reason that they were, is that Jesus did not preach like other preachers. And it created a crisis. If the first moment of silence is a wondering—is there a word from the Lord?—the second moment of silence is when there is a word from the Lord and it turns the world over and creates a crisis… Jesus did not preach like the scribes or the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians. He preached, says Matthew, as one with authority which means that his word generated a crisis. What do we do now? How do we live? Who shall we be? That’s the second silence.

Now if we listen to the end of the Sermon on the Mount we might not like it, because Jesus does not come across as the cuddly warm inclusive Jesus we have learned to love. He says instead at the end of the sermon, “Not everybody who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who hear these words and do them, only those who build their lives around them. There will be a lot of people who will say Lord, look at me. I did wonderful things in your name. I was a very powerful person in terms of communicating what you wanted us to communicate. Look at me, Lord. And I will say to you, I don’t recognize you. I recognize only those who have built their lives around the words that I have given, who have built their lives on solid rock. If you build it on sand, the winds will come and the storms will blow, and blow you away.” These are words of judgment. I don’t want to take the sting out of them, but I don’t want us to misunderstand them either, because in the gospel the judgment of God is a good thing.

One day I was walking across the campus and one of my students hailed me and said, “Dr. Long, could I speak to you for a minute?” I said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, you want to go?” She did, and as we were sharing coffee, she told me what was on her mind. She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday. I said, “Good.”

She said, “No. It is not good. He’s making me preach on the lectionary.”

I said, “Good.”

She said, “It’s not good. Have you read the lectionary text for week? They’re all about judgment. I don’t believe in judgment. I believe in grace. I believe in mercy. I believe…it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment. I am not going to preach judgment.”

We talked about it for a while and then we moved on to other things, and she started to tell me about her family life. She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom—a teenage boy—was at home and he was giving them hell. He was into drugs, maybe dealing them, in trouble with the police. She said, “Like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was. In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us. He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.” She said, “I don’t know, something got into me…I’m afraid of my son physically. Physically afraid of my own son. But something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me. I love you so much I am not going to put up with this.’” I said, Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment.

God loves us so much God will not put up with the foolishness in our lives. We have foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, that’s foolish. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. That’s what makes life free and good. We have been those who have foolishly trusted in military might and made war on others and Jesus says that’s foolish. I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.

As one theologian put it, do not fear the wrath of God. Fear the love of God, for the love of God will strip away everything that stands between us and God. To misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount as a series of rules is the same thing we do to the Ten Commandments. We think of the Ten Commandments as ten things we’d really like to do but God doesn’t want us to, so to please God let’s don’t. But we miss the way the commandments begin—I am the Lord your God, I brought you out of slavery into the land of freedom and this is the shape of freedom. You are so free you don’t even have to have any other gods. You have been given so much you are free not to covet what is your neighbor’s. You are free to have the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. It’s not a list of rules; it’s the shape of freedom.

I’ll tell you who I recognize, said Jesus. Those who build their lives on the shape of freedom.

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta eight years ago, we shopped around for a church. We finally decided that we would join Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. We liked the worship, we liked their mission, we decided to join. The minister invited us and all the others who were joining during that particular season to come and meet with the church officers on Wednesday night and have dinner. So we did. We were in the fellowship hall around a square table and when dinner was done, the pastor said, I would like to go around the table and each person joining the church say why you are joining this church. Well, we did and you heard the kind of things that you would expect. One person said, I’m a musician; this church has the finest music program in the city and therefore I’m joining. Another one said, I’ve got two teenage daughters and the youth program is fantastic here and that’s why we’re joining. Another person said, I didn’t like the minister in the church I belong to and I like the minister here fine, I’m going to join. And then it got around to Marshall. His story was he was high on crack cocaine in the streets, stumbled into the outreach center and begged to be helped. The director said, I’m out of money. I can’t get you in a treatment program this month. I can do it next month, but you will stay with us, we will stay with you. She took his hand, they knelt on the carpet of her office and they prayed and he stayed. And he said I’ve been sober for three years now and the reason I’m joining this church is that God saved me in this church.

The rest of us looked at each other sheepishly. We were there for the music and the parking; he was there for the salvation.

Amidst all the words Dr. Long shared in his sermon, these are the words that give me pause: “We were there for the music and the parking; he was there for the salvation.” So, in the silence that follows, I invite you to consider one question: What are you here for?

*Cover art photo by Mohammad Alizade via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Cynthia Bourgeault

A Room Full of Friends: Cynthia Bourgeault

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 15, 2021

Psalm 23; Matthew 5:1-12

 

This morning our summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, continues as I share with you another favorite writer of mine—someone who has taken up residence on my study shelf and has become—to me—a dear friend and wise teacher. Allow me to introduce Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault has studied and taught in a number of Benedictine monasteries in the US and Canada. As an Episcopal priest, she is well known as a retreat and conference leader, teacher of prayer, and writer on the spiritual life.

It was a hunger for a deeper spiritual life that led me to Bourgeault in the first place—but I get ahead of myself. Allow me to share a little back story. While I was in seminary, I developed a friendship with someone who had spent a lot of time in monasteries around the country. The idea intrigued me. At that time, I had never met anyone who had a connection with this aspect of contemplative life, and I had yet to be introduced to Kathleen Norris’ work, The Cloister Walk. Still, Wes planted a spiritual seed in my heart that simply had to be watered and the only way I knew to water it was to entice my friend, Gloria, to go to Mepkin Abbey with me for a 3-day retreat after graduation. It was a celebration, of sorts.

While the experience was phenomenal on many levels, one lesson has remained central to my faith journey and that is the importance of singing or chanting the Psalms. In a matter of weeks, the Benedictine monks chant the entire Psalter—month after month after month. By doing so, the Psalms become a part of their DNA—their very being. And it just so happens that part of the hospitality offered to retreatants is to invite them to sing along. So there Gloria and I were, with a few other strangers on retreat, trying to keep up with which book to open and which reading to read. Fortunately, the singing was simple, with only a few chords on a guitar played as accompaniment. But that was all that was needed. It was more than enough.

Since that visit many years ago I have been on retreat at Mepkin Abbey numerous times. And each time, the chanting really speaks to me. So much so, I was left with a burning desire to sing the Psalms on my own. (In fact, that’s one of the things I love about our new hymnal. Finally, the Psalms have been set to tunes that are sing-able! What a concept!) Anyway, in my desire to sing the Psalms, God opened doors for me.

First, when I completed my doctoral work at Columbia Theological Seminary, I bought myself a graduation present—a guitar—and with a little help from my son, Shane, I began to learn one chord, and then another. Finally, I was able to play a tune or two. After many hours of practice, I could even play a few Taize pieces for the Celtic worship services at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church.

Then, God opened a second door when I happened upon a book written by Cynthia Bourgeault entitled Chanting the Psalms. There was even a CD included. Needless to say, I was tasting a bit of heaven as I learned more about simple chants as well as a little history of Taize and Iona. But here was the greatest pay off—I learned that I could write similar tunes—using Scripture passages that touched me. And so that’s what I began to do. It wasn’t a plan: Let me sit here and see if I can write a song. No, it was more like I would be in morning prayer, reading Psalms, and other passages of Scripture. Then my eyes would fall on a certain phrase—a phrase that really resonated with me. And sometimes, sometimes, a tune would come and then more words—enough to piece together something to offer back to God in praise and thanksgiving.

One morning while reading Psalm 55, I was struck by verse 7, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” Isn’t that beautiful? No doubt all of us, especially during a global pandemic that shows no signs of stopping, have felt the pressures of life closing in and we have thought, “Oh, if I could just get away for a while…things would be better….” After sitting with this phrase a few moments, I noticed other phrases like, “Hear my prayer, O God” and “I will call upon God, and the Lord will deliver me.” It was then that the words and tune began to come together. You may remember the prayer song from our 1st Friday Contemplative services or from the days when we were livestreaming from our home.

O that I had wings like a dove

I would fly away and be at rest.

Hear my prayer, O God.

I will call on you.

And you will deliver me.

You will deliver me.

 

Singing the Psalms—whether chant or otherwise—is a perfect way to allow Scripture to move from your head to your heart. Let me give you an example. If I were to ask you to recite the 23rd Psalm, most of you could do it without blinking an eye. Knowing the 23rd Psalm is head-knowledge. Now, what if I asked you a different question. What if I asked, “Tell me about a time when you experienced the Lord as your shepherd.” Do you see the difference? This is not a head question. It is a heart question. In a similar way, reciting the words to a Psalm is one level of understanding—but singing it or chanting it—well that’s a deeper way of engagement.

God used the writings of Cynthia Bourgealt to fill a hunger in my soul—a hunger to learn to sing Psalms and other Scripture passages—and to share them with others. Along the way, I have learned many other things—not the least of which has been to see Scripture in a different light.

 

In another work, The Wisdom Jesus, Bourgeault speaks of seeing Jesus, and thereby Scripture, in a different light. She proposes that Jesus was less a priest or prophet and more a wise sage. For her, he was not only a teacher of wisdom. He was a master of wisdom. And while his wisdom is evident in many Scripture passages, this gift is especially evident in the Beatitudes. While time does not allow me to go into each of the Beatitudes and Bourgealt’s discussion of it, I would like to highlight one in particular. It is the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

 

Bourgealt writes, and I quote,

To our…ears, righteousness is a synonym for virtue. It means being moral, behaving correctly. But in Israel of Jesus’ time, righteousness was something much more dynamic than that. You can actually visualize it as a force field: an energy-charged sphere of holy presence. To be “in the righteousness of God” (as Old Testament writers are fond of saying) means to be directly connected to this vibrational field, to be anchored in God’s own aliveness. There is nothing subtle about the experience—it is as fierce as picking up a downed electrical wire. To hunger and thirst after righteousness,” then, speaks of this intensity of connectedness. Jesus promises that when the hunger arises within you to find your own deepest aliveness within God’s aliveness, it will be satisfied—in fact, the hunger itself is a sign that the bond is already in place. As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning. Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you.

 

When my heart yearned to sing psalms, God opened doors to show me the way. Oh—there is no doubt—I am not a stellar singer or guitar player—but that’s hardly the point. The point is God put a yearning in my heart that God then satisfied.

 

This morning, as you think of your own spiritual life, what are you yearning for? It’s a good question to ask. Because simply asking the question is a good first step toward having the eyes to see God’s fulfillment of your longing. It might happen through wise writers like Cynthia Bourgeault, life-changing preachers like Fred Craddock, amazing musicians, poets, a random conversation with a friend, a spouse, a neighbor, a stranger. There is no end to the ways in which God can open doors and windows and paths so that our holy yearnings may bring us ever closer to God’s own self—which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Lord is our Shepherd.

*Cover Art photo by Claudia Testa via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Annie Dillard

A Room Full of Friends: Annie Dillard

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 8, 2021

Job 38:4-18

 

Annie Dillard, now 76 years old, is an American author, known for her works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as novels and a memoir. She attended Hollins College in Virginia, graduating as an English major. Her best-known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won her the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 29. “By the time I finished the book, I weighed about 98 pounds,” Dillard said. “I never went to bed. I would write all night until the sun was almost coming up.” She admits that she has changed since then…

Needless to say, her next work was a grueling, painful effort—I mean, how do you follow up a Pulitzer? Dillard is a bit hard to pin down—one of the reasons is the variety of topics and genres to be found in her writings—that cover everything from giant water bugs’ frog-eating habits to outrageous practical jokes her mother pulled at beaches and zoos. Dillard considers everyone from burn victims to stunt pilots, wanders everywhere from Virginia creeks to arctic ice floes, from the Galapagos Islands to Puget Sound. She is interested in Chinese writers, Eskimos, and Pittsburgh Presbyterians as well as moths, solar eclipses, and sycamores.

Environmentalists have compared Dillard to Thoreau, Dickinson, and Emerson.  Others have reckoned her a naturalist, a scientist, a poet. Nevertheless, she isn’t one to take herself too seriously. In an interview she commented, “People are always trying to convince themselves that their times are really important. But if you really, truly understood that you are going to die, and how many people there are now and how many people there have ever been, just beads in this never-ending string, how, then, do we live? How can you take yourself seriously?”

She admits, “I am no scientist. I am a wanderer with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts. As a thinker I keep discovering that beauty itself is as much a fact as a mystery…In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy.”

God and religion are recurring themes throughout her works and one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes happens to be about church.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

It was Evelyn Underhill who wrote that one of the worst things that happened with the Protestant Reformation was that we took all the poetry out of religion. To this I would add that we are also guilty of trying to remove the mystery. How often do we gather with hardly a nod to the wonder and magnificence and boundlessness of this God we seek to worship?

It is with the wonder and magnificence and ongoing creative nature of God in mind, that we will venture forth this morning reflecting on a few of Dillard’s words, particularly those regarding nature. Most of the quotes we will consider come from Dillard’s work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The plan is this: I will read a quote and then I will ask you to reflect on a certain aspect of it. After a moment of silence, those gathered here in person as well as those joining us via livestream will have an opportunity to share our responses. Now, don’t be shy—this is meant to be an interactive experience.

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops…. You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day. [Reflect on a body of water that holds healing or mystery for you.]

If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies…down aeons of emptiness…the whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames. [Reflect on a landscape that takes your breath away.]

Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and, in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide. [Reflect on a tree that speaks to you.]

I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should…and I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will. [Reflect on a creature and what it has taught you.]

It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free. [Reflect on how you have experienced God’s grace in nature.]

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork — for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl — but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the Creator loves pizzazz. [Your final prompt is to reflect on your image of God as Creator.]

The God we worship and love and seek to obey cannot be contained in a temple, in a church, in a tradition—Presbyterian or otherwise. God is always greater than our imaginings, deeper than our understanding. God is here and there and everywhere creating, transforming, renewing—even in nature—maybe, especially in nature—if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. Job 12:7-10 says it so well:

…ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.

Great is the mystery of our faith. Amen.

*Cover art photo by Karim Sakhibgareev via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Anna Carter Florence

A Room Full of Friends: Anna Carter Florence

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021

10th Sunday after Pentecost

Acts 2:1-7

 

Today we continue the sermon series, “A Room Full of Friends,” which has allowed me to introduce you to some folks who have come to reside, figuratively speaking, on the bookshelves of my study, and who have become dear friends. This morning I bring to you The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence. Ordained as a PCUSA pastor, she is a preaching and worship professor at Columbia Theological Seminary who just so happened to be my doctoral project advisor. The following is a Pentecost sermon she preached a few years ago at Duke University. Now you may be thinking, “Glenda, it isn’t Pentecost.” Well, that’s true. It’s actually the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. However, since I strongly believe that Pentecost and the work of the Spirit need more attention in the church, I trust you will be enriched by Ann Carter Florence’s sermon entitled: “Wind, Fire, and Galileans.”

Pentecost—it’s a funny kind of holiday. It isn’t exactly a traditional family time for Christians, as in, “So where are you celebrating Pentecost this year?” We don’t gather in homes for big meals, we don’t exchange presents, we don’t get vacation days, and the post office isn’t closed tomorrow in commemoration of Pentecost, and then there’s the issue of what to cook. Did you inherit any treasured family recipes from your grandmothers for red Pentecost cupcakes or tongues of flamed barbeque sauce? I didn’t and the magazines and grocery store are not exactly brimming with ideas. And all this reticence seems very strange when you think about it. Pentecost is a birthday party. You’d think the church would go all out like we do for Jesus in December—but we don’t. Not really.

In most Protestant churches, Pentecost is a rather understated holiday—modest—as if the church were shy of throwing itself a party or it preferred that you not make a big fuss, please, that it is another year older. Even though—even though the story is all about a great big noisy fuss which is what makes it a really good story.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

You know maybe some of us prefer to take an understated approach to Pentecost because the church has entertained such extremes in the way we celebrate it. I know a Disciples pastor, for example, who grew up in a Hispanic Pentecostal Church. He says his congregation loved that Acts 2 passage so much that the preacher read it every 2 weeks. And the people never tired of hearing it and they especially loved the joyous and raucous freedom of that vision from Joel, your young ones shall see visions and your old ones shall dream dreams and everyone would jump up and shout and give thanks to God for what God was doing in their lives. Oh, my friend says, it was awesome and from an outsider’s perspective, complete chaos.

On the other hand, I know a little congregational church in New England—it happens to be the one where I grew up that had a very different way of celebrating Pentecost. The minister wore red and we passed the peace—once a year—and that was a big deal for us because we didn’t usually leave our pews or invade another’s worship space—you know, by looking at them—or touching them.

Because shaking hands was for after church and the only other time the minister wore red was on Reformation Sunday in October when we sang “A Mighty Fortress” and thanked God for Martin Luther. Two very different approaches to Pentecost in those two churches. But I think each of them is reaching toward something I learned growing up, which is that on Pentecost we go a little wild—you know—wear red—shake hands—overflow the space—whatever going wild in your context is—it’s what we do because the Holy Spirit requires us to give more room on this day. The Holy Spirit requires that we do at least one thing in worship that makes us nervous and re-draws our boundaries.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

You could say that the first nerve-wrecking thing about Pentecost—at least for the disciples—is that it is literally a birth-day. They are waiting for something to be born with no control whatsoever. Jesus told the disciples he would send the Holy Spirit. He just didn’t tell them when—he didn’t give them a due date. And what’s a due date anyhow? Every pregnant mother has one and it’s just an educated guess on the part of the medical team. Babies do not generally consult due dates. They keep their own schedules in their own time and we just have to wait until they’re ready to come—sometimes a lot longer than we had planned. And the Holy Spirit—the disciples learned—works in the same mysterious way. There is a lot of sitting around for days—unable to make plans—unable to travel—unable to think or talk about anything else. Knowing we have a ballpark but not an exact date and probably muttering that if Jesus had just scheduled the equivalent of a spiritual caesarian, they could at least point to a day and say, “Okay. We just have to hold on for one more week and then it will be here. The Spirit is a lot like a baby. It shows when it shows and our job is just to watch and wait and get moving when its time.

So the day the Spirit finally does show up, of course, is Pentecost. 50 days after Easter. And in the Bible, Pentecost is already a holiday before the Spirit comes. It’s the festival of weeks—the Jewish celebration of the first fruits of summer and the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This means that the church shares its birthday like a baby born on Christmas day or New Year’s Day or the 4th of July. It also means that the Spirit interrupts a party that is going on for someone else. Listen to this:

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all of these who are speaking Galileans?’

Did you hear that? Devout Jews from every nation under heaven. They were already living there in Jerusalem, and they weren’t lapsed believers. They weren’t non-members or pagans or secular or lukewarm. They were devout. They already had a firm relationship with God and they were observing the Feast of Pentecost with all the appropriate prayers: Thank you, O Lord, for the first fruits of summer and may our harvest this year be a plentiful one. Thank you, O God, for the gift of the law, the sweetness of Torah. The learning of it is like the taste of honey to our mouths. Devout Jews, from every nation under heaven all gathered in one place to celebrate what they know and believe—that everything we know and everything we have comes from the hand of God. And the most precious of those is Torah—the gift of the law.

Now that is not a holiday that needs correction, but it does get an interruption in the form of wind and fire. What is the Spirit up to with that? Well, maybe the whole point here is the Spirit has its own timing—just like babies and due dates—and so human plans only extend so far. The disciples didn’t know when the Spirit would come so they just had to wait. And they didn’t know any more than the devout Jews knew that it would show up on Pentecost. They just had to go with it. Pentecost—go with the flow. It’s a good bumper sticker—you can read the text that way and there are good and faithful things that can come of it.

OR maybe the point here is that the Spirit interrupts what we expect—kind of like no one expects conversion—devout people do not expect to wake up from a faith that is important to them—it just happens. Pentecost happens—you could make a bumper sticker from that too—it’s not bad. And you could read the text this way also and the church could be nourished by that. But what really challenges me and maybe you, too, is something that is harder to fit on a bumper sticker—not because it isn’t succinct—it is. But because it is so hard to swallow. And that is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just interrupt us—it interrupts what we know—devout persons gathered together in one place to worship God for what we know God has given us and the Spirit will interrupt—violently—with wind and fire and Galileans.

You know if you have a certain respect for nature, you can get your head around the wind and fire of this equation. Wildfires raging—violent interruption—or if you’ve lived through a hurricane or tornado or earthquake—you get what wind and fire can do. And you can almost fathom what the disciples and the devout Jews must have heard that day.

There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

The miracle question aside, you can conjure up an image, if only from some disaster movie. You can affirm that yes, the Holy Spirit, if it takes the forms of wind and fire—will violently interrupt what we know—absolutely. But Galileans? Galileans? That’s harder. Because it calls into question how I organize my world, how I sort people into groups that I either respect a lot or I don’t respect very much at all. It implies for a start, that there are Galileans in my life, people I might dismiss because of where they live or how they talk or where they went to school—if they went to school.

Aren’t all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear—each of us in our own native language.

The reason people didn’t take Jesus seriously at first is that he was from Galilee and in the New Testament, Galilean is shorthand for ‘hick’ and Jesus grew up in the center of that—Nazareth—the capitol of hick. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That’s what Nathaniel asked of Philip. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? People really talk like that. Can anything good come out of Detroit or New York or Idaho or that end of town? Are there any progressives in the state of Mississippi? Where I come from people really talk like that which is why my family is still worried about the fact that I now live in Atlanta and my sons are growing up in Georgia. Of course, I try to tell them, yes, there are many good things, progressive things even that come out of Georgia and if you visit us you would see.

But I still, I still have Galileans of my own. I do. Most of us do—if we are honest. People we would never expect to know more than we do about certain things. People we don’t expect to relate to as peers, colleagues, equals, because of where they come from or how they talk.

But there were devout Jews living in Jerusalem—devout Jews—cultured people and when they heard the disciples speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability, they said, “Aren’t all those who are speaking, Galileans? Right. We thought that’s what they were. And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language—how is that?” Well, that is unexpected—that is unexpected. If we can hear in our own language what a Galilean says, that totally changes the whole picture for me because if a Galilean—[some hick] can talk to me in my language and show me Jesus more clearly than I have ever seen him. If that’s what Pentecost is, well that totally changes the whole picture for me. That means I am going to have to go home and rethink everything I thought I knew about God and the world and our place in it and everything else actually. I am going to have to go back to square one and start over.

Can the Holy Spirit do that? Reshuffle the whole deck as far as life and faith are concerned? Is it allowed to do that? Because that’s not why I came to church this morning—to be violently interrupted—even by grace—even by grace. Maybe the church, maybe the church is born again every time we gather together in one place to hear what we know, only to be addressed by what we never imagined. And if that’s true, if that’s true, then heck yeah Pentecost happens, you know it, go with the flow! You might as well, since it’s going to interrupt you with the big huge noisy fuss anyway—reconfigure all your boundaries, make you overflow your space, move over for Galileans—might as well enjoy it—might as well go wild—and pass the peace.

Amen.

*Cover Art by Stushie via Unsplash, used by subscription

A Room Full of Friends: Kathleen Norris

A Room Full of Friends: Kathleen Norris

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 25, 2021

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 2:11-22

 

In our continuing series of A Room Full of Friends—writers who have taken up residence on my Study Room bookshelves—this morning we will look at another Presbyterian author: Kathleen Norris. (I hope you have noticed how many good Presbyterian friends I have, by the way.) Norris, a best-selling writer, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1947. She later moved with her parents to Hawaii and then returned to the east coast to complete her studies at Bennington College in Vermont. She became arts administrator of the Academy of American Poets and published her first book of poetry two years later. Then in 1974 she inherited her grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota and moved there with her husband, David.

Even as she embraced the spirituality of the Great Plains, she returned to her Presbyterian roots. There she was—a married woman with a Protestant background—trying to get her feet under her again. More often than not, she found herself filled with doubt instead of faith. In the midst of her doubt, however, she was drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism, to a community whose days are centered on a rigid schedule of prayer, work, and scripture. She says no one could have been more surprised than she was when she ended up with two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. As both an insider and an outsider, she became immersed in this world of liturgy, ritual, and deep sense of community.

When Norris was a child, she loved to sing in church choirs and she really enjoyed church—though she cared little for the theology—didn’t think much about it, really. Then when she went to college she drifted away, taking on Literature as a substitute for religion. But years later, she felt an urge to return to church—to try to rediscover the religion of her youth. What she found when she got there, though, was a far cry from what she remembered. It seemed in her absence, society had corrupted the Christian community by its emphasis on polarizing. Insulting other people had become a form of argument. It didn’t matter what the issue was. It seemed like the stand a person took on particular issues was more important than baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles Creed. Somehow Christians had become more interested in their opinions on political matters than on other things. Of course, there are plenty of areas where folks differ—in practice, theology—all sorts of things—Norris recognized this full well—but surely the Christian community is healthier when the focus is on what unites brothers and sisters of the faith—rather than what separates them.

Even if the church wasn’t the place Norris recalled, still it became the very thing she needed most at this time in her life. In the church and in the monastic community, Norris learned to live with her doubts. In fact, she learned that God takes pleasure in working with someone who has doubts—whether they were about herself, about her husband’s mental illness and alcoholism, about her role in the world…

Recognizing the grace of finding two faith communities to feed her soul, Norris explains: “For a couple of years I really struggled with what I should be doing with my life. And the monks would say, ‘Well, you sit with us in the choir, you sing the songs, this is where you should be, this is what you should be doing. Let’s see what happens.’ It was not a conversion. Here’s a list of things to believe and do. It was: ‘Keep showing up. Something good will come of this.’ Also, going to church. This has meaning. This is above and beyond my experience. Eventually I could see that all these things had more weight than my doubts and my frustrations.”

In her book, The Cloister Walk, in a chapter entitled “Small Town Sunday Morning,” Norris describes the beauty and blessing of the community she found in a little Presbyterian Church. I invite you to hear her words:

At the worship services of Hope and Spencer there’s a time after the sermon, and before the Lord’s Prayer, in which people are asked to speak of any particular joys they wish to share with the congregation, or concerns they want us to address in our communal prayer on that Sunday, and also to pray over during the week. It’s an invaluable part of our worship, a chance to discover things you didn’t know: that the young woman sitting in the pew in front of you is desperately worried about her gravely ill brother in Oregon, that the widower in his eighties sitting across the aisle is overjoyed at the birth of his first great-grand-child.

All of this pleases the gossips; I’ve been told that on Sunday afternoons the phone lines in town are hot with news that’s been picked up in church. For the most part, it’s a good kind of gossip, its main effect being to widen the prayer circle. It’s useful news as well; I’m one of the many who make notes on my church bulletin; so-and-so’s in the hospital; send a card, plan a visit. Our worship sometimes goes into a kind of suspended animation, as people speak in great detail about the medical condition of their friends or relatives. We wince; we squirm; we sigh; and it’s good for us. Moments like this are when the congregation is reminded of something that all pastors know; that listening is often the major part of ministry, that people in crisis need to tell their story, from beginning to end, and the best thing—often the only thing—that you can do is to sit there and take it in.

And we do that pretty well. I sometimes feel that these moments are the heart of our worship. What I think of as the vertical dimension of Presbyterian worship—the hymns in exalted language that bolster our faith, the Bible readings, the sermon that may help us through the week—finds a strong (and necessary) complement in the localized, horizontal dimension of these simple statements of “joys and concerns.”

For many years this aspect of our worship has also been strongly ecumenical. If your neighbor who’s a Catholic, or a member of the Church of God, had a heart attack the day before and was flown to Bismarck in the air ambulance, you ask for people’s prayers for him and his family. Our prayers also extend to those who seldom darken a church door. Not long ago, the congregation learned from one of his longtime friends that Bill O’Rourke had died. (Wild Bill to his friends, way back in his drinking days.) Most of us knew that he’d been failing in the Veterans Hospital for some time. I knew him casually, but still missed him. An old-time cowboy—he broke horses for the U.S. Calvary between the world wars—he was permanently bow-legged. In retirement he’d become a fixture at the café on Main Street; you could nearly always find him there holding court. More rarely, I’d run into him outside. Bill would wait for someone to come by who would stop and admire one of the Ford pickup trucks from the early 1950s that he kept polished and in running condition. When his death was announced, a sigh ran through the congregation. All but the youngest members, and our pastor, had known him for years, and had their own Bill stories.

It was an odd moment. Bill’s death felt like a loss, to me, to many people, but we also knew that our young minister would know nothing of him. The pastor was about to begin the intercessory prayer that follows this part of worship, when one of Bill’s oldest friends couldn’t resist saying, “You know, Bill paid me the first fifty cents I ever made, back in 1930.” The minister smiled, but looked a bit nonplussed. He took a breath, as if to start the prayer. From a pew in the back of the church came a voice, “And I’ll bet you still have it.”

Of course we laughed for a good long time, before continuing with our worship; it was the kind of story Bill would have enjoyed. He didn’t care much for church decorum, but he took some aspects of religion seriously enough. The last time I saw him was at the Lutheran church, where he’d come for the funeral of an old friend. Bill sat alone at the back of the church. “I wanted to make sure they gave him a good sendoff,” is all he said to me, after the service. He was apparently satisfied.

When the minister finally got to say his “Let us pray,” we were ready. We had been praying, all along. We had been being ourselves before God.

“We had been being ourselves before God.” Learning to “be ourselves before God”—well, to me, that’s what a faith community is all about. Learning to accept ourselves and one another—lifting one another up—celebrating with one another—holding each other’s stories. As a body of believers, we come together on any given Lord’s Day to worship—raising our hearts, and minds, and souls to God—in thanksgiving, in praise, in wonder. At the baptismal font, life-giving water marks us as God’s own—uniting us to every believer of every place and time. No more barriers of race, gender, status, or age. No more barriers of nationality, history, and practice to overcome. Around the Table of our Lord, we gather and we are nourished by the promises of our Lord and Savior. Truly we are blessed for we are a community. Here we learn, day by day, how to be ourselves before God—maybe, maybe even—our best selves.

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

*Cover Art by Vincent Ledvina via Unsplash, used by permission;  Music CCLI 20016020/13

 

A Room Full of Friends: Frederick Buechner

A Room Full of Friends: Frederick Buechner

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 18, 2021

8th Sunday after Pentecost

John 13:33. 36; 14:1-6

This morning we resume the sermon series, A Room Full of Friends as I continue to introduce you to some of my favorite writers who, over the years, have come to reside on the shelves of my study. To me, they have become a room full of friends.  Today we consider Frederick Buechner: an ordained Presbyterian minister, he is the author of more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction and he has long been recognized as a kindred spirit to those who find doubt as a constant companion on their faith journey. Listen now to an excerpt from a sermon he wrote entitled “Let Jesus Show”:

When Jesus sat down to eat for the last time with a handful of his closest friends, he knew it was the last time, and he didn’t have to be the Messiah to know it—they all did. The Romans were out to get him. The Jews were out to get him. For reasons that can only be guessed at, one of his own friends was out to get him, and Jesus seems to have known that too. He knew, in other words, that his time had all but run out and that they would never all of them be together again.

 

It is an unforgettable scene there in that upper room—the shadows, the stillness, the hushed voices of people speaking very carefully, very intently, because they wanted to get it all said while there was still time and to get it said right. You can only imagine the way it must have haunted them for the rest of their lives as they looked back on how they had actually sat there with him, eating and drinking and talking; and through their various accounts of it, including this morning’s message from John, and through all the paintings of it…and through 2000 years of the church’s reenactment of it in the Eucharist, it has come to haunt us too. But I think of the Lord’s Supper as haunting in another way as well—not just as a kind of shadowy dream of an event long past but also as a kind of foreshadowing of an event not all that far in the future, by which I mean our own last suppers, the last time you and I will sit down with a handful of our own closest friends…

 

Who are these friends for you, who are they for me? We have to picture them for ourselves, of course—to see their faces, hear their voices, feel what it’s like to be with them. They are our nearest and dearest—our husband or wife, our children, a few people we can’t imagine living without or their living without us—and the sadness is that we have known them so long and so well that we don’t really see them anymore for who they truly are let alone who they truly are to us, who we truly are to them. The sadness is that we don’t see that every supper with them—even just a bowl of cornflakes in the kitchen some night after the movies—is precious beyond all telling because the day will come beyond which there will be no other supper with them ever again. The time will come when time will run out for us too, and once we see that, we see also that every one of our suppers points to the preciousness of life and also to the certainty of death, which makes life even more precious still and is precious in itself because under its shadow we tend to search harder and harder for light.

 

There in that shadowy room the disciples turned to Jesus, who was their light, with greater urgency than maybe ever before because, with all hell about to break loose, they had no other place to turn. They had drunk the wine he told them was his blood and put into their mouths the bread he told them was his body, and thus with something of his courage in them they asked him a question they had never risked asking…before. It was Simon Peter who asked it, and what he said was, “Lord, where are you going?”

 

As if they didn’t know. As if they didn’t know. As if you and I don’t know—both where he was going and where all of us are going too. He was going down the stairs and out the door. He was going into the night. He was going to pray in the garden to the God he called Father not to let the awful thing happen to him that he knew was already happening, and the Gospels do not record that he got so much as a whisper in reply. He was going alone, and he was going against his will, and he was going scared half out of his wits. He sweated blood is the way the Gospels put it.

 

The Last Supper not only prefigures our own last suppers wherever and whenever they are to be. It also is our last supper. You cannot read the account of it without in some measure being there, and the table where he sits with his friends is our table, and as they drew close to the light of him, we too try to draw close as if maybe in the last analysis he is the one who is our nearest and dearest—or our farthest and dearest because he is always just too far away to see very well, to take hold of, too far away to be sure he sees us. If we have any hope at all, he is our hope, and when Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” the question within his question is “Are you going anywhere at all or just going out, like a light?” and that is also our question both about him and about ourselves. When time runs out, does life run out? Did Jesus’ life run out? Do you and I run out?

 

“You will seek me,” Jesus says, and no word he ever spoke hits closer to home. We seek for answers to our questions—questions about life and about death, questions about what is right and what is wrong, questions about the unspeakable things that go on in the world. We seek for strength, for peace, for a path through the forest. But Christians are people who maybe more than anything else seek for Christ, and from the shabbiest little jerry-built meeting house in the middle of nowhere to the greatest cathedrals, all churches everywhere were erected by people like us in the wild hope that in them, if nowhere else, the one we seek might finally be found.

 

A friend of mine told me a story about a Christmas pageant he took part in once as the rector of an Episcopal church somewhere. The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, lying in the straw.

 

The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.

 

At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about 9 years old and smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoes could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”

 

There was a lot in the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there. “Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction, and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.

 

There is so much for all of us that hides Jesus from us—the church itself hides him, all the hoopla of the church with ministers as lost in the thick of it as everybody else so that the holiness of it somehow vanishes away to the point where services of worship run the risk of becoming only a kind of performance—on some Sundays better, on some Sundays worse—and only on the rarest of occasions does anything strike to the quick the way that little girl’s cry did with every last person who heard her realizing that Jesus didn’t show for any of them—the mystery and miracle of Jesus with all his extraordinary demands on us, all his extraordinary promises.

 

Let Jesus show in these churches we have built for him then—not just Jesus as we cut him down to size in our sermons and hymns and stained-glass windows, but Jesus as he sat there among his friends with wine on his breath and crumbs in his beard and his heart in his mouth as he spoke about his death and ours in words that even the 9 year old angel would have understood. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said in the midst of his own terrible troubles. Take it easy. Take it easy. Take heart. “Believe in God,” he said. “Believe also in me.”

 

Well, we are believers, you and I, that’s why we’re here—at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or father believes in a child.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked from where he was sitting, and Jesus answered, “I go to prepare a place for you…that where I am you may be also.” Can we put our money on that? Are we children enough to hear with the ears of a child? Are we believers enough to believe only what a child can believe?

 

“I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said, “that where I am you may be also. He was speaking about death because that is what was uppermost in his mind as it was uppermost in the minds of all of them that last time they had supper together and as I suspect it is uppermost in our minds too more often than we let on. He says he is not just going out like a light. He says he is going on. He says he is going ahead. He says we will go there too when our time comes. And who can resist giving our hearts to him as he says it?

 

“You know the way where I am going,” he says, and then Thomas speaks out for every one of us in a voice that my guess is had all the irritation and frustration and sadness of the little girl’s. “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

 

If I were as brave as the rector at that Christmas pageant, I would stop talking precisely here with those stark honest words. When it comes to the mystery of death, like the mystery of life, how can any of us know anything? If there is a realm of being beyond where we are now that has to do somehow with who Jesus is, and is for us, and is for all the world, then how can we know the way that will take us there? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” is how he answers. He does not say the church is the way. He does not say his teachings are the way, or what people for centuries have taught about him. He does not say religion is the way, not even the religion that bears his name. He says he himself is the way. And he says that the truth is not words, neither his words nor anyone else’s. It is the truth of being truly human as he was truly human and thus at the same time, truly God’s. And the life we are dazzled by in him, haunted by in him, nourished by in him is a life so full of aliveness and light not even the darkness of death could prevail against it.

 

How do we go where he is? As for me, I think what we are to do is to try to draw near him and to each other any way we can because that is the last thing he asked of us. “Love one another as I have loved you” is the way he said it, and that is what the little girl asked too on that Christmas Day. By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world…

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

*Cover Art Photo by Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Fred Craddock

A Room Full of Friends: Fred Craddock

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 11, 2021

7th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 8

 

We are now several Sundays into the summer sermon series: A Room Full of Friends. Throughout the series, it is my hope to introduce you to some dear friends who reside on the shelves of my study. Already you have met Eugene Peterson, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ann Lamotte, and others. Today I bring to you Fred Craddock. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest influences of the 20th Century on the craft of preaching—particularly preaching that embraces the art of storytelling. In my opinion, Craddock helped preachers embrace poetry and imagery and life in such a way that preaching became less like the presentation of a theme paper and more like the presentation of the Gospel. A few years ago, when Fred Craddock left his earthly dwelling and entered into glory, the news lit up my Facebook and Twitter feeds because so many of us felt the loss of someone who had impacted our lives deeply. It is my prayer that his influence will continue this morning as you listen to an excerpt from a sermon Fred Craddock preached on Psalm 8. It is entitled, “A Little Less Than God.”

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Such a huge statement made by the psalmist, probably living in the desert of Israel. How could he say, “in all the earth”? Probably had never seen huge chunks of icebergs break off and plunge into the sea. Probably never saw a flight of flamingoes startled by the appearance of a person. Never saw alligators dozing in the sun along the Amazon…Probably never heard the trumpet of the elephant…How could he say, “in all the earth”?

Because he is in a worshipful mode. He may have talked to some travelers who had seen some things and heard some things that he didn’t know, but not necessarily. He had his faith in God as the one God of all creation and he had Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Everything that is, is from God. So, he didn’t need to travel to say that. There are many people who travel all over the world, buy a lot of trinkets, complain about the service, and come home exactly the way they were. You can stand in the doorway of your cabin in the Appalachians and say in worshipful tones, “in all the earth…”

When I started out in ministry, I thought in terms of right and wrong and true and false and biblical and unbiblical. But now that I’ve gotten wise, there is a bigger category, more important to me; small and big. When I consider the moon and stars, O God, why do you even think of us? We’re so confused. The moon and the stars go in their courses every day. We can count on it; we can chart it. Whatever the century, whatever the country, we know exactly where every star and all the moons will be. We know exactly because they are ordained by God. But we are so confused.

You said, “I’ll give you dominion over land and sea and all that is in the sea and all the beasts of the field, the fish that go in the sea. Over everything, I give you dominion.” And we don’t know what it means. Some people think it means rape the land, you own it. Soil the streams, you own them. Darken the air, it’s yours. Toss your McDonald’s trash all along the highway, “This is my land.” Some people think that’s what it means, “You shall have dominion.”

There are other folk who think it means that you shall accumulate. It’s yours, so accumulate. And some never think about the fact that the more they get, the less somebody else has. If you get a huge meal, somebody else is hungry. That’s the way it works. What does it mean, “You shall have dominion”? It seems that we can just grab, hold, collect, hoard. After all, we have dominion…

When I consider the moon and stars that God has ordained, why does God pay so much attention to us? We’re so mixed up and we’re so temporary. The moon and the stars, the moon and the stars forever. As for me, I’m just a blip on the screen. There was a time I did not exist. There will be another time I do not exist, but in the narrow time between whence and whither, what am I going to do? Why does God pay attention to us? We’re so brief. We see it in the seasons: spring of the year, all the world is a poem of light and color, then it gets hot and the grasshopper drags itself along and the thermostat’s broken and everybody’s mad. Then it cools off; you grab a sweater, kick a football in the air; it’s beautiful, but not for long. The cold weather blows the leaves off the trees and bony fingers on those trees beg for cover and down comes the snow, the flying cloud, the frosted light, the year’s dying in the night. “Happy New Year.” What happened?

Do you live as though you’re going to live forever? At our little place over a creek, a couple of years ago I was out working in the yard, and I found a beautiful arrowhead, beautiful, beautiful and perfectly shaped. I picked it up and said to myself, “Fred, you’re not the first one to live here.” And the plow goes along and hits something hard. The farmer stops and goes around to pull out what might be just a little boulder. It’s a cornerstone, actually a hearthstone. There was once a family here; made popcorn balls, pulled molasses taffy, sat around the fireplace and sang from the old paperback book, “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” O What Wondrous Love is This.” They put poultices on the sick, put salve in their noses, cooked collards, and laughed and cried; gave birth and died, right here. We’re not the first ones. We’re not the last ones. Life is just so brief….Why does God pay attention to us? So small, so wrong, so brief.

And the psalmist says, “I know. God made us in God’s own image. When God made the duck, God said, ‘That’s good.’ When God made the elephant, God chuckled and said, ‘Well, that’s good.’ When God made the dogwood tree, God said, ‘That’s good,’ and so with the squirrel and the quail, and the grouse and the turkey. ‘That’s good.’ But it wasn’t enough and finally God said, ‘I’m going to make something just like myself, my very image. I’m going to make something that, when people look at it, they’re going to say, “God.” And that’s when God made you.”

Now we don’t want any of that stuff like, “We’re only human.” I’m sick of that. A shortstop catches the ball without mistake 300 times and finally he drops it and somebody says, “Only human.” What was he when he made the play? She bakes a cake eight inches tall, beautiful. Then the church has a fellowship dinner so she wants to outdo herself. She makes one, looks like the sole of your shoe. “Well, I’m only human,” she says. What was she when the cakes were eight inches tall? When the singer climbs the silver stairs and leaves every note as clear as the morning dew, what do people say? “Oh, that was wonderful.” If her voice cracks, “Well, she’s only human.” Why, why, why do we say we’re human when we make a mistake? Weren’t you made in God’s image? Don’t ever say, don’t ever say, “I’m only human.” When somebody says, “That was beautiful,” you say, “Well, after all, I’m human.” When somebody says, “Best I’ve ever eaten,” you say, “After all, I’m human.” When somebody says, “That was a beautiful prayer today,” you say, “Well, after all, I’m human.” Would you do that?

I know sometimes we don’t act like it. You take the expression, “You have made us but little less than God,” and then hold it up beside the daily newspaper and it doesn’t seem to fit. Left a baby in a trash bin? Hit a pedestrian and didn’t even stop? Took people’s money that was supposed to go for Medicare, Medicaid? It doesn’t seem to fit, I know, I know, I know. But once in a while, once in a while…

When I was a minister in the mountains of east Tennessee, the church had vacation Bible school in the summer. I had these kids, I don’t know, third or fourth grade. The thing lasted two weeks. I was ready at the end of one day to call it quits. Took about twelve kids, all day, two weeks. The lesson that year was on, you know, nature. Well, I use up all that stuff in one day; then what am I going to do for the rest of the time? I thought of something. I’ll send them out into the woods and let them get something that reminds them of God and bring it back. I rang a bell and said, “Now when I ring this bell, you go out into the woods, find something that reminds you of God, and when I ring it again, bring it back and tell us what it tells you about God.”

So I rang a bell and they scattered. My plan was not to ring it again, but I did. I rang it again and here they come. And I said to her, “What do you have?”

She said, “A flower.”

“And what does that tell you about God?”

“God is beautiful.” Now that’s good.

“And what do you have?”

“A rock.”

“What does that tell you?”

“God is stout.” Hey, that’s good, that’s good.

“And what do you have?”

“Huckleberries.”

“Well what does that tell you?”

“God is good; God feeds us and feeds the birds.” Another good answer.

Well, here’s Jim East, meanest kid I ever saw, but he was always there. You didn’t want him to be there all the time, but…

So I said, “Well, Jimmy, what do you have?” He was holding the hand of his sister from the kindergarten group. I said, “What did you bring, Jim?”

He said, “My sister.”

I said, “What does that tell you about God?”

And Jimmy said, “Uh, uh, uh, I don’t know for sure.” And that’s it. That’s it. This mean little kid recognized there wasn’t a thing in the forest that told him as much about God as his sister. That’s it.

In The Education of Little Tree, that marvelous story about a Cherokee Indian boy in western North Carolina, raised by his grandparents, poor as Job’s turkey, didn’t have a thing. He knew the grandparents had nothing to get him for Christmas; they had no money. But he wanted to give his grandmother something so he got some leather hide a sewed a little pouch, a coin purse I guess you would say.

He didn’t want to give it to her and hurt her feelings because she would have to say, “Well, Little Tree, I don’t have anything for you.” So you know what he did? You remember the story? He pushed that little coin purse that he made down in the bin of dried beans. They ate dried beans all winter. He pushed it, he said, down into the beans about Christmas deep. She would start reaching into that bin every day, October, November, December. Then about the middle or toward the last of December, she’d say, “Little Tree, Little Tree, look what I found, look what I found.” And he would run over and look at it, “What is it?” She said, “It’s a Christmas present. I don’t know who…” And Little Tree said, “That’s beautiful.”

A little less than God. I know, I know, some of us act like garbage sometimes. But I looked out one day and saw our garbage can with stuff spilling out the top and I thought, “That’s awful, that is really awful.” But during the night it snowed and the garbage can was a mound to the glory of God. How does Paul put it? “You are created in God’s image. You are recreated in Christ Jesus. You are God’s masterpiece.”

A little less than God. Amen.

*Cover Art Photo by Евгения Пивоварова via Unsplash

A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith

A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 26:1-8; Luke 9:23-37

 

This morning we continue the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends. For those new to the series, my goal is to share some of my favorite authors whose books reside on my shelves. Over the years, they have become dear friends. Today’s focus is on people who have sacrificed in tremendous ways because of their faith.

Whenever I think of such people, Corrie Ten Boom immediately comes to mind. Born in 1892, Corrie’s family were devoted members of the Dutch Reformed Church. They owned a small jewelry store in a narrow little house in the heart of the Jewish section of Amsterdam. There they met and became friends with some wonderful Jewish people. At the time, Corrie lived with her older sister and her father. She was 48, unmarried, and working as a watchmaker in the shop that was started by her grandfather.

Corrie’s involvement with the Dutch underground began by giving temporary shelter to her Jewish neighbors who were being driven out of their homes. She found places for them to stay in the countryside. Soon word spread and more arrived seeking shelter. In time, Corrie constructed a false wall in her bedroom so she could hide people behind it. After a year and a half, her home developed into the center of an underground ring that reached throughout Holland. But on February 28, 1944 a Nazi informant came seeking help. Before the end of the day, her home was raided, and she and her family were arrested.

Corrie’s father died within 10 days from an illness, but Corrie and her older sister, Betsie, remained in a series of prisons and concentration camps, first in Holland and then in Germany. In later writings, Corrie explains how she struggled with and overcame the hate that she had for the man who betrayed her family and how she and Betsie gave comfort to other inmates. She describes a typical evening in which they would use their secreted Bible to hold worship services. She writes,

At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed. At last, either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, and back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb.

Betsie, never strong in health, grew steadily weaker and died in December. Some of her last words to Corrie were, “We must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”

Due to a clerical error, Corrie was released from Ravensbruck one week before all women her age were killed. She made her way back to Haarlem, and tried for resume her life, but found her heart wasn’t in it. Instead, she had a burning desire to travel and tell her family’s story. In time, she documented the story in such books as The Hiding Place and Tramp for the Lord.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, son of a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Berlin, was born in 1906. He was an outstanding student and gifted pianist. Although his family expected he would have a career in music, at the age of 14, he announced his desire to become a minister and theologian. They were less than pleased. By the age of 25 he was a lecturer in systematic theology. In time he became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book Life Together describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

After a time of deep prayer and introspection, Bonhoeffer joined his brother-in-law and a few others to plan the overthrow of Hitler in 1939. Though their plan failed, in April of 1943, two men arrived in a black Mercedes, put Bonhoeffer in the car, and drove away. He spent two years in prison, corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.”  On April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer had just finished conducting a service of worship when two soldiers came in, saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us.” It was the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end—but for me, the beginning—of life.” He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies arrived.

Immaculee Ilibagiza wrote Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. In it she tells her story about the Rwandan genocide that erupted with a savagery that shocked the world. In just 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were killed.

In the early spring of 1994, Immaculee was visiting her family while on break from the university. Signs of trouble with the Hutu majority had been mounting and at dinner one evening, her brother implored her father to move the family away. Her father was the chief administrator of a Roman Catholic school and a figure of authority in the region. He had lived through two previous civil wars and remained confident that order could be restored. The very next day a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, was struck by missiles, and crashed, killing all on board. A well-organized campaign by Hutu extremists against Tutsis soon followed.

Government ministers began to openly threaten Tutsis on state radio. Soon, hundreds of people crowded around Immaculee’s home, seeking guidance from her father. He appealed in vain for help from local authorities. Soon her family dispersed. Her father arranged for her to hide in the home of a local Episcopal priest, in a bathroom, where she found seven other young women. The 3 X 6-foot bathroom was assumed to be a temporary shelter. The eight women would spend the next three months there.

Repeatedly, Hutu gangs came to search the house, carrying lists of names of Tutsis unaccounted for but they never attempted to enter the bathroom. Immaculee writes, “It’s a feeling I can’t explain. I remember dry [mouth]. I didn’t even have saliva to swallow. It was something like all your body became paralyzed. You don’t think anymore.” Immaculee began talking to God. She prayed constantly, clutching her father’s red rosary in her hand. She promised not to seek vengeance if her life was spared. At the same time, she had a growing certainty that none of her family had survived. In her words: “I remember I dreamt about Jesus, and he was telling me, ‘Well, when you come out, there will be no one in your life in your family. And I want you to know that, even if they took care of you, I can take care of you better, so I want you to trust me. I’d like you always to pray’ — and that was so real. It was a thing that was so real that I didn’t doubt.”

On July 7, 1994, after most of the killing had ended, Immaculee and the other women emerged from their hiding place. Just as she feared—her family was gone. Only one brother survived because he happened to be out of the country. So much horror. So much hatred. So much loss. Still, Immaculee betrays no bitterness at the events that claimed most of her family. Instead, she stresses understanding and forgiveness: “I don’t want just to hate somebody. I felt bad enough that I don’t want just to hold this kind of bad feeling in my heart for long, if I can help it,” she writes.

Such hateful, horrible things have happened down through the ages—even to people of faith—often in the name of God. Yet Jesus, God’s beloved Son, walked the dusty roads of Palestine listening to people’s stories and responding with understanding and love and mercy. Many people became angry with him because he was kind and good to the wrong people. It was one of the reasons they killed him.

Jesus offered an alternative vision for the world—one which valued love over hate, serving over being served, sacrifice over self-indulgence, truth over deception, justice over injustice, inclusion over exclusion, generosity over greed, humility over arrogance, forgiveness over revenge, healing over hurting, and peace over war.

Jesus modeled how to live with one another and inspired people to build bridges of goodwill. We need bridges of goodwill—in our country—in the world. No doubt there are serious issues at stake and sometimes even after prayerful consideration, people of good faith disagree. So, the question is this: How can we model the way of Jesus—listen to each other’s stories—respond with empathy and grace—love each other—no matter what?

Today we celebrate the freedoms we have as citizens of this great nation we call home. But let us never forget that our citizenship in God’s kingdom matters even more. It is a place where every believer is invited to—called to—dwell. As citizens, it behooves us to practice being neighbors in a neighborhood filled with people of difference colors, different nationalities, different denominations, different backgrounds, and different beliefs. It is a kin-dom of love and God calls every believer to BE love—to BE Christ for the world—no matter the cost.  Amen.