Give or Take

Give or Take

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 29, 2018

10th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:1-15; John 6:1-21

 

Did you know that the feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels? No doubt, you are quite familiar with the story. Still, I urge you not to wander off, but to stay with me—in body and mind—for though there is fish and bread on the menu, there is spiritual food, as well.

In the story, we come upon people who are hungry—very hungry. They have followed Jesus and have become so engaged in what he has to say and what he is doing before their very eyes, well, they cannot pull themselves away. To leave his presence, to miss something extraordinary—oh no, they simply cannot. So, they stay, and they stay, and they stay, until, truth is, they may be too weak to return to their homes. Now what?

Jesus recognizes the problem. And the solution? Well, it begins with a boy who has a little food that he is willing to share. As adults, we would likely do the math, much as Philip does, “Six months wages wouldn’t make a drop in a bucket toward what we need.” But children, well, they are better at imagining abundance than we are. They are better at God’s math! So, the boy gives all that he has, and Jesus takes it, multiplies it, and uses it to perform a wondrous miracle. The result is a feast so great that people are patting their tummies and saying, “Oh no, thank you but I simply can’t hold another bite.” (Much like those of us who attended our Session Retreat felt after feasting on both breakfast and lunch at Kinderlou Clubhouse yesterday.)

Through it all, Jesus appears relaxed. He knows his Abba Father will not fail him. Here we see Jesus at his best. It’s one of specialties, really. With a blessing of his hands, he turns the weak into the strong, the blind into the sighted, the loser into the winner, and the little into the large. In desolate places, with hungry souls, Jesus transforms hopelessness into delight, and hunger into fulfillment. There is food aplenty because of the power of God working through Jesus and the generous nature of a little boy.

A generous nature, however, is not what we see in the person of King David. I’m sure you’ve noticed that over the past few weeks our Old Testament readings have followed the life of David. We may recall how Israel’s first king, Saul, falls out of favor with God. Then we learn about young David having to be called away from the sheepfold for the prophet Samuel to anoint him. He’s ignored, altogether, being the runt of the family and all. After a time, David becomes the official king of Israel and his popularity grows. But then, David succumbs to sin. David is chosen by God to be the king of God’s people. He can have anything he wants. Already, he has wives aplenty; and God seems bent on filling David’s every longing, until, that is, David’s heart longs for the wife of another man.

The deed is done. Then, as if adultery isn’t bad enough, when David learns that Bathsheba is pregnant with his child, he tries to cover it up by devising a plan to make the baby appear to be fathered by Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband). When the plan fails, David makes matters worse by plotting to have Uriah conveniently “killed” in battle. What a shameful episode in the life of God’s chosen king. Out of lust and greed, David takes what is not his to take. Then, his sin is multiplied when he causes the murder of an innocent man. Sin is like that, you know. We never sin in a vacuum because, ultimately, our sin effects other people.

It is quite a contrast to go from David the great king to David the great adulterer and murderer, isn’t it? Nevertheless, the Bible boldly tells of this sordid affair. And there’s hope in that. For although David’s sin makes a dark mark on his character and his future, it is not the end of his story. God still walks with David, still loves David—and that is good news for us. For everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is David’s story. It is our story, too. As one preacher puts it, “The margin between standing tall and falling is often as thin as glad wrap.”[i]  While we may not be planning to commit murder, still we face our own demons—greed, gossip, pride, holding grudges—sin comes in endless packages.

That is not to say that sin is okay or since we all are tempted, there is no use trying to live a godly life. Not at all! The important thing is to recognize our frailty and then accept the grace-filled news that our sinfulness is not the whole truth of who we are. Our sinful nature may, from time to time, lead us astray. But just as David was graced with God’s saving hand, so have we been. The ultimate truth is that we are precious in the eyes of our Creator and Redeemer. Broken, yes that is our universal story. But forgiven—that can be our story, too.

If we examine this chapter in David’s life, we might say that he is a taker. He takes what is not his to take without considering the cost to himself or to other people. In stark contrast, we might say that the little boy who shares his bread and fish, giving all that he has to give, well, he is a giver. Such is life—give or take—take or give.  These two figures demonstrate generosity placed alongside lust and greed.

In the warp and woof of life, it behooves us to consider in which camp we stand in this chapter of our own story. Are we givers or are we takers? It’s worth considering. Some people go through their entire lives looking for ways to contribute, to add goodness to the world. While other people go through life with an attitude of greed, blind to the needs of those around them, always asking that ever-important question, “What’s in it for me?” In this world filled with the abundance of God’s creation, isn’t there enough for everyone? To be greedy, well that is really a part of our worldly nature. Living like David, taking what’s not ours to take—that the world knows full well. But to live a life of generosity, in our day and time, we might call that counter-cultural.

Think about it! On most days, can you tell a difference between people who go to church and people who do not?  It seems the church is in danger of losing her identity. Getting back to the basics of our faith may be a way to find it again. Living out of an attitude of abundance instead of an attitude of scarcity may be the best witness we can make as faithful Christians.

And in God’s mathematics, whatever our gifts or talents, whatever efforts we make to better the world in the name of Jesus will be received, blessed, and multiplied. Giving whatever we are able to give may not seem like a big deal unless we remember the time Jesus faced 5000 hungry people and created a bountiful feast out of nothing more than a child’s gift of 5 loaves and 2 small fish.

With a willing, generous heart, God can transform hopelessness into delight and hunger into fulfillment. In a world where people tend to miss the extraordinary in the ordinary, the often-quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning may say it best:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

And only he who sees takes off his shoes—

the rest sit around and pluck blackberries.[ii]

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

[i] http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY17.htm

[ii] Quoted by Douglas John Hall in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 288.

God’s Mission

God’s Mission

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 8, 2018

7th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Mark 6:1-13

Today we examine an intriguing event in the life of Jesus. He returns to his hometown, to family and friends, people who have known him since he was a little boy.  Since he has become the talk of the countryside, a grand reception might be in order, but, of course, that is not what happens. On the Sabbath Jesus does what he normally does—he goes to the synagogue and teaches. At first, the people are astonished and praise him, “Look at his wisdom and power!” But in the next breath they’re offended, “Just who does he think he is? He’s one of us! He’s the carpenter, the Son of Mary!” (Or like my grandmother used to say, “He’s gotten too big for his britches!)

 

What is it about familiarity that breeds contempt? Jesus is rejected by his own people, and while they are astounded by him, he’s equally astonished by their unbelief—a lack of faith that affects what happens next. “…he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” One commentator notes that because of their unbelief, the narrative is in fact an un-miracle story.[i]

 

Jesus has every reason to be discouraged, to have hurt feelings and go off somewhere and nurse his wounds.  We would certainly understand. Instead, he goes out into the villages to teach. He continues the mission God has called him to—never swaying—never stopping.

 

Already we’ve noted the amazement of the people in his hometown over Jesus’ ministry and his amazement at their unbelief. Since astonishment seems to be the emotion of the day, here’s something else over which to be astonished: whom Jesus calls forth to continue God’s mission: Jesus sends the disciples—that ragamuffin band of misfits—well, that’s how Mark often portrays them—the 12 who, more often than not, just don’t get it!  Nevertheless, on their way to understanding, they are sent on their way to do God’s mission.

 

What are their marching orders? Jesus instructs them to travel light and to rely on the hospitality of the people they encounter. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” While this may seem like odd behavior to us, for the Jewish people it was something they did whenever they returned home after traveling through defiling Gentile territory. It was a way of separating themselves from those whom they perceived as ungodly or unclean.

 

The disciples do as instructed—they proclaim the need for repentance and they cast out demons and cure many who are sick. They go, they share, they do, and then they depart. Whether the people respond or not, well that is up to the people. It is God’s mission—and the people are free to accept it or reject it.

 

Could it be that in this “practice run” for future events, Jesus is preparing his disciples for rejection? Think about it, if Jesus, the very Son of God, is rejected by his own people, so will his disciples be rejected—so shall we be—from time to time. But like Jesus, we must not be swayed by our reception for it’s not about us. It is about the mission of God to save the world. The responsibility of the disciples and all who have followed the way of Jesus ever since is the same: We are responsible for our obedience to ministry in Christ’s name, not for how or if other’s respond positively.

 

Recently, among other topics, I have been researching mission and evangelism. Simply put, mission is outreach in deeds and evangelism is outreach in words.[ii] I like this definition. It’s short and simple—outreach in deeds; outreach in words. Truth be told, often we gravitate toward missions because the “E” word makes us anxious. But the work of God is not either evangelism OR mission—it’s both. They go hand in hand. The disciples model this when, sent out two by two, they evangelize—outreach in words—by telling the people of their need to repent, and they do the work of missions—outreach in deeds—by healing the sick and driving out evil spirits.

 

I’m convinced that both missions and evangelism will play key roles in the success of any church in the future. For too long, we have chased other rabbits that have led us nowhere except to a place of conflict and division. In doing so, we have failed to see the forest for the trees. We have failed to be faithful to our calling as followers of Jesus Christ, worshipers of our Sovereign God, and believers in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform the world.

 

When General Assembly met in Pittsburg a few years ago, Brian McLaren was a guest speaker. McLaren is a prominent Christian pastor, author, activist, speaker and leading figure in the emerging church movement. At a General Assembly Breakfast, he said to the good Presbyterians gathered around: “I think that you are farther along the path of change than you realize, and I think better days are ahead.” I couldn’t agree more. In my heart and soul, I believe better days are just around the corner. New life and possibility abound—if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

 

While I still have lots more research to do before I can offer ideas for future mission and evangelism that we might consider as a church, already I can share with you some methods that DO NOT work. Sometime if you’re bored and want a little church-related humor, google “ineffective evangelism techniques.” [iii]  When I did, I found a couple of interesting stories. One person told of working as a waiter and occasionally being given a tract that looked like money on one side, but had words on the other side that said, “are you disappointed it’s not real money…we’ll don’t be disappointed because Jesus offers you something better than money.” The man who shared this story said that many of the servers he worked with were single mothers barely getting by. When they were deprived of a tip and given a deceitful tract instead, they became turned off by Christians.

 

Here’s another example: In Southern California with gas prices soaring, a man saw a banner on a church that said: Save Gas / Worship Here. Seriously? Should we attend church because it’s close? If that’s what we are looking for—to save gas—we could stay home and watch televangelists. Surely, we should attend a church for more reasons than its proximity.

 

While it’s true that God can use anything to touch people’s heart, (I daresay even billboards that read “Got God?” or people on the street corner holding up signs that read: “Are you saved?” or “So you think it’s hot up here!”) still, it behooves us to realize that today, more than ever, we live in cynical times. Let’s face it…we have followed the yellow brick road. We’ve seen Oz behind the curtain with all his levers and folly. We can smell an agenda a mile away—and so can most everyone else—especially our young people.

 

As a result, it is crucial that our ways of mission and evangelism contain no hidden agenda. That’s what the world expects. What the world does NOT expect is authentic Christians who are not trying to get people on our side or even trying to grow our church. Our goal should simply be to tell others about the God who has come to mean so much to us and to show them that love in action. Our methods must match the message.

 

Presbyterian Minister, Michael Lindvall, tells the following story about a woman, a mainline Christian, who worked as a clerk in a bookstore:

 

When she arrived for work one morning, she encountered a man dressed as a Hasidic Jew. After turning on the lights she said, “Would you like any help?” “Yes,” he answered softly, “I would like to know about Jesus.” She directed him upstairs to the shop’s section of books about Jesus and turned to go downstairs, but he called her back. “No,” he said, “Don’t show me any more books, tell me what you believe.” “My Episcopal soul shivered,” the woman said later. But she gulped and told him everything she could think of.[iv]

 

Tell me what you believe. That is the crux of the matter. In a skeptical world where we’ve been conditioned to look for the hidden agenda via sales-pitches, politics, and religion, honestly telling our story may be what we most need to do. While I expect to find many other suggestions for successful missions and evangelism—suggestions I am certainly open to, I doubt I will come across anything as potentially life-changing as one person sitting down with another person to share what God has done in his or her life. Stories sell—especially the story of God’s mission for the world: that all may come to know the love and mercy and grace of a God who desires all God’s children to be restored, to be transformed, to be made whole.  Now that’s a story worth telling!

[i] Interpretation: Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr., 113-122.

[ii] Feasting on the Word.

[iii] “A Better Way to Evangelize accessed July 3, 2012 at http://www.ancient-future.net/evangelism.html

[iv] Feasting on the Word, Michael L. Lindvall, 216.

*Cover Art “Two by Two” via Google Images

 

Just a Touch

Just a Touch

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 1, 2018

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5:21-43

 

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a woman—we shall call her Diana. Diana was young and quite lovely and she was, like any young woman, filled with hopes and dreams for her future.  But one day, quite unexpectedly, Diana became sick. One day led to another and to another until Diana was sick most of the time. Her illness was an abnormal bleeding condition—a type of illness that caused Diana physical, spiritual and emotional pain, for you see, in her day and time, such an illness made her unclean. Everything Diana touched became unclean, too. Her condition made it impossible for her to go to the synagogue to worship with others in her community. In actual fact, she had limited contact with most of the world. Diana felt such pain and isolation; she was lonely and fearful, and she was willing to do whatever she could to find healing.

 

Since Diana was a woman of wealth, she could afford the help of the best physicians of the day. They promised help—for which she paid—help she didn’t receive. Instead of getting better, Diana only grew worse. Now, after twelve years of vain searching, she had exhausted every resource and spent all she had. She was at the end of her rope and at the end of her hope. Then, she began to hear stories about a man named Jesus. He had done such amazing things that even Diana, in her small world, had heard about him. She heard he was a teacher who taught with authority, and in the synagogue in Capernaum he had cast an unclean spirit out of a man. He healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and, later, a leper—with just a touch of his hand. She heard about him healing the paralytic and the man called Legion, who was filled with many demons. Just a few days ago, he had even calmed a terrible storm over on the Sea of Galilee. Oh yes, she had heard about Jesus.

 

Diana was open to experiment, open to the possibility that a divine power was at work in this unexpected and unlikely Jesus. After all, people called him a teacher, a prophet, some even wondered if he was the Promised One from the line of David. She began to wonder—could this man, this Jesus, heal her? In comparison to all he’d been doing, healing a poor woman of a bleeding condition would be small—even insignificant. It really would not take much—just to touch his garment might be enough. Then she would not have to face the crowd, face her shame; she wouldn’t even have to speak to Jesus openly.

 

Soon Diana learned Jesus was nearby, so she went in search of him. He was not difficult to find—a swarm of people was gathered around him. She glanced at the crowd and quickly realized it might be more difficult to get close to Jesus than she had expected. But she must—she simply must reach Jesus—whatever it took!  What choice did she have? For twelve long years she had suffered.  If Jesus could not help her, no one could. Then her life would be over—because she would surely die.

 

Entering the crowd of people, she began to turn first one way and then another, easing between those who had come to see Jesus, trying not to touch people, trying to go unnoticed. Quietly and quickly she crept up behind him and she reached out her hand, leaning forward to gently touch the hem of his garment. And then it happened! She felt a force sweep through her. Immediately, she knew in her heart and soul, she was healed. She turned to rush away, hoping no one would notice. She felt joy and fear all at once. She had experienced a miracle and no on knew!  Her courage had paid off—now she would have a chance of happiness, a chance to be a part of her faith community again, a chance of a life.

 

Suddenly the crowd stopped moving. Diana looked to see what was happening behind her and then she heard the voice of Jesus as he turned in her direction and asked the unimaginable, “Who touched me?”  There were so many people around, it could have been anyone—but she knew, she knew he was talking about her. While she had felt healing enter her body, Jesus had felt power leaving his. Why, oh, why did he have to point her out? How she wished to be invisible. She thought about running, but her legs refused to carry her away. She knew she had touched the holy, and, finally, with gratitude, awe, and all the courage she could muster, she retraced her steps back to Jesus. Approaching him, she fell at his feet and confessed everything. She did not know what to expect. Would Jesus be angry with her and chastise her?  Would her humiliation grow beyond what she had already endured?  She waited with her head bowed before him. To her utter amazement, she heard the gentle voice of Jesus speak to her and call her “Daughter.”

 

Daughter!  What manner of love was this that Diana, who was forced to come alone because she had no kinsman to speak for her, was now shown such compassion and concern?  “Daughter,” Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well, go in peace, you are healed.” Diana was struck by the kindness in the voice and eyes of Jesus. She had never known such compassion. How surprised she was that Jesus took the time to encourage her and applaud her faith in front of all these people who would have ostracized her only moments ago. Jesus elevated Diana to a position of respect that had long been missing in her life. Jesus knew what she needed, and Jesus met her needs.

 

Diana came to Jesus to be healed physically, but she received so much more. She was a woman, an unclean woman, a desperate woman who dared to approach Jesus hoping for a quiet, secret miracle. But Jesus wanted things out in the open. Jesus wanted to show Diana that SHALOM –peace and wholeness could be hers—not just a physical healing. In that moment Diana experienced the grace of God as she realized that Jesus was not merely out spreading kindness and good will.  Jesus was so much more. Jesus was God incarnate; come to reconcile and to heal ALL that was broken in the world.

 

The woman in our story today came to Jesus for a reason.  Why do you come to Jesus?  Why do you come here to worship?  Do you expect great things? Has God touched your life and you long to demonstrate your gratitude?  Do you long to gather with other believers to offer each other encouragement and love?  Do you long to worship this Holy God who can change a life with just a touch?  And are you eager to spread the news?

 

The woman in our story today came to Jesus for a reason.  She needed healing.  Why do you come to Jesus?  Is there brokenness in your life that needs healing?  Have you been wounded?  Are you filled with worry or despair?  None of us walk this earth without facing some pain and disappointment. It’s been said that everyone sits near their own pool of tears. It is our human condition to face hurt and challenges in this life, but we are not alone. Each of us has been called in a personal way through God’s grace. We have been called “Daughter.” We have been called “Son.”  We do not approach the throne of grace alone because Jesus is our kinsman. And Jesus invites us to share in the remembrance of him this day as we take Holy Communion together. We come as broken people in need of the love and care of a Holy God. We come to the Table as family. We come to remember.

 

The woman in our story today came to Jesus for a reason.  She came after having spent all that she had seeking a healing she could not find.  But finally, healing found her through the compassion and power of Jesus Christ. Just a touch is all it took. Just a touch of the power of Jesus can change a life, can heal a broken heart, can change attitudes, desires, direction… Yes, just a touch will do!

 

*Cover Art “I Will Be Made Well” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.

 

In the Storm but Not Alone

In the Storm but Not Alone

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 24, 2018

5th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 17:32-49; Mark 4:35-41

Today we hear the retelling of one of the most beloved stories of the Old Testament—David and Goliath. Last Sunday we heard about Samuel anointing David to be the king of Israel. However, in practice, David is not yet acting as king; Saul is. Nevertheless, their paths have already crossed. It seems that the spirit of the Lord has departed from Saul, only to be replaced with an evil spirit that is tormenting him. Saul’s servants locate someone skillful in playing the lyre so that when the evil spirit comes upon him, music can be played to comfort him. In God’s providence (wouldn’t you know it) the person tapped to lullaby Saul is none other than David.

 

After a time, the Philistines gather to do battle with Israel and they bring their finest champion, Goliath—a monster of a man, who strikes fear in all those gathered there. All, that is, except for young David. When everyone else runs for the hills, it’s the boy, David, who volunteers to go fight Goliath. He’s eager, in fact. I picture him jumping up and down, crying, “Pick me! Pick me! I’ll do it!” Saul states the obvious—you are just a boy and you can’t possibly do the impossible. David responds with tales of previous adventures—battles with lions and bears. This is no different, for, David says, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” Young though he may be, David recognizes from whence his power comes. Already he’s experienced the hand of God protecting, providing, calming life’s storms, in extraordinary ways. Already, David trusts that with the power of God working in his life, he can do anything. So, in an extraordinary scene, armed with a sling, a stone, and the spirit of God, David drops the monster of a man in one fell swoop.

 

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we happen upon another extraordinary scene, which happens at the end of a long, exhausting day of ministry for Jesus and his disciples. Leaving the crowds behind they get into a boat with the goal of crossing to the other side. But along the way a storm rises, and the waves beat fiercely against the boat. It must have been a monster of a storm to frighten the disciples so, especially since some of them are seasoned fishermen, skilled in the art of navigating dangerous waters. Red alert! Red alert! They are going to perish—and the one person filled mightily with the spirit of God; the one person who might turn the situation around is sleeping peacefully in the boat’s place of honor, the stern. Terrified, the disciples wake Jesus up with a sharp “Don’t you care, Teacher, that we are about to die?” Instead of responding to the disciples, Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to simmer down; the first word (“Peace!” in the NRSV) is a verb meaning be silent; the second (“Be still!”) means literally be muzzled. “Peace! Be still!” The disciples are amazed. “Who is this? Even the winds and waves obey him.”[i]

 

We live in a time when there is an endless supply of things to be afraid of. If we aren’t careful, we’ll join the masses to live a life filled with worry and fear. Stress management experts say that only 2% of our “worrying time” is spent on things that might actually be helped by worrying.

And here is how the other 98 % of this time is spent: 40% on things that never happen; 35% on things that can’t be changed; 15% on things that turn out better than expected; 8% on useless, petty things.

 

On this topic, one of my favorite and often repeated stories is provided by Barbara Brown Taylor in an article she wrote about her choice to not watch television. She does listen to NPR, but even then, she limits her listening of the news once a day.  She wrote:

 

When a young girl was kidnapped from her bedroom in the Midwest, the details of her abduction flooded the news for days.  Descriptions of suspects alternated with speculation about whether she was still alive.  Her family’s despair was unimaginable. In the midst of all this, I was speaking with someone who watches a great deal of television news.  “We live in a country where children are not safe in their own beds,” this person said with monumental despair. While I knew I was meant to agree, I did the math and realized I could not. Although the media’s round-the-clock repetition of the story made it seem as if a thousand girls had been abducted instead of one, the truth was that the girl we were all worried about remained one girl. While the police searched for her, the vast majority of children were safe in their own beds, which seemed vital to remember in the face of so much fear.

 

There is always tragedy somewhere, as the news reminds us so well.  But there is not always tragedy everywhere, which the news does not make quite so clear. The good news, also known as the gospel, is that where ferries are going down, brave people are diving into water to lift thrashing children to safety. Where crops are failing, generous people are providing relief for farmers and migrant workers, and where a young girl is kidnapped from her bed, an entire community is turning out to hunt [for] clues, post flyers, cook food and keep watch with the family.

 

Meanwhile, there are entire towns where nothing terrible is happening for an hour or two, where parents are caring for children with remarkable tenderness, where nurses are tending patients…and at least one man who owns a small business is taking off work early to coach a girls’ soccer team.[ii]

 

To this, I would add that there are people of all ages who are not making the news by being evil and destructive. Instead, they are visiting and praying for and caring for friends and family and neighbors. Instead, they are packing and delivering meals for the needy in Valdosta. Instead, they are doing things like participating in a “Rise Against Hunger” event, packaging foods that will go to children and adults across the globe to people they will never see.

 

As baptized believers, this we know: Following the way of Jesus does not guarantee a storm-free life. Sometimes, truth be told, we find ourselves crying out to the Lord, “Wake up!  Do you not care?” But even in the midst of our cries, if we stay close, if we pay attention, we just might hear that comforting voice from out of the whirlwind saying, “Peace! Be still!” Come what may, Jesus is with us, always eager to remind us that God is in the business of calming storms, making the impossible possible, and bringing down giants in one fell swoop.

 

Recently released statistics by the PCUSA Office of General Assembly show a 5% loss of membership for the Presbyterian Church in 2017—a loss we can hardly afford. In response, Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson released a statement saying that he believes the PCUSA is “reforming” rather than dying but, still, there’s no doubt Presbyterians are doing poorly at evangelism. Our new reformation, Nelson continued, “must be built on a vision of God’s Kingdom that is compelling people who find us lacking. We have that vision—it is part and parcel of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We simply must find new ways to proclaim it and, more importantly, live it out in our congregations.”[iii]

 

Churches from our tradition and other traditions find themselves in the heat of a storm, a monster of a storm, and we wonder what can save our churches, our denominations? We look at the circling clouds; we listen to the howling winds and we cry, “Lord, don’t you care? Don’t you care that we are dying?” But folks, we are guilty of focusing on the storm instead of Jesus who is standing in our midst. Our job as Christians is not to “save” our churches or our denominations, for that matter. Jesus, the Risen Savior is in control of all of that. I am not alone when I say that I believe that it’s time to change the conversation. Instead of “What’s wrong?” we need to ask, “What next? To what new work is the Spirit leading us?”

 

Dear church, we may be in a storm set loose by our life and times, but God is working mightily in our midst. God is in the business of calming storms, making the impossible possible, and bringing down giants in one fell swoop. As baptized believers, it behooves us to turn our eyes toward Jesus, who is in the boat with us and hold fast to his powerful words, “Peace!  Be still!”

[i] Bill O’Brien, “The Christian Century”, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2712

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Christian Century,” May 30, 2006.

[iii] https://relevantmagazine.com/current/report-presbyterian-church-usa-membership-at-an-all-time-low/

*Cover Art: “Jesus Calms a Storm,” by Waldemar Flaig; via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

 

In the House

In the House

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 10, 2018

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Mark 3:20-35

 

Being a part of a family is not easy. From the beginning of Scripture in Genesis, our story begins, not with nations and tribes, but families. And from the beginning, dysfunction is palpable. As one preacher notes, “It gives one pause at the phrase ‘biblical family values.’”[i]  Of course, later, other metaphors are used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people—king and subjects comes to mind. But the people do not always want God as their king. Then, as now, people tend to want their own way rather than the way of God.

 

We get a glimpse of such behavior in our reading from the book of 1st Samuel. Israel is yearning for something they do not have—an earthly king. But, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for—you just might get it.” Israel has been handpicked by God to be God’s chosen people—yet they decide that instead of being led by Yahweh, they prefer an earthly king like the other nations.

 

Samuel is upset by the people’s request, but God points out that it is God being rejected, not Samuel. Essentially, God says, “They’re acting like they’ve been acting from the beginning—forsaking me, serving other gods. Now, I’m going to give them what they ask for, but before I do, go and tell them what earthly kings are good for!” And Samuel does! Samuel tells them that an earthly king will make servants of their sons and daughters; some will even be made slaves. The king will take the best of the fields and orchards himself and a tenth of whatever harvest is produced—that’s what an earthly king is good for! And when all this happens, don’t even bother crying out to God.” The people ignore Samuel’s warning, crying, “No! We want to be like the other nations. We want a king.” And, so it was.

 

Being God’s people and understanding what that means, well, it’s complicated, isn’t it? But Jesus steps in to simplify things—put things in order—if you will. Jesus comes to redefine what it means to be God’s people, but it will not be without great cost!

 

In recent months, following the church calendar, we have traveled through Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. We are now are in the Season of Pentecost—what has been traditionally known as “Ordinary Time.” In the weeks and months ahead, we will focus on the extraordinary acts of Jesus in the day in and day out of his life in ministry and we will reflect on our own lives as his faithful disciples.

 

Again, the lectionary places us in the Gospel of Mark. As you likely remember, Mark, wastes no time in getting to the point. He doesn’t bother with birth narratives and such. Instead with a single-sentence introduction, he gets right to it, announcing the coming of John the Baptist and the One greater than he, who is to follow. By the time we get to chapter 3, Jesus has been baptized and tempted and his ministry is in full swing. He has called his disciples, healed one person after another (of whatever has kept them from leading full, whole lives), and he has passionately preached the good news of God’s love and power breaking into the world. By now, there are people everywhere—so much so—he and his disciples can barely get a bite to eat.

 

Jesus has drawn a crowd, and in the crowd, there are friends, family, and foes. In today’s reading, Jesus is wrongly accused by not only his foes (we would expect that) but also his family. His family has heard rumors about Jesus. They think he’s gone out of his mind—the translation is more literally, “to stand outside of,” as in “to be outside oneself.” Jesus’ family may hope to control him. Perhaps, they are genuinely concerned for his mental health. At the very least, they would prefer he not embarrass the family name.

 

Then there are the scribes (foes of Jesus) who have come a long way from Jerusalem to examine this young upstart. They come. They see the authentic results of Jesus’ ministry and conclude that Jesus has Beelzebul! There’s no other explanation. He’s possessed with a spirit of a demon. He’s kin to Satan. That’s how he is able to cast out demons.

 

Always ready and able to trip up the religious authorities, Jesus responds with something like, “Pray tell, how can Satan cast out Satan?” In a flash, Jesus makes the point that since his exorcisms are defeats for Satan, they can hardly be performed through Satan. And any entity—be it kingdom, house, or Satan—divided against itself cannot stand! By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus binds Satan (the strong man) and Jesus sweeps in and plunders his house. No, Jesus is not kin to Satan. Jesus is his sworn enemy! [ii]

 

Overall, Jesus’ engagement with the Scribes disproves charges made against him both here, during his ministry, and even after his death. Jesus is not out of his mind. Jesus is not possessed by a demon. Jesus is not an agent of Satan. Quite the opposite! Jesus, the Stronger Man, has come to bind Satan and sin and free God’s people.[iii] Jesus has come to demonstrate his power over the house of Satan.

 

The image of Jesus’ “house” serves as a symbol for the church. With that in mind, who is inside the house? Who is outside?  Those who are criticizing him—the scribes and his family stand outside.[iv] They are the very ones who should know better—yet there they are—outside, creating quite a ruckus.

 

Why is it that wherever Jesus goes, storms are a-brewing? Why does his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing create such controversy? Could it be that Jesus is so far out of the reach of the religious ruler’s imagination, they simply can’t accept him? He doesn’t fit their categories, so he must be abnormal or possessed. As scholar, David Lose, comments, “We assume that what we know, have experienced, and hold to be true is normal, natural, and God-ordained, and that becomes the standard by which we measure—and judge—the thoughts and actions of others.” [v]

Jesus has come into the world to bring a new vision of God’s family tree. The old definition with genealogies tracing back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—no longer applies. It’s a new day! And at the heart of the Jesus’ vision is nothing less than God’s love because God desires nothing less than shalom—peace, wholeness, health—for all God’s creation. God is with us! God is for us! All of us!  Lose continues, “This is why Jesus sets himself against all the powers that would rob humanity and creation of the abundant life God intends—whether those powers be unclean spirits; disease that ravages the mind, body or spirit; illness that isolates and separates those who suffer from community; or whatever. Jesus introduces a new vision of God and a new way to relate to God…and it’s not what any of those, make that any of us, religious folk expect.”[vi]

There’s an old saying that blood is thicker than water. Jesus breaks through this way of thinking. Jesus, the Stronger Man, through his life, death, and resurrection, flings open the doors and windows so that we all can come in. Now, everyone who does the will of his Abba Father receives an invitation. Imagine! When we do the will of God we get the chance to be the brother, the sister, even the mother of Jesus!

 

Oh, things aren’t perfect inside the house—on this side of eternity, we all bear the marks of our brokenness. Truth be told, at times we may look more like a bunch of misfits than anything else. Yet, the house of Jesus is our home and here, day-by-day, we are growing more into the likeness of Jesus, our holy kin. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are becoming a holy family.

 

On our best days, we yearn to do the will of our Abba Father and we gratefully recognize the faith and baptismal waters that unite us. On our best days, some fruit of the Spirit is evident in the way we live—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. On our best days, we bring honor to God, who is with us; God, who is for us; God, who through his Son, opens the doors of the family home and says, “Come on in!”

[i] http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1645

[ii]Interpretation: Mark, Lamar Williamson, Jr

[iii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 604-605

[iv] Feasting on the Word, 116-121

[v] David Lose @ workingpreacher.com

[vi] Ibid.

*Cover Art “House Dreaming” by Jan Richardson Images; Subscription.

 

Making a Way

Making a Way

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 3, 2018

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6

 

The Book of Samuel opens with Hannah praying with all her heart and soul for a son. Eli, the priest, believes her to be intoxicated. But after she explains that she has been pouring out her heart and soul before the Lord, Eli instructs her to go in peace. Then, he pronounces a blessing. In due time, Hannah delivers a son, Samuel, whom she gives into the service of the Lord, just as she had promised. Hannah leaves her little boy in the care of Eli, the priest, and day by day, the little boy learns to minister unto the Lord.

 

It just so happens that Eli has sons of his own, but Scripture tells us that they are scoundrels. They have no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priesthood. In fact, when people come to offer their sacrifices, Eli’s sons take meat from the pot for themselves—whatever their evil heart’s desire. Eli, who is very old, hears about all that his sons are doing—how they treat the offerings of the Lord with contempt—how they lay with the women who serve at the entrance of the meeting house. What does Eli do? He scolds his sons, but he does nothing more to reign in their behavior. Yahweh responds quite differently, though. Yahweh sends a messenger to Eli to prophecy the outcome of Eli honoring himself and his sons more than he honors the Lord. All the members of Eli’s household will die by the sword.

 

While Eli and his household move further away from the will of the Lord, Samuel grows in stature and favor until one night, God comes calling. Samuel thinks it’s just Eli wanting him to perform some temple duty. “Samuel, Samuel,” God calls. Samuel runs to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” After this occurs three times, Eli, realizes it is God who is calling the boy, so he tells Samuel to go and lie down and if he hears the voice again to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

 

How ironic! For the mission at hand, God does not call upon an adult candidate—not Eli—nor his sons. No. God has more faith in a child than he does in them. It seems that God is not looking for experience or privilege. God is looking for an open heart—a vessel through which the word of God may be delivered. God will make a way where there seems to be no way. Such is the way of God.

 

Fast forward through time. God sends priests and prophets and kings to turn God’s chosen people back to the way of God—the way of steadfast love—the way of being a blessed people who will bless the nations. That does not happen. Instead, the people continue to make their own path. They choose other gods. They mistreat one another and fail to follow God’s laws of love. Until, once again, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread.

 

But then, one night, the cry of a newborn baby is heard, and angels sing, and shepherds leave their flock to see for themselves—how God is, once again, making a way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, enters human history to right the wrongs than have been done, to give hope to the hopeless, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. Sadly, his way is not met with open arms. Instead, there is skepticism, and doubt, and anger. Ultimately, the more Jesus acts like the God who sent him, the more the religious rulers want to kill him—which is exactly what happens in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.

 

Here, we find a two-part confrontation, a two-part wrestling match between Jesus and the Pharisees. First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on a Sabbath. (Minding their own business, we might say.) When they get hungry, they pluck some grain to munch on. The Pharisees pounce—inquiring of Jesus why they are breaking the Sabbath law. But Jesus tells them that humankind was not made for the Sabbath; Sabbath was made for humankind. In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a gift, a blessing, a day of rest—for one’s household, for one’s servants, even for one’s animals. Constant work enslaves us to our own efforts. It was true then. It is still true today.

 

The Pharisees are enslaved to something other than the Sabbath, though. They are enslaved by their own understanding of a set of rules and regulations—rules and regulations that mean more to them than the Sabbath—rules and regulations that mean even more to them than compassion and mercy and love. So, on another Sabbath, when Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand, sadly, the Pharisees’ actions are hardly a surprise. Jesus knows full well he is being watched. Regardless, he calls the man forth and asks the Pharisees if it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill. They refuse to answer. Heartbroken and angry, Jesus restores the man’s hand. And what do the religious leaders do? Well, they go out and immediately conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. I suppose, to them, healing is not an acceptable activity for keeping the Sabbath holy—but plotting a murder is just fine.

 

Undeniably, we have little trouble making the Pharisees out to be evil. I mean, it’s so easy to consider their unreasonable behavior and side with the “good guy,” who usually turns out to be Jesus. But by hastily doing so, we may miss a golden opportunity for spiritual growth. For the truth is, these Pharisees are likely good people (though somewhat misguided) who are trying to preserve their laws, rituals, and traditions—things that mediate their faith for them. And isn’t it true that we are prone to behave in similar fashion when our favorite worship practices are threatened, or when someone interprets a Scripture passage much differently than we do, or when some preacher comes in who has a proclivity for trying something new—AGAIN?

 

The Pharisees are not wrong to uphold the Sabbath. They are wrong to allow their definition of keeping the Sabbath rightly to override the greater law of love. Nothing is more sacred than God’s love. The true spirit of the Sabbath is the spirit of love. Love that looks upon a man with a withered hand and gives thanks when he is healed—no matter what day of the week it is. Love that makes a way where there seems to be no way.

 

Which brings us back to the place where we began in Mark’s gospel—with Jesus and his disciples making their way through the grain fields; plucking off heads of grain to feed their growling stomachs. In other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that it is acceptable for a traveler to pick and eat if they find themselves hungry. So, plucking and eating on the Sabbath may not really be the issue. The real issue may be that they are “making a way” for it is against sabbath rules to make a road. Yet, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the fields, forging a path, trampling wheat, making a way. And Jesus and his followers, well, they are just getting started. They will make their way to healing more people, setting more crooked paths straight. They will create a path where there is food aplenty. They will make their way to abundant life—for themselves and for all people. They will bring forth a time when healing and visions and a word from God are common—rather than rare. Through Jesus, Yahweh forges a path—a path of love. Jesus’ way is always the way of love and Jesus comes to show the religious rulers and all people how to live in love—how to choose love.

 

On the Sabbath and on every other day of the week, we are given choices to make. Will we choose love, or will we choose our own selfish desires? Will we stick to our own understanding, or will we be open to God giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear? Every day, we choose. What is the path we are making for our life? Are we dining from the Table of the Lord? Are we growing in kindness and steadfast love?  Or are we sticking to a set of rules and regulations that always make us out to be the good guy whenever someone disagrees with us? Are we intentional about keeping the Sabbath as a holy day—to worship and rest and spend time with family and friends? Or is it just another day of doing and grabbing and getting? On the Sabbath and on the other six days of the week, we have choices to make.

 

God called Samuel—a boy. God wasn’t looking for the experienced, the privileged, the all-knowing. God was searching for an open heart—a vessel through which God’s love might be delivered. Samuel was such a vessel. Christ was such a vessel. And you—you who have been baptized into the family of faith—you who are indwelled by God’s own Spirit—you are such a vessel. Go forth and make a way in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Cover Art “Heaven’s Highway” by Stushie; Used by subscription.

 

A Whole God for the Whole World

A Whole God for the Whole World

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 27, 2018

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17

 

 

Some years ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to bring us the Indiana Jones trilogy, beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Do you remember the hero in the movies—Indiana Jones?  Played by Harrison Ford, he was a courageous, somewhat single-minded archaeologist. Whether Indy was on a quest to obtain the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, the adventure was sure to have many obstacles—crypts full of mice, underground caves and castles brimming with snakes not to mention narrow escapes from enemies aplenty! Danger was everywhere, but in the end, the treasure was found—usually bathed in a mystical light.

 

Today is Trinity Sunday, or “God Sunday,” and preparing to preach about the Trinity is much like going on an archaeological dig with Indy. There are obstacles and danger aplenty. Yet, if we are brave, we may bypass what hinders us and reach the sacred treasure of a deeper understanding of the Trinity—a deeper understanding of God.

 

What is it that makes preaching about the Trinity so difficult?  First, for a church that generally follows the lectionary, this is the only day of the year that calls us to examine a teaching of the church rather than a teaching of Jesus. No doubt, our reading from Romans reflects the Three-in-One doctrine, but it is biblical support for a word (Trinity) that cannot be found in Scripture.

 

Second, how can we mere mortals even attempt to explain the mystery of God?  Gregory Nazianzen says to speak of the Godhead is like crossing the ocean on a raft.  Augustine, one of the greatest minds of the western world, wrote about the Trinity. It took a decade and 15 books.

 

Third, how important is it for us to explain the mystery of God, anyway—God revealed in three distinct ways: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Mysteries explained cease to be mysteries, right? The truth is God’s ways boggle our minds. And, we don’t need to try to explain all the mysteries of God—as if we could!  But we do need to explain, in faithful and articulate language, what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. For many Christians, the language of the Trinity has been a useful tool for doing just that.  It’s how the doctrine of the Trinity began in the first place.

 

Although the term “Trinity” wasn’t coined until the 3rd century, there were hints before then. Take our scripture passage from Romans, for example, in which Paul notes our connection to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here, and in other places in Scripture, building blocks were formed from which the historic doctrine of the Trinity was crafted. We experienced God’s extravagant Triune Love, and as a result, we naturally started speaking of God as Trinity. It was the same God that we had experienced as the Creator of the world, the Father of Israel.  Now we experienced God in the flesh as Son, and as the power flowing from God—the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity began as a way to give words to our faith. The early Christians, living in a hostile world, needed to find some definitive language to express what they believed Christ had revealed to them. For the sake of unity, they needed a common language, a common confession.

 

This is still helpful for us today.  As Christians, we claim that there is one God—in three Persons—all of the same substance, the God-substance. We worship a God who is still creating among us, who has redeemed us through Jesus Christ, and who works among us through the Holy Spirit. God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.

 

William Willimon recommends that we think of the Bible as a long story of God’s attempted conversation with humanity. We keep rejecting God’s words. We keep turning away. We worship false gods. We run, and we hide.  But this doesn’t stop God. God keeps coming back to us. God comes to us in the lives of the patriarchs, the prophets, in the gift of God’s law. Then, stopping at nothing, God comes to us as the Son, comes to us as Jesus. Then, even when we kill his Son, hang him on a cruel cross, thinking that probably ends relations between us and God, in three days, God comes back to us as the risen Christ. God keeps coming back, again, and again.

 

But here is where it can get a little messy. Our theology—what we perceive to be true about God—can become hazy—so much so, communicating it to others can cause more harm than good. Allow me to offer an illustration. Once upon a time there was a boy who attended a revival. He had been going to church all his life, but this night he heard something new. The preacher placed a dirty glass on the pulpit and said, “This is you, all dirty and sinful inside and out.” Then he raised a hammer and said, “And this is God in his righteousness and God’s justice can only be satisfied by punishing and destroying sin in the world.” Then the preacher slowly drew back the hammer to make the deadly blow, but a miracle happened. At the last moment, he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck the pan with a crash. The preacher held up the glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other and said, “Jesus died for your sins. He took the punishment that should have been yours and by doing so, he satisfied God’s righteousness.”

 

The boy couldn’t sleep that night. (Imagine that!) After thinking about what he had seen and heard he decided he could not love a God like that. He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him, but that hammer-swinging God—no way!  Other thoughts troubled the boy. Was it right for Jesus to be punished for what other people had done?  And what good had it all done in the end since the glass was still just a dirty glass?

 

Now we sense that there’s something wrong with this theology—but what is it?  Is this a picture of the whole God who loves the whole world?  The illustration comes from Shirley Guthrie’s book, Christian Doctrine. In it, Guthrie continues by providing a clearer picture of God the Father and God the Son, in regard to the doctrine of atonement. He begins by acknowledging how painful it is to imagine God as a wrathful God demanding a blood sacrifice for our sins. The picture he paints is of God as the Judge who looks over the bench and pronounces the death sentence, but the death of Christ for us means that this same Judge comes around to the other side of the bench to accept the sentence on behalf of those who deserve it—on behalf of us. The Judge rules that the debt must be paid—then the Judge pays the debt. To complete the picture of the Trinity on this God Sunday, this same Judge leaves the courtroom with us to lead us to abundant life—now and forevermore.

 

This is the extravagance of God—this overflowing quality of God. Everything in creation screams the extravagance of God. Not one kind of flower—thousands of flowers.  Not one star—millions of stars. Though God is often beyond our understanding, historically, it has been through the Trinity that the church has spoken of this extravagant God who loves us beyond our imaginings.

 

Over the years, the Trinity has been expressed in many ways:  as water that may be present as a liquid, a solid, or a gas; as an apple that consists of the peel, the flesh and the core—yet all is of the same apple.  Also, the Trinity may be expressed as a circle where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in community with one another—interacting with one another—the Father giving to the Son, the Son offering praise to the Father and the Holy Spirit constantly drawing everything back to the Father and the Son. Within this community, we are invited to experience the flow of God’s endless love.

 

No doubt, the doctrine of the trinity is complex—feels a bit like going on an archaeological dig with Indiana Jones with obstacles and danger aplenty. But it’s worth the effort. Eugene Peterson proposes that using “Trinity” language can help us keep our conversations of Christian life personal and focused. For as the Christian community, we are people called into a personal experience in personal terms of love and forgiveness and hope. Everything about us—our worshiping and learning, talking and listening, teaching and preaching, obeying and deciding, working and playing, eating and sleeping—everything takes place in the presence and among the operations of our Triune God.[i]

 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” What an incredible picture of our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

 

God the Father made you.

God the Son redeemed you.

God the Spirit empowers you.

This is the good news that is ours to share.

A whole God—for the whole world!

 

[i] Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

*Cover Art “Trinity” Andrei Rublev; Public Domain

The Breeze Remains

The Breeze Remains

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 20, 2018

Day of Pentecost

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21

 

For weeks I’ve been searching for a guest speaker to deliver our Pentecost message. Neither Peter, Paul, nor Mary was available. However, Joanna, a witness to the resurrection mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, has accepted the invitation to come and share her story.

<Put on head covering>

 

Shalom and thank you for allowing me to be with you this morning—crossing time, space, culture, and all that implies. Oh, do I have a story to tell you—a story of wind and spirit and hope! Where shall I begin? How about long, long, ago, sitting at the feet of my father. As a little Jewish girl, I adored my father. So did everyone else because my father was a great storyteller. He had a love for our Hebrew Scripture and he had a dramatic flair that could make the old stories come to life. I think, tucked away in his heart, he had every tale of our people. Although I loved all the stories, nothing held my attention like Yahweh directing Ezekiel to prophecy to the dry bones.

 

A little background is in order. This story is set at a time when disaster had fallen on Israel. Because of the unfaithfulness of my people, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The traumatized survivors, who witnessed the massacre of loved ones, were taken into captivity. Ezekiel was among them. In Babylon, Ezekiel the priest became Ezekiel the prophet to the exiles. The people were dejected. They had lost all hope. The Temple, the home of the Presence of God had been destroyed. What of the spiritual life now?

 

In retrospect, the truth is my ancestors had developed a pattern in their behavior toward God. In times of desperation, they cried out to God and God heard them and came to their assistance. For a while, my people worshiped God and obeyed God, but after a while, they forgot God’s goodness and God’s laws and returned to their own stubborn ways. Essentially, they thought they could handle God, manage God, call upon God like a genie in a bottle and all their wishes would come true. But Yahweh would have none of it. The destruction of the nation, the city, the Temple—well, it was inevitable.

 

It is into this dark, hopeless place that God sent Ezekiel, setting him down into a valley of dry bones. My father would tell this story with such energy and enthusiasm. I can hear his voice even now:

 

Our people had given up saying, “All is lost. We are dead.” But Yahweh was not finished with Israel. God said, “No! There is still hope.” Then Yahweh provided a demonstration. He put Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones and God said to Ezekiel, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God…I will cause flesh to come upon you…cover you with skin…put breath in you and you shall live.’ Ezekiel prophesied and suddenly the bones began to rattle and the bones began to shake—clickety-clack—as if finding a long, lost friend, they came together, bone to bone. Then tendons appeared, and muscle and then skin that wrapped it all up, just so. Again, God spoke, telling Ezekiel to prophecy to the breath and say, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these…that they might live.” Ezekiel did as he was told and the breath, the wind, the spirit, the ruah came upon them and they lived and they stood at attention.

 

What a wondrous scene—a prophecy and a promise of things to come for the people of Israel—for the people of God. To be sure, all hope was not lost. I remember my father saying that in another place Ezekiel spoke these prophetic words of God: “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you…and you shall be my people and I shall be your God.”[i]

 

I grew up hearing stories like these but how could I know that they would one day become my story and that I would witness their fulfillment when God’s holiness came to dwell among mere mortals? From the first time I saw Jesus, hope began to grow in my heart. I watched Jesus change lives, heal the sick, feed the hungry, work miracle after miracle. He walked the streets of Galilee and Nazareth and Jerusalem. Everywhere he went people flocked to him. People began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the dry bones of God’s people might rise again. However, many could not accept this humble king of kings. They wanted another kind of ruler—one who would give power to the powerless with a shield and a sword. But Jesus refused to bow to their limited understanding. Jesus had another plan—a plan for all people—a plan provided by his Abba Father. Looking back, it was inevitable that Jesus, the humble Son of God, would be silenced. The rulers of the world were not ready for his message. Would they ever be?

 

I was there. I saw my Savior hanging on a cross and, like everyone around me, I thought it was the end. But God had other plans. God—who will not be managed—managed to breathe life into his Son once more. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? A new day dawned when on that morning, I, along with Mary Magdalene and other women arrived at the tomb to find it empty. Empty! And then Jesus appeared—alive and well. He walked among his followers and spent time with us. But soon, too soon, he told us he must return to his Abba Father’s side.

 

Beforehand, he gave us instructions to wait to be clothed with power from on high. Even though we didn’t really know what he meant—we waited. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, there was some business to take care of. Matthias was chosen to replace Judas, and the disciples—representing the tribes of Israel—once more numbered 12.

 

Before we knew it, the Jewish festival of Pentecost was upon us. In our tradition, on Pentecost we remembered the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai so there were people from every land wandering throughout the city. Those of us who were followers of Jesus were all together in one place. Then, suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And the wind, the spirit, the ruah ripped through the house. Divided tongues like flames of fire rested upon each one of us. We were glowing with the Spirit of God and we began to speak in languages we did not know! It was like a roll call of nations that symbolized how God’s Spirit would be for the whole world.[ii]

 

Devout Jews heard the commotion and came to investigate. In their own language, they heard the gospel message of God’s wonder-working power. They were amazed. They were perplexed. Some even claimed: “They’re drunk, that’s what this is!” But it wasn’t true. Oh, we were drunk, all right, but not on wine from the earth’s bounty. We were drunk from the heavenly wind that swept through us, giving life to dry, weary bones.

 

Peter jumped up, raised his voice, and proclaimed to the people gathered around that this was nothing less than the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken long ago from the lips of the prophet, Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

The Holy Spirit rushed in and changed everything. The Temple of the Lord now came to dwell in the heart of every believer—man, woman, child. No more class, race, or gender distinctions! Radical equality in the making! The church was born! What a day of celebration!

 

There are those who criticize the church today, saying that if the church was obedient to the will of God, every day would be like that day. But it isn’t so. The Spirit moved and changed the world with thousands added to our number. It was the beginning of God’s presence in the world in a new way. But God is still present, and God’s good work will continue through the church until Christ returns in all his glory. These days, the wind may not be so thunderous, so earth shaking, but the breeze of the Spirit remains.

 

Churches, small and large alike, can still impact their communities and their world for Christ. Some people have given up hope saying that churches are no more than dry bones. It isn’t so! Here in this church and in churches throughout the world, faithful people continue to work on behalf of God’s kingdom. It’s what you do with every prayer, with every act of kindness, with every act of love. Every time you share with someone what a difference God has made in your life, you proclaim the salvation story again.

 

The church must continue thinking wondrous thoughts and dreaming marvelous dreams. God is a nudging, urging, moving, creating God. To what new work might God be calling your church? To what new work might God be calling you? Watch for it. Wait for it. And when you feel the Spirit move—have courage and ride the wind wherever it leads. You never know! Those old bones may begin to rattle and those old bones may begin to shake and the four winds may blow and the breath, the spirit, the ruah may give you new words to say and new works to do that prove to this old world—the Temple of the Lord has come to dwell in the heart of every believer! Hallelujah! Amen!

[i] Ezekiel 36:26, 28, NRSV.

[ii] Feasting on the Word, 4.

*Cover Art © Stushie Art; used with subscription

 

God the Gardener

God the Gardener

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8

 

Guinn and Janice Hollingshead, Kinney’s parents, were incredible gardeners. Honestly, I think they could have brought dead twigs back to life. When they retired, gardening became the task that drove them from sunrise to sunset. Rose gardens, flower gardens, an herb garden, a vegetable garden—everything was neat and tidy—hardly a weed in sight. They even had holding beds of plants that they would relocate at the perfect time to assure there was always something blooming on the front lawn for visitors to enjoy.

 

Gardening was Guinn and Janice’s passion. It is a passion of God’s as well. God the Gardener, God the Vinedresser—these are images of God that are woven throughout Hebrew Scripture. And Israel is often likened to God’s chosen vine. In a covenant made with Abraham, promises are made. God keeps them. Israel does not. God’s chosen vine repeatedly disobeys and disappoints—refusing to allow the Master Gardener to lead, guide, and direct. Judges warn of God’s pruning hand. Prophets offer reminders of what God requires: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[i] But the people refuse to listen. All seems lost until, in God’s good time, a new vine is planted—Jesus. Jesus will not disappoint but will humbly bow to the will of his Abba Father’s hand. He will remain faithful to the Master Gardener to the end, which, of course, will be only the beginning.

 

Our Gospel reading for today gives us the last I AM statement Jesus makes to his disciples: “I AM the true vine, and my father is the vine grower…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” As one commentator puts it, Jesus makes clear he is not God, but he is intimately connected to God. Without God, even Jesus recognizes, he has “no life, no ministry, and no mission.”[ii] God is the vine grower…Jesus is the vine…we are the branches. Herein, we are offered an invitation to examine our lives and consider whether we are abiding in Christ—for abiding is our one duty. If we obey, then the fruit will grow of its own accord.

 

But what does it mean to abide? It means to remain, to stay, to live, to dwell. In remaining close to Jesus, the vine, a kind of abiding in God occurs that results in shalom—peace, wholeness, health. As the church, by abiding in Jesus, we become woven into the texture of one another’s lives. Obviously, we come to the church as individuals. I haven’t had your life experiences. You haven’t had mine. Yet here we are, branches, learning day by day to live and grow together. Too often though, people approach the church with one question in mind, “What can this church do for me?” without ever asking the follow-up question, “And how might I contribute to this community?”

 

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is all about community—a community characterized by living in love and bearing the fruit of love—a community characterized by interconnection and interdependence. In the words of an African proverb, “Because we are, I am.” Only by abiding in Jesus and growing together can we become a community that produces a bountiful harvest—a bountiful harvest for God, the Vine-grower. For in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God. It’s about bringing glory to the Gardener as we abide in Jesus and grow more and more into his likeness.

While it is our work to abide, it is the vine grower’s job to prune; to cleanse; to cast off the dead wood. But the idea of being pruned, cut back, or made to grow in a direction not of our own choosing seems harsh. We don’t want to be cut back. We don’t want to be pruned.

 

Years ago, Kinney’s parents gave us two Rose of Sharon shrubs. Although they started out small, in time they began to bloom, profusely. The blossoms would appear in June and remain throughout most of the summer. One lovely fall day Kinney decided to prune the Rose of Sharon shrubs. I didn’t think much about it—but I should have. You know where this is going, don’t you? A little while later, I walked out the back door to find my two lovely Rose of Sharon shrubs cut nearly to the ground—the forsythia, too. Needless to say, Kinney does not “prune” much anymore. In fact, one year when we were making plans to vacation in Tennessee, our oldest son, Samuel, texted: “Mom, don’t worry. I am pruning the shrubbery before you arrive!”

 

But even when pruning is done correctly, the process often leaves vines, shrubs, or trees looking a bit forlorn. Yet those who know a lot about vineyards say that the sweetest fruit is found near the root of the plant, where the nutrients are most concentrated. Pruning focuses the growth of the vine to where it needs to be, close to its life-source. And while pruning is necessary for plant health, it’s necessary for our spiritual health, too. Jesus says to those who follow him, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” Then he continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” The pruning tool of the Father-vine grower is the word. When this word shapes us, the result is a life that produces good fruit in abundance.[iii]

 

But notice, by the grace of God, we don’t bear fruit on our own. Kinney’s mom and dad’s vegetables didn’t plant themselves or make themselves grow. Neither can we make ourselves bear fruit. We are unable to muster up the energy and power alone. Instead, we are to remain close to Jesus and allow our Source of strength to bring forth fruit through us. This is how we, the branches, will bear fruit that will bless others, fruit that will show the world what a community built on love really looks like!

 

John’s Gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” These words describe Jesus, who invites us to abide in him. Oh, the mystery of God’s love. Jesus calls us close. He calls us to be honest with him, with ourselves, and with one another. In the presence of Christ, we can learn to dwell—sharing our hopes and fears, our dreams and disappointments, our successes and failures. Jesus, the Son of God, reveals to us the deep love the Father has for this world. And because of his love and acceptance of us, we can love and accept one another, knowing that we are all imperfect and yet, beloved.

 

Jesus, the True Vine, calls us to abundant life that is made possible because of his obedient sacrifice. Remember his words on that last night in the Upper Room, “This is my blood, poured out for you.” At the Last Supper, the fruit of the vine became the drink poured out, representing the amazing bearing of fruit Jesus was about to accomplish. Still we gather around the table as branches to be nourished by this one True Vine. Indeed, as the church, we are a Eucharistic Community. Like Jesus, we are poured out for others. Like Jesus, we are nourished by God and equipped by the Spirit to produce a bountiful harvest.

 

I invite you to hear the words of Jesus once more, from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

 

I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken. Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

 

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

[i] Micah 6:8.

[ii] Barbara J. Essex, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2.

[iii] Joyce Ann Zimmerman, ed. at http://liturgy.slu.edu/5EasterB050612/theword_working.html

*Cover Art “True Vine”  © Stushie; used with subscription

 

The Shepherd and the Wolf

The Shepherd and the Wolf

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 1, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18

 

“I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says, echoing Yahweh’s response to Moses at the burning bush. God’s name will be the calling card Moses uses to enter enemy territory and rescue God’s people from oppression. Tell Pharaoh, “I AM” sent you. In the Gospel of John, Jesus offers seven sets of names to help would-be followers to understand just whom they’re following. I AM the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth and the life, the vine, and, I AM the good shepherd. Each of these metaphors helps us understand the nature of God’s grace in a deeper way. “The triune grace,” writes Marva Dawn, “that rescues, restores, establishes, nourishes, indwells, enlightens, guides, protects, saves and raises us.”[i]

 

I AM the Good Shepherd! For those of us who have never tended sheep (and I do not think I am going out on a limb here to say that’s most of us)—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what it means to be a shepherd. Most people, on this side of the globe, have a romantic notion of the whole thing. We may imagine young David, sitting with his sheep, pulling out his mini-harp and singing lullabies to his fluffy flock. Perhaps when we think of a shepherd, what comes to mind is Jesus with a helpless lamb draped around his shoulders, caring so tenderly for it—and thereby, for us. However, the truth is being a shepherd in the 1st Century was not a warm and fuzzy affair. It was dangerous, risky, hard work. Also, keep in mind, by referring to himself as a shepherd, Jesus aligned himself with the least socialized, least educated, and least polished of society. Most assuredly, the Pharisees and scribes are not lining up at the Temple University registrar office dying to take a class in “The Wonders of Wool.” One commentator claims that a modern-day equivalent of Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd,” might be, “I am the good migrant worker.”[ii] Yet, this is the image Jesus offers, for the Son of God has always been and will always be concerned about the most vulnerable in society.

 

If Jesus is the good shepherd, what does that make us? If we are living as we should, that makes us the dutiful sheep. Although sheep are not known for their intelligence, we need not take offense at being referred to as sheep. Truly, there are aspects of their nature that we would be wise to imitate. For example, when Barbara Brown Taylor compares the behavior of cattle to sheep, she notes that cows are herded from behind with shouts and prods from the cowboys. On the other hand, sheep prefer to be led. In fact, if you stand behind sheep making noises, they’ll just run around behind you. Taylor writes, “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”[iii] And what are the tools of the shepherd? The shepherd uses a rod to ward off evil and a staff to snatch the sheep from danger. This is the care that the sheep depend upon so, have no doubt, they know the voice of their trusted shepherd.

 

Another character in this story is the hired hand; the hireling. This is someone, who is not emotionally connected to the sheep, so when danger comes, he darts off in a flash.  In the historical context, it is likely that he represents the religious leaders of the day who are not caring for God’s people as they should.

 

And then, there is the wolf —the big, bad wolf. It’s easy to overlook him in the story, but he bears a second glance. Listen once again to Jesus’ words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd, and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” The wolf snatches. The wolf scatters. Who is the wolf? The wolf represents anything that intentionally seeks to harm the sheep—think Satan—think the Devil—think Evil—its names are legion.

 

If we spend much time at all considering Satan—the Devil—Evil—we may end up at the final battle fought between good and evil as it is played out in Revelation. Let me just say, with a background in a conservative, evangelical tradition, I have heard some dreadful sermons preached from Revelation. But a dynamic Presbyterian preacher renewed my faith that good preaching from Revelation is possible. The sermon, preached by Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, focused on Revelation 12. In the text, the woman gives birth and the dragon comes after her, with tail sweeping; seeking to devour the baby. But the child is snatched away and taken to God, and the woman is protected. But the angry dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children, the rest of the children of God. With our modern-day sensibilities (being so smart and all) we have trouble taking this dragon stuff seriously. After all, Dr. Blount admitted, “There’s no such thing as a dragon…not in Rwanda, not in Baghdad…not in Somalia, not in North Korea, not in Iran…[not in Syria], NOT in the United States, not in the real world…There is no such thing as a dragon.”[iv]

 

And if there is no dragon threatening the world, surely there is nothing to worry about in the church. But look at the church! Dr. Blount shared that with all the gasping and heaving going on in the church, it reminded him of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point in the movie, the sunlight betrays the ghostly figure of the villain Captain Hector Barbossa and he says to the lovely Miss Elizabeth Swan, whom he has kidnapped: “You best be believin’ in ghost stories, Missy. Cause you’re in one.”[v]

 

Essentially, John is saying to those of us who read his Revelation: “You best be believing in dragon stories, Christian. Cause you’re in one.” It reminds me of the dangerous character alluded to in our text from the Gospel of John. Now, you might say that wolves are real, and dragons aren’t. Point taken! But they both represent evil; they both represent the powers that are eager to harm anyone who follows the Good Shepherd. So as your pastor, let me offer a word of warning, “You best be believing there are wolves, Christian, cause they are lurking about.”

 

With an increase in secularism, with many churches too small to even afford pastors, with a world that seems to be spinning out of control—yes, you best be believing there are wolves, Christian. Now, lest you think your pastor has had some mysterious religious experience that has left her a card-carrying Holy-Roller, take heart. It isn’t so! But I concur with C.S. Lewis who wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”[vi]

 

We are foolish if we think there is nothing rushing about to and fro threatening the church of Jesus Christ. But we are even more foolish if we do not recognize who has ultimate power. Five times in our reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to laying down his life. Furthermore, he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

 

While there are many things in the world and in our culture that threaten to undo us, there is danger inside the church, too. There is danger when we fight with one another and lose our witness to the world. There is danger when we rest on our laurels because we are convinced change is unnecessary—we have always done it this way—and this way is fine, thank you very much! There is danger when we pretend everything is okay and refuse to speak the truth in love—instead of dealing with issues that are sure to arise wherever fallen, forgiven people (aka Christians) gather.

 

If the church—if we—are under spiritual attack, what should we do? Well, we could start by acting like sheep, staying as close to the shepherd as we can get. We need to hear his voice, and I know of no better way to do that than to be people of fervent prayer—calling out to the shepherd and listening for the response. Now here’s where the preacher goes from preaching to meddling. Let’s stop for a moment and examine our prayer life. Are we praying for one another? When I was installed here as your pastor, you promised you would pray for me and I promised I would pray for you. How are we doing in this regard? Consistently, are we praying for the life and health of First Presbyterian Church? Are we praying that when challenges come our way, we will speak the truth in love? Are we praying to be a witness to God’s mercy and grace in this community and beyond?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will speak. He will guide. He will protect. He has the power. At the cross, Jesus did not have his life stolen from him. He offered it freely. And for what? For a bunch of clueless, helpless sheep in need of a Good Shepherd! O, that we may hear his voice and follow! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] Marva J. Dawn, Gospel of John Commentary in the Life-With-God Bible, NRSV, 154.

[ii] Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, 450.

[iii]Blakely, Feasting on the Word, quoting Barbara Brown Taylor, 450.

[iv] Dr. Brian Blount, “Call of Duty” preached at Seminary Sunday, Richmond VA, 4/22/12

[v] Ibid.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

*Cover Art Stained Glass Window at First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta, GA;

“Easter Affirmation” written by John Birch, and posted at www.faithandworship.com/