Count the Cost

Count the Cost

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 16, 2018

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 8:27-38

 

Our reading from Mark places us in the center of the gospel. A journey of some 15 miles puts Jesus and his disciples near Caesarea Philippi, a city rebuilt to honor Caesar, a very Roman place. From this point onward, Jesus will focus his attention on his disciples. Actually, from here on, they will be enrolled in something like Intensive Discipleship Training. Important issues must be considered: What is Jesus’ true identity? What is his true mission? What will be the implications for his disciples’ own identity and mission?[i]

 

On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. One commentator puts it well when she writes, “The scene looks to us like a stopover on a political campaign, where the candidate and his entourage are checking on the results of their focus groups along the way. What are folks saying? Are they getting the message?”[ii] Evidently, the disciples have heard people’s opinions. They respond: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”

 

However, when Jesus shares his definition of “Messiah” foretelling of his own death, it’s too much for Peter. You see, Peter may have the right title, but he doesn’t understand what it means. He doesn’t want to hear about a suffering Messiah. Like many others, in all probability, Peter is more interested in a Messiah who will establish God’s rule; provide honor and glory to his followers—a just reward—NOW![iii]  So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t turn out well for Peter who gets called Satan before all is said and done.

 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus excels in many things, one of which is to draw a crowd. Wherever he goes; whatever he does, there’s a crowd near by. Today’s text is no exception. Why are they there? Might they expect a political march just around the corner?  Maybe. Do they want healing? Could be. Do they suspect they are in a funeral procession? Not likely!

 

Now imagine, Jesus is walking along, followed closely by his disciples and he sees all those people following him. He knows their hearts. He knows many have come for the wrong reasons. It’s time for a teaching moment, so he says to the disciples and the crowd: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

 

If Jesus knows how to draw a crowd, he also knows how to get rid of one. Who wants to stick around for this? Take up a cross? Lose their life? But that’s exactly what Jesus will do—all for the sake of the gospel. Jesus will deny himself. Jesus will choose to follow the will of God—all the way to the cross. Jesus will practice what he preaches.

 

Taking up one’s cross is often misunderstood; trivialized by popular use.  Today, we are likely to point to our arthritis, or an ill-tempered spouse—and say, “I guess that’s my cross to bear.”  But Jesus isn’t talking about something that miserably happens to a person. He’s talking about a lifestyle. Through the grace of God, the cross we bear is the way we choose to look at and live out every day of our lives, while seeking to become more and more like Jesus.[iv]

 

Jesus offers a cautionary word to those gathered around him: “Before signing up, count the cost!” We, too, should take heed—we who are followers of the way.  Are we willing to give up that which is dearest to us, our plans, our hopes and dreams, our resources, and toss them aside if it means that not to do so will keep us from the path God has chosen for us?  Are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and live a cross-bearing life?

 

It’s certainly not a popular way of living. One writer notes, “In America we don’t know much about self-denial. We know about self-fulfillment. We know about selfishness. We know about consumerism. Two roads stand before us today. There is the way of the divine things, which is the way of Christ. And there is the way of human things. There is a way to save your life, but you will lose it there. And there is a way to lose your life for the sake of the Kingdom, and there you will find it.”[v]

 

“Losing your life” defines the whole of Jesus’ ministry and mission. And like Jesus, at one time or another, haven’t we experienced losing our life only to receive it back again? Allow me to provide an example: When our church provides food to someone though our Break Bread Together program, we are giving something away, right? We are “losing” time. We are “losing” resources. Yet, don’t we receive even more? We feel joy because we are participating in a story bigger than ourselves—the gospel story of caring for the needy for Christ’s sake. We know God’s blessings because we are doing the work of our Abba Father and it is good.

 

David Lose calls this way of receiving unexpected rewards through sacrifice “inverted logic.” It’s a logic that goes against the logic of the world. The wisdom the world offers will have us believing that there is security in possessions and power. The world’s logic operates on the notion of absolute scarcity. We are pitted against one another in a winner-takes-all competition for goods, meaning, and love. Yet, the way of Jesus is a different “way.” Jesus will have us give of ourselves; Jesus will have us put others first; Jesus will have us take up burdens on behalf of another. Lose concludes that it’s no wonder Jesus is rejected by the people. He’s not just an unusual king—he’s the anti-king—almost the opposite of the kings of the world. I suppose it should come as no shock that his kingdom is still having trouble attracting applicants.[vi]

 

So, what is the cost for us?  Some of us may face unpleasant comments about church being a waste of time or the rehashing of the latest scandal involving some preacher—with the conclusion that all Christians are hypocrites. Some of us may have to reconsider our priorities—how do we use the time, financial resources, and spiritual gifts that God has given each of us? For people on the way—every day—there are choices to be made.

 

 

In a poem, Robert Frost writes,

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…”

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[vii]

 

Will we choose the way less traveled; the way of Christ? Hardships? There will be some. But bounteous blessings will be ours, too—poured down like rain—in this life and in the next when we will see Jesus in all his glory, seated with his Abba Father and the holy angels.

 

But for now, here we are, fellow travelers on the way. We have the Holy Spirit as our Comforter and our Guide. We have the church as a community of faith to celebrate with us when joys abound; to help us see life and love and hope when our vision gets a little cloudy; to hold us up when we can’t stand on our own, to give of ourselves—our time, talents and treasures—all for the love of Christ. The church, the Bride of Christ, is just one of the many gifts Jesus offers to the world. How blessed a people we are—to know Jesus as our Brother, our Lord, our Messiah, our Savior!  Amen.

[i] The Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 230.

[ii] Sharon H. Ringe, Feasting on the Word, 71.

[iii] Harry B. Adams, Feasting on the Word, 70.

[iv] Van Harn, 403-406.

[v] Mickey Anders at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/09/pentecost-16b-september-16-2012.html

[vi] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=616

[vii] Robert Frost at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/09/pentecost-16b-september-16-2012.html

*Cover Art by Stushie; used by Subscription

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 9, 2018

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Mark 7:24-37

A few weeks ago, Kinney and I took a day trip to Jacksonville Beach. Moses, our new puppy, went with us. Upon reaching our destination, we gathered our stuff on the beach—chairs, towels, a picnic lunch, drinks, water for Moses, and, of course, Traveling Jesus. I had high hopes for Moses. I imagined he would enjoy playing in the sand. Although I did not expect him to dive into the ocean, I did expect him to at least tolerate it—to at least walk with us along the water’s edge. I was wrong. What ended up happening was a comedy of errors—Kinney and me eating our food hastily rather than leisurely. And me—pulling and tugging on Moses who was having none of it. None of any of it. “No!” to the water and “No!” to the water’s edge and “No!” to a walk in the sand. “No…no…no…” It was like dealing with a toddler. Nonetheless, the sun was shining, the waves were rolling in, and even Moses choosing to have a temper tantrum rather than play in the “Red Sea”—even that could not dampen the joy of being out in God’s wondrous creation—getting away—resting—being replenished.

 

Occasionally, all of us need some time away—time to rest and be replenished. For those in ministry or other care-giving professionals, it’s crucial.  Without it, things go awry: spiritual, mental, physical health begins to show wear and tear and then…a crisis is inevitable. Yes, sometimes a respite is what is most needed.

 

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark reveals a very human side of Jesus—he, too, needs rest. At least, that seems the most likely reason for Jesus to travel all the way to Tyre, where, hopefully no one knows him. In fact, the text makes it clear that Jesus enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know his whereabouts. Even so, a woman whose daughter is ill finds him. The woman, a Gentile of Syrophoenician birth, bows before Jesus to make her request. And how does Jesus respond? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you get that? Jesus makes a racial slur toward the woman, calling her no less than a dog! This isn’t like Jesus at all. When has he ever spoken to anyone like this? Is Jesus afflicted with compassion fatigue? Is that what’s going on here?

 

To say that this is a complicated story is an understatement, so it won’t surprise you that wells of ink have been spilled over it. Some have suggested that Jesus is teasing the woman, calling her a “puppy” instead of a dog. Others have suggested that this is a test, much like the story of Job and because the woman responds so cleverly, her request is honored.  After wrestling with this text, I am convinced that there is more to the story. I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus is calling the woman a puppy. Folks, dog means dog and that’s exactly what Jesus is saying. What’s more, there’s no indication that Jesus is testing the woman. This isn’t a test. This is life.

 

Jesus is fully divine—but also fully human! Keeping that in mind may be critical to our understanding. Having said that, could it be that at this point in his life, even Jesus doesn’t fully know everything there is to know about his earthly ministry? Could it be that he learns something about himself when he encounters this foreign woman who bears her heart and soul to him?

 

Jesus’ response about the children being fed first indicates his belief that the Jewish people, his family, will be fed first. He’s come for his own people’s salvation—first. That doesn’t mean that the gentiles won’t be included later. So, it may be that Jesus isn’t telling the woman, “No,” as much as he is saying, “Not yet.” But she’s a mother with a sick child! So, she receives his derogatory comment and digs in her heals. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In that moment, it seems that Jesus’ eyes are opened to this woman who has been silenced in her own culture. Who else will see her, if not him? Who else will hear her, if not him? Might his message of hope, even now be for all people? It will certainly be so for her child, because Jesus heals her from afar. Miraculously, the child has hope and a future, because of the tenacity of her mother and the mercy of the Lord.

 

As strange as it may seem, from here Jesus goes to another place where predominately Gentiles reside. Is Jesus taking the next step, expanding his ministry even now? (I wonder.) A deaf man with a speech impediment, presumably, also Gentile, is brought to him. Using a technique common in healing stories of the day, Jesus uses a sort of “spit-bath” to heal a man who is physically unable to hear and unable to speak clearly.

 

The Gospel of Mark is known for telling a story within a story, sandwiching one within the other. Could it be that this man’s impediment actually mirrors that of the woman? Are the two stories linked? Even if she speaks, as a woman in her culture, who cares? Who hears her? Who understands? Like the deaf man, she has no voice. But Jesus has a way of giving voice to the voiceless, doesn’t he?

 

The movie, “The Help,” which came out a few years ago, is a period piece set in the 1960’s. It tells the story of Aibileen, a black woman who works as a maid in Jackson, Mississippi. A widow, she is devastated by the death of her son. Although she takes pride in the 17 children she has helped to raise, there’s an emptiness inside her. This begins to change when Skeeter, a young white woman, returns home from college. Unlike her peers, Skeeter wants a career, so she gets a job as a newspaper columnist. Through a turn of events, Skeeter begins to really see the domestics in her town. She realizes they have no voice in the way they are treated—not really. So, she comes up with a plan to write a book filled with the stories of the experiences of the domestics in Jackson. For safety sake it is to be written anonymously. She convinces Aibileen to share her story; then her friend, Minny, joins in; then others step forward.

 

Of course, once it’s published, the book creates a scandal and in no time, the people in Jackson figure out the source of the stories as well as the writer. In the end, the dark truth is brought to light and the voiceless are given a voice—though not without great cost. But hasn’t it always been true that giving voice to the voiceless is risky business? Just ask the one who hung on the cross for love’s sake!

 

Recently, I’ve been reading the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, they speak against the ways of the people in their day. The way that the rich take advantage of the poor, the way that God’s law of love is put aside for personal gain. In God’s time, God will judge how the poor and weak and hurting are treated. That’s a part of our story that we might prefer to gloss over, but Jesus won’t let us. In his ministry, Jesus cares for the poor and the sick and the outcast. Even when it means that he will miss his holiday weekend, by the power of God, he is able to muster up enough strength to hear one more voiceless person’s need and heal her daughter; he is able to have compassion on one more voiceless man and restore him to health.

 

It’s interesting that when Jesus cures the man he says, “Be opened,” and immediately the man can hear and speak plainly. “Be opened.” Perhaps, it’s the word we all need to hear: Be opened, oh closed heart that is willing to love the person like me, but not the one who is different.  Be opened, oh closed mind that will not accept new teaching, so sure of my own wisdom. Be opened, oh closed lips that could share the love of Jesus but hesitates to do so.

 

Today, when we look around us, what do we see? Do we see someone marginalized by society, being treated badly? Maybe we’ve been less than gracious to someone who is “different” than us. Maybe we’re prejudiced against people of other races—unable to accept that there’s only one race—the human race. Maybe we hold grudges toward those we perceive as “milking the system” or we might have hard feelings toward “those people born of privilege who know nothing about the real world.” What might we have to confess to the Lord? Then, how might we go about setting it right?

 

Jesus is fully human; fully divine. Can we handle such a Savior? Can we handle Jesus changing his mind? Can we handle Jesus growing in ministry as he takes on each new task given to him by his Abba Father? Or, with clinched fists, must we hang on to a Jesus who knew everything from the moment he was born and struggled to hide his divinity from the other little children? But, didn’t Jesus wear diapers? Didn’t he need to be fed and cared for and disciplined? And didn’t he have a mother who would do just that?

 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there at the cross. She refused to leave her son. In that moment, if she had the option to approach a stranger who looked down on her, a healer who might call her a dog—if that had been a choice for Mary in order to save her son’s life—she would have been there in a heartbeat. Of this I’m sure. I know because I’m a mother, too. Call me any name in the book—just heal my child. It’s the love mothers and fathers have for their children. And as fierce as that love is—God’s love for each one of us is fiercer still. God loves us more than we can fathom. God will move heaven and earth to get to us. God will send his Son to rescue us. Fierce, holy love—it’s ours for the asking! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Cover Art, “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman,” via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission.

 

Hearts and Hands

Hearts and Hands

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 2, 2018

15th Sunday after Pentecost

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

After spending several weeks in John’s Gospel, this morning we return to Mark. As a way of getting back into the story line, let’s review events prior to our reading:  Jesus teaches; he heals the sick; he performs many miracles—including feeding the 5000, walking on water, and raising a 12-year-old girl from death to life! It’s no wonder news of Jesus spreads throughout the land. It’s no wonder some Pharisees and scribes come all the way from Jerusalem to witness him in action. Of course, they must check things out. If Jesus is doing all that they’ve heard he’s doing—he’s a force with which to be reckoned. He could usurp their power. He could upset the status quo between the Roman Empire and the Jews. Yes, it’s worth a trip.

 

The religious leaders arrive on the scene. They gather around Jesus and his disciples. In no time they’re out of sorts. What in the world are the disciples doing? Are they really eating without first washing their hands? The word used for “hands” in verse 2 is koinos, which means “common” or “ordinary.” For these Pharisees, food should never be eaten with ordinary hands—only sanctified hands will do![i]  While the complaint is made against the disciples, the quarrel is really with Jesus, who is their teacher.

 

Let’s try to imagine something similar happening here in our midst. Picture our Executive Presbyter, Deb Bibler, has received word that you have a heretic preacher on your hands—espousing all sorts of crazy ideas. The Executive Presbyter calls the president of Columbia Theological Seminary to discuss the rumors. They decide to call in a few other experts. Walter Brueggemann, retired Old Testament professor, is contacted as well as preaching professor, Anna Carter Florence. On the next Lord’s Day, they show up in mass. It just so happens that your pastor preaches a wonderful sermon (now don’t laugh, it could happen!) and we have a church full of people—even the balconies are jam-packed. Seven baptisms, Holy Communion, and the Blessing of the Hands follow the sermon. The music is exceptional. After the service the religious authorities request a meeting with the pastor and session members to discuss the events of the morning. The first thing on their agenda? They want to know why we had a Blessing of the Hands since that isn’t mentioned in the Book of Order. Seriously! In the context of the greater happenings of the day, that’s what our visitors want to discuss?  Ridiculous! Right?

 

While the ridiculous complaint made against the disciples seems to be about hygiene—it isn’t. It’s about the way these particular Pharisees and scribes interpret practices of Jewish ritual purification. Although certain cleanliness practices are required for priests as they prepare for holy work, no Old Testament text says that everyone must wash his or her hands before eating. Probably over time, some religious leaders began to espouse that the rules applying to the priests regarding hand washing should be applied to everyone. Now, obviously the idea hasn’t totally caught on—since the disciples are called on the carpet for their behavior.

 

In response to the claim of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus, never one to mince words, calls it like he sees it. “You hypocrites. Isaiah was right about you when he wrote—this people honor me with their lips when their hearts are far from me.” Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet and changes the conversation. The Greek term “hypocrites” describes an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. Jesus calls the religious rulers on the carpet for living phony lives—paying God lip service while presenting their human teachings as divine commandments.[ii]

 

While Jesus denies any error, it isn’t the Mosaic Law, in general, that Jesus rejects. After all, it’s not as if he’s on the verge of gathering up a busload of people to go across town for a pork chop sandwich! No, what Jesus rejects is any interpretation of the law that clouds the intent of the law. Biblical commands never take precedence over love and compassion. We have learned this slowly—from slavery to the position of women in the church to being inclusive of all people. Without a doubt, we are still learning this lesson. [iii]

 

Later in our reading, Jesus tells the people that uncleanness and evil don’t originate from the outside of a person anyway. They begin from the inside. They begin in the heart. Holiness, too, begins in the heart, which motivates the hands to be about doing the will of our Holy God. For holy living, hearts and hands go together. Because spiritually speaking, no matter how often we wash our hands, they cannot be holy unless our heart is holy.

 

In a moment, we’ll turn our attention to the work of our hands—instruments that are a gift from God. 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God calls us to holy living and holy work. The work may be to prepare the Lord’s Table for our meal this morning, to sing in the choir, to help out with the Generations of Faith Sunday School Class. The work may be outside of the church—at the side of a friend or family member, at the office, at school, while gardening, while caring for a loved one, while preparing or sharing a meal. All kinds of work can be holy work if it is motivated by love of Christ. And Christ needs you to be about his work so that his love will reign—for all people—for all time.

 

In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[The Blessing of the Hands to follow.]

[i] Douglas R.A.Hare, Feasting on the Word, 22-23.

[ii] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 611.

[iii] Anders as quoted at http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/08/pentecost-14b-september-2-2012.html?m=1

 

The Presence of God

The Presence of God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 26, 2018

14th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43; John 6:56-69

King David, who loves Yahweh with all his heart, yearns to build a Temple for God. However, David reigns during a time of war in Israel’s history. After he dies, his son, Solomon, takes the throne and with him a new day dawns—a day filled with hope and peace. Now, it’s time to put roots down in the land of promise. The presence of God has been “housed” in the Ark of the Covenant, which has been “housed” in the portable Tabernacle. But now, it’s time to worship God in a more fixed location.

 

The story of David and Solomon, which the lectionary readings have been tracing this Pentecost season, concludes this morning with the story of Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Last week we learned of young Solomon asking God for wisdom because he realized he could never lead this great people without wisdom. Some time has passed, and Solomon has taken on the responsibility and honor of overseeing the construction of the Temple. Everything must be exactly right—down to the last detail—all of which God lays out in holy blueprint fashion.

 

Finally, having completed the house of the Lord, Solomon oversees the moving of the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies of the Temple. The elders, priests, and people assemble. Sacrifices too numerous to count are offered and then the Ark of the Covenant is transferred to its new home. The presence of Yahweh enters the Temple, signified by a cloud so thick the priests are unable to continue their work. King Solomon turns to bless all the people assembled. Then he stands before the altar of the Lord, spreads his hands out toward the heavens and prays.

 

In his supplication, Solomon calls on the continuation of God’s steadfast love; the continuation of the promises God made to his father David. Wisely, Solomon proclaims, “But will God dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” God is present. God is accessible. But God has not moved into a permanent address! Solomon and the people realize that. Still the Temple is more than a building to which the people will come to worship. The earthly Temple is the place where the Lord’s name resides; it’s also a symbol of God’s presence with the people.

 

Humbly, Solomon calls upon the Lord to turn toward the Temple night and day to hear his prayers and to hear the prayers of the people. While all of Solomon’s prayer isn’t included in our reading, it’s worth noting that he makes seven petitions, asking God to hear those who pray toward the Temple of the Lord: when the people sin against a neighbor, when they suffer defeat, when there is drought, when there is famine, when they go into battle, when they go into captivity, and (included in today’s reading) even when a foreigner prays toward the house of God.

 

How interesting! Solomon asks that when a foreigner comes from afar and prays toward God’s house, that God will hear. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to us really, for hasn’t that always been God’s mission for Israel—to bless them so that they might bless the world?

 

No doubt, the Temple is more than a building. It is the place where God’s name dwells. It is a symbol of God’s presence among his people. It is a symbol of the Lord who is gracious and kind and hears the prayers of all who turn their heart toward God. The Temple becomes the “spiritual home” for the people of Israel.

 

As Christians, what does our church building mean to us? Why do we gather here to pray and sing and worship? What is it about this space that makes it different, sacred, able to fill a deep yearning? Undeniably, there is something within all of us that draws us outside ourselves toward the holy, if we will only allow it. Brother Lawrence, who served as a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris in the 1600’s wrote, “I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD.” To which I would add, I cannot imagine how anyone can!  Augustine said it so well: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Only God can fill our restlessness, yet, how often are we guilty of trying to fill our restlessness with endless things that fail to satisfy: money, power, success, possessions, illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, sex…? Yes, people are searching. We are searching. To whom shall we go?

 

Throughout the Season of Pentecost, we have been reading portions of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. While we have addressed many of Jesus’ teachings, one thing that bears repeating this morning is his response to the question, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he sent.” In other words, we are called to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. That is our work—to believe! Are there teachings of Jesus that are difficult to accept? Yes. In fact, many of his followers are so offended by his words, they depart from him. But when Jesus turns to the disciples and asks if they are leaving too, Simon Peter proclaims, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

 

Peter’s confession is bold and beautiful, and he almost gets to the heart of the matter. I say, “almost,” because what Peter is yet to fully comprehend is that Jesus is the Holy One of God because Jesus IS God! Because when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he is saying no less than, “I am Yahweh,” Jesus is God breaking into human history to redeem humanity. Jesus is God’s story of love for each one of us—a story that goes something like this:

 

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, God created man and woman and set them in a lovely garden where God met them day-by-day. At that time, there was no need for a special place to meet God, for the Garden of Eden was truly heaven on earth. But the sin of humanity changed all that. Time passed, and individual altars became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. Time passed and the Tabernacle (which came into being during Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering) became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. Time passed, the people settled down, and the Temple became the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people. But that is not the end of the story.

 

Eventually, in the little town of Bethlehem, God came to dwell among the people in human flesh, as the baby born to Mary. Jesus felt what we feel, saw what we see, and shared our joys and our sorrows. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, opened blind eyes, and broke bread with sinners, while always drawing people back home—home toward God’s self. Faithful to the end, Jesus gave his life for love’s sake. Then, in God’s good time, the resurrected Jesus returned to his Abba Father and the Spirit of God descended to be “housed” in every baptized believer so that God’s work of love might continue through us.

 

Great is the mystery of our faith! For what wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss, to enter our human brokenness—so that the presence of God might be housed in our hearts!

 

*Cover Art “Love and Revelation” © Jan Richardson; used by Subscription

 

The Beginning of Wisdom

The Beginning of Wisdom

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 19, 2018

13th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; John 6:51-58

 

As we continue reading from the Gospel of John, bread and wine are on the menu once more—but this time the telling leaves little to the imagination. In fact, Jesus proclaims to believers and unbelievers alike: Eat my flesh; drink my blood. Now folks, if that won’t put a damper on a party, I don’t know what will. Is Jesus inviting cannibalism?  Is he prompting the people to go against the Levitical teaching to never consume blood? It all leaves us scratching our heads and wondering why Jesus is being so graphic—so “in your face.” And why, oh why, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus go on an on about being the Bread of Life. We get it!

 

Or do we? More likely, the truth is we can never comprehend what it means that Jesus, the Eternal Wisdom and Word of God, Jesus, the Living Bread of heaven, left the halls of glory to enter our human story. How could we possibly understand why the Son of God, would give up his flesh and blood—for the life of the world—for the life of you and me? With our limited understanding, how can we fathom that this meal is the gateway through which Jesus promises not only full life now, but eternal life to come: “The one who eats this bread will live forever.”[i] Without a doubt, to even nibble along the edge of this amazing grace requires the gift of God-given wisdom.

 

Wisdom! What a topic for our time when our world seems totally lacking in wisdom. Oh, knowledge, facts, information—we have plenty of those. But wisdom—that’s another matter!  When I think about wisdom in Scripture, my mind immediately goes to Solomon, the King of Israel. From our Old Testament reading we learn that David has died and has been buried in the City of David. Now his son, Solomon, sits on his firmly established throne. (Regarding the details that follow, I am indebted to Tremper Longman III, whose commentary I found most valuable.[ii])  Solomon’s name relates to the Hebrew word, shalom, which means peace, wholeness, well-being. It’s a good word for how Solomon’s reign begins. Shalom is, of course, a far cry from the warring days of David who had to defeat the Philistines before claiming the land. Things will be different for Solomon, however, who ascends the throne as a peaceful, discerning, and spiritually sensitive ruler.

 

Solomon’s promising future is evident right away through his love for Yahweh. Surely that is a most important first step. Out of this love, Solomon goes to Gibeon to offer numerous sacrifices. It’s important to remember that this is before the Temple of the Lord is built—when worship at high places is still permissible. Solomon’s demonstration of love for God results in an extraordinary response. One night, in a dream, God says to Solomon: “Ask what I should give you.”

 

Now imagine, you’re king for a day and God comes to you like a genie in a bottle and asks to fulfill your heart’s desire. For what would you ask? Come on! Be honest! I daresay not a one of us would have uttered the words that came out of Solomon’s mouth:

 

You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness…And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil…”

 

Of all the things young Solomon could ask for, he chooses wisdom. Although wisdom isn’t talked much about these days, that doesn’t make it any less valuable. What is wisdom, anyway? Wisdom is not merely intelligence that can be measured with an IQ test. Wisdom is more practical. It involves knowledge, yes, but it also involves good judgment in how, when, and in what fashion to best utilize knowledge.

 

The book of Proverbs is a prime example of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible.  Traditionally, its been attributed to Solomon—although that is probably more of an honorary attribution. Overall, the wisdom taught in Proverbs seeks to build moral character while always, always remaining anchored to God. Reasoning, healthy relationships, facing difficult issues—these are given ample consideration. But if we want to know the key teaching of Proverbs, we need look no further than verse 7 of chapter 1, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Fear meaning awe, wonder, and amazement and yes, even a healthy dose of fear, as we understand it.)

 

Solomon demonstrates his fear of the Lord by approaching God with humility and wonder and awe. God is pleased—so much so that Solomon’s request is granted plus so much more. He is given a wise and discerning mind as well as riches, honor, and the promise of a long life on the condition that he remains faithful. During Solomon’s reign, huge building projects are completed—the palace, the Temple and the Jerusalem wall, and people from near and far come to seek his wise judgment.

 

After a time, though, Solomon goes astray because of his love for foreign women and his proclivity for worshiping their idols. It leaves us wondering how someone so wise could do something so foolish. (Yet, one more great mystery of the Bible.) Regardless of the reason, we can still safely say that having an appetite for wisdom and discernment pleases God. And surely God still grants wisdom to those who ask for it.

 

In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul yearns for believers to possess Christ himself, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If there is to be any wisdom, any true understanding for a Christian, it will come through the treasure of Jesus Christ—which brings us back to the Gospel of John.

 

If Jesus repeats himself, over and over again, about being the bread of life, surely, it is because of the difficulty of truly understanding what’s being communicated—that the Word has been made flesh and that Jesus, incarnate, has gone against everything we thought was true. He has taken on flesh and bone and skin and he has moved in with us and things will never be the same. And as we consume all of Jesus—body and blood, so Jesus will consume us—should consume us—for Jesus wants all of our being—body, mind and soul. Jesus wants no less than to burrow deep within us, flow through our veins, and nourish every nook and crevice and cranny. This kind of relationship cannot happen by calmly considering Jesus from a safe distance. Incarnation means we’ll have to hold out empty hands, chew bread, and gulp that which pours from the cup.[iii] It’s scandalous, but it’s the gospel.

 

One scholar notes that if the shocking words of Jesus—those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life—“mean anything in the life of the church, then at least they mean that when we eat and drink at the holy Table, eternity has broken into time in a unique, unrepeatable way. Eternity keeps on dipping into our time.”[iv] For John, the gospel is a matter of life and death and apart from the Lord’s Supper, apart from this banquet table, we have no life in us.

 

William Willimon tells a story about his friend who teaches theology at Oxford:

 

He says that his toughest task is to ask and answer the question, ‘What is theology about?’ His students tend to respond that theology is about spiritual matters, or about religion, or deeper meaning in life, et cetera. No, he instructs them, theology (at least Christian, incarnational theology, theology in the mode of the sixth chapter of the Fourth Gospel) is about everything. Jesus has come down from heaven with the intention of taking it all back. He wants all of us, and he wants us to have all of him.[v]

 

How wise we will be if we approach God, each and every day, and humbly request a hearty appetite for the true bread and the true drink that brings heaven down on this old earth. Oh, how blessed we will be when Christ has all of us and we have all of Christ.

 

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

[i] Feasting on the Word, O. Benjamin Sparks.

[ii] Tremper Longman III, The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 222-224.

[iii] Feasting on the Word, William H. Willimon, 360-361.

[iv] Feasting on the Word, Sparks, 360.

[v] Ibid, 361.

*Cover Art “Widsom’s Path” ©Jan Richardson; used by Subscription

 

The Eternal Now

The Eternal Now

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 12, 2018

12th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; John 6:35, 41-51

 

You have probably heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. Jesus, a Jew, is faced with a group of his own people who have small minds. They resist the idea that God may act in an unexpected way; they disregard the miraculous events of Jesus’ life thus far. They fail to see the divine nature of this human Jesus. As a result, they complain because of the claim Jesus has made—that he is the bread of life that came down from heaven. They complain because they know him. They know his momma. They know his daddy. He can’t possibly be who he says he is.

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. While life is complicated—so is faith! Just when you think you have God all figured out, God moves in some astounding, unfathomable way. Yes, great is the mystery of our faith! Jesus encounters a group of his own people who are certain they know who Jesus is. Most likely, they are faithful people who know their Scripture, yet they are unable to see God’s gift of manna before their eyes. How easy it is to get to a place where we think we know more than we do. But no matter how dedicated we are to the study of Scripture or the study of life, “real knowing” may still not be achieved because “real knowing” is a gift from God. It is pure grace.

 

When it comes to our book of faith, let’s be honest, that, too, is complicated—filled with strange teachings. For example, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God’s people are instructed: Don’t let cattle graze with other kinds of cattle; don’t have a variety of crops on the same field; don’t wear clothes made of more than one fabric (in other words, cotton and linen don’t mix), and if you find out a city worships a different god, destroy the city—kill everyone. Unexplainable, conflicting teachings continue in the New Testament. For example, in Matthew 28:18, Jesus says, “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth…” but 1 John 5:19 tells us, “the whole world is under control of the evil one.” (Which is it?) In John 9:39 Jesus says, “For judgment I am come into this world.” but in the very same gospel, he says, “I came not to judge the world.”[i] And lastly, a contrast between the two testaments: In Genesis 32:30 Jacob says, ‘I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'” But Jesus proclaims in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God.”

 

And my point? Our Scripture is complex and even people who know it well can use it to go astray—or worse still, to do harm. I’m convinced that the Bible can be used to prove just about anything we want to prove. Simply take a phrase, separate it from its historical context, and “Voila!” you have a faith-based argument. The Bible contains all that is needed for our salvation, and the wise person will approach it humbly, prayerfully and always, always, seek to interpret it in light of the whole of God’s salvation narrative.

 

To those who are complaining about Jesus’ claim that he is the Bread of Life, Jesus counters that it is the Father and not his teaching that draws people to the true bread that comes from heaven—to eternal life—to Jesus. Yes, even the desire to know, the desire to seek the bread of life, even that is a gift—even that is a grace. Grace upon grace! Because Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day…Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. I am the living bread…whoever eats of this bread will live forever…”

 

“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…whoever believes has eternal life…” There is a constant tension between how eternal life is interpreted and what it means. Most people think of eternal life as the last day, as the sweet by and by, but in essence, Jesus says, “No, eternal life is standing right here in front of you.” Eternal life is Jesus himself—eternal life begins right now! What difference does the eternal now make to the way we live our lives?[ii] It must be more than a set of rigorous beliefs. Christian faith begins with an encounter and a relationship with the Bread of Life, with Jesus. What is the bread on which we feast?

 

When my children were growing up, I enjoyed making bread. I loved the whole process—measuring, stirring, kneading, waiting and then the wonderful aroma of the bread baking in the oven. The kids were quite happy with Momma’s homemade fare, that is, until they went to a neighbor’s home and ate white store-bought bread. Eventually, it became a struggle to get them to eat the hearty bread at all. Finally, I gave in and made wheat and white bread. However, I did get the last word. Now that they are all grown up and more health conscious they have finally come around to momma’s way of thinking—hearty bread is healthier.

 

When it comes to our spiritual food, it is good to be selective about the bread upon which we feast. As one writer puts it, “It is one thing to survive, to just get by, like the manna that got the children of Israel through the wilderness. It is another to feast on that which will last forever. We are wise to ask ourselves, “What has to move out for God to move in? What do we need to make sure is not a part of our diet?”  To do otherwise is to risk spiritual starvation. Jesus provides for us spiritual, eternal nourishment that begins right now.[iii] Do we believe it? If so, does our life prove it?

 

Some of you have heard a little of the story of my childhood. It’s not something I often talk about—not because I am ashamed but because it really doesn’t make for polite dinner conversation. Suffice it to say, when it comes to my family of origin, I did not win the lottery. Having to overcome being abandoned by my mother, mistreated by my father and finally having no place to really call home—well folks, it was a hard row to hoe, as the saying goes. Who could imagine that the row would end here?

 

As far as church rows go, I prefer the pew near the front on the left. (In fact, Sue Miller, you are sitting in my seat.) But that’s not how things turned out. Instead, every Sunday, I put on this robe and drape the stole around my neck (a symbol of being yoked to God for ministry) and I do this thing that is my greatest fear and my greatest delight—attempt to speak God’s salvation story to those who will hear. For you see, with all my heart and soul, I believe that being baptized into the family of God matters. In fact, it changes everything! These living waters give us a new name and a new eternal address that begins in the here and now. With all my heart and soul, I believe that what happens around the Table of our Lord matters. It matters when the sun is shining, and it matters when there is a storm a-brewin’. For above all else, God’s grace is sufficient to meet our needs. God’s grace is sufficient for new life to be ours in the eternal now. And in this eternal now, God’s Spirit is our guide—instructing us, renewing us, challenging us, and equipping us to boldly embrace abundant life!

 

Søren Kierkegaard told a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left commenting on the message and waddled back home. But they never flew.[iv]

 

What difference does Jesus make in your life? It has been said that to the hungry, (Jesus) is the bread of life; to the thirsty, he is the fountain of living water; to the lonely, he is the friend who is willing to go the second mile; to the sick, he is the Balm in Gilead; to the dying, he is the resurrection and the life.[v] Who is Jesus to you?

 

Hear now a poetic interpretation of Jesus’ words penned by Rev. Ken Rookes:

 

I am the bread,

the bread of living;

come to me.

I have God’s word for you,

food for your heart.

It is a word of joy and of freedom,

surprising in generosity,

intense and glowing.

It tells of peace in the midst of turbulent times,

defiant love in the midst of fear,

hope, when darkness abounds.

This is the word that will answer your hunger,

and confound your emptiness.

I am the bread of life;

in me the journey begins and ends

and finds its shape.

In me you will discover yourself;

you will also find true community

and the friendship of God.

Sing, rejoice, dance and weep:

I am the bread:

the bread of living;

come to me.

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

[i] John 12:47

[ii] Sermon Brainwave, Karoline Lewis

[iii]http://lindynuggets.blogspot.com/2012/08/pentecost-11b.html

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, Maxie Dunham

*Cover Art by Stushie; used by Subscription

 

Hard Truths

Hard Truths

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 5, 2018

11th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a; John 6:24-35

 

Occasionally a particular word in the English language will send me on a search for its meaning and history, its etymology. Just such a word caught my attention recently—the word “meander.” It’s a good word, don’t you think? To meander is to follow a winding course or to wander without definite aim or direction. You might be interested to know that the term comes from the Meander River of eastern Turkey, which, from ancient times, was a visual metaphor for how to take the longest path between two points. When I think of meandering, I think of long walks on the beach or spending hours in a bookstore seeking new treasures. Kinney meanders on his morning runs.

Certainly, meandering can take us to places of wonder and delight, but meandering can also get us in trouble—take the people in our lectionary readings, for example. David loses his way and meanders into sin—so much so that he is unable to see himself in Nathan’s moral tale.[i]  David meanders into a trap that forces him to face a hard truth: he has committed a terrible sin against God. No doubt, he has sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, and their unborn child. And what about soldiers that might have been under Uriah’s command? Although Scripture does not tell us, it is likely that other innocent men lost their lives because of David’s dastardly deed.  Yes, David meanders into sin.

 

The Bible records other stories of God’s meandering people like the Israelites who wander in the wilderness for 40 long years because they fail to trust in God after their great exodus from Egypt. Because of their sin, they do not enter the Promised Land. Nevertheless, while on their journey they experience God’s provision raining down from heaven as manna to fill their empty tummies.

 

In John’s Gospel when Jesus repeats this miracle of provision (by feeding the 5000 with a boy’s gift of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish), there is no doubt the people are reminded of the story of long ago. We know so because they mention it! Listen to how the people react to what Jesus has done, but this time, I invite you to hear the story through Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

 

The next day the crowd that was left behind realized that there had been only one boat and that Jesus had not gotten into it with his disciples. They had seen them go off without him. By now boats from Tiberias had pulled up near where they had eaten the bread blessed by the Master. So when the crowd realized he was gone and wasn’t coming back, they piled into the Tiberias boats and headed for Capernaum, looking for Jesus. When they found him back across the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” To that, they said, “Well, what do we do then to get in on God’s works?” Jesus said, “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent. That kind of a commitment gets you in on God’s works.” They waffled: “Why don’t you give us a clue about who you are, just a hint of what’s going on? When we see what’s up, we’ll commit ourselves. Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” Jesus responded, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.” They jumped at that: “Master, give us this bread, now and forever!” Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.”

 

The people are eager to find Jesus because they have gotten their tummies full and they want more. They are in the market for immediate gratification. But in the person of Jesus, they must face a hard truth. Living the life that Jesus requires will take more than aimless wandering. In the NRSV, verses 28 and 29 read as follows: “Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  It turns out that believing is, in fact, work!  Believing and living as God would have us to live takes dedication. It takes discipline. At the end of the day, those who meander after Jesus need to find the way, the truth, and the life before they can even find themselves.[ii]

 

How many of us stay up night after night when the Olympics are on television?  Even though I am not passionate about swimming, I still recall watching in awe as Michael Phelps took medal after medal—especially in the 2008 Olympics. How could we not be inspired by the discipline that it takes to get to the Olympics—no lounging in front of the TV, no fast food, no time for much of anything except practice, practice, practice (which, by the way, Scott Routsong knows a little something about since he is currently training to run a marathon).

 

When it comes to remarkable physical accomplishments, we expect nothing less than sold out commitment. However, when it comes to the things of God, “practice” and “discipline” seem foreign notions. How about a dollop of Jesus and we will be on our merry way! Our world spins on a diet of instant coffee, instant grits, and fast food. Immediate gratification are our watchwords—especially when it comes to our spiritual life. There was a time when spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, and Scripture reading were considered important to faith development. But times have changed and, unfortunately, such thinking has gone out of style. But can we really expect to grow in our faith without such practices?

 

To have the mind of Christ is not reached by meandering here and there. The hard truth is this: it takes work—it takes commitment—it takes discipline to grow day by day into the likeness of Jesus. As believers claimed by the waters of baptism and nourished at the Lord’s Table, we are called to participate in our own spiritual growth, our own wholeness. Christian maturity is not delivered to our doorstep wrapped in lovely paper and adorned with a fancy bow.

 

So, what must we do to perform the works of God? Well, if our goal is to be sold out committed Christians we will make worshiping with other Christians a priority in our lives. (Since you are here, I assume this is already important to you.) Gathering with our brothers and sisters, praying, singing, and partaking of God’s bounteous feast is a perfect way to allow God to reset our compasses, readjust our goals. Otherwise, we may become sidetracked like David, letting our desires become more important that God’s desires for us.

 

Other disciplines to enrich your spiritual development might include a renewed commitment to daily Bible reading, fasting, prayer, service to others, or meditating on God’s goodness through music, art, or nature. Perhaps, if you enjoy writing, it is time to begin a prayer journal—recording your thoughts and prayers each day. Hopefully, if you aren’t already participating in Sunday School, you will prayerfully consider joining the Generations of Faith class that starts next Sunday.

 

Oh, you may say, “All that stuff is for other people—radical folks like Pentecostals—not Presbyterians.” I beg to differ. The hard truth is that when we claim to be Christians, we are witnesses for Christ. And like Olympians who with each competition represent their country, we represent Christ to the world. Of course, we may choose to meander hither and yon, or we may decide to go for the gold!

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

[i] Wayne Brouwer, http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788032779&key=kufgb89fPZcjlsma

[ii] Ibid.

*Cover Art “Gathering the Fragments” © Jan Richardson Images; Used by subscription.

 

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.