The Next Chapter
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 31, 2021
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 119:1-8; Mark 12:28-34
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These are words to live by—as individuals and as a church. But let’s be honest, the commandment is not easy. It never has been.
At the time of the Reformation, the church was failing miserably. Instead of being guided by love, the church was guided by a thirst for power and money. When Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, it marked the beginning of a protest that would lead to the Reformation and to the protesters being known as Protestants. Good things came from the Reformation. Corruption of leaders in the church was exposed, Scripture gained authority, grace was elevated as a critical doctrine of the church, the Bible became accessible, and literacy spread. Yes, good things grew out of the Reformation—including the Presbyterian Church.
I want to take a few moments to allow those gathered here and those joining us virtually to share something that you appreciate about our denomination. (Time to share.)
Kinney’s grandfather and uncle were Presbyterian ministers, and one of the happiest days of his mother’s life was the day I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Since Kinney has such deep roots in the Presbyterian Church, I asked him what he learned about the denomination growing up. He said one of the things that he appreciated was how the church is governed by elected elders (session) so that everyone has a voice. Interestingly, Kinney grew up with women ministers so he was surprised to learn in his teens that other churches refused to allow women any leadership roles. Another thing that meant a lot to him and his family was the value placed on education for ministers. And finally, he learned to appreciate how open the denomination is to learning from other denominations or even other faith traditions, when it comes to the things of loving God and loving neighbor.
Because of Kinney’s rich Presbyterian heritage when we were married that is the place we landed. But after three years, I was no closer to knowing what it meant to be a Presbyterian. It was as if everyone in the little church already knew the ins and outs of their tradition, and they failed to see the importance of handing down their faith story to newcomers. It was only in seminary, decades later, that I came home to the place I had always belonged. It all started in a doctrine class that introduced me to a book of creeds which led me to the Presbyterian Creeds and Confessions. And here is what spoke to me—the contents, of course—but also the number of footnotes found at the back of the book supporting those creeds and confessions—footnotes that were made up of verse after verse after verse of Scripture. I was in awe of the saints who were trying to work out their beliefs and supporting those beliefs with the word of God—to the very best of their ability.
Something else that made me fall in love with the Presbyterian Church was the Book of Order. Trust me, there’s some really good stuff in here but what I value the most is the Directory for Worship. In this section of the book, you will find things like: Christian worship gives all glory and honor, praise and thanksgiving to the holy, triune God. God acts with grace; we respond with gratitude. God claims us as beloved children; we proclaim God’s saving love—this rhythm of divine action and human response—found throughout Scripture, human history, and everyday events—shapes all of Christian faith, life, and worship.
By this time in my own faith journey, I had heard the Presbyterians referred to as the frozen chosen. But through the denomination’s Book of Order, I saw that was far from the truth for there is built in the very landscape of Presbyterian worship, open space for the Spirit to move and speak and prompt. Based on the movement of the Spirit and the gifts of the people, in Presbyterian churches near and far, fixed forms of worship are welcome, but so are spontaneous approaches. Prayer is understood to be the heart of worship—a gift from God, offered through Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit. Prayer may be spoken, silent, sung, or enacted in physical ways. Participation in worship (regardless of age, race, or gender) may involve a range of actions: kneeling, bowing, standing, lifting hands, dancing, drumming, clapping, embracing, joining hands, anointing, and laying on of hands. Indeed, every action in worship is to glorify God and contribute to the good of the people. Doesn’t sound like the frozen chosen to me. Rather, it sounds like a model for growing into the kind of people God wants us to be.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Over 500 hundred years after the Reformation, the church is alive but how closely are we following Jesus’ mandate? There is no doubt, the church, no matter the denomination, hardly looks like it did—even 50 years ago. But is that a bad thing? Scholars have long believed that a massive cultural shift happens in the church about every 500 years which is why many refer to the time in which we now live as the “New Reformation.” Whether we like it or not, the church is changing. But facing the changes does not mean caving into fear. Instead, it may mean accepting an invitation to look around us with curiosity and wonder—and to listen for our assignment in God’s next chapter for the church.
First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta has a beautiful history. Organized in 1864, the cornerstone to this sanctuary was placed in 1907. In 1958, the Fellowship Hall was erected with the Centennial Building constructed in 1964. Our church has started 3 congregations in the area—West End Presbyterian Church, Twin Lakes Presbyterian Church, and Trinity Presbyterian Church. We have a long history of supporting foreign missions as well as other missions like Thornwell Home for Children and Presbyterian Homes of Georgia. Additionally, the Break Bread Together Program has served the community for over 4 decades. What wonderful opportunities God has given us and those who have gone before us.
Undeniably, our story is rich and inspiring, but, by the grace of God, our story is not over—unless we decide to rest on our laurels and go down in history as the church that “used to” be one of the large downtown churches, as the church that “used to” step out on faith to plant new churches and start new ministries. Words like “used to” are words that do not serve us well. But other words—creativity and celebration, gratitude and generosity, experiment and explore—these words invite us to be open to the prompting of the Spirit. Such words have compelled us to start the First Friday Contemplative Service, to start a multi-generational Sunday school class that allows us to pool our resources and learn together no matter our age, to try various spiritual practices and retreats and on a variety of platforms, to offer virtual opportunities like Bible studies, the Book Club, and occasional committee meetings through Zoom, to host something as radical as Pub Theology to engage with each other, yes, but also to engage people in our community who may never darken the door of a church.
Whenever we courageously try something new, there are no guarantees. Some things succeed. Others fail. But how will we know if we do not give it our all. Regardless, we press on. As a church, we press on because being faithful is our goal, growing into the likeness of Christ is our goal, following the way of the Spirit is our goal—so yes, we press on to share God’s love whenever and however we can.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we want to remain a relevant voice for this community, there is work for us all to do and it will take all of us to do it. Reformation Sunday is a good day to celebrate and to reflect. But it is also a good day to pause and ponder the commandment nearest and dearest to the heart of Jesus: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. How are we doing? And how might we do better?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art “St. Giles Cathedral” in Edinburgh, Scotland by Jonathan Wheeler