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11-20-20 — The Nations — Ezekiel 34:11-16, Matthew 25:31-46 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Ezekiel 34:11-16

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Sermon                                                        The Nations                                                        Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

In her autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic, the English mystic Caryll Houselander describes an experience she had on a train that changed her life.  She writes, “I was in an underground train, it was a crowded train with all sorts of people jostled together, sitting, and stranding – workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more that; not only was Christ in every one of the them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but not only them, all the people in all the countries of the world, all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.

I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere- Christ.

I had long been haunted by the Russian conception of the humiliated Christ, the lame Christ limping through Russia, begging His bread; Christ who, all through the ages, might return to the earth and come even to sinners to win their compassion. Now in the flash of a second, I knew that this dream is a fact; not a dream, not the fantasy or legend of a devout people, but Christ in man…

I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, one must comfort Christ who suffers in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ..

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. It is not the foolish sinner like myself, who comes closest to them and brings them healing; it is the contemplative in her cell who has never set eyes on them, but in whom Christ fasts and prays for them—or it may be a charwoman in whom Christ makes Himself a servant again, or a king whose crown of gold hides a crown of thorns. Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.

After a few days the vision faded. People looked the same again there was no longer the same shock of insight for me each time I was face to face with another human being. Christ was hidden again; indeed, through the years,  I would look for Him and usually I would find Him in others but only through deliberate acts of faith.”[1]

This is a beautiful vision that Caryll experienced, and it inspired her life’s work. Our passages are a beautiful reflection of this vision. In Ezekiel we see God speaking through the prophet. The beloved image of a sheep and the shepherd are used. God says that God will go and search for the lost sheep. God is seeking the welfare of the people. God is examining them, rescuing them, leading them out, gathering them, and bringing them to their land. God says that God will feed them with justice. This is a people who are crying out for justice. The people of God during this period have experienced another trauma. Ezekiel is ministering during a space of disaster of and alienation. Ezekiel was one of those taken to Babylon and he witnessed the fall of monarchy and the destruction of the temple and that is the space he is speaking into.  Their world had been shattered. The focus is on protecting the weak sheep from those in power. This image should remind us of Jesus and that  theological insight of God’s enduring relationship with the world is continuously defined and shaped as that of a concerned shepherd, seeking to bring the world to just and righteous living in community with God, with one another, and with creation.[2]

In our passage from Matthew we see a vision of Christ. Over the last several weeks the parables have told us that the bridegroom is coming but has delayed. This week the bridegroom has arrived. Jesus begins this parable by telling us that Son of Man has arrived on his throne of glory. The nations are gathered before this throne. This is an important point not to be missed. In the Gospel of Matthew, there are thirteen references to the “nations”. This is unique to the gospel of Matthew. This is less about nations that existed at the time and more about inclusion of the those outside the covenant those referred to as gentiles. More importantly it is a recognition by Jesus of the structures and the powers that affect the world we live in. Those often invisible structures that influence aspects of our daily lives.

The nations are separated into sheep and goats. Sheep on the right and goats on the left. Some of the nations are congratulated and invited to inherit the kingdom because as the king says “ I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” They ask when did we do this for you, and the king will answer when you did this for the least of my family you did it for me.

One of the things we know from psychology is that people are far more likely to intervene in an emergency situation when it affects someone they have an existing relationship with. Which makes sense it is proximity, if it hits closer to home people are inspired to act. But Jesus broadens this definition and says the family of God is the least of these and when you do things for them you are doing them for Jesus.

This parable is both a comfort and a challenge. This apocalyptic vision isn’t meant to fear; rather, the intention is to offer clarity about which side to take. [3] This parable I believe is the heart of the gospel call for Christians. Our call is to do good works in this world, to find Jesus walking around, to recognize him in all the people we meet. But our call is also to examine the structures and the powers of this world and ask the question why are so many people in need? How can we as God’s people advocate for Jesus, how can we advocate for the poor and the marginalized?  I do believe this is one of the reasons we are seeing so many young people leave the church. The fact that the Church to often neglects the call to look at how structures affect everyone.

In his book a Revolution of Values, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shares stories of how these structures have affected those around us. He writes “A few years ago I preached at a church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that turned its entire campus into a solar farm. At a churchwide forum between morning services, we talked about the array of issues on people’s minds—healthcare and immigration, voting rights and equal protection under the law. One of the questions they wrestled with was “How are we building a movement that will help people recognize we are destroying the earth?”  God’s enduring concern for all of creation is evident throughout scripture.  One of the insights he offers is a reminder that everything we do together in faith communities is a liturgy shaping our imagination.

He writes congregations who have done this work learn to think about how their votes will or will not lead to policies that promise a more sustainable future. One of things they learned was that there were few issues of more importance than the ecological devastation to the poor of this world. We know that corporations and governments respond to NIMBY (not in my backyard) campaigns and that they follow the path of least resistance, often leading them directly into the poorest communities. Landfills, superfund sites, and extractive industries almost always end up in our poorest neighborhoods, all but guaranteeing that property values will continue to stay low and they will be affected by negative long-term health outcomes. Powers and structures that affect our world.[4]

My prayer is that you would hear both the challenge and comfort in this parable. The comfort of the clarity of God’s calling on our lives. The challenge to follow that difficult call, the call that asks us to seek out the scattered, the call asks us share with those in need, the call that asks us to examine how the power and structures of this earth and see they affect the poor and oppressed of this world. The call that asks us to see the eyes of Jesus in those we meet.

 

[1] Rohr, Richard, the Universal Christ, Pg 2-3

[2] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 15517-15519). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. Revolution of Values (p. 7). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. Revolution of Values (pp. 131-132). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

 

11-22-20 Livestream Order of Worship

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11-15-20 — Who Is Trustworthy — Psalm 90:1-8, 12; Matthew 25: 14-30 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

Matthew 25:14-30

 

“Who is Trustworthy?”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

I really wrestled with the parable this week. This parable is a little uncomfortable especially the response given to the third servant. It is a familiar setup. A man has gone on a journey. He entrusts three slaves with some vast sums of money. To give you an idea of the amount we are talking about 1 talent was equivalent to 15 years of wages. So, handing someone 5 talents or 75 years of wages, 2 talents 30 years of wages or 1 talent 15 years of wages. The man continues on his way. The first servant and second servant both double their talents, which to say nothing else is a pretty impressive return on his investment.  The only compensation they seem to receive is a pat on the back. “Well done, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of the master.”

But the third slave is the focus and a completely different story. The slave begins by characterizing the master. He begins by saying “I know that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did scatter.” This is interesting because he is essentially accusing him of theft. Taking crops that he didn’t plant or tend. The slave is afraid.  Can you really blame him at this point? If you knew your boss was stealing but not only stealing, forcing the people to work for them to steal, wouldn’t you be afraid? So, the slave does what he considers logical at that point — he buries the money in a safe spot. As strange as this may sound this was considered a best practice during this period. Bury the money and don’t tell anyone where you put it. Occasionally Archeologists still find money that was never recovered by the owner. The slave returns the talent. The master is upset, calling him a wicked and lazy slave, telling him in the very least he should have put the money in the bank so he would have received the interest.  The slave is then thrown out.

I have always found this to be one of Jesus’ more difficult parables to interpret. There isn’t universal agreement on how to understand this. But there are common themes that continue to pop up. The editor has arranged this next to the parable about the 10 bridesmaids. The topic has not changed. We are still operating with the idea with the words from Jesus “The kingdom is like…”. I want to offer two different ways to interpret this text.

The master returns after an unexpected period of time and holds his slaves accountable for their actions with an extremely large amount of money while he is gone.  We have to approach this parable and ask the question is Jesus in this parable? Is God in this parable? In Psalm 123 it says, “ As the eyes of the servants look to the hand of the master… so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us”.  We see little mercy in the response of the Master.  The portrayal of the master seems far out of step with the God of scripture. God who freed the enslaved Israelites. The God who told the Israelites that in your worship you should  recall that, “ A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… he went down to Egypt for bread and was enslaved. But the Lord delivered him to a land of milk and honey” and then as a people you should celebrate this deliverance with the Aliens and Foreigners among you. [1] It is out of step with Jesus who healed the blindmen on the side of the road of the road. Out of step with Jesus who took on the powerful in defense of the ostracized. One could read this and wonder if the third slave is really exposing the underlying inequality in the economic system. That economic system is the Master. Slaves are only motivated by fear and obligation. There is also an awful power dynamic at play here. The slaves are the property of their master.  While this slavery is not based on race like chattel slavery, it is still slavery. We need to look no further than our own history to see how an imbalance of power has shaped our nation and caused deep wounds that have not healed. Or how the growing economic inequality is affecting our nation in negative ways. Perhaps this third slave is the only one who is free, who rejects the fear-based system. Maybe one way to read this is that the third slave is actually Jesus. The Jesus of scripture is known for addressing economic injustice, for overturning tables, tossing out money changers and condemning those who would take advantage of unequal system. Maybe this is reminder that in the Kingdom of God, God rejects all of these inequalities.

Another the way to look at this parable is that it is about Grace. The talents are not money, but they are God’s grace entrusted to the Church. The church is entrusted with finding ways to grow that grace. To share the love of God with their community. To remind people that God’s love is unconditional, it is not dependent on us. God’s love is not limited. That God says to us we are defined by our worst moment. Each time someone experiences that grace it continues to grow and spread. God’s love and abundance grows, people who experience this grace know true freedom and love.  The church that buries their grace reduces the importance of it and in reducing, they reject it.  There have been moments where the church has rejected grace. The way at times it has treated women, not allowing them to enter leadership roles. The way in which so many denominations split over the issue of slavery and race during our civil war. The way our own denomination has suffered around the issue of same gender marriage.  In her best-selling book Pastrix, Pastor and Speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber shares the following: “Easter is basically another word for church showoff day—a time when we spiff up, pull out the lilies, hire a brass quintet, and put on fabulous hats and do whatever we have to do to impress visitors. She writes to me; it had always felt this is the church’s version of putting out the guest towels. Easter is not a story about new dresses and flowers and spiffiness. It’s a story about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion, and it’s about the way God never seems to adhere to our expectations of what a proper God would do. Jesus didn’t look impressive at Easter. Mary mistook him as the gardener. Jesus was dirty, had dirt under his fingernails not the angelic portrait most churches have him. Jesus did this to make all things new, to give grace to all. Grace doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, grace is often messy. Grace looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. Grace looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go. Grace looks like being kind of oneself. Grace is the thing we never saw coming—never even hoped for—but ends up being what we needed all along.”[2]

This is the beauty of a parable that they are ripe with meaning and can be understood from multiple vantage points. At moments in our lives we need to be reminded of God’s grace and how much God loves us.  At other moments in our lives we need to be reminded of God’s economy and economy that doesn’t separate in the haves and haves not, but looks at all as the Children of God.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:4-11

[2] Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (p. 172-174). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

 

11-15-20 Bulletin

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11-8-20 Bulletin

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November Pew Points

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11-1-20 — Humble Brag — Psalm 43, Matthew 23:1-12 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 43

Matthew 23:1-12

 

Sermon                                              “Humble Brag”                                               Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

Our lectionary scene from Matthew is toward the close of the Gospel. The scene is part of the fifth and final teaching of Jesus series, reminding readers of the first five books of Moses. This passage is interesting for several reasons. You see a mixed crowd of disciples of Jesus, scribes, and Pharisees. It is a mix of political and religious leaders. Jesus begins by reminding the people to listen to scribes and Pharisees because they sit in the seat of Moses. There is some debate about this, but archeology has found that it was likely a literal seat in the synagogue. Directly after this there is an immediate change in the tone of Jesus.

One of the things to keep in mind this passage and passages like it; at times they have been used to justify Anti-Semitism. We would do well to remember that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish in his responses, in his religion, and culture. There is no room for hate of any kind. I say this especially in light of the fact Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life terrorist attack in Pittsburgh.

So, what is Jesus doing by leveling the charge of hypocrisy? I think there are a few things happening in this text. Jesus is not addressing everyone in the crowd; there are likely certain opponents Jesus is leveling this charge at. It is akin to decrying the excesses of some of the TV preachers who have enlarged their own personal wealth and not necessarily the kingdom.

Jesus is participating in a common argument of the day. During this period there were two forms of the law. There was the specific law that Moses gave and then there was the interpretation of that law by the local religious leaders. This interpretation had become elevated in status and was designed to be a fence around the Torah and protect it, but it had become more of a burden on the people. The religious leaders were not sure how to lessen this burden without over throwing the entire system.[1]

Finally, Jesus is doing something that is very familiar to us especially in the season we are in — Jesus is participating in the political rhetoric of his day. It is always in vogue to call your political opponent hypocrites and point out their flaws. That was true in Jesus’ day and continues to be true in our day and age. It can be a little jarring to think of Jesus in this light. We often think of Jesus as a little more elevated than this.

As a reader and interpreter, what do we do with a scripture like this? The key to understanding this is really in our reading of verses 11 and 12.  Jesus makes a statement about leadership and what true leadership looks like. This is a thread that is throughout the Gospel of Matthew. That leadership is about serving others. It is not about exalting yourself. A camp I took my students to years ago had this as part of their ethos. They had something called the “I am third” award. The idea was God first, Others second, and I am third. It is rare that we see this type of servant leadership in public life, but this is the attitude and mindset Jesus is calling for.

Servant Leadership is an opportunity we all have every day of our lives.  How will we serve those we interact with? How will serve our spouse, our children, our grandchildren? How will serve our co-workers, our supervisors, our teachers?  How will serve the people who serve us? How will serve our community, our nation, and our world?

Servant leadership accepts mutual sacrifice. Who can forget the example of Desmond P. Doss. His story was capture in the film Hacksaw Ridge. Desmond Doss was  a combat medic in WWII who, because of a religious conviction, would not pick up weapon, but through his bravery was awarded the Medal of Honor. While under heavy fire he ushered 75 of his men to safety lowering them down a ridge. He continued these acts of bravery until he suffered a fracture in his left arm and was hit by a sniper’s bullet in his leg. As he was evacuated he realized he lost the bible his wife had given him and that he carried with him through the all the fighting. He got word back to the men on the ridge. By this time the ridge had been captured and his fellow soldiers looked for and found his bible and was able to return it to him.

Servant leadership seeks to builds others up. But we all have the opportunity to display servant leadership through small everyday acts. In the book “About Alice” by Calvin Trillin recalls his relationship with this wife. He recalls how Alice volunteered at a summer camp, he writes “the camper Alice got closest to, L…, a magical child who had some severe disabilities.” A Genetic disease kept her from digesting food or growing. She was fed with a tube. Alice transported L. from place to place in a golf cart.

Alice recounted that on one occasion, L. asked her to hold her mail while she was occupied in a game. Alice could not help but notice a note on top. It was from L.’s mother. Her reluctance to violate the girl’s privacy was overwhelmed by the force of her curiosity: I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered. I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on this sentence: “If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L., we would only have chosen you.” Servant leadership builds others up and holds power across time and space.[2]

A Servant Leadership, leads even without a reward. I had a pretty stressful senior year of college. I was working two jobs and an internship while still having a fulltime class load. For one of my jobs I was working as server in a restaurant. If you have never worked in a restaurant you learn about people very quickly what people are like, and everyone has a horror story or two but one event in particular sticks out in mind. I had a table once that was uneventful.  Everything went smoothly. I handed them the check, they paid and left. I went to clear the table and realized they didn’t tip me. I replayed the interaction over in my mind and couldn’t figure out what I did wrong. Needless to say, I was a little angry.  About a 45 minutes later the guy comes back to the restaurant and finds me.  He explains to me how he and his wife made it all the way home and it suddenly dawned on him that he didn’t tip me, so they drove back. He profusely apologized and left me a tip far larger than I deserved. As mundane as this sounds, it was an action he didn’t need to take there was no benefit to him.

Servant leadership accepts mutual sacrifice, builds others up, and leads even without benefit to themselves.   Servant leadership, the leadership of scripture, the leadership of Jesus asks the question how can I make the world a better place, how can serve those around me? Jesus said: The greatest among you will be your servant.

 

[1]Wilkins Michael J. The NIV Application Commentary on Matthew, Pg. 746.

[2] Strock, James. Serve to Lead: 21st Century Leaders Manual (p. 318). Serve to Lead Group. Kindle Edition.