Rev. Joshua D. Gill
In the epic adventure called “How to Train Your Dragon,” the small Viking village of Berk is periodically besieged by dragons. Dragons of all sorts come and rob sheep but they never eat them. The Vikings never bother to wonder why the dragons come. They just defend the village and train all their offspring to fight the dragons. Finally, one day Hiccup, the son of Stoic the Vast, the village chief, catches a dragon. At first, he is scared and intrigued by the dragon he catches. He begins feeding the injured dragon and eventually names it Toothless. As time goes on, Hiccup befriends Toothless and realizes these dragons aren’t monsters; they are merely misunderstood animals and they are actually lovable. Hiccup decides he must help the people of Berk see dragons in a new light. By the end of the film, Hiccup has convinced the entire village to overcome their fears. Vikings no longer fear the creatures but begin taking care of them and training them, and they overcome their fear and see a new vision for their life. The village Berk becomes a home, where fears are overcome. 
Our Isaiah text lays out a beautiful image, but it needs some unpacking. The Prophet is envisioning the future. The Lord has gathered all people on God’s holy mountain. God is serving the very best for the people. It is a right feast with wines and the best food. God then destroys any barrier that we have put up. The text indicates that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the peoples, and the sheet that is spread over the nations. God will destroy the sheet that have been spread over the nations and God will consume death forever. God will then comfort all people. God will wipe away all tears and remove disgrace from all people.
The prophet saw that the way the nations and the people were living was leading to death. The only thing that was covering them was a “sheet;” this sheet is a reference to how molten metal is poured, especially for making graven images or idols. These idols represented a system of thought that required work, action, and sacrifice. A group would need to imagine in great detail an idol and how it interacted with people and how it interacted with the world. It becomes a system of thought that would have influenced their imagination and stifled their understanding of the world.
The great sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois explored this idea in his work The Soul of Black Folks and saw this “sheet” or “veil” as the work of racial justice and the ending of white supremacy. He went on to predict that this issue would be the dominate issue of the twentieth century and that African Americans would continue to experience adverse relationship to power and resources. This is a system that certainly leads to death; at the time in which these ideas were penned, lynchings were still common community spectacles. For many African Americans it felt like an apocalypse.
Yet, the prophet is insistent that God will destroy this veil, that distortion between neighbors and nations will be corrected. That the relationship between God and humanity will be corrected, and that God will comfort all those in pain.
We move from Isaiah’s vision to right outside the tomb. We are in good company. We are surrounded by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. The women have come to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus; to cover him in spices and anoint him. They want to ensure that he is buried properly. As they travel to the tomb they wonder how they will move the stone away. To their surprise this heavy stone has been moved, and a man dressed in white is sitting there. They are alarmed by his presence in the tomb. He answers an unasked question. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus is going to Galilee.” At this news the women flee from the tomb in terror.
At times people have expressed dissatisfaction with this resurrection story. Where is the appearance of Jesus? How can the greatest story ever told end in the women fleeing in terror? This disequilibrium even caused early scribes to add alternative endings to the original text to create a more satisfactory experience.
One of things to keep in mind, is that original hearers would have heard this story in a different setting. It would not have been read as a private devotion or even as a small snippet in worship. Most of the time when they heard this ending, it would have been as it was read to the entire community in one long reading almost as a performance. The story would have been building toward this moment. When I read this story I actually find comfort in the disequilibrium, it feels like a cliffhanger. When you finish a book or a tv series and the characters are all facing a dilemma and the book ends. As the reader you are left to wonder what happens next? Wondering what the characters will do next? How will they cope with the new problem they are facing? Will their fear silence them? What will their next chapter look like?
Much of Mark’s gospel is about overcoming fear with faith. After the calming of the storm, Jesus says to the disciples, “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus says to woman with the blood disease, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” To Jairus, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid but believe.” To the father of the sick boy, Jesus says, “Everything is possible for one who believes,” to which the father replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief”. 
At the age of 76, Gertie decided it was time for her to write a new chapter. “She had become concerned about the young people in her church. So, rather than respond with fear she responded with faith, deciding to volunteer at a high school youth group. The pastor asked her what she would like to do. She said, ‘I don’t know; God will think of something.’ Gertie wasn’t a speaker, she couldn’t play games, she didn’t want to lead a bible study. But she had a camera, and she took a picture of every kid in the youth group, and put them on flash cards and wrote down information about them. She would see them at church, youth group, or around town and she would talk to them and pray for them. She memorized all the names and faces and would stand at the door every week and greet every child. Some would run past; others would chat with her. At the age of 86, Gertie had 3 strokes in quick succession. The prospect of her death distressed the kids in the youth group. After reading the book Tuesdays with Morrie, one of the youth leaders had an idea. He approached Gertie and told her ‘I want to lead your funeral.’ She said, ‘I know and I would like you to, but I’m not dead yet.’ He responded, ‘Yes, but I want to do your funeral while you are alive so you can hear just how much you mean to the kids.’ So, they made plans. Ten years worth of kids showed up one night — the place was packed — and the kids told Gertie how much she meant to them. At one point a group of kids walked down the aisle, hiding something, Gertie had always loved perfume. The kids poured the perfume over her feet, anointing her and letting her know that she was loved. ”
Gertie wrote a new chapter. Hiccup wrote a new chapter. W.E. B. Dubois saw a new vision and longed for a new chapter. The gospel gives us all the information we need. The angelic messenger tells us that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead. That Jesus is going ahead of us and that Jesus is no longer here. How will we write the next chapter in this story?
 Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 5859-5863). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 6439-6441). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Yaconelli, Michael. Messy Spirituality: God’s annoying Love for Imperfect People, pg. 118.
Maundy Thursday (4-1-21) — Follow the Leader — Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, John 13: 31-35 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Follow the Leader
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Follow the leader is a classic children’s game where one leader is chosen and all the other children need to mimic or copy or follow what the leader is doing. There are many different versions and variations of this game. Some involve one person standing in the center of group guessing who the leader is as the rest of the group mimics the leaders action. I have even played a blind folded version of this game where the followers have to listen for their leaders voice as the leader shouts directions from the far side of the room. I once saw a group try and navigate an entire floor of a building this way. That day the game finally ended when one older brother kept repeatedly directing his younger brother into a wall. Just goes to show you need to be careful whom you choose to follow.
The scene before our text is John’s Passover scene is unique and beautiful. It differs from the synoptic gospels, the main focus is not the final meal, but the act of foot washing. The meal offers a location and a backdrop. The author of John makes a deliberate choice to emphasize this radical intimate act of foot washing. Jesus knows that his time on earth is drawing to a close and he chooses to love until the very end. It is interesting to note that the Judas is present during this act, that Judas takes part in this act. The accuser had put betrayal in Judas’ heart. But Jesus loves him until the very end.
This act is clearly an act of love. The author notes it does not take place at the arrival of the disciples or the beginning of the meal. It takes place in the midst of the meal. In the midst of a meal, the teacher stands up for one final act. Picture this scene, a table gathering, conversation between friends, probably discussing the weather or March Madness, and the master, the teacher, stands up. No one thinks anything of it at first; it is just the master getting up. But then he does something totally unexpected. The act of foot washing in this culture would have been mundane. It should have been an act reserved for someone on the lowest rung, not the teacher. But this simple act is pregnant with meaning. John uses this line “Jesus, knowing that God had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God, and was going to God, he got up.” The act of foot washing and crucifixion serve as ladder or bridge back to God. It is an important setup, most people miss it when they read this text. They move on right to the foot washing and see it only as an act of service. But this is more than a display of service. Jesus’ understanding of who he was and is, is what causes this act. This is a God act. This is God in Flesh acting. God wearing skin and speaking. John is precise in the details. Jesus takes off his outer robe and wraps a towel around himself and pours water into a basin and begins the act of washing the feet of the disciples.
Have you ever washed anyone’s feet? It is not common in our denomination, but it is still common in many Christian traditions. Youth ministry has long been known for pageantry and display. I think because of this I have taken part in many foot washing ceremonies. I think one of the most memorable for me was the first. I was on a trip with a group. I brought about a dozen middle schoolers to participate in a week of service. It was a trying week. This was before GPS was common and we had these things called maps. I got lost about 3 or 4 times on the way up to our service location. I had an untested leader with me, who for some reason didn’t realize that the words “middle school and camp” means lots of fun, little sleep, and especially from the boys, unidentifiable odors and strange sounds. But we soldiered on, through an amazingly difficult and beautiful week; every time a difficulty came up we would experience a moment of God’s grace. I locked my keys in the van outside of a shelter. Within minutes one of the guests liberated my keys. My team was put in charge of cooking dinner one night for the group 100 campers. I have a lot of spiritual gifts but that was not one of them. The meal was inedible. So, I ordered pizza. The pizza guy showed up and thanked our group repeatedly, because his daughter was participating in the day camp we helped put on, and he took a moment to pray for our entire group. There was not a dry eye in the room. Hardship after hardship led to blessing from God. But then there was Tim. I had trouble connecting with him all week. He didn’t want to listen, he didn’t want serve or work really at all. He just wanted to run around barefoot and sit in the shade. He decided that his feet hurt so instead wearing shoes he decided to wear one pair of socks all week. Everywhere we went I had to check to make sure his shoes were on. But I had two moments with him that changed the way I saw him. All week he was avoiding any activity we did, but then we went to a retirement community. As we pulled up I was mentally picturing all the ways Tim could get himself into trouble, and I was figuring out how I could help him succeed. Our goal was simple, to just to spend time with the residents. Some of residents didn’t get visitors very frequently. So basically our job was to hang out. Some of the kids pulled out nail polish and starting chatting with residents and painting nails. Apparently, Tim had a hidden talent. He could paint nails like nobody’s business. He had three sisters so I am guessing that had something do with it. Tim painted and painted and chatted and chatted. He saw something he could give and he kept giving. Finally, it was the end of the week. The final night of a camp is always emotional, people are ready to go home, they are sad to leave new friends, and they are trying to process what they experienced. The college intern who served as the preacher that week gave a message about service. Then explained we are going to practice serving one another, and he took out a pitcher of water and washed the feet of some of the other staff. Then everyone took turns washing the feet or hands of the person near them. I ended up in line with Tim. As we approached the front of the room he relaxed, tears began forming in his eyes, he sat in the chair. I washed those feet that refused to be bound by shoes. I prayed for him and I think I saw him clearly for the first time not as a kid who refused to listen, but as a kid who was having a hard time adjusting to life and the world he found himself in. I saw him as a child who was beloved by God.
In this beautiful act, Jesus removes all distance between himself and his disciples and puts them face to face with the love of God. This act redefines relationships. The disciples are asked to discard their understanding of Jesus and discard their understanding of how one even comes to God. This relationship is suddenly defined on God’s terms on God’s love and God’s love alone. These disciples are asked for nothing, but the grace of God freely washes over them. Jesus truly has become the Good shepherd from John 10. Calling out to sheep, they listen for him and they follow. That is our invitation to hear the voice of Jesus and allow the grace of God to overflow in our lives.