Sermon Sheep and Wolves Rev. Joshua D. Gill
The good shepherd seeks out sheep that are lost and separated from the herd. I read a modern twist on this. Rene Compean went for a hike in the Angeles National Forest. While on that hike he became hopelessly lost; he couldn’t find the trail and couldn’t find his way. He began yelling for help. He wrote SOS on the side of a rock face, hoping someone would see it. He had his cell phone, a power bar, and a bottle of water. His cell phone was almost dead and he couldn’t get a signal. He decided to hike higher into the mountain in the hopes of getting a signal. He texted a friend, “SOS. My phone is about to die and I am lost.” He sent two photos with this text. Only one photo went through. It was a picture of his soot covered legs hanging over the cliff face. The photo was very low resolution and it didn’t have GPS enabled, so the friend wasn’t able to tell where the photo came from. He contacted the police. The local sheriff spent the night looking for Rene and they were unable to locate him. In the morning the sheriff tweeted the photo asking the Twitterverse if anyone knew the area and that they had a missing hiker. Ben Kuo, who saw the tweet, thought he could figure out where Rene was. Ben works in tech but he also has a unique hobby. He likes to look at satellite data to help track wildfires, and on occasion he likes to use that satellite data to figure out where photos were taken. Ben has never been to the area where Rene was lost. But he immediately looked at the photo and was able to begin to narrow in the search window. He quickly realized that Rene was on the south side of the mountain, on the north side there were no green plants and he could see green shrubs dangling below his feet. He found a location that resembled the terrain in the area and cross-referenced it with Google Earth and realized they matched. He called the sheriff’s office with this information. The sheriff’s office dispatched a helicopter with a search and rescue team and were able to locate Rene almost immediately. Rene had spent the night chilled to the bone huddling in a tight ball with only his shorts and tank top. He kept a stick and sharp rocks with him throughout the night as he had spotted a mountain lion. He said it was terrifying, and the sheriff’s department told him he was lucky. 
In his classic work To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer describes both knowing and being known as emanating from love. He notes that the kind of love that shapes our knowing and being known is not a “soft and sentimental virtue, not a fuzzy feeling of romance.” For Palmer, this love is the “connective tissue of reality” that makes a bold claim on our lives. It implicates us in the web of life and wraps both the knower and the known in compassion. Palmer says this knowing results in an “awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, and accountability.” 
Many people don’t feel known or loved. Many thought that social media would fill this void, it was supposed to help us feel more connected with one another. But survey after survey has shown there has been a steady increase in feelings of isolation and loneliness. Psychologists report an epidemic of loneliness and the pandemic has only magnified this sense of loneliness. I have heard many people describe the monotony of the pandemic experience. People want to know and be known by others.
Both of our readings this morning transpire in the context of a healing narrative. In the reading from Acts, Peter has just healed a man at the Gate called Beautiful. The people were filled with wonder and amazement at what Peter was able to do. Peter and John then go and begin preaching to those gathered at the temple. What we are seeing is people trying to sort out reality. The followers of Jesus are trying to sort out reality. The lines have suddenly become fuzzy. They are residents of the Roman empire, but they are tied to Israel both through lineage and tradition. They are also followers of the Messiah Jesus. As they are preaching, Sadducees come and arrest the disciples. Arrested, they are suddenly giving testimony in a Roman imperial court. They go from a position of authority to a place of being questioned — by whose authority or power they did this healing?
It is significant that it is the Sadducees who arrest Peter and John. These would have been aristocrats of their day. This included the high priest who yielded power in Jerusalem and the temple. They guarded the shrine, the most holy place. They oversaw the sacrificial system and had great economic power. It was the high priest that the Roman Governor would have done business with.  This power that they have is partially why they reject the idea of resurrection. Resurrection is a dangerous idea. It declares that the living God is going to put everything right once and for all, that all things will be restored. If you are in a position of power this type of thinking is deeply concerning. What happens if you move from powerful to powerless? Their response would have made little sense to the religious leaders. Who is this Jesus? When did he come back from the dead? God grants Peter boldness and he is filled with the spirit and responds. Peter’s response is about pointing to the source of true power, of true life, pointing to Jesus.
Peter says this Jesus is the stone that the builder rejected and it has become the cornerstone. When builders were constructing a house or a wall. They would reject any stones with odd shapes, because they wouldn’t fit in. They would be thrown into the rejected pile. But this rejected Jesus will change the world. This rejected Jesus who calls himself the good shepherd.
The page before, Jesus helped a man receive his sight by spitting in the mud and having him wash in the pool of Siloam. The Pharisees see the formerly blind man and ask how he received his sight. When he testifies to Jesus’ healing, the Pharisees reject his testimony and throw him out. Jesus than explains to the man and the Pharisees that he is the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd has come to save, call, protect, feed, and lead the sheep to their true home. The sheep in turn hear, follow, recognize, and benefit from the shepherd. They hear the shepherd’s voice. They find peace and pasture.
The Good Shepherd helps us to know and be known. We are known by God, so we can be known by friends, family, and our church community. Jesus calls us to live a life of love for one another.
 Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 7813-7819). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N.T. Acts For Everyone Part 1, pg 62.
You are Witnesses
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
In her Book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents Isabel Wilkerson shares the following story.
It was a sunny day in Youngstown Ohio in 1951. A little league team had won the city championship. The coaches, unthinkingly, decided to celebrate the team picnic at a public pool. When the team arrived at the gate, a lifeguard stopped one of the Little Leaguers from entering. It was Al Bright, the only black player on the team. His parents had not been able to attend the picnic, and the coaches and some of the other parents tried to persuade the pool officials to let the little boy in, to no avail. The only thing the lifeguards were willing to do was to let them set a blanket for him outside the fence and to let people bring him food. He was given little choice and had to watch his teammates splash in the water and chase each other on the pool deck, while he sat alone on the outside.
From time to time, one or another of the players or adults came out and sat with him before returning to join the others. It took an hour or so for a team official to finally convince the lifeguards that they should at least allow the child into the pool for a few minutes. The supervisor agreed to let the Little Leaguer in, but only if everyone else got out of the water, and only if Al followed the rules they set for him.
First, everyone, meaning his teammates, the parents, and everyone else that had come to the pool that day, had to get out of the water. Once everyone cleared out, Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft. A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents, and onlookers watched from the sidelines.
After the agonizing few minutes that it took to complete the circle, Al was then escorted to his assigned spot on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again. “Just don’t touch the water. Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” A little part of Al died that afternoon. One of the coaches offered him a ride home, and he declined. With a championship trophy in hand, Al walked the mile or so back home. He was never the same.
Our New Testament text today is very similar to the resurrection appearance we read last week from the book of John, but the emphasis is a little different. On the previous page, two of the disciples have just walked the Emmaus road with Jesus and they have returned to tell the disciples that the Lord had risen, that he had opened the scriptures to him. When suddenly Jesus appears among them. There is again this question of doubt in Luke’s interpretation. The doubt centers mostly on the question “Is Jesus a ghost?” Jesus invites them to touch him and see that he is not a ghost, to touch and feel his flesh and bones. As if to make his point even further, Jesus then asks for something to eat. He wants to prove to them that he is alive and well. This is not to show that God can resuscitate the dead, but to validate the ways in which God performs redemption among us in Jesus. These are the hands that reached out to raise a widow’s dead son, that lifted Jairus’s daughter from death to life, the hands that blessed the little children. His feet were those kissed and anointed by one looking for acceptance. His feet were the feet that carried him from village to village and then to the cross. This is a validation of Jesus, of Jesus’ ministry and the way in which we as people of faith are called to embody the good news to world. To be the hands and feet of Christ in our community.
The passage transitions into a moment of commissioning, where Jesus reminds those gathered that what was written about him has been fulfilled; that everything in the law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms has been fulfilled. Because these words have been fulfilled, Jesus sends them into the world. They are sent in the world not as soldiers, not as revolutionaries, not as celebrities. They are sent into the world as witnesses. No weapons, no credentials, no powerful friends, just being sent out with what they have seen and heard in Jesus. They are called to be truth tellers. But Jesus does one more thing before the close of the chapter — he blesses them. It is the reminder that we are called to be witnesses who bless God’s world. Truth tellers who bless the world. Truth tellers who bear witness to the world around them.
In his sermon “Love in Action,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes how the blindness of humanity is often what perpetuates injustice, evil, and oppression. Good people who were blind to the realities around them. “Good people who were anchored in the religious faith of their mothers and fathers.” Good people who used this religion and positions of power “as instruments to crystalize the status quo.” He goes on to say that if our community and nation fails it will fail it will be due to “its undeniable sinfulness, but also it’s appalling blindness.” “The call is for open-mindedness, sound judgement, and love for truth. A call to rise above the stagnation and the paralysis…. “
Seventy years ago, we might never have heard Al’s story. We have all seen the results — all across this country, thousands of city and township run pools were closed simply to avoid Al getting in the water. Yet Jesus calls us to be witnesses, to tell the truth and to bless the world this day. Witnesses to what is happening in our in our world today, witnesses to yet another mass shooting, witnesses to the death of a 13-year-old at the hands of a police officer….
We are living in a day and age, in which we can pick and choose our own media ecosphere, an ecosphere which reinforces whatever opinion we would like to have reinforced. I have already read the victim blaming stories that say a 13-year-old shouldn’t have been out at 2:30 in the morning, implying and sometimes outright stating that Adam’s mother was somehow uncaring or absent. The truth is, she put him to bed.  As a youth pastor I got a few of those calls from exasperated parents, and on few occasions from a teenager who got in more trouble than they expected in the middle of the night. I can assure you the results were not the same. I have also read the narratives blaming all police officers. The truth is, they have an insanely hard job and we ask too much of them. This same ecosystem would pretend that you can’t affirm both of these ideas, that you can’t advocate for police reform and support your community, that you can’t have freedom and advocate for gun control to end these mass shootings. This is simply not true.
Yet into this mess Jesus is calling; calling us to be witnesses to bless God’s world. Calling us to open-mindedness, sound judgement, and love for truth. Calling us to rise above the stagnation and the paralysis. Calling us as witnesses to bless God’s world. How will you respond to Jesus’ charge?
 Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, pg 120.
 Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Location 7381). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Seeing and Believing
Howard Thurman shares the following story in Jesus and the Disinherited. He writes, “When I was a very small boy in 1910, Halley’s comet visited our solar system. For a long time, I did not see the giant in the sky because I was not permitted to remain up after sundown. My chums had seen it and had told me perfectly amazing things about it. Also, I had heard of what were called ‘comet pills.’ You see some enterprising charlatans had latched onto an idea that poisonous gas would be released through the tail of the comet they began selling comet umbrellas, comet gas masks, and comet pills all things would stop the coming global destruction. The fear consumed people; it is reported that churches were packed as people prepared for the end.” Howard Thurman continues, “One night I was awakened by my mother, who told me to dress quickly and come with her out into the backyard to see the comet. I shall never forget it if I live forever. My mother stood with me, her hand resting on my shoulder, while I, in utter, speechless awe, beheld the great spectacle with its fan of light spreading across the heavens. The silence was like that of absolute motion. Finally, after what seemed to me an interminable time interval, I found my speech. With bated breath I said, ‘What will happen to us if that comet falls out of the sky?’ My mother’s silence was so long that I looked from the comet to her face, and there I beheld something in her countenance that I had seen only once before, when I came into her room and found her in prayer. When she spoke, she said, ‘Nothing will happen to us, Howard; God will take care of us.’
The passage we read moments ago begins on Easter evening. Earlier that morning Jesus was resurrected and some of the disciples and a couple of Marys ran to the tomb and saw that it was empty. Peter ran off believing but not understanding. One Mary stood outside the tomb weeping; Jesus suddenly appears to her only to disappear again. Mary tells the followers of Christ. That evening the community gathers. I want you picture this gathering — a simple room with maybe a window or two, lit by oil lamps. The room is large enough for a gathering. It has an earthy smell, it smells of stale bread and spent wine, it smells of humanity mourning. A collection of people gathered to mourn, to hear about the empty tomb, and to respond to Mary’s claims of having seen the master. You can sense the fear in the room; the people who had Jesus killed are still in power. The gathered are wondering if they are next. Each person wondering what do we do? What do we do about the report of the empty grave? Will they think we stole the body? What do we do with Mary; she claims she saw the Lord? How is the high council going to react? Will their bloodlust be satisfied with the death of Jesus? Or will they be worried about a continued revolution and put us all down. You can picture the tears as they mourn Jesus. They experience anxiety at every noise and every creak. “What is that?” Oh, just the wind. “Is that a torch?” No not the torches of roman soldiers, just the last light of the setting sun.
Suddenly into this fear-laden anxious room the Master appears, saying, “Peace be with you.” The sudden appearance of the Lord must also have been fear-inducing and anxiety producing in its own right. A moment of disbelief must have ensued; surely this is not the master? We saw him die! We saw the crowds shouting crucify, crucify! In a heartbeat the disbelief would have led to self-examination. Peter welling up with tears, thinking, “but I denied knowing him.” Another disciple thinking, “I wasn’t faithful to the end, what will he say?” Another follower stunned into silence wondering, “what will he do?”
Jesus offers peace to all in the room. They hesitantly approach him inspecting his body. They know his hands and feet well even with the wounds. These are the hands and feet of the master. The followers of Christ press in and the inspection turns into a giant hug and celebration. These men and women who moments ago were weeping are blown over by an Easter tidal wave of peace and joy. Jesus calms the room and calls for peace and begins to address the room. He tells them that as “The father has sent me so I send you.” Jesus is echoing his prayer found in John 17. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” A world which will not understand them, a world that will hate them, but a world that is dearly in need of Jesus. A world in which they are to be known by love and acts of love. Then Jesus breathes on them. Jesus is creating new life. We are reminded of the first creation as God breathed into the nostrils of humankind and Adam draws breath. We are reminded of the breath of life coming to Ezekiel’s dry bones and bones walk gaining flesh and living again being the hope to Israel. We are reminded of a world of new life and recreation where those who hear and believe are grafted on as the children of God. A new world is being born in a tiny upstairs room, with dirty, tired, tear stained faces. These reborn children are commissioned to be sent into the dark world. Jesus closes, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retained the sins of any are retained.” Like those in the upper room we are left wondering what has just happened? What did Jesus command us to do?
If we are to understand this passage we need keep a few things in mind. This is a gift for all the gathered community. The statements from Jesus are not just to the disciples but to all the people of God. From this community the spirit of God is unleashed on the world. The author of John is making a theological point, Easter and Pentecost have merged. A community is to be recreated, reimagined, the community of God an Easter people. Easter is not just a momentary celebration, it is a moment we hear from God our marching orders. Where we the people of God are sent out to do and be the ministry of Christ in this world.
The community gathered in this upper room is charged with living out the words of Christ and by extension we have charged to live out the words and actions of Christ in the same way he lived them out. Christ the connector of people, Christ the good shepherd, Christ the healer, and Christ the suffering servant.
The enigmatic phrase we read at the end seems a little odd. Forgive and retain are not common words in John’s gospel but “sin” is. John’s use of it is a little different. “Sin” in John’s gospel is not a moral failing but a theological. To have sin is be blind to the revelation of God. To have sin is to fail to see God’s work in the world through Jesus Christ. To have “sin” is to fail to see the in-breaking of God. To have sin is to fail to love the world, to love the people God has placed in it.
The purpose of the church to help people see this revelation, to be signposts of love so people can see Jesus in the church and in us. The disciples moved from fear to peace to purpose. In Acts we read of the Spirit coming and changing these fearful followers of Christ into men and women who turned the world upside down with the love of God.
In the book Godbearing Life “the Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Richard Foster and Kenda Creasy Dean, they write, “God invites us to live out this purpose.“ Ministry focuses on relationships, not only because of who people are but because of who God is. God is relationship — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…– God’s love is so generous the Godhead alone cannot contain it. Significant relationships matter because they teach us something about what God is like — the One who can love us in spite of ourselves and who loves us passionately enough to suffer willingly on our behalf.” God is relationship and in our relationships we are called to live out this purpose to live in such a way that we point to God; to live such a way that our very lives show others the work of God in this world. These are our marching orders. We are called to move from fear, and embrace peace and live with purpose.
 Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited (pp. 56-57). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
 Dean and Foster: The God bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry, Upper Room Books, TN. pg 27
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.