Rev. Joshua D. Gill
There is a deep connection between spirituality and food. Most major religions have integrated some dietary rules to their observation. The Christian practice of communion, the Jewish Seder, or the Muslim practice of Eid Qurban, where an animal is sacrificed and 1/3 of the meat is kept for the family, 1/3 is given to the neighbors, and 1/3 is given to the poor.
There are also informal moments, I am sure all of us can fondly recall pot-luck meals we may have had as children and their common everyday foods that have religious connections as well. In 1840s there was a Christian sect known as the Millerites. They believed Jesus’ return was imminent, some came to believe that Jesus had returned but they missed him and felt they had to create new foods in order to show they were living in the Kingdom of God. One enterprising pastor developed a cracker in order to keep his congregation from sinning. His name was Sylvester Graham. Another religious devotee from a spiritual community located in the Battle Creek, Michigan named John Harvey Kellogg perfected the “corn flake”.
Our lectionary this morning moves us from the gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John for the several weeks. John has a very different flavor. He has the most developed theology and utilizes different material. This week we are reflecting on the feeding of the 5,000; it is the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. The narrator places this miracle in the context of Passover, the celebration of when God liberated the children of Israel from slavery. The narrator is trying to emphasize that Jesus is pointing to a liberation, a new liberation of the people of God, and this meal is a foreshadowing of that liberation.
In the synoptic Gospels the feeding of the 5,000 is in response to human need and deep from emotion Jesus. Remember last week Jesus saw the people as sheep without a shepherd. But in John, this moment is a test for the disciples. The people have gathered and are hungry. The disciples don’t know what do, but one of the twelve knows of a boy with bread and fish. They bring this boy to the attention of Jesus. It is a reminder that we will often not know what to do, but our starting point should always be to bring it Jesus. We will never know what Jesus will do, but our faith is about expecting that God will do something we hadn’t thought of, something new and creative.
One of the most unique aspects of this interpretation is the distribution of food itself. In the other gospels, the disciples distribute the food. It is a hierarchical relationship, Jesus is at the center and the disciples go forth from him. What we see in John is an intimacy. We see Jesus handing out food directly to the people in need, a reminder that Jesus meets us where we are.
Several years ago, I had the joy of spending the week with a group of tweens as we learned about food insecurity in the U.S. Part of the week was spent on education. We learned about food deserts — places in rural and urban areas that do not have access to fresh fruit or vegetables. We learned that 44 % of SNAP beneficiaries are children under the age of 18, 12% are Seniors, and 9% are those with disabilities. We learned that SNAP benefits do not cover things like diapers, or medicine for children. We also spent time working on a farm gleaning. It is where a farmer donates a portion of their produce for food pantries. Volunteers come in and pick the food then it is transported to a distribution center. That day we picked cauliflower and apples. The final day of the week we worked at a small food pantry interacting with people, and loading cars with some of the items that they picked the day before. It was profoundly meaningful.
Another detail that John offers is that Jesus distributes loaves of barley to the crowd. The scholar Raymond Brown tells us that this is the bread of the poor. What we see being enacted is a feast with a social location, a feast that, while open to all, is meeting a very specific need for those present. It should remind us of the story of Ruth, who after gleaning, returns to her mother-in-law with barley. In some rabbinic interpretations, Boaz’s gift to Ruth is a foreshadowing of a messianic banquet for the poor. Many scholars see John as bringing this foreshadowing to life.
What Jesus did on the mountainside that day for those 5,000 folks was profound, but they would grow hungry again. It was a sign of the kingdom, but it was not fully the kingdom. It was an image of the kingdom.
Sophie Scholl was born in 1921 in a small village in Germany. It was a time of scarcity, political violence, and unemployment. Sophie’s parents raised her to be a free-thinking Christian. As teen she grew up reading Augustine, Pascal, Buddhism, Confucius, the Qur’an and the Bible. Her father told her “What I want for you is to live uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves”. When Sophie was 12 years old Hitler came to power. Like most youth of that generation she joined a Youth League. Sophie and her brother Hans quickly grew disillusioned and started to be openly oppositional of the Nazi regime. Before college she was drafted and was forced to labor in a field at a decrepit castle, raising crops. As she endured this camp she repeated a line of poetry, “Braving all powers, holding your own.”
When she was 21 she was released from her the service and began college in Munich. Her brother Hans was with her. They became convinced that they needed to stand up against Hitler. Hans saw that Communists were taking a stand and he wondered why the follower of Jesus were doing the same. He said to his friends, “what are we going to show in the way of resistance when all this terror is over? We will be standing empty handed.” They decided to form a secret group called the “white rose.” They pictured the Third Reich as an enormous wall. As the white rose, they would discover chips and cracks in that wall and pull it down over time. They believed that if citizens knew what was truly going on they would stop it. They began participating in non-violent acts of resistance, painting the walls of university buildings with slogans like “Down with Hitler.” They began secretly copying the sermons of a Priest who condemned the Nazis. They shared thousands of illegal flyers and messages. They traveled by train to cities around Germany to mail flyers and letters. The Nazis were desperate to know who was doing this. On, February 18, 1943 Hans and Sophie stood on top of a staircase high above the university courtyard. As classes let out she opened a suitcase and leaflets fell all over the courtyard. They were spotted by a janitor and immediately arrested. Within a week, they stood before a judge and he pronounced they would be executed that afternoon. Sophie wrote in a private moment before her death “I shall cling to the rope God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.”
At times the problems we are facing can feel like that stone wall. The rise in hate groups, violence, generational poverty, climate devastation. But the kingdom of God is coming. The kingdom is a feast for the poor, enacted by Jesus, where God’s son is our waiter. The kingdom of God is resistance. Resistance to evil in all its forms. The kingdom of God is that white rose looking for cracks in the wall, breaking in, tearing it down, showing us a better way to live.
 Marsh, Karen. Vintage Saints and Sinners, pg. 177-184
2 Samuel 7:1-14
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
In the recent opinion piece from the NY Times entitled Can Silicon Valley Find God? by Linda Kinstler, the author dives into a budding conversation about the role of Artificial Intelligence in our lives. We may not realize how much we interact with A.I. on a daily basis, but it influences much of our lives in unseen ways, everything from the roads we drive on, the ads and articles we see, what we pay for car insurance, and the list goes on. Shanen Boettcher, a former Microsoft general manager who is pursuing a PH.D. in artificial intelligence and spirituality at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, has been studying how devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa answer the big questions of life like “how should I treat others?” “are humans special among other living things?” “how did all of this come about?” “Why is there evil and suffering the in the world?” “Is there a ‘god’ or something that is bigger than all of us?” These are questions that the religions of the world have been wrestling with since the dawn of time. While much of Silicon Valley avoids espousing any specific religious belief, Linda Kinstler found people around the world wrestling with the spiritual implications of these technologies and how they are influencing our daily lives. Some have left very tech jobs to attend seminary and some have stayed within these tech giants working for change within, leading nonsectarian theological discussions. It is for good reason, we are all aware of the harm that is being done by technology and specifically the harms of A.I.. “Over the last several years there has scholarly research that has exposed racist and discriminatory assumptions baked in machine-learning algorithms.” It has also deeply influenced our politics, our election cycle, the way we view the world, and even our response to the global pandemic. In 2017 Myanmar saw one of the world’s first genocides perpetuated on unfounded internet rumors. Senior members of the military employed a propaganda campaign that specifically sought to capitalize on the assumptions built into A.I., and this genocide caused the death of at least 24,000 people .  The entire world is being shaped by these conversations.
In our passage, the disciples have finally returned from their missionary journey. The apostles gather around Jesus to tell him all that they had done and taught. They decide to avoid the crowds and go to a deserted place. As they are traveling by boat to that place, someone recognizes them and a large crowd arrives ahead of them at their destination. The disciples are tired from their work. The gospel tells us that as Jesus saw the great crowd, he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.
The lectionary then goes past the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, and ends at the healing of the sick in the village of Gennesaret. After crossing the sea, the disciple tie-up the boat and at once people recognize Jesus and they rush him, bringing the sick from surrounding villages, and they beg to even touch the fringe of his cloak.
The way the narrator describes Jesus is interesting. We note again the usage of the shepherd analogy. But what we hear from Jesus is really an overwhelming sense of care and love. Jesus sees the crowds and his heart moves toward compassion. You can picture in your mind all of his potential responses he could have to this crowd. He could have left the scene, climbed back into his boat and gone to another village. He could have told the crowd to move on and work toward a better life. He could have just ignored their needs and focused on himself. But instead what we see is Jesus responding with compassion, Jesus engaging their big questions and Jesus teaching them things.
Compassion seems like it is in short supply in our world today. The world seems to be filled with people who desire to be right, to argue and one-up one another with “what-aboutisms”, looking to find the upper hand. I think one of things to recognize is that this strife is somewhat built into the code. Jesus’ response to the crowd that day and to the crowd this day is one of compassion, one of abundant love.
Henri Nouwen understood this compassion and built his life around it. At the most public point of his career he was a well-known professor at Harvard and Yale; he taught to packed crowds. There is a story that once he was slated to give a lecture in an auditorium, and when he arrived it was so crowded people were sitting in the aisles and the floors. He promised the crowded that anyone who volunteered to leave would be able to return the following night where he would host an encore lecture. The following night the auditorium was over filled all over again. Henri Nouwen wrestled with the big questions, “who am I?” “Am I only what I accomplish?” “Am I only what others think of me?” “Am I only what I have?” He kept going back to the idea “that we are the beloved daughters and sons of God.” For him the compassion of Jesus lead to a journey of downward mobility. He left academic pursuits and moved to L’Arche, a French word for Ark. L’Arche is an intentional community were people living with intellectual disabilities and those who come to help them share life together as equal members. It is understood that each person brings unique and mysterious gifts to group. The group always centers itself on invitation from Jesus to be the center of everything. Henri took a job at L’Arche, not as the director of spirituality, but as a direct-care assistant to a young member named Adam, a young man who could not move by himself or even speak. A young man who not have cared about Henry’s academic credentials.
At our very core, Jesus challenges us to faithfully look at the big questions, to wrestle with our place in the world, and all the while Jesus is looking upon us with compassion. In one of the many books he wrote, Henri Nouwen offers the following; he says Jesus whispers to you and encourages you to make this your own prayer: ‘I am beloved. God is well pleased with me. Not because people say I’m great, but because God named me beloved even before I was born.” The world may reject me, praise me, laugh at me, but no matter what comes, I am the beloved of God. I can live on. Beloved. Beloved. That’s who I am. That’s who you are. 
 Marsh, Karen. Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians who transformed my faith, pg 37-41
7-11-21 — A Prophet Murdered by the State — Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19, Mark 6:14-29 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19
A Prophet Murdered by the State
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
On June 23, 2018, people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, DC for the Poor People’s Campaign. This is a campaign that the PCUSA supports; it was a march on the U.S. Capitol, to call upon on our elected officials to take action for those who had been suffering at the hands of government policies. As part of that march they sang a song by Yara Allen called “Somebody’s Hurting My Brother.” It is a call and response protest song “Somebody’s hurting my brother & it’s gone on far too long, gone on far too long, gone on far too long, somebody’s hurting my brother & it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore.” It has several verses “Somebody’s hurting my sister,” “Somebody’s poisoning the water,” “Somebody’s ignoring the homeless.”  The song is a commitment to not be silent in the face of injustice.
In our Gospel text the writers suddenly interrupt the narrative; directly before this Jesus has sent out the twelve charging them with sharing the gospel, driving out demons, and healing the sick. You would expect a report on this missionary experiment. Instead you are suddenly forced to wrestle with this text about John Baptist. The writers almost casually mention that King Herod is wondering if Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. That is when we learn that King Herod has beheaded John. The Gospel Mark goes into far more detail about this passage than Matthew, and Luke skips this episode altogether. This is out of the ordinary for Mark, as he frequently leaves out details and moves quickly from moment to moment in the Gospel. But he clearly wants us to ponder this moment. The King Herod described here in the text is the Son of the more famous and notorious “Herod the Great.” Moreover, he is not truly a King but a Roman client that rules only as an arm of Rome. Either way, he has John arrested. But John is arrested not for his preaching, or for baptizing in the Jordan, but because he had the audacity to tell the truth to someone in power. The text tells us that Herod held a grudge against him, but was scared to kill him. This fear won’t stay his hand as he has promised a girl anything she wants, even half his kingdom. The girl is manipulated by her mother into wanting John dead. Herod looks like a buffoon, John is killed by the state for telling the truth, and this girl is used by those around her.
In our lectionary text from 2nd Samuel, David has finally risen to power. He has united the tribes, and David decides to make Jerusalem his city. Up until this point, Jerusalem was nothing more than a footnote. But David decides it will be his seat of power, and in order to consolidate his power, he decides to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his city. The Ark was understood as a box that contained the stone tablets in which God’s commandments were written. It was also understood as an instrument of war the Israelite God would sit enthroned upon and watch the battle and give aide to Israel. That is likely how the sons of Eli had lost the ark in the first place. They brought it to battle the Philistines, the Philistines captured the ark, but it caused so many problems for the Philistines that they returned it to the Israelites. The Israelites debated about what to do with it and they are so scared they hide it away for about 20 years — until David comes along to build his city. With much sacrifice and fanfare, the Ark is moved to the city. The lectionary skips this part, but while on the way to Jerusalem, the Ark almost falls to the ground. Uzzah steadies the ark and is immediately killed. So, the fanfare stops. David is scared of this object and stashes it at the home Obed-edom. God blesses Obed-edom’s household so David decides he needs it back. The procession restarts after a three-month delay. As they approach the city, one of David’s wives, Michal, daughter to Saul, sees him and despises him. Michal is upset with him and confronts him. The narrator states that Michal is upset by the way he is dancing and acting in front of the Ark and in front of other women. The story ends that Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no children until the day of her death. Some commentators argue that she is jealous or embarrassed by the way he was dancing, but she had so many reasons to not like David. David had killed members of her own family and benefited from some suspicious deaths of her family members. She was David’s wife, but she was treated as a pawn by the men around her. She was given by her father Saul in marriage David, and scripture tells us “she loved David.” She protected David when at one point Saul decided to kill him, lying to her father. As retaliation Saul took her from David and gave her to Palti. Then David demands her back as a spoil of war. 2 Samuel 3 tells us that Palti loved her so much that as she was led away he followed the whole way walking and weeping behind her until he was ordered by Abner to “to go home,” the way one might talk to a dog. Michal is treated unjustly to say the very least, and she is forced to watch David lead a procession in which the Ark is brought into the city – a procession in which he is the worship leader. The God who expects worship is the same God who, according to Amos, expects justice. The God of the plumb line who measures our commitments to justice.
One of the background characters in the Harry Potter series is a boy named Neville Longbottom. He is not very popular, he is always losing things, and in general serves as tragic comic relief. But what is always interesting about him is he always does what it is right, even if it costs him. In the first book, Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone, Neville confronts Harry, Ron, and Hermione for breaking the rules, sneaking out past curfew, and costing their house points — an adventure in which our trio save the day. The headmaster professor Dumbledore said this about Neville, “There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Courage to do what is right. Bravery to stand up to those around us.
In 2008 a Taliban leader in Northwest Pakistan, issued a warning — all female education had to cease within a month, or schools would suffer consequences. Ziauddin Yousfzai asked a local army commander what do. The commander assured him that they would provide security and not to close the school. Ziauddin’s daughter Malala, began writing a blog for the BBC, about her hopes and fears as a young girl being educated in the Swat. She began to raise her voice, speaking out on local tv, sharing about the importance of education. In 2012 life seemed fairly normal; the worst days of the Taliban power had receded, but there were a few militants still in the Swat. On October 9 as her bus was making its way to Malala’s home, it was flagged down by two armed men. They were looking for Malala; she was shot along with two other friends. Malala’s life was hanging by a thread. She was flown to a hospital where she underwent several surgeries. A team of specialists saved her life and began to help her recover. On July 12, nine months after the shooting, Malala stood up at the UN headquarters and addressed a specially convened youth assembly. She began her speech with “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.”
The gospel calls us always to stand up for what is right and the prophet tells us that justice is the measurement.