“Looking Back Looking Ahead”
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Typically, in our Gospel texts we see someone coming to entrap Jesus or questioning his authority. But what we see today is Jesus asking his followers a question, “who do you say that I am?” There have probably been thousands of books written on this simple question. Peter jumps in with the right answer, “You are Messiah.” We all know this is a loaded term for Peter — Messiah coming remove Rome. Yet that is not what Jesus meant in this moment. We have all heard the idea that “If you want to see God laugh tell God your plans,” instead in this case Peter “tells God his plans and God turns his back and calls him the devil.” In Peter’s defense this view was a deeply ensconced view, one in which people spent centuries mixing Scripture with their hopes, dreams, and understanding of God into a mold of their own image. Their faith had become wrapped up with their nationality and God was breaking that mold.
Peter answers this question correctly but fails to understand the lesson. Jesus explains if you want to truly follow him, you must take up your cross, if you work to save your life you will lose it and if lose your life for Jesus you will save it. The word here to “lose” doesn’t just mean to displace something but instead to permanently be separated form something. The idea is that the actions that guide our purposes in life, if they are not of God then we need to disconnect from them in order to reconnect to God. But there is also another meaning of the word lose here and it works on another level, it also means “to ruin” something. For Peter, Jesus “ruined” his idea of Messiah with his talk of suffering and death. Jesus invites Peter and all of us to ruin our own lives according to the patterns of this world. Jesus invites us to go against those things that disconnect us from God. 
Like most of us I have done plenty of reflecting this week on the events of September 11, 2001. Most of us can recall where we were on that day. This was the fall of my Senior Year in college, and I was walking to a 9 a.m. class when a friend told me the class was canceled because of something that happened in New York. I remember it was really hard to get information, websites weren’t great, we didn’t have smart phones, and our dorms didn’t have cable. I remember packing into the student lounge with lots of people and watching everything unfold on the news. But the thing I really remember the most about that day was just someone spontaneously leading a group outside and the massive prayer circle that formed on our baseball field. For me this tragedy in some ways felt like a book end. My freshman year of college the Columbine massacre unfolded, showing us our classrooms were no longer safe, and now this showing us as a nation we were no longer safe.
It has been a sobering reminder watching all the coverage this last week, reading peoples experiences, listening to podcasts, and once again entering into our national grief. I once heard someone describe grief as being dropped on a mountain with broken bones — some of us will heal and get down that mountain in time, others of us will get down but walk with a permanent limp, and others of us will stay on that mountain.
As I have reflected on these events, the question I keep wrestling with is have we learned the right lessons twenty years later?
Have we lived up to the sacrifices so many made that day? This week I heard so many stories of heart wrenching sacrifice, the story of Joseph Pfeifer a battalion chief who sent his own brother Kevin and hundreds of other fire fighters up the North tower never to see them again. Or as former President Bush described it yesterday, “the 33 passengers and 7 crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate. In a sense, they stood in for us all.” “The terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, and braced each other for action.” Or the sacrifice of the members of our military and their families who have given so much over the last twenty years. Have we as a people lived up to those sacrifices?
Have we pulled together as a nation? One of the videos that caught my eye this week was the video of Congress singing “God Bless America.”  It is a deeply moving clip as the song seems to spontaneously bubble up. Watching this now, one has to wonder could this spontaneous moment even happen today? Do we have that same sense of unity now? Can we pull together as a nation to work for the betterment of all people? Former Secretary of Health John W. Gardner, speaking in 1995, said it this way, “If we are to repair the citizen’s disastrous loss of civic faith, citizen involvement is essential and must have a sense of ownership. They must feel they are listened to, that they will have their say, and that they are respected.” Can we pull together as a nation?
Twenty years later, we are in place few would have predicted and we are wrestling with unexpected problems and issues. Yet we are all are called to mutually sacrifice for one another, to look for the great good, and as Jesus said it, ruin our lives for others so that we might find life.
 Selected remarks by John W. Gardner at leadership USA session November 18,1995.
“Wanderings and Healings”
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
We encounter two interesting stories in this week’s lectionary. The story of the Syrophoenician woman and the story of the healing of a beggar are fascinating pieces of scripture. It is important to remember the story from last week as you may remember Jesus had been ambushed by the Pharisees, and they debated what makes someone unclean; Jesus says that it is what comes out of our heart that defiles the heart. As he is recovering from this interaction, Jesus moves onto a new region, a Gentile region, and he has this interaction with this woman. She is a Greek or a gentile woman, so she is outside the house of Israel. Jesus is pretty harsh with her. Interpreters that have looked at this interaction over the years struggled with the way Jesus is portrayed in this exchange. They have really ended up interpreting this passage in a few different ways. The first is the idea that something is lost in translation, that in the Greek it is more like Jesus is calling her a “puppy” rather than a dog. That he is including everyone in a household scene with family and pets gathered around a table, and in our English translations we are missing the nuance of the scene. The second interpretation is the Devil’s advocate interpretation. That the disciples are with Jesus in this moment and Jesus is allowing himself to look mean and foolish to reinforce the idea that the gospel is not just meant for the Jews, and the gospel is expanded to everyone. The third interpretation is what I like to call “Cranky Jesus”. Jesus was simply tired and wanted to be left alone and that is the state in which this woman meets Jesus. It is kind of like in the Hebrew scriptures when we see God change God’s mind or God suddenly change the course of action.
The other major question scholars wrestle with in interpreting this passage is the social location of woman in the story. Many of us when we read this text assume Jesus is in the position of authority, that this is a woman who crept into the home and tried to get Jesus’ attention out of sheer desperation. She may have even been a widow or someone from lower economic status. In this case Jesus’ words sound even harsher. But there is also an alternate reading of this story. That this woman is actually a power broker in Tyre, one of the economic and political elites. It may be that instead of sneaking in she boldly walked into the room and, accustomed to her place of privilege, demanded her daughter be healed. This is a modern day equivalent of “Karen” asking to see the manager. Once scholar read Jesus’ words as “First, let the poor people in Jewish rural areas be satisfied. For it is not good to take the poor people’s food and throw it to the rich Gentiles in cities.” That this exchange is actually an act of resistance. However you read this exchange, what you are left with is a woman boldly claiming the grace and mercy be extended to her as well.
Or just maybe though what we are actually seeing is Jesus himself realizing something truly wonderful and choosing to live out these values. If we truly do a close read of this text, we see Jesus teaching a value last week; the value of inclusion. A now Jesus is facing a real-life situation where he needs to apply the value he just taught. So, Jesus does a deep dive healing a woman who is persistently advocating for her daughter but is outside the Covenant, and healing a beggar along the road who is also outside the covenant. What we see from Christ is the best way to do the will of God is through inclusion and this week we see that principle lived out through personal application. 
At the heart of it this passage is an invitation into a better way of life, God’s way of life. That we are invited into an expansive gospel. Not a gospel that places arbitrary barriers in front of people. A gospel that no matter who we are, how others see us, knows that Christ is welcoming us into the family of God.
The lectionary then moves on to Jesus’ encounter with a deaf-mute Gentile. Jesus does not turn him away, in fact his healing is striking in its intimacy and touch. Jesus is zealously proclaiming this expansive gospel. I wanted to close with this poem from Malcome Guite it is based off this lectionary reading. As Jesus opens the ears and mouth of the man he uses an Aramic word “Ephphatha” “be Opened”. These stories are a call to the church asking us how we need to be opened.
Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
‘Be opened and the truth will set you free’,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened,’ how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.
 Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 298). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Inside and Out
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Before I was married. I was living in an apartment near my old church. A member in her 80s lived a couple doors down. Her name was Sadie. Sadie was a wonderful lady. She never married; she lived her entire life with two of her sisters. When I met her she was living alone. She had lived in the community for so long a lot of people would stop in and do little favors for her. She was a lifelong member of the fire department, and those guys were constantly stopping to check on her. I had a little job as well in the winter. I would stop by every couple of days and bring in wood for her. I remember chatting with her once; she was telling me about church and she told me this funny story. For years she had a volunteer job in the church. She would cover communion. When she told me this I had to ask what she meant. She said that every time they had communion she would wake up early and iron a pure white fabric almost like a tablecloth, and before the service, the elements would be covered by this fabric. During the middle hymn the elders and deacons would come forward, and her and another volunteer would follow the deacons and elders that would stop at either side of the table. They would lift the fabric off the elements and then fold the fabric, but they didn’t just fold it, she said you had to fold it a certain way. It almost sounded like the way you might fold a flag. She said one Sunday she walked into church and, to her horror, forgot it was a communion. She hadn’t ironed the fabric and didn’t have it with her. She remembered feeling like she let down God and the congregation. She didn’t know what to do so she just sat down. She told me how no one said anything, communion still happened, she still connected with Jesus, and the people still connected with Jesus.
The lectionary moves us from John into the Gospel of Mark. The Pharisees and some of the scribes arrive to set up another argument with Jesus. The criticism they present is one in a long list of criticisms. So far they have criticized him for eating meals with tax collectors and sinners, for picking grain on the Sabbath, for not fasting, for healing at the wrong time, for blasphemy for forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man.
The argument they unleash is about ritual purity, not about cleanliness. It is important to understand that, especially in the light of our global crisis. A ritual bath or ritual washing might even have been done in smelly stagnant water as long as it was blessed at one time. What Jesus is talking about is far more significant — what is the right way to honor God in all aspects of one’s life.
What we are witnessing is a first-century disagreement on how to follow God. For example, the priestly families in Jerusalem thought the maintenance of the temple was the best way to keep the commandments and were willing cooperate with the Roman authorities. The Zealots believed that it was impossible to follow God’s will as long as Rome held the lands as colonies, so its entire goal was to overthrow Roman authority. The Pharisees’ main followers were in areas outside of Jerusalem. So, they worked to adapt customs and religious laws, and it vastly altered the pollical and social landscape. To be ritually clean, was a biblical law for entering the temple, but this was not a concern for a Galileans because they would not be going to the temple. So, the Pharisees’ innovation was to extend these ritual purity laws far outside of the temple to the countryside. They believed this was how you honored God
Jesus is essentially trying to adjust their spiritual map and our spiritual map. What the Pharisees are essentially arguing is that what you come into contact with is what separates you from God. We see this in the parable of the good Samaritan. The priest avoids the man lying in the ditch so he can remain religiously pure. But Jesus is arguing is what keeps us from connecting to God is our hearts, a hateful hearts, bad intentions, and hypocrisy things that lead to damage and a trail of devastation. But before we look down our noses at these Pharisees we have to ask the question how often has Christianity been weaponized in the same manor? Vice lists that were compiled that have less to do about harm and more to do with someone’s perception of moral purity.
The Presbyterian Liturgy does its best to remind us of the damage that can be done. Every single week we pray a prayer of confession. This prayer should be a moment when we pause and truly reflect on the damage we have done on an individual level and the damage we have done on a societal level. Or about once a month we gather around the table. Part of our reflection should be about recognizing that we all have the capacity to be Judas; Jesus shared a meal with his betrayer. The former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once said that the Lord’s Supper “reminds us of the need for honest repentance—of the need to confront our capacity to betray and forget the gift we have been given.” The Lord’s Supper should lead to honesty, self-awareness, and repentance, it should draw worshipers into gratitude for the world and for each other. “It changes how we see one another as we learn to see our neighbor as God’s guest.”
This week we are celebrating the gifts of the Stephen Ministers. One of their roles in the church is to help us recognize the love of God, and especially when we are experiencing some difficulty. Amity Haugk, a program staff member for Stephen Ministry, shares a story of a woman named Megan. She writes that Megan met with her pastor and the pastor encouraged Megan to connect to a Stephen Minster. She was initially hesitant but decided to try, and what she experienced changed her, “ I’d been struggling with some spiritual wounds that were pretty intense and in need of healing— things I didn’t want to share with family and friends. But on that visit, as my Stephen Minister walked next to me, I felt safe and comfortable. So, I shared my deepest hurts with her—some really painful things that I feared she might judge me for and that made me wonder if God could possibly love me. After I told her those things, I was really nervous and dreading her response. I was worried that she would think I was an awful person. But instead, she put her arm around me and said, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through that.’ And that was a turning point for me. To go from fear of judgment to a positive affirmation of care, empathy—and even sorrow for what I’d been through—it was so meaningful. That’s when I began to feel God’s love again.”
Jesus tells us it is not what is outside of us that makes us unclean, but it is what comes out of our hearts, and we know that God was constantly getting into trouble for loving too much and forgiving too much.
 Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 278). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 280). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.