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12-24-21 — Sheep, Fields, and Fears — Luke 2:1-14 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Sheep, Fields, and Fears

Luke 2:1-14

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

The other day I read article in the Washington Post that was pretty inspiring. Sydney Page writes, “ It started last November with single string of Christmas light on a Baltimore County street.” Kim Morton was sitting at home watching a movie with her daughter when she got a text from her neighbor Matt Riggs. The text told her to take a peek outside. She looked outside and saw a small tin of cookies on her porch and string of white Christmas light stretching over the street from his home to hers. Matt wanted Kim to know that they were always connected even in pandemic isolation.  Morton had been with dealing with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. What happened next was surprising to Matt Riggs. Over the next week neighbor after neighbor began stringing lights from side of the street to other, from house to house. One neighbor spent all night bending coat hangers and attaching lights to build a sign that says, “Love, Lives, Here”. The lights began to spread outside of their block, and soon other blocks started to follow suit. Each block put slightly different twist on it. Some blocks, used color bulbs, others used twinkling bulbs, still added light up signs that said “dream” and “believe”.

For this neighborhood lights began to push back the darkness for everyone. [1] The lights connecting everyone in a difficult moment. But they silent witnesses to one other thing, they don’t deny existence of the darkness, they simply found a better way to overcome it the way of community, of unity and of love.

Our scripture tells us of another darkness. Instead of pandemic, it is an oppressed people. A people who have been marginalized, conquered, and ruled. Rome demands they be registered, so they travel to Bethlehem. In the midst of this brokenness Mary gives birth to a Son, who is the hope of the world, who is the light in the darkness, who brings down the mighty and lifts up the oppressed. Jesus who is with us in our best moments and our worst moments.

Pastor Ted Loder in his book Tracks in the Straw: Tales Spun from the Manger tells the following story.  He writes, “I always seem to ruin Christmas before it arrives… I recall one year where my wife Jan and I scheduled a dinner for friends… On the morning of the party, we admitted to each other that we were too tired and preoccupied to enjoy it…. When our guests arrived, they hinted at having similar feelings… but they pressed on out of social obligation.  Not surprising, during the course of the conversation things got a bit heated. It was on some topic so important that I can’t remember it now… After they left I was so upset I picked arguments with whoever approached… I was righteously angry.. In my anger I began to clean up the kitchen and prosecute my case to an imaginary jury. In the process of ranting and raving, I broke the handle off an old, flower-gilded, gold rimmed pitcher that had been given to Jan, by her beloved departed grandmother. With the handle broken, it fell to floor smashed into a thousand pieces — shards and splinters skittered through kitchen, the adjoining room and down the stairs to the basement… Jan’s eyes filled with tears…. She looked at me and whispered, “It’s too bad.”… she left the kitchen and went upstairs. I stood in the ache of silence with tears trickling down my cheeks realizing I’d blown it again… I don’t know how long I stood there, but my self-examination was interrupted by the sound of Jan’s footsteps coming back..  Without a sideward glance, she got the broom and dustpan… I could not find words for my shame. It seemed pitiful to say, “I’m sorry,” but I did..  In the remaining days leading up to Christmas. I kept finding fragments and splinters in strange places.. Each time I found another piece of the pitcher. I thought about how much it meant to Jan, how it was filled with many memories and much love, and all the hopes that immigrant grandmother had for her granddaughter..  I wondered if she had purchased it as secondhand store with some of the few pennies she’d saved from her work as a seamstress.. Whatever its story… it was a priceless gift to Jan. I often thought about the piece Jan put on her dresser the night I broke it.  I found the last piece before going to bed early Christmas morning after coming home from the midnight Christmas Eve service… it was lying on the driveway… I found it  because of the light of the moon, or the stars, or the neighbors window, hit it just so..  It came to me then that maybe Christmas is like finding those pieces in curious places after the shattering happens. Finding little pieces of what Christmas means, of what the gift is, in the corners of our lives, in the cracks of our failures, and ruinations… in friends’ small expressions of love and forgiveness and trust, in changes to begin again and again. In driveways filled with starlight. God here and there everywhere. The light penetrating the darkness and hitting what is broken and somehow mysteriously reflecting hope.  I remembered again a grandmother, a granddaughter, and another woman who long ago brought a child in to the world in an out of the way place. God there, here, working in the broken world amidst broken people who break things. .. I went into the house, through the kitchen up the stairs and into the bedroom. I put that piece of the pitcher.. next to the piece Jan kept on her dresser”…[2]

God is here, there, and everywhere. God is with us in the pain of anxiety, depression, and isolation; God is with through us through the stringing of lights. God is with us in moments of anger and in moments of forgiveness, God is with us… That is what Christmas is, God is here.

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/12/21/baltimore-rodgers-forge-christmas-lights/

[2] Ted Loder. Tracks in the Straw: Tales Spun from the Manger (Kindle Locations 1393-1397). Kindle Edition.

 

12-5-21 — Voices In The Wilderness — Luke 3:1-6 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

12.5.21

Luke 3:1-6

Voices in the Wilderness

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

When I hear these words from Isaiah uttered by John, they always remind me of middle school. One of the field trips everyone goes on in my home town is to the Erie Canal and specifically the Locks in the center of Lockport. As a child you do not really appreciate what was built.

In 1809 President Thomas Jefferson reviewed New York’s plan to build a 360-mile canal from Hudson River to the Great Lakes.  He immediately dismissed the endeavor as just a little “short of madness”. The governor at the time, Dewitt Clinton, pushed for the plan anyway. It became known as “Dewitt’s Ditch”. Dewitt went around the state to raise money, and broke ground on July 4, 1817. By 1825 Dewitt Clinton boarded a barge with Two kegs of water from Lake Erie and 10 days later dumped the lake water into the Atlantic Ocean. [1]

What is wild to think about is this canal was completed before the invention of dynamite, earthmovers, or excavators.  They tried to hire engineers from Europe but no one would touch the project because of how audacious it was. Another obstacle was the lack of hydraulic cement. The only source at the time was in Europe and expensive to import. Two men found a source of limestone that when pulverized and burned produced the lime needed for cement.  The land was cleared by hand shovels, pickaxes and black powder. They build raging fires on bed rock and poured water on the rocks so they would crack.  Trees were removed by something called an endless screw where a rope was attached to the top of a tree and a team of oxen and men ratchet and cranked until the tree was literally pulled from the earth. Another school teacher invented a stump puller that used 16-foot-tall wheels and a team of oxen to pull 40 stumps per day. But the hardest part was in Lockport itself where barges had to be lifted nearly 70 feet up the escarpment. This was done through a series of locks that would raise and lower barges the 70 feet.[2]  This is a method that was first conceived by Leonardo Da Vinci.   By the 1850’s 60% of all US trade was carried along this waterway. If you are keeping count, it took them 8 years to complete the 360 mile canal. That is only two years longer than it took to complete the Mount Rose Interchange.

On this second week of Advent, the words of the prophet Isaiah ring in our ears. Our scripture begins giving us a time stamp. Placing both the secular and the scared along aside each other naming the Emperor, the Governor, the Ruler of Galilee and others alongside the High Priest Annas and Caiaphas. This is a community that is controlled by a foreign power, even Annas and Caiaphas were appointed by Roman officials, seeking those that would keep peace.

God finds John not in the center of power near the hustle and bustle of people. But God’s word finds John, son Zechariah, in the wilderness. This word does not come to priests, not to the ruling elite, but to a man in the wilderness. A reminder that God’s people are a people of exile, the seat of power has been taken from them again and again and they are forced into the wilderness.  Prophets seem to need this wilderness. In the wilderness an old word is made new by time, a prophetic word is made visible for all people. This is the story of God’s love for the Hebrew people, a people who time after time winded up in the wilderness only to have God call them back.

John begins proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There is no clear precedent for this activity. Some argue that proselyte baptism was practiced during this period, other scholars disagree, some point to a ritual washing was common. People would often wash themselves to cleanse themselves from some sort of moral impurity but this is different. John is not specific it is baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Bringing to mind the words of Isaiah 1: 16-17 “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” or the words of Ezekiel 36:25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols” This baptism is something different. It is a new start where our hearts realigned to beat in tune with God’s heart. As one commentator said, “John shows us a renewing God whose faithfulness extends across space and time, overcoming every obstacle we might erect against grace.[3]” John’s baptism is the beginning of something, it is journey over an obstructed path, and a path requires roadwork. We begin that journey through confirmation or baptism but it is a journey that doesn’t end until we breathe our last breath. It is pursuit of the love of God. But the amazing thing is God is the one who does the pursuing.

Have you ever had a moment where you needed to be recused? A moment you knew you just needed someone else. Maybe you were kid and you were suddenly being picked on, or maybe you got into a situation where you were uncomfortable with decisions your peers were making, or maybe you made some really bad decisions and you needed someone in your corner to help fix those decisions.[4] The relief that you felt in that moment — that is the advent moment.

The moment when God uproots those things in your life that need to be uprooted. Those unexamined assumptions, those attitudes. God comes in uprooted trees, splitting boulders, filling valleys, all so that we can connect to the divine presence of God in Jesus Christ.

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2020/01/28/800025377/the-erie-canal-as-a-model-of-how-to-build-big-projects-again

[2] https://www.history.com/news/erie-canal-construction-engineering-labor

[3] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 1 (p. 30). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[4] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2021-11-29/luke-3-1-6/

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