Rev. Joshua D. Gill
This past Thursday is when the church observes the Ascension of the Lord. A fascinating 600-year-old tradition in England is celebrated on this Feast day. The ceremony is called “the beating of the boundary stones.” England was divided into parishes, they were almost like a county, and because they had a state church, that church was the center of parish life. In the modern interpretation, the people gather at their church with their pastor carrying willow rods and then walk their parish boundaries. Looking for a boundary stone, the boundary stone marks the border of the parish; some have inscriptions, and some are just plain stones. When they come upon a stone marking the edge of their parish. The congregation chants, “Mark, Mark, Mark,” the pastor writes on the rock in chalk on the stone, writing a symbol or the church’s name, and everyone walks by, striking the stone with their willow rod.
The origins of this tradition are both secular and sacred. In England, the tax system was determined by what parish you lived in; it determined whom you paid taxes to and at what rate. But it also served another purpose, a sacred purpose. It became a geographic boundary for the church showing the congregation that they were responsible for those that lived within the boundary.
As you can imagine, a lot has changed in England in 600 years. The Reverend Bob Wilkes, pastor of St. Michael at the Northgate of Oxford, now keeps a spreadsheet with all the boundary stones for the parish. The spreadsheet is color-coded, noting the ones behind locked doors and whom he needs to contact to keep the tradition alive. Most years, Pastor Bob and about 40 people tramp around the city, walking in and out of some odd places. The oldest marker for the church is on the back wall of the clothing store Zara. Another stone is the smack in the middle of a bike shop; when a new manager took over the shop she was told about this annual tradition. When Pastor Bob called, the new manager’s only question was if there was something spooky under the stone. Pastor Bob assured her that it was just a stone. Another boundary stone is in an alleyway above a dumpster for a Japanese restaurant, and another is in a restaurant kitchen. When asked why they still observe this tradition, Reverend Wilks said, “ this marks the bit of the Earth’s territory that is ours…. A congregation is given part of the earth to pray and think about…  This spiritual boundary helps us to think about our common life, to understand how our life affects those around us and how we have a responsibility to our neighbors.
One of the unique things about Luke is that the Ascension is highlighted twice. The author highlights this moment both at the end of the gospel and then at the opening of the book of Acts. It is crucial because the community at this moment is wrestling with how the death of Jesus fits in with God’s plan for the future and how it shaped their own identity.
In our text, the followers of Christ come together. Jesus describes them as witnesses. They are witnesses to his death, resurrection, his fulfillment of scripture, and God’s forgiveness of the nations. Jesus is sending them out as witnesses to these things.
One of the ways we can explore this text is through a trauma-informed reading of it. This field is growing in popularity and adds a unique understanding to this text, especially the idea that they are witnesses. During the crucifixion, the male disciples betray and abandon Jesus; these disciples would need to work to make sense of the trauma and begin to forgive themselves for betraying Jesus to accept the resurrection. In her book Spirit and Trauma, Shelly Rambo explores the idea that “trauma interferes with one’s capacity to talk about an experience. Profound trauma disrupts memory and attention and interferes with the ability to put the experience into a story. Trauma is the fragmentation left behind by profound harm, threatening to disrupt a witness.” It is fascinating that one of the things Jesus calls them is witnesses when we know they would have still been processing this experience. According to Shelly Rambo, one of the deepest forms of trauma is betrayal trauma because it disrupts those interpersonal bonds. It is a breakdown of a relationship. This betrayal trauma is likely the form of trauma the disciples and Jesus experienced. It is crucial to recognize that to celebrate both humanity and the divinity of Jesus, he would have felt these things as well. Their relationships were broken and ruptured. What Shelly Rambo tells us is that healing is a long process that requires the re-establishment of trust, norms, and connection. We see this taking place in many post-resurrection stories. On the road to Emmaus, where Jesus appears to two travelers allowing them to process their experience, meeting the disciples and only then revealing himself. Or in the story of Thomas wanting to touch Jesus, Jesus appears to Thomas and allows him to feel his scars. Or the story from the gospel of John when the disciples have gone back to their old life, unsuccessfully fishing. Jesus appears telling them to cast their nets on the other side. Jesus provides breakfast for the disciples asking Peter three times if he will feed his sheep.
Jesus blesses his followers, inviting them into self-forgiveness and the reestablishment of relationships. Jesus commissions them, telling them to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to all nations. Individually they may have fallen short, but they are still called to preach forgiveness and repentance. In the Gospel of Luke, the insistence is that God forgives the world, that God forgives the nations, and the disciples share in that forgiveness. The God the disciples meet is bigger is than their imagination; the Jesus we meet is bigger than our own imagination. The God we see in the passage is not a God who is shy about trauma; the resurrected Christ the disciples experienced was a Christ who bore his scars, reminding us that there is always hope amid death.
This hope calls us as the people of God to act, to understand that we have a shared responsibility, a shared responsibility to care for one another, a shared responsibility to love one another, and a shared responsibility to speak when we witness an injustice.
 Connections Year C Volume 2, pg. 300.
Vision Sermon Part 3
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
“EPC welcomes families of all configurations and generations.
We strengthen and support their family unit and discover together the joy in Jesus Christ.”
I came across an interesting story the other day; the story has become a graphic novel called “When Stars are Scattered”. It is of Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan Mohamed. In the early 1990s when Omar was about 4 years old and Hassan was 2, their village in Somalia was attacked at the outbreak of the civil war. During the chaos of the attack, they were separated from their mother and sisters, their father was killed by a gunman. A group of neighbors took them along as they fled to the safety of Kenya. They made it to a refugee camp called Dadaab. The boys were alone and had to sleep in a tent by themselves because they were considered a family. The boys waited and waited hoping that their mother would arrive. She never did. An elderly neighbor named Fatuma began looking after the boys. But they continued to struggle especially Hassan who suffered from epilepsy and is nonverbal. Omar did his best to attend school in the camp. Most days but he didn’t have the supplies that were needed and it was difficult. He learned the alphabet and to read and write, but the school only had about dozen books so he quickly memorized all of them. It was difficult to care for Hassan, he would wander the camp and if people realized he was alone, people would steal his clothes. As they grew they often went to bed still hungry, but Fatuma continued to care for them. Around the age of 17 Omar received word that he and Hassan could come to the US. He was sad to leave Fatuma but knew this was his opportunity. At the age of 19, Omar and Hassan finally made their way to Arizona. Eventually, Omar enrolled in the University of Arizona, eventually graduated from college, and began working as a refugee social worker. Eventually got married and had 5 children, caring for them and Omar. Every time he crossed paths with refugees from that area, he would ask if they heard of a woman looking for her two sons. Sometimes he would ask as a joke, other times he would ask hoping for a response. He continued to hope but knew it was unlikely they would ever reunite, but then he received word that there was a woman in camp looking for two sons. It took about 6 months to track her down but eventually, Omar spoke to his mother, and when Hassan heard her voice on the phone he immediately lit up with a glimmer of a memory. Omar and Hasan eventually went back to a camp to spend three months with their mother. Omar, his family and Hasan now live in Lancaster Pennsylvania. 
For the last two weeks, we have been reflecting on the work of the vision team. They were tasked with writing three God-sized dreams based on the passions the congregation described in our three meetings in the fall. The vision team then took those three passions and wrote three God-sized dreams. A God-sized dream is meant to be a goal for the congregation, but we still need to build the road map to reach this goal.
One of the things that is helpful to recognize is that we often too narrowly define the word family. When we hear that word “family” we often think of a man and woman with a couple of kids or in my case my wife and me, 3 boys, 2 cats, a puppy, and fish named Bubbles. But approaching families this way has led to many blind spots in the way congregations engage with families. The vision team was purposeful in the language that it used “welcome families of all configurations and generations,” knowing that a family might be an older couple, a family might be a single parent, a family might be a grandparent raising a grandchild, a family might be a couple of the same gender, or even a group of choice…. While we all might not be comfortable with every definition, the call is to welcome, strengthen, and support every family to discover the joy of Jesus Christ.
Families of all shapes, sizes and configurations are struggling right now. The incidents of domestic violence or intimate partner violence have been the through the roof. Families are stressed and they are stressed in lots of ways.
I read a recent study from Ohio State that talked about the growing issue of parental estrangement from children. The study cited three significant causes for these disputes, family infighting often between separated or divorced parents, an underlying mental health crisis that is often untreated, and disagreements over values/politics. The article pointed to one of the underlying trends for many people. The rules have changed; for years, it was understood that family relationships were permanent and non-voluntary. Non-voluntary has altered for many folks, with many people deciding if a relationship is harmful or uncomfortable. They no longer need to participate in that relationship, even with a parent.  How could we support a family in this crisis? Churches have done this in various ways, from helping to remove barriers to family counseling to offering support groups that help those experiencing estrangement.
Another stressful position for a person to find themselves in is being a single parent or stepping in to care for a child in unexpected ways. In a recent article in the New York times, 2.6 million people in the US were being raised by a grandparent. In addition, almost a quarter of children in the US live in single-parent homes. A Pew research study said that in 2019 the US had the highest rate of children living in single-parent households. What would it look like for EPC to actively support families like this, it might mean respite care, but it might mean helping in other ways. I read of one church that would cover a portion of car repair. They had an agreement with an auto shop in town and became known for helping single parents. How quickly an unexpected car repair can throw off your monthly budget.
Scripture tells us how we should live in this world with compassion, kindness, humility, and love. How will EPC continue to live out those values in this world? I would like you to take a moment and reflect on these three statements,
EPC creates safe spaces for all children and youth to thrive and grow. We extend the love of Christ and provide a beacon of hope while journeying together.
EPC reaches across the boundaries that divide us. We embrace all members of our community.
EPC welcomes families of all configurations and generations. We strengthen and support their family unit and discover together the joy in Jesus Christ.
Does one of those statements resonate with you? Do you get excited about one of them? Do you sense the Holy Spirit speaking to you? If so, I would encourage you to follow that and get involved. This coming Saturday, from 8:30-Noon, we will have a gathering to figure out how we will make these a reality. Right now, they are words on paper, but I know they could be so much more. If you are interested in hearing more about Saturday or this next step in the process, talk to one of the vision team members or me.
Vision for the Future Part Two
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
“EPC reaches across the boundaries that divide us.
We embrace all members of our community.”
This morning we are on week two of a three-part series focusing on the three God-sized dreams that our vision team developed based on our congregation’s passions. These passions were discussed at the congregational gatherings in the fall.
In her book, Creative Acts for Curious People, Sarah Stein Greenberg shares the following story that might be helpful as we reflect together. She writes:
“ A little over a decade ago I took my first scuba dive, and if I didn’t have to surface periodically for air, I’d be pretty happy doing nothing else. Many people like adventures that are fast, like roller coasters my idea of the perfect adventure is to descend into the saltwater near a beautiful reef, swim as slowly as possible and look at everything in great detail. The visual beauty and complexity, the different symbiotic relationships … I just want to take it all in and keep learning more and more. Once I became a good diver, I started bringing a camera along. Sometimes, when I want to capture or another large scene, I use a very wide, fish-eye lens, with a field of view that spans 180 degrees. When I review these shots later, I sometimes see creatures, interactions, or details I didn’t even notice in the moment, which changes my perspective or helps me understand the ecosystem in a new way.”
Sarah’s perspective is changed by reviewing her images by noticing details she may have seen before she can gain a new view.
In her book, she describes three facets of empathy: experience sharing, perspective-taking, and Prosocial concern. Experience sharing is probably the best known. It is when you can pay attention to others’ emotions when you resonate with them, or you can feel something similar. It is that time when someone tells you a story, and you can feel the emotions of the person telling the story.
Perspective takes this one step forward; in perspective-taking, you reason and infer what someone might be thinking or feeling at the moment. For example, you might experience someone as cranky, and you might infer that they feel underappreciated or need a vacation. Your inference could be wrong, but it is based on your situation knowledge. Or you may know someone that you disagree with, but you understand their perspective even though you disagree.
Prosocial behavior moves even more profoundly into empathy. When you can identify someone’s feelings and understand their perspective, you may suddenly find you want to help people or a specific group of people.  This is what helps to birth nonprofits and social movements.
The description we read in Deuteronomy marks a transition in this book. There is a clear emphasis on the faithfulness of God; on God’s deliverance in times of trials. But there is something else here. This text is a summary of a moment when the Israelites brought offerings to God and gave them to God’s glory. This festival became one of the three pilgrimages that an observant Jews would take, the other two being Passover and a Sukkot celebration at the end of the harvest. Observant Jews would travel to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple to participate in religious rituals. This text in Deuteronomy offers a portion of the liturgy that was used at this festival of first fruits. The people would gather for responsive reading as they offered their gifts to God; “‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt..” This liturgy acts as a collective memory for the people, a memory when they were strangers and aliens, a memory when they were oppressed, a memory when they could not make decisions for themselves when their bodies were quite literally someone else’s property. If you pray a prayer like this how does it change your understanding of the world? How does it change the way in which you interact with others? What you see in this prayer is the three movements of Empathy, where someone could share in their experience, could take on their perspective, and hopefully this would spur them on care for those in need through prosocial behavior.
One of the things that is very clear is the demographics in our community are changing. We heard this in Shilen’s presentation. But we also know this from the work of our vision team, one of the things they found is that 9% of students are English Language learners. This new-found diversity should be celebrated. What is clear is if we want to speak into our community, we need to understand our community and our neighbors better. The vision team’s God-sized dream is that “EPC reaches across the boundaries that divide us. We embrace all members of our community.”
We live this vision out by diving deeper into our history and seeing the good and the bad moments. Retired editor of the York Daily Record, Jim McClure, wrote a fascinating piece in September 2019 called Redlining in York: How government policies kept African Americans poor and segregated. He describes a two-fold practice of how neighborhoods were segregated and redlined. He shares the story of Voni Grimes, whose family moved to York from South Carolina; he tells how he could not attend the school 50 yards from his home but that he needed to walk five blocks to attend the segregated school. The article describes how appraisers would walk through neighborhoods and categorize them as Best, Still Desirable, Definitely Declining, and Hazardous. If you lived in one of the less desirable areas, it was difficult to get credit or build any form of wealth. Some of these ideas were even codified into home deeds, or racial covenants were recorded in the deed, specifically saying a home could not be sold to a person of color. Some of the examples he uses are from our township. Learning from our history is not about guilt but about understanding the forces that have shaped our community and responding to those forces.
Living this dream means that we will need to talk about uncomfortable subjects. That we need to be able sit in the room and know that faithful Christians have differences of opinion on all sorts of issues. We need to practice an idea in our Book of Order the idea of mutual forbearance. “We also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. And in all these, we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” The idea that people of good character will disagree and we should be able to express that disagreement respectfully.
If we are going to live into the vision and reach across boundaries, if we are to embrace all people it means we need to be brave to examine our own history to talk about uncomfortable truths, we need to be humble enough to hear what others have experienced and respond with love.
 Greenberg, Sarah Stein: Creative Acts for Curious People, pg. 119.
 Greenberg, Sarah Stein: Creative Acts for Curious People, pg. 121-122.
 F-3.0105 Book of Order
Vision for the Future 1
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
“EPC creates safe spaces for all children and youth to thrive and grow. We extend the love of Christ and provide a beacon of hope while journeying together.”
One of the most important promises we make is one we make at this baptismal font. As a congregation we are ask to promise the following.. Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture N. by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging her/him to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church? We also hear this echoed in our gospel reading. Let the children come to me. What I also find fascinating is Jesus doesn’t put criteria on it. Come to me and listen quietly… Come to me at 9 am or 11 am on a Sunday, Jesus just says to come…
This is the first week as we explore the work of the vision team. For the next three weeks, each Sunday, the sermon will be structured around the themes of the vision team. We need to go back to last year to understand how we got here. In the spring of 2021, Session empowered a small working group of Dick Witzke, Jack Hynd, Linda Krom, and myself to interview potential consultants to help the church for a vision for the future. This small committee faithfully interviewed three different consultants and was unanimous in our decision to work with the Center for the Health Churches. They have a track record of working with churches of all sizes and helping them to define better who they are. What was attractive to the team was that CHC focuses on what a church does well and allows them to enhance that asset. With the endorsement of the session, the vision team was then formed, consisting of the Jason Foess working group chair, Jane Henty, Beth Magid, Bob Moore, Linda Pugh, Julie Stover, and myself.
Over the last ten months, this group has met for two Saturday retreats with Bill Wilson, hosted three in-person congregational gatherings, three online congregational gatherings, and by my count, at least 26 meetings, I don’t know how many emails, and lots of homework. I am so thankful for the work this team has done. When you see these team members, please thank them for their work.
The team was tasked with creating a God-sized dream for each area the congregation said that it was passionate about. The congregation said they were passionate about working with Children and Youth, Diversity, and Families. After hearing about the passions, the team wrote statements that would reflect these goals.
Today we are reflecting on ideas around Children and Youth. Our dream is that “EPC creates safe spaces for all children and youth to thrive and grow. We extend the love of Christ and provide a beacon of hope while journeying together.” At first glance, you might not see how much of this we are already doing. But ask anyone who comes here around 11:15 on a weekday morning. You will see cars lined up all around the parking lot as about 160 kids are dropped off and picked up. My youngest loved the year he spent in the preschool here. There are other ways we do this is through our Sunday School Class, through volunteering at EYES, and through our backpack program.
Having worked in youth and children’s ministry, I can tell there have been radical shifts in youth culture. You probably heard some of those shifts in our interview this morning, Braydon and Emma’s experiences aren’t universal, but they represent a large portion of youth. Over the years, I have known hundreds of kids like them. I can still remember the first time I was at a youth group when I mentioned an event, and the kids pulled out their smartphones to check their calendars.
When we run into a massive cultural shift like this, the temptation is to usually do one of two things — demonize the change or pretend it is not happening. The demonization often comes out in fear or a lack of understanding. Pretending the change is not occurring might show up in continuing programs long after they are effective or they may show up as pining for a return to the past. I once heard someone say that “the church is perfectly prepared for the return of the 1950s”. We all recognize those days won’t return, so how do we respond? In Canoeing the Mountains Tod Bolsinger tells us we need to engage in process of adaptive leadership. Adaptive Leadership is a three-step process, we observe the events and patterns around us, we interpret what we are observing, and then we design interventions based on our observations and interpretations. Then we begin experimenting and see what helps produce the results that we want.
I will give you an example from just a couple of weeks ago. As lent came into the picture, I debated should I do some sort of Lenten Bible study. I asked a few people if they had done this in the past and what the results were. What I heard is typically 5-10 people. Based on the bandwidth I had at that moment, with all things going on, I decided let’s try an online devotional. The downside is you don’t get the warm fuzzies of being together, I don’t increase the relationship with our members. The upside was we still had a mid-week reflection. What we saw was on a typical week 30-40 people engaged with the material, while that might not sound like a huge number when you figure we have 50-60 people in a typical worship service, the number shows a lot of engagement. Adaptive leadership would ask further questions, what about 100 other people that didn’t engage with it, is there a way to reach them? Is there a way to adapt this so we can get both the warm fuzzies and increased engagement?
We are left with the question: what does it mean to say EPC creates safe spaces for all children and youth to thrive and grow? We extend the love of Christ and provide a beacon of hope while journeying together. How can we fulfill that God-sized dream? Your vision team listed several ways we might begin to do this in the vision report. One of the new ways the Session has begun to engage in this work is by sponsoring kids for our summer camp that the preschool runs. A few weeks ago, a small group of us met with Shilen, the social worker at East York Elementary School, to ask him about the needs of kids and this population. One of the things he immediately identified was the need to engage kids over the summer. He described how many of his kids are not able to attend camps or have much to do over the summer. So we are sponsoring two kids each week to attend the summer camp. The next phase for us as a congregation means assessing what we have the bandwidth for as a congregation and then experimenting to discover what works.
None of us know what the future will look like, but we what recognize is that it is in God’s hands. Our job as a congregation is to be simply faithful to his calling.
Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains, pg. 111