Race to the Finish
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
“Marie Kondo famously told us to pick up a possession, and if it sparks joy for you, keep it. If it does not, let it go. She also said … “you know it’s joy when you feel your body-soul lift up, even if only slightly. Not joy and your body-soul slouches within itself just a touch.” This idea made Cole Arthur Riley wonder “if we were to lift our own selves up, how many of us would end up throwing ourselves out along with bread ties and the jeans that don’t fit us?.. Thankfully, we can assume Kondo would discourage applying her method to people.
She goes on in her book This Here Flesh writing…. “I was the child who would sit in closets or bathrooms while everyone else laughed together in the kitchen. Every now and again, someone would knock and whisper through to me, Well, you gonna join us, hunny? But I’d stay tucked away under Goosebumps books and shadows, knowing I was never going to laugh like them. It took time for me to realize that it was not that my family wanted me happy; it was that they wanted me close. They didn’t want for me the kind of sadness that alienates you. In time, I learned how to be in the kitchen, and it didn’t seem to matter if I was laughing. My sister pulls me close and feeds me a bite of spinach dip. Depression may contain a joylessness, but it doesn’t have to. When we reimagine joy as more than mere happiness, we make space for a sorrowful joy… joy that is born not of laughter but a joy that is born of peace.”
The Scholar and theologian Willie James Jennings said, “ ‘joy is an act of resistance against despair and its forces.’ Despair does not want to see us reach the promised land. It does not want us to find belonging…Our liberation depends on our willingness to resist it.” We do this by allowing joy, in whatever form” it may be.. This is what Mary Magdalene will discover.
The resurrection story in John is different than the other gospels — those resurrection stories have earthquakes, thunder, a curtain in the temple ripping. But John’s gospel starts while it is still dark. Echoing those themes in John of light and darkness reminds us of the darkness before the story of creation, where chaos reigned. The darkness reminds us of the hopelessness and hurt that many people feel.
Joy Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, writes that “Darkness is not merely a time of day; it can also be the absence of light. And the absence of light would mean those times in our life when we feel that God is not present.” Mary is likely feeling not only the absence of light but the overwhelming grief at the death of her teacher.
Mary is perplexed in her grief at finding the stone removed from the tomb. So, she runs to tell the others. Peter and another disciple run back to confirm her discovery. One of the intriguing things about the Jesus of John is that he does not seek to modify the role women played within this culture. Instead, Jesus completely blows up the model and ignores the cultural pattern even as men voice opposition to it. The first sign Jesus performs is prompted at the request of his mother. A community learns that Jesus is Messiah through the testimony of a woman in John 4.
Peter and the other disciple discover the ordinary, linen grave clothes folded in the tomb. The text tells us they believed but did not understand. What exactly do they believe? Is it hope? That they felt a glimmer of hope, that he wasn’t dead? Did they feel a glimmer of hope that whoever stole his body was at least respectful, and the folded grave clothes are a sign of that respect? Believing in something and not understanding, they depart the scene, and the focus is returned to Mary. She remains there only to see someone she mistakes as a servant. Eventually, he calls her by name, and Mary suddenly understands. Where there was death, there is now life. Where there was sadness, there is now joy. Where there was darkness now, there is light. This moment sparked an act of resistance, a joy, where Mary could tell the world what she had experienced. The call is to live this resurrection like Mary, like Cole Riley Arthur, and Chris Hoke.
Chris understands this resurrection is not a moment in time, but resurrection is a movement. Writing in the Presbyterian Outlook, he shares the following. “ I never really liked Easter — the tired imagery of an emptied tomb, the hollow cheers of ‘He is risen,’ until I had friends buried away in prisons. It wasn’t until I spent time in jail as a volunteer with people awaiting actual trials that Holy Week became troubling and electric for me.” Think about it: the passion narrative that we read and rehash… year after year… is a story of an arrest, a standoff with police, a betrayal against the accused, a junk trial, a community’s fears and politics, public protests, prosecution and sentencing without a defense, a public execution…. He writes that we have “the world’s largest criminal punishment system of police, jails, courts, charges… an industry across every state where bodies are stuffed tight. Many are finally waking up to our societal sickness of mass incarceration… 2.2 million people.. In a sense, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are every day in America. The tombs are full, and our communities grieve.” What does it mean for the church to practice resurrection amid this seemingly impossible problem?
For Chris, practicing resurrection means long drives, navigating bureaucracy, descending into hades to pray with men in tan pants and white Velcro sneakers. For Cole Riley Arthur, practicing resurrection, it means understanding acceptance in the face of despair, that Joy is not happiness. For Mary Magdalene, practicing resurrection, telling the world what she saw and experienced to be commissioned by Jesus for this purpose. The only question left is what will it mean for you?
 Arthur Riley, Cole. This Here Flesh (pp. 167-168). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
Vinod Menon, a professor of physics at City College of New York, returned to the office and found a pile of mail and a cardboard box the size of a toaster. The box was hefty. It required $90 in postage to mail and was addressed to “Chairman, Physics Department.” He wondered if it was a gift from a former student saying thank you. With the pandemic slowing the mail and professors working remotely, the box had sat there for nine months, postmarked on Nov 10, 2020. Professor Menon opened the box and was shocked to discover it was full of $50 and $100 bills bundled with rubber bands totaling $180,000. A letter in the box explained it was for needy physics and math students at City College. The letter explained that he or she “long ago” took advantage of the school, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at City College, leading to a rewarding scientific career. The college attempted to figure out where the money came from. The name on the return address was likely fictitious; a Kyle Paisley did not match any graduates. Federal agents investigated and determined that the money was withdrawn from several banks in Maryland over several years and was not connected to criminal activity. The Federal agents reached out to the postal inspector to obtain video, but none could be found. So, after investigating, the authorities told the college that it was untraceable. Over the years, the college had received many donations, but this was a first in a box, so they decided to have the box bronzed and display it on campus. This donation would go a long way, with the annual tuition to city college being a little over 7,000 dollars. They decided to fund two scholarships for the physics and math departments for a student who gives back through peer mentoring. Dr. Menon, who emigrated from India in 1996, has conducted research at many private universities, including Princeton and MIT. Despite offers to teach at elite schools, he has been committed to City College because of the affording of education to diverse students, many of whom will be the first college graduate in their families. He said the impact is so important because “It’s a place where you can elevate somebody.”
Luke’s account of this familiar story emphasizes a few different details. This account offers no palm branches, Hosannas, or children. Really in this account, it doesn’t even sound like the crowd is that large. Luke’s entrance is kind of flat. The only details it offers are the donkey and the coats being tossed. Some of this is because of the audience he is writing to; most likely for his intended audience the festivals of booths would not have had the same meaning, so Luke emits those details.
We hear reminders of the birth narrative where the angels sang to God’s glory in the highest. Instead, this time, it is disciples with praise on their lips. The disciples are praising God for what God has already done on earth. They had found peace through God’s peace, not Roman peace. The work God had done through healings, through his teachings. We also see the political theater at work, with Christ riding a donkey and not the steed of the conquering King. However, the crowds understood it that day; the disciples were mesmerized by what Christ had done and were enthusiastic in their praises and worship.
The Pharisees are in the crowd that day. They reject these praises for King Jesus; they are concerned that this parade will put the peace of Rome at risk. Rome has given this occupied city leeway as they celebrate. This political theater from Jesus is getting out of hand; they want to keep things peaceful for unity and stability. This is a peace Jesus has felt shattered many times in his life. His birth reminded him that no one was safe as his family had to flee to Egypt because of government oppression. But Christ came to free us from this false sense of peace. Christ came to give us more.
Christ’s response to their condemnation is that the stones would be shouting praise if they kept quiet. Justo González commenting on this passage, points out what this false peace costs them. It costs them the ability to see God at work in their midst. The implication is that these Religious leaders cannot recognize the life and cannot recognize God in their midst. It is the lifeless stones who will not keep quiet. The creation will worship the creator if all else fails.  We see people who are bound by fear.
Fear keeps us from dreaming, wondering, and imagining something new; it often makes us rigid in our ideas and understanding of what is appropriate. The Pharisees trade all of this for their peace. This is a narrative that Luke has been building for chapters; we heard this with the story of the two sons. The older brother’s peace came crashing down when his brother returned. The father is the only one motivated by love rather than fear. Or last week when we reflected on Mary. Judas’ rejects her gift, calling it a waste of oil. He trusted something that couldn’t bring him true peace.
Fear comes in many forms in religious life — an unscrutinized commitment to the past; an unexamined theology that lacks the voices of minorities and those who have been harmed by the church; a commitment to ritual without the desire to recontextualize and understand in our context. Fear is saying we have always done it that way, but not knowing why. Fear is saying we can’t be something different, something new. Fear would have told Dr. Menon to give up on elevating others and to seek his own comfort. Fear is telling the disciples to be quiet. Fear is missing out how God wants to work here and now. We have to ask where are we in this crowd? With the disciples praising God, or are we with the Pharisees unable to see God working in their midst. Our Lenten journey calls us to examine where we are in this moment.
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
I recently came across an article in the Atlantic called Why People Are Acting So Weird by Olga Khazan. In this short article, the author begins taking stock of some of the latest headlines. We all heard about Will Smith, but there are so many others. Last week, a man was arrested for punching a gate agent at the Atlanta airport. Or the guy on a flight to Austin who started threatening everyone around him. In the video, he tried to fight three guys at once. Another flight to Washington D.C. had to make an emergency landing in Missouri, and it took six people to subdue one unruly passenger. In February, there was a string of tantrums while people were skiing. They were trying to fight fellow skiers, attacking a security guard at one resort. Reports of reckless driving have gone up, and car crashes, murder rates, carjackings. One hospital has begun to outfit nurses with panic buttons after a string of patient issues. You have to wonder if someone tracked school board meeting protests, what that number would look like. You’ve got to ask yourself what the heck is even going on. The Atlantic points to many reasons for the uptick in this behavior.
Stress is one likely cause; Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University, collected data on why people act rude; the number one reason was the feeling of stress or of being overwhelmed. One of the things that we have seen from the pandemic is that people are teetering closer and closer to their breaking point. Ryan Martin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, framed it in this way; “When someone has that angry feeling, it’s because of a combination of some sort of provocation, their mood at the time of that provocation, and then how they interpret that provocation.” People are encountering more “provocations”—staffing shortages, mask mandates—and their mood is worse when provoked.
Another major factor is an increase in substance abuse. One study from Massachusetts General Hospital pointed to a 21% increase in the use of alcohol and the isolation that many Americans felt. Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, believes that “We’re more likely to break the rules when our bonds to society are weakened. When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our private interests over those of others or the public.” Durkheim said that “we are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings.”
The vast majority of these incidents are not related to mental health, and 50% of our population will receive some mental health diagnosis in their lifetime. The pandemic caused an increase in anxiety and depression. 
Our text today is a familiar story. All four gospels report this story, but the details are slightly different in all of them. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Lazarus. The narrator immediately reminds you of who Lazarus is, the man Jesus raised from the dead, essentially wanting to continue the narrative that began in chapter 11. The thing to keep in mind as we hear this story, is that these people had just gathered to mourn Lazarus, a man who according to the text was dead for four days and his sister said smelled of death. This is what hangs in this text, death is haunting it. And Mary’s response to this sensational miracle is an act of faith. She covers Jesus’ feet in Nard. When you anointed a king you anointed their head; when you anointed the dead you anointed their feet. The scent of death that was hanging over the crowd would have been replaced by the scent of Nard. It would have expanded, it would have overtaken. Mary’s response to a miracle is faith and action. Contrast that with Judas whose response to this display is to question her act of devotion, to look out for his own needs and not the needs of others. It can feel like our world is full of Judases right now. People only looking out for themselves, people who are quick to anger.
But part of Mary’s example is about her focus — who is she focusing on? Her focus is on Jesus. She is looking at someone who is greater than her, who is a person of love and beauty, and she is taking her cue from that. Part of what we need now is to change our focus. Yes, we always need to acknowledge the bad and broken things, but we need to acknowledge them in the sense of longing for a new world. That if we see something broken, our response should be an act of faith to fix it, and brokenness should be heard as a calling. This is actually what Jesus points to when he tells Judas you will always have the poor. He is pointing to Deuteronomy 15:11 — “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” If the world needs more connection, the church and the people of God should respond by connecting to the brokenness of the world by expanding and adapting and growing to be what God’s world needs. We know beauty and love expand. We might see this when we have a response to a piece of art or a story about a random act of kindness. We just saw this in the passing of Betty White. In honor of her life the “Betty White Challenge” went viral raising just through Facebook 12.7 million dollars for animal shelters.
In a world full of Judases be a Mary. Seek to live a life of devotion that drives out the stench of death and calls all of us to new life in Christ.
 Jayne L. Miller, Wellspan: Community Mental Health Education Coordinator: Presentation Leadership York Mental Health and Wellness in our Community. 3.30.22
Luke 15:1-4, 11-32
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
One of the brighter spots of the pandemic was the show Ted Lasso. If you haven’t seen Ted Lasso, it is a comedy/drama about a character named Ted Lasso. He is a football coach at a small college when he accepts a job coaching an English Premier team, the soccer team AFC Richmond. The team’s owner essentially hires Ted to get back at her ex-husband. She believes that Ted will fail. The series focuses on redemption and personal growth and the idea that every one of us is on a journey. One of the background characters is a guy named Nate. Nate is what is known as a kit man, basically, he takes care of the equipment for the players. In the show, he is constantly being picked on by the players. They don’t appreciate what he does. Most of them don’t even know his name, and when they call him by the wrong name he doesn’t even correct them. He just shuffles around the locker room. As the series continues you discover Nate’s father is a bully. When Nate experiences some success his father doesn’t even acknowledge it. It is right in front of the father’s face, Nate’s photo is on the front cover of the sports section he is holding and an interview with him is being played in the background of the TV. Ted keeps showing up in Nate’s life, asking him his opinion, and in the show we see Nate bloom. But what we quickly realize is it is never enough. While Nate has bloomed because of Ted, he has not done his own internal work. He has not figured out how to be a better person. Father Richard Rohr once said, “You can tell a lot about someone by what they do with their pain… do they transform it, or do they transmit it”. 
Our text today is probably one of the most famous stories in the bible. This is the third parable in a series; it follows both the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the lost coin, where God is described both as a shepherd seeking out one lost sheep and a woman clearing out her house and sweeping to find one coin. The premise of these three stories is very clear from the opening chapter, men and women of questionable reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and the religious scholars are not happy because Jesus is treating them as old friends. Their grumbling is what triggers these stories.
These texts are so famous because you can put yourself in the story. We can all identify with the characters. We at times have all probably been the youngest brother, who runs away making a series of bad decisions but comes back seeking grace. Maybe at times, we have been the father who offers grace even at the point of embarrassment. Maybe at times, we have been the oldest brother who is angered by the antics of his younger brother and struggles with his wounds.
Many scholars view this story through the honor and shame paradigm. The youngest son heaps shame on his family by asking for his inheritance, akin to asking his father to die. He heaps shame again on the family by returning to his hometown as a failure. The father runs to his son; at the very least, this was not done in this culture; at the most, it brought shame again to the family. The other son is so angry about his brother’s behavior that he refuses to participate in the party; his anger consumes him. He brings shame by disobeying his father. His father, again breaking cultural rules, pleads with his son. It makes you wonder if the responsible brother even knew what he was angry about. Have you ever experienced a grudge where you don’t remember what initially caused it?
This story is about forgiveness. Many people misunderstand forgiveness, they see forgiveness as some form of weakness, but that is not what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is a reestablishment of our power over the situation. Forgiveness allows a problem no longer to have the same level of power over us that it once had. The implications of forgiveness are different for every situation. This may mean allowing someone back into your life or never allowing someone back in. This is what the responsible brother needs to learn. He needs to learn forgiveness. Maybe this younger brother has been a pain forever, but the responsible brother will keep reliving those moments and missing out on the joy — the joy of the family gathering, the joy of new opportunities, and the happiness his father is experiencing at the return of his son.
The other thing this parable reminds us of is how short life actually is. I recently read a piece in the Times called How Covid Stole Our Time and How We Can Get It Back by Tim Urban. He begins with a concept called Depressing Math. He made a little box for every week of life until the age of 90 and while it might feel countless it is just a few thousand. He then looked at a few activities he likes to do — in this case going to the American Museum of Natural History and going to the movies. He counted the number of times he has been to the Natural History Museum since moving to New York in 2009 at 3 times. He then realized that if he continues at that rate he will go 12 more times in his lifetime. Or the movies — he figured that would be hundreds of times, but when he added it up it was only 53. But where his depressing Math gets really interesting is when you apply it to relationships. As a parent, this was hard to read. He spent about 19 years seeing his parents every day of his life then he left for college and never moved back. Now he sees his parents about 10-15 days a year. If his parents live till he is the age of 60 he will have 350 days with his parents since moving out. Essentially, he will only physically interact with his parents 20 years out of his entire life. He went on to do the same equation with childhood friends, realizing that had only hung out a total of 10 days in the last decade. Depressing math is depressing, but it is also good news in the sense it can help us to prioritize what is important. These equations are not locked in. If you want more time with friends you can find another weekend. If you want more time with parents, or children, or grandchildren you dramatically increase that time with a little work. 
Our stories are not locked in, God is perpetually inviting us to the feast, God’s grace is bountiful, it is embarrassingly extravagant. No matter whom you identify with in this story, the one in need of grace, or the one needing forgiveness God is running to you at this moment.
Figs and Fruit
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
I heard this story the other day on the podcast called Hidden Brain. The episode is called You Can’t Unsend. The story featured a young man named William. William is from Central Pennsylvania and he is twenty years old. He is an incredibly gifted young man. He excelled at violin. By 9th grade his violin instructor was letting him pick his own music, he memorizes everything. He now plays in a professional symphony. He has won awards for physics and economics. He plays competitive golf. But he also made a mistake that nearly cost him everything. In the fall of 2016, he was starting his senior year of high school thinking hard about college. He wanted to go to a school that valued learning for learning’s sake. He decided he would try and get into Harvard. He didn’t really think he had a shot at it, while he was incredibly gifted, he had not been doing a lot of things needed to get into a school like Harvard. He applied for early admission and one mid-December day at 5:05 pm he received an email telling him he would be attending Harvard that fall. The letter even included a financial aid package that he would not acquire any debt. For William, this was like hitting the lottery. More Nobel Prize winners are associated with Harvard than any other university in the world and every supreme court justice has either attended Yale or Harvard.
Later in the week, he received an invitation to a Facebook page for the graduating class of 2021. He began to get to know students on the page and make some friends. This led to a private Facebook group about meme culture. If you don’t know what a meme it is an image with a caption, but they are often unrelated concepts. Like a picture of a volcano in the context of a family gathering. Memes often point to a larger commentary on power or society. At times memes can be edgy or even offensive. Often, they are meant to shock people, it is kind of dark humor. People in the group began posting edgier and edgier memes. William went along with it posting some really terrible things. In April he was contacted by Harvard telling William they were investigating this meme group and that he needed to respond to the admissions committee. William wrote an apology and explained in detail what he did including photos of the memes he sent. The committee responded by telling him his application was under review. Nine days later he was told Harvard was withdrawing their offer of admission.
Word got out, people avoided him, his prom date told him his mom wouldn’t let her go with someone who got kicked out of college. Because he applied early action and didn’t apply anywhere else, he suddenly had no plans for the next year. The scandal made the news, the BBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR. William got a job, played in the local symphony, enrolled in math and physics courses in the local community college. When he applied to colleges he told every single one what he had done and what he had learned from his mistakes and he received rejection after rejection from Princeton, MIT, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Brown. Eventually, he was waitlisted at three schools, eventually attending one of them. While William regrets what he did, he doesn’t regret the lessons he learned and how things turned out. 
When we read our text, at first, it can be a little bit difficult to understand. But it fits nicely with our readings over the last several weeks. If you remember, two weeks ago, we looked at how Jesus was tempted with the empire of bread, power, and protection. Last week Jesus was told Herod was out to get him, and he dismissed the threat. The text today features Pilate, a governor so brutal that Emperor Tiberius at one point recalled him to Rome and put him on trial for genocide against the Samaritan people.
Jesus is preaching to a crowd and it almost feels as if someone starts reading headlines from a paper. The first is an act of state sanction violence in the Temple courtyard, where 18 people were killed. The second event is some disaster. This tower may be part of Pilate’s new aqueduct that he had built during this time. This construction project mainly used slave labor and caused a riot when Pilate pillaged the treasury of Jerusalem to make it. According to Diana Butler Bass, some scholars have suggested that this tower may have been collapsed on purpose either by Pilate to keep the people in line or by the workers attempting to stop it. 
The crowd is asking whether these people deserved their fate. Essentially, they ask, “why do bad things happen to some people? Is it because some people are evil?” In both examples, Jesus’ response is “No” and he then moves onto the central theme of Luke, repent and do deeds consistent with the life of faith. Jesus, throughout the gospel of Luke, points to two outward signs of repentance, care for the poor and radical inclusion.
But before that, Jesus tells another story of a tree that bears no fruit. The owner wants the tree cut down. The Gardener begs to let it alone for one more year so he can show it some care, put some manure on it and see what happens. One of the interesting things in Judaism is that trees had rights. According to Leviticus, the tree’s fruit can’t be eaten for several years; the first three years, the fruit is forbidden, the fourth year, it is set aside for rejoicing, and the fifth year the fruit may be eaten. When we hear this parable, I think most of us believe God is the landowner, and it is a plea for divine patience. But God can’t break God’s command. The landowner in this case isn’t an angry God. The landowner is Caesar, Herod, Pilate. Murderers who destroyed people and land. Murderers who pillaged the land flowing with milk and honey. The Gardener is standing in contrast to the impatient landowner, knowing that things need patience, tending, and care. The mischievous side of me wonders if the Gardener was collecting the fruit and hiding it in order to fulfill the law of Leviticus. Either way, it points to the idea that violence can’t be met with violence. Empire only leads to violence and the Kingdom of God is a slow work that takes patience and care.
That is the invitation of repentance, that every single day we are given a new opportunity to show the signs of the repentance that leads to life. To show the world care for the poor and radical inclusion. We are given the opportunity to change our behavior and align it with the Kingdom of God.