Category Archives: Sermons

Home / Archive by category "Sermons"

4-17-22 — Race to the Finish — John 20:1-18 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Race to the Finish

John 20:1-18

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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?

 

[1] Arthur Riley, Cole. This Here Flesh (pp. 167-168). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-john-201-18-14

[3] https://presoutlook.uberflip.com/i/1462940-practicing-resurrection/15?

4-10-22 — Blessed Is…. — Luke 19:28-40 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Luke 19:28-40

Blessed is….

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.”[1]

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. [2] 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.

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/21/nyregion/city-college-mystery-donor.html

[2] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-04-04/luke-1928-40-3/

4-3-22 — Anointing Oil — John 12:1-8 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

John 12:1-8

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Anointing Oil

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.[1] The pandemic caused an increase in anxiety and depression. [2]

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.[3]

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.          

 

 

[1] Jayne L. Miller, Wellspan:  Community Mental Health Education Coordinator: Presentation Leadership York Mental Health and Wellness in our Community. 3.30.22

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2022/03/antisocial-behavior-crime-violence-increase-pandemic/627076/?utm_medium=social&utm_term=2022-03-30T11%3A00%3A59&utm_content=edit-promo&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=the-atlantic&fbclid=IwAR1wm4YNGR-LXaNSeUuU97XYrpRB1EWP-QNVK1u4FEIVhm2m6bq0v8B7yz4

[3] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-03-28/john-121-8-3/

3-27-22 — Two Sons — Luke 15:1-4, 11-32 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Luke 15:1-4, 11-32

Two Sons

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”. [1]

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.  [2]

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.

[1] https://thecorners.substack.com/p/stopping-the-nate-hate?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo5MTQ4NzAzLCJwb3N0X2lkIjo0Nzg3Njg3NywiXyI6IjFtZHVqIiwiaWF0IjoxNjQ4Mzc3Nzg5LCJleHAiOjE2NDgzODEzODksImlzcyI6InB1Yi0yMzczMyIsInN1YiI6InBvc3QtcmVhY3Rpb24ifQ.ViA0rb4fYCVclTSYdXJbhoSxzUHO5BSk0Oypkj6Dpoc&s=r

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/25/opinion/covid-pandemic-depressing-math.html

3-20-22 — Figs and Fruit — Luke 13:1-9 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Luke 13:1-9

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. [1]

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. [2]

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/you-cant-hit-unsend/

[2] https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/sunday-musings-400?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo5MTQ4NzAzLCJfIjoiMW1kdWoiLCJpYXQiOjE2NDc3Njc0MjIsImV4cCI6MTY0Nzc3MTAyMiwiaXNzIjoicHViLTQ3NDAwIiwic3ViIjoicG9zdC1yZWFjdGlvbiJ9.484pWRk0dXMT-p6HywXmgbD4hnTN1Qw-pTwVkoZJ1GA&s=r

3-13-22 — Threats and Warnings — Luke 13:31-35 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Threats and Warnings

Luke 13:31-35

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

The City of Jerusalem has seen a profound amount of bloodshed. Within the lifetime of many who knew Jesus, the Romans besieged the city and burned it, leveled the place, and began crucifying 500 hundred Jews each day. In 1099, Godfrey, Raymond, Tancred, and thousands of Crusaders broke into the Arab-controlled city and slaughtered the population. Ninety years later, Saladin took it back for the Muslims. Then in 1917, General Allenby took the city for the British. Firefights, wars, and terrorist attacks have been part of the city — a city in which three major religions call their home.  A city in which one of the best-known pilgrimages is the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrows.” [1]

In our text, the Pharisees come with a warning for Jesus. I think if Jesus was asked for a status update on his relationship with the Pharisees, he would probably say, “It’s complicated.” As the Jewish Annotated New Testament describes, Jesus shares at least three meals with Pharisees. The Pharisees are mentioned as part of the Christian Community in Acts, and they are not mentioned during the Passion Narrative. Instead, they seem to be repeatedly misunderstanding Jesus and his call.   Throughout Luke, the interactions with Jesus are very tense. He tells them frequently that they have neglected the poor and neglected justice; he warns his followers to beware of them. Josephus described how the Sadducees only had the rich on their side; the Pharisees had the crowds. So, when the Pharisee comes with this warning, it can be interpreted as an ominous threat or just another misunderstanding.  The Pharisees approach Jesus, telling him that Herod wants to kill him. This shouldn’t be news; Jesus had experienced attempts on his life before. In the gospel of Matthew, a different Herod made Jesus a refugee and had to flee for his very life to Egypt.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is direct. He calls Herod a fox, which is not a compliment in this culture. Foxes are considered sinister creatures. He tells the Pharisee precisely what he has been doing, casting out demons, curing the sick, and that he will do it today, tomorrow, and on the third day.  Jesus is not running from danger, but he is running into danger.

One has to wonder if Jesus understood the future Jerusalem would face. He mourns for the city. Mourns that Jerusalem rejects him, mourns how they kill prophets and messengers from God. Even within this mourning, his response to a public threat against his life is to state how he would like to be like a mother hen who protects her chicks from a fox. Jesus continues to live into his purpose even as the danger grows. [2] Telling us that there are always foxes in this life and things will always threaten us, but there is always room under God’s wing.

On the internet and our TV screens,  we see bloodshed in another major religion’s home.  John Burgess, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writing for the Christian Century shares the following: to understand somewhat what is happening here, you need to go back all the way to year 988. The legend is that Prince Volodymyr chose to be baptized in Crimea and the Orthodox church became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire.  According to the legend, Volodymyr was so struck by the description of Orthodox liturgy that engages all the senses that he connected to God’s holy presence. When he returned to Kyiv, all his warriors and their families were baptized en masse in the Dnieper River. This state-sanctioned faith united the people, becoming part of the birth narrative for Ukrainians and Russians.  In the Middle Ages, Mongols swept through this area, destroying Kyiv.  With this conquest, focus of the Slavic Orthodox church moved to Moscow. With the conquest of Constantinople, mythology rose the Moscow became the Third version of Rome. The Polish/Catholic tradition influenced the Western portion of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was dominant. Stalin oppressed these churches, and the priests and parishes had to go underground. The majority were forced to become Russian Orthodox. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian church made a comeback. Those churches began to display the Ukrainian flag and raised funds for the Ukrainian Army. These actions infuriated Putin and the Russian Orthodox church. [3]

We see the unprovoked attack on civilians on a neighboring nation; we have read stories of violations of the articles of war with the suspected use of cluster bombs and vacuum bombs.  We have heard stories of 2 million people fleeing their homes. Of the men from ages 18-60 staying behind and to serve their country. The women who are fighting alongside the men. These images and stories should cause us to mourn, weep, and cry out for peace.  While reflecting on this war, the Rev. Dr. John Burgess of the Pittsburgh Theological seminary noted that “for the Orthodox Church, Lent began on Sunday night. Typically, it begins with “a beautiful vesper service called forgiveness vespers.”  The war thus goes on even as Orthodox Christians “are praying for forgiveness from one another and from God,”[4]

It can be hard to know what to do in moments like these. We may cry out to God, wondering why God would allow more bloodshed. When we ask this question, we are in good company with the psalmist who said, “Why oh, why have you forsaken me” or “Why, O Lord do you stand so far off.” What scripture tells us is that Christ is right alongside all those experiencing these horrors. We can show solidarity with our neighbors affected by this war. We can give to organizations that are working to support the 2 million refugees already fleeing this war. We can pray for peace, pray for peace, and an end to violence. That God would gather these people all under the shadow of God’s wing.

 

 

[1] Green, Joel B. Connections A lectionary commentary for Preaching and Worship, pg 55.

[2] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-03-07/luke-1331-35-3/n

[3] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/russia-s-war-ukraine-about-religion

[4] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/there-is-a-culture-war-going-on-in-this-war-and-poor-ukraine-is-stuck-in-the

middle/?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=PC%28USA%29+Daily+News&utm_campaign=Daily+eNews+%7C+March+9%2C+2022

3-6-22 — Tests and Temptations — Luke 4:1-13 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Tests and Temptations

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Luke 4:1-13

 

You may have heard of the Marshmallow experiment. This experiment has been done since the 70s, and it was thought to measure the willpower of a child. The way the experiment works is a child is left alone in a room with a giant marshmallow and told that if they don’t eat it, they will receive two marshmallows when the adult comes back 15 minutes later.

A lot has been made of this study, equating the self-control of a child has to higher test scores, a lower BMI as an adult, and all sorts of other positive outcomes. While much of this is true, within the last decade some researchers have begun to question what this test measures. A researcher named Celeste Kidd conducted an experiment in a family shelter where children were experiencing homelessness. Often these children are facing many adverse conditions, hunger, unsafe environments, and unpredictable moments. When Celeste administered the Marshmallow test, immediately all of these children ate the marshmallow in front of them.  But then she began to modify the experiment.  She placed children in an art room and told them they would work on an art project. She gave some of them a reliable condition and some unreliable conditions. A friendly adult would meet the child in an art room, and tell the child they were going to do an art project together. The adult would excuse themselves to get some supplies.   Those with the reliable condition, the adult returned with an armload of brand new crayons. For those children with an unreliable condition; the adult would return and apologize because there were no brand new crayons only old broken ones. After the crayons, the same adult administered the marshmallow test, and the results were pretty astounding. The preschoolers who had a reliable condition were able to wait on average four times longer than those who received the unreliable condition, and the majority were able to wait for the full 15 minutes. [1] One of the most significant determining factors in their successful completion of this challenge was trust if they could trust those around them, trust the friendly adult, and trust their environment.  Their ability to trust those factors shaped their outcome.

As we begin our season of Lent, we read a familiar text on the temptation of Jesus. Jesus enters the desert for 40 days. Luke tells us Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit as he is about to be tested or tempted by the devil. This setup is meant to evoke our memories. Memories of the Hebrew people lost in the desert. It is intended to stimulate our memory of that classic story from Job of God and Satan, placing a bet to see if Job will remain faithful facing a sea of tragedy. Jesus enters the wilderness to face three trials. One of turning a stone into bread, the second worshiping the diabolical one in exchange for the earth, and the third to jump from the temple and display God’s favor. Facing each trail, Jesus responds with scripture and trust. One faithful reading of this passage is the idea that Jesus was tempted in three ways, Bread, Power, and Protection and that Jesus overcame these personal temptations. I am sure most of us have heard reflections on this before.

However, there is another interpretation that Diana Butler Bass offers us. Instead of three temptation this is really one temptation in three parts.   Caesar at this point was the ruler of the known world, the Emperor of Rome. The Kingdoms of the Mediterranean are under him, and each of those inhabitants is required to worship Caesar as Lord and Savior.

The empire maintained control of their empire through two ways, through bread and protection. From about the year 20 C.E. to the sixth century, the empire supported a bread distribution to hundreds of thousands of people. This distribution of grain to poor helped to guarantee security and safety in the empire. The Roman armies were fearsome, conquering lands. They protected people. If you were ruled by Caesar you were generally secure, you had bread from the state and safety through the military.

Is this Jesus being temped again to be like Caesar? To replace one broken Roman system and replace it with a system headed by a good Jew like him. Would Jesus be a better Caesar? Wasn’t he called to announce the Kingdom of God on earth?  What we see is Jesus is not tempted to replace Caesar, instead he goes forth from the wilderness, breaking bread with the poor, healing outcasts. Before his death, he tells the governor his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ power was seen through love, service, gratitude, and humility. [2]

I think this points to a temptation we all face, not the temptation to rule the world, but the temptation to rule our own world. The temptation to build our world only around ourselves. The temptation to live in an echo chamber and only have our own opinions perpetually reinforced.  The temptation to not to listen to one another, to not hear from others’ experiences. The solution to these temptations is the same to go out from our wilderness and serve the world with love, gratitude, and humility.

In 2017 Max Hawkins was loving life. Max was going to work every day at Google in San Francisco. As he described it, every day he would wake up, have his coffee, and ride his bike to work.  He would eat lunch at the Google cafeteria with 4 types of Kale. Then he would return home and hang out with friends. After a while, he realized everyone he was spending time with was living a similar life to him. This bothered him. So he did what app developers do and he wrote some software. The software looked at public invitations on the internet community billboards etc. and then randomly assigned one event for him to attend. The first time he did it, he showed up to an event where he was the only English fluent speaker. He began randomly attending pancake breakfasts, open houses, salsa dancing lessons, and he even started to knit. Then for Christmas, he decided not to go home. The app chose a place for him to have dinner. It was a small event with about 10 people. As he said he was totally freaked out when he rang the bell because it was a home. A woman answered the door named Karena, she asked whom he knew. He explained the app and what he was doing. Completely unfazed Karena let him. Max stayed for about 6 hours ending the evening by singing Christmas carols with a group of strangers. [3] For Max this changed the way he saw the world, it opened up the wilderness for him.

 

[1] https://parentingscience.com/delayed-gratification-and-the-marshmallow-test/

[2] https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/sunday-musings?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo5MTQ4NzAzLCJfIjoiMW1kdWoiLCJpYXQiOjE2NDY1Njc0NjAsImV4cCI6MTY0NjU3MTA2MCwiaXNzIjoicHViLTQ3NDAwIiwic3ViIjoicG9zdC1yZWFjdGlvbiJ9.RMwiO9j1Kkyic2xNVEoxQEmFJPnJVyx9-F_uYKrfH50&s=r

[3] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/531796329

2-6-22 — Leaving Things Behind — Luke 5:1-11 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

2.6.22

Leaving Things Behind

Luke 5:1-11

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

A few years ago, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta developed a Business Incubator program called Epiphany. The program is an incubator and an accelerator for entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to address social challenges. People from their congregation and outside the congregation act as coaches. They coach these entrepreneurs on business formation and infrastructure, branding and marketing, digital operations, and funding. They also give them a grant to help the business. First Presbyterian of Atlanta has invested in an Automotive training center that focuses on students from age 15-to 25, teaching them life skills and automotive repair. They have invested in a coffee company that provides training for refugees; another company focuses on employing the formerly incarcerated. Still, another focused on housing issues in the city of Atlanta.[1] Many of these businesses are not faith-based but are doing God’s work through blessing their own community.

Our lectionary this morning focuses on the call of Peter. The lectionary skips over a few events. Without going into great detail about them, they are helpful to understand what we see in Peter’s call to follow Jesus and leave everything behind. This call isn’t as out of the blue as it might seem. Peter has been following Jesus for at least a page or two. Jesus steps in and heals his mother-in-law and many in the community.  Then he goes and begins proclaiming the good news to the local synagogues.

Following these events, Jesus begins teaching at Lake Gennesaret when the crowd begins to grow. He clearly knows Peter and borrows a boat from him, Peter sits in as Jesus teaches. Peter and his crew have been working all night. After Jesus finishes teaching, he tells Peter to put his nets in one more time. I am sure Peter probably thought this was a little ridiculous. But Peter lets down his nets. The catch is astounding; it is so large that another boat needs to be called in to help. This catch represents many things, a blessing to Peter and those who work with him, a benefit to the community that eats the fish, and God’s abundance given to the world.  Peter goes to his knees, and instead of calling Jesus master, he calls him Lord and begs him to leave because of his sinfulness. Jesus tells him to be unafraid, and Peter leaves his nets behind to follow Jesus.

This got me thinking about what does the church need to leave behind. Peter is asked to leave his nets. What nets do we need to leave piled up on our seashore? As I reflected over this past week, two things came to mind.

The first thing we need to leave behind is a narrow understanding of belief. So often in Christianity, when we say we “believe” something, we associate it with the truth.  It is usually a sort of litmus test. The assumption then is that you are somehow wrong if you don’t “believe” in the same way. But this is a misunderstanding of this word. In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg wrote the following:

Prior to the seventeenth century, the word “believe” did not mean believing in the truth of statements or propositions, whether problematic or not. Grammatically, the object of believing was not statements, but a person. Moreover, the contexts in which it is used in premodern English make it clear that it meant: to hold dear; to prize; to give one’s loyalty to; to give one’s self to; to commit oneself. It meant. . . faithfulness, allegiance, loyalty, commitment, and trust.

 

Most simply, “to believe” meant “to love.” Indeed, the English words “believe” and “belove” are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God. . . To believe in God is to belove God. Faith is about beloving God and all that God beloves. . .

To believe something is to give our trust, our allegiance. It does not desire a specific outcome; instead, it creates the possibility of becoming something different. A different person, a different community, a different church.  So, the question becomes, what are you going to “belove” into this world.  How will “beloving” change the way we interact with others. [2]

The second net the church needs to leave behind is the idea that resurrection always looks the same. One of the greatest gifts we have is that gospels give us multiple accounts of the resurrection. For example, the original ending of the gospel of Mark ends at verse 8. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James go to the tomb and find it empty.  A man in a white robe tells them Jesus is not here. He has been raised. The women flee the tomb in terror and amazement and refuse to tell anyone what they saw. A later editor added a fuller account of the resurrection to this gospel.  But we see this in the other gospel accounts as well, these same women meet an angel in others, sometimes Peter is with them, sometimes he is not, and in most, they meet Jesus as they are fleeing the tomb.  In each of these accounts, the author views the resurrection from a slightly different angle, emphasizing what they felt was of importance to their audience at the time.

The vision team has been diligently working and thinking about this resurrection process for our church community; in fact, we met three times over the last week and a half. As we know, the church has changed. The average age of someone attending a worship service at Eastminster is 74 years old, and the average age of someone pledging to the Church is 75 years old.  We know that these trends will need to be reversed for the church’s long-term health and vitality.  We also know that our church is a vibrant community for its participants. We also know that we can no longer rely on past methods. We need to seek out how God is actively connecting with our world here and now.

Depending on your perspective, the resurrection process for Eastminster will look different. For some of us, processing change might be terror-inducing. Some of us may want to flee and, in the process bump into a Gardner who is calling us to a new level of “beloving” and calling us to leave our nets behind and discover where God is moving in the world today.

 

[1]https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e67ed0c2192f61504334cb6/t/61546f1f86ebe17eb3d1432e/1632923423223/Epiphany+One-Page+Overview+Short+Form+FINAL.rcl.pdf

[2] https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/sunday-musings-at-the-cottage-e83?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo5MTQ4NzAzLCJwb3N0X2lkIjo0ODI4MDEwNCwiXyI6IjFtZHVqIiwiaWF0IjoxNjQ0MTYwMTYzLCJleHAiOjE2NDQxNjM3NjMsImlzcyI6InB1Yi00NzQwMCIsInN1YiI6InBvc3QtcmVhY3Rpb24ifQ.qYVvL8fXlbQ4eHdh01a1adxNBo1hs4QFMiJYnXz7ojc

1-30-22 — Joseph’s Son — Luke 4:21-30 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

1.30.22

Joseph’s Son

Luke 4:21-30

 

 

Do any folks watch HGTV? There are many different shows, but they often feature very wealthy couples renovating a home with a budget that is way out of reach for the average American.  A show called House Hunters has even spun off siblings House Hunters International, House Hunters Gen Z, Tiny House Hunters. The premise in all these shows is that a couple is shown three houses over an episode. Then they pick one home to purchase. I am sure there is creative editing in the show. Still, you often see that their expectations are unrealistic, their budgets don’t align with their occupations,  and their concerns are not what the average American is generally concerned about.

There is another show called Bargain Block, and as Diana Butler Bass recently pointed out in a blog post entitled Is There a Doctor in the House? This show is very different. The show features Keith and Evan, a couple who renovated homes together in the city of Detroit. They try to use recycled materials and second-hand furniture and price their homes so they are affordable to local residents. When they sell a house, they sell it with all the furniture. What is truly unique about this show is that they live in the homes as they fix them up. They get to know a house with all its unique characteristics. They get to know a neighborhood and understand how it functions. These homes are not in good shape. I saw one episode where they purchased a home for 1,000 dollars. Whatever you imagine you can buy for 1,000, it was probably worse, but they moved in and got to work. They will purchase several blighted homes on one block and help to renew a neighborhood block by block.

As you may recall, last week, we reflected on a visit Jesus made to his hometown synagogue. Where he edited Isaiah 61 and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This week we are going to look at how the crowd reacts.  He returns the scroll and then tells them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The NRSV tells us they reacted with amazement, saying, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  The language here is a little ambiguous. This could mean amazement in like “Wow, that is awesome,” or it could be more like “Man, I can’t believe he said that. What is wrong with him?” Either way, Jesus takes it further after the crowd longs to see the miracles like the ones he did in Capernaum. Jesus introduces several new images. He describes that there were many widows that Elijah could have stayed with during the great famine, but he stayed with one who was outside the covenant. Many Jewish people had skin diseases, yet Elisha didn’t heal any of them; instead, he healed a Syrian General Naaman. Again, a man outside the Covenant and a representative of conquering Kingdom. The people are so enraged that they bring Jesus to a cliff to toss him to his death.

We see a lot of different things in their reaction. Some of this is probably pent-up frustration at Roman rule. These people have been kicked around so much they were angry. Some of this is perhaps blind nationalism. Remember, this is a Jewish stronghold surrounded by a sea of gentiles.  Some of this is because Jesus did not follow the script laid out for him, they want to hear how God will deliver them, and then they will be able to oppress the people who oppressed them.  They forget that they are broken people in the midst of a broken world.

This is a truth; the church often forgets this as well. For centuries the church has often looked at the world as an outsider, the idea of being in the world but not of the world. Many different theologies have arisen around this idea as Diana Butler Bass says, “liberal Christians with dreams of building the Kingdom of God on earth, progressives with a savior complex, evangelicals seeking to restore a “Christian nation.” Fundamentalists imagining a world under God’s dominion, each vision is shaped by the idea of the church having something the world doesn’t possess and can’t do.  Fixing, restoring, saving, building- what you have- is an intervention from some expert who doesn’t really know the neighborhood”.[1]

Professor Eddie Glaude recently remarked that this is how many of his Princeton students experience the world as “broken.” Climate chaos, economic inequality, democracy in turmoil, technology altering life, and a pandemic all point to this brokenness. His students fear that they may be broken as well.

Nothing will truly change until we realize that we live in a home that needs repair.  That we are like Keith and Evan, we can’t go home at night to a house that gleams, to a place where the plumbing isn’t busted, or wiring isn’t on the fritz, or the windows aren’t broken.  In Judaism, they often speak about a partnership with God to build a better and more just society. We often talk about saving the world in Christianity, and many link this to heaven. But a better theological and biblical understanding of the concept of “saving” is healing, restoring, and making whole. This is what Jesus is talking about that makes the crowd so upset. He is talking about saving, not the people they expect. But his “saving” healing, restoring, and making whole extends to the crowd, their neighbors, and our whole world. This is the invitation that we are invited to participate in this healing, restoring, and making whole. Part of our job as the church is to invite others into this work.

As a church, we need to seek out partners in unexpected places. Partnership who may not act like us, think like us, look like us but are seeking to heal, restore, and make the world whole.

 

[1] https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/is-there-a-doctor-in-the-house?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo5MTQ4NzAzLCJfIjoiMW1kdWoiLCJpYXQiOjE2NDM1NDcxMDcsImV4cCI6MTY0MzU1MDcwNywiaXNzIjoicHViLTQ3NDAwIiwic3ViIjoicG9zdC1yZWFjdGlvbiJ9.CueNyeammZbWuzFpzJhxpNx9Q4a49FPGCUgeJk4viEw

2-27-22 — Three Shelters — Luke 9:26-38 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Luke 9:26-38

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Three Shelters

 

Have you ever experienced a moment where you connect to something larger or bigger than yourself? Maybe this was a connection to God or just a growing sense of the universe.  I know I experienced this a few times in my life, the first time I saw the ocean, the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, the days my children were born. But the one that always strikes me is the first time I truly saw stars. My best friend and I were driving across the country. I had never really been out west.  We camped in the badlands in South Dakota, and there was no artificial light around, and it was truly one of the most breathtaking things I had ever seen. Images of stars that I had seen in books were suddenly in front of me.  I remember being genuinely inspired by the awe and grandeur of what I saw, feeling very small.

Our gospel text offers us another experience of grandeur. The gospel writer is placing this text to link this moment of transfiguration to Jesus’ predictions about his death and suffering. The cross is inexplicitly linked to this moment of glory. There are also parallels to the garden at Gethsemane. We have some of the disciples present in this moment, Jesus praying on a mountainside; they struggle to stay awake and remain present at the moment. As they are struggling and as Jesus is praying, the text tells us that Jesus is somehow transformed; two other men appear beside him, Elijah and Moses.  For these disciples, it is a moment of amazement, a moment where they discover the guy with good stories, who teaches well, the guy who does the miracles, the guy they have been wandering the countryside with, is something completely different altogether. Their reaction is one of terror, and they are overwhelmed by what they see and experience.  A voice boomed from the cloud, saying, “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him.” This voice is followed by silence and Jesus being alone.  The experience strikes Peter, James, and John that they told no one what they had seen. How often do we hear the disciples silent about anything in the gospel stories? Peter is constantly opening his mouth; James and John are the sons of thunder. But this day, whatever took place inspired them, connected them to something larger, and gave them something to hang on when they would face suffering.

This passage is a call to prayer. They go up the mountain to pray. Jesus is praying as he is transformed. Prayer is the process of discovery in which we find intimacy with God. Prayer is not always easy.  But part of our spiritual growth is discovering how we connect to that intimacy.  About 14 years ago, I was part of a leadership retreat. There were about 5 of us on the retreat. A local pastor led the retreat. Friday evening, we gathered together in a meeting room. He spoke briefly for a few minutes. We prayed a few prayers together as a group, then talked about silence. He explained that we would experience longer and more extended periods of silence throughout the weekend. That evening we would start with a short period of silence, 45 minutes.  Have you ever tried to sit quietly and feel like the noise is louder and louder every time you move?  I remember sitting in that room trying not to move and focusing less on prayer and meditation and more on not making any noise and disturbing everyone else. When the 45 minutes were over, the leader looked at me and said, “ So this is your first experience with a silent retreat.

Richard Rohr, when talking about prayer said that “The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul…The secret becomes unhidden when people stop hiding—from God, from themselves, and from at least one other person. Such risky self-disclosure is what I mean by intimacy and it is the way that love is transmitted. Some say the word comes from the Latin intimus ,which is interior or inside. Some say its older meaning is found by in timor, “into fear.” In either case, the point is clear. Intimacy happens when we expose our insides and this is always scary. We never really know if the other can receive what is exposed, will respect it, or will run fast in the other direction. We must be prepared to be rejected. It is always a risk.”[1]

This passage is about preparing the disciples for suffering that they might face. Giving them a glimpse of God’s future glory, something to hang onto when things get tough. The Harry Potter Series has a spell that connects to this story. There are characters in the story called Dementors. They are the personification of evil and suffering. They serve as guards at Azkaban prison. No one knows what they look like; they wear these rotting black robes. When they enter the room, lights flicker, and everything goes cold. They feed off of despair, sadness, and suffering. To kill a victim in the story, they give a kiss of death which sucks all the happiness out of a person. The spell, which is the only defense against these creatures, is called the Patronus charm. For a character to produce the Patronus charm, they must think of their happiest memory and say “expecto patronum.” The person is then bathed in a silvery light, and if they concentrate on their happiest memory, an animal made of light will defend them and drive the dementor away.

This story is Patronus; it is something to hang onto when facing difficulty; it is a call to prayer when we don’t know what to do. It is a call to intimacy with God.

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 164–165, 166, 167, 168–169.