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5-23-21 — Our Advocate — Acts 2:17-21, John 15: 26-27 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

“Our Advocate”

Acts 2:17-21

John 15:26-27

 

One of the unique things about being a pastor, is you never know how people will respond when they find out you are pastor. Sometimes they start to tell you all about their church. Usually it is positive, occasionally they just want to tell you how upset they are about something. Occasionally they ask for prayer, but in general most people don’t know how to respond. I remember when we put our oldest in a care program. The director was making small talk asking what we did. I told her and she just looked at me and said “Oh we have never had one of those.”  The Reverend Andrew Troutman Taylor shares how on occasion when people discover he is a pastor, “they will challenge the notion of God’s existence.” They often point to the “tragic and terrible- the shootings, the floods, the cancer.” For them they feel like these things disprove the idea of a “loving, creative force.”  When he hears this argument he likes to share that it is a good question that he doesn’t really have an answer for. But then he shares a spiritual practice that the poet Charlotte Matthews has taken on — a list that she writes, called her “God Exists” list.

Charlotte Matthews, instead of focusing on dogma or doctrine or theological argument, simply writes a list of those funny little happenstances that bring “welcome, comfort, and joy.”  For example, at the end of the terrible day she was walking out of convenience store carrying a microwavable dinner and she glanced down. While looking down she saw a cheap plastic keychain that read “I love you” just sitting there. Charlotte’s only rule for the list is that she only adds and never takes from the list.[1]  This makes me wonder what would you put on your God “exists list”? If you made a list what would the funny little happenstances that you would write down?

In our text from Acts the day has finally come; Jesus has ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit has arrived in force. The disciples are gathered for the festival of Pentecost. The meanings of this festival have changed over time but there is a common thread among all the meanings that God is giving good gifts. At first it was celebrated as part the harvest and it expressed thanks to God for God’s faithfulness supplying the needs of all, households, sons, daughters, male and female slaves, strangers, orphans, and widows. Then the focus moved from a harvest festival to gift of the 10 instructions for faithful living. As Christians we have reinterpreted this even further and it has become associated with the coming of Holy Spirit. In all these interpretations the focus is on the idea that God gives us what we need. [2] Peter lays out a beautiful vision where God’s spirit is poured out on all flesh, sons and daughters, young and old, male and female slaves. The Spirit equips everyone to speak about God’s deeds of power, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and social status.  It is significant that the first work of the spirit is to break down boundaries between people, to build connections to one another, to remind people of the historical inbreaking of God.

In John we see another interpretation of this moment. Jesus says that the “advocate” will come. It is interesting title for the Holy Spirit, and consistent with the way in which John interprets Jesus’ work, it has legal connotations. It is the Spirit pleading the communities in the face of an opposition. Jesus is speaking into the context the disciples will face. Not only will they face opposition from Rome but they will have to wrestle with how they understand Jesus and how they understand this Jesus movement. Will they continue to be a sect of Judaism, or will they become something entirely new?   I also believe that texts like these force us to consider how power operates. When this was written Christians were a tiny little sect; they worried about persecution from everyone. But as the church gained power they forgot what it is like to be that tiny, persecuted sect, and rather than protecting others they exerted their power to propagate death dealing systems.

So how do we understand these texts? We have the coming of an advocate, we have a festival that focuses on the gifts God has given us, and we have a God who pours God’s spirit onto all flesh, causing visions and dreams and the breaking of all boundaries. All of these are a record of God’s inbreaking, of breaking into history of destroying death dealing systems and saying I am here in love. They are a list that is thousands of years old, crying out to us saying, “God exists.”

So, what would I put on my God exists list?

I would add to my list the voice of scripture. This may sound like low hanging fruit but I can tell you there are moments in my own faith journey when I didn’t like what I was told scripture was saying. But the more I have studied it, the more I am amazed by it. The beauty, the breadth, the depth of history. But the thing that I am always struck by is that it is a record that shouldn’t exist. A record of a people that were enslaved, a record of a people that were conquered time after time, and in all these accounts voices are recorded that shouldn’t be recorded. The story of Jonah is truly about God showing love and compassion to an enemy.  Our God should be on our side, not that of our enemy, yet this record exists. The prophet that calls the very King of Israel out on his own hypocrisy. The recording of first witnesses to the resurrection are women, who at the time had no rights, could not testify in court, and were told to walk at least 7 steps behind their husbands.  The people that Jesus surrounds himself with are people who have been rejected. These are not the men that were called to study the Torah, but these are the men Jesus called. We see this pop up again and again throughout all of scripture. God chooses those who have been rejected. God holds power to account and it has been written down.

I would add to my list the testimony of so many believers that I have interacted with over my lifetime. People who take the time care for others, who create community for people in need, who sacrifice for something larger. A volunteer youth leader I worked with, who when a teenager was kicked out of his own home by his own family stepped up without hesitation, showing him care, giving him a place stay, and even helping him to pay tuition for college.  People who have actively live out their faith in this world.

I would add to my list the ways in which I see God renewing the church. The church will never look the way it looked 50 years ago. But God is not done with the church. Pentecost is a testimony of that. I recently read an article about the Church of the Open Table in Kansas City. Second Presbyterian put out a call for a missionary to their own community. They realized that they were only reaching a small population. So, they began the Church of the Open Table. They believe they are church community of peace and reconciliation in a city that is divided. They are a committed ant-racist church which seeks to bring in people of color to speak, and they meet around tables for a shared meal to talk about faith, spirituality, politics. They have found everyone learns something new about the city from their conversations and they find new organizations they can partner with. The church has become incredibly diverse with people of all backgrounds coming to engage in dialogue. Wendie Brockhaus described it this way, saying, “I often catch myself just stopping for a moment to look out over the room. It occurs to me that I’m seeing the gospel happening before my eyes. Strangers becoming friends, guest becoming hosts, it is the closest I have ever come to seeing the Gospel in real life.” [3]

God’s spirit is not done with the church. God is speaking to us this day, asking us what we will be, who we will become, and calling us to renewal.

 

 

[1] https://pres-outlook.org/2019/06/pentecost-and-building-a-god-exists-list/

[2] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 9773-9780). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

 

[3] https://vimeo.com/325683871

 

5-16-21 — Living In Joy — Acts 1:6-11, John 17:6-19 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Acts 1:6-11

John 17:6-19

Living in Joy

 

The passage from John is a little a wordy, theologically complex, and at times can feel a little stilted. This passage is really the culmination of the narrative that John has been building. He echoes themes from the entirety of John. Some scholars refer to this as the high priestly prayer of Jesus. Often when I heard this passage preached on, the preacher often focuses on the idea that we are “in the world but not of the world.” This type of thinking has been used to justify all sorts bad behavior, from lack of care for the earth, to lack of care for others. This interpretation also misses that greater narrative that Jesus has been describing in the book of John. One of Jesus’ central teachings is that God loves the world (3:16) and has sent his son to save the world rather than condemn it (3:17).  The believing community is now sent into the world (17:18), like Jesus was sent into the world so that they come might come to believe (vv. 20-21), and the church should be protected because it is not God’s will that the church should be removed from the world. [1] The emphasis in Jesus’ teaching is that this is a sending mission that the church is sent into the world to engage in the problems of the world, engage in the tragedies of the world, and co-labor alongside others to find solutions.

We see this theme echoed in our story from the book Acts. The opening question from the disciples is a valid question; When are you going to restore Israel? This is really asking Jesus when are you going to kill the Romans? Will you let us kill the Romans? Do you have an army somewhere? I often wonder at times if Jesus grew frustrated with this question, at times reading the gospels it feels he is addressing this impulse way too often. But instead he offers a quick rebuke and tells the disciples they will receive power and the they will be sent into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. With that Jesus disappears into the clouds and the disciples are left staring at the sky. The disciples are being sent throughout the earth, this idea is again at the heart of the text. So, we have to ask what does it look like to be sent in the world we live in?

Our Book of Order describes it this way: The Church is sent to be Christ’s faithful evangelist:  making disciples of all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; sharing with others a deep life of worship, prayer, fellowship, and service; and participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world. [2] To be sent means we are focused outward, we understand our community, and that we are embracing change.

To be sent means we are focusing outward. It is easy for any church to drift toward an inward focus, but our call is to be looking outward to engage with those outside our wall or yard. My previous church became affectionately became known in the community as the hotdog church. You see in Doylestown there is one of the oldest Memorial Day parades. It is a source of pride in the community. Every high school marching band participates and thousands of people come to watch the parade, and the parade route is in front of the church. The first year of my call at Doylestown I attended the parade to see my youth group kids march. I realized the only presence the church had at the parade was an employee who was tasked with reminding people not stand or lean on the fence. I raised the question with a few elders, asking if we were missing an opportunity. The following year, the church was open, people could come in and use the restroom. If you’ve ever been in a crowd with three year who needs to use the restroom you know how meaningful this could be to a family. The church went even further, providing a free lunch to anyone. The last year I was there they cooked and gave away about 400 hotdog lunches. When my youth group kids were asked where they attended church, they said the hotdog church and everyone knew what they were talking about.

To be sent means that a congregation develops a deep understanding of their community. Asking the question, who are our neighbors? Who is living in our community? What are their hopes and desires? What are the problems in our community?

To be sent means engaging with new ideas, new solutions, and leaning into discomfort. It is no secret the world has dramatically changed. The church of Jesus Christ adapts in every age. JD Carabin wasn’t looking to start a church when he first went to a skate park in Kalispell Montana. He knew how to weld and he showed up with some rails and a cooler full of water. He got to know some of the kids over a few months, and as he described it, suddenly one day he belonged in their world. He began hearing about their problems, broken families, run-ins with the law. He and his wife turned their garage into a skateboarding space. When too many kids came, they started renting a warehouse. Through the local Rotary Club, they met a Presbyterian lawyer, Tom Esch, who started volunteering with group. He was moved by the stories of poverty, neglect, abuse, addiction and mental illness and how, for many, hunger was a constant struggle. But he began to collect the stories of redemption, of kids graduating from high school, being baptized, mentoring and teaching others. He realized that often the best ministry is the ministry that nobody sees, relationships, love, the word made flesh dwelling among us. Tom’s church become deeply involved in the is community, with church members making weekly dinners, baking birthday cakes for the kids, teaching them to play chess, mentoring them. One church member even began making quilts for kids, letting them pick the colors as reminder that are always surrounded by God’s love. [3]

What does it mean for Eastminster to be sent? To be a community that makes disciples; to be a community that shares deeply in worship, prayer, and service; to be a community that is participating in God’s mission to care for neighbor, to be outwardly focused, to understand our community, and to engage with new ideas and new solutions? How is God sending us into this world?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 9661-9663). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] F-1.0302d

 

[3] https://pres-outlook.org/2017/06/finding-new-ways-church-1001-new-worshipping-communities/

5-2-21 — Abide In God — Psalm 22:25-31, John 15:1-8 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 22:25-31

John 15:1-8

Sermon                                                     Abide in God                                Rev. Joshua D. Gill

           

Jesus is continuing his teaching in this moment the disciples are participating in the last supper. John is unique in that he places a large teaching block in this setting. It is also the final “I am” statement in the gospel. So far Jesus has said: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the gate for the sheep,” “I am the good shepherd,”  “ I am the resurrection and the life,” “ I am the way, and the truth, and life,” and finally “I am the true vine.” This last image is more than just an agricultural image, it is an image that is deeply connected to the nation and the people of Israel.  In Isaiah we read “ You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and you planted it…” God cares for this vineyard. At times God has executed judgement and pruned the vineyard, to ensure fruitfulness, connectivity, and unity. In Jesus’ teaching, Jesus is the true vine and the disciples are branches. They must “abide” or “remain” together. A vine and a branch are indistinguishable from one another, yet the branches can be pruned and cut off, and it will enable more growth. Branches are never independent; they are always rooted and growing in Jesus.

Gail O’Day in her commentary on the Gospel John asks the question of the text “What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ, the vine? What would ‘church’ look like if it embraced this model for its corporate life?”[1]

I believe part of a response to these questions rests in a hymn composed in 1847. The Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte composed the hymn “Abide with Me.” Lyte was suffering from tuberculosis as he penned these words.  Some believe he was in the countryside trying to find comfort from his sufferings.

 

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.

 

Abide with me, abide with me becomes a prayer. God, when it grows dark, Lord remain, abide

with me. When I no longer have comfort, when I no longer feel safe, God abide with me. I am sure all of us can identify a moment when we felt profoundly alone. Sit with that moment, sit with those feelings for a minute. Maybe it was during a period of transition, a period of loss, or a period of struggle, sit with that and ask God to abide in that moment. As the body of Christ part of our role in and call is to abide with those who are abandoned, alone, and oppressed.

 

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see. O thou who changest not, abide with me.

 

Where the vine is not producing fruit, the vine grower prunes so new growth might take

place. Our focus should not be on what is lost but on what new growth will appear. How is God calling Eastminster to new growth? What are the ways in which God is pruning us and calling us to respond to the changing world around? We can see the decay all around us. Just this week there were four shootings in York City.[2] We can see it in the poverty that plagues so many of our communities; we see it in the climate crisis; we see it in the divisions in our society, the fact that for many political affiliation has become some sort of litmus test.  How is God calling us to speak into this decay? How is God calling us to respond?

I need thy presence every passing hour; what but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

 

This is a reminder that the world is not yet what God desires; temptations abound. Even though Christ has conquered death, we continue to see death all around us; poverty, racism, sexism, classism and we might even wonder what has even been changed? How did Christ’s work remake life in the midst of death? Just yesterday I read an update from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. PDA just sent an additional $20,000 to India specifically to the PDA BIRDS program. It is a rural development society that focuses on two states in India. They work directly with the Dalit population or lowest caste in India. Paul Rao, the director of Birds PDA, said, “The poor are always becoming poorer, their suffering starts form birth to Death! They face hunger, discrimination, poverty, denial of rights, and no dignity.” He goes on to say “their dead are not respected…” The BIRDS-PDA program helps “food, medicines, decent treatment, providing socio-economic and legal support, PPE, and an education campaign, and for people living on the edge.”[3] In the face of all of the problems of the world, there is always a temptation to turn inward and only focus on acts of self-preservation. But to follow Christ is to cling to the true vine in the midst of these temptations.

 

I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. Where is death’s sting? Where, grace, thy victory? I triumph still, if thou abide with me.

This is the gift that we are offered when we abide in Christ. It is not because we abide in Christ, but because Christ abides in us. In Christ, through Christ, and with Christ we can do all things, not because of us but because of Christ in us. We only triumph when we abide in Christ. This is the hope so that the Church is a courageous sign of hope of Christ’s love in this world. Too often the church has been a place of judgement, but Christ’s love is inclusive. St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Texas had made this a cornerstone of their ministry. The church of about 500 has historically helped to resettle refugees, at one point helping many Laotians refugees, many of whom went on to join the church and stay, forever changing this congregation. As a congregation they focus on being multicultural, multigenerational, demonstrating real inclusivity, integrating members with disabilities, and members of many different classes. The expectation is that all people are included and all people are welcomed. [4]

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

 

As we a fix our eyes on the cross on Jesus, we will become more like Christ, our desires

will align with Christ’s desire. The vine will produce the fruit of Christ as we desire what Christ desires.  May this be our prayer that we would abide with Christ.

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9 (Luke-John), (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 760

[2] https://www.yorkdispatch.com/story/news/2021/05/01/27-year-old-injured-friday-night-shooting-york-city/4903422001/

[3] https://pres-outlook.org/2021/04/presbyterian-disaster-assistance-grants-20000-to-covid-response-in-india/

[4] https://www.pcusa.org/news/2010/8/23/all-are-welcome/

4-25-21 — Sheep and Wolves — Acts 4:5-12, John 10:11-18 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Acts 4:5-12

John 10:11-18

 

Sermon                                                  Sheep and Wolves                                Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 The good shepherd seeks out sheep that are lost and separated from the herd. I read a modern twist on this. Rene Compean went for a hike in the Angeles National Forest. While on that hike he became hopelessly lost; he couldn’t find the trail and couldn’t find his way. He began yelling for help. He wrote SOS on the side of a rock face, hoping someone would see it. He had his cell phone, a power bar, and a bottle of water. His cell phone was almost dead and he couldn’t get a signal. He decided to hike higher into the mountain in the hopes of getting a signal. He texted a friend, “SOS. My phone is about to die and I am lost.” He sent two photos with this text. Only one photo went through. It was a picture of his soot covered legs hanging over the cliff face. The photo was very low resolution and it didn’t have GPS enabled, so the friend wasn’t able to tell where the photo came from. He contacted the police. The local sheriff spent the night looking for Rene and they were unable to locate him. In the morning the sheriff tweeted the photo asking the Twitterverse if anyone knew the area and that they had a missing hiker. Ben Kuo, who saw the tweet, thought he could figure out where Rene was. Ben works in tech but he also has a unique hobby. He likes to look at satellite data to help track wildfires, and on occasion he likes to use that satellite data to figure out where photos were taken. Ben has never been to the area where Rene was lost. But he immediately looked at the photo and was able to begin to narrow in the search window. He quickly realized that Rene was on the south side of the mountain, on the north side there were no green plants and he could see green shrubs dangling below his feet. He found a location that resembled the terrain in the area and cross-referenced it with Google Earth and realized they matched. He called the sheriff’s office with this information. The sheriff’s office dispatched a helicopter with a search and rescue team and were able to locate Rene almost immediately. Rene had spent the night chilled to the bone huddling in a tight ball with only his shorts and tank top. He kept a stick and sharp rocks with him throughout the night as he had spotted a mountain lion. He said it was terrifying, and the sheriff’s department told him he was lucky. [1]

In his classic work To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer describes both knowing and being known as emanating from love. He notes that the kind of love that shapes our knowing and being known is not a “soft and sentimental virtue, not a fuzzy feeling of romance.” For Palmer, this love is the “connective tissue of reality” that makes a bold claim on our lives. It implicates us in the web of life and wraps both the knower and the known in compassion. Palmer says this knowing results in an “awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, and accountability.” [2]

Many people don’t feel known or loved. Many thought that social media would fill this void, it was supposed to help us feel more connected with one another. But survey after survey has shown there has been a steady increase in feelings of isolation and loneliness. Psychologists report an epidemic of loneliness and the pandemic has only magnified this sense of loneliness. I have heard many people describe the monotony of the pandemic experience.  People want to know and be known by others.

Both of our readings this morning transpire in the context of a healing narrative. In the reading from Acts, Peter has just healed a man at the Gate called Beautiful. The people were filled with wonder and amazement at what Peter was able to do. Peter and John then go and begin preaching to those gathered at the temple. What we are seeing is people trying to sort out reality. The followers of Jesus are trying to sort out reality. The lines have suddenly become fuzzy. They are residents of the Roman empire, but they are tied to Israel both through lineage and tradition. They are also followers of the Messiah Jesus.  As they are preaching, Sadducees come and arrest the disciples. Arrested, they are suddenly giving testimony in a Roman imperial court. They go from a position of authority to a place of being questioned — by whose authority or power they did this healing?

It is significant that it is the Sadducees who arrest Peter and John. These would have been aristocrats of their day. This included the high priest who yielded power in Jerusalem and the temple. They guarded the shrine, the most holy place. They oversaw the sacrificial system and had great economic power. It was the high priest that the Roman Governor would have done business with. [3] This power that they have is partially why they reject the idea of resurrection. Resurrection is a dangerous idea. It declares that the living God is going to put everything right once and for all, that all things will be restored. If you are in a position of power this type of thinking is deeply concerning. What happens if you move from powerful to powerless? Their response would have made little sense to the religious leaders. Who is this Jesus? When did he come back from the dead? God grants Peter boldness and he is filled with the spirit and responds. Peter’s response is about pointing to the source of true power, of true life, pointing to Jesus.

Peter says this Jesus is the stone that the builder rejected and it has become the cornerstone. When builders were constructing a house or a wall. They would reject any stones with odd shapes, because they wouldn’t fit in. They would be thrown into the rejected pile. But this rejected Jesus will change the world. This rejected Jesus who calls himself the good shepherd.

The page before, Jesus helped a man receive his sight by spitting in the mud and having him wash in the pool of Siloam. The Pharisees see the formerly blind man and ask how he received his sight. When he testifies to Jesus’ healing, the Pharisees reject his testimony and throw him out. Jesus than explains to the man and the Pharisees that he is the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd has come to save, call, protect, feed, and lead the sheep to their true home. The sheep in turn hear, follow, recognize, and benefit from the shepherd. They hear the shepherd’s voice. They find peace and pasture.

The Good Shepherd helps us to know and be known. We are known by God, so we can be known by friends, family, and our church community. Jesus calls us to live a life of love for one another.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/04/22/lost-hiker-satelite-rescue/

[2] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 7813-7819). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3]Wright, N.T. Acts For Everyone Part 1, pg 62.

4-18-21 — You Are Witnesses — Luke 24:44-53 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Luke 24:44-53

                                                                You are Witnesses

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

In her Book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents Isabel Wilkerson shares the following story.

It was a sunny day in Youngstown Ohio in 1951. A little league team had won the city championship. The coaches, unthinkingly, decided to celebrate the team picnic at a public pool. When the team arrived at the gate, a lifeguard stopped one of the Little Leaguers from entering. It was Al Bright, the only black player on the team. His parents had not been able to attend the picnic, and the coaches and some of the other parents tried to persuade the pool officials to let the little boy in, to no avail. The only thing the lifeguards were willing to do was to let them set a blanket for him outside the fence and to let people bring him food. He was given little choice and had to watch his teammates splash in the water and chase each other on the pool deck, while he sat alone on the outside.

From time to time, one or another of the players or adults came out and sat with him before returning to join the others. It took an hour or so for a team official to finally convince the lifeguards that they should at least allow the child into the pool for a few minutes. The supervisor agreed to let the Little Leaguer in, but only if everyone else got out of the water, and only if Al followed the rules they set for him.

First, everyone, meaning his teammates, the parents, and everyone else that had come to the pool that day, had to get out of the water. Once everyone cleared out, Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft. A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents, and onlookers watched from the sidelines.

After the agonizing few minutes that it took to complete the circle, Al was then escorted to his assigned spot on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again. “Just don’t touch the water. Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” A little part of Al died that afternoon. One of the coaches offered him a ride home, and he declined. With a championship trophy in hand, Al walked the mile or so back home. He was never the same.[1]

Our New Testament text today is very similar to the resurrection appearance we read last week from the book of John, but the emphasis is a little different. On the previous page, two of the disciples have just walked the Emmaus road with Jesus and they have returned to tell the disciples that the Lord had risen, that he had opened the scriptures to him. When suddenly Jesus appears among them. There is again this question of doubt in Luke’s interpretation. The doubt centers mostly on the question “Is Jesus a ghost?” Jesus invites them to touch him and see that he is not a ghost, to touch and feel his flesh and bones.  As if to make his point even further, Jesus then asks for something to eat. He wants to prove to them that he is alive and well. This is not to show that God can resuscitate the dead, but to validate the ways in which God performs redemption among us in Jesus. These are the hands that reached out to raise a widow’s dead son, that lifted Jairus’s daughter from death to life, the hands that blessed the little children. His feet were those kissed and anointed by one looking for acceptance. His feet were the feet that carried him from village to village and then to the cross. This is a validation of Jesus, of Jesus’ ministry and the way in which we as people of faith are called to embody the good news to world.[2] To be the hands and feet of Christ in our community.

The passage transitions into a moment of commissioning, where Jesus reminds those gathered that what was written about him has been fulfilled; that everything in the law of Moses, the prophets, and psalms has been fulfilled. Because these words have been fulfilled, Jesus sends them into the world. They are sent in the world not as soldiers, not as revolutionaries, not as celebrities. They are sent into the world as witnesses. No weapons, no credentials, no powerful friends, just being sent out with what they have seen and heard in Jesus. They are called to be truth tellers. But Jesus does one more thing before the close of the chapter — he blesses them. It is the reminder that we are called to be witnesses who bless God’s world. Truth tellers who bless the world. Truth tellers who bear witness to the world around them.

In his sermon “Love in Action,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes how the blindness of humanity is often what perpetuates injustice, evil, and oppression. Good people who were blind to the realities around them. “Good people who were anchored in the religious faith of their mothers and fathers.” Good people who used this religion and positions of power “as instruments to crystalize the status quo.” He goes on to say that if our community and nation fails it will fail it will be due to “its undeniable sinfulness, but also it’s appalling blindness.”  “The call is for open-mindedness, sound judgement, and love for truth. A call to rise above the stagnation and the paralysis…. “[3]

Seventy years ago, we might never have heard Al’s story. We have all seen the results — all across this country, thousands of city and township run pools were closed simply to avoid Al getting in the water. Yet Jesus calls us to be witnesses, to tell the truth and to bless the world this day.  Witnesses to what is happening in our in our world today, witnesses to yet another mass shooting, witnesses to the death of a 13-year-old at the hands of a police officer….

We are living in a day and age, in which we can pick and choose our own media ecosphere, an ecosphere which reinforces whatever opinion we would like to have reinforced. I have already read the victim blaming stories that say a 13-year-old shouldn’t have been out at 2:30 in the morning, implying and sometimes outright stating that Adam’s mother was somehow uncaring or absent. The truth is, she put him to bed. [4] As a youth pastor I got a few of those calls from exasperated parents, and on few occasions from a teenager who got in more trouble than they expected in the middle of the night. I can assure you the results were not the same. I have also read the narratives blaming all police officers. The truth is, they have an insanely hard job and we ask too much of them. This same ecosystem would pretend that you can’t affirm both of these ideas, that you can’t advocate for police reform and support your community, that you can’t have freedom and advocate for gun control to end these mass shootings. This is simply not true.

Yet into this mess Jesus is calling; calling us to be witnesses to bless God’s world. Calling us to open-mindedness, sound judgement, and love for truth. Calling us to rise above the stagnation and the paralysis. Calling us as witnesses to bless God’s world. How will you respond to Jesus’ charge?

 

[1] Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, pg 120.

[2] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Location 7381). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/draft-chapter-iv-love-action

[4]https://www.npr.org/2021/04/16/988200906/a-look-at-little-village-the-chicago-community-where-police-shot-adam-toledo

4-11-21 — Seeing And Believing — John 20:19-31 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

John 20:19-31

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Seeing and Believing

Howard Thurman shares the following story in Jesus and the Disinherited. He writes, “When I was a very small boy in 1910, Halley’s comet visited our solar system. For a long time, I did not see the giant in the sky because I was not permitted to remain up after sundown. My chums had seen it and had told me perfectly amazing things about it. Also, I had heard of what were called ‘comet pills.’ You see some enterprising charlatans had latched onto an idea that poisonous gas would be released through the tail of the comet they began selling comet umbrellas, comet gas masks, and comet pills all things would stop the coming global destruction.[1] The fear consumed people; it is reported that churches were packed as people prepared for the end.” Howard Thurman continues, “One night I was awakened by my mother, who told me to dress quickly and come with her out into the backyard to see the comet. I shall never forget it if I live forever. My mother stood with me, her hand resting on my shoulder, while I, in utter, speechless awe, beheld the great spectacle with its fan of light spreading across the heavens. The silence was like that of absolute motion. Finally, after what seemed to me an interminable time interval, I found my speech. With bated breath I said, ‘What will happen to us if that comet falls out of the sky?’ My mother’s silence was so long that I looked from the comet to her face, and there I beheld something in her countenance that I had seen only once before, when I came into her room and found her in prayer. When she spoke, she said, ‘Nothing will happen to us, Howard; God will take care of us.’[2]

The passage we read moments ago begins on Easter evening. Earlier that morning Jesus was resurrected and some of the disciples and a couple of Marys ran to the tomb and saw that it was empty. Peter ran off believing but not understanding.  One Mary stood outside the tomb weeping; Jesus suddenly appears to her only to disappear again. Mary tells the followers of Christ. That evening the community gathers.  I want you picture this gathering — a simple room with maybe a window or two, lit by oil lamps. The room is large enough for a gathering. It has an earthy smell, it smells of stale bread and spent wine, it smells of humanity mourning. A collection of people gathered to mourn, to hear about the empty tomb, and to respond to Mary’s claims of having seen the master. You can sense the fear in the room; the people who had Jesus killed are still in power. The gathered are wondering if they are next. Each person wondering what do we do? What do we do about the report of the empty grave? Will they think we stole the body? What do we do with Mary; she claims she saw the Lord? How is the high council going to react? Will their bloodlust be satisfied with the death of Jesus?  Or will they be worried about a continued revolution and put us all down.  You can picture the tears as they mourn Jesus. They experience anxiety at every noise and every creak. “What is that?” Oh, just the wind. “Is that a torch?” No not the torches of roman soldiers, just the last light of the setting sun.

Suddenly into this fear-laden anxious room the Master appears, saying, “Peace be with you.”  The sudden appearance of the Lord must also have been fear-inducing and anxiety producing in its own right. A moment of disbelief must have ensued; surely this is not the master? We saw him die! We saw the crowds shouting crucify, crucify! In a heartbeat the disbelief would have led to self-examination.  Peter welling up with tears, thinking, “but I denied knowing him.”   Another disciple thinking, “I wasn’t faithful to the end, what will he say?”  Another follower stunned into silence wondering, “what will he do?”

Jesus offers peace to all in the room. They hesitantly approach him inspecting his body.  They know his hands and feet well even with the wounds. These are the hands and feet of the master. The followers of Christ press in and the inspection turns into a giant hug and celebration. These men and women who moments ago were weeping are blown over by an Easter tidal wave of peace and joy. Jesus calms the room and calls for peace and begins to address the room. He tells them that as “The father has sent me so I send you.” Jesus is echoing his prayer found in John 17. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  A world which will not understand them, a world that will hate them, but a world that is dearly in need of Jesus.  A world in which they are to be known by love and acts of love. Then Jesus breathes on them. Jesus is creating new life. We are reminded of the first creation as God breathed into the nostrils of humankind and Adam draws breath. We are reminded of the breath of life coming to Ezekiel’s dry bones and bones walk gaining flesh and living again being the hope to Israel.   We are reminded of a world of new life and recreation where those who hear and believe are grafted on as the children of God. A new world is being born in a tiny upstairs room, with dirty, tired, tear stained faces.  These reborn children are commissioned to be sent into the dark world.  Jesus closes, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retained the sins of any are retained.”  Like those in the upper room we are left wondering what has just happened? What did Jesus command us to do?

If we are to understand this passage we need keep a few things in mind. This is a gift for all the gathered community. The statements from Jesus are not just to the disciples but to all the people of God. From this community the spirit of God is unleashed on the world. The author of John is  making a theological point, Easter and Pentecost have merged. A community is to be recreated, reimagined, the community of God an Easter people. Easter is not just a momentary celebration, it is a moment we hear from God our marching orders. Where we the people of God are sent out to do and be the ministry of Christ in this world.

The community gathered in this upper room is charged with living out the words of Christ and by extension we have charged to live out the words and actions of Christ in the same way he lived them out. Christ the connector of people, Christ the good shepherd, Christ the healer, and Christ the suffering servant.

The enigmatic phrase we read at the end seems a little odd. Forgive and retain are not common words in John’s gospel but “sin” is. John’s use of it is a little different. “Sin” in John’s gospel is not a moral failing but a theological. To have sin is be blind to the revelation of God.  To have sin is to fail to see God’s work in the world through Jesus Christ. To have “sin” is to fail to see the in-breaking of God.   To have sin is to fail to love the world, to love the people God has placed in it.

The purpose of the church to help people see this revelation, to be signposts of love so people can see Jesus in the church and in us. The disciples moved from fear to peace to purpose. In Acts we read of the Spirit coming and changing these fearful followers of Christ into men and women who turned the world upside down with the love of God.

In the book Godbearing Life “the Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Richard Foster and Kenda Creasy Dean, they write, “God invites us to live out this purpose.“ Ministry focuses on relationships, not only because of who people are but because of who God is.  God is relationship — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…– God’s love is so generous the Godhead alone cannot contain it. Significant relationships matter because they teach us something about what God is like — the One who can love us in spite of ourselves and who loves us passionately enough to suffer willingly on our behalf.”[3]  God is relationship and in our relationships we are called to live out this purpose to live in such a way that we point to God; to live such a way that our very lives show others the work of God in this world.  These are our marching orders. We are called to move from fear, and embrace peace and live with purpose.

 

[1] https://www.wired.com/2015/01/fantastically-wrong-halleys-comet/

[2] Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited (pp. 56-57). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Dean and Foster: The God bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry, Upper Room Books, TN. pg 27

4-4-21 Easter Sunday — New Beginnings — Isaiah 25: 6-9, Mark 16: 1-8 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isa 25:6-9

Mark 16:1-8

New Beginnings

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

4.4.2021

 

In the epic adventure called “How to Train Your Dragon,” the small Viking village of Berk is periodically besieged by dragons. Dragons of all sorts come and rob sheep but they never eat them. The Vikings never bother to wonder why the dragons come.  They just defend the village and train all their offspring to fight the dragons. Finally, one day Hiccup, the son of Stoic the Vast, the village chief, catches a dragon. At first, he is scared and intrigued by the dragon he catches. He begins feeding the injured dragon and eventually names it Toothless.  As time goes on, Hiccup befriends Toothless and realizes these dragons aren’t monsters; they are merely misunderstood animals and they are actually lovable. Hiccup decides he must help the people of Berk see dragons in a new light.  By the end of the film, Hiccup has convinced the entire village to overcome their fears. Vikings no longer fear the creatures but begin taking care of them and training them, and they overcome their fear and see a new vision for their life. The village Berk becomes a home, where fears are overcome. [1]

Our Isaiah text lays out a beautiful image, but it needs some unpacking. The Prophet is envisioning the future. The Lord has gathered all people on God’s holy mountain. God is serving the very best for the people. It is a right feast with wines and the best food. God then destroys any barrier that we have put up. The text indicates that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the peoples, and the sheet that is spread over the nations. God will destroy the sheet that have been spread over the nations and God will consume death forever. God will then comfort all people. God will wipe away all tears and remove disgrace from all people.

The prophet saw that the way the nations and the people were living was leading to death. The only thing that was covering them was a “sheet;” this sheet is a reference to how molten metal is poured, especially for making graven images or idols. These idols represented a system of thought that required work, action, and sacrifice. A group would need to imagine in great detail an idol and how it interacted with people and how it interacted with the world. It becomes a system of thought that would have influenced their imagination and stifled their understanding of the world.

The great sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois explored this idea in his work The Soul of Black Folks and saw this “sheet” or “veil” as the work of racial justice and the ending of white supremacy. He went on to predict that this issue would be the dominate issue of the twentieth century and that African Americans would continue to experience adverse relationship to power and resources.[2] This is a system that certainly leads to death; at the time in which these ideas were penned, lynchings were still common community spectacles. For many African Americans it felt like an apocalypse.

Yet, the prophet is insistent that God will destroy this veil, that distortion between neighbors and nations will be corrected. That the relationship between God and humanity will be corrected, and that God will comfort all those in pain.

We move from Isaiah’s vision to right outside the tomb. We are in good company. We are surrounded by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. The women have come to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus; to cover him in spices and anoint him. They want to ensure that he is buried properly. As they travel to the tomb they wonder how they will move the stone away. To their surprise this heavy stone has been moved, and a man dressed in white is sitting there. They are alarmed by his presence in the tomb. He answers an unasked question. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus is going to Galilee.” At this news the women flee from the tomb in terror.

At times people have expressed dissatisfaction with this resurrection story. Where is the appearance of Jesus? How can the greatest story ever told end in the women fleeing in terror? This disequilibrium even caused early scribes to add alternative endings to the original text to create a more satisfactory experience.

One of things to keep in mind, is that original hearers would have heard this story in a different setting. It would not have been read as a private devotion or even as a small snippet in worship. Most of the time when they heard this ending, it would have been as it was read to the entire community in one long reading almost as a performance. The story would have been building toward this moment. When I read this story I actually find comfort in the disequilibrium, it feels like a cliffhanger. When you finish a book or a tv series and the characters are all facing a dilemma and the book ends. As the reader you are left to wonder what happens next? Wondering what the characters will do next? How will they cope with the new problem they are facing? Will their fear silence them? What will their next chapter look like?

Much of Mark’s gospel is about overcoming fear with faith. After the calming of the storm, Jesus says to the disciples, “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus says to woman with the blood disease, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” To Jairus, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid but believe.” To the father of the sick boy, Jesus says, “Everything is possible for one who believes,” to which the father replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief”. [3]

At the age of 76, Gertie decided it was time for her to write a new chapter. “She had become concerned about the young people in her church. So, rather than respond with fear she responded with faith, deciding to volunteer at a high school youth group. The pastor asked her what she would like to do. She said, ‘I don’t know; God will think of something.’ Gertie wasn’t a speaker, she couldn’t play games, she didn’t want to lead a bible study. But she had a camera, and she took a picture of every kid in the youth group, and put them on flash cards and wrote down information about them. She would see them at church, youth group, or around town and she would talk to them and pray for them. She memorized all the names and faces and would stand at the door every week and greet every child. Some would run past; others would chat with her. At the age of  86, Gertie had 3 strokes in quick succession. The prospect of her death distressed the kids in the youth group.  After reading the book Tuesdays with Morrie, one of the youth leaders had an idea. He approached Gertie and told her ‘I want to lead your funeral.’ She said, ‘I know and I would like you to, but I’m not dead yet.’ He responded, ‘Yes, but I want to do your funeral while you are alive so you can hear just how much you mean to the kids.’  So, they made plans. Ten years worth of kids showed up one night — the place was packed — and the kids told Gertie how much she meant to them.  At one point a group of kids walked down the aisle, hiding something, Gertie had always loved perfume. The kids poured the perfume over her feet, anointing her and letting her know that she was loved. ”[4]

Gertie wrote a new chapter. Hiccup wrote a new chapter. W.E. B. Dubois saw a new vision and longed for a new chapter. The gospel gives us all the information we need. The angelic messenger tells us that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead. That Jesus is going ahead of us and that Jesus is no longer here. How will we write the next chapter in this story?

 

[1] https://www.dreamworks.com/how-to-train-your-dragon

[2] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 5859-5863). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 2 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Kindle Locations 6439-6441). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[4] Yaconelli, Michael. Messy Spirituality: God’s annoying Love for Imperfect People, pg.  118.

Maundy Thursday (4-1-21) — Follow the Leader — Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, John 13: 31-35 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Exodus 12:1-4,11-14

John 13:31-35

Follow the Leader

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

4.1.2021

 

Follow the leader is a classic children’s game where one leader is chosen and all the other children need to mimic or copy or follow what the leader is doing. There are many different versions and variations of this game.  Some involve one person standing in the center of group guessing who the leader is as the rest of the group mimics the leaders action.  I have even played a blind folded version of this game where the followers have to listen for their leaders voice as the leader shouts directions from the far side of the room.  I once saw a group try and navigate an entire floor of a building this way. That day the game finally ended when one older brother kept repeatedly directing his younger brother into a wall. Just goes to show you need to be careful whom you choose to follow.

The scene before our text is John’s Passover scene is unique and beautiful. It differs from the synoptic gospels, the main focus is not the final meal, but the act of foot washing.  The meal offers a location and a backdrop. The author of John makes a deliberate choice to emphasize this radical intimate act of foot washing. Jesus knows that his time on earth is drawing to a close and he chooses to love until the very end. It is interesting to note that the Judas is present during this act, that Judas takes part in this act. The accuser had put betrayal in Judas’ heart.  But Jesus loves him until the very end.

This act is clearly an act of love. The author notes it does not take place at the arrival of the disciples or the beginning of the meal. It takes place in the midst of the meal. In the midst of a meal, the teacher stands up for one final act. Picture this scene, a table gathering, conversation between friends, probably discussing the weather or March Madness, and the master, the teacher, stands up. No one thinks anything of it at first; it is just the master getting up. But then he does something totally unexpected. The act of foot washing in this culture would have been mundane. It should have been an act reserved  for someone on the lowest rung, not the teacher. But this simple act is pregnant with meaning.  John uses this line “Jesus, knowing that God had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God, and was going to God, he got up.”   The act of foot washing and crucifixion serve as ladder or bridge back to God. It is an important setup, most people miss it when they read this text. They move on right to the foot washing and see it only as an act of service. But this is more than a display of service.  Jesus’ understanding of who he was and is, is what causes this act. This is a God act. This is God in Flesh acting. God wearing skin and speaking.  John is precise in the details. Jesus takes off his outer robe and wraps a towel around himself and pours water into a basin and begins the act of washing the feet of the disciples.

Have you ever washed anyone’s feet? It is not common in our denomination, but it is still common in many Christian traditions.  Youth ministry has long been known for pageantry and display. I think because of this I have taken part in many foot washing ceremonies. I think one of the most memorable for me was the first. I was on a trip with a group. I brought about a dozen middle schoolers to participate in a week of service. It was a trying week.  This was before GPS was common and we had these things called maps. I got lost about 3 or 4 times on the way up to our service location. I had an untested leader with me, who for some reason didn’t realize that the words “middle school and camp” means lots of fun, little sleep, and especially from the boys, unidentifiable odors and strange sounds. But we soldiered on, through an amazingly difficult and beautiful week; every time a difficulty came up we would experience a moment of God’s grace. I locked my keys in the van outside of a shelter.  Within minutes one of the guests liberated my keys. My team was put in charge of cooking dinner one night for the group 100 campers. I have a lot of spiritual gifts but that was not one of them. The meal was inedible.  So, I ordered pizza. The pizza guy showed up and thanked our group repeatedly, because his daughter was participating in the day camp we helped put on, and he took a moment to pray for our entire group. There was not a dry eye in the room. Hardship after hardship led to blessing from God. But then there was Tim. I had trouble connecting with him all week. He didn’t want to listen, he didn’t want serve or work really at all. He just wanted to run around barefoot and sit in the shade. He decided that his feet hurt so instead wearing shoes he decided to wear one pair of socks all week. Everywhere we went I had to check to make sure his shoes were on. But I had two moments with him that changed the way I saw him. All week he was avoiding any activity we did, but then we went to a retirement community. As we pulled up I was mentally picturing all the ways Tim could get himself into trouble, and I was figuring out how I could help him succeed. Our goal was simple, to just to spend time with the residents. Some of residents didn’t get visitors very frequently. So basically our job was to hang out. Some of the kids pulled out nail polish and starting chatting with residents and painting nails. Apparently, Tim had a hidden talent. He could paint nails like nobody’s business. He had three sisters so I am guessing that had something do with it. Tim painted and painted and chatted and chatted. He saw something he could give and he kept giving. Finally, it was the end of the week. The final night of a camp is always emotional, people are ready to go home, they are sad to leave new friends, and they are trying to process what they experienced. The college intern who served as the preacher that week gave a message about service. Then explained we are going to practice serving one another, and he took out a pitcher of water and washed the feet of some of the other staff. Then everyone took turns washing the feet or hands of the person near them. I ended up in line with Tim. As we approached the front of the room he relaxed, tears began forming in his eyes, he sat in the chair. I washed those feet that refused to be bound by shoes. I prayed for him and I think I saw him clearly for the first time not as a kid who refused to listen, but as a kid who was having a hard time adjusting to life and the world he found himself in.  I saw him as a child who was beloved by God.

In this beautiful act, Jesus removes all distance between himself and his disciples and puts them face to face with the love of God.  This act redefines relationships. The disciples are asked to discard their understanding of Jesus and discard their understanding of how one even comes to God. This relationship is suddenly defined on God’s terms on God’s love and God’s love alone. These disciples are asked for nothing, but the grace of God freely washes over them.  Jesus truly has become the Good shepherd from John 10. Calling out to sheep, they listen for him and they follow.  That is our invitation to hear the voice of Jesus and allow the grace of God to overflow in our lives.

 

3-28-21 –An Entrance To Remember — John 12:12-19 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 118:19-29

John 12:12-19

 

“An Entrance to Remember”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

3.28.21

 

John’s interpretation of the of the triumphal entry is unique and in particular the role of the disciples in this scene. In the other gospels the disciples take a very active role in the triumphant entry. They go ahead of Jesus and find a colt for him preparing the way for his entry. In John’s gospel, the disciples stand back. They don’t even seem to be part of the crowd but instead are in the back wondering what is going on. Obviously, as we read this gospel we have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, but the disciples though are left wondering what is happening.

The crowd that has gathered has just witnessed Lazarus being raised from the dead and there is electricity in the air. This miracle has served as climax in all Jesus’ mighty deeds in John’s gospel. The crowd has sought out Jesus and they move to the city waving palms and testifying to Christ’s entry, shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” In the midst of this, the disciples watch bewildered by the actions. One has to wonder why they the crowd could not hook the disciples with their own enthusiasms?

The crowd is carrying palm branches, a symbol used to welcome kings. Like after the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus is hailed as “the one who is to come,” as the “King who is to come.” At other moments when crowds have wanted to make Jesus  King, Jesus has withdrawn, but this day withdrawal is impossible. He has become the King who “rides on in majesty,” who rides on in “lowly pomp” to die.

There would have been another entrance that day — Pontius Pilate would have come into Jerusalem from his home Caesarea. His procession would have been different than that of this Jesus’ parade.  It would have been fully of Rome’s military might. The latest, strongest, weapons parading through the streets, with Pilate riding a majestic stallion. Pilate would have displayed his superiority and shared a message of his own. To all those who may have witnessed Pilate that day, his message would have been clear, “I have come to keep my peace, and will control you by force.” Both Jesus and Pilate sent a strong message that day. [1]

This message echoes throughout time and we are forced to wrestle with these two messages each and every day of our own lives. Whose parade are we even watching? Who will we place our hope and trust in, the man riding the colt or the man on the stallion who has come to conquer? Those would be conquerors have always tried to use Jesus to their own end.

Our own history is full of moments like this when, people were using Jesus. In the 1600s traditional British Policy forbade enslavement of Christians, if a people converted they would often experience some level of freedom. There was a group of missionaries that wanted to teach Christianity to the enslaved Africans. Our Churches and our country debated, they debated if Christianity should be shared with enslaved Africans, they debated if they could understand it, they debated if they were even human, and then they debated the implications of it. Then in September of 1667 the colony of Virginia declared that enslaved Africans could be baptized and no slave master would lose his property and no one would gain their freedom, another step-in permeant hereditary enslavement. The slave masters sought to use this new law to their advantage; they began teaching the enslaved, teaching the that enslaved about heaven that it would be an end to their suffering, teaching about obedience, teaching about humility, emphasizing portions of scripture that taught these values. In some cases, they allowed the enslaved to attend church sitting or standing in a separate segregated section or outside of the church. As time went on they added new laws, forbidding the enslaved from learning to read or gather without permission. Over time when they did gather for religious services white supervision was required. [2]  The slave masters and too many religious leaders of that day tried to keep the enslaved at Pilate’s parade, but they kept seeing a man on colt ride by; they knew there was an alternative, they knew there was hope.

Or a more contemporary example, leading up to most recent election I would hear people saying things like “You can’t be a Christian and vote for a Republican” or “You can’t be a Christian and vote for a Democrat.”  People have always tried to use Jesus to their own ends.

No one seems to have understood what they were witnessing that day, as they saw Jesus. The crowds attempted to shape their own narrative, Pilate attempted to shape the narrative, but Jesus would ride alone and would shape his own narrative.

One has to ask, if you were in this story where would you be? Would you be cheering wildly waving the palm branches or would you be off standing to the side? Would you be at Pilates parade? If you were in one of the crowds what would you be thinking? Or would you distance like the disciples off to the distance? Would you be thinking that Pilate will keep the peace? Would you witness the Lazarus miracle, and be ready to believe Jesus is the King of Israel, the King of the World? We read these stories not simply to get to an end, but to be invited to the story, to see the details so that story can transform you, whether you are an enthusiast or a skeptic. At Jesus’ parade or Pilates, the goal is always transformation.

What we are witnessing at Jesus parade is the word made flesh in his glory. God came down not as some sort of 33-year experiment, but God came down as fully human entering our suffering, and fully divine, loving the whole world.  Jesus, who in a few days will rise from the dead fully human and fully divine; Jesus who in this moment is riding as a king on a donkey; Jesus who came to free the enslaved and the oppressors from around the world. This is the good news that John insists upon, the good news for both the confused, the good news for the enthusiast, the good news for the disciples, the good news for oppressed and the oppressor that God love this whole crowded world. That God loves us enough, to come down and suffer so that we might all have life.

 

[1] https://thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-illustrations-on-palm-sunday/

[2] https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/sep/23

3-7-21 — Everything Is Holy — John 2:13-22 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Everything is Holy                                                              

 Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

Most of us were probably glued to our TV or our computers when Notre Dame was ablaze.  It was shocking to see one of the world’s most recognizable churches on fire. The fire that day started in the attic near the roof. One of the unique things about the fire alarms in France is they do not directly contact the fire department. The fire alarm notified a guard who was supposed to visually confirm the fire then contact the fire department. This obvious delay resulted in the fire consuming more of the building. More than 500 firefighters battled the fire. Firefighters guided by the fire department’s chaplain scrambled to save artwork and relics and move them to City Hall and then the Louvre for safe keeping. [1]

The reaction to the destruction was swift with national sorrow and donations pouring in. Claude Mbowou a political scientist at the Sorbonne described the loss this way, saying, “I’m a Muslim, but I’m still very moved when I see this place. It represents something deep, it transcends us. It’s a loss, not only for France but for the entire world. It’s as if the pyramids in Egypt were destroyed.” “Parisians didn’t realize what they had,” he said. “They walked on by. It was foreigners who came.” More than 13 million regularly visit the cathedral. [2]

Jesus’ actions in John’s gospel are surprising and shocking from the very beginning. He causes a reaction at a wedding in Cana, turning water into wine then traveling south to Jerusalem to cause another disturbance. Where many people would have witnessed a sustainable functioning economy with the buying and selling of cattle, sheep, and doves around the temple, Jesus sees something entirely different. Jesus sees a system in which people are financially taken advantage of, a system in which people are treated unequally, with foreigners and people with disabilities worshipping in one area, and Jews in another.  For Jesus this is a crisis that for him causes a deep reaction, overturning tables, scattering money, screaming that his “Father’s house was turned into a marketplace.”  Making a whip and driving animals and people out of the temple. This must have been a great disturbance. It is easy to read this passage and think Jesus has somehow lost it, but Jesus’ actions are a direct result of what is happening in the temple.  Jesus is calling into question one of the main ways the temple cult and the temple structure would have raised money.

When Notre Dame burned, the world felt the loss and the world put out the money. Billionaires were even competing to give the biggest gift. One French billionaire pledged 100 million euros, not to be outdone his rival an hour later pledged 200 million euros. The outpouring of aid from around the world was amazing. Many of those who donated were not connected to the Catholic Church. They could see the need and the loss to the culture. But one has to wonder why an outpouring of support has been unable to fix the Flint water crisis, or the historically black churches that were burned in Louisiana, or all those that don’t have access to health care or quality education.

For Jesus this was about a righteous zeal, a push against the status quo. A zeal that calls everything into question and said the status quo is wrong.  The question for us is what are we zealous for? What do we allow to consume our bandwidth, our budget, our calendar? What we do with our zeal will consume our lives.

This cost Jesus dearly, these actions along with his teachings lead directly to his death. The author says that the Jews then ask what gives him the right to do these things, to act like this. Jesus’ answer is to destroy the whole thing, whole system, and then he will raise it back in three days. Those three days solidify his concept of the Beloved Community. This zeal consumes the beloved community, a community that works to love self, neighbor, and even enemy. A community that has spread throughout the earth, bearing witness to the world. A beloved community that should influence every corporation, institution, every branch of government in this world. But it begs the question how are we deploying our zeal? How are we allowing it to influence our everyday life?

This reminds of a story I read the other day, A traveler and his companions prepared to set out on a long journey. In preparation, the traveler packed a second coat. His companion asked, “Why are you bringing a second coat?” The traveler responded, “I will need it.” The traveler then packed a second pair of shoes. His companion asked, “Why are you bringing a second pair of shoes?” The traveler responded, “I will need them.”  The traveler then packed extra food into his bag. Two of every kind of food he will bring. His companion asked, “Why are you bringing two of every kind of food?” The traveler responded, “I will need it.” The traveler’s companion finally set his small bag down and said, “Look how heavy your load is. Mine is light. I have but one coat, one pair of shoes, and just enough food for the days we will be walking. Why do you need so much?” The traveler said, “Because your coat is old and thin, and your shoes are old and worn. Having walked with you, I also know that you grow hungry often.” Confounded, the companion said, “But when I asked these things, you told me you would need them, not that I would need them.” “You are my companion,” said the traveler. “So long as we walk together, there is no difference between your needs and mine.” The traveler deployed his zeal to carry a heavy burden in so caring for his companion.[3]

The beloved community, the community that grows zealous about love, and marches alongside Jesus against injustice. May we all follow Jesus’ zealous lead in quiet and risky ways in our everyday saying and doing.[4]

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/world/europe/notre-dame-cathedral-fire.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/world/europe/france-notre-dame-religion.html

[3] Erickson, Scott, Prayer.

[4] Dark, David