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

 

12.5.21

Luke 3:1-6

Voices in the Wilderness

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

11-21-21 — One True King — Psalm 93, John 18:33-37 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 93

John 18:33-37

“One True King”

11.21.22

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

One of things that has changed dramatically over the last decade are invitations. There was a time when invitations were straight forward — you got an invitation in the mail and you would respond to it either through a card or a phone call. Today, invitations come at you from all directions now, the mail, the Internet, the phone, social media. Sometimes these invitations have surprising results.  I read a story about a girl in England who meant to invite 14 friends to a sleepover but she forgot to mark the event as private and 20,000 people R.S.V.P. d.  Needless to say, her Mom canceled the party.[1] Invitations have changed in other ways as well, invitations have become elaborate, almost as elaborate as a party itself. Take for example a couple named Phil and Alleisha. They couldn’t just send out a paper invitation for their wedding, or as they called it “getting hitched,” they sent out a stop motion video using post it notes. It took three days just to make the invitation.   Or another couple, Anna and Jonny developed a video game invitation. You had to play through several levels of the game before you found out details about the wedding. You could play as either Anna or Jonny and you had to rescue either the groom or the bride depending on your character.  It included several levels reminiscent of the first Super Mario brothers and Donkey Kong.  Unique and creative invitations. Sometimes these invitations do good in this world. At Christmas in 2013, 10,000 people showed up to sing Christmas Carols to Laney Brown. [2] Laney was a young child suffering from cancer and she was now on hospice. There was an invitation on Facebook to sing carols to Laney, people gathered all around the hospital singing, easing her entrance into the next life.

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year the lectionary suddenly jolts us into the passion week narrative as we reflect upon Christ the King Sunday. In our text we hear a piece of a conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate asks if he is the “King of the Jews”. Jesus responds explaining that his kingdom is not what we see around him. Jesus’ Kingdom is different, Jesus is a different type of king, the values of his kingdom are different. Pilate’s kingdom values authority and exclusivity which results in real oppression, corruption, and a mentality of scarcity.

The values of Jesus’ kingdom are so different than the values of this world that it that is often hard to understand them. The church at times has missed this and sought earthly power. forgetting the call to service with humility. Yet Christ perpetually calls the church back.

Christ came not seeking power, not seeking victory.  But instead Christ the King leads us to the ultimate demonstration of love. Jurgen Moltmann reminds us that the center of our Christian faith is the idea that God was crucified. [3] Or as one of professors said we killed God and God died. But this crucified God makes it clear that he is not seeking world glory. If Christ is not to seek worldly glory, we have to ask the question what then should we seek? What is God crucified calling us to? In our own lives and as a Church?

The Christian Century asked just that, they asked several prominent authors to describe the gospel in 7 words or less. The Lutheran Theologian Martin Marty said “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow”, Professor of New Testament Beverly Roberts Gaventa said “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no”, the late Donald W. Shiver Jr. President of Union Theological Seminary said, “Divinely Persistent, God really loves us”, the Theologian Brian McLaren said, “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation”.[4] If you were tasked with describing this kingdom how would you describe it? What seven words would you use?

In our passage Jesus answers Pilate by telling him that “God came into the world to testify to the truth” or as the Messages says, “I was born and entered the world so I could witness to the truth”.  Truth, the idea that God is love. Truth, the ideas wrapped up in the Creeds the Confessions. Truth that Christ is King, and that Christ is the embodiment of what is good, true and just in this world. Truth that those who listen to him hear his voice.  Pastor Chelsey Harmon in her commentary on this text said this: “the sacrifice of God for us is not only about us and our need, but even more truly, about our loving God who made and sustains the world and everything in it”.[5] So what description would you use? What seven words would you use to describe the gospel? What seven words to describe the Kingdom of God.

If I were to take this challenge I would say, Jesus is inviting us all, into Love. I imagine God as one who invites all to a divine celebration, a God who can always pull out one place setting, a God who can find an extra folding chair, a God who does not discriminate, a God who seeks the good and the bad, a God who seeks to break the heart of the wicked and a God who seeks to break the heart of the good. And in that brokenness,  we find healing before God. A God who is always inviting.

Shane Claiborne modern day prophet and meddler for Jesus tells a story of a time he was working in India with Mother Theresa.  He says, “ I was working with homeless kids in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids. These kids were 8-10 years old, they were homeless, begging all day to survive. Each Tuesday we would get about 100 of them together and throw a party, play games, eat a big meal. One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So, I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant, not the most hygienic. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself. I have to share the joy that is responding to the invitation. Know this day that God is reaching out inviting us all, know the truth that God’s power does not rest in worldly power, know that this day no matter what happens in the world Christ is King.

 

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/8012043/Girl-14-fears-21000-party-guests-after-Facebook-invite-blunder.html

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529211/Laney-Brown-Girl-8-thousands-sing-carols-one-wishes-dies-Christmas-morning.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: 40th Anniversary Edition (Fortress Press, 2015).

 

[4] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-08/gospel-seven-words

[5] https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2021-11-12/john-1833-37/

11-14-21 — Heap of Rubble — Daniel 12:1-3, Mark 13:1-8 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Daniel 12:1-3

Mark 13:1-8

Heap of Rubble

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

Church Historian Diana Butler Bass recently wrote the following:

 

I didn’t sleep very well on Tuesday night following elections. It was a grueling, ugly political campaign, and it did not turn out as I had hoped and worked for. After turning off both the television and the lights, I found myself tossing and turning, worried about the future, and feeling sad…

On Wednesday, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. “I’m afraid” were the words I most often heard yesterday from friends and colleagues. Not “I’m so disappointed,” “I’m angry” or “We’ll do better next time,” but “I’m afraid.”

It wasn’t an exaggeration or a metaphor. I talked to people literally afraid — eyes wide with worry, all suffering from sleeplessness…. , full of dread and a vague sense of communal terror…Afraid.

And, while listening to my friends, I knew something else. If the election results had been the opposite, a group of women sitting somewhere else…. that would be saying the exact same things as my friends were saying: they were afraid.

And, when I push past my worries about policies and politics, that’s what really makes me afraid. That we’ve come to fear one another.[1]

 

For some politics has become a zero-sum game with only winners and losers. Some people follow politics the way some people follow fantasy football, hanging on every moment, every word, and at times it can lead to their own personal apocalypse where they feel as though their world is crumbling around them.

I would suspect apocalyptic literature is probably one of the least understood forms of literature in scripture. This lack of understanding is likely why one of the most famous apocalyptic books, the Revelation of John was almost not included in the Biblical canon. This genre of biblical literature uses symbolism, political narrative, and allegory to share a truth. Often this type of literature rises in popularity during periods of unrest, persecution, or political upheaval: the Babylonian Exile or the Roman occupation for example.

These passages from Jesus are no exception. Scholars often refer to this text as the little apocalypse.  It is likely that the gospel of Mark was compiled during or shortly after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70. So those hearing this words would have likely known of or experienced firsthand the destruction of the temple from the Jewish war.

Jesus’ opening comments about the stones becoming a heap of rubble are again Jesus levying criticism on an unjust system that would take the last coins of a widow. The second scene in our text, Jesus takes a position of rabbinical authority and four of his closest disciples approach him asking when these things will happen. He offers two warnings, that we should watch out for false teachers. Josephus mentions messianic pretenders during this period, people that came as false messiahs. [2] The world continues to be full of false messiahs that want you to place your trust in them, messiahs with empty promises.  Jesus then shares words about wars, earthquakes, and famines, these are not mean to be predictive or revelatory as much as they are a call to sustain hope during difficult moments.

One of the ways I often think about passages like these are as metaphors for the personal apocalypses we all face. A way of thinking about those moments in life when we experience something so difficult it feels as if our world is crumbling around us. The moment when the fragility of life comes into focus, when we realize how precious life truly is and we are left mourning. Maybe the apocalypse is the way a marriage ended or a problem you can’t seem to work through, or an addiction you can’t beat or a child you continue to grieve. Or maybe your personal apocalypse is something different — maybe it is about the way you see things changing around you in your community, in the culture, and in the church. Maybe it is a general worry about the next generation about their values, beliefs, and the way the way they live out faith. Maybe it is concern about what the church will look like in ten years.

This conversation comes shortly before the crucifixion. In just two chapters Jesus will be betrayed, mocked, and executed by the state. The disciple’s entire world will be torn apart, their lives had become a heap of rubble. Yet, when they fixed their eyes on Jesus they become new people. When fix our eyes on Jesus we become new people. Nadia Bolz Weber tells the story of a young parishioner named Rachel. Rachel called Nadia and was crying on the phone. Rachel who had been estranged from her parents had recently gone back home to visit them and trying to rebuild their relationship. Through a tear-filled conversation Nadia learned that Rachel’s parents’ church would not allow her to partake in communion. Rachel had just spent the last year rebuilding her life and attending the church House for all Sinners and Saints. One of the keys to her recovery was this open table that allowed all people to come Jesus. Just about every Sunday for the last year she had seen a woman stand behind the table and invite all people without exception to receive the Lord’s Supper. For Rachel this had changed her and going back home and being told she could not receive Jesus was too much. Rachel gave Nadia permission to share the story with members of the church. After worship Nadia pulled a small group together and told them what Rachel said. One of the members of the church Stuart upon hearing this story and identifying with her pain said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport”. So, a small group of misfits whom the larger church had rejected showed up to Denver airport at 10pm with a cardboard sign that said “Rachel Pater” on one side and “Child of God” on the other. They waited at the bottom of the escalator. Then all together they made their way to the interfaith prayer room.  They spoke about how Jesus was betrayed and how through him we receive new life and freedom and they shared the body and blood of Christ together. [3]

We will all face an apocalypse, but if we fix our eyes on Jesus, Jesus will meet us in that moment; maybe in a conversation with someone we disagree with, maybe through a group of misfits, maybe in a prayer from a faithful friend, but Jesus will meet us.

 

[1] Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: Sleepless in Virginia, 11.4.21

[2] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 487). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Nadia Bolz Weber, The Corners: On Communion. Who gets the goods? 6.20.21

11-7-21 — The Widow’s Gift — 1 Kings 17: 8-16, Mark 12: 38-44 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

1 Kings 17:8-16

Mark 12:38-44

The Widow’s Gift

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

We rejoin the lectionary this morning. I would imagine if you have been in the pew for any length of time you have probably heard a sermon on this text. I would encourage you as we reflect on this passage to look for new ways to hear it. For most of us when we have heard a sermon about this, I would imagine those sermons probably were looking at this episode as a short morality play — you have the negative examples of scribes and then you have the example of the poor widow. The poor widow becomes a figure, an archetype of woman who sacrifice for the greater good, and while this reading is true I think there is more here and I would invite you to hear this text in new ways.

One of the first things to note is there were scribes and there were other scribes — some were city clerks, some were intellectuals, and some were experts in interpreting the law. Directly before this passage in Mark 12:34 Jesus actually compliments a scribe being impressed by his wisdom and telling him “you are not far from the Kingdom of God”. We need to approach this with nuance. We also need to identify underlying cultural assumptions the text has that we miss. The culture in which Jesus lived was a culture built around honor and shame.  When reading scripture, I think this is one of most difficult things to understand and one of the most often missed things. Most of us grew up in legalistic or law-based culture. We see the world and scripture through this lens. For example, the story of prodigal son is less about rule breaking and more about the shame that he brought upon his family. Asking for an inheritance, in one sense wishing his father was dead, wild living bringing more shame, squandering the inheritance more shame. That is why he thinks he can come back and be a hired hand. So, when we hear Jesus talking we need to be thinking about what people are feeling, what they should be feeling.

The other cultural assumption is about the temple. The temptation is to often think when we hear the word temple we are just talking about a really large church, but that is not what is going on here.  The Temple did not separate secular and sacred life. Goods and services are regularly exchanged here, business is done, and redistribution of wealth also happened where the temple was expected to redistribute to those in need, but that system was rigged.

When understood in this light Jesus is commenting less on her extraordinary gift of piety and more on an institution that was hopelessly corrupt. She is giving beyond her means. Those with resources would have given a calculated portion, she is literally giving all that she has left. We see Jesus and the gospel writer setting up this criticism in Mark 11. Jesus is heading to the temple when sees a fig tree, he reaches for a fig only to find a barren tree, and he curses the tree. The implication for the gospel writer is the tree is barren and so is the temple, a system which had become corrupted, in which its leaders are unfairly redistributing goods and resources. Those who had the least were penalized the most; in this reading this is less an act of piety and more about the horrific consequences of the economics of the temple. The President of Austin Theological Seminary Theodore Wardlaw in his commentary on this passage writes: “We cannot know whether her house is one of the ones devoured by those duplicitous temple officials, but we do know she is down to her last coins. Her husband is dead; she has no voice in that culture, no income, nothing. She is totally vulnerable.”[1]

This is an act that would have put her in danger, she was on the edge, and now she is off the cliff. You have to wonder why is she doing this; is this a case of her being faithful to a larger vision? A case of her choosing this even though it is unreasonable?

If you were to rewrite this episode how would you rewrite it? Would you rewrite it so someone reach back into the box and pulled out her coins and maybe give her a few extra. Would you rewrite it so the system works for everyone so even though she gave so little she would then receive more in return. Would you rewrite it so the institution has an understanding of justice, so that the institution will be more concerned about her welfare. Or maybe we wouldn’t rewrite it, maybe we wouldn’t want to reach deeper into our own pockets and add a few more coins to the box, maybe we wouldn’t be concerned for her welfare.

One of things that we seem to be struggling with right now is an understanding of the “common good”. Back in 2013 ( which seems like an eternity now) Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners Ministry wrote a book called the (Un)common Good How the Gospel Brings Hope to a Divided World, he shares the following:

“ Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion—from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It’s time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world.

Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it’s a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies.. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good…

The story of the widow is a call to relationship.  A woman who shows her faith in the face of a broken system. This widow would challenge us to consider all the broken systems around us and ask who is this not work for? Jesus could call us to love deeply, widely and extravagantly.

 

[1] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 471). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

 

 

10-31-21 — A Theology of Childlikeness: Respond — Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:22-25 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 44:6-8

Romans 8:22-25

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Respond

 

This week we are wrapping up our series on childlike faith, where we wrestle with the question how it would change us if we took Jesus seriously when he said if we are to receive the Kingdom, we must enter it as children.  When we rest, we set aside our own agendas and our own need to be in control. We set aside our own power, and when we do that we receive from God. We receive from God guidance, insight, new ways of seeing the world. When we receive God’s agenda we become attuned with God and God’s way of living in this world. Then we begin to respond in obedience. We move from rest, receive, then to respond. We respond to God.

In the book Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis, King Peter, Queen Susan, King Edmond, and Queen Lucy have all gone back to the magical land of Narnia. Even though only a few months have passed in their world, it has been hundreds of years since they first visited Narnia. The children have returned to Narnia in order to save it from a wicked King and restore order to the country. As they journey to aid Prince Caspian, they keep getting lost because the landscape changed over the several hundred years. Queen Lucy, the youngest, sees Aslan, the talking Lion who is the Son of the Emperor over the sea. Just as Peter, the eldest, has decided the best way forward, Lucy spots Aslan and her eyes shine at the sight. Her older sister, Susan, asks, “Where did you think you saw him?” to which Lucy replies, “Don’t talk like a grown-up. I didn’t think I saw him. I saw him.” Lucy explains that Aslan was standing in a place quite the opposite of where they’d just decided to go and that he wanted them to follow him that way. The children then pick apart Lucy’s claims because no one else saw him but Lucy. The older children decide to disregard Lucy and to continue on the path they’ve already chosen. Their decision to follow what makes sense (to them) brings the chapter to an end with “And Lucy came last of the party, crying bitterly.” The way becomes more difficult than expected and leads them right into a volley of arrows, so they have to crawl all the way back over the ground they’d already traveled.

In discouragement, the little band finds a safe place and sets up camp for the night. In the middle of the night, Lucy wakes up with the feeling that “the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.” She assumes it’s just a dream, but when she continues to hear the voice she finally gets up to follow it through the trees, which somehow seem to be dancing. As she dances among them, she comes to a circle of grass. “And then—oh joy! For he was there: the huge Lion, shining white in the moonlight.” Lucy rushes toward her Aslan, burying her face in his mane. As they speak, Aslan isn’t pleased that Lucy tries to blame the others for the delays of the day. She cries, “I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that . . . oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?” When Aslan remains silent, she continues, “You mean that it would have turned out all right? . . . Am I not to know?” Aslan responds with a challenge: “To know what would have happened, child? Nobody is ever told that. But anyone can find out what will happen. If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me—what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.” Lucy is understandably afraid. She knows they won’t believe her, that it will cause conflict again, and maybe they will shame her again. Finally, in her anguish, Lucy buries her head in his mane, and as she does, she feels his lion-strength entering her. Aslan breathes these words over her: “Now you are a lioness. And now all Narnia will be renewed.” With that, Lucy returns to the challenge of waking her siblings, to tell them, once again, that she has seen Aslan and they must follow him. The argument about whether to trust her begins again and hurtful things are said, but this time something is different. This time Lucy chooses to follow Aslan herself, even if no one else will come. And although no one else can see Aslan, Lucy’s determination prompts them—eventually—to follow her lead. One by one, as they walk in the darkness, they begin to see Aslan for themselves.[1]

Lucy responds to Aslan, and she responds even though it might cost her. She draws strength from him even in a moment of great difficultly. Difficult moments, moments of pain, isn’t that what faith is about?  Theologian Richard Rohr thinks deeply about these ideas. One of the themes in his writing is that God doesn’t ask us to avoid these realities, but to understand that these realities are sacred. He writes: “The heart is normally opened through a necessary hole in the soul, what I call a sacred wound.”[2] In Romans 8 these sacred wounds are called the birth pangs of a new creation. We respond to God by participating in this new creation. Richard Rohr again; “we dare not shield ourselves from the new creation, or we literally will lose our soul. We can obey commandments, believe doctrines, and attend church services all our lives and still daily lose our souls if we run from the necessary cycle of loss and renewal. Death and resurrection are lived out at every level of the cosmos”, but we are the only “species thinks it can avoid it”[3]… The cost is of not paying attention is our soul, the cost of not paying attention is transmitting our pain onto others. But if we respond, we can catch God’s larger vision. The vision that we are called to as a church.

The Presbyterian Book of Order tells us how to respond as a church. “The church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrates these gifts in its life as a community in the world. The Church entrusts itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life. The church is a community of hope, rejoicing in the knowledge that is God is making a new creation. The church is a community of love…where reconciliation is accomplished and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down. The Church is to be a community of witness… to God’s transforming grace in Christ.”[4]

To have a child like faith is to rest from our need for control, it is to receive God’s agenda and God’s goodness, seeing our pain, the worlds pain, and responding as the body of Christ. Rest, Receive, Respond…

 

[1] Selections from C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (New York: Harper Collins, 1979), 101-132. Smith, Mandy. Unfettered (p.128- 130). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Richard Rohr, “Life Is Hard,” Center for Action and Contemplation, May 23, 2016, https://cac.org/life-is-hard-2016-05-23. See also Richard Rohr, Adam‘s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (New York: Crossroad, 2004).

[3] https://cac.org/lesson-one-life-is-hard-2020-03-30/

[4] Book of Order 2019/2021 F-1.03

10-24-21 — A Theology of Childlike Faith: Receive — Matthew 13:33, Isaiah 64:1-9 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

A Theology of Childlike Faith: Receive

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Matthew 13:33

Isaiah 64:1-9

 

Two weeks ago, we began our sermon series based off the idea that we need to take Jesus seriously when he said if we are to receive the Kingdom of God we need to come to it as a child. The first week we focused on the idea of rest. The idea that we are called to rest in God. To rest from our desire to make ourselves the very center of our reality, and instead make God the center of our reality. This week we move from focusing on the idea of rest to receiving. We rest in a God shaped reality and we receive from God.

This weekend I had the joy of connecting with one of my former students. I officiated at his wedding. He probably didn’t foresee his wedding making into the sermon, but I guess that is the danger of spending time with a pastor. One of the things that is always a wild card at wedding is if the couple has a flower girl.  I usually warn couples that this tradition often goes off the rails. In my experience it is probably only 50% of kids make it down the aisle; most usually see the crowd and bolt, either for the nearest door or nearest lap of someone they know. This girl is the same age as Charlie so we bonded over kindergarten and Paw Patrol. But at the age of 5 she was well trained — you take three steps then reach into the basket throw some flowers, you take three steps and you throw some flowers, you take three steps and throw the flowers in the direction of your brother, the ring bearer, to the point he now has flower petals in his hair and on his suit. This step she repeated pretty frequently and I am guessing was not part of the training. But you could tell how seriously she took her job. Then we moved onto the party. We had the cocktails, the toasts, and the meal, and probably every fifteen minutes or so this little girl would ask her mom “when are we going to dance?” Finally, the couple has their first dance, and the little girl asks her mom “when are we going to dance?”  Her mom is finally able to say yes, and she grabs her brother and her mother’s hand and pulls them onto the dance floor. She has the biggest smile on her face as she dances in a little circle to the music, with absolute joy and abandonment.

Most of us struggle to approach life like this to receive the joy and the surprise God that would give us. Most of us struggle to throw ourselves into what is before for us and receive from it. Most of us are thinking about other worries, other problems, and can’t slow down enough to receive. Still, some of us have learned what happens when we step out of line, when we dance too much, when we receive too much.

Over the years this is often the way in which scripture has been used and viewed. Roger Ferlo in the book Sensing God described it this way, “Since the Reformation, particularly in the West, Christians of all traditions have often tended to think about scripture as a kind of information manual. We tend to read scripture for the facts and for the rules. But to read scripture for rules and information only is to risk missing the sense of it all…”[1] The church at times has been one of the biggest offenders of this, looking for ways to justify what we believed in that moment, who we didn’t like, or who we wanted to oppress. In the book A Year of Biblical Womanhood by the late Rachel Held Evans, in which Rachel tries to live out some of the more difficult passages of scripture, she writes, “If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an outdated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not ‘what does it say?’, but ‘what am I looking for?’ I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, ‘ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.” [2]

Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman takes and mixes it with sixty pounds of flour, until it is worked all through the dough. Stop for a moment, sixty pounds of flour, this woman is making what would be equivalent to 60 loaves of bread. This is more bread than a family can consume, more bread than one person can bake or mix. This is an overabundance, this is yeast of God being mixed all through our world and it shows up in surprising places.  The Greek here points to the idea that the yeast is not just mixed in, it is hidden, hidden in the dough. The question is will we receive it? Will we allow it to show up in unexpected places, among unexpected people, and in unexpected ways. We will receive a faith that instead of looking for rules, looks for love. Will we allow that idea to permeate our being, will we allow it to run free in our lives like a five-year-old on a dance floor?

Mandy Smith writes:

“Our beautiful Church our Ecclesia is both timeless and childlike, always hoping, dancing into new places, longing for life. She is pure and spotless and lovely, knowing she has been made whole. She is quietly fearless, humbly courageous. She will not force herself on anyone, but her joy is winsome. Her dance is inviting and her laughter has gravity. We cannot look away. She is a healer, a creator, a comforter, singing new things into being, drawing many into her song. She knows pain but it has not made her bitter, poverty has not made her miserly. She feeds multitudes—nourishing the broken, sending them out rejoicing. She will not be measured or caged but takes on many surprising forms, all true to her nature. She is gifted and multilingual. Her gracious speech shapes new stories, describing places we long to visit, ways we long to be. She is never reduced by giving herself away, never emptied from pouring herself out. She is many things brought together, every color woven into a rich fabric, each part with its purpose. She is a tree, bearing many kinds of fruit. She is a symphony, played on instruments of many timbres. She is All and she is One, a whole household in one Body. This bride’s heart has never turned from her Beloved. But she is exhausted from being ravished by our egos, appetites, and anxieties. She longs to run free, hair wild, skirts flying, to fulfill her calling.”[3]

 

[1] Roger Ferlo, Sensing God: Reading Scripture with All Our Senses

 

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3207795.Rachel_Held_Evans

[3] Smith, Mandy. Unfettered (pp. 83-84). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

9-12-21 — Isaiah 43:1-3, Mark 8:27-38 — Looking Back, Looking Ahead — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 43:1-3

Mark 8:27-38

“Looking Back Looking Ahead”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

Typically, in our Gospel texts we see someone coming to entrap Jesus or questioning his authority. But what we see today is Jesus asking his followers a question, “who do you say that I am?” There have probably been thousands of books written on this simple question.  Peter jumps in with the right answer, “You are Messiah.” We all know this is a loaded term for Peter — Messiah coming remove Rome. Yet that is not what Jesus meant in this moment.  We have all heard the idea that “If you want to see God laugh tell God your plans,” instead in this case Peter “tells God his plans and God turns his back and calls him the devil.” In Peter’s defense this view was a deeply ensconced view, one in which people spent centuries mixing Scripture with their hopes, dreams, and understanding of God into a mold of their own image. Their faith had become wrapped up with their nationality and God was breaking that mold.

Peter answers this question correctly but fails to understand the lesson. Jesus explains if you want to truly follow him, you must take up your cross, if you work to save your life you will lose it and if lose your life for Jesus you will save it. The word here to “lose” doesn’t just mean to displace something but instead to permanently be separated form something. The idea is that the actions that guide our purposes in life, if they are not of God then we need to disconnect from them in order to reconnect to God. But there is also another meaning of the word lose here and it works on another level, it also means “to ruin” something. For Peter, Jesus “ruined” his idea of Messiah with his talk of suffering and death.   Jesus invites Peter and all of us to ruin our own lives according to the patterns of this world. Jesus invites us to go against those things that disconnect us from God. [1]

Like most of us I have done plenty of reflecting this week on the events of September 11, 2001. Most of us can recall where we were on that day. This was the fall of my Senior Year in college, and I was walking to a 9 a.m. class when a friend told me the class was canceled because of something that happened in New York.  I remember it was really hard to get information, websites weren’t great, we didn’t have smart phones, and our dorms didn’t have cable. I remember packing into the student lounge with lots of people and watching everything unfold on the news. But the thing I really remember the most about that day was just someone spontaneously leading a group outside and the massive prayer circle that formed on our baseball field.  For me this tragedy in some ways felt like a book end. My freshman year of college the Columbine massacre unfolded, showing us our classrooms were no longer safe, and now this showing us as a nation we were no longer safe.

It has been a sobering reminder watching all the coverage this last week, reading peoples experiences, listening to podcasts, and once again entering into our national grief. I once heard someone describe grief as being dropped on a mountain with broken bones — some of us will heal and get down that mountain in time, others of us will get down but walk with a permanent limp, and others of us will stay on that mountain.[2]

As I have reflected on these events, the question I keep wrestling with is have we learned the right lessons twenty years later?

Have we lived up to the sacrifices so many made that day? This week I heard so many stories of heart wrenching sacrifice, the story of Joseph Pfeifer a battalion chief who sent his own brother Kevin and hundreds of other fire fighters up the North tower never to see them again.[3]  Or as former President Bush described it yesterday, “the 33 passengers and 7 crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate. In a sense, they stood in for us all.” “The terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, and braced each other for action.”[4] Or the sacrifice of the members of our military and their families who have given so much over the last twenty years.  Have we as a people lived up to those sacrifices?

Have we pulled together as a nation? One of the videos that caught my eye this week was the video of Congress singing “God Bless America.” [5] It is a deeply moving clip as the song seems to spontaneously bubble up. Watching this now, one has to wonder could this spontaneous moment even happen today? Do we have that same sense of unity now? Can we pull together as a nation to work for the betterment of all people? Former Secretary of Health John W. Gardner, speaking in 1995, said it this way, “If we are to repair the citizen’s disastrous loss of civic faith, citizen involvement is essential and must have a sense of ownership. They must feel they are listened to, that they will have their say, and that they are respected.”[6] Can we pull together as a nation?

Twenty years later, we are in place few would have predicted and we are wrestling with unexpected problems and issues. Yet we are all are called to mutually sacrifice for one another, to look for the great good, and as Jesus said it, ruin our lives for others so that we might find life.

 

[1] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-19b-3/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/09/twenty-years-gone-911-bobby-mcilvaine/619490/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=masthead-newsletter&utm_content=20210911&silverid=%25%25RECIPIENT_ID%25%25&utm_term=Subscriber%20Only%20Weekly%20Newsletter

[3] https://www.911memorial.org/connect/blog/story-behind-first-fdny-chief-respond-world-trade-center-911

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/11/politics/transcript-george-w-bush-speech-09-11-2021/index.html

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH_6EUCILew

[6] Selected remarks by John W. Gardner at leadership USA session November 18,1995.

9-5-21 — Isaiah 35:4-7, Mark 7:24-37 — Wanderings and Healings — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 35:4-7

Mark 7:24-37

“Wanderings and Healings”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

9.5.21

 

We encounter two interesting stories in this week’s lectionary. The story of the Syrophoenician woman and the story of the healing of a beggar are fascinating pieces of scripture.  It is important to remember the story from last week as you may remember Jesus had been ambushed by the Pharisees, and they debated what makes someone unclean; Jesus says that it is what comes out of our heart that defiles the heart. As he is recovering from this interaction, Jesus moves onto a new region, a Gentile region, and he has this interaction with this woman. She is a Greek or a gentile woman, so she is outside the house of Israel. Jesus is pretty harsh with her. Interpreters that have looked at this interaction over the years struggled with the way Jesus is portrayed in this exchange. They have really ended up interpreting this passage in a few different ways. The first is the idea that something is lost in translation, that in the Greek it is more like Jesus is calling her a “puppy” rather than a dog. That he is including everyone in a household scene with family and pets gathered around a table, and in our English translations we are missing the nuance of the scene.   The second interpretation is the Devil’s advocate interpretation. That the disciples are with Jesus in this moment and Jesus is allowing himself to look mean and foolish to reinforce the idea that the gospel is not just meant for the Jews, and the gospel is expanded to everyone. The third interpretation is what I like to call “Cranky Jesus”.  Jesus was simply tired and wanted to be left alone and that is the state in which this woman meets Jesus. It is kind of like in the Hebrew scriptures when we see God change God’s mind or God suddenly change the course of action.

The other major question scholars wrestle with in interpreting this passage is the social location of woman in the story. Many of us when we read this text assume Jesus is in the position of authority, that this is a woman who crept into the home and tried to get Jesus’ attention out of sheer desperation. She may have even been a widow or someone from lower economic status. In this case Jesus’ words sound even harsher. But there is also an alternate reading of this story. That this woman is actually a power broker in Tyre, one of the economic and political elites.  It may be that instead of sneaking in she boldly walked into the room and, accustomed to her place of privilege, demanded her daughter be healed.  This is a modern day equivalent of “Karen” asking to see the manager. Once scholar read Jesus’ words as “First, let the poor people in Jewish rural areas be satisfied. For it is not good to take the poor people’s food and throw it to the rich Gentiles in cities.” That this exchange is actually an act of resistance.[1]  However you read this exchange, what you are left with is a woman boldly claiming the grace and mercy be extended to her as well.

Or just maybe though what we are actually seeing is Jesus himself realizing something truly wonderful and choosing to live out these values. If we truly do a close read of this text, we see Jesus teaching a value last week; the value of inclusion. A now Jesus is facing a real-life situation where he needs to apply the value he just taught.  So, Jesus does a deep dive healing a woman who is persistently advocating for her daughter but is outside the Covenant, and healing a beggar along the road who is also outside the covenant. What we see from Christ is the best way to do the will of God is through inclusion and this week we see that principle lived out through personal application. [2]

At the heart of it this passage is an invitation into a better way of life, God’s way of life. That we are invited into an expansive gospel. Not a gospel that places arbitrary barriers in front of people. A gospel that no matter who we are, how others see us, knows that Christ is welcoming us into the family of God.

The lectionary then moves on to Jesus’ encounter with a deaf-mute Gentile. Jesus does not turn him away, in fact his healing is striking in its intimacy and touch. Jesus is zealously proclaiming this expansive gospel. I wanted to close with this poem from Malcome Guite it is based off this lectionary reading. As Jesus opens the ears and mouth of the man he uses an Aramic word “Ephphatha” “be Opened”. These stories are a call to the church asking us how we need to be opened.

 

Be opened. Oh if only we might be!

Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:

‘Be opened and the truth will set you free’,

Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:

‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,

Speak to a church that closes and excludes,

And makes rejection its own litany:

‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes

For whom I died but whom you have dismissed

Be opened, opened, opened,’ how you sigh

And still we do not hear you. We have missed

Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.

Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb

Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.[3]

 

[1] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 298). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18b-3/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[3] https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/be-opened/

8-29-21 — Inside and Out — Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Inside and Out

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

  1. 29.21

 

Before I was married. I was living in an apartment near my old church. A member in her 80s lived a couple doors down. Her name was Sadie. Sadie was a wonderful lady. She never married; she lived her entire life with two of her sisters. When I met her she was living alone. She had lived in the community for so long a lot of people would stop in and do little favors for her. She was a lifelong member of the fire department, and those guys were constantly stopping to check on her. I had a little job as well in the winter. I would stop by every couple of days and bring in wood for her. I remember chatting with her once; she was telling me about church and she told me this funny story. For years she had a volunteer job in the church. She would cover communion. When she told me this I had to ask what she meant. She said that every time they had communion she would wake up early and iron a pure white fabric almost like a tablecloth, and before the service, the elements would be covered by this fabric. During the middle hymn the elders and deacons would come forward, and her and another volunteer would follow the deacons and elders that would stop at either side of the table. They would lift the fabric off the elements and then fold the fabric, but they didn’t just fold it, she said you had to fold it a certain way. It almost sounded like the way you might fold a flag. She said one Sunday she walked into church and, to her horror, forgot it was a communion. She hadn’t ironed the fabric and didn’t have it with her. She remembered feeling like she let down God and the congregation. She didn’t know what to do so she just sat down.  She told me how no one said anything, communion still happened, she still connected with Jesus, and the people still connected with Jesus.

The lectionary moves us from John into the Gospel of Mark.  The Pharisees and some of the scribes arrive to set up another argument with Jesus.  The criticism they present is one in a long list of criticisms. So far they have criticized him for eating meals with tax collectors and sinners, for picking grain on the Sabbath, for not fasting, for healing at the wrong time, for blasphemy for forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man.

The argument they unleash is about ritual purity, not about cleanliness. It is important to understand that, especially in the light of our global crisis. A ritual bath or ritual washing might even have been done in smelly stagnant water as long as it was blessed at one time. What Jesus is talking about is far more significant — what is the right way to honor God in all aspects of one’s life.

What we are witnessing is a first-century disagreement on how to follow God. For example, the priestly families in Jerusalem thought the maintenance of the temple was the best way to keep the commandments and were willing cooperate with the Roman authorities. The Zealots believed that it was impossible to follow God’s will as long as Rome held the lands as colonies, so its entire goal was to overthrow Roman authority. The Pharisees’ main followers were in areas outside of Jerusalem. So, they worked to adapt customs and religious laws, and it vastly altered the pollical and social landscape. To be ritually clean, was a biblical law for entering the temple, but this was not a concern for a Galileans because they would not be going to the temple. So, the Pharisees’ innovation was to extend these ritual purity laws far outside of the temple to the countryside. They believed this was how you honored God[1]

Jesus is essentially trying to adjust their spiritual map and our spiritual map. What the Pharisees are essentially arguing is that what you come into contact with is what separates you from God. We see this in the parable of the good Samaritan. The priest avoids the man lying in the ditch so he can remain religiously pure.  But Jesus is arguing is what keeps us from connecting to God is our hearts, a hateful hearts, bad intentions, and hypocrisy things that lead to damage and a trail of devastation. But before we look down our noses at these Pharisees we have to ask the question how often has Christianity been weaponized in the same manor? Vice lists that were compiled that have less to do about harm and more to do with someone’s perception of moral purity.

The Presbyterian Liturgy does its best to remind us of the damage that can be done.  Every single week we pray a prayer of confession. This prayer should be a moment when we pause and truly reflect on the damage we have done on an individual level and the damage we have done on a societal level.  Or about once a month we gather around the table. Part of our reflection should be about recognizing that we all have the capacity to be Judas; Jesus shared a meal with his betrayer.  The former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once said that the Lord’s Supper “reminds us of the need for honest repentance—of the need to confront our capacity to betray and forget the gift we have been given.” The Lord’s Supper should lead to honesty, self-awareness, and repentance, it should draw worshipers into gratitude for the world and for each other. “It changes how we see one another as we learn to see our neighbor as God’s guest.”[2]

This week we are celebrating the gifts of the Stephen Ministers. One of their roles in the church is to help us recognize the love of God, and especially when we are experiencing some difficulty. Amity Haugk, a program staff member for Stephen Ministry, shares a story of a woman named Megan. She writes that Megan met with her pastor and the pastor encouraged Megan to connect to a Stephen Minster. She was initially hesitant but decided to try, and what she experienced changed her, “[3] I’d been struggling with some spiritual wounds that were pretty intense and in need of healing— things I didn’t want to share with family and friends. But on that visit, as my Stephen Minister walked next to me, I felt safe and comfortable. So, I shared my deepest hurts with her—some really painful things that I feared she might judge me for and that made me wonder if God could possibly love me. After I told her those things, I was really nervous and dreading her response. I was worried that she would think I was an awful person. But instead, she put her arm around me and said, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through that.’ And that was a turning point for me. To go from fear of judgment to a positive affirmation of care, empathy—and even sorrow for what I’d been through—it was so meaningful. That’s when I began to feel God’s love again.”

Jesus tells us it is not what is outside of us that makes us unclean, but it is what comes out of our hearts, and we know that God was constantly getting into trouble for loving too much and forgiving too much.

 

[1] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 278). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 280). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] https://www.stephenministries.org/PDFs/Megan’s_Story.pdf

8-22-21 — The Cost — Psalm 84, John 6:56-69 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 84

John 6:56-69

“The Cost”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

8.22.21

 

 

The Reverend Doctor Barbara Lundblad tells the following story in her commentary on our Gospel passage. She writes, “Years ago, I got a phone call from a man I had never met, a man named Paul. He had heard a sermon I preached on The Protestant Hour radio program and asked where he could get a copy of my sermon. Of course, I was flattered, as most preachers are when someone wants a copy of a sermon. This is especially true when you preach on the radio, and you are not sure if anybody is listening. I told him where he could get the booklet of sermons, and a couple weeks later, he wrote me a letter: ‘When I came to the moment where they recognized Jesus, I broke into uncontrollable sobbing. After I regained my composure, I came back to finish the story, and the same thing happened again. What on earth was happening to me? After an hour of sitting and wondering, I went back to finish the story. . . . Since then, I have gone through the necessary motions of life, but my head and my heart are full of the same questions, endlessly repeated—what has happened? What is happening? What must I do?’ I would like to claim that my sermon created this life-changing moment, but I am sure that something else was going on. That sermon was almost a word-for-word retelling of the story of Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It was the gospel that touched this man. It was Jesus who met him in the story. He went on to tell me a bit about his life, how he had grown up in a Christian home and studied the Bible as a youngster. Then he had found it harder and harder to reconcile the Jesus story with a lifetime of study and teaching. In his words, he had decided that Jesus was a ‘charismatic lunatic.’ Now years later, this retired professor had been caught off guard by Jesus. He dared to look again at the Jesus he did not believe in. He had packed Jesus away as a childhood memory he had outgrown. Now Jesus had interrupted his settled worldview. It may be as disruptive to consider the possibility of believing as it is to consider the possibility of doubt. Either way, nothing is ever quite the same again.” [1]

Our lectionary gospel text might better go by the title “Does this offend you?” This teaching feels so radical that some turn away and stop following Jesus.  The twelve remain but it is clear that for even the disciples their world view was disrupted. For anyone brought up in first century Judaism this teaching would have difficult. The messiah was supposed to follow a specific pattern and to stay within bounds of the agendas and aspirations they had in mind for him. But Jesus’ teaching feels like too much. One of the central principals of Levitical law is that you should not eat or drink any blood. A complex system of Kosher butchering developed to ensure that no blood remained. But Jesus wants those who abide in him to eat his flesh and drink his blood. While we know now this is a reference to communion it is still shocking.

We hear again this word to “abide,” “dwell,” or “remain.” This verb occurs 34 times in the Gospel of John more than any other gospel. So, what is the connection here to abiding and Jesus’ flesh and blood? Why is it so important to John’s gospel? Part of it is the desire to reflect on the complexity of the incarnation. The idea that we see the fullness of God’s divinity expressed in Jesus and the fullness of Jesus’ humanity as well. For John, abiding is about remaining in between two distinct realties — human and divine.  For John, abiding is the key to transformation that we can abide in God and God can abide in us. Jesus enables us to live fully into what it means to be human, as God is most fully lived out in us.[2]  I think this is what makes this teaching so hard. I would imagine most of us at times don’t feel as though God is most fully lived out in us. We all have our moments when we are short with our spouse, lose our patience with our kids, or say an unkind word. In short, there are many moments where it can feel like God is not fully lived out in us.

Yet, Simon Peter is the one bold enough to respond to Jesus’ question. Where could we go? We know you are the Holy One of God. This would be a question Peter would continue to wrestle with for the rest of his life. This is probably why many scholars believe John’s Gospel has two endings. The first ending is at the beginning of John chapter 20 with Mary Magdalene running to Peter to tell him they have taken Jesus and I don’t know where they have laid him. Peter at that moment is living in the midst of his denial; he has turned from this hard teaching and is no longer abiding. But then in chapter 21 begins it all over again and Peter has a moment redemption as he shares bread and fish with Jesus.  A reminder to us that if we are listening, God will surprise us. And many times those words may be hard for us to hear when they come in the voice of a friend, a preacher or even a stranger, or even a book, but no matter, what the grace of God is always before us. The grace that calls us to abide in God.

 

 

 

[1] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 262). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition

[2] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 259). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.