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1-10-21 — Heavenly Voice — Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:9-11 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Genesis 1:1-5

Mark 1:9-11

Heavenly Voice

 

I had a seminary professor that was fond of saying that you need to exegete the congregation.  What he meant by this is you study a scripture over the course of week and then you write your sermon with your congregation in mind, using illustrations that come from their context, their culture, and their community. You write your sermon for your whole congregation and not just a portion of your congregation.  Which makes sense. When I worked fulltime with youth I would share stories that would connect to their context and their reality as teenagers. After seeing the events unfold on Wednesday I have been wrestling with how best to address them as your pastor, asking the questions what does Eastminster need to hear in this moment? Do they need to hear a message of lament, challenge or of hope? As your pastor I have made a commitment to always share the truth with you and to work for the peace and unity of the church.  We have just started what I hope will be a long relationship, yet we are still getting to know one another, we are still learning to trust one another. In these last few months we have continued to face a lot of reclosing of in person worship, the continued and escalating pandemic, a heated election cycle, and now a national trauma. You have only heard me in this pulpit 16 times and only 8 of those times have been in person. I don’t have the benefit of seeing how you react, what you connect with, what you laugh at, or how the spirit moves in our community.  There are portions of the congregation I haven’t even met yet and even the ones I have, I haven’t seen your entire face.  Sometimes it feels a little like I am driving through a dense fog. I can see a few feet in front of me, but not much beyond that.  In light of this national trauma I wanted to share three words, a word of lament, a word of challenge, and a word of hope.   I will speak to a small camera in the back the room and share a message and trust that God will speak into your life through it.

A word of lament, I imagine all of us are hurting right now and a little confused. On Wednesday, I was in a zoom meeting with the Presbytery, on one screen I had the zoom and the other screen I had video from a newsfeed watching the destruction in DC. It was difficult to watch, difficult to maintain focus in the meeting, but I didn’t feel like I could look away, I felt my body tense, I had moments where I felt like I might cry, I turned off my camera and one point and said a prayer for our police, our leaders, our nation, and even the instigators. I thought about how I would explain this to my boys, what questions they might ask. I felt the brokenness of our system that would allow this to happen. I felt anger and pain at many of the images, but in particular at some of the symbols that were being carried. The symbols of hate from white supremacists, the nooses, the gallows that were erected, the slogans about the holocaust. I also saw people carrying crosses, and invoking the name of Jesus and God. I felt the weight of how the church has failed.  God is not aligned to a party or a candidate. God at all times is on the side of the people, the poor, the oppressed, those without rights, God is not aligned with hate, discrimination, or worldly power. I thought about all the students I have worked with over the years and how many have been turned away from the church because they saw Jesus being mixed discrimination and hate. Many of my students have told me over the years that they loved Jesus but not the church. This pain made me think about the prophet Jeremiah, who ministered during a period of brokenness to a broken people and he lamented “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste. Suddenly my tents are destroyed. How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet?”[1] How long oh Lord? How long oh Lord will we see disaster after disaster? Crisis after Crisis? Pandemic after pandemic? But in the midst of pain God listens, God always hears our pain. God is the eternal witness. God has seen pain and heart break from the beginning and God’s eternal promise is God’s presence within that pain. That God will never leave us or forsake us. That God has indeed known suffering. The very Christian symbol of the cross is a symbol of the empire, the empire that used the cross to put to death Jesus but it has become of symbol of life and a reminder God is with us in midst of any suffering and God is with those who are oppressed.

A word of challenge, I know we are all confused by this attack. We saw these images and it is hard to process, hard to understand. I think we need to recognize that was a large crowd with very mixed intentions. Most went to D.C.  to exercise their freedom of speech. There is nothing wrong with this, everyone should have the freedom to do this. But there were others in that crowd that came with very different intentions, just like we saw in the crowds this past summer. Their intention was not to support democracy or free speech but to do damage, cause mayhem and harm. In truth much of it is the result of rhetoric that allows hate to stand unchallenged.   When I have spoken to my colleagues of color, none of them have been surprised by this attack. One described the attack on the capital as the same spirit that lynched black men and women all across our land. The same spirit that in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina overthrew an elected town counsel. Four hundred armed men plotted for months, ransacked the town and then murdered 60 people. [2] Those 400 men were celebrated. I am sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, and please know that it makes me uncomfortable.  I think sometimes the work of the spirit is to sit in our own discomfort. I think the work of the spirit is calling us to repentance, to listen one another, and talk with one another, not to demonize one another, but to listen and talk.

A word of hope. From our scriptures today, we see two images. The first is an account of the first day of creation, God hovers over the waters, and night and day are created.  We see again light and water and God creating order out of chaos. The second we also see God acting and moving. Jesus is baptized by his cousin John, the heavens are torn apart. Nature itself is upended in this moment, creation is changed at the baptism of Jesus. And out of that very rupture the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. The Greek here implies that the Spirit is infused into Jesus, that it comes into him. A new reality is transforming all things. John who cries out on the banks of the Jordan a word of lament and challenge, “repent and be baptized.” John who says he is unworthy to serve, unworthy of Jesus. John will usher in a new baptism. Baptism is the reality in which God summons us, God imparts to us faith. Faith in Jesus, and this the true presence of the Church and the world. That baptism opens our hearts and our minds to be instruments of peace and unity to our neighbors and to our community. [3] This is our hope, that we can be God’s instrument of peace and unity.  When we see violence, it should create in us an urgency to be agents of love and change in this world.

God hears our pain. God calls us to repent, listen and talk. And God longs for us to be instruments of peace and unity in this world.

 

[1] Jeremiah 4:19-21

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/wilmington-massacre/536457/

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord-2/49243

1-3-21 — Out of Town Guests — Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 60:1-6

Matthew 2:1-12

“Out of Town Guests”

 

There is a massive Gothic Clock at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh Scotland and this clock is set 3 minutes fast in order to help people catch their trains on time. There is one exception to this 3-minute rule, for the last 118 years the clock has been set to the proper time on December 31st so that the community could ring in the new year at the proper time. This year the hotel decided not to reset the clock in order to have 3 minutes less of 2020. [1] Obviously this won’t really change the time, the sentiment however is understandable.

Our scripture is a familiar and beloved story. It beings in chapter two of Matthew. A king named Herod is sitting on the throne. This king was really a local official who had been installed by the Roman government in order to enforce the Roman laws.  A group of Magi appear from the East, most likely a caravan of religious advisors from an area in Babylon or Persia. Western Christian Tradition places the number of Magi at three, Eastern Christian Tradition places this number at 12. [2] Whatever the number in this caravan, it is a group outside the Jewish faith that has come to pay homage to the new born king.

The direction from which the Magi come is important and is likely one of the reasons for Herod’s strong reaction.   Herod had no fears about an attack from the West — the Roman Empire was to the West. But to the East he was greatly concerned of an attack. At one point he had to flee his throne and make his way to Rome, because of an invading army made of local dissidents and people invading from the East. As a result, Herod had a series of fortresses built all along the Eastern border and it was constantly guarded and monitored. He also worked on a hearts and minds campaign and sought out projects that that benefitted the Jewish people including rebuilding the temple. But his term on the throne was anything but peaceful; he was embroiled in internal conflicts with many of his own children vying for their seat on the throne.

Herod is frightened by the appearance of this caravan and scripture writes all of Jerusalem was frightened as well. Jerusalem is bracing to see how Herod, this violent leader, will react and what kind of strife it will cause.  The Magi are called to appear before Herod and they explain their desire to meet the child known as the “King of the Jews”. This was a title Herod had already assumed and used regularly. The author of Matthew is wrestling with the question of who is truly the king? Is it the child whose birth was foretold by the angels, or the one on the throne appointed by Rome? Is it the one who uses his power to frighten and control, or the one who came as a humble child and taught about Love? Is the King the one who causes all of Jerusalem to react with fear, or the one for whom the Magi were overwhelmed with Joy when the saw him?

2020 has been a year that many of us would like to forget. David Kessler who cowrote the famed 5 Stages of Grief with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross reflected on our pandemic experience in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review. He shared that as a nation we are feeling many different griefs — grief over how the world has changed, grief over the loss of normalcy, grief over the loss of connection, fear about the economic toll. This is not something we have experienced as a nation in generations, the closest recent event would have been September 11, and how the world changed after that tragic event.

David Kessler describes what we are feeling as an anticipatory grief. We recognize that there is a storm out there, that it could make landfall in our life, but it may not. This perceived threat violates our sense of safety and our understanding of order. We are all trying to process this experience as we live through it. He shares that everyone processes this grief differently and it is not orderly or linear. We can see how they have shaped our national conversation. In the very beginning of this crisis there was a lot of denial, “the idea virus won’t affect us.” I remember a student telling me about it in February and thinking this was just something he read on Twitter.  We have seen how some have experienced a level of anger; “You are taking away my activities.” Or how some experienced bargaining, “okay, two weeks home, maybe a month, and everything will be fine.” Many of us have experienced sadness, “the sadness of not knowing when this will fully end, when life will return to normal.” David Kessler shares that it is only through acceptance and finding meaning we will find health and wholeness.

Accepting that much of this pandemic is out of our hands, we can take care of ourselves, we can take care of our loved ones, we can take appropriate safety precautions. But much beyond that is out of our control. When those feelings of anticipatory grief become too much, we can pause, we can pray, we can take a deep cleansing breath, and we can come into the present moment and be mindful of what is around us. We can ask for help. In the midst of this grief we can search for meaning.[3]

One of the ways I have found meaning is with my wife and children. I have probably spent more time with them in this last year, then at any other point in my life.  I have also gone on more walks than the year before, read more books, and connected with old friends.  I saw commentator call this the year of Zoom and flour; Flour based of the number people who have taken up baking.

As a nation we have continued to search for meaning in the midst of our corporate grief. The pandemic has been eye-opening for many. It has pointed out the financial inequality our nation is currently living with, and the tragic death of George Floyd has also forced us to reexamine how institutional racism has affected our community and nation.

The Magi search for the child and when they find Jesus they are overwhelmed by Joy. They pay homage to Jesus and offer gifts.  This scene is truly breath taking, those outside the covenant are recognizing God’s love. These Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to leave for home by another road. They met the infant Jesus and a new road called them home, a road likely more difficult, less comfortable, and more dangerous. [4] This was driven by fear, but their encounter with Jesus changed the way they saw the world. Encounters with Jesus call us to new paths of understanding and compassion.  This last year we have all dealt with grief and fear. Our work is to continue to be present with Jesus in the midst of this experience and work together to find meaning and build a better future.

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/12/29/951208089/3-minutes-less-of-2020-iconic-scottish-clock-that-always-runs-fast-wont-be-set-b

[2] The NIV Application Commentary on Matthew, pg 94.

[3] https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-10

12-27-20 — Salvation Has Come — Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Luke 2:22-40 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Luke 2:22-40

Salvation Has Come

 

A few years ago, a former student of mine asked me to perform their wedding ceremony. This was a student that I had known since they were in middle school and I had spent a lot of time with her and her family. The wedding was out of state, but I agreed, and was excited to participate. One of the unique things about performing a wedding is the law varies state by state and each county is slightly different.  As the time drew closer for the wedding. I called the county in which the wedding was going to take place. A woman answered the phone and I explained I would be performing a wedding a few months from now and that I wanted to check with them about any local requirements. She kind of paused and said, “are you ordained?”  I, of course, said, “Yes, I am an ordained Presbyterian Pastor.” She said, “do you have a church?” I said, “Yes.”  She then said, “are their actual people at your church?” Being that this was pre-COVID-19, I of course said “Yes.” Then finally she asked me to “mail a bulletin or order of worship to the court house.” Then I would be invited to come to the courthouse, and I would need to bring a copy of ordination certificate and then they would make the decision on if I could perform the wedding. At this point in the conversation I was a little annoyed with her, but I managed to ask her very politely “what this was all about”. I will never forget her two-word response, “the internet”. She went on to explain that they have a lot of weddings in the county and the county has decided that only judges and religious leaders can perform weddings and they didn’t want someone who got ordained online performing the ceremony.

Our text offers us a beautiful vision of a young family, a family following the religious customs of their day.  We see Mary and Joseph traveling to Jerusalem to the temple. His family makes the sacrifices that are required. This would have been done about 40 days after the birth of Jesus. The law required a sacrifice of either a lamb, turtledoves, or pigeons. The offering of pigeons is a clear indication of the socioeconomic status of Mary and Joseph.  But they honor God’s law and make a sacrifice. This account parallels the dedication of Samuel, from 1 Samuel chapter 1, with Eli offering a blessing and a song of praise offered to God by Hannah. Samuel brought great change to Israel and helped fix a corrupt system.

Jesus’ presence in the temple causes quite a stir. The Holy spirit is speaking to two prophets. As this family enters the Temple Simeon picks up the young baby and praises God for him.  Simeon describes Jesus as the “salvation which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We see again God’s concern for all peoples. That God has a special relationship with Israel but salvation has been brought to all people through Jesus Christ. After Simeon shares these words, Anna, a woman of great faith, speaks about this child redeeming Jerusalem. Anna’s words are not recorded but it is understood that she blessed the baby in a similar vein as Simeon. Both Anna and Simeon recognized that salvation had come to the world and to the people of God that day. This small family followed the law of their day. The Mishnah, or the oral law of the Rabbis, teaches that wherever the Torah or scriptures are studied or spoken, God’s presence rests among the people. Jesus modified this saying and said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. [1]  Both Anna and Simeon recognized that salvation had come to the world and to the people of God that day.  It makes you wonder how many other people spotted the infant that day, and sensed the presence of God?  The family then returned to Nazareth. Jesus continued to grow in wisdom and favor with God.

The modern church is facing many challenges. Our influence in the culture has changed, our influence in family has changed. The pressure on modern families is great. Parents in general are struggling to keep up with careers and activities. Until the pandemic many families ate fewer meals together and fewer prayed together before those meals or conducted any sort of at home bible study. Families have begun to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life. [2]  The result is that the markings of special religious ritual and the acknowledge presence of God is gone from the daily life of many families. In the minds of many it has become associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many then naturally assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons. Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience?[3]

In the Washington Post Article, I used to love playing violin. But mastering it broke my heart by Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch. Arianna shares her own personal journey with the violin. She writes how she fell in love with the instrument at the age of 6. At the age of 11 she switched to a new violin teacher, that had connections to pre-college conservatory. She immediately took Arianna off any real pieces of music and had her practice finger exercises after a year she was allowed to return to music, but her perception of that music had changed, the mystery had receded in its place were technical challenges for her body to overcome.  She kept advancing but grew unhappy. She kept feeling as though eventually the music would mean something. She finished her time at Juilliard eventually going on tour with a rock band. But she felt like a fake. She felt the need for a change and moved to Berlin she put down her violin and just lived, she started turning down opportunities to play and eventually stopped playing altogether. Months past and violin collected dust.  A friend convinced her to play a private party and after several weeks of preparation it was time for her to play.  She writes as we began to play, I felt something shift inside me. Suddenly, the months of estrangement and resentment and sadness and confusion, and the uncertainty about my future as a violinist, became part of a new story. It wasn’t the same kind of story I’d have invented when I was young. It was darker and more complicated than anything I could have conjured back then — almost elegiac. The music sounded different to me now. More bittersweet, more profound and more beautiful

The challenge to the modern church is to help family find ritual, is to celebrate God in the in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet each moment, each morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness in our lives, to recognize mystery and holy and give families and parents  the tools to make this happen.[4] To help individuals and families connect to God and see themselves as part of a larger story and help them see the ministry of faith.

 

[1] Culpepper, R. A. (1994–2004). The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 9, p. 74). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[2] Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (p. 6). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Culpepper, R. A. (1994–2004). The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 9, p. 74). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[4] Culpepper, R. A. (1994–2004). The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 9, pp. 74–75). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

12-20-20 — A Divine Visitor — 2 Samuel 7:1-11, Luke 1:26-38 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

2 Samuel 7:1-11

Luke 1:26-38

A Divine Visitor

 

 

She is perhaps the most recognizable woman in human history. Her image stands as a guardian on thousands of dashboards and she is the subject of much of Western art. [1]Last week we gathered and heard her song in response to this angelic visit. This week we focus on the visit and the person of Mary. As protestants we don’t often focus on Mary the Mother of Jesus, but our lectionary leads us to her today. We only catch glimpses of her within Scripture. But who is Mary, and who is she for us?

From scripture we know that Mary is young and vulnerable, she is likely in an arranged marriage to a man she barely knows. An angel of the lord named Gabriel is dispatched by God to visit her. He greets her by telling her that she is favored by God, and says that the Lord is with her. Mary is puzzled at this greeting, wondering why she is favored; she is just ordinary woman. She is not favored in terms of privilege or power or money.  She like all of us is sinful, she wasn’t any more pure or worthy, but God chose her and gifted her. Many of us would do well to hear these words. Grace and favor is not about you, but it is about God. Voices in our culture perpetually tell us we are not good enough. Children and teens are teased for their appearance or clothing, and we all constantly hear advertising that you are not fit enough, attractive enough, or successful enough and it is having a massive effect on our culture. A wall street journal article from 2019 called the “The Lonely Burden of Today’s Teenage Girls” described this problem.  The author tells us the story of Jordan. She says, “ I have friends with debilitating problems like cutting and OCD,” “It’s frustrating because I can’t help them. I mean, I’m only 14 myself.”  The author goes on to write that Young Americans have become unwitting guinea pigs in today’s huge, unplanned experiment with social media, and teenage girls like Jordan are bearing much of the brunt. In conversation after conversation, adolescent girls describe themselves as particularly vulnerable, with many of them struggling to manage the constant connectedness of social media. Many are experiencing rising levels of anxiety and the intense emotions that have always been central to adolescence. But on top of this many are experiencing high levels of depression and loneliness. A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 36% of girls report being extremely anxious every day. They are particularly worried about school shootings, climate change, and their ability to afford college and I would imagine the pandemic . [2] With the culture screaming in our ears it can be particularly difficult to hear the voice of God saying you are enough. You are loved and you are favored.

The angel goes on to tell Mary that she will be a mother and she will bring Jesus into the world. Mary immediately asks how can this be because she is a virgin? So, if you ask this same question you are in good company, right alongside Mary.  This is an aspect of the birth narrative I have never fully understood or grasped, it defies logic and biology. The way I have come to look at it is that God is doing something new. Miracle births are all over scripture, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth all conceived when God intervened. In this case God is doing something radical new. The angel responds to her question by telling that Holy Spirit will over shadow her. This reminiscent of Genesis 1:2 where God dwells over the waters and creates something from nothing. In Samuel God is dwelling in a tent but now God chooses to dwell in the body of woman. God becomes human.

Over the years some have depicted Mary almost as a tool, or as a lesson in submission as if she had no choice about bringing Jesus into this world. I would suggest this is a misunderstanding of Mary and a great misunderstanding of God. What we see in this text though is that Mary ponders the words of the Angel, she wonders how such a thing could happen and, in the end, she says yes to God. Obedience to God does trample our agency, our self-determination saying yes to God helps us to become more fully ourselves. In that light Mary is an example, God chose this modest young woman to work through.

Mary is a reminder that God cares deeply about the human condition and that we should expect God to show up in the most surprising and unexpected places. It is often easy to see God working and moving through inspired worship, beautiful art, but God is working in the forgotten places among forgotten people, vulnerable people. This story is a reminder of the profound compassion of God.[3]

Several years ago, I took a group of youth on a service trip. This was a group of high schoolers and over the course of the week we were going to visit several different volunteer sites. One of the students on that trip was having a really difficult year. It was most of  the usual teen stuff, difficulty at home, trouble in school etc. I was working with the family to help navigate what felt like mini crisis after mini crisis, but then the parents through a series of events realized this was more than teenage angst. Their child was struggling with a major addiction. The student went to rehab and after a few months came home. The parents were deeply concerned about their child falling into old patterns with old friends so they signed him up for the service trip. The parents and I discussed it and hoped it would be an opportunity for this student to make new friends and maybe redefine the last few years of high school. Over the course of the week myself and the youth leaders tried connecting with this student but it never really felt like we were getting through. Toward the end of trip, we were going to a ministry site to serve a meal at local shelter. This ministry site was huge. It had a health care wing, a mail room, a clothing cupboard, and the sanctuary of this massive church was converted into a dining hall, seating a couple hundred. The guests were all seated at tables with white tablecloths. Everyone was served at a table and had options and choice. Most of the students were acting as servers, taking drink and food orders, then running everything out to the table. When dining hours started to wind down, the sanctuary started to clear out and people began cleaning up. I took a quick look around the room and in the center of the room I could see a small group in a circle sitting together talking and noticed this student is sitting with the group. I walk over and decide to stand in the background and just listen. My student was on the verge of tears sharing all that has happened over the last year, sharing about recovery, and trying to stay sober.  The men and women in the group and patiently listening and sharing their own stories of their own struggles. One of the men asked to pray for the student, the group quickly agreed and they surrounded him laid a hand on his shoulder and prayed.  Years later this student, now a young adult, still points to this experience as one of the key moments that kept him clean and on the right path.

God shows up in the most profoundly surprising places, God works through the most ordinary of circumstances to share compassion. As we continue our advent march toward Christmas look for these moments of surprise, where God moves in your life. Amen

 

 

 

 

[1] Andrews, Dale P.; Ronald J. Allen and Dawn Ottoni-W. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice (p. 30). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2] The Lonely Burden of Today’s Teenage Girls

[3] Andrews, Dale P.; Ronald J. Allen and Dawn Ottoni-W. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice (p. 31). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

 

12-6-20 — Preparing the Way — Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8 — Reverend Joshua D. Gill

Preparing the Way

Isaiah 40:1-11

Mark 1:1-8

 

Ben Connor, professor of practical Theology at Western Theological Seminary, in his book Practicing Witness tells the following story:

He writes: Years ago, at a camp designed to accommodate adolescents with physical and intellectual disabilities, I was facing a crisis. James, a young man with Down syndrome, was inconsolably homesick. He had been crying on and off for two days, this was the third day of a five-day day camp, at that moment he was sitting on the floor of our cabin with his arms wrapped around his legs hugging them and weeping. It was my first year on staff with this ministry…. The ministry creates community, they recruit and train leaders to be involved in lives of students, they hold regular meetings during the school year, and they team up with a local therapeutic riding center for a competition and excursions in the fall, and all year we had been working towards this five-day summer camp. I was a seasoned youth minister with twenty years of experience working with kids. I had a master of divinity hanging on my wall that suggested I had been prepared theologically to interpret and address the situation – in fact, at the time I was a defense away from a PH.D. Beyond these credentials, I had had the practical experience of raising my own four children to draw upon. Still, with James that day I had nothing to offer. Rather, I had nothing to offer James that in any way provided him comfort or perspective, and the entire cabin of campers knew it.

One camper who particularly noticed my helplessness was named Greg. As the consequence of a car accident just prior to his birth, Greg had cerebral palsy, an auditory processing disorder, and was learning disabled. He had seven major surgeries by the age of eight years old. Greg did not analyze the situation using the methods and techniques I had learned in school. Instead as James was rocking and crying he took the  initiative to sit calmly beside James, Greg put his arm around him, and spoke words of comfort and peace to him….. Greg in this moment was preparing the way; he was becoming an entry point for James, he lifted the valley, he lowered the mountain, a simple act of presence prepared the way for God’s love to flood into James’ life. [1]

Mark begins by telling us that he is writing the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God. When this gospel was written many claimed to have the good news. This in fact was a slogan of the Roman Empire and we continue to live in an age when there are many gospels. The gospel of material wealth, the gospel of consumption that is seeking fulfillment through the accumulation of things, the gospel of wholeness that latches on to the latest health trends, the gospel of status that seeks only achievement.  But in the midst of this noise Mark tells us that there is a voice crying out. A voice crying to us, even this day.

He shares a quote that is attributed to Isaiah, but is actually a beautiful combination of three passages, one from Exodus, one from Malachi, and one from Isaiah. From Exodus we read “look, I am sending my messenger in front of you in order to guard you on the way in order to bring you into the land that I prepared for you.”[2], from Malachi we read “Behold, I am sending my messenger, and he will oversee the way before me.[3]”, and from Isaiah we read “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord: make straight the paths of our God.[4]” The combination of these texts would have been a reminder to the original hearers, they would have heard these words and known the reference.  The Exodus reference would have reminded the people of their exile and enslavement in Egypt and the parting waters of the Red Sea. The references to Malachi and Isaiah would have reminded the people of the Babylonian Exile and a path God created through wilderness back to home. The original hearing would have known that the messenger Malachi is referring to is Elijah the prophet. Elijah who comes to prepare the way for the messiah. One of the Jewish traditions that is still practiced is to leave an empty seat at the Passover Table for Elijah, waiting for Elijah to prepare the way.

John is cast as this new Elijah. John even begins his ministry by ministering in the general area of Elijah’s final acts. This location would have been symbolic for the people it would have served as another reminder of God’s ministry through Elijah. Elijah who once struck this same river, it parted and while on the other side of the Jordan, Elijah was whisked away to be with God. John strikes these waters with the people. People who come to see him, instead of the waters parting, the people are submerged in the waters, moving from repentance to the new life found in the forgiveness of sins. His splitting of the river is with a renewed commitment to help people follow God’s way. John’s ministry is an entry point an invitation into the Grace and Love of God. Often our own entry point into God’s love is at baptism. At baptism God claims us God’s own. It is also a deeply important moment for the community of God. The people of God promise to nurture and care for the person who is baptized, and help them grow in their faith. Creating and entry point and symbol.

Entry points and symbols help us connect to God. As we endure another season of being away from the sanctuary, of missing in-person worship and a season that likely continue for a while, Presbytery on Thursday made the recommendation that congregations continue online worship for at least the next few months. For some of us we may experience a little heartache, heartache at missing the physical space in which we connect to God on a weekly basis, a space in which we have said good bye to loved ones, a space in which we have experience the ups and downs of life, a space in which we may have made our marriage vows,  a space in which we have watched officers being ordained, confirmation classes take steps of faith, and watched as babies begin their own journey of faith. Have you given any thought to the space in your home you as we connect to God on this broadcast? Many of are watching this on a Tv, or a computer, or even a phone.  Those same devices that we might watch the news, or binge the latest show, or do some online shopping. How do you remind yourself that this moment is different than those other moments? Presbyterians have always known symbols are important, that is why you always see the Bible, the baptismal font, and the communion table in a Presbyterian church. These are visual reminder of our connections to God. As you watch and participate in this worship service have you placed reminders for yourself of the ways in which God has impacted your life through EPC. This could be something as simple lighting a candle before you watch, or removing distracting clutter from your space, or placing a picture of the church, or an image of church friends, reminders of God’s grace. Or it could be much more tangible, making a commitment to call your pewmates after worship and pray with them.

John voice is crying out to us, his cry is an entry point so people can connect to God, so that we could have a deeper connection to God. How will you seek to deepen your connection to God during this season of Advent? How will you be an entry point for others, inviting them in to deepen their own faith?

 

[1] Benjamin T. Conner. Practicing Witness: A Missional Vision of Christian Practices (Kindle Locations 20-25). Kindle Edition.

[2] Exodus 23:20

[3] Mal. 3:1

[4] Isaiah 40:3

11-29-20 — Learning About Figs — Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37– Reverend Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

Learning about Figs

 

As a child my father traveled regularly for business, leaving my brothers and me at home with our Mother. My mother was left to handle everything while he was away and at times the three of us, myself and my two brothers, could be a little bit of a handful on occasion. The thing I remember the most about when he traveled is our home schedule was always a little different and on occasion we would have pancakes for dinner. As a parent now, I can only imagine how difficult this was for my mom having to chase us all down. There was one trip he had that was an extended business trip. He and a team from the company he worked for needed to go to China. He was gone for over 3 months and this was travel during 80s — no cell phones, Facetime or email. My father would call on Sundays after church for exactly 10 minutes. On the home front we did our best to adjust, my older brother learned to mow the lawn, and we tried to help as much as elementary school kids can help.  I remember when he finally came home my brothers and I were very excited, but I also remember being a little nervous thinking about those times I didn’t listen or didn’t help or maybe got into some trouble.

As we begin our Lenten journey we hear again a familiar topic of Jesus. Jesus begins by throwing a prophetic punch. First talking about the days of suffering and sharing an astrological vision of destruction. It reads like a J.J. Abram’s movie, the sun is darkened, stars are falling from heaven but in the midst of this destruction the Son of Man returns gathering the elect, the faithful. Parts of the modern church has often this type of imagery difficult to understand but this type of imagery was common during Jesus’ day. It is style or genre of literature and just any genre of literature if follows a set of rules. In general this type of rhetoric is not meant to be read literally. This passage is most certainly talking about the collapse,  but it is the collapse of the moral, spiritual, social, and political order of things. In short, the lights of the universe have gone out. [1] Just as the lights have gone out a new power comes back into the world. The Son of Man appears in clouds of glory he travels to earth with his power and glory.

Then Jesus moves on to a few other examples in his teaching. A horticulture example in which we are reminded that when the leaves sprout from the fig tree you know summer is at hand and that we should be prepared. Then two very short parables that remind us that we need to watch and wait for Christ’s coming, very familiar themes of late.

There have been countless examples of when people attempted to predict the moment Christ would appear in his glory. All of these movements have failed and have deeply misunderstood the words of Christ.  This passage feels more like a lament rather than some sort of divine checklist for the return of Christ.  A lament that keeps the words of the Psalmist in mind “How long, O Lord” How long, O Lord will we endure these present difficulties? How long, O Lord until you return? It is a lament and a hope. A hope of the inbreaking of God.

This is the challenge of this text, of the Isaiah Passage, and of Psalm 80. There are moments in our life when God will feel close; like God is right at the gate ready to break in at any moment and we are filled with Joy. And there are moments in our lives when God will feel absent or far away. We will ask God are you even there? Are you with us in this moment? We will look at our present sufferings and ask “How long, O Lord?”

Psalm 80, Isaiah, and Mark 13 are unanimous in their response to us. Trust in the character of the creator. Know that God is faithful and God will carry us through present difficulties. It may never look like the way we plan or hope, but God is always faithful. At the age of thirty-nine, newly married, newly published, the Yale Professor of the Practice of Religion and Literature, Christian Wiman found himself as a terminal cancer patient facing death. He and his wife grieved deeply about the shared life that would not be. Christian grew up attending church, but had not been in one for more than 20 years. “Then one morning,” wrote Wiman, “we found ourselves going to church. Found ourselves . That’s exactly what it felt like … casting aside our Sunday Ritual of coffee and the paper and moving toward the door with barely a word between us; and as if, once inside the church, we were discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be.” Then began the long walks talking of God, and the deep sadness that told them of God’s own grief.[2] Through this experience, and the love of people around him, Christian’s faith was rekindled. After 3 years of silence, Christian began to write poetry again. The following is one of the first poems he wrote called “Every Riven thing”.  Riven is an old word that means to split, or something broken or torn apart.

“God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

stone and tree and sky, man who sees and sings and wonders why

 

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into a stillness where

 

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see

 

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made

the things that bring him near,

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,

 

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.”[3]

 

This advent, this day of hope, this time of waiting as we prepare for the inbreaking of Christ, I would invite you to use this time to reflect on how God is moving in your life. How are you feeling? Are you feeling like God is right outside the gate ready to meet you in any moment? Or are you longing for renewal to feel the closeness of God? Are asking the question How long, Oh Lord? Advent is invitation to trust in the character of Jesus and know that God is always faithful.

 

[1] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 1 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 49). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

 

[2] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 5081-5083). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Christian Wiman Every Riven thing, https://onbeing.org/programs/christian-wiman-how-does-one-remember-god-jan2018/

 

11-20-20 — The Nations — Ezekiel 34:11-16, Matthew 25:31-46 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Ezekiel 34:11-16

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Sermon                                                        The Nations                                                        Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

In her autobiography, A Rocking-Horse Catholic, the English mystic Caryll Houselander describes an experience she had on a train that changed her life.  She writes, “I was in an underground train, it was a crowded train with all sorts of people jostled together, sitting, and stranding – workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more that; not only was Christ in every one of the them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but not only them, all the people in all the countries of the world, all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.

I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere- Christ.

I had long been haunted by the Russian conception of the humiliated Christ, the lame Christ limping through Russia, begging His bread; Christ who, all through the ages, might return to the earth and come even to sinners to win their compassion. Now in the flash of a second, I knew that this dream is a fact; not a dream, not the fantasy or legend of a devout people, but Christ in man…

I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, one must comfort Christ who suffers in him. And this reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ..

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. It is not the foolish sinner like myself, who comes closest to them and brings them healing; it is the contemplative in her cell who has never set eyes on them, but in whom Christ fasts and prays for them—or it may be a charwoman in whom Christ makes Himself a servant again, or a king whose crown of gold hides a crown of thorns. Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.

After a few days the vision faded. People looked the same again there was no longer the same shock of insight for me each time I was face to face with another human being. Christ was hidden again; indeed, through the years,  I would look for Him and usually I would find Him in others but only through deliberate acts of faith.”[1]

This is a beautiful vision that Caryll experienced, and it inspired her life’s work. Our passages are a beautiful reflection of this vision. In Ezekiel we see God speaking through the prophet. The beloved image of a sheep and the shepherd are used. God says that God will go and search for the lost sheep. God is seeking the welfare of the people. God is examining them, rescuing them, leading them out, gathering them, and bringing them to their land. God says that God will feed them with justice. This is a people who are crying out for justice. The people of God during this period have experienced another trauma. Ezekiel is ministering during a space of disaster of and alienation. Ezekiel was one of those taken to Babylon and he witnessed the fall of monarchy and the destruction of the temple and that is the space he is speaking into.  Their world had been shattered. The focus is on protecting the weak sheep from those in power. This image should remind us of Jesus and that  theological insight of God’s enduring relationship with the world is continuously defined and shaped as that of a concerned shepherd, seeking to bring the world to just and righteous living in community with God, with one another, and with creation.[2]

In our passage from Matthew we see a vision of Christ. Over the last several weeks the parables have told us that the bridegroom is coming but has delayed. This week the bridegroom has arrived. Jesus begins this parable by telling us that Son of Man has arrived on his throne of glory. The nations are gathered before this throne. This is an important point not to be missed. In the Gospel of Matthew, there are thirteen references to the “nations”. This is unique to the gospel of Matthew. This is less about nations that existed at the time and more about inclusion of the those outside the covenant those referred to as gentiles. More importantly it is a recognition by Jesus of the structures and the powers that affect the world we live in. Those often invisible structures that influence aspects of our daily lives.

The nations are separated into sheep and goats. Sheep on the right and goats on the left. Some of the nations are congratulated and invited to inherit the kingdom because as the king says “ I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” They ask when did we do this for you, and the king will answer when you did this for the least of my family you did it for me.

One of the things we know from psychology is that people are far more likely to intervene in an emergency situation when it affects someone they have an existing relationship with. Which makes sense it is proximity, if it hits closer to home people are inspired to act. But Jesus broadens this definition and says the family of God is the least of these and when you do things for them you are doing them for Jesus.

This parable is both a comfort and a challenge. This apocalyptic vision isn’t meant to fear; rather, the intention is to offer clarity about which side to take. [3] This parable I believe is the heart of the gospel call for Christians. Our call is to do good works in this world, to find Jesus walking around, to recognize him in all the people we meet. But our call is also to examine the structures and the powers of this world and ask the question why are so many people in need? How can we as God’s people advocate for Jesus, how can we advocate for the poor and the marginalized?  I do believe this is one of the reasons we are seeing so many young people leave the church. The fact that the Church to often neglects the call to look at how structures affect everyone.

In his book a Revolution of Values, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shares stories of how these structures have affected those around us. He writes “A few years ago I preached at a church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that turned its entire campus into a solar farm. At a churchwide forum between morning services, we talked about the array of issues on people’s minds—healthcare and immigration, voting rights and equal protection under the law. One of the questions they wrestled with was “How are we building a movement that will help people recognize we are destroying the earth?”  God’s enduring concern for all of creation is evident throughout scripture.  One of the insights he offers is a reminder that everything we do together in faith communities is a liturgy shaping our imagination.

He writes congregations who have done this work learn to think about how their votes will or will not lead to policies that promise a more sustainable future. One of things they learned was that there were few issues of more importance than the ecological devastation to the poor of this world. We know that corporations and governments respond to NIMBY (not in my backyard) campaigns and that they follow the path of least resistance, often leading them directly into the poorest communities. Landfills, superfund sites, and extractive industries almost always end up in our poorest neighborhoods, all but guaranteeing that property values will continue to stay low and they will be affected by negative long-term health outcomes. Powers and structures that affect our world.[4]

My prayer is that you would hear both the challenge and comfort in this parable. The comfort of the clarity of God’s calling on our lives. The challenge to follow that difficult call, the call that asks us to seek out the scattered, the call asks us share with those in need, the call that asks us to examine how the power and structures of this earth and see they affect the poor and oppressed of this world. The call that asks us to see the eyes of Jesus in those we meet.

 

[1] Rohr, Richard, the Universal Christ, Pg 2-3

[2] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 15517-15519). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. Revolution of Values (p. 7). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. Revolution of Values (pp. 131-132). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

 

11-15-20 — Who Is Trustworthy — Psalm 90:1-8, 12; Matthew 25: 14-30 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 90:1-8, 12

Matthew 25:14-30

 

“Who is Trustworthy?”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

I really wrestled with the parable this week. This parable is a little uncomfortable especially the response given to the third servant. It is a familiar setup. A man has gone on a journey. He entrusts three slaves with some vast sums of money. To give you an idea of the amount we are talking about 1 talent was equivalent to 15 years of wages. So, handing someone 5 talents or 75 years of wages, 2 talents 30 years of wages or 1 talent 15 years of wages. The man continues on his way. The first servant and second servant both double their talents, which to say nothing else is a pretty impressive return on his investment.  The only compensation they seem to receive is a pat on the back. “Well done, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of the master.”

But the third slave is the focus and a completely different story. The slave begins by characterizing the master. He begins by saying “I know that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did scatter.” This is interesting because he is essentially accusing him of theft. Taking crops that he didn’t plant or tend. The slave is afraid.  Can you really blame him at this point? If you knew your boss was stealing but not only stealing, forcing the people to work for them to steal, wouldn’t you be afraid? So, the slave does what he considers logical at that point — he buries the money in a safe spot. As strange as this may sound this was considered a best practice during this period. Bury the money and don’t tell anyone where you put it. Occasionally Archeologists still find money that was never recovered by the owner. The slave returns the talent. The master is upset, calling him a wicked and lazy slave, telling him in the very least he should have put the money in the bank so he would have received the interest.  The slave is then thrown out.

I have always found this to be one of Jesus’ more difficult parables to interpret. There isn’t universal agreement on how to understand this. But there are common themes that continue to pop up. The editor has arranged this next to the parable about the 10 bridesmaids. The topic has not changed. We are still operating with the idea with the words from Jesus “The kingdom is like…”. I want to offer two different ways to interpret this text.

The master returns after an unexpected period of time and holds his slaves accountable for their actions with an extremely large amount of money while he is gone.  We have to approach this parable and ask the question is Jesus in this parable? Is God in this parable? In Psalm 123 it says, “ As the eyes of the servants look to the hand of the master… so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us”.  We see little mercy in the response of the Master.  The portrayal of the master seems far out of step with the God of scripture. God who freed the enslaved Israelites. The God who told the Israelites that in your worship you should  recall that, “ A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… he went down to Egypt for bread and was enslaved. But the Lord delivered him to a land of milk and honey” and then as a people you should celebrate this deliverance with the Aliens and Foreigners among you. [1] It is out of step with Jesus who healed the blindmen on the side of the road of the road. Out of step with Jesus who took on the powerful in defense of the ostracized. One could read this and wonder if the third slave is really exposing the underlying inequality in the economic system. That economic system is the Master. Slaves are only motivated by fear and obligation. There is also an awful power dynamic at play here. The slaves are the property of their master.  While this slavery is not based on race like chattel slavery, it is still slavery. We need to look no further than our own history to see how an imbalance of power has shaped our nation and caused deep wounds that have not healed. Or how the growing economic inequality is affecting our nation in negative ways. Perhaps this third slave is the only one who is free, who rejects the fear-based system. Maybe one way to read this is that the third slave is actually Jesus. The Jesus of scripture is known for addressing economic injustice, for overturning tables, tossing out money changers and condemning those who would take advantage of unequal system. Maybe this is reminder that in the Kingdom of God, God rejects all of these inequalities.

Another the way to look at this parable is that it is about Grace. The talents are not money, but they are God’s grace entrusted to the Church. The church is entrusted with finding ways to grow that grace. To share the love of God with their community. To remind people that God’s love is unconditional, it is not dependent on us. God’s love is not limited. That God says to us we are defined by our worst moment. Each time someone experiences that grace it continues to grow and spread. God’s love and abundance grows, people who experience this grace know true freedom and love.  The church that buries their grace reduces the importance of it and in reducing, they reject it.  There have been moments where the church has rejected grace. The way at times it has treated women, not allowing them to enter leadership roles. The way in which so many denominations split over the issue of slavery and race during our civil war. The way our own denomination has suffered around the issue of same gender marriage.  In her best-selling book Pastrix, Pastor and Speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber shares the following: “Easter is basically another word for church showoff day—a time when we spiff up, pull out the lilies, hire a brass quintet, and put on fabulous hats and do whatever we have to do to impress visitors. She writes to me; it had always felt this is the church’s version of putting out the guest towels. Easter is not a story about new dresses and flowers and spiffiness. It’s a story about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion, and it’s about the way God never seems to adhere to our expectations of what a proper God would do. Jesus didn’t look impressive at Easter. Mary mistook him as the gardener. Jesus was dirty, had dirt under his fingernails not the angelic portrait most churches have him. Jesus did this to make all things new, to give grace to all. Grace doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, grace is often messy. Grace looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. Grace looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go. Grace looks like being kind of oneself. Grace is the thing we never saw coming—never even hoped for—but ends up being what we needed all along.”[2]

This is the beauty of a parable that they are ripe with meaning and can be understood from multiple vantage points. At moments in our lives we need to be reminded of God’s grace and how much God loves us.  At other moments in our lives we need to be reminded of God’s economy and economy that doesn’t separate in the haves and haves not, but looks at all as the Children of God.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:4-11

[2] Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (p. 172-174). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

 

11-1-20 — Humble Brag — Psalm 43, Matthew 23:1-12 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 43

Matthew 23:1-12

 

Sermon                                              “Humble Brag”                                               Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

Our lectionary scene from Matthew is toward the close of the Gospel. The scene is part of the fifth and final teaching of Jesus series, reminding readers of the first five books of Moses. This passage is interesting for several reasons. You see a mixed crowd of disciples of Jesus, scribes, and Pharisees. It is a mix of political and religious leaders. Jesus begins by reminding the people to listen to scribes and Pharisees because they sit in the seat of Moses. There is some debate about this, but archeology has found that it was likely a literal seat in the synagogue. Directly after this there is an immediate change in the tone of Jesus.

One of the things to keep in mind this passage and passages like it; at times they have been used to justify Anti-Semitism. We would do well to remember that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish in his responses, in his religion, and culture. There is no room for hate of any kind. I say this especially in light of the fact Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life terrorist attack in Pittsburgh.

So, what is Jesus doing by leveling the charge of hypocrisy? I think there are a few things happening in this text. Jesus is not addressing everyone in the crowd; there are likely certain opponents Jesus is leveling this charge at. It is akin to decrying the excesses of some of the TV preachers who have enlarged their own personal wealth and not necessarily the kingdom.

Jesus is participating in a common argument of the day. During this period there were two forms of the law. There was the specific law that Moses gave and then there was the interpretation of that law by the local religious leaders. This interpretation had become elevated in status and was designed to be a fence around the Torah and protect it, but it had become more of a burden on the people. The religious leaders were not sure how to lessen this burden without over throwing the entire system.[1]

Finally, Jesus is doing something that is very familiar to us especially in the season we are in — Jesus is participating in the political rhetoric of his day. It is always in vogue to call your political opponent hypocrites and point out their flaws. That was true in Jesus’ day and continues to be true in our day and age. It can be a little jarring to think of Jesus in this light. We often think of Jesus as a little more elevated than this.

As a reader and interpreter, what do we do with a scripture like this? The key to understanding this is really in our reading of verses 11 and 12.  Jesus makes a statement about leadership and what true leadership looks like. This is a thread that is throughout the Gospel of Matthew. That leadership is about serving others. It is not about exalting yourself. A camp I took my students to years ago had this as part of their ethos. They had something called the “I am third” award. The idea was God first, Others second, and I am third. It is rare that we see this type of servant leadership in public life, but this is the attitude and mindset Jesus is calling for.

Servant Leadership is an opportunity we all have every day of our lives.  How will we serve those we interact with? How will serve our spouse, our children, our grandchildren? How will serve our co-workers, our supervisors, our teachers?  How will serve the people who serve us? How will serve our community, our nation, and our world?

Servant leadership accepts mutual sacrifice. Who can forget the example of Desmond P. Doss. His story was capture in the film Hacksaw Ridge. Desmond Doss was  a combat medic in WWII who, because of a religious conviction, would not pick up weapon, but through his bravery was awarded the Medal of Honor. While under heavy fire he ushered 75 of his men to safety lowering them down a ridge. He continued these acts of bravery until he suffered a fracture in his left arm and was hit by a sniper’s bullet in his leg. As he was evacuated he realized he lost the bible his wife had given him and that he carried with him through the all the fighting. He got word back to the men on the ridge. By this time the ridge had been captured and his fellow soldiers looked for and found his bible and was able to return it to him.

Servant leadership seeks to builds others up. But we all have the opportunity to display servant leadership through small everyday acts. In the book “About Alice” by Calvin Trillin recalls his relationship with this wife. He recalls how Alice volunteered at a summer camp, he writes “the camper Alice got closest to, L…, a magical child who had some severe disabilities.” A Genetic disease kept her from digesting food or growing. She was fed with a tube. Alice transported L. from place to place in a golf cart.

Alice recounted that on one occasion, L. asked her to hold her mail while she was occupied in a game. Alice could not help but notice a note on top. It was from L.’s mother. Her reluctance to violate the girl’s privacy was overwhelmed by the force of her curiosity: I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered. I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on this sentence: “If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L., we would only have chosen you.” Servant leadership builds others up and holds power across time and space.[2]

A Servant Leadership, leads even without a reward. I had a pretty stressful senior year of college. I was working two jobs and an internship while still having a fulltime class load. For one of my jobs I was working as server in a restaurant. If you have never worked in a restaurant you learn about people very quickly what people are like, and everyone has a horror story or two but one event in particular sticks out in mind. I had a table once that was uneventful.  Everything went smoothly. I handed them the check, they paid and left. I went to clear the table and realized they didn’t tip me. I replayed the interaction over in my mind and couldn’t figure out what I did wrong. Needless to say, I was a little angry.  About a 45 minutes later the guy comes back to the restaurant and finds me.  He explains to me how he and his wife made it all the way home and it suddenly dawned on him that he didn’t tip me, so they drove back. He profusely apologized and left me a tip far larger than I deserved. As mundane as this sounds, it was an action he didn’t need to take there was no benefit to him.

Servant leadership accepts mutual sacrifice, builds others up, and leads even without benefit to themselves.   Servant leadership, the leadership of scripture, the leadership of Jesus asks the question how can I make the world a better place, how can serve those around me? Jesus said: The greatest among you will be your servant.

 

[1]Wilkins Michael J. The NIV Application Commentary on Matthew, Pg. 746.

[2] Strock, James. Serve to Lead: 21st Century Leaders Manual (p. 318). Serve to Lead Group. Kindle Edition.

 

10-25-20 — Living With Love — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Sermon                                            Living with Love                                                Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

As I studied the texts for this week I was really caught by this translation of the 1 Corinthians 13 passage. As you can imagine it is a passage that I have read at almost every wedding I ever performed. I think because of the repetition it has become somewhat of a clanging symbol in my ears. I was able to hear it anew this week through the Message translation. One of the things that Paul points out is that “Love is never held alone in one’s self; Love always involves another. Love links one’s self to another. This reciprocal character of love is “if someone loves God, that person is known by God.” Love provides a context of mutuality, understanding, and relatedness between each person and others, between God and people, and between Christians and Christians, and Christians and the world.[1] Mutuality is really the key to love, without it cannot experience love. That is why Paul says love can bear all things, if love is a mutuality of respect it can bear all things, but the moment it changes, it is no longer love and becomes something different, distorted, and actions need to be taken to correct that relationship or end that relationship.

Eastminster has worked to write its own love story, through its history, relating to God, to members of the Church, and to the world.  It is love story of a church plant that grew rapidly and drew in families from the surrounding neighborhood, that was bursting with activity and people. It is made up of a community of hardworking people that do their best to share the love of Christ in this neighborhood and in this city. A love story of a pastor going door to door inviting people to be part of a church and some families responding to that visit.  A love story of members helping fellow members. One member shared that before the parking lot was paved, one Sunday it rained particularly hard and cars were stuck. Men in suits were pushing the cars out, and he came home in a rain drenched, muddy suit. It is the love story of helping and serving the world through service trips and things like Habitat for Humanity, helping people have a simply, decent place to live.

But like many churches we have also experienced our tough moments. Or as I have heard it described, “the difficult time”.  Moments where people may have experienced deep division over decisions or indecisions. Moments where people left our fellowship, and our fellowship was changed as a result. But we learn and grow from these moments. We heal and those bad moments become just another part of the love story.

EPC learned from those experiences and worked to empower their leaders and strive for a healthier system.  One of things I have always deeply appreciated about our Presbyterian system, is what we ask of our leadership. From our congregation, individuals are set apart, ordained by our congregation. Our theology teaches that they are called by God to this role as elder and as deacon. As deacons they are set apart for works of “compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, sick, the lost, friendless, and the oppressed…” [2]  The ruling elders are set apart, “ together with the Pastor to, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline over the life of the congregation.[3]  Then we ask our ruling elders and our pastor to do something exceedingly difficult.  We ask them to come together as a session not to represent their area of focus or of interest but to come together and discover the “will of Christ” who is forever head of the  church[4].  Discovering Christ’s will only comes through prayer, reflection, the study of scripture. We have charged this group to discover the will of Christ and help us to write the next chapter of Eastminster’s love story. To help us to discover how we will connect to God, to fellow members, and to the world.  To wrestle with questions like what does it mean to be the church in the digital age? How do we speak into the life of young families and young people? How do we avoid division, and maintain unity while still working through difficult topics?

We know the world is constantly changing and those changes are happening faster and faster. I am amazed how quickly life is changing. When I started in fulltime youth ministry eighteen years ago cell phones were a luxury that most people didn’t have them. Life was different, most days between the hours of 3-5 p.m. I could tell you exactly where I would be, I was either at a high school or middle school watching some activity or I was on AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) talking to kids in my office. About 6 years into my ministry I felt the landscape changing dramatically as more and more kids had super computers in their pockets. I felt a major upswing in teenage depression and other mental illnesses, and I saw parents struggling, trying cope with this environment. While these forces are still at play and so much has changed, one thing has remained, the mutuality of “love”.  The kids and teens I know want to know you care for them — nothing connects faster than remembering a name, asking about an interest, and showing that you care. While we are living through so many dramatic changes, we also know that Christ has called EPC for this moment and for this time, Christ has prepared our Church and our leadership, and we will discover together the “will of Christ”.  The will of Christ will certainly surprise us, stretch us, and strengthen us.  But God is ever faithful, leading us forward into God’s future.

 

[1] Sampley, J. P. (1994–2004). The First Letter to the Corinthians. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 10, p. 953). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[2] G-2.0201

[3] G-2.0301

[4] F-1.0202