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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.

 

8-1-21 — Bread of Life — Psalm 51:1-12, John 6:24-35 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 51:1-12

John 6:24-35

“Bread of Life”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

8.1.21

Just for a moment, think of the best meal or maybe the best thing you ever ate. What for you made that the best meal? Was it the company? Was it the food? Was it the occasion? What about that experience made it so good? When I start thinking about this, one thing immediately comes to mind. Growing up, my paternal grandparents lived about seven hours away. Often around Thanksgiving we would drive to visit them. After arriving at my grandparents, we would unload the car. We would sit in the living room and inevitably one of my brothers, myself, or my father would ask my grandmother if she made fish cakes. She always made fish cakes when we came to visit.  They are kind of like crab cakes but instead of crab meat they are made with cod fish. My grandmother would make them and put this Bajan pepper sauce in it. The sauce was kind of smoky, sweet, and spicy all that same time. Sometimes they were so spicy they would cause you to break out into a sweat. Even now if I eat or smell those fish cakes, memories come flooding back — memories of my grandparents’ living room, of shelves covered in little dog figurines, of a cabinet full of Hummels.  Or times when my brothers and I would play in their yard, hiding in their hedge.  Conversations with Grandparents. It is amazing how food can transport us.

Our lectionary has us again talking about food. Jesus feeds the crowd of 5,000 and they attempt to make him King. He goes off to be alone and walk by the sea, only to meet the disciples who are sailing across. The next that day the crowd wakes up and realizes that Jesus has left them so they go out to searching for him. They go to the other side of the sea. They find Jesus and address him as Teacher, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

His interaction with this crowd parallels another exchange he has with a woman in Chapter 4. In that exchange Jesus waits at a well and asks a Samaritan woman for a drink.  She, unlike the crowd, is not seeking him but stumbles upon him. She is surprised because she is outside of his community, yet he asks her for a drink.

Jesus, rather than answering either of their questions, responds to their underlying motivation. With the crowd, he begins his response with “Very Truly, I tell you.” It is phrase in which there is no real English equivalent, and Jesus uses this phrase four times in this chapter 6.  The scholar Raymond Brown translates this as “Truly I assure you,” “Let me firmly assure.” But even this is a little inadequate. One scholar described it as an Amen from the lips of God, an assurance, a double “Amen.” [1]

Jesus tells them the real reason they are asking is not because they saw a sign, but because of a memorable meal they ate. Jesus admonishes them to work for the food that leads to life, not the food that perishes. To the woman at the well he tells her that she will grow thirsty again if she only drinks from this, and that she should seek the water of life. The crowd asks for a sign, the feeding of the 5,000, walking, and strolling on the sea wasn’t enough. “Very Truly, I tell you,” “Truly I assure you,” “Amen Amen,” the “bread of heaven is that which comes down from heaven and gives life the world. They respond “Sir, give us this bread always.” The woman responds to Jesus by asking for the water that gives life so that she might never be thirsty again. While crowd does not ask a follow-up question, the woman does, asking if he, Jesus, might be the Messiah. It is interesting the crowd didn’t ask this the day before they sought to make him King by force. Truth be told there were lots of “messiahs” running around in this age. One prophet claimed he could part the Jordan river. He attempted to and got his followers killed by Rome for a revolt. To crowd Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” To the woman he says, “I am he (the messiah), the one who is speaking to you.

Jesus is speaking to us, speaking about that deep longing in all of us, that longing for meaning, community, and salvation. A hunger that drives us to create beauty, to care for nature, to sing, to make music, to paint, to knit. The restless creativity that is in all of us somewhere, this is a longing that God has created in us.

Many have tried to fill this hunger with things, the right car or truck, the right clothes, the right job, the right spouse, the right vacation, and the right education.  Augustine teaches us that we are restless until we rest in God. He says, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[2] The reformation showed us that faith is gift of God, that God creates the hunger in us but God also fills it. We need to trust that hunger, and we need to trust the one who said “Amen Amen,” “Truly I assure you I will meet you when you least expect it, I will fill your hunger.”

The book Take this Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First-Century Christian is the of story of Sara Miles looking to fill her hunger. Sara grew up in a secular home. She was the grandchild of missionaries, but her parents refused any religious affiliation. She was an atheist. At the age of forty-six, one winter morning she walked into an Episcopal Church. She writes “I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian—or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut.”[3]

“We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table,’ the woman announced, and we started moving… forward. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet. And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me. I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the ‘body’ of ‘Christ,’ a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus,’ was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.”[4]

Over the next year Sara learned about the church and learned that Love meant giving yourself away, embracing outsiders as family, emptying yourself to feed and live for others.[5] She convinced the congregation to open a food pantry; A food pantry where the food was given away from the sanctuary, and on Fridays the communion table held fresh veggies as well as bread. A Community grew up around the pantry and she began feeding hundreds on a weekly basis. She realized for her that this act of welcome was an act of oneness in Christ not an act of “outreach but an act of gratitude of acknowledging hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we’re fed with by God.”[6]

In short Jesus met her and she was no longer hungry and no longer thirsty.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-18-2/commentary-on-john-624-35-5

[2] Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine (New York: Pocket Books, 1957), 1.

[3] Miles, Sara. Take This Bread (pp. 60-61). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Miles, Sara. Take This Bread (pp. 58-59). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Miles, Sara. Take This Bread (p. 93). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[6] Miles, Sara. Take This Bread (p. 116). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

7-25-21 — The Feast — Ruth 2:14-17, John 6:1-15 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Ruth 2:14-17

John 6:1-15

The Feast

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

There is a deep connection between spirituality and food. Most major religions have integrated some dietary rules to their observation. The Christian practice of communion, the Jewish Seder, or the Muslim practice of Eid Qurban, where an animal is sacrificed and 1/3 of the meat is kept for the family, 1/3 is given to the neighbors, and 1/3 is given to the poor.

There are also informal moments, I am sure all of us can fondly recall pot-luck meals we may have had as children and their common everyday foods that have religious connections as well. In 1840s there was a Christian sect known as the Millerites. They believed Jesus’ return was imminent, some came to believe that Jesus had returned but they missed him and felt they had to create new foods in order to show they were living in the Kingdom of God. One enterprising pastor developed a cracker in order to keep his congregation from sinning. His name was Sylvester Graham.  Another religious devotee from a spiritual community located in the Battle Creek, Michigan named John Harvey Kellogg perfected the “corn flake”.[1]

Our lectionary this morning moves us from the gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John for the several weeks. John has a very different flavor. He has the most developed theology and utilizes different material. This week we are reflecting on the feeding of the 5,000; it is the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels. The narrator places this miracle in the context of Passover, the celebration of when God liberated the children of Israel from slavery. The narrator is trying to emphasize that Jesus is pointing to a liberation, a new liberation of the people of God, and this meal is a foreshadowing of that liberation.

In the synoptic Gospels the feeding of the 5,000 is in response to human need and deep from emotion Jesus. Remember last week Jesus saw the people as sheep without a shepherd. But in John, this moment is a test for the disciples. The people have gathered and are hungry. The disciples don’t know what do, but one of the twelve knows of a boy with bread and fish. They bring this boy to the attention of Jesus. It is a reminder that we will often not know what to do, but our starting point should always be to bring it Jesus. We will never know what Jesus will do, but our faith is about expecting that God will do something we hadn’t thought of, something new and creative.

One of the most unique aspects of this interpretation is the distribution of food itself. In the other gospels, the disciples distribute the food. It is a hierarchical relationship, Jesus is at the center and the disciples go forth from him. What we see in John is an intimacy. We see Jesus handing out food directly to the people in need, a reminder that Jesus meets us where we are.

Several years ago, I had the joy of spending the week with a group of tweens as we learned about food insecurity in the U.S. Part of the week was spent on education. We learned about food deserts — places in rural and urban areas that do not have access to fresh fruit or vegetables. We learned that 44 % of SNAP beneficiaries are children under the age of 18, 12% are Seniors, and 9% are those with disabilities. We learned that SNAP benefits do not cover things like diapers, or medicine for children.  We also spent time working on a farm gleaning.  It is where a farmer donates a portion of their produce for food pantries. Volunteers come in and pick the food then it is transported to a distribution center. That day we picked cauliflower and apples. The final day of the week we worked at a small food pantry interacting with people, and loading cars with some of the items that they picked the day before.  It was profoundly meaningful.

Another detail that John offers is that Jesus distributes loaves of barley to the crowd. The scholar Raymond Brown tells us that this is the bread of the poor. What we see being enacted is a feast with a social location, a feast that, while open to all, is meeting a very specific need for those present. It should remind us of the story of Ruth, who after gleaning, returns to her mother-in-law with barley. In some rabbinic interpretations, Boaz’s gift to Ruth is a foreshadowing of a messianic banquet for the poor. Many scholars see John as bringing this foreshadowing to life.[2]

What Jesus did on the mountainside that day for those 5,000 folks was profound, but they would grow hungry again.  It was a sign of the kingdom, but it was not fully the kingdom.   It was an image of the kingdom.

Sophie Scholl was born in 1921 in a small village in Germany. It was a time of scarcity, political violence, and unemployment. Sophie’s parents raised her to be a free-thinking Christian. As teen she grew up reading Augustine, Pascal, Buddhism, Confucius, the Qur’an and the Bible.  Her father told her “What I want for you is to live uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves”. When Sophie was 12 years old Hitler came to power. Like most youth of that generation she joined a Youth League. Sophie and her brother Hans quickly grew disillusioned and started to be openly oppositional of the Nazi regime. Before college she was drafted and was forced to labor in a field at a decrepit castle, raising crops. As she endured this camp she repeated a line of poetry, “Braving all powers, holding your own.”

When she was 21 she was released from her the service and began college in Munich. Her brother Hans was with her. They became convinced that they needed to stand up against Hitler. Hans saw that Communists were taking a stand and he wondered why the follower of Jesus were doing the same. He said to his friends, “what are we going to show in the way of resistance when all this terror is over? We will be standing empty handed.” They decided to form a secret group called the “white rose.” They pictured the Third Reich as an enormous wall. As the white rose, they would discover chips and cracks in that wall and pull it down over time. They believed that if citizens knew what was truly going on they would stop it. They began participating in non-violent acts of resistance, painting the walls of university buildings with slogans like “Down with Hitler.” They began secretly copying the sermons of a Priest who condemned the Nazis. They shared thousands of illegal flyers and messages. They traveled by train to cities around Germany to mail flyers and letters.  The Nazis were desperate to know who was doing this. On, February 18, 1943 Hans and Sophie stood on top of a staircase high above the university courtyard. As classes let out she opened a suitcase and leaflets fell all over the courtyard. They were spotted by a janitor and immediately arrested. Within a week, they stood before a judge and he pronounced they would be executed that afternoon. Sophie wrote in a private moment before her death “I shall cling to the rope God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.”[3]

At times the problems we are facing can feel like that stone wall. The rise in hate groups, violence, generational poverty, climate devastation. But the kingdom of God is coming. The kingdom is a feast for the poor, enacted by Jesus, where God’s son is our waiter. The kingdom of God is resistance. Resistance to evil in all its forms.  The kingdom of God is that white rose looking for cracks in the wall, breaking in, tearing it down, showing us a better way to live.

 

 

[1] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-12b-3/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17-2/commentary-on-john-61-21-5

[3] Marsh, Karen. Vintage Saints and Sinners, pg. 177-184

The Abundance of Jesus — Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

2 Samuel 7:1-14

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

In the recent opinion piece from the NY Times entitled Can Silicon Valley Find God? by Linda Kinstler, the author dives into a budding conversation about the role of Artificial Intelligence in our lives. We may not realize how much we interact with A.I. on a daily basis, but it influences much of our lives in unseen ways, everything from the roads we drive on, the ads and articles we see, what we pay for car insurance, and the list goes on. Shanen Boettcher, a former Microsoft general manager who is pursuing a PH.D. in artificial intelligence and spirituality at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, has been studying how devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa answer the big questions of life like “how should I treat others?” “are humans special among other living things?” “how did all of this come about?” “Why is there evil and suffering the in the world?” “Is there a ‘god’ or something that is bigger than all of us?” These are questions that the religions of the world have been wrestling with since the dawn of time.  While much of Silicon Valley avoids espousing any specific religious belief, Linda Kinstler found people around the world wrestling with the spiritual implications of these technologies and how they are influencing our daily lives. Some have left very tech jobs to attend seminary and some have stayed within these tech giants working for change within, leading nonsectarian theological discussions. It is for good reason, we are all aware of the harm that is being done by technology and specifically the harms of A.I.. “Over the last several years there has scholarly research that has exposed racist and discriminatory assumptions baked in machine-learning algorithms.” It has also deeply influenced our politics, our election cycle, the way we view the world, and even our response to the global pandemic.[1] In 2017 Myanmar saw one of the world’s first genocides perpetuated on unfounded internet rumors. Senior members of the military employed a propaganda campaign that specifically sought to capitalize on the assumptions built into A.I., and this genocide caused the death of at least 24,000 people . [2] The entire world is being shaped by these conversations.

In our passage, the disciples have finally returned from their missionary journey. The apostles gather around Jesus to tell him all that they had done and taught. They decide to avoid the crowds and go to a deserted place. As they are traveling by boat to that place, someone recognizes them and a large crowd arrives ahead of them at their destination. The disciples are tired from their work.   The gospel tells us that as Jesus saw the great crowd, he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.

The lectionary then goes past the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, and ends at the healing of the sick in the village of Gennesaret. After crossing the sea, the disciple tie-up the boat and at once people recognize Jesus and they rush him, bringing the sick from surrounding villages, and they beg to even touch the fringe of his cloak.

The way the narrator describes Jesus is interesting. We note again the usage of the shepherd analogy. But what we hear from Jesus is really an overwhelming sense of care and love. Jesus sees the crowds and his heart moves toward compassion. You can picture in your mind all of his potential responses he could have to this crowd. He could have left the scene, climbed back into his boat and gone to another village. He could have told the crowd to move on and work toward a better life. He could have just ignored their needs and focused on himself. But instead what we see is Jesus responding with compassion, Jesus engaging their big questions and Jesus teaching them things.

Compassion seems like it is in short supply in our world today. The world seems to be filled with people who desire to be right, to argue and one-up one another with “what-aboutisms”, looking to find the upper hand. I think one of things to recognize is that this strife is somewhat built into the code.  Jesus’ response to the crowd that day and to the crowd this day is one of compassion, one of abundant love.

Henri Nouwen understood this compassion and built his life around it. At the most public point of his career he was a well-known professor at Harvard and Yale; he taught to packed crowds. There is a story that once he was slated to give a lecture in an auditorium, and when he arrived it was so crowded people were sitting in the aisles and the floors. He promised the crowded that anyone who volunteered to leave would be able to return the following night where he would host an encore lecture. The following night the auditorium was over filled all over again. Henri Nouwen wrestled with the big questions, “who am I?” “Am I only what I accomplish?” “Am I only what others think of me?” “Am I only what I have?” He kept going back to the idea “that we are the beloved daughters and sons of God.”  For him the compassion of Jesus lead to a journey of downward mobility. He left academic pursuits and moved to L’Arche, a French word for Ark. L’Arche is an intentional community were people living with intellectual disabilities and those who come to help them share life together as equal members. It is understood that each person brings unique and mysterious gifts to group. The group always centers itself on invitation from Jesus to be the center of everything. Henri took a job at L’Arche, not as the director of spirituality, but as a direct-care assistant to a young member named Adam, a young man who could not move by himself or even speak. A young man who not have cared about Henry’s academic credentials.

At our very core, Jesus challenges us to faithfully look at the big questions, to wrestle with our place in the world, and all the while Jesus is looking upon us with compassion. In one of the many books he wrote, Henri Nouwen offers the following; he says Jesus whispers to you and encourages you to make this your own prayer: ‘I am beloved. God is well pleased with me. Not because people say I’m great, but because God named me beloved even before I was born.” The world may reject me, praise me, laugh at me, but no matter what comes, I am the beloved of God. I can live on. Beloved. Beloved. That’s who I am. That’s who you are. [3]

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/07/16/opinion/ai-ethics-religion.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html

[3] Marsh, Karen. Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians who transformed my faith, pg 37-41

7-11-21 — A Prophet Murdered by the State — Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19, Mark 6:14-29 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

Mark 6:14-29

 

A Prophet Murdered by the State

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

On June 23, 2018, people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, DC for the Poor People’s Campaign. This is a campaign that the PCUSA supports; it was a march on the U.S. Capitol, to call upon on our elected officials to take action for those who had been suffering at the hands of government policies. As part of that march they sang a song by Yara Allen called “Somebody’s Hurting My Brother.” It is a call and response protest song “Somebody’s hurting my brother & it’s gone on far too long, gone on far too long, gone on far too long, somebody’s hurting my brother & it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore.” It has several verses “Somebody’s hurting my sister,” “Somebody’s poisoning the water,” “Somebody’s ignoring the homeless.” [1] The song is a commitment to not be silent in the face of injustice.

In our Gospel text the writers suddenly interrupt the narrative; directly before this Jesus has sent out the twelve charging them with sharing the gospel, driving out demons, and healing the sick. You would expect a report on this missionary experiment. Instead you are suddenly forced to wrestle with this text about John Baptist. The writers almost casually mention that King Herod is wondering if Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. That is when we learn that King Herod has beheaded John. The Gospel Mark goes into far more detail about this passage than Matthew, and Luke skips this episode altogether. This is out of the ordinary for Mark, as he frequently leaves out details and moves quickly from moment to moment in the Gospel. But he clearly wants us to ponder this moment. The King Herod described here in the text is the Son of the more famous and notorious “Herod the Great.”  Moreover, he is not truly a King but a Roman client that rules only as an arm of Rome. Either way, he has John arrested. But John is arrested not for his preaching, or for baptizing in the Jordan, but because he had the audacity to tell the truth to someone in power.  The text tells us that Herod held a grudge against him, but was scared to kill him. This fear won’t stay his hand as he has promised a girl anything she wants, even half his kingdom. The girl is manipulated by her mother into wanting John dead. Herod looks like a buffoon, John is killed by the state for telling the truth, and this girl is used by those around her.

In our lectionary text from 2nd Samuel, David has finally risen to power. He has united the tribes, and David decides to make Jerusalem his city. Up until this point, Jerusalem was nothing more than a footnote. But David decides it will be his seat of power, and in order to consolidate his power, he decides to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his city.  The Ark was understood as a box that contained the stone tablets in which God’s commandments were written. It was also understood as an instrument of war the Israelite God would sit enthroned upon and watch the battle and give aide to Israel. That is likely how the sons of Eli had lost the ark in the first place. They brought it to battle the Philistines, the Philistines captured the ark, but it caused so many problems for the Philistines that they returned it to the Israelites.  The Israelites debated about what to do with it and they are so scared they hide it away for about 20 years — until David comes along to build his city. With much sacrifice and fanfare, the Ark is moved to the city. The lectionary skips this part, but while on the way to Jerusalem, the Ark almost falls to the ground. Uzzah steadies the ark and is immediately killed. So, the fanfare stops. David is scared of this object and stashes it at the home Obed-edom.  God blesses Obed-edom’s household so David decides he needs it back. The procession restarts after a three-month delay.  As they approach the city, one of David’s wives, Michal, daughter to Saul, sees him and despises him.  Michal is upset with him and confronts him. The narrator states that Michal is upset by the way he is dancing and acting in front of the Ark and in front of other women. The story ends that Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no children until the day of her death.  Some commentators argue that she is jealous or embarrassed by the way he was dancing, but she had so many reasons to not like David. David had killed members of her own family and benefited from some suspicious deaths of her family members.  She was David’s wife, but she was treated as a pawn by the men around her. She was given by her father Saul in marriage David, and scripture tells us “she loved David.” She protected David when at one point Saul decided to kill him, lying to her father. As retaliation Saul took her from David and gave her to Palti. Then David demands her back as a spoil of war. 2 Samuel 3 tells us that Palti loved her so much that as she was led away he followed the whole way walking and weeping behind her until he was ordered by Abner to “to go home,” the way one might talk to a dog. Michal is treated unjustly to say the very least, and she is forced to watch David lead a procession in which the Ark is brought into the city – a procession in which he is the worship leader. The God who expects worship is the same God who, according to Amos, expects justice. The God of the plumb line who measures our commitments to justice.

One of the background characters in the Harry Potter series is a boy named Neville Longbottom. He is not very popular, he is always losing things, and in general serves as tragic comic relief. But what is always interesting about him is he always does what it is right, even if it costs him. In the first book, Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone, Neville confronts Harry, Ron, and Hermione for breaking the rules, sneaking out past curfew, and costing their house points —  an adventure in which our trio save the day.  The headmaster professor Dumbledore said this about Neville, “There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” Courage to do what is right. Bravery to stand up to those around us.

In 2008 a Taliban leader in Northwest Pakistan, issued a warning — all female education had to cease within a month, or schools would suffer consequences. Ziauddin Yousfzai asked a local army commander what do. The commander assured him that they would provide security and not to close the school. Ziauddin’s daughter Malala, began writing a blog for the BBC, about her hopes and fears as a young girl being educated in the Swat.  She began to raise her voice, speaking out on local tv, sharing about the importance of education.  In 2012 life seemed fairly normal; the worst days of the Taliban power had receded, but there were a few militants still in the Swat. On October 9 as her bus was making its way to Malala’s home, it was flagged down by two armed men. They were looking for Malala; she was shot along with two other friends. Malala’s life was hanging by a thread. She was flown to a hospital where she underwent several surgeries. A team of specialists saved her life and began to help her recover.  On July 12, nine months after the shooting, Malala stood up at the UN headquarters and addressed a specially convened youth assembly.  She began her speech with “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.”[2]

The gospel calls us always to stand up for what is right and the prophet tells us that justice is the measurement.

 

[1] https://www.riseupandsing.org/songs/somebodys-hurting-my-brother

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24379018

6-27-21 — Jesus the Healer — Psalm 130, Mark 5:35-43 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Psalm 130

Mark 5:35-43

Jesus the Healer

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

How do you respond when you get interrupted? Can you reorient yourself quickly or do you get frazzled? Do you get frustrated and impatient?  Do you ignore the interruption? Has an interruption changed the course of your day or maybe even your plans for the next few months?  When Vicki and were first married we bought a 100-year-old brick twin. It was great; we were a few years out of college, the house needed work but it was a house we could afford. We started doing all sorts of projects. After about four years we had redone most of the house, laying new floors, insulating large portions of it, repairing plaster, adding closets to some of the bedrooms, and doing all sorts of projects. One day Vicki asked me to look at the ceiling fan in the kitchen. We hadn’t done any projects in the kitchen yet. She had noticed that if you turned on the ceiling fan it wobbled.  There was a drop ceiling, which should have been a massive red flag, but I told her I could take care of the problem, got my ladder and lifted a tile. It was that moment that I discovered the ceiling fan wasn’t connected to anything — just a 2×4 simply placed on top of the drop ceiling. We also discovered why the kitchen was always hot or cold, the plaster above was full of holes and in spots you could see the underside of the roof. This quick fix was suddenly interrupted and needless to say, we ended up grilling for the next four months as we gutted the kitchen.

The writers of the gospel of Mark has a habit of connecting two stories together. Scholars refer to this “intercalation,” the connecting or sandwiching of two seemingly unrelated stories together so that reader or hearer is forced to compare and connect these stories. The story we read this morning is an example of that. The story of Jarius’ daughter actually begins in verse 21, with Jesus crossing to the other side of the sea. The leaders of the synagogue approach Jesus. Jairus falls on his knees to tell Jesus that his daughter is dying. Jarius proceeds to ask Jesus to come to his home and lay hands on her so that she may be well.

Mark interrupts this Jarius narrative to begin a new narrative. While Jesus is walking to his home, a crowd forms around Jesus. A woman who has been experiencing hemorrhages for 12 years joins the crowd. The text describes her as enduring much under many physicians and she had spent all that she had seeking a cure. She reaches out and touches Jesus robe and is healed. Jesus, realizing that she has been healed, stops the crowd, wondering what has happened.  The woman falls before Jesus and tells him the whole truth. Jesus calls her a daughter and tells her to go in peace.

The narrative is then interrupted again. While Jesus is still speaking to the unnamed woman, some people arrive to tell Jesus that the daughter has died. These men encourage Jarius “not to bother the teacher.” Jesus overhears this and responds by telling them to not fear, but believe. Peter, James, John, and Jesus all travel to the home. People have already begun weeping outside the home; there is a great commotion. Jesus enters the home. He speaks in Aramaic “Talitha cum, ‘wake up little girl’.” The twelve-year-old girl gets up and begins walking around. Jesus gives them a strict order not to tell anyone what has happened.

In two seemingly unrelated stories that connect, we learn Jairus’s name but never the name of the woman suffering from chronic hemorrhaging.  Jarius would have been a man of some status and influence in his own community, but the woman lost all her money, and likely any status she would have had. She may have been an object of scorn or pity from neighbors and family. Jarius falls at Jesus’ feet, whereas the woman tries to touch Jesus in secret. Jesus not only heals the woman, he declares relationship with her, calling her a daughter. The stories end with healing, Jesus calls the woman’s desperation, faith, and he urges Jarius to continue to have faith. Faith in these examples seems to mean removing any barriers that may keep them from getting to Jesus. Faith is a radical trust in Jesus. This trust is born out of one’s need and the conviction that Jesus can help. Both of our characters longed to connect to Jesus. Jarius specifically asks for Jesus to lay hands on his daughter. The woman grabs a hold of Jesus with purpose.

I think one of the strangest things about this last year of the pandemic, has been the lack of touch we have experienced and the isolation. For many of us we went for months, if not a year, without embracing extended family or without shaking a stranger’s hand. In church we have gone over a year without passing the peace. For some of us this pandemic has been an interruption. For others it has been devasting, a hospital stay, perhaps prolonged symptoms, and for some the death of a loved one. One of the questions I also wrestle with when I hear these recorded miracle stories is who else did Jesus pass by? Was there someone else who didn’t get healed, another child that wasn’t awakened?

A study for the National Institutes of Health from 2019 indicated that 1 out of every 5 adults live with some form of mental illness[1] and I would suspect in this last year that number has grown. Even with the prevalence of these disorders, for many there is still a stigma about asking for help; only about half seek treatment. Among teens, one out of six experience some form of mental illness, with depression being the most common.[2] The Gospel of Mark points out the only way to find some form of healing is to “trouble the teacher”, to ask for help.  Victoria Maxwell, author and mental health advocate, writes about her experience with a mood disorder. “When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar and psychosis, my parents’ acceptance, love, and boundary-setting was pivotal. Even when I lacked the ability to accept my mood disorder, I knew in the back of my mind, my parents were a soft place to fall. When I did eventually recognize that I needed help, I knew I could turn to them. And I did.”[3] Victoria troubled the teachers in her own life, asking for help, asking for healing.

This story is an invitation to live into whatever interruption we face in this world, an invitation for us to name and wrestle with the limits of our life, to acknowledge the difficulties we face.  An invitation that Joni Sancken calls a “reasonable Hope,” a hope that leaves room for doubt and despair and at the same time holds out hope for incremental steps toward a future. This is an invitation to trouble the teacher with the burdens that are too great for us to bear and an invitation to ask for help.

[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness

[2] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health

[3] https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/helping-a-loved-one-cope-with-a-mental-illness

6-6-21 — Undivided Kingdom — Genesis 3:8-13, Mark 3:20-29 — Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Genesis 3:8-13

Mark 3:20-29

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Undivided Kingdom

 

In 1997 the American artist Dennis Oppenheim caused controversy with his sculpture “Device to Root Out Evil.”  If you have never seen this piece it looks like a partially finished New England church. But instead of the steeple pointed to the sky it is embedded in the earth and the church almost grows out of the steeple. The 24-foot-tall church is completely upside down. The roof and the walls are unfinished, and it as if people managed to enter the structure they would fall out. The artist maintained until his death that it wasn’t anti-religion. In fact, in one interview he was asked “What a religious person might think about it?” He confessed that while he was not a religious person he has thought about this a lot. “I didn’t think it was the least bit blasphemous. Quite the opposite. I feel it strengthens the belief in the church as having a vital function — by penetrating the ground, by turning it into a rigorous tool. Instead of the spire passively addressing the heavens, it’s aggressively pointing downward, as if it were on a mission.” Controversy followed the installation as it has been moved at least five times.[1]

Our Genesis text is a familiar story. It is part of the second creation account in the book of Genesis. This account of creation stands in stark contrast to other creation accounts the Hebrew people would have heard from their neighbors. Creation accounts from other cultures of the time often emphasized some sort of cosmic struggle or warfare between the gods. Humanity was often some sort of ‘side show’ to the cosmic war of the Gods.  Many often feature humanity being created to be enslaved to serve of the gods.  But in the Genesis account the central focus is humanity and God’s relationship with humanity. We see this in Genesis 3.  God has placed humanity in a wonderfully favorable situation. Yet humanity rejects God’s act of compassion and love and tries to follow its own path. This leads to a sense of shame and a distrust in their relationship. Our characters are hiding in the garden when they hear God. Adam blames Eve and she in turn blames the serpent. The cycle of blame has begun.  Adam and Eve are “equal in responsibility and in judgment, in shame and in guilt, and in redemption and in grace,” the punishment that follows is not a curse or a prescription, but a description of the consequences of a shared disobedience.[2]

Our text from Mark offers a strange little scene. Rumors have begun to spread about Jesus and his healings. Some of his actions have begun to upset religious leaders. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath and the religious leaders have begun to plot to destroy Jesus. As the chapter goes on, Jesus begins collecting followers, and he appoints the twelve apostles. After appointing them he leads them all to his home. Crowds have begun to follow him and the crowd follows him to his home. The text says the size of the crowd even prevented them from sharing a meal.  The family sounds exasperated; they go out to confront Jesus and restrain him. Jesus is being accused of being out of his mind.

While this accusation is still hanging in the air, the scribes come down from Jerusalem and accuse him of being evil. The phrase that they use is that he has Beelzebul. This is a modification of a Hebrew word and one of the best understandings is kind of prince of demons. Basically, the scribes are saying Jesus has such an intimate relationship with evil and he can order evil around and it will listen.  For the scribes a lot is at stake in this moment. They are trying to explain these miracles. For them Jesus is an insignificant person, without any proper credentials. How in the world could he do these things? Their only answer is he has made a pact with evil.

Jesus reduces their argument and asks them “How can Satan cast our Satan?” In this moment he is trying to show the absurdity of their argument. A kingdom divided will not last long. Jesus reframes their arguments and shifts to a new argument. “No one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder it without first tying up the strong man.” This is an interesting analogy –at times evil in this world can seem like an intractable problem, a true strongman. But if Jesus has tied up the strongman how could evil be shaken up on this earth. Jesus is begging them to ask the question who is stronger than evil?[3] But the scribes are more interested in blaming Jesus for the good he was doing more interested in rooting out evil.

The historian Heather Cox Richardson writes the following: “Seventy-seven years ago, on June 5, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was preparing to send Allied troops across the English Channel to France. There, he hoped, they would push the German troops back, securing a foothold for the Allies. More than 5,000 ships waited to transport more than 150,000 soldiers to France before daybreak the following morning. The fighting to take Normandy would not be easy. The beaches the men would assault were tangled in barbed wire, booby trapped, and defended by German soldiers in concrete bunkers.

On the afternoon of June 5, as the Allied soldiers, their faces darkened with soot and cocoa, milled around waiting to board the ships, Eisenhower went to see the men he was almost certainly sending to their deaths. He joked with the troops, as apparently upbeat as his orders to them had been when he told them Operation Overlord had launched. “The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!” But after cheering his men on, he went back to his headquarters and wrote another letter. Designed to blame himself alone if Operation Overlord failed, it read:

“Our landings have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” The letter was, of course, never delivered. Operation Overlord was a success, launching the final assault in which western democracy, defended by ordinary men and women, would destroy European fascism.[4]” Those men that day did the impossible, they understood their mission, and they routed an evil in this world.

Jesus has called the church to be firmly planted in its mission, to understand its role in this world, not to be a device to root out evil, but to stand with Jesus in his life-giving work to share the love and grace of God in this world.

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/arts/design/god-and-man-at-stanford.html?searchResultPosition=2

[2] Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 58). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-10-2/commentary-on-mark-320-35-4

[4] https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/june-5-2021