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

Isa 25:6-9

Mark 16:1-8

New Beginnings

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

4.4.2021

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Exodus 12:1-4,11-14

John 13:31-35

Follow the Leader

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

4.1.2021

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Psalm 118:19-29

John 12:12-19

 

“An Entrance to Remember”

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

3.28.21

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Everything is Holy                                                              

 Rev. Joshua D. Gill

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Erickson, Scott, Prayer.

[4] Dark, David

2-21-21 — True Treasure — Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“True Treasure”

 

In his book, The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren, pastor and theologian, shares about an experience he had in the airport a few years ago. He writes; “Oh, I get it,” she said nodding. This gregarious young mom was sitting across from me in an airport area. Her little boy was asleep in a stroller, and she, noticing how intensely I was pecking away on my laptop, had asked me what I was writing about. When I did my best to summarize the main idea of this book, she said, “So you’re saying that Christianity isn’t very Christian anymore. You want Christianity to become more Christian. Is that it?”  When I said yes, she responded, “Good luck with that! By the looks of things, it won’t be easy. Try to get it worked out in time for my little boy, okay?”[1] This short interaction summarizes the way many feel about Christianity in our current culture, that there is something broken about it. That somehow the faith has lost its way. That faith communities rather than being governed by the rule of love, have been governed by lesser rules. Rules that seek to perpetuate an institution or an idea. We develop a god who dislikes the same people we dislike, a god who politically agrees with us, a god who measures others by some human standard, at times the church has diligently searched the scripture in order to build this god and make a god in our own image.

But our Gospel reading offers a response to this. Jesus teaches about three spiritual practices — giving, fasting, and praying. Jesus begins by warning us to be careful not do these practices in order for others to see how good we are. Jesus reminds us that when we give, our focus should not be on us but on God.

When we give, we should give as though it is a divine work we are undertaking and that it is a demonstration of our desire acting rightly and a commitment to making things good and just in the world. All our giving should be a response to God, a celebration of God’s blessings and act of honor. Our Giving is living out one’s sense of identity, calling, and relationship with God. This can at times be hard to do, but our goal should be to give with this in mind.

The second spiritual practice is that of prayer. I believe prayer is recognizing and acknowledging that God is inviting us into relationship in every moment of life. God hears our prayer in moments of joy, in moments of anger, and in moments of sorrow. I take comfort in the fact that God sees the totality of our beings, our failures and successes, our grief and our joy, our fears and hopes, our moments of hypocrisy and of right living, and still God longs to for our prayers. Prayer should ultimately ask the question where is God working in the world, how is God working in my life and how can I be part of that.

The third practice Jesus describes is that of fasting, going without food or drink for a certain period of time. But this practice of fasting can really be applied to any area of life.  It can help us to recognize what we truly need in life, what is important, and give us avenues in which to deepen our connection to God. We are in the season when many people are practicing some form of a fast. We may hear of someone who is going to “give up” something for Lent.  The goal with this practice or any of these practices should be to orient ourselves toward God.

Our Isaiah reading reminds us that God longs for our spiritual practices to inspire our actions. That our goal should not be to just practice prayer, or alms giving, or fasting, or any of the 100s of spiritual practices, but our goal should be to create a community with justice at the very center. Our spiritual practices would inspire us to act in the real world. In his sermon “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question, what are we doing for others?” Isaiah said we should long to be called repairers of the breach and the restorer of streets. A faith like this would be an appropriate response to the woman in the airport.

I recently read an article about Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. They were facing a dilemma. Over a 100 years ago they had received a 22,000-dollar gift which today would be equivalent to about $250,000 today. There was some lore in the church that there was a racist component to this gift. The Session decided they needed to investigate. After exploring the historical records of the church, they were able to locate the giver’s will and found that the gift was given “for a church of the white race only”.  The Session and Pastor were shocked. The pastor said that he felt his whole body tighten up after reading the will. As a congregation they realized this is was an act of structural racism, that they as congregation were benefiting and would continue to benefit from gift given in an Anti-Christian spirit. As a session they wrestled with what to do. They didn’t want to just say, “That’s not who we are anymore, thanks be to God.” They considered making a one-time gift, but worried they would fall into a trap of thinking they were freed from their “racism”. So instead the Pastor and the Session did something bold. They shared this information with the entire congregation. The session committed an annual gift to a racial justice ministry where they, listened, learned, and then acted. The church also continued to work on a twenty-year partnership with Third Presbyterian Church a mainly black congregation.  The pastor of Knox Presbyterian, Adam Fronczek, writes “We may have changed our hearts and do not believe in the same racist things people thought in the past, but the reality is that we took the money and benefited from the money and property. We need to stop, confess, and lament.” [2]

This is the spiritual practice Isaiah is calling us to. This is the spiritual practice that Jesus is calling us to. Not a faith built on a god in our own image, but a faith centered on our relationship with God where we are changed, where we long to be called repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets.

 

[1] Brian D. McLaren. The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian, pg. 19.

[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/buried-in-the-church-columbarium/?fbclid=IwAR2gFHUXMycSuhsKgMj1lUWIizLT0bDgsCYFnrNTv0HgLSeLljX8fHspI4o

2-7-21 — The Miracle Worker — Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Isaiah 40:21-31

Mark 1:29-39

The Miracle Worker

 

N.T. Wright tells the following story in his commentary on Mark. He writes; “There was a great disaster at Sea.  A tourist boat, loaded with cars and vacationers, had failed to shut its doors properly; the water began to pour in; the boat began to sink, and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere of the ship turned into a horror movie. All at once one man-not a member of the crew- took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do. Relief mixed with the panic as people realized someone at least was in charge, and managed to reach lifeboats they otherwise would have missed in the dark and the rush. The man himself made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge: holding on with one hand to a ladder, and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He literally given his life in using the authority he assumed- the authority by which many had been saved.”[1]

Our Gospel story offers us three separate scenes. Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue where he was teaching. They enter the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother in-law was sick with a fever. At this time most people thought fevers were result of displeasing God or some sort of demonic ailment. Many thought they could only be healed by God. Jesus reaches out to her and she is instantly healed. The fever moves on and she begins to serve Jesus and the disciples. This may sound odd to our modern ears, she is healed and immediately begins preparing a meal. Jesus restores not only her health but her dignity.  This was a culture that practiced hospitality in a way we do not. Strangers and guests were welcomed and a meal was offered. It was the duty of the oldest woman to oversee this process. This healing honors her status and restores the social order in her home.

As the day is ending and the sabbath is closing, crowds begin to arrive. The crowds bring Jesus the sick and he restores them. The whole city was at their door.

The third scene, Jesus gets up while it is still dark. He goes to a place to be alone and he prays. Simon and the other disciples are hunting for him. The word here signifies that this is an urgent man hunt. Picture this type of search, blood hounds and helicopters desperately seeking.  Jesus has disappeared and everyone is desperately seeking him. You can hear the exasperation in the voice of the disciples, “Everyone is searching for you.” Jesus responds by telling them we need to travel to neighboring towns and proclaim the message in those towns. Jesus did not want to become to be local shaman or a local healer; his message is so much bigger than a small fishing village. He came to share a message with the world. A message that would ultimately get him killed, but would restore our dignity and redeem the world.

These healing narratives offer an interesting insight into the character of God. The image of God that many of these people had is that it was God who caused disease and sickness. God that handed out disease as sort of a divine punishment. Many of us have struggled with this wrathful concept of God, a Supreme being who was capable of murder, of genocide or who would indeed send billions to hell. We see in Jesus something entirely different, “through his life and teachings, his compassionate interactions with individuals and groups, in his profound nonviolence even to the point of death. Jesus reveals a generous God, a God in profound solidarity with all creation, a God whose power is manifest in gentleness, kindness, and love. This vision of Jesus should inspire us an empower us to become ambassadors of a new way of life, servants of all, people of reconciliation, and agents of liberating mission.”[2] This is the message that Jesus proclaims that God isn’t a God of wrath but of generosity of love.

There was a girl named Beth Usher.. Who as a child began experiencing seizures all day long. One day as her parents were getting ready for work her and her brother sat in front of the Tv and they put Mr. Rogers on. She was able to sit through the whole episode without a seizure, which was amazing considering she was having close to 100 a day. She became a regular watcher of the program. But her disorder continued to get worse. Finally, she needed a surgery that would remove half of her brain. It was very high risk with unknown complications. Her mom called PBS to ask for a photo to hang in her hospital room. A day or two later Mr. Rogers called the house and asked to speak to Beth. He spent an hour on the phone with Beth. She chatted with the characters in the neighborhood, and finally she confessed to them that “I am afraid I am going to die Mr. Rogers”. He comforted her on the phone. The day of Beth surgery came and it went well but she ended up in a coma. Mr. Rogers called Beth’s mom to check on her and he asked if he could come for a visit.  He drove to the hospital in Baltimore. She described how one day he just walked into the room with a little metal case. He set the case down and pulled out all the puppets and put on a show for Beth while she was in the coma. At the end of the visit he gathered the family and prayed with them. Beth’s mom felt a peace from that prayer.  Beth eventually came out of her coma and continued her friendship with Mr. Rogers. He would call her every year on her on birthday. [3] We are called to be servants of all.

Too often Christians are only known for what they are against and not what they are for. Imagine a world in which Christians were known for radical liberating love. In 2019 our denomination began a conversation in around the cash bail system. This is a system that many of us have never thought about before, or had little interaction with, but it is an issue that can deeply affect the poor.  This system is one of the reasons for overcrowding in jails and the issue of mass incarceration. People can be held for a minor offence, a misdemeanor for months, or even years before they face a trial.[4] Imagine how your life could change if you were suddenly taken away from it for a few months or years. Would you lose your job? Your business? How with this affect your family? Your marriage? What would you miss?  This was the case for Kalief Browder who at the age of 16 was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island in NY. He never stood trial or nor was he ever found guilty of any crime. But he spent 3 years in the NY jail system and almost two years in solidarity confinement. He was eventually released but he was never the same, he struggled and ultimately took his own life. [5]

Jesus proclaimed a radical message that God was not a God of wrath but a God of Love. A God of love who empowers us to be ambassadors of a new way of life servants of all, people of reconciliation, and agents of a liberating mission. May the church chart a course so we can be heralds of that love.

 

 

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, Pg. 11.

[2] McLaren, Brian. The Great Spiritual Migration, pg. 122.

[3] https://www.iheart.com/podcast/1119-finding-fred-51090582/

[4] https://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/6/19/hundreds-presbyterians-join-march-st-louis-justice/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/nyregion/kalief-browder-held-at-rikers-island-for-3-years-without-trial-commits-suicide.html

1-24-21 — Leaving Our Nets — Jonah 3:1-5, Mark 1:14-20 — The Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Leaving our Nets

Rev. Joshua D. Gill

Jonah 3:1-5

Mark 1:14-20

 

Our two lectionary texts tell of two very different callings. The first story we drop into is one of the high points of the book of Jonah. I know for many of us Jonah is a story we don’t often think about as adults; too often it is left to children. It is often understood as some odd story about a fish, and frankly it is a pretty misunderstood and misinterpreted book. The story is really a satire that teaches a moral lesson.  Jonah’ s name is translated to mean “dove” and a “dove” in the Hebrew scriptures are overwhelming understood in a positive light, like the “dove” that informs Noah that the waters are finally receding and they can get out of the ark.   Jonah is the son of Amittati which means “faithfulness”, so Jonah the “dove” son of “faithfulness” receives the word of the Lord to go to Nineveh. Of course, the son of “faithfulness” will follow God’s will and bring the word to the Ninevites, whom God has heard their cry of a pagan nation.  So instead the “dove” boards a ship that is going in the opposite direction and heads out sea. He is apparently on board with some very religious but pagan sailors. For as soon as a storm appears, they begin praying and asking questions about which local deity could be causing this storm. The “dove” proclaims that his God is the “God of everything, of heaven, the sea and the dry land.”   Then he tells these sailors to throw him overboard. You can interpret this request by Jonah in one of two ways — either he is actually concerned for the life of the sailors or Jonah is thinking he might be able to flee this calling even further by being thrown overboard and drowning. Rather than comply, this request just causes these sailors to row even harder.  Jonah the dove prays and his prayer convinces the sailors to toss him into the sea. These sailors are suddenly converted and begin making sacrifices to the Hebrew God. As the smoke is wafting over these sacrifices, a great fish swallows the bird. The fish instead of eating the bird, transports Jonah the dove to the great city of Nineveh. The prophet walks a couple of blocks into the city, stands on a street corner covered in fish spume and simply says in “Forty more days, and Nineveh will be overthrown”. This sermon converts the entire city. The animals were even repenting of their sins. Surely the son of “faithfulness,” Jonah the “dove” will be overjoyed by their sudden conversion. This engaging sermon has converted the world’s worst city. Instead Jonah finally tells the truth. He reveals why he fled in the first place, telling God that I knew if they heard your word they would be converted and that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4.2). God responds to him asking “Should I not be concerned with Nineveh?”

This story has a lot to unpack; Jonah did not experience joy or excitement. In fact we see little change in Jonah throughout the tale. But what we do see is God’s faithfulness, God slow to Anger and abounding in Love for all people. Understood in its context it is really a bold story contained in the Hebrew scriptures. The only people who truly act faithfully in the story are the Sailors and the Ninevites who were enemies of the Hebrew people and by extension enemies of the Hebrew God.

Nineveh was the seat of Assyrian oppression toward the Hebrew people. This city represented a culture and society that was living against God’s shalom or God’s peace that was truly keeping people from flourishing. Jonah represents a prophet who is called to speak to an overwhelming power and call it to repentance and change. He in short, he was called to confront a system of oppression. We don’t often think about systems of oppression, partially because these systems are often hidden in plain sight, and partially because of privilege, and partially because they are very complex problems.

I am sure many of us have heard of the concept of a food desert — a location often in an urban or rural area where there is limited access to high quality healthy food. In the US it is projected that at least 24 million people live in food deserts.[1]  In fact, the York Daily Record ran a series of articles about this a few years ago, describing portions of York City as a food desert. [2] We know that a poor diet leads to negative health outcomes, disease, and a reduced life expectancy.  What we don’t fully understand is how issues like this arise. Some of it is driven by market driven forces, an area might not be able to financially support a store, or the population is too sparse, and other times it is driven by neighborhood change and turnover.

Communities and churches all across our country have responded to this in creative and imaginative ways. In 2015 after the death of Freddy Gray and the aftermath that followed, schools and business were closed in the city of Baltimore. The lockdown continued for two weeks. Leaving children without free or low-cost meals from school, and because public transportation was shutdown, many people couldn’t travel to get food they needed. Pleasant Hope Baptist Church began receiving phone calls from people struggling with hunger. The congregation quickly responded giving help to those in need, driving around the city, delivering food, and helping their neighbors. This experience sparked a larger vision. They transformed their small urban campus into a small urban farm growing over a thousand pounds of produce annually. This experiment then morphed again as the church started a seasonal farmers market, where they sold this produce alongside a network of regional farmers. Reinvesting any money they made to grow and incentive a network of churches in the city of Baltimore to begin similar ministries. [3]  This was a unique response born out of dire circumstances. But it was a response rooted in their ethos as a congregation. The ethos to love neighbor as self, the ethos to be a caring community. This was a response that was a born out of a call, a call to confront an unseen system of oppression and a call to get out of the boat and fish for people by meeting a real-world need.

Last week, your session empowered a small working group to begin the process of thinking about the future of Eastminster. Empowering them to begin looking at different methods to develop a strategic plan and begin a process that will help us discover together the future God is calling us to. In the coming months you will begin to hear more about this process and about this developing conversation.  I know the strategy that is born will be out of our ethos as a congregation and will help us to look at how we need to adapt to our world and the problems we are facing as a congregation and as a community.  This is an exciting time as we continue to discern God’s call for Eastminster. I would encourage you to be in prayer for your session and your pastor as they begin to weigh the recommendation from this group as we continue the work of getting out of the boat, leaving our nets behind, and following Jesus into our future.  Let’s pray….

 

 

[1] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-are-food-deserts#definition

[2] https://www.ydr.com/story/news/2018/06/25/food-desert-no-more-shop-smart-supermarket-opens-york-grocery-stores-urban-shopping/722761002/

[3] https://www.madetoflourish.org/resources/beyond-charity-how-churches-are-helping-food-deserts/

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.