Monday, April 16, 2018

Jesus, For Real?


St. Paul’s Lynnfield         The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling        
Acts 3: 12-19                     Luke 24: 36b-48
                                                                       
According to a Gallup poll taken in 1982, one third of Americans, who were questioned at that time, didn’t believe in life after death. In that same year, I probably was one of them. Matter of fact, at that time I was so consumed with life, that I didn’t have time to think about death, let alone life after death. My, how times have changed! Last year a Rasmussen poll indicated that 67% of adult Americans believe in an after-life.
I remember Easter of 1982 quite vividly. Our daughter Megan was 1 ½ years old, and our son Brian had just been born. Life was good. Not unlike this past year’s winter, it snowed considerably on that Easter eve. Paul’s parents had come to visit us, delighted with the birth of their second grandchild, and what they considered to be the one who would carry on the Gossling name. Paul’s father, lovingly called Grandfather, made a huge Easter bunny out of the snow. In the summer, he would make castles in the sand. Like our daughter, Grandfather was a doctor, who mended not just bones, but also people’s lives. He was a man of great faith, who loved life so much that in 2001 he was incredibly angry about losing it.
            To be honest, I didn’t think much about God until we moved to Boston in 1980. I was a Christmas and Easter kind of Christian, showing up at church for the holidays. No matter the house, there was always a holiday routine. We would dress up in our Sunday best, go to church, and then celebrate with good food, plenty of wine, and a great deal of laughter.
            Fortunately, for Paul and me, having babies wasn’t hard. We decided that it was a good idea, and then it happened. Raising our children, however, was a different matter. As they say, babies don’t come with instruction manuals. It’s on-the-job training with lots of “do-overs” and “I wish I hads or I wish had-nots” mixed in. Of course, Megan and Brian will tell you that raising us was no easy matter either.
            Our struggles in life come in many packages, sizes, shapes and forms, don’t they? And we all have them, no matter how young we are, or how happy the holidays may appear. The truth is that these challenges will test our endurance, strengthen our resilience, and cause us to wonder about life, about death, and how to make sense of it all.
            I love the Easter stories about the disciples hiding in a room after the crucifixion of Jesus. Last week and this week, the disciples are described as terrified. And wouldn’t you be? If your leader had just been condemned and killed by powerful religious and political authorities, and you were one of his disciples, wouldn’t you fear for your life as well?
And yet, it wasn’t those powers that knocked on the door that day. Instead it was Jesus who miraculously stepped into the room unannounced. There he found his disciples who knew that they had denied, betrayed, and abandoned their leader, most recently in his greatest hour of need. To think that Jesus might hold a few grudges against them, and harbor a little anger and resentment towards them, isn’t a far stretch for anyone’s imagination. Afraid, disbelieving, and feeling guilty, the disciples faced Jesus.
You know how President Trump has special names for certain people? Like “Crooked Hillary” or “Rocket Man” for Kim Jong Un? In a joke I saw recently on FaceBook, (yes, I am still on it!), the cartoonist shows Jesus’ disciple Thomas talking to two other disciples. Thomas didn’t believe that Jesus was for real, and he is angry. “All I’m saying is that we don’t call Peter, “Denying Peter”, or Mark, “Run away naked Mark”, said Thomas, “so why am I saddled with this title, “Doubting Thomas?” Another disciple quickly responds, “I see your point Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.”
            Emotions were running high after Jesus’ death. There was plenty of name calling, blaming, and shaming to go around and plenty of need for forgiveness. Plenty of need to let go of anger and resentment. Plenty of need for peace. And there was plenty of desire to “move on” and forget the whole bloody mess. But Jesus wouldn’t let them. After only three days’ absence, He steps right back into their lives, and meets them right where they are. He shows them his scars. “Touch and see me,” He said, “and believe that I am for real. Then, go be my witnesses.”
We use lovely metaphors to explain the resurrection. We talk about flowers pushing through softened soil or melting snow, how caterpillars become butterflies after a long and necessary struggle, and how memories of our loved ones will remain in our hearts forever. At least until we too are dead, or lose our memories, or become consumed with life as we know it. According to our scripture stories “hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus” after his crucifixion, and lives were changed and transformed. And so, as St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
There is a common expression that is used these days when some good news isn’t quite believable. “You’ve won the lottery,” the ticket number proclaims, and we say, with blinking eyes, as if we’ve just come out of the tomb, “For real?” Was Jesus raised from the dead, we ask, “For real?” Are the scripture stories that we hear “for real”? Or are they just lovely bedtime stories that take away our fears of ghosts, and things that go bump in the night? Are these stories about Jesus just more stories that that we like to read to our children and grandchildren? Is Jesus for real, or is He no less real than the Easter bunny?
Long ago, when I was first ordained as a priest in Connecticut, Bishop Jim Curry came to our parish for his episcopal visitation. It was his custom to bring a Jesus doll with him for his children’s sermon, and then leave it there for their Sunday school classes. Children were invited to sign up and take Jesus home for a week, if they promised to bring him back the following Sunday. I asked if I might be the first child to take Jesus home.
Initially, I treated Jesus with a great deal of respect. I buckled him into his seatbelt, in the passenger seat of my car, and chatted with him as I drove home. I placed him on a chair at the kitchen table and then during grace, I thanked him for sharing his meal with me. Lovingly, I would tuck him into bed at night, kiss him on the cheek, and pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul and my body to take.” My husband never had it so good!
Well, you know how real life can intrude on our best laid plans, right? How our Lenten promises to amend our lives, and to forgive others as we have been forgiven, are hard to keep for 50 days of Lent, let alone a lifetime? How, like Peter, we promise never to deny, abandon or betray those we love. Parish life is busy, and by the end of my week with Jesus, I was throwing Him into the back seat of my car along with my communion kit, my briefcase, and my coat. Once home, and hastening to get dinner on the table, I would unceremoniously drop him face down on the countertop along with that day’s mail. As for tucking him into bed at night, well, let’s get real.
Peter brings me great comfort. He discovered once again that Jesus was for real, in life and after death. In today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, he reminds the Israelites, saying “I know you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” You killed an innocent man, but God raised him from the dead and “by faith in his name” miracles do happen. Blind see. Lame walk. The oppressed are set free, and to this we are all witnesses. It’s not our power but God’s power that saves us. In his fear, in his shame, and in his disbelief, Peter met the risen Jesus in that room, and his life was changed forever. So too were the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus and Damascus. On the beaches of Galilee. And in the garden with Mary.
 “We need witnesses,” the Presiding Bishop has said. We need witnesses to the life-giving, liberating, love of God that is revealed to us in the person of Jesus. To be a witness is to be an evangelist, to share the good news of Easter, and to be on God’s mission wherever you go, and whatever you do.
In www.d365.org Andrew Garnett wrote, “Resurrection is a supernatural mystery by which God raises one already dead. When we truly grasp the meaning of the resurrection, we are motivated to change both our hearts and our lives. Are you able to encounter the world without fear because fear has been defeated? Can you live with boldness because you are being raised to new life? Does the resurrection give you an extra dose of joy or love or peace to share with your world?”
When Grandfather made that Easter bunny 36 years ago, I did not believe in the Resurrection. I was too young, too human, and too consumed with human life. All good things, to be sure! Today, I believe in the Resurrection of the Body and the dead, and of the life of the world to come. I believe that one day I shall sit down again with Grandfather for good food, plenty of wine, and lots of laughter. If you have not yet met the risen Christ, my advice to you today is to talk to Jesus. Go into your room and lock the door and talk to Jesus; for I have discovered that sometimes, when He’s not listening to me, Jesus will even talk back. For real.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Covenants and Injustice


    The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling         St. Cyprian's Church, Boston    5 Lent
  
            In case you didn’t know it, I am an island girl. I love islands, especially warm and sunny islands right now. My first visit to an island was on my honeymoon, which was a trip to Bermuda almost 44 years ago. During my sabbatical, Paul and I visited the island of Crete, which is famous for where St. Paul (not to be confused with my husband Paul) stopped on his way to Rome. A few years ago, I spent three months serving at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, fondly called the Emerald Isle, and famous for this weekend’s St. Paddy’s Day festivities. And then last year, on one of my “special birthdays” Paul and I went to St. Lucia. I think I’ve come down with island fever, because this Saturday, God willing, Paul and I will fly to Turks and Caicos. Someday, perhaps, maybe we’ll even go to Barbados, yes?
I know some of the challenges that come with island living, especially when hurricanes and nor’easters descend. Supplies of food and water are harder to acquire. Relief and rescue help can take much longer. And the destruction and erosion of the land is devastating, not to mention people’s homes. On a trip to Haiti many years ago, I witnessed such losses. And my heart was broken with the reports coming from Puerto Rico as well as some of the other islands this past fall.
 My grandparents, God rest their souls, lived and worked on the island of Nantucket in their later years of life. Occasionally we would visit. I loved the broken shells on their driveway, the small community of Sconset, and the close walk to the beach. It was a peaceful, simple, and beautiful place. When my brother told my grandfather that I was dating a man of color in my senior year of high school, my grandfather didn’t like it. Lovingly, my grandfather accepted me, but he admitted that he had grown up in different times.
            It appears to me that our modern times are sometimes no different. Recently I saw a picture of a barn on Nantucket with the words “Go Back” spray painted on it. Let me be clear: this isn’t an island way of thinking; rather it’s a human way of thinking, and it’s called sin. On FaceBook, there is a page called “Discussing Race in Boston”, which continues the conversation started by the Boston Globe last year. Just this week, National Geographic announced that they will dedicate one special issue in April entitled “Black and White. These twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race.” (Here is the front cover)
            I have made a lot of covenants in my life. Unlike a contract, with specific rules and legalities, a covenant is understood to be more of an agreement, an understanding, or a bond in which two or more parties are bound together. Sometimes translated as “testament” the Greek word :covenant “basically means to order or to dispose oneself for another.” In other words, we are servants to one another..
I made a covenant with my husband almost 44 years ago. Our covenant was made as two equals, in which we were ready to dispose ourselves for the other. I confess that we have not always been faithful to that covenant. Paul likes to tell the story of a time he was extremely sick with the flu, and I went to work. I remind him of his own equally memorable mistakes.
 In the year 2000, I made a covenant with the Episcopal Church and my bishop in Connecticut. Like your rector, Monrelle, and your deacon, Julian, I too became a servant, ready and willing to serve God and God’s people. While honoring the high priesthood of Jesus, priests and deacons recognize and promise to obey the authority of our bishops and the Church.
As Church, we all share a common covenant as Christians, which we call our baptisms. We are all the beloved children of God, begotten and appointed by God, who stand equally before God as members of the same human family. At baptism, we make some renunciations. We say that we will “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” These evil powers, in which we all participate, are the systemic evils of injustice, like racism, sexism, ageism and every other “ism” you can name.
We have all broken our covenants with God and each other in one way or another. When we consider our long history of infidelity to God, we are all judged guilty. From the moment we entered this fragile earth our island home, we have been unfaithful. We have eaten forbidden fruit, we have treated one another with disrespect, dishonor, and dis-grace and we think of ourselves as little islands unto ourselves. As for this fragile earth, our island home…….we trash it daily. As Jesus said in today’s gospel, “Now is the judgment of the world.”
No wonder God decided to write God’s covenant within us, because as history has revealed, if God’s laws are written on tablets of stone, we will break them. Written on paper, such covenants are easily destroyed, filed away, forgotten, burned, or torn in two like the temple veil at the death of Jesus. With a covenant within our hearts, we are bound forever to the God who created us, loves us, and saves us. We can walk away, and yet God walks with us.

            In Jesus, we see a man who was not afraid to name the sins of his culture, his people, or the religious and civil systems that ordered them. Jesus challenged the laws of the Roman government, as well as his own religious hierarchy, with equal measure. He invited outsiders, that is the blow-ins from other islands like the Greeks, gentiles, and pagans, to join him. Calling out the hypocrisy and injustice of his times, he created Spirit filled windstorms, to break down the dividing walls all around him.
            As part of my continuing education, I have been attending a clergy clinic on the Family Emotional Process, which was designed by leaders in the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center in Illinois. A few weeks ago, we watched a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr.
            As we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination in April, and as we confront our own complicity in the unjust systems of our times, we can learn from Dr. King. Yes, he had a dream. Yes, he wrote letters from an Alabama prison. Yes, he was unfaithful in his human relationships. And yet, like Jesus, he was faithful to God until the very end of his life. Like Jesus, he was a leader not only for his own people but also for all God’s people. Here are some of the things I learned about Dr. King.
     King saw his calling as a minister first, over and above his calling as a political activist and civil rights leader. We are all called to be on God’s mission: ministers of restoration and reconciliation as Christ’s servants.
     As a minister in the Church, King claimed that he wanted to help “save the soul of America by using the ammunition of love.”
     King’s decision to go to Birmingham was not in response to a crisis but rather it was his way of pointing out human sin, much like Jesus did, when he walked into the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers.
     After President Kennedy was assassinated, King claimed that “we are a ‘10 day nation’..... that is after 10 days, we just go back to the usual.” King, like Jesus, was unrelenting in his fight for justice, despite warnings for him to stop, not only from the white opposition but also from some of his very own people.
     When his family and friends encouraged King to go to Easter services instead of joining the protests, knowing that he would be arrested and jailed, King went into his bedroom to pray. Coming out dressed in blue jeans, rather than his Sunday best, King signaled to the others that he had chosen to skip church on that Easter morning. It was no longer a time for “business as usual.”
     King said that the youth “took the fear” out of protests when they marched to Washington in defense of their civil rights, in their fight for freedom and safety, and for equal pay, education, and job opportunities. This past Wednesday, and next Saturday, many of our youth will march in Washington D.C. to protest gun violence, some of our civil laws, and to advocate for their own safety and security in schools, on the streets, and at home.
     King claimed that a “victory for Negroes is a victory for our country” and  “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If only “one person is affected directly, everyone is affected indirectly.” Is this not true of the shooting in Parkland, Florida? Or the tragic losses on so many islands? Or the discrimination that many of us face throughout our world?
            Most of the time in our lives it is important to obey our civil laws, our church laws, and our leaders. Other times, we must disobey. There are consequences either way, however, and we need to be aware of the cost of our decisions, the cost of our discipleship. Obedience means listening to God in prayer, discerning together in community, and following Jesus as our role model, knowing that it might involve suffering.
            Jesus was obedient to God unto death, even death upon a cross. His death was violent and unjust, just like Kennedy’s, just like Dr. King’s. The antidote to our global soul-sickness during these modern times is no different from the historic times of King and Jesus. We are called to prayer and to action. We must pray, not saying “Father, save us from this hour” but rather, “Father, help us glorify your name.” Together, we can use the ammunition of love to do the next right thing.
            Next week, we begin our holy week journey into Jerusalem, a city like Boston, that is built on a hill. We’ll hear how Jesus accomplished His Life’s mission and purpose, which was the reconciliation of all God’s beloved children, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, male and female and every shade of color in between. It was for that reason that Jesus had come to the hour of his death.
            As we near the end of our Lenten journey, our baptismal questions remain. To whom will we listen and obey? What renunciations and promises will we make? Will we remain faithful to our covenant with God until the very end of our lives? And will we serve one another for the common good? May it be so, and to God be the glory. Amen.











Sunday, March 11, 2018

Fear, Faith, and Salvation



4 Lent, March 11, 2018                                                         Numbers 21: 4-9
All Saints, Chelmsford, Massachusetts                             Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling                                               Ephesians 2: 1-10
A Prayer attributed to St. Francis                                       John 3: 14-21

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen.

            Fear. It’s a prevalent emotion these days. It’s infectious. It’s virulent; and it surfaces for many reasons. In a cartoon I saw on FaceBook recently, there is a picture of two parents, sitting in a school classroom and talking to their child’s teacher. The teacher is holding an AR-15 rifle in one hand and saying to the parents,“Your child seems to be distracted lately.”
Fear pops up all round us. We worry about where our country is headed and if our world is doomed for destruction. Many of us are beginning to wonder about our safety in what seems to be an increasingly chaotic and violent world. We worry about our economic security and how our health care will be managed. We wonder about the costs of our decisions, and what effect they will have on ourselves, our children, and future generations. For those of us in the later years of our lives, we might begin to wonder about death. It all begs the question: how much control do we actually have?
The Israelites had a lot of fear. Understandable and real fears. They had just fled Egypt where they had been slaves in a foreign land. Their leader Moses had led them to freedom but not first before they survived plagues, death threats, and leaving everything behind. Running for their lives, they were hunted down by a powerful army before they finally crossed the Red Sea to safety. I imagine the Israelites had family members who had died not only in Egypt but also in their flight to freedom. They were burdened by fear and by grief.
In today’s passage from Numbers we hear that the Israelites are not happy in their new found freedom. They seem to be wandering aimlessly. They were surrounded by deadly snakes, lacking the basic necessities of food and water, and fearing for their own lives once again. They were not happy with Moses nor with God; and quite frankly, I too would have become impatient. I too would have challenged my leader and my God, wondering out loud, what’s up with all of this?
Forgive my detour for a moment. Your rector and I discovered that we share some history. While living in Atlanta, we both attended the same high school, a Christian preparatory school. We didn’t know each other “way back then” for our schools were divided: the boys school and the girls school were separated by the administration building. We could have intersected at social events; but I was not a wrestler nor did I play a musical instrument. Bill attended an Episcopal church, and I was a Presbyterian, at least back then. Like I said, we didn’t know each other.
To be honest, I don’t recall having many fears during this time in my life. And yet, I also lived in a bubble of privilege and safety. Poverty did not knock at my door, leaving me anxious about food insecurity. Yes, there were snakes in Atlanta, but we lived in the city. To my knowledge, I was neither oppressed nor discriminated against, and I certainly was not enslaved. In my Presbyterian church, we learned about Moses and God’s laws; and in youth group we sang, “My God is an awesome God.” Even so, God seemed somewhat distant to me and only part of ancient history. The fear of death was never on my mind.
Some people would say that we live in “dark times.”  Losing electrical power reminded many of us of the dark and cold ages in history.
Mental illness, and dark nights of the soul, have contributed to violent acts of murder. Movies, like the Darkest Hour, have chronicled times in our history when the world was at war once again. Truth be told there are cold wars and hot wars raging all around us even today.
When people and systems (like families, churches, and countries) become anxious, worried, and fearful, human beings often resort to our lowest forms of animal behavior. We attack others. We flee, even if it means returning to slavery. We freeze because we don’t trust our God to save us from the powers that appear to be greater and stronger than us. Some of us even fight back, killing others in self-defense and self-protection, and who can blame us?
We live in anxious times, and anxiety, whether it is chronic or acute, can make us sick. How then can we maintain our spiritual balance in the face of a world, a society, and systems that invite us to live fearfully rather than faithfully? What can we do when we are afraid about real and imagined threats, feeling that we are living in a world that is spinning out of control, and we have become impatient and angry with our leaders and our God? When the snow falls and the lights go out, to whom and what do we turn?
Ya’ll know this is the season of Lent, right? Liturgically, we use the seasons of our church year to help us focus, and Lent helps us to focus on our sins: to admit those things that we have done and left undone, things we have said and left unsaid. Lent helps us confess that we have lost our way in the wilderness, and divided ourselves against one another. We have forgotten to pay attention to the God, who created us, loves, guides us, empowers us, and saves us even now.
Sin is an ever-present reality, which happens whether it’s light or dark. We call it many things… a mistake, a wrong step, an accident, an unforced error, a trespass, a little white lie, a broken law, betrayal, bad behavior, hurtful words, and downright evil. But whatever we call it, and however we do it, it is sin; and we are all guilty. In Anglican moral theology, a sin is a sin is a sin, no matter how small, no matter how egregious.
Our sins indicate that we are not right with God and so we are not right within ourselves nor with our neighbors. We are out of alignment, soul sick, and the promised land seems far away. All around us we can see broken hearts, broken lives, broken power lines, and broken people. Our God may be an awesome God but our God is distant, only a part of ancient history, and a powerless and ineffective leader right now. What can we do?
Paradoxically, we can turn to God for help; for we believe that God’s power is greater than any one of us or all of us combined. Either God is everything or God is nothing. Either God is everywhere or God is nowhere; and so, we can ask God to use the broken places in our lives to reconnect us. We just need to plug in and recharge by sitting in the presence of God every day. Through prayer and meditation, we can let God’s Power, Presence, and Light come into our souls.
For the gospel of John tells us, and I believe this to be true, that God so loved the world that God gave us a light that shines in our darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. This true light, which is God’s Light, which is Jesus, enlightens everyone; and in Him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.
To the question that the Israelites once asked in the wilderness, and probably all of us ask at some time in our lives, “Who is coming to save us?” and Jesus answered, “I am.”  “I am the Light of the World. And whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” God’s Light and Power can enter into the small and parched cracks of our souls, especially when we find ourselves wandering in the desert or frozen in fear. We need only stop for a moment and let God in, in order to reconnect with our awesome God,  who is a real Presence, a real Power, and our Eversource of Light and Love.
It is through prayer and meditation that we can improve our conscious contact with God, drawing ever closer to God’s presence within us and all around us. In silence, we may hear that “wee, still, small voice” guiding us, calming us, empowering us, and leading us. This God is an awesome God, who is infinitely patient with us - forgiving us, despite our impatience, our wrong turns, our stubborn resistance, and our frequent desires to turn back and run! Have faith in me, God says, for I have created you out of my love, to be a human being of love, and as a channel of my love. I have created you as a child of the light to walk in freedom and peace.
St. Francis invites us to be channels of God’s love, light, and power. Through daily confession, we clear our channels. Through prayer and meditation, God fills our channels. Freely given, we can then empty our channels by sharing what we’ve received with others. Just like trucks scatter sand and salt on icy roads during a storm, we can scatter God’s Light, Power, and Love everywhere we go. 
God did not come into the world to condemn any of us but to save us, and the root of the word salvation comes from the Latin word “salve” which means healing. Truth be told, we are all part of the walking wounded in our world, and we are all in need of healing. Native Americans say that they travel for 6 days and then stop to rest, so that on the sabbath day their “souls can catch up.” Today our souls are catching up.
Although, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, we may have been dead through our own trespasses and sins in this world, God is rich in mercy and has made us alive in Christ. By the grace of God, we have our salvation today, and tomorrow, and for all of eternity. Today, do not be afraid of the dark but have faith. Walk as a child of the Light, and shine God’s Light wherever you go. Amen.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Hanging Out with Jesus


Hanging Out with Jesus
January 31, 2018
Eastern Point Retreat House
Gloucester, Massachusetts
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

She told me to just hang out with Jesus. How do you do that? I mean, I’m not very good at hanging out with anybody, but how do you hang out with someone who is not there. Well, He is.

I was frustrated, and it was time for my afternoon walk. Jesus had not shown up that morning as He had in the past three days. And while I didn’t want Jesus to be ‘on demand’ for me, Little Miss Much Afraid in Hinds Feet and High Places told me yesterday that He would.

So I put on my hiking boots and went out into the cold. It had been snowing and blowing all morning, and the storm had finally stopped. I wasn’t eager to go outside, and gave myself plenty of excuses not to go out. What else was there to do? I had already been down the “evil distraction” lane after lunch. It’s called FaceBook. If I stayed inside, temptations would remain, perhaps even escalate, and is that really what I wanted? Choosing the lesser of two evils, I went out.

My pace was quick, partially because I was frustrated, partially because I wanted to generate some heat, and partially because I wanted to get this over. The roads were minimally plowed and icey. Many small plows were out on the roads and I decided I needed to be careful for many reasons. At first I just paid attention to where I was walking until I hit clearer roads and could enter into a stride. That’s when I began to think about my relationship with Jesus.

I thought about my personal relationship with family and friends. How did I hang out with them? I recalled that I didn’t spend 24/7 with them, gazing into their eyes, exchanging our thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. I thought about how Paul and I would go out alone and do the separate things that we loved. He likes to fish. I like to walk. Right, so here I am Jesus, walking with you. And in a moment of “pique” and challenge, I said to Jesus, “I like to walk. What do you like to do?” And immediately, without missing a stride, He replied, “I like being with you.”

Well. There you are. Hanging out with Jesus. On a cold and snowy day in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Speaking Truth with Love

2 Epiphany, January 14, 2018                     1 Samuel 3: 1-10
St. Paul’s, Lynnfield, Massachusetts         1 Corinthians 6: 12-20
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling                       John 1: 43-51
      Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17

Let us pray: Speak Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
           

I’m happy to be here with you today at St. Paul’s in Lynnfield, having just finished a year of serving at our Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. Before coming to Boston, I had served as a priest in Connecticut for 15 years, mostly in suburban parishes, and I found ministry at our cathedral and life in the city of Boston to be different. Now I am not unaccustomed to working with people who struggle with addictions or housing or poverty or life in prison, for none of these challenges are limited to city folk; however, I am unaccustomed to working in highly political environments. As you know from listening to the news lately, both locally and nationally, the political environment is hot right now. Often times, I find it hard to tell who is speaking the truth or what the truth actually is.
            In St. Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, he wrote to them about legalities. He claims that while it may be lawful for him to do whatever he wants with his body, it may not be the best thing for him, not only physically but as a temple of the Holy Spirit. He also claims that each person is a member of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, and therefore as individuals we are also responsible to the Body as a whole. You know, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch….or one bad story can ruin a reputation for a lifetime, whether the story is true or not.
For me, St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is an encouragement for my new year’s resolutions. I have three of them this year: (1) to let go of my anger and resentment (2) to restore my physical well-being through more active exercise and (3) to deepen my spiritual well. I believe that my individual choices will also benefit the larger Bodies to which I belong: that is my family, my Church, and my country.
I have been reminded recently about my core values. My integrity is important to me, and returning to my core values is a spiritual exercise that helps me to maintain the health of my body, mind, and spirit. I ask myself, “Am I loving God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength? Am I loving my neighbor as myself? Do I love myself and others similarly, whether it’s behind closed doors or in public spaces, whether or not my collar or my cross is hanging around my neck? Could Jesus point to me and say, ‘Here is truly a Christian in whom there is no deceit?’”
Like all of you, I have some besetting sins. I also have some marvelous gifts. One of these double-edged swords is a core value of mine, which is to be honest, or to “speak the truth in love” as St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians. My son calls it an ‘acquired taste’. I don’t tell the truth very well sometimes. I lean too heavily on the truth, and forget the softening blow of love. Or I lean too heavily on love, and forget the need for truth. I forget sometimes that there are many truths that lead to the Truth.
 I have discovered that silence is not only golden but also deadly, and so, it is imperative for our health as individuals and as a Body politic that at certain times and in certain situations, we speak up. There has been an explosion of revelations recently about abuses of power, ones that have gone on for years because people were afraid to speak up. Sorting out the truth, however, is an ongoing and ever present challenge.
The power of kings is part of the Epiphany story. Today, in this very first chapter of the gospel of John, Nathanael proclaims, “Rabbi you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And yet, there are also stories about King Herod. Like my journey from Boston to Lynnfield, the Holy Family had traveled from Jerusalem to the little town of Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, and then later to Nazareth for his upbringing. But first, they traveled to Egypt, in order to escape the slaughter of innocent children by King Herod. Although the king had claimed that he wanted to pay homage to Jesus, his true intentions eventually became clear. Anyone who might threaten his power was ordered to be killed.
But, I wondered, how did people know that Jesus’ intentions were good? That Jesus was a man of integrity? That Jesus would use his kingly power for the good of God’s people? And not for Himself. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus makes a decision about his own journey. He leaves Jerusalem, the seat of political and religious power, to go to Galilee where he calls his first disciples. He goes to Bethany, then Bathsaida, and soon after to Cana, where he turns water into wine at the wedding feast. He called Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and then Nathanael; athough from the jump, Nathanael was skeptical about Jesus. He asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (verse 46).
 “This skepticism was understandable”, the author of Got Questions writes; for “at that time Nazareth was an obscure little hill town, remote and of no consequence. It was not sophisticated or glamorous, quite the opposite—it was not a place that anyone expected the Messiah to come from.” (end quote) With intending no disrespect to you, I wonder, “Is Lynnfield like Nazareth?” a little town outside of Boston, perhaps where Jesus can be found calling disciples to follow Him?
I’m not always a fast learner. You know, the definition of insanity, right? “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Sometimes, it takes repeated words, or repeated actions, for me to get a message or to change my life.
Eli and Samuel were slow learners like me. It took them three times before they realized that it was God talking to Samuel. Now Eli had two sons who were scoundrels. They had “no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests.” They treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt and took from others what wasn’t rightfully theirs. They slept with prostitutes and did not glorify God in their bodies or in the temple. Samuel, the temple intern, however, did; and so God wanted Samuel to speak for God.
Unfortunately, the message that God gave to Samuel was not good news for Eli. The Lord said that he would hold Eli accountable for not restraining his sons, who were abusing the power that had been entrusted to them. In an article called “The #MeToo call to action”, the editor of Christian Century wrote, “The target of reform must be those who wield power and too often look the other way. More workplace forums on the evils of harassment are good, but not likely to have as much effect as seeing a colleague dismissed or disciplined for his (or her) harassing behavior.”
In this same article, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of FaceBook, told the New York Times, “People need to be afraid not just of doing these things, but also of not doing anything when someone around them does it. If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are a man or a woman - especially when you are in power - you are responsible too.” (end quote) (Christian Century, November 22, 2017)
Power is good or bad, depending upon the purposes for which it is used. Is it for self-promotion or for God? Jesus emptied himself of divine power in order to descend to earth in order to show us what God’s power might look like, up close and personal. In perfect harmony, Jesus spoke words of truth and love. He manifested God’s love in his actions. He gave us signs that God intends our human lives to be healthy and to flourish. When faced with violence and betrayal, Jesus responded powerfully with grace and beauty, even sacrificing his own life for the benefit of others.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus said to Andrew and Simon Peter, who became his first disciples, and then Philip and Nathanael soon after. If we don’t know what we are looking for, we may take roads that lead us to dead ends and dark alleys, or follow leaders who may have become misguided themselves. We might also ask ourselves this very same question. Are we looking for Jesus or for something else?  
“Come and see,” Jesus said to his first disciples, and they do. What do we see, I thought to myself. I see people struggling with addictions and leading double lives, and then I see Jesus inviting them into recovery. I see people seeking a new Way of life, and then learning to follow Jesus. I see people deeply wounded by the lies, betrayals, and deceptions of others, and Jesus healing them. I see people who seem to be spiritually dead, and then they find the light of Christ, and stumble out of their own darkness into new life.
I used to believe whatever people told me, without much filter. Some people might call me trustworthy. Others would say that I am naive, even gullible. Even today I wonder about some of the things that I say and do. What is needed from me at this time? Am I being faithful? Or just plain foolish? Like Pilate at the trial of Jesus, I ask “What is truth?” Skeptically, like Nathanael, I wonder about God, about people, and their motivations. I question my own.
The disciples didn’t follow Jesus foolishly, however; for although they had their doubts and their questions, they tested his integrity. And they followed him faithfully. They trusted in the words spoken through the prophets, and came to believe in Jesus, as their prophet, priest, and king. Over time, I’ve learned that God will repeat God’s words and God’s actions until I get it. God’s Word is still speaking even today.
 Like Jesus, we are called to speak truth to power, even when the words choke in our throats, our voices quiver with anger, our hearts pound in our chests, and our knees shake with fear. Even when it means we sacrifice our life for the sake of others, we are called to speak truth with love and act with integrity in our bodies, minds, and spirits, for the sake of the good, for the sake of God.
Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” A New York Times ad recently stated, “The truth has power. The truth will not be threatened. The truth has a voice.” And people are wearing pins that proclaim, “Times up on silence, on waiting, on tolerating discrimination, harassment, and abuse.” Times up!
God will speak to us through the voices of others and in the events of our lives. And so, we must pay attention. A friend often claims, “Show up. Pay attention. God is doing something good. Try to be a part of it. “ Can anything good come from Lynnfield? That, my friends, is up to you. Amen.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Journeys

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
January 3, 2018

I struggled with a decision for today.
Should I go back to this past Monday, and talk about the Holy Name of Jesus,
which we fondly call New Year’s Day? Or should I go with some other choice?
For starters, I began to think about the many names I’ve been called throughout my life:
Anne Louise, Nancy, Nancy-Jean, Banner Bee, Mighty Might, The General,
Mother Nancy, Fearless Leader, Acting Dean, and most recently trusty Elf.
Some of the names I’ve been called, I’ll leave unspoken and to your own imagination!

Then I looked at a Great Cloud of Witnesses and saw the name of William Passavant,
a Lutheran pastor and prophetic witness who died in 1894.
Knowing that using this book tends to be our tradition for Wednesday mornings,
I read what they had to say about him.
I thought about how you might like to learn about someone new, and then decided “no”, I didn’t really want to go down that road either.

Then in a moment of clarity, I realized, for many reasons, that I wanted to look forward to this Saturday, to the feast of the Epiphany. Yes, I like to look back, and I think that’s important. Yes, I like to stay grounded and centered in the present moment; for I think this is critical to our spiritual lives. And yet, if you don’t know by now, I especially like to “lean-in” to the future. I like to imagine possibilities.

What might the future hold for you and me, I wonder? God only knows!
And fortunately, God has some stories to help us imagine and re-imagine.
In them, God makes suggestions, points out options, and gives us some warnings.
These biblical stories are rich with various actors and actresses,
a great cloud of witnesses, whose journeys give us pause to reflect upon our own.
Through them we can learn a lot about our limitations and future possibilities.
And their journeys often reveal that there is no straight line to the holy city -
at least until every valley is lifted up, mountains are lowered,
rough places are made plain, and Jesus comes again.

King Herod is one of our actors today. Like many of the leaders in our world, he wanted to maintain his power and protect his security. From a position of privilege, he attracted visitors from near and far. When the three wise men came to Jerusalem, asking about the birth of a child who was to be born king of the Jews, Herod responded with fear. He called like-minded people, that is the chief priests and scribes of the city, who were also frightened, for counsel. They reported what the prophets had said before them: from Bethlehem shall come a ruler who is to shepherd God’s people of Israel.

The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible tells me that the use of secrecy was prevalent in the Mediterranean culture for many reasons. It was a means of maintaining power and keeping one’s security. And so Herod secretly deployed the wise men to Bethlehem, in order to get more information, so that, as he claims, “he too might go and pay homage to this child.” Secrecy feeds on lies, false information, and deception. It also is a means of protecting one’s identity and honor. And so secrets often are leaked slowly and purposefully or revealed unexpectedly and suddenly - like the slaughter of the Innocents.

Now the wise men, the Magi, or the three kings from the Orient, whatever you want to call them, have been portrayed in many and various ways. We have several of them here in our sanctuary; and I’m not talking about Alan, Bill, and Gerry. We have two sets of wise men here, three each, one on the left and one on the right. Their presence, their positions, and their journeys to the creche, have all been a topic of great debate. Every day, I would come into our sanctuary and find that someone had moved them, or put them in hiding, or rearranged their configuration, or complained about someone gone missing or that something was wrong.

Just this past Sunday, due to my error, the Chinese community found a new rearrangement of their chairs. They were forced to move the creche scene from the high altar and use this altar in the round. Theresa told me later that they actually enjoyed the change because they were closer to the creche and the altar. I’ve discovered that my mistakes can often be opportunities for grace.

The famous artist Rubens painted the three wise men - shown on the back of your bulletin - as coming from different continents—Africa, Asia and Europe—and representing the three stages of life—youth, middle age and old age. (Like generations X, Y, and the Boomers) Bearing myrrh, Balthasar is depicted as a young African man. With frankincense in hand, Melchior is portrayed as a middle-aged man from Asia. Holding a gold dish filled with coins, Gaspar is shown as an old European man. Truth be told, I suspect that, like Jesus, they were all men of color, and probably similar in age.

Before Jesus was born, our main actress in the Christmas story was Mary, who is honored as a woman of deep faith and trust. She “let it be” in the words of the immortal John Lennon and the ice queen of Frozen. Mary “let it be” throughout her life and during the death of her son. Living faithfully did not mean that she lived passively, or silently, or deceptively. She did not live fearfully, like Herod, always wondering when the next shoe would drop, another king might appear, or when the cracks in the ice would break. Mary knew where the real power lay.

I believe that the wise men lived faithfully as well. At the beginning of their journey, they came with curiosity, asking questions about the One whom they did not know. They obeyed King Herod and went to Bethlehem, dropped to their knees when they met the Christ child, and then unexpectedly changed their plans by taking another route home, possibly putting their own lives in danger. Living faithfully means trusting the holy mysteries of God, who sends us even now to Bethlehem.

Hopefully there, we also can find the Christ child born anew, cradled in Mary’s arms, inviting us to pay homage. (Unless of course you go over to that manger there, where there is no baby Jesus - but that’s another sermon for another day) Despite our imperfections and numerous mistakes, living faithfully means following bright stars, seeking new life, and stopping whenever and wherever we find it. It means paying attention to our night dreams, our day dreams, and the dream of God, even changing our plans and our lives, and then letting it be, according to God’s will.

We’re all starting a new journey this January: maybe we’re coming from the east to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, or from Bethlehem back home. The author of Holy Meeting Ground; 20 Years of Shalem writes, “January is a time of journeys, of crossing over boundaries into new places. It is a time of stars and dreams, and signs that hang between our prayerful perceptions and the reality of our daily lives. It is a place of trust, of following our longing and taking the first footstep from the known and familiar into uncharted territory.”

As you know, the Epiphany means a ‘showing’ or an ‘appearance’ and I am excited about the ‘showing’ of our anti-oppression Epiphany lessons and carols that we will offer this Saturday at our cathedral. As we continue our work to embrace all God’s people, and lean into the dream of God for our world, our Church, and our cathedral, we’ll hear more biblical stories on Saturday about some of these lesser known actors and actresses.

This past Sunday night I had the joy of marrying two men from Los Angeles, one of whom had volunteered and lived for many years with the Peace Corps in Namibia. He told me that the Namibian culture was very different from the South Africans, because the South Africans had to fight for their freedom; whereas the Namibians had been given their freedom by the United Nations. In their country, the apartheid system remained. Kiwan, one of these wise men, said to me before his wedding ceremony, “I think there is real value when we have to struggle for what we want.”

Our road to freedom, our road to Bethlehem, our road to new life will include struggle, diversions, secrecy, and threats. And it will also include wise people, holy mysteries, bright stars, and vivid dreams. How will you and I live faithfully in our own journeys this new year? What will God reveal to us? What parts will we play, what gifts will we bring, and what roads will we take? Amen.