Monday, December 4, 2017

Keep Awake

1st Advent. December 3, 2017
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Isaiah 64: 1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13 : 24-37

Let us pray: O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength, lift us we pray into your presence, that we may be still and know that you are God. Amen.

I watched a YouTube video of the total solar eclipse that happened this past August. Here it is: https://youtube/G10m2ZZRH4U.

I wonder if Jesus, back in his day, was talking about a total eclipse of the sun, when he said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Jesus said, “after that suffering” this will happen. “That” suffering was their suffering as the people of Israel; it was his impending suffering on the cross; and it is our suffering today. “That” suffering comes in all shapes and sizes for each and every one of us; and it comes to all people in the countries throughout our world.

Last Sunday, Shaykh Yasir, Senior Imam at the mosque in Roxbury, was our guest preacher. He spoke about how God created everyone and everything, and it was all good and beautiful. He spoke about sleep as a mini-death, and that when we wake up from a night’s sleep, however long or short it may be, we can give praise and thanksgiving to God for yet another day of light and life. Sleep is like a mini total eclipse of the sun.

Some of us can sleep like warriors. It doesn’t matter what else is going on around us, we can sleep straight through it. Others of us struggle mightily with sleep, lying awake, tossing and turning.The darkened sun, indeed the dark itself, can produce anxiety; and because of this anxiety, we are restless and fearful. We worry about many things. We sleep with one eye open, perhaps even two, staring into the night sky, wondering if the stars will fall from heaven, and our lives will soon end. We find ways to medicate ourselves to shut off those internal voices, to calm our night terrors, and to silence the enemy.

Anxiety can be acute or chronic. Anxiety is contagious, and it infects the people all around us. Now, acute anxiety soon passes, like the total eclipse of the sun, while chronic anxiety infects our whole system; it stays with us long after any specific event is over. The sun comes out and yet the darkness remains. The family fight is over, and  we’re still angry and resentful. The war ended and the battles rage on. We are bitter, like the cold winds before an eclipse; and our responses become frozen like that well-known Princess in the movie.

The Rev. Peter Steinke writes that anxiety can “hold us back, take us by the throat, and chain us like a slave.” When chronic, we begin to think in narrow-minded ways, or behave in predictable patterns. We lose hope; we give up; we tighten our fists; we jerk our knees; we see through our sunglasses only darkly, and become depressed. We forget to walk in faith, even if we can’t see our way forward.

Jesus pointed to the fig tree and said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Now, here in Boston, I’m not aware of any fig trees close by. In fact, most trees these days are losing their leaves rather than putting forth new ones. Summer is definitely not near on this 3rd day of December, which marks the beginning of our winter months.

Today, also marks the beginning of our liturgical year, when the Church begins a new season, which we call Advent. Following the narrative of our Christian faith, we prepare for the birth of Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again after his suffering.The Latin translation for Advent means to ‘come to.’ Broken apart into two words, ‘vent’ is translated ‘come’, and ‘ad’ is translated ‘to.’ So Advent means to “come to”, to come to Jesus, to “come to” after sleep, and to wake up to new life.

The season of Advent prepares us for the birth of God in our own lives, which can take many forms. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says that the ‘Son of Man’ will come in clouds with great power and glory.” For those of us who are looking for an all-powerful God from on high, to descend and make all things right in our world, this is a hopeful passage. Evil is real and it takes many forms. Who among us does not want God to be our avenger?

The Israelites had been defeated by their enemies. They had lost their homes and their jobs, and saw their city of Jerusalem and its holy temple destroyed. They wanted such relief. The prophet Isaiah prayed to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down to make your name known to your adversaries.” The psalmist prayed similarly, repeating three times in psalm 80, “restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Perhaps you saw the article in the Boston Globe this past week about the Rev. Tom Hoar,  a Roman-Catholic priest from Quincy, Mass. who was “a genial guy whose spiritual home as a kid was a triple-decker in South Boston. (A few years ago) he created a retreat center on Enders Island off the shores of Connecticut, for those who have lost their way because of their addictions. He knows. He was there once long ago.”

“I never felt good enough,’’ he said. “Never felt smart enough. My brother was always the better athlete. Even though I excelled in school, internally I felt empty. And you see that in many alcoholics and addicts. I could preach a great sermon on how much God loved you. I wasn’t always sure that God loved me. Even though I achieved, I lived in fear.’’

“And Hoar developed a taste for alcohol. Good wine. Top-shelf whiskey. Fine cognac.”
“In early October of 1989, he was leading a new campus ministry at his alma mater in Vermont. He was alone, drinking in his room when a fire broke out about a mile away. He was the fire department chaplain, so he answered the alarm.”

“I went to this fire and the dean of students said to me, ‘Have you been drinking?’ And I said: ‘No, no, no, no.’ And the fire chief, who was a dear friend of mine said, ‘Have you been drinking?’ And I said, ‘No. I went out to dinner and had some drinks.’ ’’
“Hoar left the fire scene, navigating a sea of flashing red and blue lights. A mile later, he was back at home, where he looked in the mirror and took stock. “I said, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing?’ And that was my last drink.’’

“For (all) who cross that tiny one-lane bridge, whose lives have been wrecked by drugs and alcohol, who have left behind a trail of betrayal and defeat, of hopelessness and paralyzing fear, it is nothing less than the passage of a lifetime. When they get to the other side, he has the simplest of questions. It is a life-changing one. The Rev. Tom Hoar asks, “Have you had enough?”

“I’m grateful for God’s blessings in my life and in the life of the folks who come across that causeway,’’ Hoar said last week. “Because people who come across that causeway are looking for hope.’’

We all pray for the moon to pass, for the sunshine to return, and our anxieties to be relieved. We all want to find and embrace hope, so that we can see beyond our own darkness to the light that shines as bright as Venus in the night sky. Most of us would prefer to see the dawn of a new day, rather than the vesper light in the sunset of our lives.

Today, Janet McKenzie’s art surrounds us with hope. As Christians, we proclaim our resurrection faith, which begins with the birth of Jesus, who is our causeway, a tiny one-lane bridge, to a new life of hope. The sun may rise and set, and our nights of sleep, or days of life, may feel like mini-deaths; and yet we believe that Christ is the light of the world that will cast away the works of darkness forever. We believe that life does not end in him, that death no longer has its victory, no longer has its sting.

In times of anxiety and despair, some claim that God is nowhere to be found or to be seen. And yet, taking those two words apart, as we did with the word Advent, the word no-where can easily become “now-here.” God is now here -  in you, in me, in Janet’s art, and in every breath that we take. God is now here: all good, all knowing, all powerful, and ever present. Keep alert, Jesus said. Stay awake, for the holy One is in the midst of us, and hallowed is God’s name.

Today, be a tender branch from Jesse’s tree, shooting forth new life in little evergreen branches. Stand firm in your faith, and as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Give thanks to God always for the grace of God which has been given to each of us in Christ Jesus who will strengthen us to the end.”

Do not succumb to fear; for Jesus’ words have not passed away, and “in Him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.” Sleep at peace. Awake with hope. Wait expectantly; for God is near, God is now here, and in God is our hope and our salvation. Amen.

Monday, October 9, 2017

God's Vineyard: a Land of Immigrants

October 8, 2017 Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Cathedral Church of St. Paul Philippians 3:4b-14
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 21: 33-46

Columbus Day weekend seems to be a prequel for some of the holidays looming on our horizon, like our Thanksgiving holiday in November. These holidays raise some questions for me, like how did we all get here in the first place? And whose land is this anyway?
Our bishops recently came back from Alaska where they had gathered for their meeting of the House of Bishops. They had the opportunity to see not only the people of the diocese of Alaska, but also the land upon which they live. Only two of the thirty parishes in this diocese are reachable by roads, the rest of them by small planes only. The indigenous people of Alaska still live off of the land, hunting for moose and fishing for salmon; while businesses and the state live off the land economically, mining and selling many of their natural resources.
Which brings me back to this Columbus Day weekend here in Boston. Our indigenous people are the Native Americans who also lived off this land. Immigration began with people arriving from other parts of our world. Immigrants came from Africa, under the horrific conditions of forced slavery. In the Hebrew translation of “Thou shalt not steal” some interpret the word “steal”  to mean “Thou shalt not steal people, rather than things.” (Laurie Brock,
Immigrants also came from Ireland, as famine and politics forced starving families to seek new vineyards, and to find work, in order to survive. Indeed, today here in Boston, the largest immigrant population is from the Irish community.
Our Anglican immigrants came from England, when the Puritans sought religious freedom from English leaders, just as Jesus was seeking freedom from the Jewish leaders of his time. And, as we know from our history books, Italian born Christopher Columbus came from Spain, seeking an opportunity to get to India and Asia to exploit the riches of those lands -pearls, gold, silver, silks, and spices.
Russell Freedom in his book, Who was first? Discovering the Americas, wrote “As we dig deeper and deeper into the past, we find that the Americas have always been lands of immigrants, lands that have been "discovered" time and again by different peoples coming from different parts of the world over the course of countless generations—going far back to the prehistoric past, when a band of Stone Age hunters first set foot in what truly was an unexplored New World.”
Our land is growing increasingly inhabited, indeed overpopulated in many places. Our land is being depleted of its natural resources as we use and abuse them to fuel our modern needs and human greeds. Casually and carelessly at times, we waste our resources and pollute this fragile earth our island home. As more and more people seek to live in urban environments, we are confronted daily with the challenges of our human diversity. Some of us seek escape by going to those less populated and more natural areas of our lands, just as our bishops did recently, and as the Manna pilgrims are doing today.
As we have heard over these past few weeks in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus continues to speak to the people around him by using parables. And today’s parable raises those questions once again for me. Whose land is this anyway? And where did we come from? Preachers today are quick to point out that the vineyard belongs to God and that we are the tenants of this vineyard. These tenants have produced grapes and then pressed them into wine for the absentee landowner. But not only have they disrespected him, and refused to pay him his due, they have also killed his slaves and his own son who came to collect.
Our land is both privately owned and publicly shared. And often times these boundaries get blurred. Take for instance our Cathedral Church steps and porch, our sanctuary, and these 138 Tremont Street buildings. They are privately owned by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. And yet often times people assume that they are public spaces, and available to anyone and everyone for their use or abuse. Such misunderstandings can complicate our relationships especially when we claim to be a House of Prayer for all God’s people. It raises that question: Who owns this vineyard anyway? And how did we get here?
Willy MacMullen, headmaster of the Taft School in Connecticut, wrote his commencement remarks to the graduating seniors from a library near the New Haven Green. In an article called “Living on the Commons” he wrote, “Colonists arrived in New Haven in 1638 to try to somehow wrest a life out of thick woods and thin soil. That they survived is something of a miracle, but what is more astonishing is this: one of the first things they did was to plan the town Green. Barely able to eke out survival and with arable land scarce, the first thing they did was to commit to a space where they could gather - to trade, worship, discuss, remediate, resolve, and educate. Think about what that said about their conviction that a community of desperate and diverse voices could only endure if there was a commons.”
We live on the Boston Commons where our public and private lives do meet. We live in a world where desperate and diverse voices are raised with competing urgencies. We live in a world where we live at risk for violence to erupt on our steps, or on our commons, or as it did in Las Vegas last week. We live as tenants on a fragile earth where our natural resources are endangered because of human needs and greeds. And here we worship God as laborers in this private building, also part of God’s vineyard, on these Boston commons.
Headmaster McMullen reminds us that  “We all see a shrunken world, with economic interconnectedness, strains on basic resources, need for environmental cooperation, concerns about security and tribalism. We will need people who can collaborate across difference, who can together think critically and creatively, who can be part of diverse teams, who can debate and empathize with equal parts passion and compassion, who see both shared responsibility and opportunity.”
While living on the commons of Palestine, Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of Israel. You have been given this vineyard by God, he said. You are the tenants of God’s land, which is rich in resources, and you are entrusted with producing wine from the grapes. I have given you a fence to protect this crop from wild boars. I have built a tower for you to watch for thieves, and to serve as a place of lodging for the laborers.
According to William Barclay, “the actions of the owner of the vineyard were all quite normal. Palestine was very familiar with absentee landlords, who let out their estates and were interested only in collecting rental at the right time. (And) the actions of the cultivators was not uncommon either. The country was seething with economic unrest; the working people were discontented and rebellious; and the action of the cultivators (wanting to kill) the son was not by any means impossible.”
Whose land is this anyway? And how did we get here in the first place? Evolutionists will tell you one story; and theologians will tell you another. And I will say that the stories are not incompatible. God created our land, before time. And God created all living beings who began to inhabit that land. We have been given work to do, to be tenants, and laborers, co-creators with God. We have been given the authority and power to till the soil, to produce good fruit, and to protect the vineyard. Co-laborers with God and each other, we have all migrated from foreign lands, some of us living on these commons of our public squares. We have created civil and spiritual laws to protect ourselves and our things.
As Headmaster MacMullen wrote, “As the world has never been more complex and dynamic, the irony is that it has also never looked more like a colonial commons, never more in need of disparate citizens who can gather and converse to meet the pressing planetary challenges. Common spaces are about the bringing together of citizens, around religion, trade, civics, and education.”
I believe that our Cathedral Church, located on these Boston Commons, is uniquely positioned to have those conversations, if we can maintain our civility, our respect, and our desire for the common good. I believe that our landowner is not absent, however, but very much present through the Spirit. This land is our land. This land is God’s land. And while we have come from many and various places, we all came from God. So let’s press on, and be good stewards of this vineyard, while living on these Boston commons together. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I Love to Work

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Exodus 16: 2-15 Philippians 1: 21-20 Matthew 20: 1-16

I have a confession to make. I love to work. I always have, I do right now, and I imagine I will until the day I die. And I am well aware that many people are not like me. Some of you may also like to work but are ready for a break, re-direction, or a change of venue. Or maybe you’re looking for work, and are frustrated with the lack of opportunities available to you. Perhaps you hate work, and would prefer to be a couch potato, or a well-kept man at home. The bottom line, however, is that we are all working, all the time, whether we’re paid for it or not. In fact, we work every day just to stay alive.
Over the course of my lifetime, my work has taken on many faces and gone through various transitions. For starters, in elementary school, I worked hard to earn my mother’s love. I raked the leaves on our yard on my own without being asked; I worked hard in school, and I followed the rules. Later, in middle school, I became a candy-striper, volunteering my time in the hospital, offering reading materials and snacks to patients. I liked their appreciation, and I enjoyed wearing a uniform that identified who I was. Funny, today, I’m still wearing a uniform.
In high school, my work ethic continued despite changes in my location. Before my junior year, my family had moved from the deep south into the north, and I discovered a whole new culture. My work became very different. I was the campaign manager for the president of our student government. I lobbied for a smoking lounge in our high school. I put on a cheerleading uniform, field hockey, basketball, and softball jerseys; and I stopped working so hard in school. I took on unhealthy habits because I wanted to fit in with the “cool kids” and I was angry with my parents. Truth be told, the culture became more important to me than my faith or my family.
As a teenager, I also began to work for money; and because I love to work, I did. At first, I was a waitress in Lord and Taylor’s tea room, offering small bite-sized sandwiches to customers who wanted a break from their shopping. Later, I was one of the cooks at the Howard Johnson’s on I-95. Fish fry Friday’s were particularly busy at work, and so I loved them. While my best friend worked as the glamorous hostess who seated people, I liked being out of sight in the kitchen. I still had a uniform: a white apron, a hairnet, and fingers that were caked with batter.
Aside from work, I also love food, and so perhaps you have begun to see a pattern here. In college, I immediately got a job at Brigham’s Ice Cream, serving candy, because at that time, women weren’t allowed to scoop ice cream. I also had a work study job, which was working in the kitchen at breakfast in the dining hall. When my grades began to slip, I was encouraged to stop working for money and put more work into my studies; and so, sadly, I did.
Upon graduation I couldn’t wait to start working again: first, at a summer camp program, for inner city kids and then on to more permanent work here at Filene’s in Boston. I did a lot of grunt work, putting clothes on hangers, cleaning up after customers, and responding to their requests. When I switched to banking, thinking it would be kinder and gentler, I did a lot of the same work, exchanging the sale of clothing for the laundering of money.  And then I became a parent: two babies within two years time. Like I said, I continued my work of putting clothes on hangers, cleaning up after people, and responding to a lot of requests. In my opinion, however, there is no harder work than being a parent; and no greater joy.
Before seminary, I helped create affordable housing and spent a year working in a hospital as a chaplain, which was intense, challenging, and wonderful at the same time. After seminary, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. I thought work in the church might be different. You know, kinder and gentler. No complaints or grumbling. No hanging of clothes, lots of people helping to clean up, and although I knew there would be plenty of requests, I thought they wouldn’t come to me, but to God. And so upon graduation, I couldn’t wait to put on my new uniform, and start working in the vineyard of God.
Human life, despite our diversity, is often similar, no matter where we live, or work, or study, or have our being. God’s vineyard, despite our location in time or place, seems to have similar workers. The Israelites complained when they worked as slaves in Egypt, and then complained again when Moses led them to freedom. When they grumbled that bread wasn’t enough for their daily food, God gave them meat. Comparing themselves to other laborers in the vineyard, some workers grumbled against the landowner, despite their original covenant with him. With envy, they compared themselves to their fellow human laborers rather than being grateful for what they had. Did they not have enough? Or did they just want less for their neighbor? And more for themselves?
In a book entitled Extraordinary Relationships, a New Way of Thinking about Human Relationships, Dr. Roberta Gilbert wrote, “Places of work, like families, also go through periods of unusual stress, which tend to cause relationship patterns and postures to be more in evidence than usual. Periods of unusual stress might include a transitional time around changing of leaders, a period of economic change, or a company reorganization. At these times, it is more difficult for each individual to stay on course in the organization; that is, it becomes harder to stay out of triangles or out of polarized positions with or against factions that develop. But a goal during (these times) is to retain competent (work), by working for emotional calm, and by staying in emotionally neutral contact with everyone in the system, regardless of their positions or factions.”
This was no less true for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, or for the people following Jesus, than it is today in our world, in our country, and here in our Church. We are all laborers, and yet we are often tempted to be pulled into critical factions, which grumble and complain, rather than becoming more generous and productive workers. Jesus is fond of telling parables to make certain points; and a friend of mine argues that this parable is a bad one. She claims that because we get so caught up in the unfairness of the landowner, we miss the generosity of God.
Jesus uses parables to subvert, to shatter, and to expand our world views, and to challenge the cultural and religious assumptions we have about life and about people. Jesus encourages us to change. Yes, life is unfair; and yet such inequity may be God’s invitation for us to get to work!
This parable isn’t just about us, however, it’s also about God. Distracted by our anger, we don’t see our God, who is the Good Shepherd and the Liberator, our God who is the generous landowner, our God who provides not only daily bread and meat, but also a Eucharistic feast of His own Body and Blood.
It’s not fair that Jesus died on the cross. It’s not fair that each and every one of us is forgiven our daily sins against God and our neighbor. It’s not fair that the drug-dealers on our steps make more money than our sextons, who routinely clean up after them, risk their own health and safety on our behalf. It’s not fair that pop stars and sports heroes make more money than health care workers and teachers.
Fortunately for us, God’s grace is free and unmerited. We didn’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. God’s grace is also unexpected. It comes like a thief in the night, or at the end of a parable. God’s grace is new every morning; and in the end, it doesn’t much matter how hard I’ve worked, or how much money I’ve made, or how much suffering I have endured. In the end, all that matters to me is that I have picked up my cross, and followed Jesus.
In today’s culture, we think being idle means hanging out on the streets, looking for excitement, or mischief, or just time to be a couch potato, resting from our day’s labor. In today’s gospel, however, those who were idle were actually looking for work. The market-place was their labour exchange, a place where vineyard owners would go when they were looking for people who wanted to work.
God chooses generosity. God loves us equally; and yet our human needs will vary. In the Caribbean, in Florida, Texas, and most recently in Mexico, the needs of God’s people are greater than other parts of God’s vineyard; and they are no more or less loved than we are. God calls us to work, to help others, to strive by side for the faith of the gospel, however we can, and wherever we can. Shall we stand idle while others suffer? Or will we work together for building up the kingdom of God, no matter the hour in which we are called, and no matter the wages that we are promised.
In the end, and every day until then, I believe that I have been saved by grace, and not by my works. In the end, I also believe that as common laborers in God’s vineyard, we’ll all be paid the same: that is our salvation and eternal life. For me, “living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor.” And if “I depart and be with Christ, that is far better.” For as we proclaim in our burial rite, “happy from now on are those who die in the Lord! So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors”. Yes, life is unfair, but now and together, let’s celebrate the feast that God has provided for us, and then labour on, for the best is yet to come. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Becoming Better Evangelists

13 Pentecost, September 3, 2017 Exodus 3: 1-15
Cathedral Church of St. Paul Romans 12: 9-21
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 16: 21-28

Open my lips O Lord and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen.

I’ve been to Texas twice in my life. The first time was when I was part of a mission trip to Galveston, Texas. Together, with the youth of our Episcopal church and the youth of the United Church of Christ, we traveled to a non-denominational church in Galveston. Their church provided us with a place to eat, sleep, and worship. They also connected us with local people who were still in need of help, after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, even three years later.
I’ve been on mission trips many times after a disaster: there was a trip to South Carolina; a trip to Ohio, a trip to Mississippi, to New York, and then once to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Having endured 8 days of lost power in Connecticut, once after a blizzard in the winter, and then another time after a tornado-like micro-burst in the summer, I remember being so very grateful for people’s help during those difficult and dangerous times. Our parish was less affected by these storms than some of us, and so we opened our Church for people to get water, to get warm, and check in with one another. Today, we pray throughout our country for those who have been affected by hurricane Harvey, and for those who have responded in many and various ways to their distress.
The second time that I traveled to Texas was this past November. As part of my continuing education, I decided to attend a conference in Dallas entitled Evangelism Matters, which was being held for Episcopalians from all over our country. To be among so many people
interested in evangelism was truly inspiring. Now in our baptismal covenant, we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; but if you are anything like me, I would much rather pick up a paint brush, hammer a nail, or serve a meal than talk about Jesus. Someone might just think I’m a Jesus-freak.

But, truth be told, I am! I love Jesus, except, unfortunately, I would prefer to keep Jesus in my closet. Or on my bumper sticker. Or around my neck, and then let others make some assumptions about me and my relationship to Jesus. Hopefully, they will think that I am like those Christians that St. Paul is describing in his letter to the Romans. Perhaps they’ll see me and think, isn’t she a good Christian because she’s doing all that good work. I suspect some might think that I’m on a fool’s errand or that my cross is just a meaningless symbol. I’ve learned that assumptions are never helpful, especially based upon outward appearances.

As baptized Christians, we promise to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in our words, and not just by our actions and symbols, as important as they are. Evangelism, in part, is about telling our faith stories because we want to share the life-giving, liberating love of God that we have experienced in our own lives, and we want others to hear that good news too. The Black Seed writers’ group is a case in point. I wanted to become a better evangelist, which is why I went to Texas.
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, and once a missionary and evangelist right here at our Cathedral, claims that evangelism has to be rooted in our congregations, regardless of our size or location, and not in individuals. Evangelism is everybody’s call from God, just as God called Moses in the burning bush. As Christians, we must be a community of people who are willing to share our faith stories of how we came to know God in the person of Jesus. And this Jesus can’t just be “the nicest guy ever”, or a political revolutionary, or a prophetic witness, or a great teacher, as much as he was all of those.

We proclaim that Jesus is our savior, and the savior of the world, which has nothing to do with our human efforts or beliefs, but rather about Jesus’s efforts and about God’s power. This Jesus is the one that Peter confessed to be the messiah, the one who reconciled us to God and to each other by giving up his own power and surrendering to the will of God. This is the Jesus who was raised from the dead, and people couldn’t stop talking about him afterwards. What happens when we think about Jesus like that?

Proclaiming the good news of God in Christ takes practice. It means getting over our fears of being rejected, looking tacky, being vulnerable, and getting hurt. It means giving up ourselves and losing our lives for God’s sake, no less than Jesus did. It means picking up the crosses which burden us and weigh us down, and then telling stories about how God’s amazing grace and unfailing companionship set us free. How God led us through every terrain and territory of our lives in all sorts of weather conditions. It means knowing that God is with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and will carry us home.

I came to understand the God of all creation through Jesus because he was human like me. Jesus taught me how to forgive. Jesus taught me how to love. Jesus healed me and gave me hope, and showed me that I have nothing to fear, not even death itself. With that blessed assurance, I no longer try to save myself, or prove myself, or even earn my own salvation. I just ask Jesus for help.

Stephanie taught us an easy way to share our faith stories with others. It’s called “Cardboard Testimonials.” On one side of a card, you write (in only a few words) about a struggle, or a challenge, or a valley that you have experienced in your own life. You need not bare your soul, or tell your deepest, darkest secret. Your words could be as simple as a time in your life when you were sick, or scared, or lonely, or just wrestling with a problem or a decision. Then on the other side of the card, in only a few words again, you write down how you believe God responded to you.  

For example, on my way to work this week, I was wrestling with a problem and asking God to give me a sign like the burning bush. Suddenly, a family that I had known from my parish in Connecticut appeared. After a brief conversation, I told them that they were my burning bush, that they were a sign to me that God was present. They didn’t solve my problem, nor did I solve theirs, but we assured each other that God shows up, not only in bushes but also in the people who show up in our lives. Now I’m not suggesting that God always responds to us so quickly or in such easily identifiable ways, but I am suggesting that we need to pay attention. We can call these appearances as nothing more than a coincidence, or we can share them with others as a God moment in our lives. That’s when we become evangelists.

Here are 3 examples from our conference in Texas. I was paralyzed by fear; I was freed by faith. Guilty as sin, I knew I was forgiven. I hated myself, I knew God loved me. And my cardboard testimonial from 4 years ago: I left parish ministry; God gave me a new call: to be a missionary and evangelist, without borders.

During the silence that follows my sermon, I invite you to create your own cardboard testimonial. If you want, you can share it during our coffee hour, or put it in the offering plate, or take it home with you as a reminder. Today we are all practicing how we can become better evangelists.

Shawnthea Monroe, a UCC minister, once wrote, “The worst haircut I ever received was a $7 special at a local salon. I was in my thirties and my hair was thick and curly, the kind of hair that could hide a multitude of styling sins - but not after the $7 special. It was short in back and uneven in front, with tufts sticking out in random places. I looked like I had mange.”

“No one at church said a word until Linda, a dear woman in the choir, came up to me after worship. Lifting a misshapen curl from my face, she said kindly, “You need to see Nan.” When Linda saw my disastrous haircut, she didn’t tell me about the benefits of finding the right stylist or hand me a leaflet featuring haircuts; she sent me to Nan. While it may be easier to spot someone who’s having a bad hair day than someone whose soul is in turmoil, there are people all around us who are hungering for a word they can take to heart. We must be ready and willing to speak the word: “You need to see Jesus.” Amen.
(Christian Century, July 26, 2011, p. 23)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowers, Seeds, and Soil

July 16, 2017 Cathedral Church of St. Paul The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Let us pray: O God help us to grow! Amen.

Today I want to talk about three very simple things: sowers, seeds, and soil. As was his custom, Jesus often looked around him and used whatever was in front of him to make his point, not only to his disciples, but also to the crowds who followed him. Pushing out into the sea of Galilee, using a boat as his pulpit, Jesus pointed to the people, the landscape in front of him, and to the farmer who was sowing some seeds. It would be like me today, pointing to you and to this Cathedral community, and then telling you a story.

In a book entitled Reclaiming the Great Commission, the bishop of Texas describes the characteristics of a parish, or a diocese, which is only maintaining itself, contrasted with ones that are on God’s mission. While God may love us just as we are, God also wants us to grow, even after our death.

People and parishes who don’t want to grow will not take risks. They will focus only on themselves rather than on God, on others, and what possibilities may lay before them. People on God’s mission will not discourage honest doubt, hard questions, and challenging conversations.They will not get hung up on the drama of a situation but will remain focussed on the situation itself. Change is recognized as a constant way of life. While issues can divide us; mission minded people can unite us. We recognize that sowing God’s seeds in good soil is hard work, and we are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to it.

People and parishes that are on God’s mission want to grow in a variety of ways. They are God-centered, recognizing that God is the Creator of our Garden, that Jesus is the Master Gardener, and that the Spirit is the holy One who sows seeds of love every day. When we’re people on God’s mission, we want to offer good soil for God to plant those seeds into our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Willing to try new and different things, we know that we will make mistakes; and yet we are still willing to “try and try” again.
Paul and I lived in a farming town in Connecticut. The previous owners of our house were two professionals: a pediatrician and an elementary school music teacher. They were environmentalists who loved to create gardens and take care of them. Now, unlike them, Paul and I have a history of killing anything that grows around our house and even inside of it. When we lived in Maryland, we tried to kill the weeds on our patio and killed the azalea bushes at the same time. In Atlanta, we didn’t water the new grass seed enough and so it was scorched by the summer sun. Despite our history, when we moved into this house in Connecticut, Paul was excited to sustain the vegetable and flower gardens that had surrounded our home. I was not.

Initially, I didn’t want to become involved. I was starting a new job as the rector of a parish and had no interest in gardening, and I knew our history. When Paul asked me why I wouldn’t want to be engaged with God’s creation, I responded arrogantly, “I care for life in God’s garden all day long, and I’m too tired when I get home.” And yet, Paul responded to me gently, “But so do I,” he said.
And so, I agreed to help, albeit somewhat reluctantly, certainly not whole heartedly. Where the previous vegetable garden had once been, Paul began tilling the soil and preparing the ground. He chose young tomato, green pepper, and squash plants to start. The garden was enclosed by wire fencing, which was one of the products that Paul’s company manufactures. The young plants were supported by some of the garden products that his company makes as well. Paul was proud of his garden, the fencing, and the tomato towers that supported his vegetable plants.

I decided to start my own garden on a much smaller scale and closer to the house. I wanted the boundaries, the responsibilities, and the ownership of our gardens to be clear. I had no fence, but put my vegetables in a raised bed, on the sunny side of the house, and nearer to the water hose and the side door. I planted only green beans. Clearly, Paul and I had very different gardens.

We both made mistakes. The busyness of our jobs became the hard path on which our good seeds fell; and so nothing grew in certain spots in our gardens. While I was closer to my garden, and therefore thought I would be more attentive to watering it, I didn’t. The sun scorched my green beans. Paul found that too much shade prevented growth, and over-watering drowned the seeds.

Neither of us, in our haste, had prepared the soil well. There was too little soil in mine, and it was too old in his. Weeds, and pests, and thorny roots, not to mention New England rocks, often crowded out and strangled his new young plants. Unprotected by a fence, my green beans became a feast for rabbits and other creatures, while deer routinely crashed over Paul’s lightweight fence and destroyed his plants. I discovered that fences are important for many reasons. They not only make good neighbors, they also protect things that are precious.

Paul had tried to prepare his garden much more faithfully than I. For weed control, he had covered the soil with black plastic. He watered his plants religiously when he was home, visited the garden faithfully, and true to form over-medicated it with fertilizer. The tomatoes were abundant, but not particularly tasty. He grew a only a few squash, and almost no green peppers. After talking with more experienced gardeners, he learned that you shouldn’t fertilize pepper plants at all.

In passive aggressive resistance, I did nothing with my own garden. Sure I planted the seeds; but I didn’t water them, weed them, or protect them. I hoped to eat the fruits of Paul’s good labors, and even the fruits of my own, but I was unwilling to put in the hard work, or the daily care that it required. Truth be told, my heart wasn’t really in it, and so my actions betrayed my words.

A good garden is not created overnight. Indeed, one summer does not a garden grow. Our Cathedral, with all its diversity and variety, has many paths, and many places, upon which God’s seeds are constantly being planted. Yes, we have some hard ground, weeds, thorns, rocks, busy paths, scorching heat, flooding basements, and all sorts of challenges that threaten the life of the seeds that grow both inside as well as outside our Cathedral. And, as co-laborers in God’s garden, we are called to provide good soil, protect the fruit of our labors, and tend this garden on a daily basis.

All creatures great and small can destroy the seeds that God has planted. Fences are important to protect our property, our fruits, our vegetables, and our flowers, to protect our building, our bodies, ourselves, and our souls. Clear boundaries are important to a healthy garden and for good relationships.

We tend our gardens daily by listening to God and to each other. Together, as a community, we offer a variety of gifts but the same Spirit. We know that we have various levels of enthusiasm, energy, and commitment; and yet we know that we each have a part to play. Individually and together, as a Cathedral Church, with God’s help, we can yield more fruit - in one case a hundredfold, in another 60, and in another 30.

We are busy, rocky, thorny, and shallow people; and so God’s seeds don’t always land on the best of our soils. At various times, we’re all tired, hurting, struggling, and less than enthusiastic about our relationships with God and our neighbors.

And so, daily, we must look to the Sower of all good seeds, to the Creator of all creation, to the Master Gardener, and to the Spirit who make things grow miraculously. When life gets too hard, the sun gets too hot, the rain seems relentless, the creatures seem dangerous, and the weeds are overpowering, it’s time for us to turn back to God. Every day is a new beginning; and no matter what path we’re on, or in which small garden we live, God will always plant new seeds of faith, hope, and love to sustain us. And for that good news, we give God thanks and praise.

Genesis 24: 19-34
Psalm 119: 105-112
Romans 8: 1-11
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23