Saturday, April 22, 2017

Easter Day, April 16, 2017
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Two weeks ago, I had retreated from the city of Boston to Emery House in West Newburyport, in order to meet with my spiritual companion, Brother Curtis, who is a monk with the Society of St. John the Evangelist. When I first arrived, I ran into Brother Geoffrey in the kitchen. “Congratulations, Nancy, on your appointment as Acting Dean of the Cathedral.” he said. “It’s a big job.” Looking him straight in the face, and with my eyes widening, I replied, “Yes, the job is huge,” and then we both started laughing. “Well,” he said, “the Lord has called you to it, and He will provide what you need.” Pouring myself a cup of herbal tea, I laughed again, and said, “That’s why I’m here.”
I wear a collar around my neck because I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. My collar is sometimes visible, and represents the vows that I’ve made to proclaim the good news of God’s Love, which is an unbroken circle of birth, life, death, and resurrection. But let me be clear, the first call is ours together, and those of us who have been baptized into the life of Christ. We are all part of a great community of faith that St. Paul calls the priesthood of all believers. God has planted the seed of resurrection into our souls, and has put a new song on our lips. As the psalmist sings, “The Lord is my strength and my song.”
My husband Paul and I love to watch movies, although sometimes we disagree about which ones to watch. Let’s just say that I like romantic comedies, and he likes dramatic war stories. Recently, we went to see the Shack, a movie based upon a book that came out many years ago. And then just two weeks ago, we sat down to watch Patriot’s Day, a movie about a real life event, the violence that occurred on Marathon Monday four years ago. Easter, The Shack, and Patriot’s Day all have three things in common: they are stories about murder, love, and new life.
Bishop Jim Curry, a retired bishop suffragan in the diocese of Connecticut, often visited the Anglican church in Africa. After one trip to Mozambique, Bishop Curry came back with a tableau, showing peasants bringing their guns to a table, where they had been transformed into tools for farming. Around his neck, he wore a pectoral cross that had been created from gun metal. He also had received an iron sculpture of a trombone player, which had been crafted from the same materials.
One time Bishop Curry visited Mozambique during Holy Week. On Good Friday, he joined thousands of people who had gathered for worship, where a casket had been placed in front of the altar. The preacher invited everyone to come forward and look into the tomb where Jesus had been laid.
When it was his turn to go to the altar, Bishop Curry walked down the aisle with fear and trembling. When he arrived at the casket and looked in, he didn’t see Jesus. Rather, he saw the face of a living man. He saw the face of himself; for a mirror had been placed at the bottom of the casket. “You have been raised with Christ,” said the author of the letter to the Colossians. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is (now) hidden with Christ in God.”
This past Good Friday, Jim Woodworth, the facilities manager at our Cathedral, was telling me about his favorite pond in Canton, where he goes for peace and quiet. In the 1960’s the Environmental Protection Agency passed legislation prohibiting the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals in our water. Jim tells me that 15 years later he saw a great blue heron and other wildlife return to the pond. One day he expects to see a bald eagle. We get hope here at our Cathedral.
In the burial office for the dead, we proclaim that “the liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy; for it finds all its meaning in the resurrection.” As St. Paul proclaimed, just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so too shall we be raised. This burial liturgy therefore is characterized by joy, in the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Therefore, like the psalmist, we too can sing a song of joy, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”
The Shack is a movie about a family torn apart by the murder of their 5 year old child. Feeling burdened by grief, by sorrow, and even by guilt, each family member struggled to recover from their devastating loss. When the father returned to the Shack, the place of his daughter’s violent death, he met God; and then he returned home, a free man.
The essence of Easter is that Jesus is the victor over evil and death. He is the man or woman who has lost a leg, and still returns to run on Marathon Monday. He is the man or woman, who has recently lost a loved one, and can still sing a song of Easter joy. The good news of today is that life beyond death is not just a human hope, or a lovely metaphor for Spring flowers, but it is a godly promise.
The resurrection from the dead is not just an old biblical story, nor a new evangelical movie. Karl Barth asserts that “when we deny the resurrection, alter it, or minimize it, we make it into something human, rather than an eternal, ever-living, and ever loving act of God.” God’s resurrection Love transcends all time, all people, all places, and all of creation.God’s resurrection Love is here. And it is our hope right now and for the future.
Robert Raines tells the story of an anthropologist named Loren Eiseley. (Quote) “One day he leaned against a stump at the edge of a small glade and fell asleep.” He recalls, “When I awoke, I became dimly aware of some commotion in the clearing. The light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lighted like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a squirming (baby) nestling in its beak.”
“The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch and sat still. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade, fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.”
“No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried (together) in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the un-bereaved; and then suddenly the crying ceased. It was (then) that I saw judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never again see it so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of their protest, they forgot the violence.”
“There in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, and the song passed from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil  thing were slowly being forgotten. Until suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats, joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight is beautiful. They (even) sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth, they had forgotten the raven, for they were singers of life, and not death.” (End quote) (pp 173-175)
“Mary,” Jesus said, and she heard the voice of the one she loved, and the One who loved her. She heard the voice of the one who had been crucified, and whose death no one had protested. She heard the voice of her Teacher. “Go tell my brothers and sisters that you have seen me,” said Jesus. At first she was a single sparrow; then Mary shared her song with Peter, and John, and all the other disciples. Suddenly they “all took heart and sang from many throats. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight is beautiful.” They sang because Jesus was raised from the dead.
Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning. So run your race with perseverance, and do not give up. You can find hope here at our Cathedral. Rejoice always, I say rejoice, for on this day the Lord has acted, and we are glad indeed. Full throated, we songbirds can sing with joy; for Christ has killed the Raven, and the victory is ours, now and forever.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Wilderness Wanderings

1 Lent, March 5, 2017
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Cathedral Church of St. Paul

The season of Lent is often called a wilderness because of today’s gospel passage from Matthew. If you’ve ever been to Israel, and seen the desert outside of Jerusalem, you know what an awesome sight it is. There are stretches upon stretches of sand, with perhaps a desolate road here and there. Like Jesus, and maybe like you, I’ve had many wilderness experiences. While they were all different, the one constant thing, the one thing that I could always count on, was that the wilderness was a time of temptation. Whether it was the devil herself or a crafty serpent, the voice of temptation was always speaking to me. And I always listened.
The gospel of Matthew says that while Jesus was in the wilderness, he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Naturally, he was famished, which I imagine made him pretty weak, and also very vulnerable. I’m sure he heard voices in his head as well; for we all have them, especially when we’re alone, hungry or thirsty, and there is silence. At times like these, the volume of these voices in our heads is turned up high. Or at least they are in my head. And our temptations will surely test us.
Yes, Jesus was tempted and yes, Jesus was tested. Just like us. And yes, Jesus listened to many voices, just like us.
My most recent wilderness experience was when Paul and I moved to Cambridge. I willingly made the choice to leave parish ministry and explore a broader and more diverse mission field. I never imagined that this decision would be as difficult as it was. Listening to the voices of others, I wondered if I had been listening to the Devil or to the Spirit. Often second-guessing myself, I questioned my decision continually. Was I a fool or a fool for Christ? Was this desolate road leading to a new garden or just to my spiritual wilderness and physical death?
During my wilderness time, it seemed to me that everyone around me had support structures, a purpose to their lives, and loving relationships. Every day, while family, friends, and strangers went off to their gardens, I entered into my own wilderness. Often aimlessly, I walked the city streets just to kill time. Food was a comfort. I showed up everywhere and for everything hoping to feel connected and to hear a voice that would lead me into something new and something good. The voices in my head were crafty like the serpent. They were devilish. And they were persistent. I felt useless, unloved, and alone; and so I prayed a lot.
Now, to be sure, I have many, many privileges, and nothing to complain about. I have been blessed beyond measure; and while my wilderness experience is nothing compared to people who live on the streets, it felt like a wilderness to me. Yes, I had physical blessings; and yet my emotional and mental life was in the desert. I had to constantly remind myself how blessed I am, even for the gift of one more breath. I made gratitude lists daily, often thanking God for the gift of each new day. My city walks became prayer walks. When family was absent, my friends stepped in. When my friends were absent, my community of faith was near. And when no one else was around, I found God. My loneliness forced me not only to reach out to others but also to find time alone with God, as a source  of strength.
Before Jep left, he gave me a book called Becoming Human by Jean Vanier. In it, the author claims that every human being faces loneliness, which is a taste of death. Our (quote) “sense of loneliness can be covered up by the things that we do, so we’re seen by others as valuable, that make us feel good about ourselves, and give us a sense of being alive.” (end quote) He claims that at the core of our humanity, at the core of each and every one of us, is this fundamental loneliness and a fear of rejection. We all have a deep-seated desire to be included and to belong, to know that we are all equally and uniquely made in the image of God.
I was a Latin major in college for two years before I decided to switch to English. “Obedire” is  the Latin word that means to listen. When we are obedient, it means we are listening. But to whom do we listen? And for what are we listening? Is it garbage in and garbage out?  Is this the voice of the Spirit or the temptation of the devil? Is this crafty serpent talk, or the wisdom of God? Is this a voice that reminds us of our belovedness and our belonging? Or is it one that rejects us, leaving us feeling alone and lost in the wilderness? And how do we know when we’re right or wrong? When it’s us or them?
Times of transition, like the one here at our Cathedral, are similar to the time when Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It’s easy at times like these to lose our bearings. I imagine Jesus here today, among us, on the pinnacle of this temple, up there with the nautilus, and being invited by the devil to throw himself down. I imagine Jesus on this very high mountain, on this Beacon Hill of a city, and the devil showing Jesus all the kingdoms of this world: the State House, our Diocesan House, and Newbury street. Such splendor and honor and glory is his to have, if he would just fall down and worship the earthly powers of this world.
Temptations abound in this place and at this time. We are hungry people at our Cathedral Church of St. Paul. We gather often to meet and greet and eat. And yet food will not satisfy that deepest need in all of us. A need to be accepted, just as we are. A need to be loved, just as we are. A need to belong to God, and to a community of faith, and know that each and every one of us is a unique and special creation in this world. Everyone! No matter our life circumstances! No matter our privileges!
In the wilderness, Life, as we know it, loses its familiar structure, trusted people, and support systems. Without them, we can easily forget that we are the beloved children of God, that we are fundamentally good, even when we do nothing. In the busyness and distractions of the voices in our heads, we can forget that our purpose is to love God with all our heart, soul, body, mind, and strength. We can forget to love ourselves the way God loves us, and to extend that love to others. But all others. Not just the “people we know and love” others. Not just the “people who are like us and agree with us” others. All others! Even that crafty serpent; even that devilish enemy!
During my wilderness wanderings, I realized that my busyness had distracted me from seeing my own nakedness, my own vulnerability, and my own weakness. I forgot that I am both powerless and precious, just as I am, even when I don’t belong to any one group, even when I don’t have a special title like “acting dean.”
In the book Becoming Human, in a chapter entitled “Forgiveness”, I learned that the Greek word “asphesis” means “to liberate” or to “release from bondage.” Wilderness times are times not only of temptation and testing but also times of strengthening and liberation. Perhaps that’s why the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, knowing that he would be strengthened and liberated, because he fundamentally trusted God for everything, even death, even life after death. Perhaps Jesus knew that God is the only one who can truly set us free.
Jesus chose to feast on God’s Word, even when he was physically famished. He chose not to dare God to rescue him for dramatic show. He knew that the power of God comes not from human beings that dazzle, or from food that comforts us only for a moment, but with spiritual things that glitter even in the darkness. Jesus knew to listen to the voice of God. He knew that the Spirit would guide him along right pathways, even if it was on a desolate road in the desert, or through the valley of the shadow of death.
Wilderness times, when we launch off into the desert on our own, or lose our way on the city streets, are times when we face our own death. Like Adam and Eve, we can remember that one day we too shall surely die; we remember that we too are dust and to dust we shall return. Like Adam and Eve, we’re given choices. We can listen to God, or to the crafty serpent. We can be guided by the Spirit or by the devil. We can learn to distinguish the difference between feeling lonely and being alone with God. We can learn the importance of belonging to a loving faith community.
Certainly, we will always face temptations and we will always be tested. People will challenge us, claim another truth, and lead us down dark alley ways. Every day we will face personal choices. Who is speaking to me? And what are they saying? Shall I stand firm in my faith, or slide back into the darkness? Is this the voice of God, or is it someone or something else?
I have come to believe in God, who says to me and you “You are my beloved children, in whom I am well pleased.” I have come to believe in “listening to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” I have come to believe that death is not our final end, even if our journey to it is long and painful and difficult. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, we have been given a free gift by God in the person of Jesus, who though tempted like us, did not sin.
How then shall we listen to what the Spirit is saying to us today? How shall we be faithful followers of Jesus at this time in our Cathedral? Jesus said, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What if we put down our forks and picked up the Bible? What if we silenced those negative voices in our head, and replaced them with a loving thought from God. What if we stopped doing anything, just for 5 minutes every morning, and five minutes every night, and just listened to the voice of God in silence?

Like Viola Davis, in the movie The Help, perhaps, we can ask God for help, and then hear that voice of God, saying to us repeatedly, “You is smart. You is beautiful. You is loved.”  Amen.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 103: 8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Let us pray: Dear God, help us to remember that we are mortal, and that each day is a gift of life. For eternal life through Jesus, we thank you. Amen.
Amy Cook, Missioner for Education, Formation, and Discipleship in our diocese, has provided a resource for us to use during Lent. It’s called “Living Well through Lent 2017” and it provides opportunities for personal or small group reflection. This year’s booklet has a subtitle; it’s called Listening with all your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. It is based upon the commandment found in the book of Deuteronomy, and in Luke’s gospel, in which we are called to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength , and with all our mind.” Listening I can do. Loving is another matter.
Way back in January, right after the 1st of the year, the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, wrote something entitled “New Year, New Start.” He remarked how our new year’s resolutions often start out well enough, and then disappear by February. He suggests that (quote) “every day is a good day for a do-over.” Today, moving forward, I think that Lent gives us 40 days and 40 nights of “do-overs.” Lord knows I need them.
Scott offered a picture of a winding road, saying how we often find ourselves veering off the path, and into the brush. Yes indeed. I veer off that path more than once a day. Distracted by thoughts of this or that, I don’t watch where I’m going. This past Monday, thinking about my week ahead at our Cathedral, I started crossing Tremont Street, only to find myself running halfway across the road due to the honking horns; the cars were barreling down upon me. Texting while driving, checking the latest “bing” on our cell phones, or even talking or eating while driving is not only unlawful but dangerous. I confess, I’ve had some near misses. Last year, on my way home from our pre-Lenten clergy retreat, I was peeling an orange and gently ran into the car in front of me. As for my emotional life, I can veer off that winding road very easily. Death, and I’ve known three unexpected ones this week, can send me off the path and into the wilderness very quickly.
Scott reminds us of our baptismal covenant in which we make promises to God and to one another. It’s good to be part of a community of faith that weeps and celebrates with us at any given time, with a community that forms and shapes us throughout our lives. In the second promise of our covenant, we are asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Scott emphasises the word “when.” It’s not “if” we fall into sin, but “when” we fall into sin, will we repent and return to the Lord. We respond willingly, “I will, with God’s help.” Repentance, like confession, means thinking again, and Lent is our time to do that: to think again about how we live, about how we listen, and about how we love.
I love the fact that the word “evil” is the word “live” spelled backwards. And “Living Well through Lent” means to listen with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength to God. In her Ash Wednesday reflection,The Rev. Lisa Senuta writes, “Listening is more than hearing…. when we are listening for God.” The invitation to listen may come in various ways: a car honking at us, someone asking us to “put down the phone”, a look that kills, tears of hurt, words of anger, and of course the hardest thing of all, when we can no longer listen at all. Remember? Are you listening? You are dust!
Last Sunday, at our Cathedral IN Formation program, Ann Page Stecker talked about Lent as a liminal time -when thresholds are crossed, interstices are revealed, and ecotones are honored. Liminal times are neither earthly nor heavenly, we’re kind of in this world but not of it. We’re aware of being is spaces that are both sacred and secular. Thresholds, like doorways, invite us to go back from where we came or to go forward into a new space. An interstice reminds us that there are spaces that intervene on our continuous pathways, like weeds that grow in the cracks, or those resting places along the way. An ecotone is the wildlife that you might find on the edge of the pathway before the desert begins. Just off the beaten path, there is great diversity in God’s creation. As we shared parts of our stories in the context of these particular words last Sunday, I heard a constant reminder. We all have choices: to live and to love, or to hate and to die; to repent and forgive, or to hold on and resent; to spiral up or spiral down; to go backwards or move forward, or maybe even just stay where we are.
The Rev. Lisa Senuta reminds us that (quote) “the deepest form of listening is not with our ears - it is with our heart. We are listening below the noise, under our busy thinking planning minds, and between the words we are hearing, thinking, and saying. The Bible says to listen with the ear of the heart.” (end quote) And there in the heart is our treasure, where God resides and is listening to us. “Do not accept the grace of God in vain,” warned St. Paul to the Corinthians; for God says “at an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
After our scripture readings, we often say, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” In today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, God’s Word to us is plentiful, and challenging. Despite our fasting, we still “quarrel, fight, and strike with a wicked fist.” Lord knows we are fighting many battles, both literally and figuratively everywhere! So today, God asks us for a different kind of fast, not from food or drink, but from fighting.
We are in a liminal space during this time of transition at our Cathedral, and in this season of Lent.  I’ve asked our Sunday morning community to take on the spiritual discipline of listening during this threshold tiime. I’ve invited people to consider their own winding pathways as we walk the Way of the Cross together.
Our ancient ruins have been rebuilt with our Cathedral renovations. We hope our Cathedral will continue to be a house of prayer for all God’s people. We want to raise up the foundations of many generations for our future. We have attempted to repair the breaches between our multi-cultural communities, and to restore some life to people on the streets and in our neighborhoods. We have loved well.
Understandably, we are tired, spread thin, and scared. I think it’s time for us to step back into that liminal space, where we can listen to God in the silence, and in our hearts. During this season of Lent, I have asked our community to step off the beaten path, and to commit with me 5 minutes of silence every morning, and 5 minutes of silence every evening. Alone, in silence. Listening to God. With the ears of our hearts.
The Rev. Lisa Senuta claims that (quote) “silence is God’s primary language. Yet, it is quickly becoming an endangered part of our world. We now live among infinite distractions that keep us from simply being in silence. The life-giving ways of God are discovered in silence. Even in ten minutes alone in the quiet, we can find what we need and want: a spacious sense of hope, interior strength and resiliency, wisdom beyond information, and peace beyond understanding.” (end quote)

Jesus invites us into that space of grace today. Let’s go into our secret rooms and pray. In silence. Let’s listen with the ears of our heart because, as Jesus said, that’s where our treasure lies. Listening to what the Spirit is saying to us, the “Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places, make our bones strong; and we will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Perhaps by Easter we will also find ourselves no longer distracted by many things, but back on the path of righteousness and peace: loving God, ourselves, and others with stronger hearts, souls, and minds.  Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

St. Paul, Sinner and Saint, a Journey

I’ve had a lot of St. Paul’s in my life.

In our Anglican tradition, ethical decision-making is based upon the three-legged stool (scripture, tradition, and reason) or the four-legged stool, which adds experience as the 4th leg. When Bishop Gates invited me to become the Acting Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, I had a decision to make. Would I accept another relationship with yet another St. Paul? Even if it was a temporary one? I’ve had a lot of relationships with St. Paul.

Like President-elect Trump, people have mixed feelings about the St. Paul of scripture. Often considered an impulsive misogynist, perhaps even a narcissist, St. Paul claimed his vocation as a missionary and evangelist. So do I. In all his travels throughout the early Roman empire, St. Paul wrote letters to Christians to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. He boasted, not of himself, but of Christ crucified and raised from the dead. A sinner of stunning magnitude, having hunted, authorized, and witnessed the murder of many Christians, he also argued or “apologized” passionately about the freedom that can be found in Christ, the hope of resurrection that awaits us all, and the love of God that surpasses all understanding. The words of St. Paul are quoted at baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, weddings, and funerals. St. Paul is like each of us, both a sinner and a saint. Yes, I decided. I love St. Paul in all his complexity, and I’m curious about this new St. Paul in Boston.

Tradition?  Oh my. It started in high school when I dated Paul #1 for a very brief time. Then there was Paul #2 during my first two years of college, followed by Paul #3 in the last two years. I married Paul #3 two weeks after graduation, more than 42 years ago. After ordination, I served as the curate of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Riverside, Connecticut, which was my 4th St. Paul’s, and a most blessed way to begin my ordained ministry. And now this new St. Paul's in Boston: Paul #5. It’s tradition! Of course, I would say “yes.”

Is this a reasonable choice, I wondered? I’ve had the luxury of continuing my servant leadership  as a missionary and evangelist over these last few years, traveling here and there, much like St. Paul did over 2000 years ago. I’ve been passionately engaged with our new mission strategy. Why change now, and settle down to a more confined, prescribed, and settled cure? Will I be meeting new and diverse people? Will I be working hard? Will I be challenged beyond human understanding? Most assuredly! Of course, I would say “yes.”

Fortunately, my experience informs me that having a relationship with St. Paul is always a good thing, a relationship with both sinners and saints. And so, I said, “Yes, let the iterations of St. Paul continue. Yes, I may be a fool, but I’m also a fool for Christ.” As Eric Law once wrote, “A life is lived over a period of time in different places, and in relationships with different people. We do not take a moment in someone’s life and call that ‘a life’. Neither do we take one step of a journey and call that ‘the way.’ A life involves a past, a present, and a future.”  The Way of following Christ in never-ending, filled with challenges, and filled with joy. Let it begin again this new year!

So here’s to my on-going relationship - past, present, and future -  of life with St. Paul.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Prepare to Receive the Gift

1 Advent. November 27, 2016 Isaiah 2: 1-5
Christ Church, Needham Romans 13: 11-14
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 24: 36-44

Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread, and do not then depart. Lord, live within us, and spread a table upon our heart. Amen.

The scripture readings for today might sound a little harsh after our Thanksgiving holiday. St. Paul tells people to wake up from their turkey-induced sleep. No more reveling and drunkenness, no more quarreling and jealousy, no more gratifying the desires of the flesh. And the gospel of Matthew speaks of the end-times. Some are saying that apocalyptic literature should be moved to the current events section of the library; for thanks to global warming, pretty soon we will all be washed away in a great flood. Or, given the proliferation of nuclear capabilities, we’ll all be destroyed by one big fiery blast. Lovely thoughts on this November morning, wouldn’t you say? Thank you, Nancy.
You know what time it is, right? St. Paul answered that question in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” And while the recent presidential election may have been our political wake-up call, Advent is our spiritual one.
Of course, we all have those days when we want to pull the covers up over our heads and go back to sleep, returning to our so-called “dreams” of yesteryear. Or there are times when we want to fast forward into the future, avoiding whatever unpleasantness is scheduled for the day, and assuring ourselves that everything really is alright. But here’s the news flash. We can’t. We live in the here and now, and the buzzer on our alarm clock is saying it’s time to wake up! Today. Right now. Thank you, Advent.
Perhaps you are looking forward to Christmas with great joy and anticipation. At the risk of throwing some cold water into your collective faces, I want to suggest to you that on this first Sunday of Advent, we need to pause. Before we can celebrate the birth of Jesus, we need to be prepared to die. Whether you are laboring in the fields or grinding meal in your houses, you need to be ready, not for Santa Claus, but for that thief that comes unexpectedly in the night.
Jesus once said to his disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I used to have a lot of expectations for my life. I had expectations for my marriage, my career, and my family. I had expectations about our children, our church, our community, our country, and our world. And I was taught that I must prepare for whatever might happen. I lived in fear that I would be caught unawares and unprepared. I locked my doors, closed my windows, and shut down my spiritual house. Basically, I had no expectations of God, only humanity. Essentially, I was spiritually sleepwalking through life, thinking I had all the time in the world to get my act together and my house in order.
Jodi Picault wrote in her book, Small Great Things, “We all do it, you know. Distract ourselves from noticing how time’s passing. We throw ourselves into our jobs. We focus on keeping the blight off our tomato plants. We fill up our gas tanks and top off our Metro cards and do the grocery shopping so that the weeks look the same on the surface. And then one day, you turn around, and your baby is a man. One day, you look in the mirror, and see gray hair. One day you realize there is less of your life left than what you’ve already lived. And you think, ‘How did this happen so fast? ”
Not so fast, our scripture readings say to us this morning! We can’t move from one holiday to the next so quickly. Wake up. Pay attention. We have no idea how much time is left, regardless of our age or our life circumstances. No one knows. Only God. All we have is today.
I remember a time I spent at the College of Preachers in Washington D.C. when our group was assigned the task of attending a movie on our first night together. Feeling like kids on a field trip, we all piled into cars and headed for the local theater. Loaded up with popcorn, we bantered back and forth among us, and then settled down to watch a movie entitled ''My Life as a House.'' Unexpectedly, our banter quickly turned to silence, then tears, and occasionally shock.
George was the main character in, 'My Life as a House.' The movie opened with George receiving the terrible news that he had terminal cancer, and only 4 months to live. A divorced middle-aged man, unexpectedly, he had also lost his job. Furthermore, George was estranged from his son, who lived with his ex­ wife, her new husband, and their children. Like Noah, George felt as if the flood was about to come, and it was time for him to start building his ark. And so George invited everyone to rebuild his house with him before he died, and together they did. In the end, he was prepared to die because he began to live in a new and different way.
At times like these, we claim that we were hit ''out of the blue", unexpectedly, and without forewarning. We argue that we had no time to prepare. And so when the message comes in all its fullness, it seems dramatic, undeserved, and harsh. And we feel as if it’s too late to save our jobs, our health, our relationships, and our planet.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and Jesus’ words in the gospel are little Advent warning signs for us today. They are the buzzers that wake us up, and invite us to get our communal and personal houses in order. They tell us to slow down and pay attention. They invite us to consider our priorities, the ways in which we live, and remind us that it is never too late.
Many years ago, I attended a Christian formation class during Lent, when we used a book called Ready to Live: Prepared to Die. I was in my 30’s at the time, and was probably the youngest person in the class. It was led by a woman in our church, who was in her 70’s, and for whom I had the greatest respect. I remember asking her one time about Jesus. How could she be so sure about Him and His story?
Today, I believe in Jesus. I came to believe over time, in His story and in our salvation story through a church community much like yours. Through my own life experiences and in listening to the stories of others, I began to see the hand of God at work in our world, the face of Jesus in others, and the power of the Spirit everywhere. I came to believe in a power greater than us, in a power that can raise us from death to life, and a power that can show us the Way to live, not only now but forever. I came. I came to. And then I came to believe. It changed my life. Thank you, Jesus.
Today, I believe that we are all floating on God’s grace, and so not even global warming or unexpected floods can wash us away. I also believe that we are filled with God’s grace; each of us has a spring of living water within us, given to us at creation, replenished at baptism, and renewed with every Eucharist. With a collective force that flows into our world, together, we can put out some of those raging fires. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Be gracious. Be generous. Be kind. Today.
When we put on the Lord Jesus, we live differently. We live in new and different ways. In a song entitled Wake Up Everybody, John Legend sang these words:
Wake up everybody no more sleepin' in bed
No more backward thinkin' time for thinkin' ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be
There is so much hatred war and poverty
Wake up all the builders time to build a new land
I know we can do it if we all lend a hand
Today, I try to live with only one expectation: I expect that God’s grace will break into our lives at all times, in all places, and under every circumstance. Advent is our alarm clock, reminding us of God’s grace, and the beginning of our salvation story. Even as our days and nights darken with the winter solstice, I trust that God’s light will lead us home, as surely as the north star led those shepherds long ago. God’s Christmas present to us is surely coming. Wait for it. Prepare for it, by making a place in your heart for the birth of Jesus. And remember, Jesus is already here. Jesus is in the House. Right now. Right here. Today. Thank you, God.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Now is the Time

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

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, by the might of Your Spirit, lift us we pray into Your presence, so that we may be still and know that You are God.

Last time I was here with you at St. Peter’s, it was in the middle of August and nearly 100 degrees in temperature. The gospel passage assigned for that Sunday was Jesus telling his disciples that he had come not to bring peace to the earth but rather division. And while today’s November temperature is much cooler than the last time I was here, the political temperature is not. Just call me Captain Obvious.

I find today’s gospel lesson as challenging as it was in August. “As for these things that you see,” Jesus said, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Scary things will happen, Jesus warned the crowds.  “Nation will rise against nation; there will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues. They will arrest you and persecute you, there will be family betrayals, and some people will even die.” Call me Captain Obvious again, but today I feel as if Jesus is the anchor of our current news station.

Perhaps you remember that my husband Paul and I are Red Sox fans. In October, we attended Papi’s last game which was when the Red Sox were defeated by the Cleveland Indians.  Your rector, Christian, and I, and some of you here at St. Peter’s, attended our Diocesan Convention recently, where the bishop began his homily by asking people who had supported the Chicago Cubs (the blue team) to stand up. Then he asked those who had supported the Cleveland Indians (the red team) to stand up. The room was obviously divided, but not very evenly. Clearly more people favored the Cubs.

Now I’m not going to ask you stand up if you supported Hillary Clinton (the blue team) or Donald Trump (the red team). Often we tend to hang out with people who are similar to us; and yet we may also seek diversity in our communities and churches so that we can hear from a variety of perspectives, and appreciate the diversity of God’s creation. Perhaps like me, you had family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors who voted very differently from you this year. Maybe not. But regardless of your choice for president, I dare say that most of us were disgusted by the disrespectful dialogue, the dishonesty, and the lack of civility that is still evident. Many of us are distrustful of what is being reported and what is being promised - fearful about what is happening or what might happen to our country in the future. Most of us believe that it’s going to take a very long time to heal and to reconcile such deep and bitter divisions among us.

“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right,” said St. Paul to the very earliest Christian community in Thessalonica. Not unlike them, and Jesus, we too can see unjust political, economic, and religious systems that are crushing hard-working and faithful people, that are crushing ourselves, our souls, and bodies so that we cannot breathe. Like them, it can be tempting for us to give up, to become mere busybodies, all talk and no action, and to quit working faithfully and peacefully for justice and mercy for all God’s beloved people. It is easy to get weary with life’s challenges and sinful systems; and it’s not always easy to “do the next right thing.”

Bishop Gates, in a letter to the people of our diocese, wrote this: “Our national election is behind us, leaving in its wake a legacy of bitterness and hostility. For some, alienation is the apparent reason for the election’s outcome; for others alienation is its result. In either case, we face grievous division and manifest anxiety. At our recent Diocesan Convention I cited the hazard of viewing the world in terms of winners and losers–a framework which propels us towards adversarial relationships, and self-concern over communal well-being.”

“Now is not a time to live out (our) habitual behaviors of winners and losers. (Rather) now is a time to rededicate ourselves to the Christian ideal of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility which divide us (Ephesians 2:14). Now is a time to rededicate ourselves to the American ideal of liberty and justice for all.” (end quote) Or as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Before he was elected president of the United States, and while he was serving our country in World War 2, President Kennedy had to swim 3 miles to shore after his PT boat was destroyed by the enemy. With words that were at times encouraging, and at other times demanding, Kennedy exhorted his companions to keep on swimming, and not give up. They could all see the distant land. They hoped that they could make it. But first, they had their work cut out for them. They had to swim.

At times of high stress and transition, it is easy to lose our focus, or to panic, and forget the basics of how to swim in cold waters. It feels easier to destroy people and their properties, literally or figuratively, rather than doing the painstaking work of choosing to do the “next right thing.” It’s hard to endure team losses, or life’s disappointments, or deep divisions when we feel the chains of oppression around our wrists, the bars of injustice limiting our potential, dark nights that crowd out distant hopes, and threats of death that, like sharks, can circle in the waters all around us, unseen beneath the surface, before they strike. Sometimes the Promised Land seems so far off that we feel as if we shall surely drown in our own tears before we arrive.
But here’s the gospel truth that can set us free, at least for today. Regardless of our political party, our gender, our race, our socio-economic status, or even our nationality, “those people” are us. We are them; and they are us, and we’re all in this boat together. As President Obama recently said, “We’re all on the same team.” As beloved children of God, we may feel as if our PT boat is too small, and headed for disaster, but the ocean of God’s love is far greater.

The day that is coming belongs to God. That time is near; and that time is now. “Do not be terrified,’ Jesus said. “Not a hair of your head will perish; and by your endurance you will gain your souls.” During these times of trial and tribulation, do not worry about your “defense in advance; for Jesus will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Now is the time for all of us to be spiritual leaders who both encourage and exhort others to swim.  

While the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven may guide us in our dark nights at sea, and perhaps even bring us some feelings of comfort and peace, Christ is our true north, and He is the guiding light that will lead us safely home. Jesus’ mission of reconciliation was accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection. None of us are alienated any more. None of us are aliens on God’s sacred land. Now and forever, we are all united in Christ, swimming in an ocean of God’s love, and we need to trust the Spirit’s leadership.

I want to close with the words of Gunilla Norris from her book called Inviting the Silence, Universal Principles of Meditation. (quote) “The experience of silence is now so rare that we must cultivate it and treasure it. This is especially true for shared silence. Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act. When we can stand aside from the usual, and perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen. Our lives align with deeper values, and the lives of others are touched and influenced.”

“Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses, to ourselves. It locates us. Each of us can make a difference. Politicians and visionaries will not return us to the sacredness of life, that will be done by ordinary men and women, who together or alone can say, ‘Remember to breathe, remember to feel, remember to care. Let us do this for our children and ourselves and our children’s children. Let us practice for life’s sake.” (end quote)

The votes are in. Divisive words have been spoken; and our body politic has been broken. Now is the time for silence. Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for us to be on God’s mission of reconciliation, renewal, and resurrection. Remember Jesus. And if anyone asks you about the challenges that we face, that is your opportunity to testify. Just say, “I’m with Him.” I’m with Jesus. So let’s start swimming. One breath at a time, one stroke at a time, with God’s grace, we shall all surely arrive at the Promised Land one day.  Amen.