Sunday, January 14, 2018
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
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.
Sunday, December 17, 2017
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Advent 3: December 17, 2017
Have you ever wondered about Jesus? I mean really wrestled with the question about who He was, who He is for you, and who He will be in the age to come? Advent is a time for just this kind of wrestling and wondering.
Back in the day, that time when Jesus and John the Baptist, lived and breathed and had their beings, many people wondered about them. It began with John the Baptist. People asked him, “Who are you? And what gives you the authority to do that?”
John the Baptist replied in the negative. He answered, “I am not the light. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. And no, I am not the prophet Isaiah.” “Then who are you?” the people demanded. “I am God’s witness to the light,” John replied.
We have four gospel stories in our Bible. The gospel of Mark is known for its brevity and immediacy. Jesus is a man on God’s mission, running around exorcising demons, healing people, and calling fisherfolk to follow him. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we hear about the birth narratives of both John and Jesus, and how their lives unfold powerfully and tragically.
“Who is Jesus? And what authority does He have?” each gospel writer has asked. On this third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist answers, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” My job is to “testify to the light,” John said to the crowd, “so that all might believe through him.”
Many people throughout the ages have wondered about Jesus and his authority. “Was Jesus human or divine?” Was he just a failed prophet, like so many others who had gone before him, like John the Baptist and Isaiah? Or was Jesus divine, the Messiah, and the Light that shines eternally? Was He truly the Word of God made flesh, who spoke with God’s power and authority?
Eventually, through the councils of the early church, people began to claim that Jesus was 100% fully human and 100% fully divine. Creeds were created to witness to our faith and tell the short story about Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again. The gospel of John claims that “everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.” Do you believe this?
I didn’t. At least I didn’t until, like the gospel writers, I too had experienced Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I was baptized, not in the river Jordan, but in a baptismal font in the United Church of Christ. As a child, I remember the wonder of Christmas eve services, hustling out to our car from the church in the bitter cold, shielding the light of my candle with my hand, using this little light of mine to dispel my own darkness. I didn’t wonder about who Jesus was back then. I just worshipped Him, hoped in Him, and trusted Him.
In my teenage years, my wondering took a new turn. Like the demons in Mark’s gospel, I would ask Jesus, “Who are you? And what do you have to do with me?” I questioned so many things about God and Jesus that I chose not to be confirmed in the Presbyterian Church. In college, I identified myself as an agnostic, or someone who does not know; and then, later in my 20’s, I remember asking my next-door neighbor why she attended mass every Sunday, and why she even bothered to go to church. Her reply? “There are so many transitions in my life,” she said, “it’s the one place I can feel anchored and grounded."
Our babies were born 18 months apart, and in the traditions of our families, Paul and I baptized them both into the life of Christ, first at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Walpole, Massachusetts, and then at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown,Connecticut. It was there, as a young mother, that my wondering about Jesus began in earnest. Who was this guy? And what did He have to do with me, Paul, Megan, and Brian?
I wanted answers, and like a woman on a mission, I began to seek them. I attended Bible study every week and then Education for Ministry for four years. I joined the pastoral care team and then the vestry. I got involved in our outreach committee and helped create a transitional living facility for homeless women and their children. I was part of the town’s Local Housing Partnership and Habitat for Humanity, partnerships that created new and affordable housing in our communities. I visited people in the hospital and those in prison. My mission was to become a part of God’s mission.
The battle about Jesus that was raging within the early Christian and Jewish communities also raged within my own heart. Who was Jesus and who was Jesus for me? for my family? And for my neighbors? If Jesus was not divine, then why did I worship him? If Jesus was not human, then what did he know about me and my life or yours?
Jesus might be tight with His Father in heaven, but too often I’m not. Although he ate and drank with sinners, Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with addictions, as some of my family members and many of you have. I wondered about the extent of His suffering. Had he not died early in his 30’s, never having been married, raised children, nor faced the challenges of his mother’s old age, let alone his own? Does three hours of suffering on a cross compare to a lifetime on the streets or being trapped in a body that is riddled with disease?
How is it then that my voice, crying out in the wilderness, has become the voice of one who proclaims, ‘make straight the way of the Lord?’ Quite simply, through the power of God’s Spirit. Through scripture, I began to know that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. It is through the body of Christ that I have come to know the One who stands among us, who made me worthy to stand before Him. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that I have seen His face, heard His voice, and felt His healing touch. Like a slow drip of water on a stone, my heart has been changed, and my life continues to be transformed.
The birth of a baby is always a cause for great wonder. It is an opportunity for fresh starts, big dreams, and new life. In awe, we can marvel at the beauty of God’s creation. We can look upon a baby in the manger and see many reasons for hope. We can see a vulnerability that has not yet been marred by human unkindness, a dependency on others that is age appropriate, and soft skin that has not yet been hardened by human toil or abuse. This new life is almost always protected; and babies will often bring us to our knees, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
While human beings, like me and John the Baptist, may baptize with water, God baptizes with the Holy Spirit, which is beyond our human understanding or control. Such power can bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim release to the captive, and comfort to all who mourn. Such power can even raise the dead into eternal and resurrected life.
Our Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, also testifies to that light today. He said (quote) “The truly liberating truth is that Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion, though religious faith is important. Nor did he establish a religious institution or organization, though institutions and organizations can serve his cause. Jesus came to continue a movement, born out of the prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist.” (end quote) This movement is called the Jesus movement and it is the life-giving, liberating love of God, unleashed for all of us to receive, each and every day, through the power of the Spirit.
Who is Jesus? He is the living Word of God, who speaks to us daily, sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, sometimes silent. He is the Bread of Life, who feeds our hungry hearts. He is the living Water, who quenches our thirst and washes away our sins. Who is Jesus? He is the Good Shepherd, who finds us when we’re lost, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is the Light of the world that shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Through Him, I am a child once again, who can walk into the cold and bitter nights of winter, carrying my little candle in front of me, knowing that God’s hand will shield me and that God’s Spirit will guide me. Who is Jesus? He is the One who I have come to know standing among us, the thong of his sandal I am not worthy to untie. He is the Resurrection and the Life, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
And what about you? How do you come to the Table today? Are you struggling with pain, emptiness, and sorrow? Are you still wondering about Jesus? Or do you come rejoicing, expectant, and hopeful? Either way, come to the table and be fed by Jesus. Then, join the Jesus Movement, trust in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and be a witness to the Light. Amen.
Monday, December 4, 2017
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.