Sunday, June 24, 2018

Stay Calm, Shut up and Pray


The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling                 St. Gabriel's, Marion, Massacusetts

I’m grateful to Geoffrey for his invitation to me to join you today here at St. Gabriel’s in Marion. Our daughter’s first mission trip was to West Virginia and so I’m delighted to support your rector, Deacon Cathy, and your youth on their trip there this week. I found your parish history fascinating - how your chapel was founded by Admiral Harwood who, when he was in a storm at sea, called upon the Angel Gabriel for deliverance. As he pleaded with God to save him, he promised to build a church in Marion - if he survived. And so, here I am reading today’s gospel about this very same issue.
            How about those storms? While I was serving at St. Paul’s in Riverside, Connecticut, in 2001 we could see the plumes of smoke rising from the Twin Towers. Accustomed to hearing planes overhead, suddenly there was a dead calm after that storm. Before then, we lived in Newtown, Connecticut, where our children attended Sandy Hook School, fortunately long before the horrific shooting that occurred in 2012. And friends told me about the tornadoes that touched down there recently; one friend said that she was in her car on the interstate when everything suddenly turned black. All the cars around her came to a standstill, and things started flying through the air. She said that she didn’t know what to hold onto during that terrifying time.
            Storms come in various sizes and shapes, don’t they? We weather political, socio-economic, religious, and personal storms. We experience natural and unnatural disasters. Whether these storms are physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual they are terrifying. We feel vulnerable, powerless, and at a loss. We want to feel safe, and so we look for ways to protect ourselves and others, especially those we love. As the winds of chaos swirl around us, and the waves of destruction batter our boats, we cry out for help. Or we go silent. For many people, sleep escapes them.
            Clearly the disciples were awake that night. They have spent the last few days with Jesus, who has already been called Satan by the scribes, accused of being crazy by his family members, and publicly shamed by the leaders of his own faith community. During this same time, he has cast out demons, cured Simon’s mother-in-law, cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic, and a man with a withered hand. As new disciples, perhaps they too were wondering, “Who is this Jesus anyway?”
After teaching about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, “on that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” Now there is an expression used, sometimes in jest, and sometimes seriously, when we say, “They’ve gone to the dark side.” When Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side,” his disciples know that they are going “to the dark side.”
What does a “dark side” look like? The disciples have left their homes and their jobs to follow Jesus, and they have gotten into a boat at night to go to a foreign country. When they arrived, they are greeted by a demoniac, not exactly your typical newcomers’ welcoming committee. The dark side is any unknown territory, those times and places when we take risks, step onto unfamiliar ground, stick our necks out, and go to that side of human nature where we may encounter dark emotions, dangerous thoughts, spiritual warfare, and hostile acts.
It’s easy to find comparisons in today’s scripture lessons about the storms that are raging all around us about immigration. Although, migration is as old as our beginnings in Africa, and is woven throughout our Judeo-Christian stories, it is a topic that engenders great emotion, especially when it involves children. In most cases, there are good reasons for these migrations; and yet immigrants, whether they are legal or not, endure hardships much like the ones that St. Paul described in his letter to the Corinthians. In fact, St. Paul knew these experiences first hand as a new disciple of Jesus.
One of my favorite books is called the Life of Pi. In it, a God-loving boy named Pi, who practices not only his native Hinduism but also Christianity and Islam, emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship with his family and their zoo animals. On their way to the other side, the boat sinks during a storm, and only Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a 450 pound Bengal tiger survive. Driven by despair and self-preservation, they fight with one another, enduring the sun and the sea without protection, while they each struggle to stay alive in their own little ways.
 “Do you not care that we are perishing?” cry the disciples to Jesus in the middle of their storm. Unlike Admiral Harwood, however, the disciples weren’t crying for help, or making promises to God; they just wanted to know if Jesus cared. Shouting at him, they woke him up! Woke him up! How could Jesus possibly be asleep in this raging storm?
There are many explanations for his sleep. Aside from the possibility of a temporary escape from reality, maybe Jesus hoped to slip away from the crowds unnoticed, and go to a place where no one knew him. Perhaps Jesus didn’t want to waste daylight time to travel, and so he used the nighttime instead. Given Jesus’ grueling schedule, he needed to rest, and catch a few “z’s”, before he was “on” again. Or maybe Jesus just knew that it was safer to slip into a foreign country under the cover of night. What I find most interesting, however, is that according to the Old Testament, the word ‘asleep’ is a typical posture of trust in God.
Another very curious phrase is that the disciples “took Jesus with them; just as he was.” Really? As if he couldn’t walk on his own? Was he really that exhausted? Or helpless, like baggage that needed to be picked up and thrown on board? Did they take him like a sleeping child, vulnerable and trusting in his caregivers, who would then fasten him into his seat, for a safe ride to the other side? So how was Jesus, really?
Where is God, in whom we trust, at times like these? Is God asleep, while we lie awake all night, trying to steer our boats into safe harbors. Who is in the boat with us, anyway? Are there Bengal tigers that want to kill and eat us, fighting for their own survival as well? What can we hold onto at times like these: of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger,” when turbulent waters threaten to sink us and windstorms hurl us into the dark?
Like Admiral Harwood, I often bargain with God. We make promises that we’ll clean up our lives, or create new laws, or repair our relationships with others, if God will just wake up and make the storms stop. We call each other by names, fight for our own survivals, and run on motors of fear, rather than with faith in God and in each other. We wonder, like the disciples, if Jesus really cares, or if He is just sleeping comfortably in the stern of God’s Big Boat in the sky?
Well, fortunately for the disciples, Jesus responded to the shouts of his followers and woke up. Using the same language he used with the demons, Jesus rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” In the vernacular, the Greek word for ‘Be still’ means, ‘Shut up.’ And so, the “wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”
“Dead calm?” I wondered. Is this another play on words by Mark? Was this the eye of the storm, like Trump’s recent executive order, or the temporary air restrictions over New York city, before the shouting and warfare started up again with similar fury? I wondered, would the disciples and Jesus make it safely to the other side, or would they face yet another terrifying storm before they arrived? “Shut up!” I say to the voices in my head and all around me during my storms. I want peace and quiet too, so that I can think and pray, so that I can discern the gospel truth. So that I can say and do the next right thing.
            Jesus’ response to the disciples is also curious. Some think that Jesus rebuked them also, telling them to shut up, and be still. He asked them why they were afraid; and yet, their fear was real. As Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, “Being fearful in a storm at sea is not exactly irrational like pogonophobia, that is a fear of beards.”
So the fear of the disciples is real and rational; but what about that faith question. Up until this point, Jesus had shown them that the power of God can do anything. And now Jesus showed them once again. Perhaps, with mouths hanging open in disbelief, the disciples’ fear turned into yet another kind of fear, which is translated as “great awe.” This fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, when we also ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Your church was named after St. Gabriel, who is honored in many faith traditions. St. Gabriel is a messenger of God - who, like Jesus, communicated God’s will for God’s people. We remember St Gabriel for the time when he told Mary that she was with child. That child was Jesus: the One who revealed God’s strength and power in human flesh, and wants all people to be reconciled to God and each other, and live in peace. And so, St. Paul speaks to us as little children, inviting us to open wide our hearts and let this child come in.
 Fear and awe demand that we be still and know that God is present at all times, in all places, and with all people. God is with us in the boat, above us in the skies, under us in the waters, and in the winds that blow all around us. God is with us in wounded Zebras and Bengal tigers, in the old man by the sea and the young child at home, in screaming hyenas and funny orangutans, in every country and all conditions. God is with us when Life is fruitful, and when Life is frightening. A UCC pastor in Canada named Justin Joplin wrote, “The disciples discovered that sticking close to Jesus was what really mattered.”  (6/19/18, www.d365.org, Justin Joplin)
            Jesus is with us, just as He was then, is now, and will be forevermore, no matter the lands that we leave, the oceans we cross, nor the shores upon which we arrive. Until then, I say, let’s be still and pray, be Christ’s messengers of reconciliation and peace, and trust in the power of God to heal and save us. Amen.

1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Psalm 9:9-20
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41


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 thy Spirit lift us, we pray,
that we may be still and know that You are God. Amen.





Sunday, June 17, 2018

Growing Seeds and Shrubs


 The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling        St. Paul's Lynnfield           Mark 4:26-34       
  
            It’s good to be with you again today, and I am grateful for Rob’s most recent invitation. Last time I was here, I had to leave quickly because my husband Paul and I were going to the Celtics basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In case you’re not a wild and crazy fan like me, you will know that the Celtics lost the playoff series against the Cavaliers in the 7th and final game - at home. The Cavaliers were then soundly defeated by the Golden State Warriors in the national playoffs. While the basketball season is officially over for now, the Celtics teamwork, training, and playing is not. Seeds are already being planted for next year; and the Celtics have a purpose: to be next year’s NBA national champions.
Do you have a purpose? Does this community of St. Paul’s have a purpose? For if you aren’t clear about why you’re part of the Jesus movement, as a member of the Christian community, then life can seem not only meaningless, but also defeating. Without a clear vision of who you are and what you have to offer, life can wear you down. You can lose your way; and there will be temptations to give up.
Jesus had a vision and a purpose, not only for himself but also for his people. He used parables to teach everyone around him; and at the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, Jesus told three parables. He pointed to the landscape in front of him and compared it to the kingdom of God. In the first parable, Jesus said, “Listen! A sower went out to sow seeds.” Some of these seeds fell on a busy path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good soil. Presumably, the Sower is God, the seeds are God’s Word, and the soil is you and me. Jesus was asking the crowd around him, “So what kind of soil are you?”
In today’s gospel, Jesus continues with two shorter parables. In the first one, which is the second of these three, a sower scatters seed on the ground. We don’t know what kind of ground it is, but the seed grows, even though the sower, who sleeps and rises night and day, does not know how. The emphasis here is not on the sower of the seed, or the soil upon which it has landed, but rather on the growth of the seed, from its very beginning, throughout its life, and to its end at harvest time.
It is worth noting that this particular parable is found only in the gospel of Mark; and so its uniqueness begs some questions. Why did Mark include it in his gospel? What purpose did it serve? And in terms of its placement, between the first parable about the Sower and the third one about the mustard seed, why did Mark put it there, in between these two?
In the third parable Jesus talks about a tiny mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows into a great shrub. Although named, the kind of seed is not really important; rather its purpose is to grow into a shrub, something new and different and with another kind of purpose. The size of the shrub is not really important either; rather it becomes a shrub with many branches, that become resting places for birds and safe places for them to create and sustain new life. In this one tiny seed, and this one great shrub, God’s kingdom, and God’s purpose for us, is revealed.
Do you have a purpose? Does this community of St. Paul’s have a purpose? Are you a sower of seeds, or a certain type of soil, a tiny seed that grows into something new and different, or a shrub with many branches? Now, at this point, you and I may be tempted to feel bad about our sizes, our soils, our efforts, and our shrubs. Dave McNeeley asks, “Do you ever feel like your best is never good enough? Not terrible, but just not . . . enough? The mustard seed feels your pain. Despite popular imagination, the mustard seed doesn’t blossom into a sequoia-sized tree. Instead, it grows into “the largest of all vegetable plants.”
“As it turns out, though, birds don’t need sequoias, and God doesn’t need the best of the best. A good image for God’s kingdom is something small, something easy to overlook, something on the border of insignificant. It’s the little things where God’s kingdom takes root – little things like a smile, a word of kindness, the faith that God can work with the smallest gifts we have to give.” (Dave McNeely, www.d365.org, June 14, 2018)
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, just like that tiny mustard seed. People and parishes that are on God’s mission are God-centered, recognizing that God is the Creator of our Garden, the Sower of many and diverse seeds, and that Jesus is the Master Gardener. The Holy Spirit is our Miracle Gro, and despite our soils, She will make things grow even if we do not know how.
When we are people on God’s mission, like our diocesan mission strategy claims, we are willing to embrace brave change, reimagine our congregations, build relationships, and engage our world. We will try new and different things, knowing that we will make mistakes; and yet we will remain confident, for Christ urges us on. We will sleep and rise every day, trusting that God is at work.
I love to tell the story of when Paul and I lived in a farming town in Connecticut. The previous owners of our house were environmentalists who loved to create gardens and take care of them. Unfortunately, Paul and I have a different history. 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 our grass seed and so it was scorched by the summer sun. Even so, when we moved into this house in Connecticut, Paul was excited to try gardening once again. I was not.
Reluctantly, I agreed to help, but I created my own little garden. In passive aggressive resistance, I did nothing with the 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 labor, 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. I relied much too heavily upon God and Paul.
Paul and I both made mistakes. The busyness of our jobs became the hard path on which our good seeds fell. I forgot to water, and the sun shriveled my green beans, while Paul’s over-watering drowned his young plants. Neither of us had prepared our soil well. There was too little soil in mine, and his soil was worn out. Weeds, pests, and thorny roots, not to mention New England rocks, often stunted our plants growth. Deer routinely crashed over Paul’s fence and destroyed his vegetables. My garden, on the other hand, unprotected by a fence, became a feast for the rabbits.
  This second parable gives me hope. Located between the Sower and the tiny mustard seed, it is good news for me! Perhaps unaware of the seeds that have been sown, or the kind of ground upon which they have landed, I still know that some seeds will sprout and grow, and I won’t know how. God will produce good things even in the worst of my soils, the hardness of my heart, the size of my garden, and the busyness of my life. And yet, Jesus also reminds me that a harvest day will come, and so He urges me on. Jesus invites me to grow and create new life.
Our Church, and our world, with all its diversity and variety, has many kinds of soil upon which God’s seeds are constantly being planted. All creatures and nations, great and small, however, will destroy some of those seeds; and so we must tend our gardens daily and protect them. Together we must weed out the seeds of discontent, despair, and destruction with unfailing regularity. As co-laborers in God’s garden, as team members of the Jesus movement, we are called for a purpose: to sow more seeds of love, to create good soil, to provide branches, to protect the fruit of our labors, and to tend our garden, trusting that God will provide the growth.
There is a book entitled Seeds of Hope, a compilation of essays by Henry Nouwen. Our seed of hope is Jesus. If we have faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, then “nothing is impossible” for God. Out of our own tiny seeds of faith, hope, and love we too can become a great shrub. Together, we have many branches that will provide resting places and nesting spaces for God’s people of great diversity. In Christ, we can become a new creation.
When life gets too hard, the sun gets too hot, the rain is relentless, the creatures seem dangerous, the weeds are out of control, and we’re dirty and tired from our labor, it’s time to turn back to God. Each day is a new beginning in which God sows seeds of love no matter the conditions of our soils and our souls. Over time we shall grow up into the full stature of Christ until we too are ripe; and we shall even bear fruit in our old age. Our branches shall flourish like a palm tree and spread like a cedar; for we are all part of that great Tree of Life in this, God’s beautiful and eternal Garden.
Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Teams, Leadership, and Conflict


2 Pentecost, June 3, 2018   
All Saints Episcopal Church, Belmont
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling                                     1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

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

I recently came back from two conferences, which were offered by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois. One was a conference on church leadership and the other was on mediation skills training. Given the state of affairs in our world, in our nation, and in our Church today, I think these trainings are timely. Not only is conflict the “new normal” in our culture, it is also as timeless as the creation of our world. Indeed, today, in the gospel of Mark, we hear about the conflict between Jesus and the leaders of his synagogue.
When Paul and I were first married almost 44 years ago, we would occasionally go to the Celtics basketball games. Now that we’re back in Boston, and living within walking distance of TD Garden, Paul and I have picked up where we left off. We have seen conflict up close and personal, with players often erupting in the passion of a competitive moment. And that was not just on the court but also in the stands as well.
Team leadership is critical to any game, government, organization, or institution. I applaud the coach of the Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, and veteran team leader, Al Horford. Both men emphasize the importance of every individual player and the gifts that they bring to the team, even if they are not playing. They focus on positive strengths, see every game as a learning opportunity, and offer perspectives that are longer and deeper and wider than any one game or any one person. They talk about having fun, training hard, taking care of their bodies, giving their best, and being grateful for fans like Paul and me.
Paul and I were at the second playoff game on May 15, when the Celtics played against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tension was high as the Celtics came from behind during the 3rd quarter. The roars of jubilation mingled with boos of disagreement. In one particular play, Al Horford stole the ball from a Cavaliers player and went in for an easy lay-up. Rather than trying to block the ball, the Cavaliers player pushed Horford from behind, while he was still in the air and defenseless. Horford was vulnerable to harm; for such a push could have injured him, with consequences for both him and his team.
Marcus Smart, a Celtics team member, immediately confronted the Cavaliers player on the court. The refs called a “flagrant foul” on the Cavaliers player and technical fouls on both team members for creating the chaos that followed. No matter where you were, whether you were a spectator or a player, at home or in the Garden, cheering for the Celtics or for the Cavaliers, the behavior of these two players affected everyone. There were cheers and boos all around. Later in a post-game interview, Marcus Smart said, “We’re here to play basketball, and bullies like him need to be challenged on their behavior.” To his credit, the Cavaliers player confessed his error, his lapse in judgment during the intensity of the game.
            Jesus and the religious leaders of his time were playing a game as well. Like basketball, they were following the rules that had been established by their faith community a very long time ago. The moral imperative of their laws was to do good and not harm, to preserve life and not kill. As leaders, it was their practice to debate these rules, to interpret them and revise them, and to teach others how to abide by them. The laws that began with the 10 commandments were created with the intention of helping community members keep their lives focused on loving God, loving self, and loving neighbor.
The rabbis were not only teachers of their faith but also the referees of their people. Fouls were called sins; and if these sins were intentional, they were called flagrant. If they were unintentional, simply a consequence of living with intensity and passion, then they were considered technical and yet were still called sin.
As in every game, whether it is basketball, politics, religion, or just plain life, there will be conflict. We are all guilty of sin, despite our best intentions. We are also affected by the sins of others whether we are actually playing in the game, sitting on the bench, cheering from the stands, or watching T.V. at home. Conflict is also a growth opportunity; for in every instance, we can learn something new about God, ourselves, and others.
As in basketball, there were many and various teams during the time of Jesus. Two are mentioned today in the gospel of Mark: the Pharisees and the Herodians. Each of these groups held power. The Herodians held political power, while the Pharisees held religious power. They were often at odds with one another, arguing like our political and religious leaders today, over the rules and regulations of their lives. Perhaps it’s a technicality, like a traffic violation, or a deeper core value, like defending the sanctity of life, that creates the conflict; and so finding allies is part of the process for arguing your point. Despite their disagreements, one thing that united the Pharisees and the Herodians was opposing Jesus.
Tom Long, professor emeritus of preaching at Candler School of Theology, wrote, “People who do God’s will run afoul of all who are invested in another will - (which is) their (own will). The Pharisees know full well that saving life and doing good are lawful on the Sabbath. It’s just that Jesus’ opponents are not in worship that day to fulfill God’s will. They were there to gather evidence.” After Jesus healed the man’s hand, the Pharisees “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”  (Christian Century, May 9, 2018) 
Today, Jesus invites them and us not only to look at the heart of the matter and conflict, but also within ourselves. What is the purpose of this law, and what are our intentions? What is the impact of our rules and rituals on other people? “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asked the Pharisees. Did they truly want to do good and save life or were they just hanging on to their political and religious power? 
 Jesus knew that their religious laws were intended to help the real needs of God’s people, and He was grieved at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. If someone is suffering, perhaps with a withered hand, or a broken heart, would God not want their healing?  If someone is hungry for justice and mercy, or just a simple meal, should we not feed them to sustain their life? Was the synagogue a place for people to find God or to bump up against human barriers and meaningless rituals? Was the Sabbath a time intended to love God, themselves, and others or to find evidence in our conflicts against each other?
Churches, St. Paul tells us, are the Body of Christ; and we are all important members of that Body. In his 1st letter to the Church in Corinth, he writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” Yes, conflict will erupt everywhere because we are passionate about our needs, our wants, and our human perspectives. A withered hand and a hungry stomach are cries for help; and yet cries for help come to us daily from all parts of our Body. With God’s help, however, we can honor each other, even when we disagree. We can even love our enemies through prayer.
Conflict was everywhere and between everyone during these times in the early church; and so St. Paul reminds the church in this 2nd letter to the Corinthians that although we may be afflicted in every way, (we are not) crushed; perplexed, (we are not ) driven to despair; persecuted, (we are not) forsaken; struck down, (we are not) destroyed; (for we are) always carrying in (our) body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
From the very beginning of time, God, who created us in goodness, traces our journeys, knows our resting-places, and is acquainted with all our ways. Indeed, God gave us coaches, referees, and veteran team leaders to show us the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Yes, we are all clay pots; and yet, we have a treasure, an extraordinary power within us, that cannot be stopped.
That treasure is God. It is a light that shines in our darkness. It is the promise of God’s reconciling love for everyone given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And so, we do not proclaim ourselves but the love of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Even today, we are part of the Jesus movement - witnesses to our life-giving, liberating, loving God, who seeks to do us good and not to harm us, and to sustain our lives even beyond death.
During the playoff games at TD Garden, various sponsors provided t-shirts for the fans. A new one would appear on every seat in the Garden before each game. On their last game against the Cavaliers, the T-shirt had two words on them: “Game Face.” The t-shirts were a call to action. Put on your Game Face tonight, the T-shirt said; for this is the final playoff game between the Cavaliers and the Celtics.
And so, yes, Paul and I had our game faces on last Sunday night, as did all the basketball players on that court, team members on the sidelines, and all the fans wherever they were. Despite our home court advantage, our enthusiastic cheers and our heartfelt boos, our Celtics team lost. And yet, after the final buzzer, there was one last play. Cavaliers and Celtics players wandered all over the court and gave each other hugs, signs of their mutual love for the game and their respect for each other.
While the Celtics basketball season may be over for now, our Christian season is not. Like the Celtics, the long green season of our training year has just begun. Jesus was a game changer, then and now, and He has two words for us today: “Game Face!”  Get your game face on, Jesus says: Do good, save life, play by the rules, love everyone, and believe in the power of God. And don’t forget, we’re all on the same human team. Amen.


           
















Sunday, May 13, 2018

Joy


                             7th Sunday after Easter, May 13, 2018

Church of the Good Shepherd, Reading, Massachusetts
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling


First, I’d like to thank your rector, Brian, for his invitation to me to join you today. He said, “You will enjoy this community!” And so, I took a look at your website, and watched the video that you’ve posted there, to get a glimpse of who you are and what I might enjoy. What beautiful and joyful expressions of life, I saw! What joyful invitations of love, I heard. What a great community, I said to myself!
The words that we hear today in the gospel of John have come to be known as Jesus’ “high-priestly” prayer. His prayer is one of intercession, in which Jesus asks God to protect and comfort His disciples while they remain in the world. Jesus is praying for us even today. Knowing that He was about to die, Jesus said to His Holy Father, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Today, I want to speak about that joy.
Now joy is not the same thing as “being happy.” Don’t worry, be happy, as if we can easily dismiss the things that worry us. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, with wings like a butterfly, which flits in and out of our lives, moving from one flower to the next. Flowers and chocolate and Mother’s day cards (or a Cletics win today) may bring us momentary happiness, but not joy; for joy floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It is a deeper and more sustained reality that includes both suffering and sadness, as well as happiness and celebration. Joy is a birthing process that takes time, and effort, and involves other people in the creation of new life. Just ask Deacon Patrick, as you all prepare to share the joy of his priesthood at the end of this month!
I imagine most, if not all of you, know what I’m talking about. If you are a parent, you know what it’s like to watch your child stand and fall, hurt and be hurt, struggle and soar. When we are infants, our very first breath of life comes with a slap to our bottoms, in order to inflate our lungs. We all experience at some point the shock of getting good news and bad news, sometimes within minutes of each other. With cries of joy, mingled with tears of sadness, we learn to live in a broken and beautiful world.
            I am not an artist and so when it came time to draw pictures in kindergarten, I often struggled with what to do. I could play sports, and I did well on tests, but when it came to drawing pictures, or singing songs, or dancing in front of others, I became very self-conscious. And so I created one picture that I would draw over and over again even in my mind. It was my “go to” picture, which I thought would somehow protect me from the hard knocks of life, and comfort me by my denial of pain.
On the bottom left-hand corner of the page, I drew a gently sloping green mound, upon which there was one beautiful leafy tree, which was filled with bright red apples. In the top right hand corner was a brightly shining sun. And in the middle of the picture was a calm blue ocean that reflected the clear blue sky overhead. There were no butterflies flitting from flower to flower, nor stinging bees. There were no mosquitoes or gnats, just a few simple birds. This was my garden of Eden. It was a still-life picture of happiness, created for self-protection and comfort, reflecting a peaceful world.
            While my childish picture was simple, it did not reflect the truth of our human story, nor even the book of Genesis. In my picture, there were no angry storm clouds, with lightning bolts flashing from the heavens to the earth, like those times when someone took my toy, or stole my dignity, or when Jesus was crucified. There was no torrential downpours, like when my heart was broken or grief overwhelmed me.
There were no destructive tornadoes, whirlwinds of oppression and violence, or the barren ground of poverty and life on the streets. There were no scary monsters, who loomed on the horizon, or suddenly appeared like King Kong on my little holy mountain. Indeed, in my kindergarten picture, there were no human beings nor snakes that tempted me to pick one of those lovely red apples, or blame my partner. I had no siblings, no enemies, and no church members with whom I shared this fragile earth, my island home. In sum, there were no images of wickedness, nor evil, nor any destructive forces in my picture. Only sunshine.
At a very early age, while we may think that we are the center of the universe, we soon learn that we are not. We discover that we have needs and desires that go unmet, that we live in a world of competing demands, diverse people, and various viewpoints that lead to conflict. In today’s psalm, the very first psalm, the writer acknowledges that the wicked do exist. Over time, I’ve found that the psalms provide us with a more complex but equally beautiful picture of life.
The psalms express the full range of our human emotions. They scream outrage at our enemies and remind us that judgment day will come. They warn us not to walk in the ways of the wicked, nor linger in their courts, or sit in their seats. When I’m sad, I hear the psalmist say, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” And yet they also remind me that while weeping may spend the night, joy will come in the morning.
Captured by the word “joy” in today’s gospel and wanting joy to be complete within me, and within our world, I decided to read a new book called, “The Book of Joy.” It is co-written by a Jewish man, Douglas Abrams, who records a 5 day conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Christian priest in South Africa, and the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist Holy Leader, who became a refugee in India, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet some 50 years ago. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama came together to celebrate the happy occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. They talked about the nature of joy, the obstacles to joy, and the 8 pillars of joy. Joy, they said, is not found in the material world; rather it is a matter of both the mind and the heart. It is about our spiritual lives and our core values, rather than the physical world.
            Fear, anger, pain, wickedness, and suffering can either ennoble us or embitter us. Faced with reality, we can become despairing and cynical, harden our hearts and close our minds, or we can become more open, more faithful, more hopeful, and more loving. We can put our trust in God, who seeks our freedom and peace, our joy and happiness, our health and our salvation. But this mind and heart work, these holy men warn us, takes concentrated and daily attention. It involves struggle; and so it means we must pray like Jesus, meditating on God’s law day and night, praying to God for comfort and protection from the “evil on”, and remembering the power of God’s love.
When we see ourselves as only one tiny person in a world-wide community of 7 billion people, we broaden our perspective. When we listen to our common creation story, we remember that in the beginning, we are all fundamentally good people, created in the image of God, and intended to be a blessing to others, regardless of our diverse religious beliefs, our political viewpoints, and our social standing. We can choose love in a world that may choose hate. We can offer random acts of kindness, sing simple songs of joy, open our hearts and our red doors, and say that all are welcome in this place. We can live simply, so that all may simply live.
Joy accepts the reality that suffering and pain are a part of life. We can see that joy comes every morning, like the bluebird of happiness, reminding us that life is a precious gift from God, no matter our age, our circumstances, nor our condition. In the middle of the bad news, we can remember the Easter good news of Jesus, that through Him, God gave us eternal life. And so we can live now: one day at a time, one hour, one moment, and one breath at a time, choosing to be grateful in all circumstances.
Our hearts are restless until they find their rest and true home in God; and so our joy is finally made complete, when, like Jesus, we return to God, who is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journeys. Jesus said, “As the Father loved me, so too I have loved you. Remain in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.”
When I am angry and sad, or see suffering and pain, I remember that I am not alone. I remember the love of God as revealed to me in the life of Jesus, and I trust the power of God’s Spirit to sustain and empower me. When I’m longing for unity in our fractured and broken world, I remember that God offers us a peace that passes all understanding. Then, I paint a picture in my mind of God’s original creation, and then I paint another picture. In it, I am like “ a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.” And this time, in that garden of joy, there are 7 billion people with me. Like God and us, it is all good, all true, and all beautiful because we are all finally One with our Creator. Amen.


Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19
Psalm 1




Monday, April 16, 2018

Jesus, For Real?


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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Covenants and Injustice


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

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











Sunday, March 11, 2018

Fear, Faith, and Salvation



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

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

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