Monday, August 13, 2018

I am the Bread - A Dialogical Sermon


          The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling                          Emmanuel Church, West Roxbury


          Last week, I preached about the power of telling stories, like the story of Bathsheba and King David, and the importance of speaking the truth in love, as the prophet Nathan did when he confronted King David. David’s anger was greatly kindled, when he heard Nathan’s story about the rich man taking the poor man’s lamb; and so I talked about how our anger can reveal many things - like guilt, or injustice, sadness, fear, or hurt. I also spoke about the abuses and uses of power, and how there are power differentials in all of our relationships. For example there is a power differential between clergy and laity, and in some sense that is revealed when we preach from the pulpit. I stand above you and talk down to you or at you. You may or may not like and/or agree with what I say; and so your anger may be kindled. A captive audience, you may sit there fuming, or bored, or confused, and then just tune me out or walk out. Heaven forbid!
            Now, when I served in a parish in Connecticut, or at our Cathedral Church of St. Paul last year, I came to know the people in these communities because I was there almost every Sunday and most days in between. Depending upon the community and the possibilities offered in the scripture lessons for the day, I would occasionally offer what I call a “dialogical sermon.” That is, a sermon that is a dialogue between and among all of us. What I have discovered in my years of preaching is that this can be risky. Some people don’t like me stepping down from the pulpit, and talking with them, up close and personal. Some people feel that I am being paid to offer my professional reflections and not to hear yours. Introverts often like more time to process their thoughts, and some people are afraid to speak up because they might sound “stupid.” All of which is to say that I did a little research last week to see if I might take that risk with you this morning.
And guess what!? For better or worse, whether you like it or not, this morning’s sermon will be a dialogue. I’ll try to ease you into the process and keep it relatively simple. I will invite you to step out of your comfort zone and not worry too much about what you will say, trusting in the goodness of this community. I will also invite you to be open to learning from others through the power of the Spirit. Now please also forgive me, for I will get carried away with my own words, a besetting sin of preachers and extroverts like me, and a hard habit to break! I also would like to share with you some of the Biblical research that I did this week.
This morning I want to focus specifically on the words of Jesus, when He said, “I am the bread of life.” There is a 12 step saying, that says “I came to believe” which broken down means, first ‘I came’, then I ‘came to’, and then ‘I came to believe.” So let’s do that with Jesus’ words today when he said, “I am the bread of life” starting with:

I am.
1.         I want you now to fill in the blank. “I am……..blank.” Don’t think too long or hard, just offer the first word or phrase that comes to your mind; and if you’d raise your hand, I’ll call on each of you in turn. Perhaps we’ll go around more than once, and as always, if you do not want to participate for any reason, please don’t!  I’ll start….”I am Nancy.”  “I am excited to be here this morning.”  
2.         What do your ‘I am’ statements reveal about you or others?
     names
     vocations
     relationships
     moods
     something about you: the current state of your bodies, minds, heart, and spirits
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is known for his many “I am” statements
     I am the messiah
     I am the light of the world
     I am the good shepherd
     I am the gate
     I am the true Vine
     I am living water
     I am the bread of life
3.         What did Jesus mean when He said “I am”?
     I am not only 
     Son of Joseph and Mary
     Known to them from Nazareth
     Fisherman, rabbi, teacher, preacher and
     Identifying Himself with God

Victoria Lynn Garvey explains, “In Jesus’ day and culture, the God of Israel was understood to be the font of being, being itself. So for Jesus to identify himself beginning with that phrase (‘I am’) must have been something of a shock. Each ‘I am’ statement invites Jesus’ audience into a fuller understanding of him and his ministry. Jesus is claiming that as wonderful and life-giving as the manna once was, this second gift of bread from heaven - himself- is even more beneficial, even more life-giving.”

The Bread.  Jesus said, “I am the bread.”

1.         What kind of bread do you like and how do you like it served?
2.         What ingredients go into making bread?
3.         Why would Jesus say He is the bread?

We can interpret the words of scripture in many ways:
 literal, metaphorical, moral, spiritual.
     Jesus is not literally bread, like manna in wilderness
     Metaphorically, like manna, Jesus came from heaven, God
     Moral,the  bread is his body, flesh that he gives sacrificially
     Spiritual, believers will never be hungry, thirsty, die

Life.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

1.            What is life for you? What makes life worthwhile for you?
2.            What do you think Jesus meant when he said these words?

In Understanding the Fourth Gospel, Rudolph Bultmann, one of the greatest Biblical scholars of all time, claims that the whole message of Jesus in this gospel is to identify Himself as The Revealer.

Jesus reveals Himself not only as the son of Joseph but also Son of God:
     He is the Word of God.
     The presence of God.
     He reveals the actions of God.
     The life of God.
     The desire of God.
     The love of God.
This is what you do when you show up, and reveal parts of yourself to others, by what you say and do. You reveal the love of God as a Christian.

I’d like to end with a final story.
Alan Bentrup, of the Episcopal Church Foundation, wrote this:

There is a recent surge in interest around evangelism in The Episcopal Church, in part due to inspiration and interest drawn from Bishop Curry’s royal sermon. I love the energy and momentum around evangelism, but I worry that we often are blurring the lines between evangelism and marketing. Are we talking about how great our Presiding Bishop is, or how beautiful our parishes are, or how wonderful our music can be? Those are all good things, but they are marketing.

Evangelism is public witness to the Gospel. Evangelism is sharing the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  If we are to be Episcopal evangelists, we must proclaim that good news, what Jesus Christ has done in our lives.

As my family and I were moving last month, we stopped for lunch at a little diner in a small town in rural South Carolina. We were in line waiting to order, and a gentleman behind us in line said hi. My eight-year-old son, who will talk to anyone, asked him his name. A brief conversation followed in which we learned all about his construction business and what his kids are doing (you’ve got to love the South…)

He then asked what I did for a living, so I said I am an Episcopal priest. “I go to the Baptist church down the road,” he said, “but I don’t really consider myself Baptist. I’m a follower of Jesus, first and foremost. Where I go to church is secondary.”
This gentleman, who runs a two-man construction and demolition company in small-town America, knows what it means to be an evangelist. Evangelism isn’t about music. It isn’t about liturgy. It isn’t about church politics. It sure isn’t about clergy.
It’s about Jesus. And everything else is secondary.”

So, go be an evangelist. Reveal the good news of God’s love in the world, by what you say and by what you do; for you will reveal God’s love and the good news of Jesus through you.


2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51







Sunday, August 5, 2018

Power


The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling                              Emmanuel Church, West Roxbury


You can’t listen to the news today without hearing about someone’s abuse of power. Usually it involves a political leader somewhere in our world, from a particular nation, or as close as our State House. Or maybe it’s corrupt people who are working in a non-profit organization or an age-old institution. The #MeToo movement continues unabated; and we hear stories about leaders in our Churches of all denominations. Just recently, I personally heard two stories about the abuse of power: one was a doctor who was predatory, and another was a high-profile businessman whose ego and need for power got out of control.
So we all know that people abuse their power, regardless of their professions, their genders, their locations, or their socio-economic status. In truth, we are all guilty, for occasionally we abuse the power that we have, however much or little it is, and usually in less egregious and public ways. In families, as parents or children, in churches or as members of particular groups, we hurt each other, sometimes knowingly and intentionally, and sometimes not. We speak carelessly. We act willfully. We power over others to get our way.
I’ve just finished reading a book called Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It is the story of a mixed marriage between a Chinese professor and an American woman. They have three children, although Lydia, the middle child, is “the favorite child of her parents who are determined that she will fulfill the dreams that they were unable to pursue.” This book is described as a “profoundly moving story of a family, their secrets, and their longings.” Who among us has not had one or more dreams dashed, or kept secrets untold, or had longings unfulfilled? Who among us has not judged people who are different from ourselves in one way or another? Or used our power in ways that we regret?
Like the story of Lydia’s family, and the story of David and Bathsheba, secrets can kill us. So can abuses of power. Clearly, both Uriah and Bathsheba were powerless in their relationships with King David. The king used Bathsheba for his own personal pleasure, and then in an attempt to hide his behavior, and perhaps protect Bathsheba, he tried to deceive her husband. When that failed, Joab, under orders from his king, colluded with him and arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. Supposedly no one would know of this betrayal except King David and Joab.
How then do we confront the bad behavior of others, especially people who have power? How do we not collude with people who ask us to stay silent or do things against our conscience? How do we deal with our own power and behavior?
Today’s lesson from 2nd Samuel provides some answers. First, we recognize the potential for abuse when we see that there are power differentials in our relationships. Children are less powerful than adults, which is why two year-olds begin to claim their own power by saying “no.”  In general, women of color are considered to be at the bottom of the power pole, with white men at the top; and lay persons may feel powerless over the requests of clergy. Nathan gave voice to the powerless; so too can we.
Power differentials are legion and variable. They include not only our ages, genders, colors, and vocations, but also money, legal status, birth order, and things like reputation. And yet, everyone has a place and a purpose, a variety of gifts given to us by God. Some will be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, others pastors and teachers.
Our communities are different as well. For example, Trinity Church in Copley Square is not like Emmanuel Church; and yet each community is equally important as members of the Body of Christ and in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Emmanuel Church: You have a mission. You have core values. You are a welcoming community that fills backpacks and feeds others. Your ministers are all the parishioners of Emmanuel Church. You are people with power.
Being aware of yourself first, then, is important in all of our relationships. When someone reacts strongly to us, or seems to over-react to a situation, look for the trigger that may have caused it. It’s one way of recognizing the power differentials, or wounds. It’s also an opportunity for self-reflection. Anger is an indicator, like the red light that comes on in your car when it gets overheated. It tells us that we are afraid or hurt, and often masks a deep sadness or a loss. It may point to injustice, or suggest secrets that have not yet come to light. Our anger may reveal things that we have done and do not like about ourselves.
In ancient Palestine, the law of hospitality demanded that strangers be treated as if they were angels, and when they arrived at your home, they were given the best food for their journeys. If someone had no livestock, you were permitted to take a neighbor’s lamb; but it was forbidden if you had a lamb of your own, or if the neighbor’s livestock was a personal pet. In Nathan’s story, the rich man broke both religious and tribal laws, by taking his neighbor’s one and only lamb, which he had treated like a daughter.“The man who has done this deserves to die,” David told Nathan, “and he shall restore the lamb fourfold.” Revealingly, David’s anger condemned himself even before Nathan confronted him. Telling a story is one way to confront others.
Many, if not all, human beings are never satisfied; for we are a discontented lot, and often want more. Indeed some people believe that God created us this way so that we would constantly seek God, finding our hearts restless until they rest in God. Such was the story of King David; and so Nathan confronted David in yet another way. He reminded David of how much God had already given to him and would continue to give; but David chose to do what was evil instead. When we are not grateful for what we already have, and feel entitled for more, we are liable to sin. We choose unwisely.
Like David, we may begin to lie. “We deserve this,” we say to ourselves; and so we demand or take what is not ours. “He made me do it,” we say to a family member. Initially, we may fool some people, but certainly not God. Like King David, we will find that one little lie leads to another; and soon enough, the consequences are deeper and greater. We deny the truth and blame others, or we ask them to do our dirty work. If we feel powerless, we may whisper behind closed doors, or remain silent, passively colluding with those in power. The truth eventually comes out, however; and secrets, despite our best efforts, will come to light.
Culturally and in our Church, I think these are times of “truth-telling.” I serve on our Diocesan Disciplinary Board and am aware of the steps recently taken at our General Convention. In a report submitted by the commission on impairment and leadership, members wrote, “Unfortunately, in almost every case that we examined, the ecclesial structure and polity of our church proved to contribute negatively to the situation. Clericalism, a misunderstanding of hierarchy, the canonical autonomy of parishes and dioceses, and a polity that hinders the enforcement of expectations all contributed. Fear of exposure to liability, and an underdeveloped theology of forgiveness also contributed to the abusers being given multiple opportunities to repeat their behaviors without consequences.”
God’s mission is one of reconciliation and peace, and without truth-telling, there is no reconciliation. Without justice, there is no peace.
To his credit, Nathan confronted his king without regard to his own personal danger. Such actions takes enormous courage and faith. Today voices are rising. Together, people are exposing religious, tribal, social, and civil laws that are broken or unjust and in need of repair. Age-old abuses of power are being revealed.To his credit, King David immediately confessed his sins to Nathan.
Leaders who are not balanced by other forces of power can easily forget about God, deny that there is a God, or think that they are God. In our Christian community, we realize that it’s not just about the “#MeToo” movement but also the “WeToo” movement. For we are one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is one God and Father of all.
As equal members of the Body of Christ, we remember that God is the Defender of our cause, and the Great Protector of our lives. We remember that we are all sheep of God’s own fold, lambs of God’s own flock, and sinners of God’s own redeeming, because Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We remember that God provides food for our journeys even in the wilderness; and so we are grateful that God’s grace is given to us unmerited, undeserved, and free.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and leading lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” Love is hard work, and speaking the truth in love takes courage. Emmanuel Church, God is with you, and God has called you to equip more saints for the work of this ministry; for it takes the whole body, knit and working together properly, to grow itself up in love, into the full stature of Christ. This is no secret, but the dream of God, and God’s longing for all of us.
After being fed by Jesus and his disciples, the crowds still pursued Jesus. Rather than puffing himself up with pride, or counting his followers in the pews, Jesus confronted them. “I know that you’re looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves. But what you really need is God. You need spiritual food that comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. And, oh by the way, Jesus said, “I am that bread of life.”
            Victoria Lynn Garvey, a lay leader, church consultant, and Biblical scholar wrote, “Most English translations of the Bible use the verb endures to characterize the bread, but the author of the fourth Gospel chooses the Greek word meno, sometimes translated abide. This word describes the intimate, enduring, reciprocal, personal relationships of the Spirit and the Father with Jesus, and then with Jesus and His disciples.”
            During this time of leadership transition in your community, I encourage you to share your stories. With courage, confess your sins and speak the truth in love to one another. Welcome strangers as if angels, as you welcomed me this morning. Use God’s power for good and empower others for God’s mission. Abide in Jesus and you will never be hungry or thirsty.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51:1-13
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35



           



Sunday, July 22, 2018

Restoration, Reconciliation, Unity, and Peace

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling           

               It’s been a while since I was here at St. Mark’s in Southborough, and I’m grateful for Phil’s invitation to join you while he’s on a mission trip to NY with some of your folks. I had a little detour last year, some time away from my calling as a missionary and evangelist, while I served as the acting dean of our Cathedral Church of St. Paul. Like your Archdeacon Michael, and Jesus, I do not serve in one place only, and I’m delighted to be here with him, and Jesus, today in this place of rest and renewal!
        In today’s gospel of Mark, Jesus invited his disciples to go away with Him for a little while to a deserted place and rest. Now, I’m not talking about those deserted places that are filled with demons, snakes, and all sorts of temptations, or those deserted places where drugs rule the mind, and guns kill innocent people, like police officer Sergeant Michael Chesna. Rather, I’m talking about those places where we can get away from the maddening crowds and rest our weary souls. For me, these places are as close as my bed and as far away as I can travel. My favorite place is Cape Cod.
               I like to watch movies and read books where I can escape to these places without leaving home. I don’t like scary or violent but prefer a world of romance or a place of fantasy where I can relax and rest. I like stories where there is laughter, and healing, and a drama that is not my own. Yes, they are stories in which the ugly truths of violence, hatred, human sin, and prejudice are exposed but they are also overcome. These stories give me glimpses of heaven on earth and hope for the world to come.
               My husband Paul and I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina last week for his company picnic. Like Boston, it is a city rich with history. While we were there, we removed our Boston Red Sox hats to watch the Charleston River Dogs, a farm team for the New York Yankees. During a horse drawn carriage tour the next day, I learned that river dogs is a euphemism for rats. It made me a little nervous about the hot dog that I ate the night before.
               Today, in Charleston like Boston, people still argue about many things. One night, Paul and I attended a listening session and open conversation, sponsored by the diocese of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. It was for parishes, who had joined the Anglican Church of North America over issues surrounding human sexuality, and were considering a return to The Episcopal Church after a recent Supreme Court decision. About this ecclesiastical civil war, Provisional Bishop Adams wrote, “One of our deep desires is that we might be a visible manifestation of reconciliation in Christ. Our aim is restoration and unity.”
                In the beginning, God created us with diversity, and we will disagree about many issues, small and large. I think that we are fascinated by struggles for power, and we relish stories about human conflict. We watch movies and read books about wars; we follow television series like the Game of Thrones, Judge Judy, and Special Victims. Our video games and children’s stories are battlegrounds between good and evil.
                With unvarnished truth, the Bible tells stories about all of this - the good, bad, and ugly sides of human nature. We hear that families squabble, laws are broken, and people kill each other. We hear about divided nations, human betrayals, abuses of power, sibling rivalries, and inhumane treatment. Our salvation story also reminds us that God is ever-present - in the worst of times and in the best.
                These themes are evident with the on-going story of King David. Today’s scripture lesson from 2 Samuel said that the prophet Nathan reminded David that God moved with them in a tent and tabernacle in the ark of the covenant -  in their escape from Egypt, through deserted places in the wilderness, and into the promised land. There, judges and tribal leaders ruled the people until Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel under a united monarchy. David, who won the civil war against his beloved mentor, King Saul, marched into the capital city of Jerusalem, bringing the ark of the covenant into the city with him as their second king.
                 King David was now settled in a grand palace and he thought that God deserved a better place to live as well. God should not be living in a tent, he told the prophet Nathan, but in a more stable place, a more elegant place, a more permanent place for God to rest God’s holy head. I want to build a house for God, King David said, or as the prophet Isaiah said, we need a house of prayer for all peoples, a holy temple for our God.
                Not so fast, said the prophet Nathan. Like Supreme Court justices, prophets are called to speak truth to power without regard to personal consequences. Balancing the scales of justice and mercy, prophets are wise counselors who try to harness the passions of people, presumably without prejudice or bias. They are discerning leaders, who recognize the importance of past history, the reality of present day circumstances, and with an eye for the good future of all peoples. Like kings, they were anointed by God to serve the public. Like wise King Solomon, they don’t cut babies in half to keep everyone happy.
                In Biblical history, “when the king was found to be neglecting his duties, or improperly caring for his flock, the sheep would become scattered, attacked, and dispersed into dangerous territories” and a prophet’s voice would be heard over and against the king. And so, the prophet Ezekiel claimed that because the kings were failing in their care, God had to reclaim and rescue the flock. God alone would become the Good Shepherd and the only King of Israel in the future.
                As more voices rise in protest in public squares throughout our world, and more sheep are scattered, I often wonder, “What is best for God’s flock?” What do people in Iran and Turkey need, I wonder? What do people in divided countries like Israel and Palestine want? In North Korea and South Korea, in North America and South America? What do the people in Russia and these United States really need and want? And how do we balance God’s justice and mercy, respecting the dignity of all human beings, believing that we are all part of God’s diverse and beautiful creation, and members of one beloved community?
                News stations throughout our world offer various perspectives. Truth be told, I am frequently confused by competing prophetic voices; and I’m never sure what is fake news and what is real truth. I often suffer from communication overload, and yet, I channel surf, always looking for wise counselors and a new perspective. Today’s collect is one such channel. “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
                It is no wonder to me that we need good news in times like these - like the recent signing of Marcus Smart to the Celtics, or the rescue of those boys from that cave in Thailand, or that young adults are still eager to serve God, go on mission trips, and become public servants. Perhaps like millions of people throughout our world, you watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Most, if not all of us Episcopalians, were enormously proud of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who preached the sermon at this wedding. As our chief missionary and evangelist, he reminded us of God’s mission of reconciliation. “We are all related,” Bishop Curry said, “whether we are royalty or not. Whether we are black, white, red, yellow, brown, gay, straight, rich, poor, no matter the nationality, no matter the religion, we all come from the same God, and if that’s true, then we are brothers and sisters.”
                Like I said, I like to read books, and just recently, I finished a book called, The Girl with Seven Names. It is the story of a young woman’s escape from North Korea and her migration to China, and then South Korea.  She longs for a united Korea. While in Charleston, I also learned that President Abraham Lincoln was found at the time of his death with a confederate $5 bill in his pocket. “Why?” someone asked.
                 When they lowered the United States flag at Fort Sumpter in 1861, the federal soldiers did not know if it would ever be raised there again. Deep down, I believe that all people want to live as we were created, with free wills, with equal opportunity, with liberty and justice for all. We want to feel safe and protected, at peace, and have good news fill our lives. We also want mercy and compassion - a King of Love, a Good Shepherd, who will lead us beside still waters, help us find green pastures, provide places of comfort to lay down our weary heads, and lead us into the Promised Land. In short, I believe that we need the life-giving, liberating, love of God to reign supreme throughout our world.
                 The author of the letter to the Ephesians wrote about this human desire in today’s lesson. Remember, he said, that at one time, we were all aliens, and now, we are all citizens with the saints of God. We are all members of the household of God, and equally beloved children of God. The dividing wall between nations has been broken down; for the hostility between us was put to death upon the cross. Our prophet, priest, and king, our supreme court justice of iconic proportions, is Jesus. In Him, God’s mission of reconciliation was completed. In Him we are restored to unity. In Him is our peace.
                Today we know Jesus as The Boy with Seven Names. He was King of kings, Lord of lords, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Good Shepherd, and Savior of the World. St Mark’s was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. You are God’s dwelling place today.
                 But God is not confined to this place only. Rather, God is a holy temple not made of cedar, or stone, or of human hands, but rather of human flesh. “I think the world is hungry for love right now,” said Bishop Curry. Today, be fed by God’s hand and at God’s Table, and then take Jesus with you. Be a part of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. Be a missionary and evangelist, and share that Way of Love with others. Amen.

2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Psalm 89:20-37
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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