Friday, September 25, 2015

Salt and Fire

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Jesus said, “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
There are many ways in which we can use salt. For instance we can use it to improve the taste of our food or use it as a preservative. Salt can be used to put out fires and to kill slugs. It will extract moisture from eggplant and retain fluids in our bodies. Superstitious people will throw it over their shoulders to ward off evil spirits and to cast out demons, sometimes even in the name of Christ!
Now fires can also be used in various ways. We heat with them, we cook with them, and we use them for light or creating romantic environments. Fires can also burn you very badly, even kill you, and as the people of California will testify, they can wipe out whole villages and buildings. So salt and fire can be used for both good and evil purposes.
What I love about today’s scripture lessons is that they portray real human beings, like me and you. In today’s Old Testament reading, the rabble had strong cravings, and so do I, but it’s not for salt or for fire, or even for meat! The Israelites wept and said, “If only” we had meat to eat. They even demanded it from Moses. Nikki Finkelstein-Blair (an ordained Baptist minister) said “Often, when life isn’t working out the way we imagined or hoped, our impulse is to pray for God to change things. We think ‘if only’ things were different, ‘if only’ people were better, ‘if only’ our needs were met, ‘if only’ the pain went away, ‘if only’ the choices were simple, ‘if only’ temptation disappeared, ‘if only, if only’......  
Now God was angry and Moses was displeased. So Moses asked God “Why? Why are you doing this to me?” The Israelites whined and complained, Moses blamed God, shifted responsibility, and then he asked God for death rather than seeing his misery.
These are all stumbling blocks in our paths to the promised land and they prevent our ways forward as faithful people. They create barriers between us and our relationships with God and with one another. And they are all self-imposed. If I want, I can take these stumbling blocks away from me. Like a millstone around my neck, a hand, a foot, or an eye that prevents me from seeing and knowing God’s goodness and grace, I can cut them off. I can throw them into the unquenchable fire, which is where they belong, so that I can follow Jesus. And how do I do this? By praying and by fishing, and by fishing and by praying.
My husband Paul has been fishing in saltwater off Cape Cod for most of his life and loves to fish. Last weekend we gathered together with 12 of our friends from our home parish in Connecticut. Since we’re now scattered all over the country, we gather as an intentional community once a year at the home of our friends, who live on a pond in the Adirondacks. We catch up with each other’s stories, we share our walks with Christ, we encourage each other’s journeys, and we try to discern God’s will for our lives. We eat meat; we break bread; and we drink water and wine. In the beauty of nature, and our community, God restores our souls.
This year a guide from the Adirondacks taught Paul, and some of the others, how to fly fish on the pond. Paul loved it. He said that it was much harder than salt water fishing; it took small moves and a lot of patience. And, like any kind of fishing, Paul and his friends hooked plenty of things other than fish!
I, on the other hand, am not a fisher person, at least of fish; and I don’t want to learn how either. I like to pray, and so I also learned something new on the pond in the Adirondacks: I learned how to do centering prayer, with my eyes closed, in the fog, in a kayak. And let me tell you, praying in this way is a very different experience from sitting in a chair at home by myself, or in a group at church. When we began our prayers on the pond, the three of us were within arm’s reach of each other. Twenty minutes later, when I opened my eyes, I was alone on the pond with none of my prayer partners in sight. Like Paul’s fishing, this way of praying was harder for me than my usual ways. It took small moves and a lot of patience. And while I didn’t catch any fish, I do think that the Big Fish hooked me.  
Now both Paul and I delighted in our new experiences. Despite our initial disorientation and discomfort, God quickly reoriented us to God’s presence right where we were. You might say that we were like Eldad and Medad; we were outside our familiar tents but still in the camp of God, where the spirit rested upon us. You might say that God was seasoning our souls with salt, except on a freshwater pond. You might say that God was restoring the fire in our spirits. For we’ve all been called for a purpose which is to reflect the glory of God by being human beings who are fully alive.
Transitions can be both difficult and energizing. I can totally relate to the story of Moses and the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness. To be honest, I’ve done my fair share of grumbling, whining, and complaining. Sometimes, instead of prayer, I indulged in self-pity. I felt as if I were fishing and catching nothing, as if I were floating in a fog with no purpose.
During this time of transition, I learned how to fish and how to pray in different ways than before. I fished for new possibilities and opportunities. I enlarged my pond. I prayed in the traditional tents of meeting and in God’s city camps. I did the same things I had done before, only a little bit differently. And I learned to be still, to try new things, and to trust in God’s grace. I learned patience from my suffering and my searching, and God blessed my journey every day with fire and salt. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians, I learned how to be grateful in all circumstances.
Jesus said that everyone is salted with fire. Our call then is to discern how we, as faithful Christians, can use our saltiness and our fire for good. And when we lose our saltiness or the fire in our spirits, we need to pray and to fish; and then to fish and to pray.
Jesus calls all of us for a purpose. We are to be fishers of people, and people of prayer, and everyone has been salted with fire. As members of the Body of Christ, we have choices to make. We can be for Jesus or we can be against Him. We can be stumbling blocks or we can be footstools. Here on the coastline of the Atlantic ocean, we can be God’s salty servants, with fires in our spirits, ready to do good deeds of power in the name of Christ. The choice is ours to make every day.
And so today, pray and then go fishing. Fish and then pray. For as Nikki Finkelstein-Blair said, “God doesn’t only change us; God changes the world through us. When our attitudes are transformed, God can transform the people and situations we encounter. If only we choose wisely when options are hard. If only we respond kindly when people are cruel. If only we act boldly when people are hurt. May God use us to answer the ‘if only’ prayers of our world.”      
So go, pray and fish, and fish and pray today. You have been salted with fire by Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and you have been called for a purpose. Amen.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Let the Children Come

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Who among us has not seen the picture of the 3 year old boy, either face down in the sand on the beach in Greece, or being carried by a Greek soldier in his arms. In the pictures that capture the Syrian crisis, we see infants like this one, or sleeping in their parents arms, unaware of the danger around them. It is especially heart-breaking when one sees images of children dead, or crying in fear as they’re being pushed back by soldiers, or sleeping on the sidewalk of a railway station, or even being handed over, lifted up to safety, out of an inflatable boat in which their family members and others reside. They are fleeing from one country to the next in perilous journeys to freedom, 20 million refugees, half of whom are children. What choices do these people have? Whether or not they stay or whether or not they leave their country, they are at risk. And while the issues and solutions may be complex, the heartbreak is not.

Jesus was teaching his disciples and found them arguing about who was going to be the greatest among them. They had all left family and jobs to follow Jesus, and they expected some benefits; unfortunately, Jesus broke their revolutionary bubble. Whoever follows me, follows me to death, he said. Whoever follows me carries the crosses of human pain and suffering, even if it is not their own. Whoever follows me welcomes children with open arms, which means they are welcoming God.

I don’t think Jesus meant for his disciples to welcome children with open arms into our churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples, although that’s a good thing to do. I don’t think he meant that we should all sit down and get on eye level with children who inhabit our holy places. I don’t think Jesus meant that we are especially great when we wrap our arms of love around our own children or those who look just like us. I think Jesus meant something far more dangerous, far more risky, and far more courageous.

I think Jesus was calling us to prophetic action - that the greatest people are people who serve the least by being vulnerable themselves, who challenge their own institutional systems, and protect the children of God regardless of their age. I think Jesus was calling us to be willing to destabilize our lives, our churches, and our countries in thoughtful, just, and merciful ways in order to help God’s children.

I won’t presume to wrestle with the complicated issues of migration and immigration which are happening for various reasons throughout our world. People and animals are shifting, moving, and fleeing from one place to another in search of a better life, or just plain life. I don’t presume to offer any answers or solutions, for there are many; although Episcopal Migration Ministries is one resource to consult.

What I do know is that we must first start with ourselves, breaking down the borders of fear in our own hearts by breaking down the boundaries between human and divine Love. Prayer helps us to do that; and for Christians that border crossing came in the person of Jesus. As St. James’ said in his letter, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.” (James 3: 17-18)

The children of our world, the generations that are with us now, will take their lessons from our responses to human suffering and need.  Boundaries and borders are important, and fences make good neighbors; but many of our systems need to be fixed, perhaps even rebuilt. Destabilization and disorientation can help us see solutions from fresh perspectives.

Remembering that Jesus was a Jew of Aramaic descent helps us to see the arms of Jesus as someone who came from many countries and cultures, perhaps different from ours. Remembering that we are all beloved children of God helps us get into the inflatable boat with others. Remembering that Jesus was the Light of the World can help us to navigate our rubber rafts and rescue boats in that mission to overcome darkness and death.

Will we choose paths of dispute, conflict, and self-protection , or will we open our arms of welcome to the children of God? to the least of these, regardless of their age? to their tribe, regardless of their practices? to their language, even if we don’t understand it? and to their nation, even if we disagree with their politics? Jesus “stretched out his arms of love on the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.” For the sake of our souls and our world, let the children come.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Teachers, Students, and Tongues

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

This Sunday’s lectionary (September 13, 2015) has scripture lessons from Isaiah and the letter of James. Both lessons speak about teachers.

The Life Together program claims that it is a learning community in which we are all teachers and we are all students. Isaiah tells us that we are given the tongues of teachers in order to sustain the weary and that God will help us. And yet, in order to be good teachers, Isaiah reminds us that we must first listen. We must be good students before we can become good teachers. We must open our ears to those who are suffering, sick, weary, oppressed, and imprisoned so that we might stand together in community and speak with the tongues of teachers.

As a listening student and a prophetic and pastoral teacher, as a new member to this particular learning community called Life Together, I especially loved certain parts of the intensive orientation. I liked listening to the public narratives of staff members and some of the fellows; they taught me alot! They spoke of painful experiences and moments of personal decision. They taught me how they became students of human Life and godly Love despite beard-pulling, spitting, and insults. They taught me how they chose not to turn their backs but rather how they set their faces like flint in order to become teachers in prophetic and pastoral ways.

I found the conversations on Mattering and Marginalizing, taught by Lori Lobenstine, helpful. We reflected upon times when we felt that we mattered to God, our family, our friends, our Church, and to our society. Similarly, we shared experiences when we felt marginalized, pushed out, excluded, isolated, judged, even condemned. The wounds of our pain mingled with the salt of our tears. We learned how we had even marginalized others. We felt the ocean of God’s love in those people who reminded us that we mattered. God reminded us that we all matter.

St. James reminds us that no one is perfect, that we all need bits for our mouths and bridles for our bodies, which contain both fresh and brackish water. The letter of James also reminds us that from our mouths come both blessing and cursing. Our tongues can become “restless evils, full of deadly poisons.” So too, our tongues can bless God, uphold others, and provide comfort.They can set communities and souls on fire with blazes both large and small, for good and for evil. With the Lord’s help, our tongues will guide our ships and boast of great exploits. Especially, when they are joined together, our tongues become prophetic voices, standing against people and systems that are oppressive, marginalizing, and unjust. At Life Together, we made some covenants about non violent communication because Life Together is a mattering community called to work with the marginalized.

The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra taught us about this “prophetic way.” People from Life Together, the Leadership Development Initiative, Episcopal City Mission, Episcopal Divinity School, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and the Mission Initiative came to listen because this is what the Church is made for: faith-rooted organizing through partnerships, collaborations, networking, and Life Together as learning communities who matter and are called to work with the marginalized.

Individually and together we reflected on some questions. How does the world break our hearts because of unjust and unnecessary suffering? How are our hearts broken because of tongues that have wagged maliciously or carelessly, and waged war on God’s people and God’s creation? What are the lies, told by human tongues, that fuel and feed these forest fires? “Never forgetting that a broken heart may be the greatest gift that God gives to you” how has God’s Holy Spirit been kindled and set blazes of righteous anger burning in your own heart?

Where are the springs of fresh water that can cool the flames of adversity, turn the salty waters of our tears into living springs of new life? How can we, united by Love, stand together in prophetic ways to give fish to those who are hungry, teach people how to fish for themselves, fish together as a community, and break down those firewalls that prevent God’s Spirit from burning brightly, justly, and mercifully to all of God’s Creation?

As good students, we are called to listen to the voices of the marginalized, within ourselves and within others. As good teachers, we are called to walk in the prophetic way, humbly with our God, lifting up the lowly by speaking words of comfort to the weary, and words of power both to the oppressors and the oppressed. As disciplined wagging tongues, we can be a blessing to all of God’s creatures and creation. For, by God’s grace, we are in this Life Together.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens--wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Covenanting to full Participation for the sake of the Group

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

In Seeds of Hope, the author writes that Henri Nouwen’s model of approach to teaching, writing and other forms of ministry is this: “First, explore and reflect on (your) own experiences. Secondly, bring others into the discussion: listen to their ideas and experiences; formulate a common understanding. Thirdly, share the combined knowledge or experience with others.” At the first meeting of the Recently Ordained Clergy and their Mentors, and as the new facilitator of the mentors’ group, I was asked to offer some thoughts on “Covenanting to full Participation for the sake of the Group.”

I decided to focus on these three words: covenant, participation, and group. First, covenant is not a contract; it’s a call to relationship. The old and new covenants in the Bible are testaments to these covenants. The Bible reveals covenantal mentoring relationships throughout our Judeo-Christian history: Moses and Joshua, Eli and Samuel, Jesus and his disciples, Paul and Timothy, and of course, God and us. In our one-to-one relationships, we mentor and learn from each other. So too in our groups.

In our ordination vows, we enter a covenant. We promise, among many things, that we are willing and ready to “obey our bishops and other ministers who may have authority over us and our work.” Those who have authority over us may be lay people or clergy. They may not even work in and for the Church. We also say that we are ready and willing to “be faithful pastors to all whom we’re called to serve, laboring together with them and our fellow ministers to build up the family of God.” These fellow ministers take many forms; they’re most often not clergy. We can all be faithful pastors as well. Each of us and all of us is called to build up the family of God.

Our participation, however, is by choice. For me and Henri Nouwen, participation means listening and sharing our ideas, experiences, and knowledge with each other with compassion, courage, and commitment. Compassion means sharing our challenges and mistakes with vulnerability, as well as sharing our successes and best practices with humility. Courage is a matter of our hearts as well as God’s heart. It takes courage to be leaders in the Church and in the world. Full participation means being present to God, to the people, and to the work that is in front of us, that is right now. As John MacDougall once said, “Show up. Pay attention. God is doing something good. Try to be a part of it.”

We incarnate our commitment to God and to one another with ourselves, our souls, and our bodies: our heads when we share our knowledge, with our hearts when we give and receive love, with our hands when we open them to receive the gifts of others and when we close them in prayer, and with our feet when we show up. Commitment also means being sent with others to labor together. Blessed are you for your full participation for the sake of building up God’s family. Blessed are the feet of the messengers who bring good news to the poor. Blessed are you when you show up.

This particular group of recently ordained clergy and their mentors is part of the Body of Christ; and all members are important to it. Regardless of our age, our length of service, our positions of power, the size and location of our parishes, we have made a covenant to be unique individuals, laboring together in a learning community, as a group. Our full participation is important not only to the group but also to the Body of Christ.

Teresa of Avila once said,

“Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
yours are the eyes through which he looks
with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which
he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which
he blesses all the world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)

I hope you’ll covenant with me to be a full participant in whatever community in which you live and move and have your being. I hope you’ll choose to offer your gifts to the people and places in which you labor for love. I hope you’ll hear God’s call to relationship and help build up the family of God.