Friday, April 29, 2016

Ground Hog becomes Leap Frog

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

My name is Nancy and my words were “Ground Hog.” This is how we start our contemplative prayer time. I had that happy feeling of coming up, out of the ground, and into the world. Driving out of my underground parking garage, I blinked, not once, as my eyes became accustomed to the light. I squirmed a little, navigating my car through the open door of the garage. I was wearing new prescription eye-glasses, a change from my habit of wearing a contact lens. In both cases, my new prescription sharpened my vision; but the progressive glasses made it harder for me to navigate the sharp turns and narrow exit of the garage. My groundhog vision felt a little blurry with my glasses.

I was curious to see how my monovision (one contact lens in the right eye, nothing in the left eye) would be different from my vision with new glasses. So I decided to wear them to the contemplative prayer group at Bethany House. I had been absent for many weeks and I wondered if people would recognize me, or notice the difference. I imagined someone might say something like “Hey, I love your new glasses.” Or, “Wow, you look younger now that you’ve finally come out of hibernation and joined the rest of us in the fashion eye-wear department.”  

Nobody said a word, other than the usual “hello.” As I sat in the prayer circle, I suddenly realized that the glasses had an effect on me. Curiously, I felt some protection that I didn’t have with my contact lens. Like putting one’s hand to one’s mouth, I felt as if my glasses were a buffer between them and me. I felt less vulnerable. I realized they also framed my attention; they helped me to focus on someone or something more clearly. Perhaps that was true in reverse. My glasses framed my eyes and my face for those who were speaking to me. I also felt a new kind of power, kind of like Clark Kent. There I was, hiding behind my glasses, with x-ray vision of others, knowing that I could find a phone booth and change into someone else. I could go underground and come back up. Me without my glasses.

As I adjusted to my new glasses, occasionally I felt a little dizzy. My world was temporarily destabilized. I realized this during our contemplative prayer time. I had decided to leave the dark chapel, and walk outside for a while. Once outside, I had to stop and steady myself. I put my hand on a stone wall, and waited for a moment. I soon focused my eyes on the little blue and white flowers that were pushing through the freshly turned earth in front of me. I blinked, not once, as my eyes adjusted to the light, and then started to walk again.

In “Prayers for a Questioning Heart” Macrina Wiederkehr encourages us. “Don’t be a settler, but rather a pilgrim on the Way. Make of us a wondering, far-sighted, questioning, restless people. And give us feet of pilgrims on this unfinished journey.”

I wondered about my initial two words and my new vision in the context of prayer. It occurred to me that I was no longer a Ground Hog, but a Leap Frog. Near-sighted and far-sighted, I can see clearly now. Whether I am underground or in the clear light of day, I can see. I see that I am a pilgrim, settling for a moment, here and there. Occasionally I need to steady myself, re-focus on the beauty of creation, give thanks, and then move on.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Superman, Batman, and Jesus

4 Easter, April 17, 2016
St. Mark’s, Southborough, Massachusetts
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Acts 9: 36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30

Let us pray: Help us, dear Lord, to hear your voice, to follow where you lead, and to be good sheep and shepherds of your people. Amen.

My husband and I both love to watch movies. Of course, there are some occasional tensions - minor skirmishes over the remote control. He likes war stories, suspense thrillers, and terrifying plots. I like animated movies and romantic comedies. Life is hard enough, I say. Fortunately, we both like stories of inspiration, and movies that are based upon a real person or a true situation. So, given the diversity and variety of movies available to us, and after a little bit of negotiation, we can often find something that appeals to both of us. If not, I go to bed early with a good book.
There are plenty of movies about good and evil; they just come to us in different packages and from various perspectives. Whether it’s a movie like Frozen or American Sniper, Hunger Games or Eye in the Sky, these movies often portray this age-old battle. As a child, I always loved Superman; other folks favor Batman. And so I was particularly curious about this new movie starring both of them.
In Vulture magazine, someone raised this question, “If they’re both fighting for good, why have them fight at all?” Abraham Riesman responded that each of them fights from a different perspective. He claims that we want to see our superheroes fight because (quote) “the fights mean something. Namely: how to make a better world, with Superman operating through hope and inspiration, and Batman through fear and intimidation.”
He continues, “Batman is not just a man but a broken one, who inhabits a broken universe. His parents were killed by a petty criminal and raised in an era of rapid urban decay. Superman, by contrast, is a farm boy, an alien, raised with a stable adoptive family. He has seen the worst of the world and let it teach him a profound sense of empathy. Superman has faith that humanity will tend toward goodness if you give it trust and hope; Batman lacks that faith and believes the world only gets in line if you grab it by the throat and never let go.”
Life is complex and complicated. Our responses to evil will vary, depending upon our human experiences, our faith beliefs, and the cultures and contexts in which we live. Some of us will fight in order to make our world a better place, or maybe we just want power. Some of us will fight because we believe that we need to grab certain people by their throats and never let them go. We want our hands on the remote control because we’re not sure about their intentions.  Most of us, however, perhaps feeling horrified and helpless as we watch the violence or rhetoric escalate, will pray for peace, because we don’t know what else to do.
As Spiderman once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Without doubt, there is a lot of drama, and not a few wars, going on around the world and we look to our powerful leaders for information and protection. Recently, when Russian jet fighters buzzed our Navy destroyers in the Baltic sea, one General in our Navy said, “You don’t get to kill people just because they’re annoying.” We pick our battles!  Abraham Reisman asks, “Which of these worldviews provides the better way to live a good and productive life? Superman spends his contemplative moments hoping for the best; Batman spends those moments vigilantly preparing for the worst.”  
We follow our various leaders for different reasons. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus refers to those who listen to him as his sheep. “Most of what I’ve heard about sheep is unflattering,” said the Rev. Margaret Guenther. “They are reputed to be stupid, lacking initiative and likely to fall over cliffs or entangle themselves in brush. I am not really pleased to be grouped with sheep.”
She also claims that “we easily turn people into sheep.” For example, we say that immigrants aren’t us, even though all of our ancestors come from other countries, or we think that all Muslims are terrorists rather than people with a different faith tradition than ours. We think that the people in one nation or one political party are all good or all bad. “Although there may be some variations in our colors,” Margaret reminds us, “most sheep resemble every other sheep in the flock.” Biologically speaking, each of us is about 98% the same.
If this is true, and we want to make our world a better place, then we all need good shepherds; for we all get caught in the bushes. We all fall off cliffs. We all wander off course, and lose our ways. We all need the shepherd’s rod to poke us when we’ve chosen to follow someone who does not seek goodness, or we’ve forgotten our own. We need good shepherds to use their staffs to reclaim us and redirect us. We want blessed assurances that our world is not going to hell in a handbasket, especially when our Easter baskets look empty. We want to know that God ultimately has God’s hand on the remote control, even as God allows us the freedom to choose which movies we watch and what parts we play.
We live with harsh realities that cannot be denied. Bombs go off killing innocent people, and death unsettles us. We want Superman or Batman or Jesus to come again and make it all good. When I’ve had a tough day, or I’m worried about events beyond my control, I look for comfort. Comfort food. Comfort clothing. Comfort words. Comfort movies. I want to huddle with other sheep and know that my good shepherd is nearby. Today’s lessons from scripture provide me with that comfort.
The story of Jesus, of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, can inspire us and give us hope. As Christians, Jesus is our Superman, an alien from another world, who operated with hope and inspiration. We are all created in the image of God; and through our baptisms, we are adopted into God’s stable family and become brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus is also our Batman, who grabbed not a few demons by the throat and cast them out into the outer darkness. And although we believe that Jesus won the final war, his victory over evil and death, our minor skirmishes continue today; indeed human wars remain.
The story of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, tells a story about the fight for good against evil, a story about heaven and earth, a story about real death and new life. Psalm 23 assures us that God’s goodness and mercy will not perish. John claims that in the end we will hunger and thirst no more, and that God will wipe away every tear.
We can learn from scripture about how to respond to evil. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, encourages us “to put on the whole armor of God in order to stand firm against evil. He tells us to fasten the belt of truth around our waists, put on the breastplate of righteousness, and be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Take the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and pray unceasingly.” (Ephesians 6:10-17)
Sheep are known to suffer in silence and go to their slaughter without making a sound. Such was Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. When we feel as if we’ve come through the great ordeal, Jesus will give us His robes, washed white in His own blood. And then, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil because we know that no one can snatch us out of His hand. In Him, we have eternal life.
“At that time, Jesus was walking in the temple. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” Today’s movie is finished. It is a movie about a real person and a true situation, a movie that both Paul and I love to watch. Yes, Jesus was killed; but He also rose from the dead, a victory for God and a victory for us. End of story. Roll the scripts.

Today, listen to His voice; follow where he leads. Be devoted to good works and acts of charity. Be a good shepherd for others.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Fear and Doubt

Church of the Epiphany, Winchester Acts 5: 27-32
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Revelation 1: 4-8
2 Easter: April 3, 2016 John 20: 19-31

Let us pray:

In the words of Samantha Haycock, “Transform our fear, that we might proclaim courage. Transform our doubt, that we might proclaim hope. Transform our uncertainty, that we might proclaim faith. Transform our sin, that we might proclaim forgiveness.”  Amen.

Have you ever been afraid? Afraid for your life? I mean heart-pumping, palm-sweating fear that makes you want to run home, close the door, lock it, and hide? The days following the crucifixion were just such days for the disciples of Jesus. On Good Friday, their leader and rabbi, the one that they had loved and followed, the one that they had hoped would be their Savior, had been crucified. As disciples of Jesus, they were clearly at risk. They too could be killed by the human authorities, who had sent a very clear message: Be careful who your friends are; be careful who you follow and obey.
And so, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked,” the disciples had gathered together because they were afraid. We know that fear is natural, and that it is a human response to real or perceived threats, which can be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Our fear will show up in our bodies (in stiff necks and hardened hearts.) Afraid, we will have worried days and sleepless nights. In short, our fear can restrict our freedom, diminish our joy, and disrupt our peace of mind.
Ultimately, we fear losing our lives, our possessions, our health, our jobs, our family and friends; and so we look for self-protection and self-preservation in an increasingly violent and unpredictable world. We don’t always know who are enemies are, and where they reside. We lock our doors and our hearts. We build up walls and create multiple defense systems. We fight. We flee. We hide. And, hopefully, we pray.
To be honest, at one point in my life, some 30 years ago, my spiritual director called me “Little Miss Much Afraid.” I was afraid of the dark, of being alone, of financial insecurity, of unexpected noises, of traveling alone, and of losing certain people that I loved. I was afraid to speak up, and I was afraid of silence. Fortunately,  over time and with help, I learned to actively confront my fears and replace them with faith; for faith is an antidote to fear. Courage is fear who has said her prayers. As the psalmist says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Humor also helps me to face my fears; and fortunately I married a funny guy. A few years ago, our house was broken into, and the door was violently pried open; and so this joke has always had particular meaning for me: “A burglar got into a house one night. Shining his flashlight on the floor in the dark, he heard a voice saying, “Jesus is watching you.” The burglar nervously looked around, shook his head, and kept on looking for valuables. He again heard, “Jesus is watching you.” This time he shone his light all over the room, where it finally rested on a parrot.”
“The burglar asked, ‘Did you say that?’ The parrot admitted that he had, saying, ‘I’m just trying to warn you, that’s all.’ The burglar said, ‘Warn me, huh? Who are you? What’s your name?’  ‘Moses’, replied the parrot. ‘Well, what kind of stupid person names a parrot Moses?’ the burglar asked.  And the parrot replied, ‘I don’t know. I guess the same person who named his Rottweiler, ‘Jesus.’”
When I’m afraid, I like to remind myself that Jesus is in the house with me, as he was with his disciples on that day. Imagine that scene. Jesus shows up in the evening, not on clouds from on high, with Easter trumpets blaring, and people shouting “Alleluia! You have risen!” He doesn’t float down from his heavenly choir loft, polishing his golden halo, or dismount from his high and mighty horse, fist-pumping his victory over the human authorities. Neither does he break down the door in a display of kingly power, nor sneak into the house like a thief in the night. We don’t hear Jesus berating the disciples for their fears or Thomas for his doubts. Rather Jesus just shows up, not once but twice in that house, unexpectedly, gently, and peacefully....meeting his disciples right where they are.
We are all guilty of doubt and fear; it’s part of our human nature; it’s part of our faith journeys. As Joan Chittester said, “Doubt is one of the great spiritual challenges of life. It is doubt that brings us to wrestle with the very foundations upon which life is built”, which is why I take great comfort in today’s story about Thomas, and the stories about Jesus and his disciples. Even Jesus occasionally questioned God, especially right before his death.
I’ve lived through many death and resurrection experiences over the years, and have the scars to prove it. And I have come to believe that God doesn’t forsake us, even when it feels like that. Repeatedly, when I’ve been afraid or doubting, I have returned to my baptismal covenant, and asked myself, “Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love?” If God exists, and I believe that God does, then God is with us from cradle to grave and even beyond that. Jesus shows us that God is faithful even when we are not. Jesus shows us that we have nothing to fear, not even death itself.
Unlike that burglar who forced his way into our house, Jesus opened the door of my heart gently, and broke down the barriers that lay between me and God. As he did with Thomas, our Risen Lord steadied my wavering faith; through prayer, Jesus gave me courage to face my fears. He reached out his hand to me, and said, “Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Perfect love casts out fear; and Jesus loves us, this I know, not because the Bible tells me so, or because I’ve actually seen Him in the flesh. Rather, over the years I’ve come to know Him through prayer, in His Word spoken through the prophets, in His deeds recorded in history, in Holy Communion, and through communities of faith like yours. I have come to believe that Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of His saving embrace. I have come to believe in life after death.
Love is power, and God’s love is the most powerful force in the world. Love is active; it’s a movement that cannot be stopped even if the messenger is killed. Love is visible; it became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus, and it can be visible in you and me. Love forgives. Love heals. Love raises the dead to new life. And love sprouts wings. Breathing the Holy Spirit into his disciples, Jesus empowered them to be messengers of God’s love.
We are part of a spiritual force called the Jesus Movement which was unleashed thousands of years ago and continues even today. People will know that we are Christians by our love. Do not doubt, but believe that our Lord is risen and that God’s Spirit is inexhaustible, incorruptible, and ever-present. When we tap into that power, we become faithful witnesses; we act like the apostles long ago.
Just as the Father sent him, Jesus now sends us. Receive the Holy Spirit, forgive as you have been forgiven, and go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.