Sunday, August 21, 2016

Finger Pointing and Watered Gardens

14 Pentecost, August 21, 2016 Isaiah 58: 9b-14
All Saints Church, Belmont Psalm 103: 1-8
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Hebrews 12: 18-29
Luke 13: 10-17

My mother, God bless her soul and may she rest in peace, was almost 93 years old when she died last August. She, like many older people, was not quite able to stand up straight. As osteoporosis settled in, she walked with a little bend in her body, and a small hunch to her back. I was often amazed at how strong her bones were. Like many elderly people, she occasionally fell, either because she was walking her dog, and the dog suddenly chased a rabbit, or because she caught her shoe on something, and went down. She never broke a bone when she fell.
My mother was a master gardener. She loved to spend time planning, picking, and pruning the flowers that would go into the corner of her yard or the flower boxes outside her windows. This was her paradise. As a biologist, she knew the importance of water, and the danger of flowers and plants becoming too parched. Her gardens were well watered, even if her body, at the end of her life was not. The day before she died, she said to me, “I’m thirsty enough to die.” There were not enough ice chips in the world to quench that thirst.
I’ve been watching parts of the Olympics recently, especially the swimming and diving events held at the pool in Rio de Janeiro. Water is everywhere. Perhaps like you, I’ve been horrified by reports of body parts floating in the harbor, green algae taking over the swimming and diving pools, and water too dangerous to drink. There has been a lot of finger pointing in and around the pools.
Isaiah talked about removing the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil. I thought of the Olympic swimmers, Michael Phelps and Lilly King, who wagged their fingers at the end of their races. They were pointing to some swimmers from another country who had been accused of “doping.” At the same time, they claimed their clean victories as gold medal winners. And then there is the latest finger wagging at Ryan Lochte and James Feigen for their false accusations. They claimed that they had been robbed at gunpoint in order to cover up their own misbehavior. When we point our fingers at others, we often point them at ourselves at the same time.
I recall many more water images at the Olympic games. Competitors drank water before their races, spit water out of their mouths after them, and plunged deep into the pools of water below them. As they emerged, they would shake off the excess water from their bodies, and then dip themselves into smaller pools nearby. Whether swimming straight in their lap lanes or standing upright on the podium, these young men and women were proud of their God-given gifts. They were proud of their countries, proud of the discipline that got them there, and proud of their accomplishments.
Sometimes it’s hard to stand up tall or to walk in a straight line for a variety of reasons. I think of a young man, who walked with a stoop. As one friend once said, he walked as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. I think of another young man who couldn’t walk a straight line after being pulled over by the police.There are plenty of things that can weigh us down these days. Isaiah mentions some of our burdens: people who are hungry, afflicted, and parched. The doom and gloom of our current affairs, the ruins in our cities, and the evil that erupts unexpectedly can destroy our spirits.
The author of Hebrews offers us a prescription. He or she reminds us that we “have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and a tempest, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” Most of us, do not believe in a God who seeks to destroy us, but a God who seeks to save us. Every Sunday is a reminder of the resurrection.
God descended God’s holy mountain in order to draw nearer to us. On the mountain that overlooks the city of Rio is the figure of Jesus, who stretches out his arms of love, even to those who have done evil. Through Jesus, said the author of Hebrews, we can touch our forgiving and loving God, if not in the flesh, then at least in the Spirit.
Sometimes our worlds need to be shaken in order for us to see the truth of a matter. Like an earthquake, God’s voice shakes the heavens and the earth, so that we might see those things that cannot be shaken. Like a consuming fire, God burns off our dross, so that the gold medals of our hearts hang clearly around our necks. As we shake off the excess waters from our bodies, we see a deep pool of God’s love into which we’re invited to plunge. We shake off our fear, and find at the very core of our beings, the image of God. And God cannot be shaken.
“You hypocrites,” said Jesus to the leaders of the synagogue; for they would lead their donkeys and oxen to water, but they would not heal this woman of her affliction on the Sabbath. Isaiah said that “if you remove the yoke from you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom (will) be like the noonday.”  
With God’s help, individually and together, we can lift the burdens of the world from our shoulders. The yokes that afflict us can be shaken off like excess water when we yoke ourselves to God. “Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  (Matthew 11:28-30). Come to me, Jesus said, any day of the week, and I will heal you.
At a quick and first look, we may not notice that the woman in today’s gospel is not necessarily old. Yes, she was bent over and unable to stand up straight, and she had been in this condition for 18 years. But Luke also said that unlike my mother, hers was not a physical ailment, but rather a spiritual illness. When Jesus called her over and laid hands upon her, he said, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.”
Now spiritual cures may or may not always manifest themselves in our physical bodies; and yet, they are essential to our true and ultimate healing. When we yoke ourselves to Jesus, we may find that we are better able to swim in our lanes, and stand tall on our podiums, even if we don’t get a medal. We may find that our souls are watered by a living God, even if our bodies are thirsty enough to die. We may find that Jesus can break our bondages and set us free, when no other physician in this world could. No wonder the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the things that Jesus was doing.
Our psalms are scripture passages that express the full range of our feelings, from deep despair to blissful joy, and everything in between. As Herbert Slade of SSJE once said,
“Jesus communicates with his emotions: he weeps, he loves, he laughs, he is angry, and he is inspired with unquenchable hope.”
Today’s psalmist expresses joy and gratitude. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” Sometimes when the worries and cares of our lives weigh us down, we forget this unquenchable hope. Today, ask God for your own spiritual healing. Today, stand up straight and bless the Lord.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, for the spring of living water that is pure and never fails. Bless the Lord, O my soul, for the ocean of love in which we all swim. Bless the Lord, O my soul, for we are your watered garden, and we live in a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Signs and Hammers

13 Pentecost, August 14, 2016 Jeremiah 23: 23-29
St. Peter’s Cambridge Hebrews 11:29- 12:2
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Luke 12: 49-56

Lord, help us to be signs of your love. Amen. 1

When I was here in July, my husband Paul had just arrived home from Asia, where the flash flooding had been so severe that it had killed hundreds of people. Was this a sign of global warming? Or just an unfortunate accident for people living in vulnerable places, like today in Louisiana? Paul and I had tickets that Sunday afternoon for a Red Sox game; and we won! Was this a sign of another championship year? Or just one more baseball game?
Today, I want to talk about signs. Now signs can be communal, like those “No Parking” signs we see all over Cambridge. Signs come without words, like Lady Liberty, who stands tall in our New York Harbor, holding a torch in her hand. Signs can be as clear as the clouds rising in the west, or as ambiguous and open to interpretation as our politics today.
Signs can be personal. They reflect our affiliations, our values, our hopes, and our dreams. On my body, I wear the sign of the cross, sometimes a collar around my neck, and a gold ring on my finger. No tattoos on my body, yet! On my car, I have the Episcopal church shield, the word “hybrid”, and a yellow equality sign. I like to think of my car as a sign for evangelism, the environment, and social justice. Last week I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said “Abolish Racism”; and in church, I heard the priest talk about feathers as being a sign for her of God’s presence.
Now prophets are people who interpret the signs of their present times. They sound a warning, and call for change. Both Jeremiah and Jesus were critical of their religious, economic, and political systems, much like our current time today. Prophets see the signs of God’s people being hurt and God being ignored. They remind people of God’s presence. Jeremiah asked, “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?”
Some five hundred years after Jeremiah, Jesus said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat; and so it happens.” But he also asked the crowds, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
I wonder today, as we gather here in this scorching heat, “Do we know any better than the crowds that listened to Jeremiah and Jesus?” To Mandela in South Africa or Martin in Alabama? To all the prophets that are named in the letter to the Hebrews? Are there not signs of injustice, poverty, and oppression still all around us? Is this scorching heat a sign of climate change or just a very hot summer day? Similar to the time of Jeremiah, God is not only being ignored but also being used to justify mass killings. Like Jeremiah, I often wonder, “Are people prophesying the deceit of their own hearts? Or are they prophesying the dream of God?”
I love today’s gospel lesson because it shows Jesus not only as the Prince of Peace but also as the King of Division. And discernment means division, coming from the Latin word which means “to cut.” Sometimes, our assets need to be divided so that more people can share their benefits. Cells split in order to multiply, and create new life. Power divided is power shared. And sometimes the real divisions among us must be acknowledged before true peace can come.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” said Jesus. “No, I tell you, but rather division.” And so Jesus points first to the divisions within our own families; and then from there it’s easy for us to see why we might have divisions within our own political parties, divisions within our communities and country, and divisions within our religions and world. Both Jeremiah and Jesus also point to the division that exists between God and us, between heaven and earth.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus was nearby. He wasn’t sitting up in a heavenly throne, or on a mountaintop far removed from the crowds, or even in a jail cell writing letters to his followers. He was right there in the midst of the crowds, claiming that he came to “bring fire to the earth and division.” Prophets speak truth to power, even if their knees shake, and their lives are at risk. Prophets speak truth to power because it’s the godly thing to do.
Prophetic leaders not only point to the problems and call for change, however; they also cast a vision for a better future. They mobilize people for action.They use dream language instead of divisive language. Faithful prophets remind us that God is our power; and that God shared God’s power with us. Prophets remind us that with God nothing is impossible, even life after death.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is a sign of God’s presence, power, and merciful love. Jesus was a man who stretched out his arms of love upon the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. He was a broken body standing tall even on the cross, still speaking words of forgiveness to those who had betrayed him. He was a repairer of the breach. Jesus was a sign of God’s dream for a restored creation, where all God’s beloved children are united in our beautiful diversity, equally important and valuable. And finally, Jesus is a sign of God’s fire and hammer, who broke the rocks of injustice, oppression, and poverty one word, one action, and one heart at a time. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
So, as a Christian in these current times, be a prophet, like Mandela and Martin, like Jeremiah and Jesus. Get a fire in your belly, get out your hammer, and start breaking some rocks. In the prophetic words of Peter, Paul, and Mary, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning. I’d hammer in the evening, and I’d hammer all over this world. I’d hammer out danger and I’d hammer out warning. I’d hammer out justice; and I’d hammer out freedom. I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this world.” Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh.
As I mentioned before, my husband Paul and I attended a Red Sox game in July. It was a nail-biter right until the end, and happily for us, our team won. Like the Olympic games in Rio, the stadium was filled with a rainbow of colors, and although there were many divisions among us, somehow we were all united in the Spirit. I loved it when we all participated in “the wave” at the Fenway.
In case you’re not familiar with the wave, it’s when people stand up with their arms raised in the air and make some noise.The wave goes around and around throughout the stadium until it dies for lack of momentum or our attention is drawn elsewhere. Now if we are willing, we can all participate in God’s prophetic wave, a wave that was created “in the beginning”, never lost momentum, and will never end, even when our attention is drawn elsewhere.
We are all members of God’s Olympic dream team. So run the race with perseverance and joy; and follow Jesus, who was the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Do not worry about what you are to say or what you are to do; for our God is near, and there is a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place. Today, be a sign of God’s prophetic love.  Amen.