Sunday, November 27, 2016

Prepare to Receive the Gift

1 Advent. November 27, 2016 Isaiah 2: 1-5
Christ Church, Needham Romans 13: 11-14
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 24: 36-44

Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread, and do not then depart. Lord, live within us, and spread a table upon our heart. Amen.

The scripture readings for today might sound a little harsh after our Thanksgiving holiday. St. Paul tells people to wake up from their turkey-induced sleep. No more reveling and drunkenness, no more quarreling and jealousy, no more gratifying the desires of the flesh. And the gospel of Matthew speaks of the end-times. Some are saying that apocalyptic literature should be moved to the current events section of the library; for thanks to global warming, pretty soon we will all be washed away in a great flood. Or, given the proliferation of nuclear capabilities, we’ll all be destroyed by one big fiery blast. Lovely thoughts on this November morning, wouldn’t you say? Thank you, Nancy.
You know what time it is, right? St. Paul answered that question in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” And while the recent presidential election may have been our political wake-up call, Advent is our spiritual one.
Of course, we all have those days when we want to pull the covers up over our heads and go back to sleep, returning to our so-called “dreams” of yesteryear. Or there are times when we want to fast forward into the future, avoiding whatever unpleasantness is scheduled for the day, and assuring ourselves that everything really is alright. But here’s the news flash. We can’t. We live in the here and now, and the buzzer on our alarm clock is saying it’s time to wake up! Today. Right now. Thank you, Advent.
Perhaps you are looking forward to Christmas with great joy and anticipation. At the risk of throwing some cold water into your collective faces, I want to suggest to you that on this first Sunday of Advent, we need to pause. Before we can celebrate the birth of Jesus, we need to be prepared to die. Whether you are laboring in the fields or grinding meal in your houses, you need to be ready, not for Santa Claus, but for that thief that comes unexpectedly in the night.
Jesus once said to his disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I used to have a lot of expectations for my life. I had expectations for my marriage, my career, and my family. I had expectations about our children, our church, our community, our country, and our world. And I was taught that I must prepare for whatever might happen. I lived in fear that I would be caught unawares and unprepared. I locked my doors, closed my windows, and shut down my spiritual house. Basically, I had no expectations of God, only humanity. Essentially, I was spiritually sleepwalking through life, thinking I had all the time in the world to get my act together and my house in order.
Jodi Picault wrote in her book, Small Great Things, “We all do it, you know. Distract ourselves from noticing how time’s passing. We throw ourselves into our jobs. We focus on keeping the blight off our tomato plants. We fill up our gas tanks and top off our Metro cards and do the grocery shopping so that the weeks look the same on the surface. And then one day, you turn around, and your baby is a man. One day, you look in the mirror, and see gray hair. One day you realize there is less of your life left than what you’ve already lived. And you think, ‘How did this happen so fast? ”
Not so fast, our scripture readings say to us this morning! We can’t move from one holiday to the next so quickly. Wake up. Pay attention. We have no idea how much time is left, regardless of our age or our life circumstances. No one knows. Only God. All we have is today.
I remember a time I spent at the College of Preachers in Washington D.C. when our group was assigned the task of attending a movie on our first night together. Feeling like kids on a field trip, we all piled into cars and headed for the local theater. Loaded up with popcorn, we bantered back and forth among us, and then settled down to watch a movie entitled ''My Life as a House.'' Unexpectedly, our banter quickly turned to silence, then tears, and occasionally shock.
George was the main character in, 'My Life as a House.' The movie opened with George receiving the terrible news that he had terminal cancer, and only 4 months to live. A divorced middle-aged man, unexpectedly, he had also lost his job. Furthermore, George was estranged from his son, who lived with his ex­ wife, her new husband, and their children. Like Noah, George felt as if the flood was about to come, and it was time for him to start building his ark. And so George invited everyone to rebuild his house with him before he died, and together they did. In the end, he was prepared to die because he began to live in a new and different way.
At times like these, we claim that we were hit ''out of the blue", unexpectedly, and without forewarning. We argue that we had no time to prepare. And so when the message comes in all its fullness, it seems dramatic, undeserved, and harsh. And we feel as if it’s too late to save our jobs, our health, our relationships, and our planet.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and Jesus’ words in the gospel are little Advent warning signs for us today. They are the buzzers that wake us up, and invite us to get our communal and personal houses in order. They tell us to slow down and pay attention. They invite us to consider our priorities, the ways in which we live, and remind us that it is never too late.
Many years ago, I attended a Christian formation class during Lent, when we used a book called Ready to Live: Prepared to Die. I was in my 30’s at the time, and was probably the youngest person in the class. It was led by a woman in our church, who was in her 70’s, and for whom I had the greatest respect. I remember asking her one time about Jesus. How could she be so sure about Him and His story?
Today, I believe in Jesus. I came to believe over time, in His story and in our salvation story through a church community much like yours. Through my own life experiences and in listening to the stories of others, I began to see the hand of God at work in our world, the face of Jesus in others, and the power of the Spirit everywhere. I came to believe in a power greater than us, in a power that can raise us from death to life, and a power that can show us the Way to live, not only now but forever. I came. I came to. And then I came to believe. It changed my life. Thank you, Jesus.
Today, I believe that we are all floating on God’s grace, and so not even global warming or unexpected floods can wash us away. I also believe that we are filled with God’s grace; each of us has a spring of living water within us, given to us at creation, replenished at baptism, and renewed with every Eucharist. With a collective force that flows into our world, together, we can put out some of those raging fires. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Be gracious. Be generous. Be kind. Today.
When we put on the Lord Jesus, we live differently. We live in new and different ways. In a song entitled Wake Up Everybody, John Legend sang these words:
Wake up everybody no more sleepin' in bed
No more backward thinkin' time for thinkin' ahead
The world has changed so very much
From what it used to be
There is so much hatred war and poverty
Wake up all the builders time to build a new land
I know we can do it if we all lend a hand
Today, I try to live with only one expectation: I expect that God’s grace will break into our lives at all times, in all places, and under every circumstance. Advent is our alarm clock, reminding us of God’s grace, and the beginning of our salvation story. Even as our days and nights darken with the winter solstice, I trust that God’s light will lead us home, as surely as the north star led those shepherds long ago. God’s Christmas present to us is surely coming. Wait for it. Prepare for it, by making a place in your heart for the birth of Jesus. And remember, Jesus is already here. Jesus is in the House. Right now. Right here. Today. Thank you, God.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Now is the Time

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

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 Your Spirit, lift us we pray into Your presence, so that we may be still and know that You are God.

Last time I was here with you at St. Peter’s, it was in the middle of August and nearly 100 degrees in temperature. The gospel passage assigned for that Sunday was Jesus telling his disciples that he had come not to bring peace to the earth but rather division. And while today’s November temperature is much cooler than the last time I was here, the political temperature is not. Just call me Captain Obvious.

I find today’s gospel lesson as challenging as it was in August. “As for these things that you see,” Jesus said, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Scary things will happen, Jesus warned the crowds.  “Nation will rise against nation; there will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues. They will arrest you and persecute you, there will be family betrayals, and some people will even die.” Call me Captain Obvious again, but today I feel as if Jesus is the anchor of our current news station.

Perhaps you remember that my husband Paul and I are Red Sox fans. In October, we attended Papi’s last game which was when the Red Sox were defeated by the Cleveland Indians.  Your rector, Christian, and I, and some of you here at St. Peter’s, attended our Diocesan Convention recently, where the bishop began his homily by asking people who had supported the Chicago Cubs (the blue team) to stand up. Then he asked those who had supported the Cleveland Indians (the red team) to stand up. The room was obviously divided, but not very evenly. Clearly more people favored the Cubs.

Now I’m not going to ask you stand up if you supported Hillary Clinton (the blue team) or Donald Trump (the red team). Often we tend to hang out with people who are similar to us; and yet we may also seek diversity in our communities and churches so that we can hear from a variety of perspectives, and appreciate the diversity of God’s creation. Perhaps like me, you had family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors who voted very differently from you this year. Maybe not. But regardless of your choice for president, I dare say that most of us were disgusted by the disrespectful dialogue, the dishonesty, and the lack of civility that is still evident. Many of us are distrustful of what is being reported and what is being promised - fearful about what is happening or what might happen to our country in the future. Most of us believe that it’s going to take a very long time to heal and to reconcile such deep and bitter divisions among us.

“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right,” said St. Paul to the very earliest Christian community in Thessalonica. Not unlike them, and Jesus, we too can see unjust political, economic, and religious systems that are crushing hard-working and faithful people, that are crushing ourselves, our souls, and bodies so that we cannot breathe. Like them, it can be tempting for us to give up, to become mere busybodies, all talk and no action, and to quit working faithfully and peacefully for justice and mercy for all God’s beloved people. It is easy to get weary with life’s challenges and sinful systems; and it’s not always easy to “do the next right thing.”

Bishop Gates, in a letter to the people of our diocese, wrote this: “Our national election is behind us, leaving in its wake a legacy of bitterness and hostility. For some, alienation is the apparent reason for the election’s outcome; for others alienation is its result. In either case, we face grievous division and manifest anxiety. At our recent Diocesan Convention I cited the hazard of viewing the world in terms of winners and losers–a framework which propels us towards adversarial relationships, and self-concern over communal well-being.”

“Now is not a time to live out (our) habitual behaviors of winners and losers. (Rather) now is a time to rededicate ourselves to the Christian ideal of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility which divide us (Ephesians 2:14). Now is a time to rededicate ourselves to the American ideal of liberty and justice for all.” (end quote) Or as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Before he was elected president of the United States, and while he was serving our country in World War 2, President Kennedy had to swim 3 miles to shore after his PT boat was destroyed by the enemy. With words that were at times encouraging, and at other times demanding, Kennedy exhorted his companions to keep on swimming, and not give up. They could all see the distant land. They hoped that they could make it. But first, they had their work cut out for them. They had to swim.

At times of high stress and transition, it is easy to lose our focus, or to panic, and forget the basics of how to swim in cold waters. It feels easier to destroy people and their properties, literally or figuratively, rather than doing the painstaking work of choosing to do the “next right thing.” It’s hard to endure team losses, or life’s disappointments, or deep divisions when we feel the chains of oppression around our wrists, the bars of injustice limiting our potential, dark nights that crowd out distant hopes, and threats of death that, like sharks, can circle in the waters all around us, unseen beneath the surface, before they strike. Sometimes the Promised Land seems so far off that we feel as if we shall surely drown in our own tears before we arrive.
But here’s the gospel truth that can set us free, at least for today. Regardless of our political party, our gender, our race, our socio-economic status, or even our nationality, “those people” are us. We are them; and they are us, and we’re all in this boat together. As President Obama recently said, “We’re all on the same team.” As beloved children of God, we may feel as if our PT boat is too small, and headed for disaster, but the ocean of God’s love is far greater.

The day that is coming belongs to God. That time is near; and that time is now. “Do not be terrified,’ Jesus said. “Not a hair of your head will perish; and by your endurance you will gain your souls.” During these times of trial and tribulation, do not worry about your “defense in advance; for Jesus will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Now is the time for all of us to be spiritual leaders who both encourage and exhort others to swim.  

While the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven may guide us in our dark nights at sea, and perhaps even bring us some feelings of comfort and peace, Christ is our true north, and He is the guiding light that will lead us safely home. Jesus’ mission of reconciliation was accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection. None of us are alienated any more. None of us are aliens on God’s sacred land. Now and forever, we are all united in Christ, swimming in an ocean of God’s love, and we need to trust the Spirit’s leadership.

I want to close with the words of Gunilla Norris from her book called Inviting the Silence, Universal Principles of Meditation. (quote) “The experience of silence is now so rare that we must cultivate it and treasure it. This is especially true for shared silence. Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act. When we can stand aside from the usual, and perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen. Our lives align with deeper values, and the lives of others are touched and influenced.”

“Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses, to ourselves. It locates us. Each of us can make a difference. Politicians and visionaries will not return us to the sacredness of life, that will be done by ordinary men and women, who together or alone can say, ‘Remember to breathe, remember to feel, remember to care. Let us do this for our children and ourselves and our children’s children. Let us practice for life’s sake.” (end quote)

The votes are in. Divisive words have been spoken; and our body politic has been broken. Now is the time for silence. Now is the time for healing. Now is the time for us to be on God’s mission of reconciliation, renewal, and resurrection. Remember Jesus. And if anyone asks you about the challenges that we face, that is your opportunity to testify. Just say, “I’m with Him.” I’m with Jesus. So let’s start swimming. One breath at a time, one stroke at a time, with God’s grace, we shall all surely arrive at the Promised Land one day.  Amen.