Sunday, December 17, 2017

Jesus, Who is He?

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Advent 3: December 17, 2017

Have you ever wondered about Jesus? I mean really wrestled with the question about who He was, who He is for you, and who He will be in the age to come? Advent is a time for just this kind of wrestling and wondering.
Back in the day, that time when Jesus and John the Baptist, lived and breathed and had their beings, many people wondered about them. It began with John the Baptist. People asked him, “Who are you? And what gives you the authority to do that?”
John the Baptist replied in the negative. He answered, “I am not the light. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. And no, I am not the prophet Isaiah.” “Then who are you?” the people demanded. “I am God’s witness to the light,” John replied.
We have four gospel stories in our Bible. The gospel of Mark is known for its brevity and immediacy. Jesus is a man on God’s mission, running around exorcising demons, healing people, and calling fisherfolk to follow him. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we hear about the birth narratives of both John and Jesus, and how their lives unfold powerfully and tragically.
“Who is Jesus? And what authority does He have?” each gospel writer has asked. On this third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist answers,  “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” My job is to “testify to the light,” John said to the crowd, “so that all might believe through him.”
Many people throughout the ages have wondered about Jesus and his authority. “Was Jesus human or divine?”  Was he just a failed prophet, like so many others who had gone before him, like John the Baptist and Isaiah? Or was Jesus divine, the Messiah, and the Light that shines eternally? Was He truly the Word of God made flesh, who spoke with God’s power and authority?
Eventually, through the councils of the early church, people began to claim that Jesus was 100% fully human and 100% fully divine. Creeds were created to witness to our faith and tell the short story about Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again. The gospel of John claims that “everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.” Do you believe this?
I didn’t. At least I didn’t until, like the gospel writers, I too had experienced Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I was baptized, not in the river Jordan, but in a baptismal font in the United Church of Christ. As a child, I remember the wonder of Christmas eve services, hustling out to our car from the church in the bitter cold, shielding the light of my candle with my hand, using this little light of mine to dispel my own darkness. I didn’t wonder about who Jesus was back then. I just worshipped Him, hoped in Him, and trusted Him.
In my teenage years, my wondering took a new turn. Like the demons in Mark’s gospel, I would ask Jesus, “Who are you? And what do you have to do with me?” I questioned so many things about God and Jesus that I chose not to be confirmed in the Presbyterian Church. In college, I identified myself as an agnostic, or someone who does not know; and then, later in my 20’s, I remember asking my next-door neighbor why she attended mass every Sunday, and why she even bothered to go to church. Her reply? “There are so many transitions in my life,” she said, “it’s the one place I can feel anchored and grounded."
Our babies were born 18 months apart, and in the traditions of our families, Paul and I baptized them both into the life of Christ, first at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Walpole, Massachusetts, and then at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown,Connecticut. It was there, as a young mother, that my wondering about Jesus began in earnest. Who was this guy? And what did He have to do with me, Paul, Megan, and Brian?
I wanted answers, and like a woman on a mission, I began to seek them. I attended Bible study every week and then Education for Ministry for four years. I joined the pastoral care team and then the vestry. I got involved in our outreach committee and helped create a transitional living facility for homeless women and their children. I was part of the town’s Local Housing Partnership and Habitat for Humanity, partnerships that created new and affordable housing in our communities. I visited people in the hospital and those in prison. My mission was to become a part of God’s mission.
The battle about Jesus that was raging within the early Christian and Jewish communities also raged within my own heart. Who was Jesus and who was Jesus for me? for my family? And for my neighbors? If Jesus was not divine, then why did I worship him? If Jesus was not human, then what did he know about me and my life or yours?
Jesus might be tight with His Father in heaven, but too often I’m not. Although he ate and drank with sinners, Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with addictions, as some of my family members and many of you have. I wondered about the extent of His suffering. Had he not died early in his 30’s, never having been married, raised children, nor faced the challenges of his mother’s old age, let alone his own? Does three hours of suffering on a cross compare to a lifetime on the streets or being trapped in a body that is riddled with disease?
How is it then that my voice, crying out in the wilderness, has become the voice of one who proclaims, ‘make straight the way of the Lord?’ Quite simply, through the power of God’s Spirit. Through scripture, I began to know that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. It is through the body of Christ that I have come to know the One who stands among us, who made me worthy to stand before Him. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that I have seen His face, heard His voice, and felt His healing touch. Like a slow drip of water on a stone, my heart has been changed, and my life continues to be transformed.
The birth of a baby is always a cause for great wonder. It is an opportunity for fresh starts, big dreams, and new life. In awe, we can marvel at the beauty of God’s creation. We can look upon a baby in the manger and see many reasons for hope. We can see a vulnerability that has not yet been marred by human unkindness, a dependency on others that is age appropriate, and soft skin that has not yet been hardened by human toil or abuse. This new life is almost always protected; and babies will often bring us to our knees, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
While human beings, like me and John the Baptist, may baptize with water, God baptizes with the Holy Spirit, which is beyond our human understanding or control. Such power can bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim release to the captive, and comfort to all who mourn. Such power can even raise the dead into eternal and resurrected life.
Our Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry,  also testifies to that light today. He said (quote) “The truly liberating truth is that Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion, though religious faith is important. Nor did he establish a religious institution or organization, though institutions and organizations can serve his cause. Jesus came to continue a movement, born out of the prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist.” (end quote) This movement is called the Jesus movement and it is the life-giving, liberating love of God, unleashed for all of us to receive, each and every day, through the power of the Spirit.
Who is Jesus? He is the living Word of God, who speaks to us daily, sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, sometimes silent. He is the Bread of Life, who feeds our hungry hearts. He is the living Water, who quenches our thirst and washes away our sins. Who is Jesus? He is the Good Shepherd, who finds us when we’re lost, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is the Light of the world that shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Through Him, I am a child once again, who can walk into the cold and bitter nights of winter, carrying my little candle in front of me, knowing that God’s hand will shield me and that God’s Spirit will guide me. Who is Jesus? He is the One who I have come to know standing among us, the thong of his sandal I am not worthy to untie. He is the Resurrection and the Life, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
And what about you? How do you come to the Table today? Are you struggling with pain, emptiness, and sorrow? Are you still wondering about Jesus? Or do you come rejoicing, expectant, and hopeful? Either way, come to the table and be fed by Jesus. Then, join the Jesus Movement, trust in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, and be a witness to the Light. Amen.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Keep Awake

1st Advent. December 3, 2017
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Isaiah 64: 1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13 : 24-37

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, lift us we pray into your presence, that we may be still and know that you are God. Amen.

I watched a YouTube video of the total solar eclipse that happened this past August. Here it is: https://youtube/G10m2ZZRH4U.

I wonder if Jesus, back in his day, was talking about a total eclipse of the sun, when he said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Jesus said, “after that suffering” this will happen. “That” suffering was their suffering as the people of Israel; it was his impending suffering on the cross; and it is our suffering today. “That” suffering comes in all shapes and sizes for each and every one of us; and it comes to all people in the countries throughout our world.

Last Sunday, Shaykh Yasir, Senior Imam at the mosque in Roxbury, was our guest preacher. He spoke about how God created everyone and everything, and it was all good and beautiful. He spoke about sleep as a mini-death, and that when we wake up from a night’s sleep, however long or short it may be, we can give praise and thanksgiving to God for yet another day of light and life. Sleep is like a mini total eclipse of the sun.

Some of us can sleep like warriors. It doesn’t matter what else is going on around us, we can sleep straight through it. Others of us struggle mightily with sleep, lying awake, tossing and turning.The darkened sun, indeed the dark itself, can produce anxiety; and because of this anxiety, we are restless and fearful. We worry about many things. We sleep with one eye open, perhaps even two, staring into the night sky, wondering if the stars will fall from heaven, and our lives will soon end. We find ways to medicate ourselves to shut off those internal voices, to calm our night terrors, and to silence the enemy.

Anxiety can be acute or chronic. Anxiety is contagious, and it infects the people all around us. Now, acute anxiety soon passes, like the total eclipse of the sun, while chronic anxiety infects our whole system; it stays with us long after any specific event is over. The sun comes out and yet the darkness remains. The family fight is over, and  we’re still angry and resentful. The war ended and the battles rage on. We are bitter, like the cold winds before an eclipse; and our responses become frozen like that well-known Princess in the movie.

The Rev. Peter Steinke writes that anxiety can “hold us back, take us by the throat, and chain us like a slave.” When chronic, we begin to think in narrow-minded ways, or behave in predictable patterns. We lose hope; we give up; we tighten our fists; we jerk our knees; we see through our sunglasses only darkly, and become depressed. We forget to walk in faith, even if we can’t see our way forward.

Jesus pointed to the fig tree and said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Now, here in Boston, I’m not aware of any fig trees close by. In fact, most trees these days are losing their leaves rather than putting forth new ones. Summer is definitely not near on this 3rd day of December, which marks the beginning of our winter months.

Today, also marks the beginning of our liturgical year, when the Church begins a new season, which we call Advent. Following the narrative of our Christian faith, we prepare for the birth of Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again after his suffering.The Latin translation for Advent means to ‘come to.’ Broken apart into two words, ‘vent’ is translated ‘come’, and ‘ad’ is translated ‘to.’ So Advent means to “come to”, to come to Jesus, to “come to” after sleep, and to wake up to new life.

The season of Advent prepares us for the birth of God in our own lives, which can take many forms. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says that the ‘Son of Man’ will come in clouds with great power and glory.” For those of us who are looking for an all-powerful God from on high, to descend and make all things right in our world, this is a hopeful passage. Evil is real and it takes many forms. Who among us does not want God to be our avenger?

The Israelites had been defeated by their enemies. They had lost their homes and their jobs, and saw their city of Jerusalem and its holy temple destroyed. They wanted such relief. The prophet Isaiah prayed to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down to make your name known to your adversaries.” The psalmist prayed similarly, repeating three times in psalm 80, “restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Perhaps you saw the article in the Boston Globe this past week about the Rev. Tom Hoar,  a Roman-Catholic priest from Quincy, Mass. who was “a genial guy whose spiritual home as a kid was a triple-decker in South Boston. (A few years ago) he created a retreat center on Enders Island off the shores of Connecticut, for those who have lost their way because of their addictions. He knows. He was there once long ago.”

“I never felt good enough,’’ he said. “Never felt smart enough. My brother was always the better athlete. Even though I excelled in school, internally I felt empty. And you see that in many alcoholics and addicts. I could preach a great sermon on how much God loved you. I wasn’t always sure that God loved me. Even though I achieved, I lived in fear.’’

“And Hoar developed a taste for alcohol. Good wine. Top-shelf whiskey. Fine cognac.”
“In early October of 1989, he was leading a new campus ministry at his alma mater in Vermont. He was alone, drinking in his room when a fire broke out about a mile away. He was the fire department chaplain, so he answered the alarm.”

“I went to this fire and the dean of students said to me, ‘Have you been drinking?’ And I said: ‘No, no, no, no.’ And the fire chief, who was a dear friend of mine said, ‘Have you been drinking?’ And I said, ‘No. I went out to dinner and had some drinks.’ ’’
“Hoar left the fire scene, navigating a sea of flashing red and blue lights. A mile later, he was back at home, where he looked in the mirror and took stock. “I said, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing?’ And that was my last drink.’’

“For (all) who cross that tiny one-lane bridge, whose lives have been wrecked by drugs and alcohol, who have left behind a trail of betrayal and defeat, of hopelessness and paralyzing fear, it is nothing less than the passage of a lifetime. When they get to the other side, he has the simplest of questions. It is a life-changing one. The Rev. Tom Hoar asks, “Have you had enough?”

“I’m grateful for God’s blessings in my life and in the life of the folks who come across that causeway,’’ Hoar said last week. “Because people who come across that causeway are looking for hope.’’

We all pray for the moon to pass, for the sunshine to return, and our anxieties to be relieved. We all want to find and embrace hope, so that we can see beyond our own darkness to the light that shines as bright as Venus in the night sky. Most of us would prefer to see the dawn of a new day, rather than the vesper light in the sunset of our lives.

Today, Janet McKenzie’s art surrounds us with hope. As Christians, we proclaim our resurrection faith, which begins with the birth of Jesus, who is our causeway, a tiny one-lane bridge, to a new life of hope. The sun may rise and set, and our nights of sleep, or days of life, may feel like mini-deaths; and yet we believe that Christ is the light of the world that will cast away the works of darkness forever. We believe that life does not end in him, that death no longer has its victory, no longer has its sting.

In times of anxiety and despair, some claim that God is nowhere to be found or to be seen. And yet, taking those two words apart, as we did with the word Advent, the word no-where can easily become “now-here.” God is now here -  in you, in me, in Janet’s art, and in every breath that we take. God is now here: all good, all knowing, all powerful, and ever present. Keep alert, Jesus said. Stay awake, for the holy One is in the midst of us, and hallowed is God’s name.

Today, be a tender branch from Jesse’s tree, shooting forth new life in little evergreen branches. Stand firm in your faith, and as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Give thanks to God always for the grace of God which has been given to each of us in Christ Jesus who will strengthen us to the end.”

Do not succumb to fear; for Jesus’ words have not passed away, and “in Him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.” Sleep at peace. Awake with hope. Wait expectantly; for God is near, God is now here, and in God is our hope and our salvation. Amen.

Monday, October 9, 2017

God's Vineyard: a Land of Immigrants

October 8, 2017 Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Cathedral Church of St. Paul Philippians 3:4b-14
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 21: 33-46

Columbus Day weekend seems to be a prequel for some of the holidays looming on our horizon, like our Thanksgiving holiday in November. These holidays raise some questions for me, like how did we all get here in the first place? And whose land is this anyway?
Our bishops recently came back from Alaska where they had gathered for their meeting of the House of Bishops. They had the opportunity to see not only the people of the diocese of Alaska, but also the land upon which they live. Only two of the thirty parishes in this diocese are reachable by roads, the rest of them by small planes only. The indigenous people of Alaska still live off of the land, hunting for moose and fishing for salmon; while businesses and the state live off the land economically, mining and selling many of their natural resources.
Which brings me back to this Columbus Day weekend here in Boston. Our indigenous people are the Native Americans who also lived off this land. Immigration began with people arriving from other parts of our world. Immigrants came from Africa, under the horrific conditions of forced slavery. In the Hebrew translation of “Thou shalt not steal” some interpret the word “steal”  to mean “Thou shalt not steal people, rather than things.” (Laurie Brock,
Immigrants also came from Ireland, as famine and politics forced starving families to seek new vineyards, and to find work, in order to survive. Indeed, today here in Boston, the largest immigrant population is from the Irish community.
Our Anglican immigrants came from England, when the Puritans sought religious freedom from English leaders, just as Jesus was seeking freedom from the Jewish leaders of his time. And, as we know from our history books, Italian born Christopher Columbus came from Spain, seeking an opportunity to get to India and Asia to exploit the riches of those lands -pearls, gold, silver, silks, and spices.
Russell Freedom in his book, Who was first? Discovering the Americas, wrote “As we dig deeper and deeper into the past, we find that the Americas have always been lands of immigrants, lands that have been "discovered" time and again by different peoples coming from different parts of the world over the course of countless generations—going far back to the prehistoric past, when a band of Stone Age hunters first set foot in what truly was an unexplored New World.”
Our land is growing increasingly inhabited, indeed overpopulated in many places. Our land is being depleted of its natural resources as we use and abuse them to fuel our modern needs and human greeds. Casually and carelessly at times, we waste our resources and pollute this fragile earth our island home. As more and more people seek to live in urban environments, we are confronted daily with the challenges of our human diversity. Some of us seek escape by going to those less populated and more natural areas of our lands, just as our bishops did recently, and as the Manna pilgrims are doing today.
As we have heard over these past few weeks in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus continues to speak to the people around him by using parables. And today’s parable raises those questions once again for me. Whose land is this anyway? And where did we come from? Preachers today are quick to point out that the vineyard belongs to God and that we are the tenants of this vineyard. These tenants have produced grapes and then pressed them into wine for the absentee landowner. But not only have they disrespected him, and refused to pay him his due, they have also killed his slaves and his own son who came to collect.
Our land is both privately owned and publicly shared. And often times these boundaries get blurred. Take for instance our Cathedral Church steps and porch, our sanctuary, and these 138 Tremont Street buildings. They are privately owned by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul. And yet often times people assume that they are public spaces, and available to anyone and everyone for their use or abuse. Such misunderstandings can complicate our relationships especially when we claim to be a House of Prayer for all God’s people. It raises that question: Who owns this vineyard anyway? And how did we get here?
Willy MacMullen, headmaster of the Taft School in Connecticut, wrote his commencement remarks to the graduating seniors from a library near the New Haven Green. In an article called “Living on the Commons” he wrote, “Colonists arrived in New Haven in 1638 to try to somehow wrest a life out of thick woods and thin soil. That they survived is something of a miracle, but what is more astonishing is this: one of the first things they did was to plan the town Green. Barely able to eke out survival and with arable land scarce, the first thing they did was to commit to a space where they could gather - to trade, worship, discuss, remediate, resolve, and educate. Think about what that said about their conviction that a community of desperate and diverse voices could only endure if there was a commons.”
We live on the Boston Commons where our public and private lives do meet. We live in a world where desperate and diverse voices are raised with competing urgencies. We live in a world where we live at risk for violence to erupt on our steps, or on our commons, or as it did in Las Vegas last week. We live as tenants on a fragile earth where our natural resources are endangered because of human needs and greeds. And here we worship God as laborers in this private building, also part of God’s vineyard, on these Boston commons.
Headmaster McMullen reminds us that  “We all see a shrunken world, with economic interconnectedness, strains on basic resources, need for environmental cooperation, concerns about security and tribalism. We will need people who can collaborate across difference, who can together think critically and creatively, who can be part of diverse teams, who can debate and empathize with equal parts passion and compassion, who see both shared responsibility and opportunity.”
While living on the commons of Palestine, Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of Israel. You have been given this vineyard by God, he said. You are the tenants of God’s land, which is rich in resources, and you are entrusted with producing wine from the grapes. I have given you a fence to protect this crop from wild boars. I have built a tower for you to watch for thieves, and to serve as a place of lodging for the laborers.
According to William Barclay, “the actions of the owner of the vineyard were all quite normal. Palestine was very familiar with absentee landlords, who let out their estates and were interested only in collecting rental at the right time. (And) the actions of the cultivators was not uncommon either. The country was seething with economic unrest; the working people were discontented and rebellious; and the action of the cultivators (wanting to kill) the son was not by any means impossible.”
Whose land is this anyway? And how did we get here in the first place? Evolutionists will tell you one story; and theologians will tell you another. And I will say that the stories are not incompatible. God created our land, before time. And God created all living beings who began to inhabit that land. We have been given work to do, to be tenants, and laborers, co-creators with God. We have been given the authority and power to till the soil, to produce good fruit, and to protect the vineyard. Co-laborers with God and each other, we have all migrated from foreign lands, some of us living on these commons of our public squares. We have created civil and spiritual laws to protect ourselves and our things.
As Headmaster MacMullen wrote, “As the world has never been more complex and dynamic, the irony is that it has also never looked more like a colonial commons, never more in need of disparate citizens who can gather and converse to meet the pressing planetary challenges. Common spaces are about the bringing together of citizens, around religion, trade, civics, and education.”
I believe that our Cathedral Church, located on these Boston Commons, is uniquely positioned to have those conversations, if we can maintain our civility, our respect, and our desire for the common good. I believe that our landowner is not absent, however, but very much present through the Spirit. This land is our land. This land is God’s land. And while we have come from many and various places, we all came from God. So let’s press on, and be good stewards of this vineyard, while living on these Boston commons together. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I Love to Work

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Exodus 16: 2-15 Philippians 1: 21-20 Matthew 20: 1-16

I have a confession to make. I love to work. I always have, I do right now, and I imagine I will until the day I die. And I am well aware that many people are not like me. Some of you may also like to work but are ready for a break, re-direction, or a change of venue. Or maybe you’re looking for work, and are frustrated with the lack of opportunities available to you. Perhaps you hate work, and would prefer to be a couch potato, or a well-kept man at home. The bottom line, however, is that we are all working, all the time, whether we’re paid for it or not. In fact, we work every day just to stay alive.
Over the course of my lifetime, my work has taken on many faces and gone through various transitions. For starters, in elementary school, I worked hard to earn my mother’s love. I raked the leaves on our yard on my own without being asked; I worked hard in school, and I followed the rules. Later, in middle school, I became a candy-striper, volunteering my time in the hospital, offering reading materials and snacks to patients. I liked their appreciation, and I enjoyed wearing a uniform that identified who I was. Funny, today, I’m still wearing a uniform.
In high school, my work ethic continued despite changes in my location. Before my junior year, my family had moved from the deep south into the north, and I discovered a whole new culture. My work became very different. I was the campaign manager for the president of our student government. I lobbied for a smoking lounge in our high school. I put on a cheerleading uniform, field hockey, basketball, and softball jerseys; and I stopped working so hard in school. I took on unhealthy habits because I wanted to fit in with the “cool kids” and I was angry with my parents. Truth be told, the culture became more important to me than my faith or my family.
As a teenager, I also began to work for money; and because I love to work, I did. At first, I was a waitress in Lord and Taylor’s tea room, offering small bite-sized sandwiches to customers who wanted a break from their shopping. Later, I was one of the cooks at the Howard Johnson’s on I-95. Fish fry Friday’s were particularly busy at work, and so I loved them. While my best friend worked as the glamorous hostess who seated people, I liked being out of sight in the kitchen. I still had a uniform: a white apron, a hairnet, and fingers that were caked with batter.
Aside from work, I also love food, and so perhaps you have begun to see a pattern here. In college, I immediately got a job at Brigham’s Ice Cream, serving candy, because at that time, women weren’t allowed to scoop ice cream. I also had a work study job, which was working in the kitchen at breakfast in the dining hall. When my grades began to slip, I was encouraged to stop working for money and put more work into my studies; and so, sadly, I did.
Upon graduation I couldn’t wait to start working again: first, at a summer camp program, for inner city kids and then on to more permanent work here at Filene’s in Boston. I did a lot of grunt work, putting clothes on hangers, cleaning up after customers, and responding to their requests. When I switched to banking, thinking it would be kinder and gentler, I did a lot of the same work, exchanging the sale of clothing for the laundering of money.  And then I became a parent: two babies within two years time. Like I said, I continued my work of putting clothes on hangers, cleaning up after people, and responding to a lot of requests. In my opinion, however, there is no harder work than being a parent; and no greater joy.
Before seminary, I helped create affordable housing and spent a year working in a hospital as a chaplain, which was intense, challenging, and wonderful at the same time. After seminary, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. I thought work in the church might be different. You know, kinder and gentler. No complaints or grumbling. No hanging of clothes, lots of people helping to clean up, and although I knew there would be plenty of requests, I thought they wouldn’t come to me, but to God. And so upon graduation, I couldn’t wait to put on my new uniform, and start working in the vineyard of God.
Human life, despite our diversity, is often similar, no matter where we live, or work, or study, or have our being. God’s vineyard, despite our location in time or place, seems to have similar workers. The Israelites complained when they worked as slaves in Egypt, and then complained again when Moses led them to freedom. When they grumbled that bread wasn’t enough for their daily food, God gave them meat. Comparing themselves to other laborers in the vineyard, some workers grumbled against the landowner, despite their original covenant with him. With envy, they compared themselves to their fellow human laborers rather than being grateful for what they had. Did they not have enough? Or did they just want less for their neighbor? And more for themselves?
In a book entitled Extraordinary Relationships, a New Way of Thinking about Human Relationships, Dr. Roberta Gilbert wrote, “Places of work, like families, also go through periods of unusual stress, which tend to cause relationship patterns and postures to be more in evidence than usual. Periods of unusual stress might include a transitional time around changing of leaders, a period of economic change, or a company reorganization. At these times, it is more difficult for each individual to stay on course in the organization; that is, it becomes harder to stay out of triangles or out of polarized positions with or against factions that develop. But a goal during (these times) is to retain competent (work), by working for emotional calm, and by staying in emotionally neutral contact with everyone in the system, regardless of their positions or factions.”
This was no less true for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, or for the people following Jesus, than it is today in our world, in our country, and here in our Church. We are all laborers, and yet we are often tempted to be pulled into critical factions, which grumble and complain, rather than becoming more generous and productive workers. Jesus is fond of telling parables to make certain points; and a friend of mine argues that this parable is a bad one. She claims that because we get so caught up in the unfairness of the landowner, we miss the generosity of God.
Jesus uses parables to subvert, to shatter, and to expand our world views, and to challenge the cultural and religious assumptions we have about life and about people. Jesus encourages us to change. Yes, life is unfair; and yet such inequity may be God’s invitation for us to get to work!
This parable isn’t just about us, however, it’s also about God. Distracted by our anger, we don’t see our God, who is the Good Shepherd and the Liberator, our God who is the generous landowner, our God who provides not only daily bread and meat, but also a Eucharistic feast of His own Body and Blood.
It’s not fair that Jesus died on the cross. It’s not fair that each and every one of us is forgiven our daily sins against God and our neighbor. It’s not fair that the drug-dealers on our steps make more money than our sextons, who routinely clean up after them, risk their own health and safety on our behalf. It’s not fair that pop stars and sports heroes make more money than health care workers and teachers.
Fortunately for us, God’s grace is free and unmerited. We didn’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it. God’s grace is also unexpected. It comes like a thief in the night, or at the end of a parable. God’s grace is new every morning; and in the end, it doesn’t much matter how hard I’ve worked, or how much money I’ve made, or how much suffering I have endured. In the end, all that matters to me is that I have picked up my cross, and followed Jesus.
In today’s culture, we think being idle means hanging out on the streets, looking for excitement, or mischief, or just time to be a couch potato, resting from our day’s labor. In today’s gospel, however, those who were idle were actually looking for work. The market-place was their labour exchange, a place where vineyard owners would go when they were looking for people who wanted to work.
God chooses generosity. God loves us equally; and yet our human needs will vary. In the Caribbean, in Florida, Texas, and most recently in Mexico, the needs of God’s people are greater than other parts of God’s vineyard; and they are no more or less loved than we are. God calls us to work, to help others, to strive by side for the faith of the gospel, however we can, and wherever we can. Shall we stand idle while others suffer? Or will we work together for building up the kingdom of God, no matter the hour in which we are called, and no matter the wages that we are promised.
In the end, and every day until then, I believe that I have been saved by grace, and not by my works. In the end, I also believe that as common laborers in God’s vineyard, we’ll all be paid the same: that is our salvation and eternal life. For me, “living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor.” And if “I depart and be with Christ, that is far better.” For as we proclaim in our burial rite, “happy from now on are those who die in the Lord! So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors”. Yes, life is unfair, but now and together, let’s celebrate the feast that God has provided for us, and then labour on, for the best is yet to come. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Becoming Better Evangelists

13 Pentecost, September 3, 2017 Exodus 3: 1-15
Cathedral Church of St. Paul Romans 12: 9-21
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Matthew 16: 21-28

Open my lips O Lord and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Amen.

I’ve been to Texas twice in my life. The first time was when I was part of a mission trip to Galveston, Texas. Together, with the youth of our Episcopal church and the youth of the United Church of Christ, we traveled to a non-denominational church in Galveston. Their church provided us with a place to eat, sleep, and worship. They also connected us with local people who were still in need of help, after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, even three years later.
I’ve been on mission trips many times after a disaster: there was a trip to South Carolina; a trip to Ohio, a trip to Mississippi, to New York, and then once to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Having endured 8 days of lost power in Connecticut, once after a blizzard in the winter, and then another time after a tornado-like micro-burst in the summer, I remember being so very grateful for people’s help during those difficult and dangerous times. Our parish was less affected by these storms than some of us, and so we opened our Church for people to get water, to get warm, and check in with one another. Today, we pray throughout our country for those who have been affected by hurricane Harvey, and for those who have responded in many and various ways to their distress.
The second time that I traveled to Texas was this past November. As part of my continuing education, I decided to attend a conference in Dallas entitled Evangelism Matters, which was being held for Episcopalians from all over our country. To be among so many people
interested in evangelism was truly inspiring. Now in our baptismal covenant, we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; but if you are anything like me, I would much rather pick up a paint brush, hammer a nail, or serve a meal than talk about Jesus. Someone might just think I’m a Jesus-freak.

But, truth be told, I am! I love Jesus, except, unfortunately, I would prefer to keep Jesus in my closet. Or on my bumper sticker. Or around my neck, and then let others make some assumptions about me and my relationship to Jesus. Hopefully, they will think that I am like those Christians that St. Paul is describing in his letter to the Romans. Perhaps they’ll see me and think, isn’t she a good Christian because she’s doing all that good work. I suspect some might think that I’m on a fool’s errand or that my cross is just a meaningless symbol. I’ve learned that assumptions are never helpful, especially based upon outward appearances.

As baptized Christians, we promise to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ in our words, and not just by our actions and symbols, as important as they are. Evangelism, in part, is about telling our faith stories because we want to share the life-giving, liberating love of God that we have experienced in our own lives, and we want others to hear that good news too. The Black Seed writers’ group is a case in point. I wanted to become a better evangelist, which is why I went to Texas.
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for evangelism and reconciliation, and once a missionary and evangelist right here at our Cathedral, claims that evangelism has to be rooted in our congregations, regardless of our size or location, and not in individuals. Evangelism is everybody’s call from God, just as God called Moses in the burning bush. As Christians, we must be a community of people who are willing to share our faith stories of how we came to know God in the person of Jesus. And this Jesus can’t just be “the nicest guy ever”, or a political revolutionary, or a prophetic witness, or a great teacher, as much as he was all of those.

We proclaim that Jesus is our savior, and the savior of the world, which has nothing to do with our human efforts or beliefs, but rather about Jesus’s efforts and about God’s power. This Jesus is the one that Peter confessed to be the messiah, the one who reconciled us to God and to each other by giving up his own power and surrendering to the will of God. This is the Jesus who was raised from the dead, and people couldn’t stop talking about him afterwards. What happens when we think about Jesus like that?

Proclaiming the good news of God in Christ takes practice. It means getting over our fears of being rejected, looking tacky, being vulnerable, and getting hurt. It means giving up ourselves and losing our lives for God’s sake, no less than Jesus did. It means picking up the crosses which burden us and weigh us down, and then telling stories about how God’s amazing grace and unfailing companionship set us free. How God led us through every terrain and territory of our lives in all sorts of weather conditions. It means knowing that God is with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and will carry us home.

I came to understand the God of all creation through Jesus because he was human like me. Jesus taught me how to forgive. Jesus taught me how to love. Jesus healed me and gave me hope, and showed me that I have nothing to fear, not even death itself. With that blessed assurance, I no longer try to save myself, or prove myself, or even earn my own salvation. I just ask Jesus for help.

Stephanie taught us an easy way to share our faith stories with others. It’s called “Cardboard Testimonials.” On one side of a card, you write (in only a few words) about a struggle, or a challenge, or a valley that you have experienced in your own life. You need not bare your soul, or tell your deepest, darkest secret. Your words could be as simple as a time in your life when you were sick, or scared, or lonely, or just wrestling with a problem or a decision. Then on the other side of the card, in only a few words again, you write down how you believe God responded to you.  

For example, on my way to work this week, I was wrestling with a problem and asking God to give me a sign like the burning bush. Suddenly, a family that I had known from my parish in Connecticut appeared. After a brief conversation, I told them that they were my burning bush, that they were a sign to me that God was present. They didn’t solve my problem, nor did I solve theirs, but we assured each other that God shows up, not only in bushes but also in the people who show up in our lives. Now I’m not suggesting that God always responds to us so quickly or in such easily identifiable ways, but I am suggesting that we need to pay attention. We can call these appearances as nothing more than a coincidence, or we can share them with others as a God moment in our lives. That’s when we become evangelists.

Here are 3 examples from our conference in Texas. I was paralyzed by fear; I was freed by faith. Guilty as sin, I knew I was forgiven. I hated myself, I knew God loved me. And my cardboard testimonial from 4 years ago: I left parish ministry; God gave me a new call: to be a missionary and evangelist, without borders.

During the silence that follows my sermon, I invite you to create your own cardboard testimonial. If you want, you can share it during our coffee hour, or put it in the offering plate, or take it home with you as a reminder. Today we are all practicing how we can become better evangelists.

Shawnthea Monroe, a UCC minister, once wrote, “The worst haircut I ever received was a $7 special at a local salon. I was in my thirties and my hair was thick and curly, the kind of hair that could hide a multitude of styling sins - but not after the $7 special. It was short in back and uneven in front, with tufts sticking out in random places. I looked like I had mange.”

“No one at church said a word until Linda, a dear woman in the choir, came up to me after worship. Lifting a misshapen curl from my face, she said kindly, “You need to see Nan.” When Linda saw my disastrous haircut, she didn’t tell me about the benefits of finding the right stylist or hand me a leaflet featuring haircuts; she sent me to Nan. While it may be easier to spot someone who’s having a bad hair day than someone whose soul is in turmoil, there are people all around us who are hungering for a word they can take to heart. We must be ready and willing to speak the word: “You need to see Jesus.” Amen.
(Christian Century, July 26, 2011, p. 23)