Archive for the ‘The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation’ Category

Sunday
September 20

Taking Precedence

By Marsh Chapel

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Jonah 3:10–4:11

Philippians 1:21–30

Matthew 20:1–16

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A friend of mine tells a story about their facilitation of a bible study on Matthew a few years ago.  The study was held in a church in a well-off town just outside a major American city.  For the first nineteen chapters of Matthew, there was lively discussion, and everything remained relatively calm.  But when discussion started on the passage which is our Gospel text this morning, the tenor of discussion changed.  There was anger, and resentment, and attempts to dismiss the story on various grounds, the chief ground being that it might be all right for the landowner to act like that in the kingdom of God, but in real life no one would work for them, and such behavior only rewards the lazy.  The members of the study had all worked hard to get where they were, and the idea that late hires would be paid the same as those who had worked out in the sun all day was both an outrage and deeply distressing to them, especially as this was a God story.  The vineyard owner’s claims were offensive.  Did they have no respect for diligence and hard work?  Did God have no respect for them in their hard work and diligence?  Things got pretty heated.  Then one of the members, who had not said much, suddenly said, “But haven’t any of us ever caught a break?  That’s what happens to the late hires, isn’t it?  It wasn’t their fault they weren’t hired.  They caught a break from the landowner.”  Well, this was a bible study that had been going for a while, and the members knew and trusted each other.  So they thought about it.  And little by little, “Well, when you put it that way …”, the stories began to come out: some about little and amusing breaks, some about life-changing ones, sometimes about breaks that saved a life or many lives.  The concept of “catching a break” was examined, as something that was not expected, not necessarily deserved; and while it might involve someone else feeling affection or the desire to help another person out, it could be, as it is in the Gospel, purely due to the desire of the one who hires and has both the control and resources to provide the break, and they provide it because they can.  The study session ended on the general understanding that everyone present allowed that they had experienced catching a break and they were grateful.  And of course God could do whatever God liked.  But they were honest enough to allow that while the kingdom of God was one thing; if they saw such behavior from their bosses, and if they were the ones first hired, it would still rankle.

Someone or something that “takes precedence” is someone or something that is more important than the people or things around them.  Or it is someone or something with somehow a right to preferential treatment.  Religious, academic, state, community, or family, processionals or seating arrangements often demonstrate the importance of some people taking precedence over others, through formal organization hierarchy.  And, taking precedence is often claimed, or given informally by individuals or groups, or given to certain people, as the members of the bible study gave precedence to the early hires over the late hires with regard to who deserved the most pay from the landowner.  

Some things, commitments, and feelings also take precedence, even over things, commitments, and feelings that are also important.  The Book of Jonah describes a case in point.  Previously in the book to our story this morning, Jonah has been called by God to go and preach warning and repentance to the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the great, wicked city of Nineveh.  For reasons that are unclear at the time, Jonah goes overland to the place farthest from Nineveh, and then he takes a ship to go even farther away.  A storm blows up, Jonah tells the sailors that the storm is his fault for disobeying God, and he allows the sailors to throw him overboard so that they will not be harmed.  Jonah goes overboard, the sea calms, and Jonah is a swallowed by a great fish, or a whale.  He spends the fabled three days in the whale’s stomach.  Then the whale spews him up onto dry land.   

Our Scripture this morning, then, is post-whale.  Jonah has, it seems, decided to obey God’s call, and goes to Nineveh.  He has a spectacular preaching tour.  He only repeats one phrase, and the people and even the king pay attention.  They fast, repent in sackcloth and ashes, and turn from their evil ways.  God accepts their repentance, changes the divine mind, and does not overthrow the city.

Amazingly enough, Jonah is angry at the results of his work, work that he had been called by God to do.  He is angry with God.  He is specifically angry with God’s character and nature.:  God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s slowness to anger, God’s abounding in steadfast love, God’s readiness to relent from punishment.  The same qualities of God that he remembered as he prayed in repentance from inside the whale, when they are turned toward his enemies, he is so angry with God that he wants God to kill him, because he would rather die than live in such a situation.  God asks Jonah if he has a right to be angry, but receives no answer, and Jonah goes to a lookout to see what becomes of the forgiven city.  A bush grows over Jonah’s head and shades him, but a worm comes and kills the bush, and in the renewed heat Jonah again asks God to kill him.  God asks again if Jonah has the right to be angry, this time about the bush, and Jonah says he is angry enough to die, which is better than to live.  Jonah has allowed his anger and hatred of the Ninevites, and his concern for his own comfort, to take precedence:  precedence over his call from God, precedence over what he knows is the character and nature of God, and precedence over the great transformation of a wicked and violent city into a place concerned with repentance toward a right relationship with God and others.  For God, however, what takes precedence is the welfare of one hundred and twenty thousand people who are confused and fearful; and let’s not forget their animals, because God does not forget them.

The message of this morning’s two stories is that God’s idea of who or what takes precedence is different from Jonah’s; and as Jesus declares in his God story, it is different from that of the early hires.  God, who created everything, can in divine generosity do whatever God wants, for whoever God wants, and the people who are called to God’s mission both are taken care of and also will catch some breaks.  In these things, these stories are similar.  For our purposes this morning, we will note some differences between other aspects of the stories.

While there is some scholarly warrant for the possible existence of a “Jonah son of Ammitai,” and the enmity between Assyria and Israel is a matter of historical record, debate rages over who actually wrote the Book of Jonah.  Debate also rages over why, where, and when the author wrote it.  There is even debate over what category the book falls into:  history, parable, satire, and/or political/religious persuasion toward a more universal concept of God’s presence and love.  What we do know for sure is that Jonah’s is a story that was included in the Hebrew Bible, is referenced in both Matthew and Luke in the Christian scriptures, and has captured the imagination in books, song, and art for centuries.  And, the picture of Jonah it paints is both absurd, and in our time a bit too close to some of what we see at loose in the world:  a man who insists that what takes precedence, what is more important, is his own hatred of others, his anger toward those who change for the better and toward God,, and his preference for death, rather than life in a world where human repentance and divine generosity and mercy are possible.

Jesus’s story has noticeable differences.  It is an everyday story of marginal day workers and a disconcertingly fair and also generous employer.  We recognize its issues in our own reactions as to which workers should or should not take precedence in our own workplaces.  And we recognize its issues in our national labor policies that affect millions of lives and futures.   If we are like the members of the bible study, we will also remember the times when someone  allowed us to take precedence and gave us a break, and the warm feelings up to and including incoherent relief with which we received that break.

In the Gospel of Matthew the tax collector, this story is set in a whole section of stories which emphasize the fact that God’s idea of who or what takes precedence is not necessarily what we or the world think takes precedence, think what is more important.  In the stories that precede our story this morning:  Jesus insists that little children be allowed to come to him, because it is to those like them that the kingdom of heaven belongs:  Jesus encounters the rich young ruler who would not follow him because of his riches, and acknowledges that it is hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven; when Peter asks what will they get, who have left everything to follow Jesus, Jesus says that they will have more than they need, and, in this case too, that “ … many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  In the verses following our story this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die; the mother of the sons of Zebedee does their work for them and asks Jesus to put her sons to the right and left of him when he comes into his kingdom; Jesus tells James and John that they don’t know what they are asking, and anyway that’s not his to grant; when the others are angry with James and John, Jesus tells them all that whoever wants to be great among them must be their servant, and that Jesus himself, who comes to serve, is the embodiment of God’s upending of worldly ideas of what takes precedence, of what is more important

We have noted before that the Gospel of Matthew is in part a manual of instruction, a teaching Gospel, that teaches through the example of Jesus what his followers  need to know:  about God and Jesus, about themselves, and about their neighbors. The Gospel teaches about God’s invitation and inclusion, about God’s ideas of who and what takes precedence, about who and what is more important.  The kingdom of heaven, present and coming, is like this:  a place where everyone is included, where everyone is important, and where at any given time and in any given situation, some people change places, so that the first shall become last, and the last shall become first, so that love and justice can prevail.

These stories come at an interesting time for us.  The Covid-19 pandemic also upends our ideas of what takes precedence, of what is more important.  It reveals the deep fissures in our society, which in turn reveal disdain and hatred, and as well mercy and generosity.  Now I want to be very clear here.  I am not saying that God caused either the virus or the pandemic.  From what I gather from the science, medical , and political communities they are likely the result of a combination of natural processes and the consequences of human denial, fear, and short-sighted choices around environment, our relations with other species, and public health.  I am also not saying that God has sent us the virus as a punishment.  The pain, sorrow, fear, and despair this virus has caused and continues to cause is suffering enough to go on with for anything.   And these all are exacerbated in turn by uncontrolled wildfires, racial injustice and unrest, a frightening economic situation, and the background of climate change.  Our faith does not promise us that we will be punished for anything through natural processes or their consequences.  What our faith does promise is that God’s presence, guidance, and help are with us, to help bring us through, and to help us learn.  

And we are learning a lot now, in deeper and richer, and yes, in more challenging ways.  Some of what we are learning is that those who we may have overlooked or taken for granted take precedence in importance to our well-being, if we are to eat, to continue to function as individuals and a society, and to recover and get well.  We are learning that some, through no fault of their own but through being discounted in their human being and dignity, suffer more deeply and widely than others, and that certain changes must take precedence over the status quo if this extra suffering and blatant injustice is to end.  We are learning how important each individual person who has died was, to their loved ones and to their communities. We are learning how important we who live are to each other, as we long for physical presence, contact, and energy.  We are learning how human relationship, and human relationship with the natural and wider world, take precedence over so much of what we thought was more important.  And we are learning the importance each one of us has and can have to God and to our neighbor, in actions both large and small.

Paul writes about this in his own inimitable way in his letter to the church at Philippi, a church for which Paul has a particular affection.  His letter is full of friendship and rejoicing in and for them, even in the midst of the sufferings they variously face, and he recounts his dilemma in the face of their friendship in Christ.   He does not know which to prefer:  to die and be with Christ is what he would prefer as the best of all situations; but if he continues to live, he has fruitful labor to do, and that is more necessary for the church at Philippi, which he loves.  So, he will remain alive and in the flesh, to continue with them in progress and joy, and so that they may all boast in Christ when they can be together again.  Since life take precedence over death for Paul in his call from God, he will do his work toward fruitfulness, endure his sufferings in faith, and enjoy his time with his friends.

Covid-19 is no respecter of precedence or people.  But as long as we are, like Paul, still alive and in the flesh, our life with God, self, and neighbor takes precedence even over our fear, and accompanies our grief and the many other emotions of this time.  Now more than ever, we are called to consider what will take precedence, what will be more important, in our lives.  We are called to be fruitful in the work we are called to do.  We are called to rejoice in our friends and companions in Christ.  In all this we are called to be guided by God’s ideas of what takes precedence, rather than our own or the world’s.  And when we do, we are promised that our world will be the more interesting, the richer, and the more just for it.  May we rest in God’s mercy and generosity, and may we extend God’s mercy and generosity to as many others as we can.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
July 12

Finding Our Own Good Ground

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 55:10-13

Psalm 65:1-8, 9-13

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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For Mother’s Day this year our older son and our daughter-in-law brought me a charming pot, and an hibiscus plant to put in it.  The plant was covered in large flowers with crimson throats, then a band of white, and then edges in a beautiful pink, with yellow stamens and orange pistils.  The leaves were a dark glossy green, and the bark was a light gray that complemented the rest of the plant but did not distract from the show of the flowers.  I was instantly smitten.  Now, usually my choices in companion plants have by necessity the constitution of granite.  But this was my first hibiscus, and, as I think I mentioned, it was given to me by our children.  And did I mention that hibiscus is one of their favorite plants?  I really did not want to report back an early death, or a slow demise brought on by rusts, smuts, molds, blights, or plagues of insects.  Growing a flowering tropical plant that I did not know in Boston was going to require some effort.  My just being smitten was not going to make either the hibiscus or me happy in the long run.  So, like many graduates of BU, I decided to rely on research.

Turns out that a modern hibiscus is a bit of a diva.  Its ancestors came from China or India, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands off the coast of Africa, Fiji, and Hawai’i – all places with abundant sunshine, lots of humidity, and high temperatures.  I, however, live in a Boston neighborhood with high buildings and tall trees that block much of the sun, with dry air and chilly temperatures for a good part of the year.  Hibiscus is also referred to as a “voracious feeder” that requires frequent watering and even washing.  It has specific nutrient requirements not just for the soil but also for the fertilizer in the frequent waterings.  The required soil and fertilizer are not, of course, easily or cheaply obtained.  Fortunately, there are people online who have been living beautifully with hibiscus for years.  They are very generous with care information and problem-solving.  For a modest price and outrageous shipping charges, they will send you hibiscus soil that feels lovely in your hands. as well as an attractive soluble fertilizer tinted aqua so no one can mistake it for salt.  I am still smitten.  And so far, my hibiscus plant in its pot is glossy-leaved, putting out flowers, and voraciously eating and drinking, while I cart it around our small yard to find the place with the most consistent sun.  Grow lights may be in our future, say around late September.

With all this, you might imagine my bemusement as I contemplated the parable in our Gospel text this morning.  A sower goes out to sow.  The sower doesn’t care where the seeds go: the path, rocky ground, among the thorns, good soil.  And predictably, only the seeds that fall on the good ground grow and multiply.  And then Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”  This is just silly, on the face of it.  Unlike my hibiscus plant, the seed that the sower is so careless with will provide part of the yearly food crop for their family and their community.  Unless the sower is making an experiment to see if the seed will or will not grow in different kinds of ground, why waste it so?  Seed is expensive, especially in Jesus’ time, when a lot of it had to be saved from one year to the next.  By this time, everyone in the listening crowd would know that the seed being sown in that region would only do well in good ground.  The explanation follows, of course, but why go through a story that calls forth a basic response of “Duh,” and tell people to listen to it, and then immediately give an explanation that really has nothing to do with plants at all?

Well, part of the interest in preaching from the lectionary is to see what the lectionary compilers leave out of the readings.  And here the compilers have left out something important in verses 10-17, the verses between the story and the explanation.  These left-out verses tell us that Jesus is speaking to the crowd in the original story; in the following explanation he is speaking to his disciples, the ones who say they are serious about following him.  Jesus tells the disciples that he speaks in parables to the crowd because they are just that – a crowd, that follows him for who knows what reason:  it’s a nice day to be at the beach, there might be a miracle, it’s a break from routine, what else?  They fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy:  “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’’

But the disciples are blessed, because their eyes see and their ears hear in their commitment to discipleship, and so Jesus gives the explanation of the story to them.  The seed is the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the different kinds of ground are the different kinds of responses of the people who hear the good news.  The path response is to not understand or to refuse to consider the good news, and the evil one makes sure that these people will not remember that they have heard anything at all.  The rocky ground response is to get all excited, but then not to develop roots through the experiences of discipleship, and so these people fall away when the going gets difficult or the consequences of discipleship are uncomfortable.  The thorny ground response is to hear the good news, but to let the challenges of the world and the desire for wealth and success choke out the good news, so that nothing of it can grow.  Only the response of the good soil – to hear the good news, to take the time to understand it, to bear the fruit of the kingdom – only that response is to bring forth the desired harvest as each person and community is able.

We noted last Sunday that Matthew is considered among other things to be a manual for discipleship.  With this story of the sower, I would like to consider three ways we might take this story for ourselves this morning.

Perhaps the most obvious way is to take the story as Jesus’ exhortation not to respond as did the people with the unfruitful results.  So we will not treat the good news lightly or with disdain until we study it, live with it, and live out of it, and join with others who will learn with us, so that we can teach each other our own best ways to grow and thrive.  So we will not stay in our discouragement when things get difficult, but we will remember God’s help in the past, and the great joy that is possible with God, so that even the earth shouts and sings together, as in our Psalm. So that we will remember with the Psalmist and with Paul that we are not condemned for our sins, and that the Spirit lives within us and empowers us to grow in love.  So we will rejoice in our freedom from slavery to sin and death, and see the possibilities in the challenges before us, and look for the way that God makes for us out of no way.  In the good news of the Kingdom we find our own good ground in which to flourish, and through our sharing of the good news we help other people and all creation to do the same.

A second way to take the story is to see it as a statement about how some people may respond to our sharing of the good news.  Jesus is very matter-of-fact about it:  you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and as we share the good news with others, these kinds of responses are all possible.   Some of the more unfruitful responses might be because of how we share the good news, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But people’s responses will be their own.  What we are called to do and to be as followers of Jesus is often a challenge or scary or counter-cultural or counter-intuitive for us, so we should not be surprised to find that others may not leap immediately for the chance to join us.

This second way to take the story plays into a third – we are invited to see ourselves as the Sower.  While people’s responses are their own, it is our job to sow the seeds of the good news and to cultivate those who decide to be nourished by it.  In one sense our sowing is in fact a great experiment:  we cast our seed widely to see what will take.  And like the Sower in the story, we do not at first in many cases know where the good ground will be in our particular situation, unless we cast our seed widely.  Sometimes that will mean doing things that we have not done before, or being with others we have not previously experienced, and we may be reminded that the Seven Last Words of the Church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”  Sometimes that will mean prioritizing energy and resources, and we may be reminded that if we are not good stewards, only the squeakiest wheel will get the most grease, and it may not be the one most vital to our mission.  But in the end, we are reminded that to find good ground is not enough.  Finding our own good ground in terms of what we are called to grow, and where we are called to grow it, and then how we are to grow it, means that a Sower must also learn to be a cultivator, or at least learn who to join with as cultivators, so that the whole fruit of the Kingdom can grow and thrive.

This brings us to our present day, and as was noted above. how we sow our seed, and how we find our good ground to sow it in, are pressing questions right now.  In too many cases the seed of the good news has been linked to and even corrupted by Empire, greed, racism, sexism, bigotry, and anthropocentrism.  In too many cases individuals and whole populations have been harmed, with results of trauma to this day that hinder human societal flourishing, and human spiritual flourishing.  There are two ideas in particular that we might consider as we consider our work of sowing and cultivation.

First, if we do not know what the seed needs to grow and flourish, we cannot help it to root, leaf, blossom, and fruit.  It is not about what we want to give.   Instead, just as I needed to learn, to ask it if you will, what my tropical hibiscus plant needs to survive and maybe even thrive in New England, we need to learn and discern, we need to ask God, what the Kingdom needs to thrive in our particular situation.  This can get complicated.  Just as different kinds of seed need different grounds and different conditions in which to flourish, so the vast diversity of the Kingdom’s manifestation in the world needs different grounds and conditions.  It depends on the context of our calling.  What particular manifestation of the Kingdom’s love and justice does God want to manifest in our context and calling?  We will need to discover the details of the people, ground, and resources or lack of them, in our location.  We will need to be honest about our own motives, resources, and capacities.  And we will need really to pay attention to our prayers and to God’s answers, if we are not to dilute or corrupt the good news for other than Kingdom ends.

Second, it is not the seeds’ fault if they are not able to grow because the conditions they need to grow and thrive are not met.  And while it is true that people’s responses are their own, it is also true that a little augmentation of their ground might make it easier for them to receive the good news and take it to heart.  If as sowers and cultivators of the Kingdom we insist on scattering our seed in places that we know it will not grow, and we do nothing to cultivate the ground, it is not the seeds’ fault if there is no harvest in spite of our sowing efforts.  And if the ground does not welcome our seed it is not the ground’s fault.  The ground is what it is, and unless we change that, nothing will grow.  Just as with my hibiscus plant, this is where the need for augmentation and fertilization of the ground come in.  For too long individuals and populations have been castigated for being unresponsive ground for the good news of the Kingdom.  We might want to consider that this is not a surprise, considering the corruption of the good news through its linkages with Empire, greed, racism, sexism, bigotry, and anthropocentrism as mentioned above.  Individuals’ and populations’ lives have been destructively affected for generations by these evils, and by the systematic evils that accompany them:   poverty, violence, lack of education, genocide, voter suppression, lack of healthcare, and loss of hope.  They might be forgiven if they do not respond to the rescue of salvation offered by those who may not be trustworthy and whose message has so often been a cheat.  It may be that in order to prepare the ground for the seeds of the Kingdom, we may need to augment people’s lives with justice and the resources of justice for their bodies and minds, before we can plant the seeds of the Kingdom with any hope of appeal to their souls.

Finding, or even creating, our own good ground so that the Kingdom can flourish is a call to be both a sower and a cultivator.  In that call the word “ground” has a meaning in addition to its being a medium in which something grows.  Ground is a place to lay down roots, and, it is also a place to stand, to take a stand.  To find our own good ground as disciples of Jesus is to stand our ground for the sake of the Kingdom, even in the midst of pandemic and national upheaval, so that present and coming the Kingdom may grow and flourish, and that we and all creation may grow and flourish within it.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
July 5

Rescuers Need Not Apply

By Marsh Chapel

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Zechariah 9:9-12

Psalm 145:8-14

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Every once in a while, as someone who usually preaches from the lectionary, I look at the selections of Scripture for the week and say to myself, “What were they thinking when they put these together?”  This week, there were almost twice the selections that ended up in the Bulletin for today, so that meant I had to make choices.  And, quite frankly, what I had to choose from had little appeal.  Especially problematic for me was that the majority of my choices involved texts in which women were either rejoicing themselves, or were told by others to rejoice, because a rescuer had arrived.  Even more challenging was the Gospel text, in which Jesus presents himself as a rescuer, and a problematic one at that.  The wise and intelligent know nothing.  God has given him everything.  He’s the only one who knows God, God is the only one who knows him, and no one else can know God except him and anyone that he chooses to reveal God to.

These texts have little appeal and lots of challenge because many women – along with many other populations – have learned to be wary of rescuers  These other populations include but are not limited to other gender than female, minorities, commercial businesses in straightened circumstances, people promised good jobs in far-away places, even nations.  Too often, it seems, the rescuers become either betrayers or destroyers, so that people are not rescued at all, but are pushed off the rescuer’s charger into the ditch, worse off than they were before.  Still, especially when times are tough, going to desperate, many individuals and populations do look for rescuers.  And there are plenty of people, especially now, who are very willing to take on the role.

The Gospel of Matthew is often referred to as a manual for discipleship, and there are plenty of teachings in Matthew that describe the desired behavior and attitudes of disciples, in this case, disciples of Jesus.  And, it also becomes clear that one of Matthew’s major concerns is to answer the question, if we are to be disciples of Jesus, do we choose to follow him as he is a rescuer or as he is a leader?

This is not just a question for us as followers of Jesus.  The question of what kind of leaders we choose to follow comes to us in all walks of life.  Religious walks, certainly.  My own denomination’s leadership after fifty years plus has not been able yet to help us decide institutionally whether or not God loves lesbian and gay people in a fully inclusive way. BTQIA+ people have not even been part of the conversation until very recently, and certainly not by formal invitation or inclusion, so we haven’t decided institutionally if God loves them either.  Many members of the denomination feel that in the harm that has been done, these leaders’ times have passed, to the point of desiring schism rather than more debate.  Many religious leaders generally in this country, in theory and action, have questioned and still question the full humanity, human rights, and dignity of indigenous and African-American people.  Political walks are also involved, as a number of leaders around the world have each presented themselves as the “only one” able to save their people from the encroachments of change, and the “only one” able to restore their countries to their rightful places of power and prestige in the world.  Work walks also, as we find ourselves questioning the meaning of the work we do in this time of social upheaval and global climate change, and we question whether or not our business leaders care for us to any extent as much as they care for the stockholders and their own profit.  And now, in what seems to be the increasingly long middle of a pandemic, scientists, politicians, religious leaders, public health practitioners, business people, and our own complexity and complicity of hopes and fears all lead us to question whose voice or voices we should follow.  The idea of a rescuer, someone who will take us away from the confusion and pain of our suffering and bring us to a place of safety and stability – that idea often holds an attraction that the idea of a leader does not.

Now don’t get me wrong.  If I am in a tough spot and there seems to be no one around to help me out of it before disaster ensues, I’m all for a rescuer, as many of us may have had a chance to appreciate.  People who competently intervene in a touchy situation, first responders, folks who get us where we need to go when we have no means of getting there on our own, folks who help us with skills and graces that we desperately need to regain our health or life or soul – we give thanks to God for them.  And, just because the idea of imminent disaster comes along with the idea of rescue, so a rescuer saves, delivers, and shines in the moment, in the immediate, in the one-time big need.  A leader, on the other hand, works longer-term, as a guide, conductor, director, authority, or influencer.  To mistake a rescuer for a leader is to risk the betrayal and imprisonment so many have experienced in the long-term hands of rescuers, whose decision-making skills and power in the moment may not be effective or helpful in the long-term.  And to mistake a rescuer for a leader begs the question of what kind of leadership is necessary for the long haul, as so many of our challenges now seem to be.

Recently there have been a number of articles and even books on leadership.  While the certain schools of leadership debate what might be necessary for a particular situation in a particular walk of life, there is surprising agreement on what kind of leadership is not effective in any situation or walk of life, and far from being necessary, is more often than not harmful if not toxic.

A summary of this harmful leadership is often discussed in terms of narcissism. Narcissism in itself is not necessarily bad.  Often leaders need a strong sense of self and need to be confident that they are the best person to lead others to reach the goals required in a particular situation.  They also, as do many of us, have the healthy desire to know themselves unique, appreciated, and effective in the world.  Where healthy narcissism becomes a problem is when it goes beyond the healthy to include a number of unhealthy traits:  grand exaggeration about one’s talents, knowledge, and achievements; difficulty in accepting even helpful or necessary criticism; an excessive need and demand  for devotion and admiration; a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, so that the usual societal norms and ethics do not apply to them; and a lack of empathy and/or compassion.  In practical terms these traits often manifest in behaviors such as:  lying; a refusal to delegate authority or power, or to denounce or fire those who have been given authority or power when they do not operate in lockstep with or criticize the leader; a preoccupation with enemies and traitors; and the attempt to normalize behavior and ideologies formerly thought of as unacceptable or problematic, such as cruelty, disorder, and division.

In our Gospel text today, Jesus at first glance presents as both a rescuer and as a problematic leader.  He’s got everything!  Directly from God!  The supposedly wise and intelligent know nothing!  He’s the only one who knows God, God is the only one who knows him, and no one else can know God except him and anyone that he chooses to reveal God to!  But as we noted before, while Matthew emphasizes the attitudes and behaviors of discipleship, he is also careful to emphasize all the attitudes and behaviors of Jesus, the leader who the disciples follow.

So a look at the whole Gospel reveals that there are certain themes in Matthew’s descriptions of Jesus’ leadership that put our scripture today more in perspective.  He is consistent with the law and the prophets of his religious tradition, coming to fulfill them, not replace them.  He is consistent in his life and teaching, with a focus on the kingdom of God.  He performs miracles of healing, teaches with authority, and, as in our text this morning, has a strong sense of who he is and who he is in relation to God.  And, in the whole of his work he also delegates power and authority to his disciples for mission on their own.  He prepares them for what is coming as they go along, and teaches them attitudes, behaviors, and ways of being together that will sustain his followers and the mission after he is gone.  He respects women and even changes his mind about the mission in an exchange with a Canaanite woman.  He holds up children as an example to follow.  He practices his own teachings about forgiveness and reconciliation, with Peter after Peter’s betrayal, and in the calling of Matthew. considered a traitor to his people as he collaborates with the Roman occupiers of Israel as a tax collector.  Jesus is not cruel or capricious.  His teachings here in the Gospel of Matthew are full of the need to do unto others as you would have them do to you, the need for lack of judgement of others, the need for reconciliation and non-retaliation.  In our text this morning he acknowledges that we can’t please all of the people all of the time, and he will not do things — and by extension his disciples will not do things – just because people expect it of him or them.  He invites all sorts of people to follow him, and instead of worldly success or glory he promises ways for them to experience rest in he midst of weariness and the heavy burdens of life.  And while he does teach that his disciples must serve one another and the mission, the yoke of that service will be easy, and the burden of it will be light.  As a last gift to them Jesus gives them an expansive community around a meal of grape and grain, so they can remember his life, teaching, and covenant with them even to death, and so they can nourish each other both in body and spirit,   They will not be alone, and the yoke and burden will be even lighter because they will have others with whom to share them.

Jesus is a leader for the long haul who invites and includes them and us, everyone who will, to follow him in his work of reconciliation between God, self, and neighbor toward the present and coming Kingdom of God.  And he is a leader for the long haul because he does not sugarcoat – he is clear that there is lots of work to do, in ourselves and in the world, and there are choices to be made.

Crystal Williams, Boston University’s Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, spoke during last week’s Boston University’s Day of Collective Engagement around racism and anti-racism.  She noted that our current situation is unique – the corona virus pandemic simultaneously with a great outpouring of energy toward justice for those who have experienced state-sponsored violence and injustice for far too long – as a Moment.  A Moment is what many people understand to be a time of great import, often unexpected, when old or new fissures in society are revealed in particularly intense ways and new possibilities and opportunities to make things right appear.  But Williams noted that it is not just or even the dramatic Moments that bring about lasing change toward diversity, inclusion, and equity.  It is also or even more everyday life, and the small essential choices we make every day,  This is especially true as we acknowledge our allegiances to Jesus and recognize our need for good societal leaders as well.  Paul in our passage from his letter to the church at Rome points out our dilemma:  he and we often do what we do not want or intend to do, and we often do not do what we want or intend to do.  We are caught between the workings of God within us which we intend and the workings of sin within us that we repudiate.  Paul recognizes that Jesus’ leadership is of the kind that can help both Paul and us to choose ever more the workings of God in us, toward the restoration of the image of God within us, and toward the recognition of the image of God within others.  Our choices of societal leaders then might want to promote the similar ends in similar ways.

This is part of the yoke and the burden for us in this moment of pandemic and national upheaval, the yoke and burden of choice.  Jesus does not rescue us from the challenges of change and the choices we must make as we are caught up in what is often unexpected and often not wanted.  And the societal leaders we need, for the long haul that change will demand to be sustainable, will not rescue us either.  So except in very short and limited circumstances, rescuers need not apply to us in this moment.  Instead, as we follow the leadership of Jesus that teaches, companions, and empowers us in our discipleship, we will be able to choose societal leaders that also teach, companion, and empower us in particular human situations, and together we will be able to make the choices in the Moments and in everyday life that will move us toward sustainable love and justice.  The yoke will be easy, and the burden will be light.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ indeed.  AMEN.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
January 5

Word Become Flesh In A New Year

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 31:7-14

John 1:1-18

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Welcome to the year 2020!  Today is also the last Sunday of Christmas, and so we begin this year with one of the most famous Gospel readings, all about the Word of God.

Words are tricky things.  They are our major form of communication, and, they compose lies as well as truth.  Their amount is increasing in our lives, and not necessarily for the good.  Certainly in 2019 many of us might have joined with Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady fame as she exclaimed in exasperation, “Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!”

2020 looks to be more of the same, with debates replaced by conventions, an ongoing impeachment process, executive orders, church conferences, broadcast and media news, and legislative decrees.   All of this is in addition to our daily life, here at BU in academic discourse, teaching, and writing, and in our ongoing conversations with family and friends.  Even in our prologue to John’s Gospel, the Word is defined and explained with many words, that make up a number of metaphors, that sound a bit abstract and idealistic.

The use of many words is perhaps understandable, given John’s intended readers both Jewish and Greek.  In Hebrew thought, the Logos, the Word, was God’s action in the world and God’s instruction.  When in worship we say “The Word of the Lord”, and then follow with “Thanks be to God.” after the Scripture readings, it is said in part in this sense of acknowledgement and acceptance of God’s action and instruction.  Here in John’s Gospel, the Logos, the Word, is the medium by which God is made known to human beings, just as human thought and plans are made known and expressed by speech.  Either way, the assumption is that the Word of God is explainable, rational, and logical.  An agent of creation, agent of salvation, life, light, truth, revelation of God.  We’ve got it.

But then there’s that phrase.  “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us …”

Flesh.  Such an evocative word.  Not so explainable.  Not so rational.  Not so logical.  Flesh.  Fleshy.  To say that the Word became flesh is to say that God entered into human life under the ordinary conditions of humanity.  Yes, the Logos could speak to us in our own language of speech and rationality.  And, the message of life, light, truth, and revelation now is seen and recognized through a fleshy veil, with all the capacities, limitations, and vulnerabilities that all of flesh is heir to.  The flesh adds to God’s communication with us and our communication with God and with each other, from a place too deep for words.

Because the word Logos also translates as sound, and sound, not words, is the language of the flesh.  The yips, coos, cries, gasps, laughs, squeaks, hisses, groans, shouts, pants, and moans of the body in pain, grief, or joy escape us, even when we try to control them with  “I’m fine.” or as we ignore them.  We spend a great deal of time and effort with words, that often mislead or lie.  The sounds of the flesh, so often involuntary from that place too deep for words, might equally bear information for our understanding of God, ourselves, and each other.

Theologian and disability activist Sharon V. Betcher considers the realities of embodiment in her book Spirit and the Obligation of Social Flesh: A SecularTheology for the Global City.  “Social Flesh” is a term coined by social theorist Christine Beasley and political scientist Carol Bacchi.  “Social Flesh” describes an ethical and political construct that emphasizes “the mutual reliance of people across the globe” on social resources, infrastructure, and space.  This behavioral approach promotes the development of social virtues out of the realities of our embodied coexistence, and posits that life itself requires social, political, and economic support in order for life to continue, in order for life to be livable.  Given the realities of social flesh, an emphasis on rugged individualism does not adequately recognize the fragility and precariousness of human life or, by my own extension, the fragility and precariousness of the life of the planet.

Betcher builds on the work of philosopher Judith Butler to begin to construct a practical ethic of social flesh.  Butler notes that as human beings we are “of necessity exposed to [one another’s] vulnerability and singularity.  The word “flesh” “names ‘a precarious … vulnerability to the other.’”  Our communal situation thus consists of learning “to handle and to honor” this inescapable and necessary exposure.

Betcher builds on these ideas to begin to develop the idea of the ethics of social flesh with the religious idea of kenosis, a complex term that she here defines as radical openness to the other.  She notes that her book has as a primary source “Christianity’s ancient, though not always obvious or normatively dominant, love of the flesh”, and cites Scholar of Late Antiquities Virginia Burrus in her work on 3rd Century Christian writers to declare that flesh “became the site of a deliberately offensive, counter-cultural faith.”  As Betcher expands on this, our thinking with and from flesh allows us to acknowledge and talk about what is often hidden in our social or cultural agenda but what is true of our fleshy lives:  ecstasy and pleasure, certainly, and also pain, difficulty, aging, disease, error, corporeal limit, interruption, and encounter, and the epiphanies and critical insights that come with them.  Social flesh recognizes that the “anxiety, fear, disgust, … and shame that haunt flesh” can be commandeered by technologies, politics, and advertisement.  It equally recognizes the temptations within ourselves, to aggression towards other bodies, to isolation from other bodies, to the division of bodies into normal or superior versus unnatural or degenerate.

Betcher’s thought assumes humanity’s urbanization as the context for her work.  Within the next 20 or so years, two-thirds of the world’s population of 7 billion and counting will live in cities.  Demographers note that there are clear trends toward 59 cities with populations between one and five million in Africa, 65 such cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 253 such cities in Asia.  Both those who live in cities and those who do not feel their effects:  on bodies, on the land, on dreams, through depopulation with its loss of skills and capital, through the disappearance of generational belonging and through loss of contact with the natural world.  Boston itself has changed from being the human-scale, walkable city to a place of high rises and privatization of public space, the disappearance of neighborhoods to corporate greed and collections of transients, the increasing density of people and their cars, increasing lack of affordability in housing, and the disappearance of practical local businesses and public services.  And Boston is not alone in these developments.  Social flesh and its obligations, if any are acknowledged, is a challenge across the country, as any formerly and currently livable city can attest.

So Betcher lifts up the idea of a secular theology.  The term “secular” here does not mean non-religious.  Instead it is based on the seculars of medieval Europe.  These were uncloistered religious persons.  They carried their spiritual passion and sense of love of God, self, and neighbor into their daily life in the city.  “ … seculars lived in the city, on behalf of the city, but [with] alternate values and attitudes that challenged the city’s materialism and isolation.”  Kind of sounds like Marsh Chapel’s mission statement, doesn’t it:  “A heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city.”  Medieval early capitalism also caused poverty, homelessness, and displacement of the poor and vulnerable.  Seculars – both women and men, gentry and common – worked for the city’s care by setting up alternative  communities that over time became hospitals, schools, retreat houses, and ritual spaces.  Betcher notes that spiritual practices of sowing trust amidst fear, presenting alternative forms of pleasure to those who advance the aesthetics of capitalism, and the offer of  friendship and neighborliness can humanize and renew cities.  Such practice starts by being vulnerable to others, by regenerating the practice of social flesh.

Betcher examines social flesh, its obligations, and the context of urbanism through the lens of disability theory.  She herself experienced the amputation of her leg after a chance fall and wound led to an infection that threatened her life.  For her, the literal set-aside inherent in the category “disabilities” reflects “a history of deeply embedded resentment toward the precariousness of life itself.”  It protects society from the vulnerability of birth and the risk of change.  It marginalizes certain bodies and excludes them from considerations of aesthetic and social value.  Urbanism is currently based, in terms of the ideal populace, on a neoclassical Western norm of male physical perfection, with its assumptions of eternal youth, physical mobility in all situations, and unchanging health.  It also assumes a class structure of economic elites who somehow deserve more of the amenities of the city and determine what those will be, while other people become an embarrassment or an obstacle.  With its injuries and insults of geographical and architectural and thus social inaccessibility, contemporary urbanism excludes bodies that struggle to survive, seeks to control who may appear in public, and seeks to determine whose lives are expendable.

Betcher’s exploration of social flesh and its construct of our mutual reliance on social resources, and the need to develop social virtues based on the realities of human and planetary interdependence, is wide-ranging, complex, and far beyond the scope of this sermon.  With her context of urbanism viewed through the lens of disability theory she does present a number of practices that encourage social flesh, based on the idea of contemporary urban Christians as modern-day seculars.  I would like to lift up two of them here.

The first is an intentional acceptance and exploration of suffering:  for what it reveals of God, of what it reveals about ourselves, and of what it reveals about our common human experience.  Betcher explores the work of Dorothee Soelle, mystic and social activist, who wrote that even in the most comfortable life, “one must come to accept some measure of pain”, to listen to the sounds of the flesh as it were, and to learn from them as a kind of teaching.  Each “act of suffering [becomes] an exercise.”, so that we work through it with perception of the sounds that come through the flesh as pain and grief, because “Nothing can be learned from suffering unless it is worked through.”  Love of God, self, neighbor, and world becomes “a love that avoids placing conditions on reality”, so that the acceptance of suffering is not masochism but is part of a yes to life as a whole.  For Soelle, the only way we might become “those who love the world enough to protest injustice would be by learning to suffer”, to learn the sounds of the language of the flesh and to pay attention and care to them for ourselves and for those amongst whom we live.

The second practice is that of forbearance, that Betcher defines as the acceptance of flaws, moral entanglements, frailties, and faults.  Within social flesh, with its fleshy relations and affects, “Forbearance is not a refusal to [seek or] claim justice.  [It is instead] restraint in the face of provocation, [restraint of] our own worst inclinations” in the face of fear, anger, disgust, or hurt.  Betcher relates her own challenges to this practice as she swims in a public pool with some whose cultural training has instilled a fear that physical injury is contagious, and that leads at least one person to strike out at her as she swims by.  She notes that there is not necessarily any reward for forbearance.  Instead, forbearance assumes that we are always changing and are mutually interdependent with one another.  Forbearance overcomes fear, anger, disgust, or hurt in favor of concern and care.  This does not mean mere tolerance of everything – we cannot deny the need to move for human rights and justice.  It does mean the kind of love of neighbor that does not disappear even in the middle of the defense of justice, even justice for ourselves.

This is not to say that the practice of forbearance in the context of modern urbanism does not have its challenges.  Poverty, violence, the looming results of climate change, and the increasingly felt need of governments to control people threaten to tear apart intimate social relations, the ability to cooperate, and any idea of practical solidarity.  But the practice of forbearance presents another reality, that social flesh can lead to a different way of life even in the challenges.  Betcher quotes theologian Alyda Faber, that Love “means the desire to stay near another person in their disorientation to the world, their wretchedness, their unloveability – the symptomatic excess of always unfinished efforts at social legitimation.”

This is the way that God loves us.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, in our disorientation, our wretchedness and suffering, our unloveability. God loves us by taking on the interdependence of word and flesh to communicate fully, on all of our own terms of our fleshy and soulful lives, to communicate the life, light, truth, and revelation of God’s love for us.  God loves us, and wants us to love them back.  It is a measure of God’s desire for relationship with us that God is willing to trust us enough to become interdependent with us in the taking on of our social flesh:  with its mutuality of vulnerability and limitation, with the common sounds of the flesh in both pleasure and suffering from that place too deep for words.  That is how God loves us, and proves it.

It is a new year.  2020 does promise to provide many, many words.  And we do have obligations to listen to them, with a grain of salt if need be.  And, we also might consider our mutual obligations to listen to the sounds that are the language of the flesh.  These will be our own sounds, as we are to love ourselves and care for ourselves.  They will also be the sounds of others, in places where the social flesh rejoices, and perhaps even more in the places where the social flesh suffers:  the sounds of children and parents torn apart at our border; the sounds of the burning of the trees in the forests and the sounds of panic and pain from the animals and people who live there; the sounds of grief from those who have lost loved ones in our routine of mass shootings enabled by our idolatry of the gun; the sounds of pain from those denied the benefits of social flesh through constructions of economic, social, geographic, and architectural inaccessibility.  Maybe then our communication with God, self, and neighbor will also be complete, as God’s communication with us is complete, word and flesh together.  Maybe then our priorities will become more clear, for ourselves and all those with whom we are mutually interdependent:  God, neighbor, and the planet.

The Holy Gospel, according to St. John:  The Word became flesh and lived among us … .  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
October 13

Spring Tonic

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Kings 5:1-15c

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

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            Every Spring, when I was a child, right through high school, our mother would dose my brother and me with our “Spring tonic” of cod liver oil.  It came in a tube, colored a sort of sickly green-blue-gray, and on the tube was a line-drawing of a fish, balanced on its tail, with a distressed look on its face – no doubt because of the spigot drawn protruding from its belly, dripping oil.  The fish’s distress was nothing to ours.  Our mother squeezed out two healthy dollops of oil, mixed each with water, and we drank our glasses down.  The taste was vile, and it lasted a long time, even after teeth brushing.  My brother and I never did know just why we were subjected to this challenge to our comfort and filial obedience – our Spring tonic was good for us, it was what we did, and that was that.

            It turns out that cod liver oil is actually good for human beings,  Rich in vitamins A and D, it  may also help with inflammation and other health issues, and back in the day it was given all over the country to help prevent rickets, a softening and weakening of children’s bones that often led to deformity and ongoing issues.  So, even though it was a challenge in the short run, my brother and I did reap benefits from our Spring tonic.  And, I and my brother still did not give cod liver oil to our children.

The word that informs our preaching here at Marsh Chapel this semester is “health”.  Perhaps not coincidentally, our own Dr. Sandro Galea, Dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, has recently published a book, entitled Well:  What We Need To Talk About When We Talk About Health.  His own experience as a physician is as one who has practiced medicine internationally and with various populations.  As an epidemiologist – one who studies how diseases spread – he has researched and taught at the University of Michigan and Columbia University, before he came here to Boston University as the youngest dean of a school of public health in the country at the time of his appointment.  In addition to this experience, his book is also informed by two facts.  One is that the biggest concern of the American electorate in the 2020 presidential election is access to healthcare:  insurance, doctors, medicine, and surgery.  The other fact is that Americans spend more on healthcare than any other nation, and we experience increasingly lower outcomes in relation to costs than any other peer nation, and in some areas, than many other nations period.  Galea’s book Well is a foundational text, full of interesting stories, great quotes, fascinating history, and thought-provoking science presented in layperson’s terms.  In it he writes about health from a public perspective, a consideration of health as a public good in which the health of the individual is recognized as dependent on the health of the whole.  Galea argues that our current cultural focus is on individual decision-making and healthcare – the doctors, medicine, and surgery that come into play when a person is already sick and that is overwhelmingly concentrated toward the end of a person’s life.  He posits that we have neglected or ignored the public, community infrastructure that promotes health itself throughout human life.   So we deprive ourselves and others of the increased opportunities and possibilities for a richer life for everybody that come with public health goods,

            The titles of the chapters in Well provide a broad outline for the components of the infrastructure that Galea promotes for our consideration of health as a public good.  I am going to read them now, all twenty of them, and invite you to note any of them for your later consideration that surprise you as being part of health, for either its support or its detriment, for both personal and communal health.  The Past.  Money.  Power.  Politics.  Place.  People.  Love and Hate.  Compassion.  Knowledge.  Humility.  Freedom.  Choice.  Luck.  The Many.  The Few.  The Public Good.  Fairness and Justice.  Pain and Pleasure.  Death.  Values.

            Interestingly enough, with some allowance for differences in context, our Hebrew Bible lesson this morning illustrates some of the complexities involved when we consider some of these chapter titles as naming the elements of an infrastructure that shapes health.

            Naaman is a great man, commander of the king of Aram’s army in what is present-day Syria.  The king of Aram holds Naaman in high favor for his successful military victories, given to Aram over Israel by, oddly enough, the God of Israel.  But in spite of his military might, Naaman suffers from leprosy.  This may or may not have been Hansen’s disease, what we think of as leprosy, but could have been one of the other noxious skin conditions of the time.  These may not have caused Naaman to be shunned, but they were almost certainly disfiguring and inconvenient if not painful.  A young Israelite girl, taken prisoner in a raid by Aram against Israel, was made to serve Naaman’s wife.  She tells her mistress about the Israelite prophet residing in Samaria, which was a region in central Israel now part of the West Bank. This prophet, she says, can cure Naaman’s leprosy.  His wife tells Naaman.  Naaman tells his king, and his king sends a letter to his vassal, the king of Israel, to smooth Naaman’s journey.  Naaman is a very wealthy man, and expects his wealth to smooth his way and pay for his cure, and he packs accordingly.  At the time, one silver talent weighed seventy-five pounds and was worth $6,000 in today’s money.  Naaman takes ten of them, six thousand shekels of gold that were worth even more, and ten sets of garments worth a significant amount on their own.  His entourage consists of servants, horses, and chariots, consistent with his high status.  He sets out for the king of Israel.  Meanwhile, as if he does not have enough trouble being a vassal to an overlord, the king of Israel takes the letter from the king of Aram as a demand for an  impossibility and as a thinly-veiled attempt to renew the conflict between Aram and Israel.  Elisha, the man of God, the successor to the great prophet Elijah, the prophet with the cure for leprosy, steps in.  He calms the king of Israel and tells him to send Naaman to him, Elisha, not with Naaman’s cure as the first priority, but so that he, Naaman, will know that there is a prophet, Elisha, in Israel.

            When Naaman finally reaches Elisha, he feels insulted, becomes enraged, and leaves.  He is going back to Aram!  Then his servants step in.  They calm him down, and persuade him to wash in the Jordan.  Naaman washes seven times in the Jordan, and is cured of his leprosy.  He returns to Elisha, and in front of all his company, acknowledges the God of the prophet, the God of Israel, as the only God in all the earth.

            A number of the pieces of Galea’s infrastructure are at play in this story.  The past has set the stage:  Naaman’s high status and wealth, his marriage and servants have already been achieved, and he has developed leprosy.  The conflict between Aram and Israel has brought him the young Israelite girl as a servant.  Politics certainly plays a part, in the interwoven relationships that involve and surround Naaman.  Power and money are there, in Naaman’s sense of entitlement to certain treatment and in his assumption that money will secure his cure.  Without the knowledge of the prophet given to Naaman by his wife’s servant girl and his wife, Naaman would have had no idea that a cure might be possible.  Naaman has the freedom to make two important choices:  he goes to Elisha, and he allows himself to be persuaded to wash in the Jordan.  But he did not choose to have leprosy, and his cure is brought into possibility mostly by the choices of other people.  Naaman does not come to his health alone.  And if any of the pieces of this infrastructure had been different – if Naaman had had no knowledge, no support, no choice because of no power or wealth or freedom or the support of those around him for whatever reason – Naaman’s health would be compromised to the extent that he would still have leprosy, and his life would as well have less opportunity and possibility to that extent.

            A number of the pieces of Galea’s infrastructure are at play in our Gospel account as well.  By this time in history, the leprosy in this story is likely enough to be Hansen’s disease, as lepers in Jesus’ time were shunned by all, including their families, friends, and the religious community.  They suffered a living social and cultural death-in-life as well as the looming death from the disease.  There was also in that time a general public consensus that if one suffered the misfortune of illness or disability one must have done something wrong, and probably something sinful.

In this context, ten lepers come to Jesus and beg for his help.  He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, who are the arbiters of social and ritual cleanliness in their power.  As they go, they are healed of their leprosy.  And, as Jesus points out to his disciples, only one of them comes back to praise God, and that one was not just a foreigner but a Samaritan.

The past is at play in this story:  the lepers are already sick, the prejudice against persons who are ill and Samaritans is well-established.  Compassion also enters the picture:  in Luke Jesus has already extended his healing beyond Israelites to heal the servant of a Roman centurion and a man from the country of the Gerasenes, and he extends healing to the Samaritan leper as well.  While the lepers did not have the choice to become sick, had limited freedom and probably had little money or power, they choose to follow Jesus’ direction.  People also are a consideration:  while shunned by the rest of society, the lepers had created their own sort of community, even including a Samaritan.  Knowledge plays a part as well:  the lepers recognize Jesus, and know him as a person who can help them, even heal them.  And again, if any of these pieces of health infrastructure had been missing – no knowledge, no support to bring the lepers to this point, no compassion from Jesus but blame for the lepers’ poor choices or morality, the lepers’ health would be compromised to the extent that they would still have leprosy, and their life would as well have less opportunity and possibility to that extent.

            Fast forward to our own time and place.  The elements of Galea’s health infrastructure that are present in our morning’s biblical texts are still with us.  And, the knowledge we have gained about the causes of and challenges to health has exponentially increased.  And now the realities and complexities of a globalized world have expanded the infrastructure elements present in the biblical stories and have brought in all the others elements as well – all twenty of them..  So now all these health infrastructure elements are at play, and their import for health for good or ill have increased the challenges to a staggering degree, not just for individuals but for the collective human race, and for the whole of the planet as well.  In particular, while people in biblical times may be excused for blaming people with health issues for poor choices or moral laxity, our knowledge no longer allows us to blame or admire individuals or groups for individual poor or good health. Too many choices were already made for them in the past or in the present, sometimes without their knowledge or consent – just ask the people of Flint, Michigan.  These choices include:  to whom they were born, where they lived as children, the wealth or poverty of their families, the kinds and quality of foods that were available to them growing up, the level of pollution in their homes/communities/environment, the political decisions made on their behalf whether these decisions were in their best interests or not, with all of these elements of health infrastructure having irreversible effects for good or ill on their health.  Likewise, in a globalized world, the health of the individual is dependent on the health of all other people and the health of the planet.  Germs, viruses, plagues, and epidemics know no boundaries and are no respecter of persons.  The global climate change that threatens the health of everyone’s earth, air, and water, if left unchecked, threaten public ill health, and thus individual ill health, on a scale previously unimaginable.  There is still room for individual choice when it comes to personal health.  And, in the present day, this is increasingly limited by the choices of others and by the collective choices we make as communities, nations, and the human race.

            Here I would like to lift up in particular two of Galea’s elements of public health for further consideration.  One is compassion, which Galea defines as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it … something that links our engagement with the infrastructure that shapes our health to the values that shape our conscience.”  He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”  It is this kind of compassion to which Jesus inspires us:  in his call for non-judgment, in his call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, in his call to resist injustice and evil.

The second element for consideration is values.  Galea notes that we invest our energies and resources in healthcare, and ignore improvements to the infrastructure that will promote our health throughout our lives.  This means that we have not embraced health as a value worth pursuit and protection, nor do we address the forces that actually produce health.  He raises the question, what does it mean to value health, not just as an individual issue, but as a collective, public value.  Because if the public debate continues to focus solely on healthcare, on individual choice, doctors, medicine, and surgery, our health as a public and as individuals will continue to worsen, and we will continue the pattern that has made our health worse than that of all our peer countries.  To embrace health as a collective value in fact means that we embrace compassion, compassion that reveals how the suffering of individuals connects with the infrastructure that produces or denies health.

            I would like also to include an infrastructure element that Galea does not include, because he was not writing this sermon.  That element is faith – faith in opportunity, faith in possibility, faith in human courage and compassion, faith in God.  The challenges to our personal and collective health can seem daunting, not least because in this our time and place our responses to meet these challenges, especially as Christians, look to be counter-cultural and against great odds.  But, we do not respond alone.  In the Lowell Lecture given by Gary Dorrien that Dr. Jessica Chicka mentioned last week, he also said that he was glad to be living in a time of mass movements and demonstrations once again, where hundreds of thousands of people are beginning to organize, plan, protest, and advocate once again, not just for themselves as individuals, but for the public good, even to a global scale.  So we will have plenty of company against the odds.  We may even create a new culture of health for all people and for the planet..

To do this, as our biblical stories this morning remind us, we can consult with the prophet and be told what to do.  We can ask Jesus for mercy, and he will tell us what to do.  And, both of them will tell us the same thing as to what to do first.  They will tell us, “Go”.  And we will find, as did Naaman and the Samaritan leper, that our faith is in our going, and, it is when we go that we are healed.  AMEN.

The Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
August 4

Faith in Community, Part II

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 28:16-20

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Faith in Community

Last Sunday we explored one interpretation of the title phrase for our Summer Preaching Series, “Faith in Community.” We considered belief and trust in the idea of community itself.  That is, broadly, belief in the idea of the unity of a body of people that share something in common: interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.  This week, as was said, we’ll explore “Faith in Community” – the ways in which faith is lived out in community both by the individuals in it and by the community altogether.  

Our English word “faith” comes from the Latin through Old French, and carries the connotations of trust in someone or something,   The Greek word “faith” in the New Testament, the noun, also carries the connotation of trust, and the verb “to have faith” means also “to trust, have confidence in, to be assured of.”   Perhaps the most well-known Christian definition of “faith” comes from the early church in today’s lesson from the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith for the author of Hebrews is not some wishful thinking or pie in the sky. “Assurance” and “conviction” are solid words – you can get ahold of them, they are words that ground people. The Hebrews can have the confidence, can be assured that, can trust that what they hope for in the life of faith will come to pass.  In fact, even if they cannot yet see these things, they can be convicted that their faith will be shown to be warranted. This is because they have already suffered and endured challenges and been brought through them – their faith has developed through their very real struggles and God’s own trustworthiness in their lives.  In spite of the challenges they have and will continue to face, they can live as individuals and as a community full of faith, they acna be faith-ful.

So how do individuals and communities live out their faith?  For one thing, they live their faith as inextricably intertwined:  there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  Even appointed hermits or solitaries are connected not just to their communities but are engaged with the wider world as well, as was Thomas Merton with his writing and as is Anna Zilboorg with her knitting. 

The founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, John Wesley, describes the process of growth in faith as “there is no holiness but social holiness.”  “Social holiness” is often interpreted by present-day Methodists to refer solely to the works of social justice. It does in part have that connotation in the sense that all social relations have that component to consider.  But the term “social holiness” as used by Wesley means holiness practiced in a social context of the individual active in an active community. Other people are necessary to our growth in faith as we are necessary to their growth.  We make our own personal practices of prayer, study, and worship large in our own lives – we regularly set aside time, put post-it reminders on the bathroom mirror, and so on. And we do this not just so that we ourselves can become more faithful, but because as we bring our learnings and experiences to the group, we encourage each other and help to increase each other’s growth in faith.  Likewise, when as the community we pray, study, and worship together, and experience together the grace and nourishment of the Sacraments, we enjoy each other’s company, recognize that God loves each one of us and all of us together, realize that we are not alone in our joys and our challenges, and we have the opportunity to experience a reality that is greater than the sum of us its parts.

Going further, each Christian community is part of the great community of the Church.  The Church is the body of Christ. We ask to be this body for the world at every Communion.  Jesus and the early church saw both individuals and their local faith communities as engaged in a much larger context.  While there are many mentions of how this Church might be lived into by individuals and communities, I would like to focus of three this morning, that are seen to be common ways, and even expectations, as to how individuals and communities are to live out their faith in the world.

The first is something that we talked about last week:  Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples that they love one another as he has loved them, so that by this love everyone with know that they are his disciples.  Jesus loved his disciples through his example, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection. The kind of love that Jesus exemplifies empowers individuals, and the unity that the gathered body of Christ shares together in their shared interests and experiences.  And this kind of love is not just to help individuals and local communities grow in faith, but is also to empower change in the world in works of mercy and justice.

Jesus’ disciples are to become a world-wide movement.  He tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Now we have to be verycareful here. The history of Christianity is one of colonization, exploitation, religious and cultural destruction, and forced conversion, as well as of love. In light of this history, and in the context of Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us, a useful guideline to help interpret this passage comes from Prof. Daniel Jeyaraj, a theologian of world Christianity from India.  At a Costas Consultation on Global Christianity a number of years ago, he said that our job as Christians was not to convert others, but we are to welcome those who the Holy Spirit had invited to join us, and then we help them become mature disciples through baptism and teaching. In other words, disciples will come from all nations, and, not all nations nor all the people in them will become disciples. They will come as the Holy Spirit invites them, and as they see our love and our welcome.

Paul, writing to the church at Corinth – a city rather like Boston in its position in the Empire and diversity of population.  Paul puts all this in the context of a ministry of reconciliation. In love, God has reconciled Christians to God’s own self, and so to their own selves, and to their neighbors, in a new creation.  Individuals are no longer regarded from a human point of view but from God’s point of view. And the communities of which they are a part are no longer regarded from a human point of view, but as individuals and communities to be loved and reconciled as Christians and Christian communities were also loved and reconciled by God.  We live out our faith as individuals and communities as ambassadors for Christ to other people. We make God’s appeal to others through the love and hope we have experienced through our own reconciliation with God, self, and neighbor. Or, as D. T. Niles, the great evangelist from India described it, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

It is by our living out our faith as individuals and communities in love, in welcome and hospitality, and in reconciliation with God, self, and neighbor, that we have assurance that the things that we hope for will come about, that we have the conviction that the things that we cannot yet see will manifest.  Now sometimes this living out of faith is itself a challenge. Depending on the day, the pricks and frictions of living together even with those we love and respect can seem more than we can deal with. Sometimes our love, our welcome and hospitality, our ministry of reconciliation can seem weak and worn. This weekend is a case in point, when idolatry continues to ignore, or accept as a given, the increasing tragedies of mass gun violence such as occurred and is occurring in El Paso.  Sometimes greed and corruption seem overwhelming in the horrific consumption of other human beings and of the planet. Sometimes our pain and frustration tempt us to isolate ourselves, numb out, or choose other unwise ways to cope.  

The lives of Jesus and the early church acknowledge the challenges and trials of the life of faith.  And, paradoxically, they declare that it is in meeting and surviving the challenges and trials with faith that they are overcome.  Because as individuals in community, we do not meet and survive the challenges and trials alone.

In the life of faith, as individuals active in an active community, we grow in faith, and so grow in hope and confidence.   We live as though what we do actually matters, because it actually does. Faith changes us, and changes the communities of which we are a part, and changes the world.  Faith without works is dead, and the living out of our faith is the great work of all the Church. The great question of that work is, what matters to us enough that we love it, welcome it into our lives, do not regard it from a human point of view but from God’s point of view, want to bring the people or situations to reconciliation, want to see realized hope for it?  When we answer the question of what matters to us, individuals and communities, and begin to live out our faith as the Church with intention around the answer, then the world does change toward hope and new life. AMEN.

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Saturday
July 27

Faith in Community

By Marsh Chapel

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 John 13:12–17, 33–35

Faith in Community

 

The title phrase of our Summer sermon series, “Faith in Community”, can be interpreted in at least two ways.  One interpretation is “Faith in Community” – belief and trust in the idea of community itself.  That is, broadly, the idea of the unity of a body of people that share something in common: interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.  Another interpretation of the title is “Faith in Community” – the ways in which faith is lived out in community both by the individuals in a community and by the community altogether.  As I am preaching this Sunday and next, I thought we might explore both these interpretations.  Today we’ll consider faith in the idea of community itself,  and next Sunday we’ll consider some of the ways faith is lived out by the individuals in community and by the community altogether.

So, today, Faith in the idea of community itself, belief and trust in the idea of the unity of a body or group of people that share something in common:  interests, location, characteristics, beliefs, and/or culture.

But first, I’d like to tell you a little about what I’ve done so far on my Summer vacation.  Many of you know that I have the privilege to facilitate the Abolitionist Chapel Today group, or A.C.T., here at Marsh.  We are a study/program/advocacy group in the larger resistance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery.  The work is often a challenge.  Human trafficking and modern-day slavery together comprise the second-largest and most lucrative criminal activity on the planet.  Mostly women and children, millions are victimized world-wide and over 100,000 are victimized in the United States every year, for the purposes of forced labor, sexual exploitation, debt bondage, child soldiering, and sale of body parts.  The experiences we read about are often horrific, in the great scheme of things our group itself is small, and some days are discouraging.  Our homework reminder to each other is “don’t read or watch this at night, don’t read or watch this alone, don’t read or watch this before you go to sleep, and do something really fun after you’ve read or watched this.”

On the other hand, Abolitionist Chapel Today is not alone.  The word is getting out, and new people and groups join in the resistance all the time – some of them right here within the Boston University community, and some are those who we have come to know in Massachusetts and the wider national and global resistance.  Law enforcement, businesses, politicians, and health providers are increasingly aware of the signs and issues of trafficking and modern-day slavery and are involved as well.  We in A.C.T. enjoy each other’s company and appreciate each other’s gifts and interests, and we make sure to share “good news” stories about what people are doing to resist this evil.

I came upon one good news story on my Summer vacation.  We went down to visit my brother and his family near Nashville TN.  While we were there, my sister-in-law took me out to lunch at the Thistle Farms Café and to check out their adjoining shop.  The restaurant was spotless and attractive, the service was great, the food was delicious, and the almond cake – well, the almond cake invited a private experience of gustatory bliss.  The shop offered helpful and knowledgeable service and a number of “kind-to-the earth as well as to the body” bath and body products, all made by hand through Thistle Farms from essential oils with various wonderful fragrances.  The Shop also offers bags, jewelry, and household items made by Thistle Farms and by their global partners.  There are also books about Thistle Farms and its accompanying residential program Magdalene House – these are written by their founder, an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens.  What was most interesting to me about the café and shop, and the reason my sister-in-law took me there, is that Magdalene House is a two-year residential community.  It  provides food, housing, medical and dental care, therapy, education, and job training – at no cost to them – for women who have survived trafficking, sexual exploitation, addiction, and/or life on the streets.  Thistle Farms Café and Shop are staffed in their operations by residents and graduates of the Magdalene community, with all sales proceeds going back to the Magdalene community and the Café and Shop.  Graduates of Magdalene and Thistle Farms also receive ongoing support through networking, emergency assistance, and continuing education and job skills development.  In the Thistle Farms National Network, over 50 organizations have programs based on Thistle’s model of recovery, with 25 of them having residential programs.  There is a Magdalene prison program in Tennessee so that women can begin their healing journey in prison and then upon release can transition into the residential program.  With its more than 30 global partners in 20 countries on 5 continents working to alleviate extreme poverty, the Shop practices a “shared trade” model, in which both the partner and the Shop share the profits they make together.  Last year alone, the combined enterprises provided thousands of hours of safe housing, employment, and employment support for survivors, over a million dollars in income for survivors, and hundreds of hours of counseling, therapy, and medical care for survivors. and 1,200 women artisans were supported by the global partnerships.

The thistle is an apt symbol for Magdalene and Thistle Farms.  It is considered

by most to be a weed, but its taproot can grow through concrete and survive drought. Its leaves and stem are prickly in defense, but the flower is soft and full of beautiful color – rather like the survivors themselves as they move through the program.   Out of Becca Steven’s own story of childhood loss, betrayal, sexual abuse, and economic challenges, and out of the stories of women who have survived excruciating pain, poverty, and violence, out of these shared interests and experiences has come a community, a people truly united by new shared experience and interests in healing and hope.  And all of it, as Becca Stevens writes, is 20 years of “witness to the truth that love is the most powerful force for social change in the world.”

That’s a very interesting statement.  Faith in love as a force for social change does not seem very evident in these days of children separated from their parents and held in cages at our southern border, where they either suffer hunger, filth, and disease if not death, or are lost entirely so that no one has any idea where they are.  Faith in community as unity through shared interests doesn’t seem to have much traction either, except as very narrowly defined by certain groups more concerned for their own interests against those of anyone else, even to the death of the planet, even to the trafficking and enslavement of those they consider as commodities for their personal gratification.  Part of it may be that our ideas of love and community have become fuzzy, so that we don’t know what love or community actually looks like.  “Love” is the most over-used and fuzzy word in the language:  I love my God, I love my dog (and/or cat), I love Cherry Garcia ice cream, I love your hat, I love that window treatment.  “Community” also most often seems to mean a collection of people having some common interests, but not necessarily interests that create unity.  For instance, my own denomination of United Methodism has many common interests, including allegiance to Jesus and an assumption of leadership and guidance by the Holy Spirit.  But these are apparently not enough to overcome the demands for a litmus test around the full inclusion of LBGTQIA persons, or not enough in the face of these demands to continue to maintain the unity around the other common interests and the ongoing life of the community.

Jesus himself, and the early church, however, had clear ideas of community and love, three of which are remembered in our scriptures this morning.  John’s Gospel recalls Jesus as leaving his disciples with a new commandment:  they are to love one another as he has loved them, and it is by this love that everyone will know that they are Jesus’ disciples.  So how did Jesus love his disciples?  He washed their feet, as an example to them.  He brought them together as a community, a group of people united by their interests in the good news of God’s kingdom, and freedom from the slavery of sin and separation from God, self, and neighbor.  He changed his mind in front of them as he grew into his work.  The community included the original twelve men and then other men; the women who funded the ministry, opened their homes and their pantries, and first told the news of the resurrection; and let’s not forget all those children, who brought loaves and fish and were set in the middle of the adults as examples of God’s kingdom.  And when the community had the examples and the training and any healing they needed, Jesus sent them out tp preach and teach and heal and be examples themselves.

The Gospel of Matthew recalls Jesus’ story of what we now call the Last Judgement.  It is the righteous, those who have acted in accordance with divine or moral law, who will inherit the blessing and the promises of God.  They will do so because they have fed the the Lord when he was hungry, given drink to him when he was thirsty, welcomed him as a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him in prison.  And when the righteous have no idea when in fact they did all this, the Lord tells them that when they did all these things for the least of these, who are the Lord’s – not just community but family – they have done it to the Lord himself.

The letter of James in the early church states that faith without works is dead.  In other words, the way one is shown to be a faithful disciple in the Christian community is by the actions one takes, not by what one says or believes.  Faith is the wellspring of action, and the example James gives of an appropriate action is to care for the bodily needs of those who are suffering.  The community of faith does not just have a spiritual mission; it has a mission of holistic engagement with the needs of the world as well.

Magdalene and Thistle Farms have this kind of faith in community:  they believe that the unity of people who share interests and experiences can change the world.  Out of the worst sorts of abuse and exploitation, and out of being overlooked or judged harshly by others, they choose love as the power they will develop in themselves and for others to promote their own holistic hope and healing and to offer that hope and healing to others.  Their community grew organically out of the people who comprised it, from Steven’s own interest in oils and balms as aids to her own ministry and healing, to the use of oils and balms by the Magdalen residents to bring freshness and soothing to their own lives, to the realization that these comforts could be offered to others for their enjoyment and self-care as well as to provide for the support and expansion of the Magdalene program and the Café and Shop, to the invitations to others to join them globally in the promotion of health and healing in other places of challenge. It has not always been easy.  The first batches of a combination oil they attempted in the kitchen ended as sludge on the bottom of the pot.  Fears and doubts raise their heads.  Survivors do not complete or relapse from the program; they go back to their old lives, they die.  Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are now being called a public healh crisis or a social pandemic.  And life in community is always real in both its gifts and its challenges  But Becca Stevens and the Magdalen and Thistle communities ground their faith in community as did Jesus and the early church.  They ground their faith in love, in what Stevens calls the four axioms of love.  First, love is eternal, with no beginning or end.  Second, love is the story of God unfolding in our lives.  Third, love is not concerned so much with dogma as it is a dogged determination to bloom and speak.  Fourth, love is sufficient.

The work of resistance to human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not for everyone, and even if it is generally for some, it is not the same specific work for everyone.  For instance, Abolitionist Chapel Today does not run a residential program, a café, or a shop.  We are a study, programming, and advocacy group.  But we and Magdalene and Thistle Farms both do witness to the truth, that faith in community empowered by love can change the world in their places and time.  Faith in community powered by love can change the world in other places and times as well.

We ourselves may not do the work that Magdalene and Thistle Farms are doing.  But what communities do we love enough to have faith in?  These communities may not necessarily be churches, although they may, like Magdalene and Thistle Farms, be deeply informed and grounded in the ideas of community held by Jesus and the early church.  But each one of us has communities that we love and want the best for, in which we share a unity of interests and experiences.  How might these communities grow organically out of our experiences and interests and the experiences of the other people who comprise them?  What among our shared experiences and interests might point to ways we might invite others to join us, or provide others with the holistic resources for hope and growth?

There are just some things that we cannot do alone.  We cannot recover from trauma and pain, or find hope and new life, alone.  We cannot face the personal, spiritual, and societal challenges of a complex and changing world, much less find the solutions we need, alone.  We cannot love and be loved, alone.  We need the unity of community.  Not just the unity of shared experiences and interests, but the unity of love.  The kind of love that Jesus taught, that we may not know as we talk about it or believe it, but we sure know it when we see it or experience it.  The love that respects, that teaches by example, that speaks truth with love, that keeps our sense of humor going, that allows and leads to changed minds and changed lives.  That kind of love creates not just the idea of community, but real communities with real unity that we can have faith in to carry us through to hope and goodness.  As the noted cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Whether it is the community of Jesus, the community of the early church, the communities of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, or even we ourselves, AMEN to that.

 

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Sunday
January 6

The Hospitality of Strangers

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12.

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Happy New Year!  We’re six days in.  And apart from anything else going on, today, January 6, 2019, has much significance in the Christian calendar.  In some Christian traditions, it is Old Christmas, a Christmas Day from the Julian calendar that preceded our current Gregorian calendar.  In some traditions, it is Three Kings Day, when gifts are exchanged, either between family and friends, or by the three kings themselves to children, in commemoration of their visit to the baby Jesus.  And here, for us today, it is the Feast of the Epiphany,of the appearance, of the revelation, of the manifestation. Today, it is the manifestation of Christ, and today especially, to the Gentiles. That would be us.

Epiphany this year is a ten-week liturgical season.  The people who created the lectionary cycle have picked scriptures of majesty and drama for today, to start the season off.

Isaiah describes the restoration of Israel.  They are released from captivity in Babylon, and restored to right relationship with God.  They will see and be radiant, their hearts will thrill and rejoice, because they shine like a beacon in the dark with the glory of God.  They are a beacon that draws their own sons and daughters back from far away. The brightness of their light even draws nations and rulers to come to them.  They bring to Israel the abundance of the sea, the wealth of nations, multitudes of camels, gold and frankincense, all to praise the God of Israel and God’s glory that shines upon and through this restored people.

The Psalmist describes the just and righteous ruler who does the work of God for the people, who delivers the needy and the poor and those who have no helper, who saves their lives from oppression and violence.  Because of this, and because this ruler is also human and needs God’s help, the Psalmist calls down blessings on their reign: long life, effectiveness, peace, and the respect, tribute, and service of other rulers and nations as allies.

The author of Ephesians, writing as Paul, describes the revelation that had been given to him and the other apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This is the grace of his commission to the Gentiles, and in this letter, to the church at Ephesus.  His is the shock and understanding of the mystery of Christ, in which the formerly Gentile strangers have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus, through the gospel. It is this gospel of Christ that Paul proclaims to the Ephesians, in accordance with the eternal purposes of God in Christ Jesus, in whom all Christians, including the Ephesians, have access to God in boldness and confidence through their faith in Christ.

Matthew’s Gospel recounts the drama of the three exotic astrologers from the East, who come to Jerusalem to find the King of the Jews because they have seen the rising of his star. This is an unmistakable sign that an important ruler has been born.  Their arrival, at the current King Herod’s court, throws Herod, the court, and the entire city into fear and confusion. Herod consults with his advisors, who tell him that the true King of the Jews, the Messiah, is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then meets secretly with the Eastern strangers, and charges them to find the child and tell him, Herod, where the child is, because he wants to pledge homage to this new king.  So the three strangers follow the star to where the child and his mother are, and with joy they pay him homage and give rich gifts. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they take another way home.

These scriptures are full of pomp and circumstance, majesty and prophecy fulfilled, restoration and mystery and even intrigue, rich and shiny treasure – and let’s not forget those camels. Yet four verses stand out – no prophecy, no pomp, no explication.  Except for the rich and shiny gifts and the moving star, just a simple story: three strangers, a baby, and a mother. “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Three strangers, who after a long journey of faith rejoice in their journey’s end.  They recognize a child for who he is and who he will become. They welcome him with treasure, to recognize his importance to be sure, but also treasure that is easily hidden and carried, easily sold and bartered, for a young family soon to be on the run for their lives from that same Herod, who wanted to know where the child was, and maybe not to pay him homage.  The three wise ones are warned against him, after all – if they were not already suspicious with all the upset and secrecy at his court. So they take another road home to protect Jesus and his mother Mary, in a time and place where roads were hard to come by, and may just as well lead to other dangers as to joy. If their visit to the baby Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence to them as Gentiles, then in these four verses, beyond all the pomp and circumstance and shiny drama, it is strangers who show hospitality to the child, the manifestation of God.  They show the hospitality of recognition, welcome, provision for his needs, and protection.

We ourselves have just come through the holiday season, a time when many of us have either extended or received hospitality of various kinds:  usually welcome, shelter, and food, if not necessarily protection. The word “hospitality” comes from the Latin “hospes”, and means the generous and friendly welcome of guests and the offer of a pleasant or sustaining environment.  The Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, means “host”, “guest” or “stranger” – all three, the distinction depending on the situation.

That is interesting, because there is a great deal of talk in our air now about strangers, people from far away or who are different from us or who we don’t know, and who may be a danger to us just because they are strangers.  And there is a great deal of concern in our air now about whether or not we in our group – ethnicity, community, city, nation, church – should show hospitality to strangers. And if we should, how much and what kind of hospitality it should be.  There is even concern as to if it should be hospitality we show at all, in the sense of our engagement with strangers being one of welcome and friendliness, pleasantness, or sustenance.

So the Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, is interesting because if it means all three – host, guest, and stranger – it also suggests that these roles are interchangeable in the larger practice of hospitality, and that hospitality itself is a function of each role.

We usually assume that a host extends hospitality, and the guest or a stranger receive it.  But the word “hospes” suggests that hosts, guests, and even strangers, not only receive hospitality but also extend it.

If strangers in particular not only receive hospitality but also extend it, that expands the notion of hospitality considerably.

Now I am the last person to suggest that one should not be careful around strangers, and around hosts and guests for that matter.  All kinds of strangers came up and talked to my parents about pleasantries and directions, and my parents themselves talked with all kinds of strangers about pleasantries and directions.  Pleasantries and directions with whoever showed up. This has turned out to be part of my life too, and now apparently is part of our children’s lives as well. And, it has always been very clear through three generations that one does not get into cars or go off willy-nilly with people one does not know, especially if one is alone or if one’s hair at the back of the neck stands up.  Then it doesn’t matter at all if they are not from far away and look just like us. But while not every stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet, a generous, friendly, pleasant, even sustaining welcome, in attitude and perhaps conversation, couldn’t hurt the prospects for friendship, at the very least until we know there are actual grounds for suspicion.

Because it may be that it is the stranger next to us or in our midst that will be the one to extend hospitality to us, instead of the other way around.  Like the three wise men from far away did with the baby Jesus, they may recognize us for who we are as having the image of God within. They may welcome us with respect and may offer us treasures of friendship or knowledge, skill or humor.  They may even be a source of protection or help. The question is, can we recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers?

The writer of Ephesians reminds us that in one sense we already have.  Through our ancestors in the faith we have accepted the hospitality of strangers in the work of Paul.  He certainly started out as a stranger – a person of another faith and a Roman citizen who persecuted the members of the early church.  He then claimed a rather spectacular conversion experience on the Damascus road that made him not only a member of the Jesus movement but also an apostle.  As an apostle, he was sent to share the Gospel of Christ with Gentiles, who also were strangers, and sometime hostile, to the members of the Jesus movement.  And yet, as a stranger to everyone, his generous welcome and gifts for organization supported new Christians and churches in a number of multi-cultural locations in the Roman world.  Without the work of the stranger Paul, and the acceptance of his hospitable invitation by the early church and by subsequent generations, we would not be here this morning, or at least we would not be here in the same way.

We are also reminded, by the story of the three strangers who extended hospitality to the baby Jesus, that strangers often come to us because they are led to us by God.  While to accept the hospitality of strangers may not always entertain angels unaware, it may very well do. And if it is “just” a generous and pleasant experience, that is all to the good too.  Like many of you, I have had a number of instances of my acceptance of the hospitality of strangers in my life – all of them ended well, and in some cases – not always the most pleasant initially – I consider them a direct manifestation of God’s provision for my life.

All hospitality – a generous and friendly welcome and a pleasant and sustaining environment – has something of God in it.  And in some ways, God is a stranger to us too. God is different from us, never completely known, even as God is God-with-us in Jesus.  God sometimes seems far away, as we are separated from God by sin. God even sometimes seems dangerous, in the invitations to change, to accept the strange, to stretch our comfort zones.  And yet, the first Sunday of every month, and Wednesday evenings, and other times too, here at Marsh the table is set with the tasty sweetness of grain and grape. The invitations to transform are extended:  to be nourished; to love God and self and neighbor; to recognize each other as companions with God and with each other in the adventures of our lives; to have the image of God restored in us. The hospitality of God, the generous and loving welcome, the sustenance of God’s empowerment, nourishment and companionship, it never fails, it never ends.  God the stranger becomes the one in whom we live and move and have our being, in ourselves and with each other.

It is when we accept the hospitality of God that we can most recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers.  So on this feast day of Epiphany, of appearance, of revelation, of manifestation, who is the stranger whose hospitality we might accept?  Is it someone here, sharing grain and grape with us in communion? Is it someone at work or in class or on our block? Is it someone from far away, or who is different from us, or who we do not yet know?  Who may be trying to reach out to us in welcome, with gifts?

With this, as we consider the hospitality of strangers, there is also a question that turns it back to us.  Who might we be strangers to, who might be persons to whom, as strangers to them, we might offer a generous and friendly welcome or a pleasant and sustaining environment?  Who may think that we are from a place far removed from theirs, or think we are different from them, or that they do not and cannot know us? Who might accept our hospitality of strangers, as we have accepted the hospitality of strangers ourselves?  Like the baby Jesus and Mary, there are many people in the world, both near and far, who might accept, might even be desperate for, a generous and friendly welcome, recognition for who they really are, a pleasant and sustaining environment, or even protection and help, even from a stranger.  What guidance from God, in a star or a dream or deep compassion or an experience, might guide us to them?

A host is a host, and a guest is a guest, and a stranger is a stranger.  And, depending on the situation, a person might be any of these. And, in any given situation, a host is primarily a host, and a guest is primarily a guest, and a host is a little bit guest and a guest is a little bit host.  But a stranger can be both completely a stranger and a host, or both completely a stranger and a guest. Let us then be glad of the hospitality of strangers, that we can receive it and also provide it, in the great and unending hospitality of God.  Amen.

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
August 5

A Building Block for a Common Hope

By Marsh Chapel

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Acts 10:1-17, 19-24, 27-30, 33-36, 44-48; 11:1-3, 15-18

Luke 6:43-45, 8:16-18

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Our Summer Preaching series is entitled, “Toward a Common Hope”.  This Summer we find we preach against the tide:  given the other preaching of division, exclusion, and isolation that surrounds us, the idea of a common anything is a hard sell.  And while hope is vital if we are to live, and to know what we hope for in detail is essential, hope also requires common action, if it is to be fulfilled hope in the world. 

Nowadays our problem is often that we don’t know what to hope for or know the hope we could have. The chaos just keeps coming, so there is no stability on which to stand or from which to act.  We are so busy and scheduled that it is more than enough to make it through the day.   And often our personal, national, and planetary news is so dire that our hope feels crushed even if we were able at one point to have it.  How do we recognize our hope, encourage one another, and find allies in hope that will help us make the changes that will expand our hope, so that we can go on?

Our story from the Book of Acts recounts one way that a group of people recognized a hope that they did not know they had, and recognized new allies even amongst many differences.  The story also describes an action that we can take to recognize our help us recognize our hope, recognize our allies, and take one action that is a building block for  our present and future common hope.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is known in some circles as The Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and our story this morning is also known as “The Gentile Pentecost”.  It begins with visions:  Cornelius, a Gentile, sees and hears an angel who tells him to send for Simon Peter, a Christian believer of Jewish heritage, so that Cornelius can be recognized for his devotion and generosity before God.  Simon Peter, also Jesus’ disciple and a leader in the growing Jesus movement, has three visions, all the same:  a sort of sheet is lowered from heaven that contains animals both allowed and forbidden to eat by Jewish dietary laws.  A voice tells him to get up, and kill and eat any of the animals.  Peter refuses to do this in obedience to the dietary laws, and then the voice tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This dictum is further reinforced for Peter when the Holy Spirit tells him to go with Cornelius’s messengers without hesitation, for the Spirit’s own self has sent them.  Peter invites the messengers in for the night, and then goes with them to Cornelius’ home, where a mixed group of Gentile family and friends has gathered.

In Cornelius’ and Peter’s day, this behavior was counter-cultural.  Roman officers did not usually seek to emulate the religious practices of those toward whom they were given military orders.  Nor did they usually invite complete strangers of a different social class and of a populace under Roman rule into their homes amongst family and friends.  As for Peter, Christian believers of Jewish heritage did not mix with Gentiles in their personal or religious lives, and while Cornelius was a good guy, he was also a slaveholder and an officer of the army that occupied and subjugated Israel. Neither Cornelius’s nor Peter’s behavior is within the norm.  Both of them go beyond that:  Cornelius welcomes Peter and his companions warmly, describes their meeting as being in the presence of a God who is God to them all, and he and his family and friends are willing to listen to what Peter and his companions have to say as words that God has commanded them to bring.  Peter for his part has taken his vision and the Spirit’s speaking to heart, and begins his teaching with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

The story of the Gentile Pentecost continues as just that, a time of sign and wonder that echoes the first Pentecost.  To the astonishment of Peter’s companions, the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all the Gentiles in the room – they begin to speak in tongues, and glorify and praise God for the good news of Jesus Christ that Peter has brought to them. This sign is enough for Peter to decide to baptize Cornelius and his family and friends, and for them all to visit together for several days.  Very unexpectedly, they all are now allies in the common hope they have together in Jesus Christ.  This story marks the beginning of fulfillment, not just of Cornelius vision and Peter’s vision, not just of the sign and wonder and hope of a Gentile Pentecost.  It marks the fulfillment of God’s hope, and of God’s vision of inclusion for the Church’s expansion into all the world.

And, the story of the Gentile Pentecost is also a story of conflict.  The apostles and believers of Jewish heritage in the Jerusalem church had not attended the celebration in Cornelius’ home. They had not had visions, they had not heard voices, they had not seen the sign.  They criticized Peter for visiting with Gentiles and eating with them. But when Peter told them all that had happened from his vision on, including the Gentiles’ baptism, the ones who criticized were silenced.  They were silenced by the enormous new thing that God had done, by a hope that they didn’t even know they had.  And then, “they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

Vision. Voices. Signs.  It’s a bit different now.  We who have been kicking around in the faith for a while now would love to have regular, obvious visions, voices, and signs, with clear directions to recognize what to hope for, tips on how to encourage each other, and ways to find allies.  And that is not to say that we don’t have visions, voices, and signs now more intermittently, or that we may not yet have them.  And, they are no longer frequent.  John Wesley, the founder of my faith tradition of Methodism, wrote that the reason we do not have these things is that we do not have the faith to receive them.  And, even if we don’t have visions or voices, or signs, we still have intuition, gut, imagination, hunch, mother wit, feeling, no such thing as coincidence, hairs on the backs of our necks, and so on. And, if we don’t have even these, we all still have one gift from God, can take one action.  We can practice this gift, this action; with it we can be in cooperation with the Holy Spirit; it can be a building block for a common hope and for that hope’s fulfillment in the world.

Because the larger story of the Gentile Pentecost is actually made of a series of stories.  And in each of these stories, the one thing that everybody does … is listen.  They listen to the voice of the Spirit, they listen to the unknown languages, but most of all they listen to each other’s stories.  And in that way they all hear the Spirit and the unknown languages, and all the stories become part of everybody’s common story. They listen in the broad sense, not only or even with ears, but with an open heart and a willingness to understand. They listen in a way that anyone can do to receive whatever communication that might come to them from another person – with respect and full attention and by any means necessary. Even if they cannot understand the language, listening to it allows for translation, and carries significant meaning. Each of the smaller stories in the larger story – of the Spirit, of Cornelius and of his family and friends, of Peter and of his companions, of the apostles and uncircumcised believers in Jerusalem – all these and all of our stories only have meaning if someone listens to them. 

This is not the kind of listening that many of us so often do, not the kind in which we nod our heads and make encouraging noises while all the while thinking not of what the other person is saying but of what we want to say instead or in response.  Neither is it the kind of listening that demands lockstep ideological purity all the way through all the issues.  Instead it is the kind of listening that allows us to welcome our allies where we find them.  Kenneth Elmore, Associate Provost and Dean of Students at Boston University, noted in an interview given at the School of Theology that if we have one point of agreement with a person, no matter our other differences, we have an ally on that one point, and it is from that one point that we can move to find other points of alliance.  This is an important thing to remember in our time that so promotes division and discord: if the apostles and believers of Jewish heritage had listened to Peter and his companions only with the demand for continued ideological purity, there is a good chance that many of us today would not be listening to this service of worship.  There’s nothing wrong with criticism and disagreement.  They are often a consequence of the Spirit’s work, and they often open up discussion and creativity as the demand for ideological purity does not.  In the church we are all both Gentiles and believers of Jewish heritage at any given time.

My friend Lucy is a Methodist minister.  She tells the story of a time in the middle years of her ministry.  At a conference she was paired for a conversation with a woman who turned out to be a Native American tradition bearer for one of the tribes in New England.  While she and Lucy were much of an age, in many ways they were very different. Aside from the differences in faith tradition, Lucy is very white, and privileged by any of the world’s standards. Her Native American companion, as became clear in their mutual telling of their stories, while privileged in many ways, by many of the world’s standards was not.  Some people would see them as natural adversaries rather than as colleagues or allies.  And yet they shared profound similarities that deeply moved both of them. The elders in both their traditions were beginning to die, so now they themselves were becoming the elders.  The responsibility for carrying their traditions lay a bit heavy on both of them. Had they learned their traditions well enough?  Were they skilled enough in the ways necessary to help pass their traditions along to the next generation?  Were they skilled enough to help their communities face the challenges and use the gifts of their traditions as well as those of the present day?  They found that the joys and sorrows of their callings were much the same, as were the personal challenges and growth they had experienced.  And they found a common hope in the goods they wanted for their communities and in the resilience and adaptability of their traditions.  Neither was converted to the other’s belief system – there was no thought of that.  Further conversations might have revealed areas of profound disagreement and even conflict between them.   And yet in that time as they listened deeply to each other’s story, they unexpectedly realized that they were allies, each working in her own way and in her own community to fulfill a common hope of inclusion and peace. In they listened and then talked together they both found encouragement and strength for their own hopes for what might be possible.  There were no plans for follow-up:  it was not that kind of conversation, and really did not need to be.  Lucy has never seen her colleague and ally again.  And, she often thinks of and prays for her and her community, and even sends money to projects Lucy knows may support their common hope.  Their time together was a time of mutual inclusion and alliance, and Lucy considers it a blessed touchstone in her life.  As we read in the Gospel of Luke, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

To listen is to take action, and the act of listening is a building block for a common hope.  To listen to the truth of another person that brings us joy, to listen to the truth of another person that may make us uncomfortable, allows us to cooperate with the Spirit in its work of inclusion.  As we listen to God and to one another, even in the midst of disagreement and division, we can discover what to hope for or the hope that we could have.  We can find allies on just one point.  And with a common hope and allies, we can begin to fulfill our hope in this place and time.  As we read in the Gospel of Luke, “Then pay attention to how you listen.”  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Sunday
July 15

The Foundation for a Common Hope

By Marsh Chapel

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Acts 5:1-11

Luke 4:1-4

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When I was younger in the faith, I spent a bit of time doing what many folks younger in the faith do: I went through the Bible looking for the parts they don’t tell you about in Sunday School.  And that’s when I first read the story of Ananias and Sapphira. 

At the time I thought it was one of the most disturbing stories I had ever read – terrifying, even, what with people dropping dead in a church meeting.  I still think it is a disturbing story, now for different reasons, and apparently I am not the only one.  In years in the church I have never heard it preached, and most recommended Bible commentaries don’t comment much on it at all.  The sermons on the internet that deal with it focus almost exclusively on Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deaths.  They ignore other elements that equally provoke thought and disturb. 

Now when elements in a Bible story that provoke thought and disturb, or the story itself, are so ignored, it almost always means the Bible story deserves a second look.  For instance, Ananias’ and Sapphira’s story’s placement in the Acts larger narrative instructs as well as shocks. The story raises the complex and oh-so-contemprary issue of The Lie.  And, it is a story that involves the Holy Spirit.  It is because of these other elements, not just the deaths, that I preach on it this morning, in our preaching series context of a common hope.

First, ler’s look at the story’s placement in the larger narrative of Acts. It comes after Luke’s description of the beginning of the church. In the beginning, the members were of one heart and soul in their beliefs and in their life together.  All their resources were held in common, the apostles gave their witness to the resurrection with great power, and great grace was upon everyone.  No one wanted for anything, because those who had private resources sold them and brought the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution, as did Barnabas the “son of encouragement”.  It was truly the beloved, and loving, community, the hope of return to which inspires the church to this day.

But in this beloved and lovng community are also Ananias and Sapphira.

They also agree to sell a piece of property, but give only a part of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution.  They keep the rest for themselves.  And here is the crux of the story:  they tell the apostles they are giving them the whole amount. They lie.

Have you noticed how so few people lie nowadays?  They fib, prevaricate, misspeak, misunderstand, deceive, mislead, tell whoppers, are disingenuous, tell white lies, fudge or fuzz the truth, skirt the issue, deviate from the truth, slander, libel, trump-up charges, pad a resume or expense account, present and spread fake news, but they don’t lie. Actually to call someone a liar or something a lie is apparently almost too strong, too judgmental on what seems to be a social rather than a moral scale.  Even in the media, even in government, no one lies.  No one is even an alleged liar.  To say, “They lie.” seems say too much.

But Peter, of course, being Peter, has no such care for social niceties.  He clearly expresses the enormity of what Ananias and Sapphira have done.  It has nothing to do with the fact that they kept back part of the proceeds – they could just as well have kept back the whole amount, or not sold the property at all. But they lied, and said they had given the whole.  And by that lie, as Peter points out, they have done so much more.  They have listened to Satan – the one who works against Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the one who is the tempter in the wilderness against Jesus’ own integrity and self-understanding and against the Holy Spirit’s leading.  Even though the community will be affected, their lie to the community pales in comparison to the fact that they have lied to God, in particular to the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains them all.  And they have put the Holy Spirit to the test. The Lie is an attempt to undermine the Spirit’s presence and its power to guide, protect, and inspire in the face of The Lie’s creation of mistrust and confusion.

Finally, their lie will come back on Ananias and Sapphira.  For whatever reason, and debate rages, the lie is a prelude to their deaths.  And interestingly enough, at the end of the story, the beloved community, which began as “the whole group of those who believed”, has become “the church”, the ekklesia, the people called out and gathered to be God’s people. They are now distinct from those who surround them, because they know The Lie is within them as well as without – and now they will have to make choices.  And great fear has come upon them, and everyone who hears the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  The church in Acts is still the beloved community, but now they know that the dangers to their mutuality and mission can come from within as well as without. Distrust and betrayal are now possibilities even among the beloved.  And they know that these dangers from within begin with The Lie.

The noted moral philosopher, peace activist, and ethicist Sissela Bok, in her landmark book Lying:  Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, notes that now, it is even hard to decide what a lie is.  So she focuses on what she defines as “’clear-cut lies’.  These are lies where the intention to mislead is obvious, where the liar knows that what they are communicating is not what they believe, and where they have not deluded themselves into believing their own deceits.” Bok defines a lie as “any intentionally deceptive message that is stated.” – which statement can include such media as Morse code, sign language, signal flags, and so on.  Note the emphasis on intention and statement.  It is not the truth or falsity of what a person says that settles the question of whether or not that person is lying – it is whether or not they intend their statement to be a lie. 

The presence of intention points up the great paradox of The Lie.  We more often than not lie with good intent.  As Bok notes, we lie to excuse ourselves or to get ourselves out of something without causing offense.  We lie to protect and advance our standing and our place in the world.  We lie to save ourselves and others in a crisis.  We lie to expose liars.  We lie to enemies to defeat them.  We lie to protect our children, peers, and clients.  We lie for the public good, and we lie to people for their own good, especially if they are very ill or dying, or if we have power over them.  All we want to do is make life easier for ourselves and others.  All we want to do is help.  Everybody lies.  And no one drops down dead.

It’s true that the results of their lie were extreme for Ananias and Sapphira.  But every lie bears a cost, to both the liar and the ones lied to.  Bok makes the connection between deception and violence as the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings.  Both coerce, but The Lie is the more subtle – it works on belief as well as action.  A lie forces because it intends someone to believe something that is not true.  Iago did not need to kill Othello; he only had to lie to him, and have him believe it, to destroy him.  Bok also notes that lying almost always accompanies every other form of wrongdoing and harm:  murder, theft, bribery, and so on almost require that one lie.  Lying almost always accompanies many other forms of human misery as well.  Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, writer and podcast host.  He is famous also for being one of “the Four Horsemen of Atheism”. I do not agree with all of his ideas, and, in his book Lying, he has some ideas that I do agree with.  He connects lies with the perpetuation of addiction and of domestic violence, and with the self-sabotage of family relationships, careers, and reputations.  He notes that as human beings, we often act in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy, and calls lying “the royal road to chaos”. In particular he notes that “white lies” are the ones that most tempt us, and “tend to be the only lies that good people tell while imagining that they are being good in the process.” He also suggests that the lies we tell for the good of others presume that we are the best judges of how much other people should understand about their own lives.  This is an arrogant position that disrespects those we claim to care about.

In any case, Bok and Harris both note that lying always requires a reason, a justification:  one has to convince oneself to lie, and if found out one needs to convince others that the lie was necessary.

These costs of lying are different for those deceived and for the liar, but they often are great costs for both.  For the deceived, when we find out we have been lied to, for whatever reason, none of us likes it.  Even in small things, we may be angry, or feel betrayed. Suspicion is now part of the relationship – if someone will lie to us in small things, why wouldn’t they lie to us in big things too.  If it is a big lie, we may mourn the choices we were unable to make or the things we would have done differently had we known the truth, or we may lose faith in the persons or institutions that we once believed in.  If a single person or a small group of persons is lied to, a number of people may still be hurt by the lie, as when a public health official is lied to about the purity of a city’s water system. 

While these costs to those lied to may be more obvious, there are costs to the liar as well.  Liars know that they lie – they intend to lie, and to have that lie believed.  A liar then has to regard those they have lied to with caution.  They have to remember what lies they have told to specific people and be careful not to get mixed up.  Once they have lied, it becomes easier to tell more lies.  This ups the risk of getting caught, and if they are caught, the damage to their credibility and reputation far outweighs any benefits they may have obtained from the lie. And while liars may take into account the effect their lie may have on an individual, they do not always realize the ways that these effects may spread to affect whole communities in negative ways, including the communities of which they are a part. 

We in our time know the costs of The Lie, both as we are lied to by people and institutions we have trusted, and as we are caught up in the temptation to lie if only to make our lives a little easier.  And yet it is all too easy to imagine our society, our communities, our lives, sliding into a state where words cannot ever be trusted again. Technology makes this seem more likely. But even more there is in our time an aversion to truthtelling.  It is too difficult.  It takes too much time and effort, or it is not as effective for what we want as is the violence of lying.  Even in the church, we often lie, especially white lie, because to have a telling-the-truth-in-love-and-mutuality conversation with someone seems too intrusive or fraught or complicated – when in fact by not having that conversation we may deny that person a chance to learn more about themselves and us, in ways that might help, heal, or reconcile them with us, or with others, or with themselves. 

A common hope seems more and more like an unreachable ideal — certainly in society, and even in the church, certainly if The Lie becomes entrenched and is not exposed and rooted out for what it is. The Lie is a cheat:  against the community, against the individual, even against the liar.  It sets up a false goal of superficiality and complacency rather than the love and justice that God intends for human beings and creation.  Fortunately, while the Spirit may be put to the test, that does not mean that the Spirit cannot pass the test, and then do even more. 

Sissela Bok wrote her book first in 1979, another time of big and small lies in the country and in the world, and her book has gone through two more editions since.  She notes that, due to people who exposed and rejected lies, some things have changed.  Doctors used to lie routinely to their patients as to the state of their health and the probabilities of procedures; indeed, given interpretations of patient confidentiality, they often found themselves lying to one patient while preserving the confidentiality of another.  Now there are prohibitions for lying and requirements for informed consent.  Scientific researchers and behavioral researchers often did not inform their subjects as to what actually was being done to them or the true aims of the research; now there are privacy mandates and requirements for informed consent. Exposures of the lies of government and other institutions have brought about more healthy skepticism, and more demands for institutional accountability:  fact checkers and investigative reporting are now integrated into public life.  Recently Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Flint Michigan, Women’s Marches, and demonstrations for immigration reform have put on notice the status quoof lies and violence against people and creation. Both Bok and Harris also suggest that if people still insist on lying, there should be a sort of agreed-upon “just lie” theory, rather like a “just war” theory. It would begin with the questioning of the necessity for lying at all, and go on to mitigate as many negative effects of The Lie as possible.  But perhaps Harris the atheist has the most thought-provoking  idea for the beloved community and a common hope:  It would promote the benefits of telling the truth most – if not all – of the time.  So there’s nothing to keep track of.  We don’t have to justify ourselves.  We as honest persons for others and other honest people for us become a refuge:  we mean what we say, we won’t say one thing to others’ faces and another behind their backs, both our constructive criticism and our praise can be relied on.  We can honestly change our minds, and we can be open about our doubts and fears.  We will avoid many forms of suffering and embarrassment.  While there may be discomfort, it will be short-lived, because we can be kind in telling the truth to others:  we don’t want to offend or hurt them, we just want them to have the same knowledge we have and would want in the same situation. Through telling the truth we can also learn new ways we want to grow and learn.

The American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote:  “When in doubt, tell the truth.  It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”  While The Lie sets us up for misery, there is humor and joy in telling the truth.  In the beloved community, telling the truth is a foundation for a common hope.  It is a foundation for love, joy, peace, justice, kindness, and compassion in that common hope.  It sets us up for a common hope for right relationship with God, self, and all the neighbors.  It removes obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s work, and is a big part of our cooperation with that Spirit and its work.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira is the story of the Fall in the beloved community of the church, the story of the shaking of the common hope.  When we as members and restorers of the beloved community, and our common hope, tell the truth, we reverse that story, and bring back the mutuality and trust and hope intended for God’s people and for creation.  Amen.

—Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students