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

Sunday
October 10

Jesus’ Second Favorite Topic, Paul’s Favorite Verb

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 10:17–27

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Jesus is setting out on a journey to Judea when he is interrupted by a stranger.  A man runs up to him, kneels at his feet, calls him “Good Teacher”, and asks him a question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responds:  ”Why do you call me good?  Only God is good, and you already know the Commandments.”  The man says, “I’ve been fulfilling these commandments for years.”  Then Jesus tells him to do one more thing, the one thing he hasn’t done:  he is to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor.  And when he’s done that, he can come and follow Jesus as a disciple.  The man, who is shocked and grieved by this answer because he has many possessions, leaves without further ado.  Then Jesus turns to the disciples, and tells them that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, so hard that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  The disciples are perplexed, and disbelieving:  “Then who can be saved?” they ask.  Jesus tells them that for mortals it is impossible to save a rich person, but not for God.  For God, all things are possible.

Money is Jesus’ second-favorite topic in the Gospels.  He talks about it more than any other subject except for the subject of prayer.  This story of a rich man and Jesus at first glance seems to have a fairly straightforward point:  If you want to get into the Kingdom of God, if you want to follow Jesus, you have to give your possessions away to the poor.  But there are aspects of this story that are not straightforward, that reveal Jesus and those who come to him in new ways, ways that are very Markan in their upset of the prevailing social and religious norms.

First, we have noted before that in Mark, it is strangers, often desperate strangers, who recognize Jesus for who he is, who he is for them.  The man in this story is devout, following the commandments of his faith for years.  Yet something is missing.  He lives a good life, he is a good person, and yet whatever he means by “eternal life” eludes him.  He wants it so much, he must know what he must do.  And when he sees Jesus in the street, he runs to him and falls at his feet and recognizes him as “Good Teacher”.  Then he asks Jesus to teach him how to inherit – an interesting word – how to inherit that which eludes him.

Jesus responds by telling him he knows what to do, and the man responds that he has been doing all that for years, with the clear implication that he still does not feel that he has inherited eternal life.

And here is where things take a turn.  Jesus looks at this man and loves him.  It is Jesus who recognizes something about the man that he, Jesus, wants to encourage.  So, like a good teacher, he tells the man what he needs.  Eternal life is not inherited, like money or possessions from a family member.  If fact, money and possessions might get in the way.  In order to experience eternal life, this man will need to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, so that he will be able to receive a different, heavenly treasure.  And when he has done that, Jesus says, he can come and follow Jesus as a disciple.  The man is shocked.  What kind of answer is this?  It is not an easy thing even to consider, even to discuss.  He goes away grieving at the choice the Good Teacher has given him:  his possessions, or eternal life.

Jesus then turns to the disciples and lays it out for them:  it is very difficult for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God, to experience eternal life.  The disciples are at first perplexed.  They don’t even understand what Jesus is saying.  Then they are astounded – how can riches and all that comes with them be a problem?  If riches are a problem, who can be saved?  Jesus tells them they are right to ask that.  With mortals it is impossible for riches to be an unalloyed good – as Amos reminds us in our text this morning.   Only with God can riches be just a good, a way to the Kingdom.

Now Paul is not rich, even though he is a citizen of Rome as well as of Israel.  Instead, he has been raising money for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and also is starting a journey from Corinth to Jerusalem to deliver that money.  After that he plans to go to Rome to invite the church there to sponsor his mission to Spain.  So before he leaves Corinth he writes the letter to the church at Rome to introduce himself and his work.  The letter centers on the fact that salvation and justification – or being in right relationship to God – both come through faith, faith  in Christ.  He urges the Romans to hold fast to faith in Christ, and not to the works of the law, and he makes the point that the freedom that Christ gives does not absolve believers from responsibility to others and does not absolve them from God’s law and God’s will.  Paul also writes that the journey from Jerusalem will be dangerous, as he is once more in trouble with the religious authorities of both church and temple.  So he doesn’t really know wen he will arrive.

And indeed it is a dangerous and time-consuming journey:  Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, and is taken in charge by the Romans.  He then undergoes trial by the Jewish religious authorities, took a journey to defend himself before the Roman governor, spent two years under the equivalent of house arrest, undergoes a trial and defense before the new Roman governor, and finally he appeals to the Emperor for a hearing, as was his right as a Roman citizen. Then, before he was taken to the Emperor, he had to defend himself before King Agrippa, and only after that was  he taken to the ship to begin the journey to the Emporer.

On that journey, there was a terrific storm, the ship was wrecked, and Paul spent three more months in Malta.  After another week or so Paul arrived in Rome, in the chains of a prisoner and in Roman military custody, but allowed to preach and teach without restraint for two years, and finally to meet the church to which he introduced himself in his letter.

Now even before he wrote to the church at Rome from Corinth, Paul’s life was one of adventure, conflict, and danger.  So it is perhaps not a surprise that Paul’s favorite verb is “endure”.  “Endure” derives from the Latin in durare, which means “to harden”, and “endure” itself means “to remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding”, “to regard with acceptance or tolerance”, “to continue in the same state”, “to keep doing something difficult, unpleasant, or painful for a long time”.

We can relate.  We have endured a great deal over the last year and a half, and counting.  Maybe not trials and shipwrecks, but certainly a degree of what felt like imprisonment and isolation for a very long time.  It almost made it worse to know that this was world-wide, that the pandemic made it so that there was no escape, no place other we could go.  We have also endured political upheavals, the fires and floods of global climate change, the present traumatic revelations of ongoing violent injustices to people already historically repressed for generations. Not to mention the deaths of loved ones, friends, and colleagues, economic instability, and inequality of access to economic and medical relief.  And there is no end to any of this in sight, as these circumstances have not changed, and don’t look to change any time soon.  It seems our endurance will have to continue for a while.  It is a hard state of being, to continue to endure.

The reason Paul can encourage us to endure so often is that he does not see it as an isolated action.  Its result, endurance, is produced by something, and itself produces something else, and that something else produces something else, and so on.  Endurance is part of a process in the life of faith, which reveals God at work in us in love, toward peace and grace and glory.  This process begins with suffering.

Suffering here is not something to be avoided – in fact, for many reasons even in the life of faith, it is unavoidable.  Paul even says that we can boast in our sufferings, knowing that it is in them that God works with us in the process of reconciliation with God, and so with the process of reconciliation with ourselves and with our neighbor.  Even if we are not at the point of boasting about our sufferings, as one of my mentors used to say, we should not waste them.  We can learn from them, explore them, find out what we want instead, let them produce the endurance that will keep us going over the long haul.

In faith, that endurance produces character – the particular combination of qualities in a person that makes them different from others.  And it is that kind of character – produced through endurance out of suffering – it is that kind of character in a person or group of people that produces hope.  This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into us by the Holy Spirit.  And God’s love for us is proven in the fact that Christ died for us even when we were still caught up in sin, died for us even when we were still God’s enemies.  And, now that we are reconciled to God, God’s love is proven through Christ’s life, which teaches us how to live through our sufferings to hope.

Which brings us back to our story of Jesus and the man with enough money to have many possessions.  One of the real challenges, even sufferings, of the last eighteen months or so has been to come to grips with the fact that money, or the lack of it, so definitively determined people’s experiences of this time.  To have money, or not, determined the kind of experiences that people had and so the kind of endurance that people had to develop.  Money, or not, even determined the number of choices that people had so as to retain some semblance of control over their lives.  Money, or not, even determined the ability that people had to live rather than die.

Now these disparate experiences of money and the power it can grant have been around for a long time.  Some of these tensions between different experiences around money and power from long ago remain with us this weekend.  Traditionally this weekend has been a time to honor and celebrate Christopher Columbus as an explorer/adventurer, and by extension to honor and celebrate explorers/adventurers in general.  These were people who had the money and power to travel here, to new places unknown to them, money and power to insert themselves into these new places and their new experiences, and money and power to insert themselves into the lives of other people to whom they were strange and who were strange to them.  These explorer/adventurers certainly had much to endure:  ocean voyages in wooden sailing ships about the size of this chancel were long, messy, dirty, prone to disease, plagued by storms and heat, and often boring when they were not full of peril.  We remember their courage to face their unknown in the face of hardship and danger.  And, there was the adventure, the new and different, the opportunity for gain of all kinds, and welcome when they returned home from what was to them a voyage of discovery in large measure a choice of a voyage of discovery to them.  The endurance required of the explorers/adventurers was of the kind limited to the conditions and length of the expedition.

Increasingly many people now acknowledge that the people and places the explorer/adventurers encountered were not “discovered” at all.  They were already here:  the people were indigenous to the places, were deeply settled in the places and had been for a while, and had highly developed customs and cultures and systems and networks and spiritual awareness.  As a result of this contemporary acknowledgement of these realities, many people feel it is appropriate to honor and celebrate these indigenous peoples, whose endurance developed to be very different from that of the explorer/adventurers, due to the many negative results of their encounters with the explorers/adventurers,  and whose endurance has had to last so much longer through so many more generations, and counting, of settler colonialism.  The Boston University calendar marks tomorrow as Indigenous Peoples Day, a Boston University holiday on which to reflect, to remember indigenous peoples with ceremony and celebration.

Now for us all, on top of the experiences of the last eighteen months, while it has been going on for a while, the recent Pandora revelations have underscored the fact that, world-wide, access to money – and thus access to power – is becoming more and more limited for more and more people, while more and more money – and thus power – is being hoarded by fewer and fewer people.  In our story today, the man with many possessions is shocked and grieving when he realizes that he has to make a choice – his possessions are getting in the way, and he cannot have both them and the eternal life he also wants so much.  We too are shocked and grieving, and there is anger and resentment too, as we are astounded at the increasing number and sweep of the choices we will have to make, at the hard allocation decisions around our possessions of resources, money, and time we will have to make if we are to live physically on earth as well as eternally in heaven, at the increasingly limited time in which we have to make decisions before important options are by definition off the table.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed, easy to feel as if it is impossible to do anything.  A good end to all this is not yet clear.

We do not know what the man with many possessions decided.  Nor do we know if Paul ever had the chance to appeal to the Emperor.  And, their stories are still stories of hope.  Jesus loved the man with many possessions, and taught him what he needed to do to attain what he wanted so much. Then Jesus invited him to companions and provision and more things to learn and do with Jesus and companions, and a life of faith and yes, eternal life, after he had done that one last necessary thing.  And while the man went away shocked and grieving, he did not dismiss out of hand the idea of selling his possessions for the poor and following Jesus.  He may have started on the way to changing his mind about what was really important, and about what he thought he knew about the world.  He now might see new possibilities for himself and others, and act on them.

As for Paul, he had not only endured and survived, but had come to see the life of faith in Jesus as a process, which reveals the love of God for us in all our circumstances, from suffering through to the hope that does not disappoint.

We can take these stories to our hope too.  This last Friday on the PBS Newshour there was an interview with the great African-American dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones about his latest work, “Deep Blue Sea”.  At the end of the interview he noted that “Art … might not take away all of people’s pain, but it might do something else, which is just as good:  give people a context in which they can endure.”  Art does indeed do that,  and, even more for us as believers, it is faith that gives us the unifying context for all the others in which we can endure.  Faith in Jesus, who loves us and recognizes what is important in us and will encourage us.  Faith in Jesus whose life embodies the Gospel and who through his life teaches us what is necessary for a life that is both earthly and eternal.  Faith in the love of God for us even when we sin or are confused, the love that supports us in our suffering, endurance, character building, and hope – all the circumstances of our lives.  Faith that God’s love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, will also lead us to make good decisions, even about money and power, so that we can endure to meet our challenges even in our time, with grace and flourishing.  So may we hold fast to our faith, and so keep faith with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and all of creation.  For with God, all things are possible.

Amen.

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

Sunday
August 22

Come Out!

By Marsh Chapel

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John 11:1744

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Lazarus is dead.  Four days dead in his tomb.  His sisters Martha and Mary and many friends weep, and their greetings to Jesus when he finally arrives also hint of reproach.  From Mary:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  From Martha:  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”.  From their friends:   “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Even Jesus is greatly disturbed – in the Greek he “snorted in spirit”.  He is deeply moved, and himself begins to weep.  Those standing by assume that his tears are because of the great love he bears Lazarus.  But when he comes to the tomb, again deeply disturbed, he commands the stone to be taken away.  When Martha objects because Lazarus is really dead and by now his body has begun to rot and stink, Jesus reminds her that if she believes she will see the glory of God.  Then when the stone is rolled away, Jesus prays to God loudly enough so that the crowd can hear him. He thanks God that God always hears him, and thanks God now so that the crowd can hear and believe that God hears him.  In a loud voice, Jesus cries “Lazarus, come out!”.  And the dead man, no longer dead but Lazarus, shuffles out of the tomb, still bound in gravecloths, and Jesus tells his family and friends to unbind Lazarus, and let him go.

In John’s Gospel the resurrection of Lazarus is the seventh and climactic sign of Jesus’ life and teaching.  In all seven signs – water into wine, curing of the sick over distance by word alone, living water as newness of life and as revelation of Jesus as sent by God, the multiplication of loaves of bread, walking on the water, and healing the blind man – in all these signs Jesus makes claims about his identity and relation to God, and proves these claims by the seven signs.

But the resurrection of Lazarus is different.  The other signs are relatively straightforward one-time events.  People are healed, water changes into wine, people come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah sent from God, there are many loaves where before there were few, Jesus walks on the water.  But in our text this morning, there are three kinds of resurrection, all centered in Jesus.  One is the resurrection on the last day, which will happen to everyone, because in John, on the last day believers in Jesus who have died will be raised up by Jesus into eternal life, and Jesus’ teachings will judge those who have rejected them.  Another is Jesus himself, as Jesus declares himself to be the resurrection and the life, and states that “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  In Lazarus’ resurrection, however, resurrection is complicated.  Jesus clearly resurrects Lazarus from the dead – Lazarus was dead and now he is alive and walking amongst his family and friends.  Jesus is clearly the resurrection and the life here:  Lazarus responds to Jesus’ call to “Come out!” from death back into life, when he did not respond to the grief and bereavement of his loving family and friends.  But Lazarus is not resurrected as he would be on the last day, into eternal life.  While his death and resurrection prefigure Jesus’ own, and stand as a witness to the power of God in Christ to bring life out of death, there is no sense of this being a resurrection into immortality, no sense that Lazarus will not come to an end of this earthly life for a final time.  This is more like a healing, where the illness has been physical death, overridden for a time, but still in the wings.  It is a witness to the power of Jesus to bring new life into the most dire and seemingly intractable circumstances, but once Lazarus responds to Jesus’ call, his life remains physical, in a human body, subject to eventual and final earthly death like everyone else.

And, if this is a healing story rather more dramatic than the others, it is still a healing story, and we are once again reminded by Sharon V. Betcher, theologian and disability activist, that the point of the healing stories is not just the healing itself — the point is even more so the point of Jesus’ upending of the political and social realities of the time.

So in our time it is always interesting to note what the compilers of the lectionary leave out.  And this time, what they have left out is that while Lazarus is no longer dead, and is returned to his family and friends, his life now will never be the same, nor will the world around him.

In the gospel prior to our text this morning, we are told that there is great controversy over whether Jesus should be believed or not, signs and teaching notwithstanding.  His disciples question Jesus’ decision to go to Martha and Mary in Bethany in Judea, because the religious authorities there have already tried to stone him.  Thomas even rallies the others with the need to support Jesus with saying “Let us also go to die with him.”  The events after Lazarus’ resurrection are even more dire.  Through the centuries a number of commentators have suggested that Jesus was greatly disturbed, and deeply moved, and wept, because he knew that to call Lazarus out from death into life again might not entirely turn out to be the favor it seems.

Because as resurrected, Lazarus has become a celebrity, a living witness to the power that Jesus has through his relationship to God.  Many come to see him, to hear his testimony, and then they believe in Jesus for themselves.  So many believe that the religious authorities meet to decide what to do about it all.  If Jesus and his signs continue, everyone will believe in him, and they will lose their power and ability to control.  Not only that, but the Romans will come down on them and destroy their religion and holy places, and eventually their nation.  So they decide to put Jesus to death.  Of course the irony here is that the Romans did come down on them and did destroy the holy places and the nation, and Caiaphas’ prophecy that Jesus would die for the people did come true, but the “nation” would be the dispersed believers gathered together through Jesus’ death and unforeseen resurrection.

After the plot against him became known, Jesus goes into hiding in Ephraim for a while, while Lazarus remains in Bethany.  Then Passover arrives, and there is much speculation as people prepare for it in Jerusalem as to whether or not Jesus will actually come.  The religious authorities order that anyone who learns of Jesus’ whereabouts must tell them, so that they can arrest him.  Meanwhile, just before the Passover, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary host a party for Jesus, a dinner, in which Lazarus sits with him at the table, Martha serves, and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes his feet with her hair.  When Judas Iscariot complains that the money should have been spent on the poor, Jesus tells him that the poor will always be with them, but they will not always have him, and he refers to his own burial.

When the crowds find out that Jesus is at his friends’ house in Bethany, they come not only to see Jesus, but to see Lazarus as well, the living witness to God’s power through Jesus.  Because of Lazarus’ presence and testimony many come to believe in Jesus.  So the religious authorities plan to kill Lazarus as well.  Lazarus’ resurrection is the last and climactic sign of who Jesus is and what he can do, a healing and joy and new life for many.  And, it is the precipitating event toward Lazarus’ renewed life coming under threat, and toward Jesus’ own death at the collusion of religion and Empire, and toward the trauma of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary and the other disciples caused by Jesus’ death.  For while Lazarus’ own life has been renewed and expanded, many of the circumstances and realities of his world have not changed.  His resurrection is only to a renewed and earthly life, so that his resurrection to eternal life remains both present and coming.

We can relate.  We in a sense are like Lazarus.  We are emerging into the call of life once

again, we are alive, and here together live and in person in Marsh Chapel at last.  But only some

of us, because our circumstances and the realities of our world have not changed.

Just as there is more than one type of resurrection, so there is more than one kind of death.  In the purely physical sense of death, so many have died and continue to die in this pandemic.  Many of them have been our own family and friends, some beloved members of this community, and globally our most vulnerable continue to be at risk.  Along with our grief there is reproach, and anger too, at the denial that postponed necessary practices and procedures and allowed variants to develop, at the lack of preparedness, at the inequities in public and private healthcare, and at the selfishness of ideology over scientific fact.  The traumatizing physical deaths we have seen and learned about among marginalized people at the hands of law enforcement and the collusion of religion and Empire reveal as never before the results of injustice over centuries, and our history of conscious and unconscious complicity with evil.  The deaths of our companion animals, plants, birds, and insects in creation, the loss of their gifts, beauty, and wonder due to the wildfires and floods of human-made climate change, call forth our grief and a frightening sense of overwhelm.

There are metaphorical deaths as well.  The short and long-term effects of the Covid and its variants, known and unknown.  The loss of jobs, and the economic threats to food on the table and a roof over our heads.  The challenge of the changes in work that has been or continues to be done remotely.  The loss of privacy and space as we isolated together and made workplaces in our homes.  The loss of physical contact, of making music and dance together, of community rituals and celebrations. The inability to observe the milestones and traditions of human life and death, the lockdowns, the uncertainty of trust – all the deprivations of beloved human and planetary presence and energy, all over too long a time.

Our grief, our losses, our mourning have been great, and our healing calls us to remember them, learn from them, and honor them, so that they will not be forgotten or in vain.

Not that forgetting is likely.  Today is a day that so many of us have looked forward to, and experience as a coming out of isolation, a resurrection of sorts, to be together again, live and in person, to feel each other’s presence and energy, to worship together, to sing together, to recognize God’s face and voice as God and in each other, to feel God’s presence in each other’s presence.  And today is all of that.  And, today is also a day of challenge in dangerous weather, not seen here in thirty years and part of a climate cycle that has never been seen before, that has kept some of our company at home yet again and poses real threats to those of our community in other parts of Massachusetts and New England.  Even as we are called back into earthly life by the love and power of God to bring life out of death through the miracle of the fastest-developed vaccine in history, as with Lazarus our resurrection back into earthly life – while a renewal and expansion of our lives – will still be shaped by the fact that many of the circumstances and realities of our world also have not changed.

We do not know the end of Lazarus’ personal story, or what became of the threats to his life.  But we do know the end of Jesus’s story, and so we know the end of Lazarus’ story as a person of faith, and as we are people of faith we know the end of our stories too.  The author or authors of John write at the end of the Gospel that the things written in it are written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.  And since this is the Gospel of John, this means that the Word of God has taken on human flesh and shares our human life, and has moved into our neighborhood.  God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved and flourish through his life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection.  Jesus enacts signs of healing, nurture, celebration, and power that prove his identity and his relationship to God.  On the cross he invites his mother to see his beloved disciple as her son, and his beloved disciple to see Jesus’ mother as his mother.  They come to live together as a sign and promise that even in the midst of tribulation and loss, relationships of love, hope, and even joy are possible.  Jesus and his friends have a party in the face of, in spite of, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to torture and death.  And through Jesus, whose life of resurrection with us includes his wounds, God’s power of resurrection is brought into the reality of earthly life and becomes available to everyone, resurrection both present and coming.

The story of Lazarus invites us to consider that, in spite of the real physical and metaphorical deaths that we have experienced and grieve, and in spite of the fact that many of our circumstance and realities have not changed, we are alive.  The power of resurrection is loose in the world, and we are invited to join with God and with our companions in faith and with creation to recognize it.  We are invited, as was Lazarus, to witness to its presence and activity in our own lives as we live them.  We are invited to invite others to accept the gifts of hope that the power of resurrection offers.

Even over the last year, we have seen the signs.  The realization that the people we may have ignored in the past have actually been essential to our well-being as they cared for our health, provided food and other necessities, continued to teach our children, and worked quickly and effectively to keep and expand our safety through science and healing, often with great sacrifice and at great risk.  While our lack of mobility was often frustrating, the planet, free from the overload of toxins from extractive industry, began to rejuvenate its air and water and earth.  Many people have used the last months to make changes in their lives, to embark on new work or to learn new skills.  The creativity involved in keeping us connected virtually with people, with art, with music, with drama, and with humor has amazed, nourished, and inspired us.  Movements have arisen all over the country to claim and act for justice for those so long silenced and oppressed.  These are signs of what is possible through the power of resurrection at work in the world, even in the midst of trauma and loss.  And, we are alive.

Our earthly resurrection will be what we make it.  We can start, each of us and all of us together, to recognize and claim God’s resurrection power in our own lives.  Where and with whom or with what has resurrection been specific to us in our own lives over these last months?  Who or what, specifically, has inspired us, kept us going, brought us to laughter?  How do we most want to celebrate our earthly resurrection?  And because, like Lazarus, we have vested interests around us that intend us to stay afraid and overwhelmed and intend things to stay the same and intend to maintain their power and control, what specific changes do we need to make, what specific new skills do we need to learn, what specific new work does God invite us to do toward new life and flourishing for ourselves and for all our neighbors in creation?

Earthly resurrection is complicated.  As he did with Lazarus, Jesus calls us to Come out! of this time with a loud voice, because the call comes surrounded by the swirls of challenge and danger, and often a tomb seems to seduce with its quiet and safety.  But it is no place for us, people of faith.  For willy-nilly, we are alive.  And as in faith we accept our earthly resurrection in this place and time, so we will continue to experience it until we too rise in the resurrection on the last day.

Amen.

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

Sunday
June 27

The Audacity of the Desperate

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 5:2143

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Two women.  One is a recognized adult, able to consult with professionals and spend money on herself.  One, at the age of 12, is just entering adulthood.  As happens so often in the Bible, we do not know either of their names.  One is defined by her illness – she is the woman with twelve years of hemorrhages.  The other is defined by her relationship with her father – she is Jairus’s daughter, child of one of the leaders of the synagogue.  She is further defined by the description of “little daughter” by her father and “little girl” by Jesus, even though in her culture she is now considered old enough to be married.  Finally, she is defined by the fact that she is dying from an unspecified condition; and indeed, she becomes further defined as “dead” during the space of this story.

These definitions carry a lot of weight.  Because she suffers from a flow of blood, aside from the debilitation, the challenges of blood flowing outside the body, and the increasing depletion of her resources and her hope, the older woman is ritually and thus socially unclean. And not just she herself is unclean, but anything she wears, anything or anyone she touches is made by her to be unclean.  This state of religious and social isolation has lasted for her for as long as the younger woman has been alive.  As for the younger woman, we have no idea of who she herself is, or what causes her condition, or how long she has been dying.  We only know that she is at the point of death, that her father and even Jesus do not see her as having moved beyond being “little”, and that she really does die.

Now this is a healing story, and both of these women are healed.  Miraculously so.  And, you may remember our explorations of other healing stories through the work of Sharon V. Betcher, theologian and disability activist.  She notes that the point of the stories of Jesus’ healing is not just the healings themselves.  The point is even more so the point of Jesus’ upending of the political and social realities of the time.   This upending comes in his preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God having come near, and is revealed through Jesus’ own ministry, teaching, life, death, and resurrection.  Add to this that Mark is often referred to as the gospel of conflict.  Jesus encounters conflict with his own family, his disciples, the religious authorities, and demons.  Finally, there are themes particular to Mark that are very present in this story.  More than healing is going on here.

At the beginning of this story, both these women are in desperate straits.  The woman with the flow of blood is also bleeding money and is only getting worse on both counts.  The younger woman is dying and then is dead.  And this is where the audacity of the desperate comes into play.  When there seems to be no hope, desperate people will go outside their circumstances, outside propriety, even outside themselves.  They will go after what they recognize as new possibility and new life, they will go after what they really want.  The word “audacity” comes from the Latin word for “bold”.  The dictionary definitions are many, and almost seem to take sides: “Intrepid boldness”.  “Willingness to take bold risks”.  “Disregard for conventional thought, behavior or propriety”.  “Rude, disrespectful, impudent” behavior.”  It is not clear that the cultivation of audacity is a good thing.  But, when one is desperate, one may not care.

Certainly the woman with the flow of blood does not.  She, a woman, ritually and socially unclean, has heard of Jesus.  On the basis of this hearsay she pushes through a large and pressing crowd to waylay him on his way to somewhere else. She sneaks up behind him, and even though it’s only his cloak, she touches this man, a total stranger, just because.  Even after all the experts had worked on her to no avail and she was only getting worse, she touches Jesus’ cloak just because she knows that this will make her well.  And instead of lightning bolts, or people pointing fingers and yelling “rude” “disrespectful” “impudent”, instead of all this, immediately the flow of blood stops, and she feels in her body that she is healed of her disease.

“Immediately” is a big word in Mark.  It does not just indicate that something occurs quickly.   Immediately also marks a revelatory event that breaks into human experience with the new life of the Kingdom of God.  So this story does not stop with the woman’s healing.  Instead, Jesus immediately realizes that something revelatory has in fact happened.  He is aware that power has gone from him to another, and he starts looking around for whom this person might be.  Now the woman knows what has happened to her, knows that Jesus is looking for her.  So with honesty as well as fear and trembling, she confesses the truth of her audacity.  And Jesus calls her “Daughter” – he reinstates and recognizes her within her faith and her community as a Daughter of Abraham.  He commends her audacious faith, and blesses her with peace toward the enjoyment of her restored health.  She goes on her way, whole again with life and hope.  The odd thing is that the crowd, for all its pressing, does not seem to realize that anything has happened. And the disciples even question that anything has happened at all.

This all occurs as an interruption, while Jesus is on his way to someone else.  And even while he’s speaking to the healed woman, people come from Jairus’ house to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead, and that he, Jairus, should not bother “the teacher” any longer.  Jesus tells Jairus to not be afraid, and goes to his house anyway.  He dismisses everyone else except Peter, James, John, the child’s mother, and Jairus, who is now named “the child’s father” instead of “the leader of the synagogue”.  Jesus goes into the young woman’s room, takes her by the hand, and tells her, “Little girl, get up!”  And immediately the young woman gets up, begins to walk about, and soon will be eating something, restored to her family and her health.

Now we may wonder where the audacity is on the part of this young woman.  We do not know anything about her, or about what her affliction is, before she gets up, and we know nothing of her after she gets up from death except that she can walk and soon will regain more strength and health as she nourishes herself.  There is only one thing that she actually does in response to Jesus’ call.  Immediately, she gets up.  This is the revelatory event, that she gets up, that she answers Jesus’ call and comes back from death to life.

One of my mentors used to say that if the meaning of an event eludes us as a biblical event, we may understand it better if we relate it to events in our present day.  Now to do this with this event brings up some realities that may be uncomfortable about some of the manifestations of suffering and desperation.  So this is a trigger warning, so that if you want to you can walk around, get some water, or just skip this part.  Because we will never know about Jairus’ daughter, whether she died from a disease or an injury or what, and so it’s useless to speculate.  We will never know her reasons for getting up in response to Jesus’ call to return to life.  But Jesus says, for his own reasons that we also do not know, that she is asleep.  And if we do look to young people of our time who are moving into adulthood through the lens of that metaphor of sleep, we know that increasing numbers of them are experiencing clinical levels of enervating depression and anxiety.  There are real issues with alcoholism and other forms of numbing out as attempts to avoid dealing with the overwhelm of the world’s challenges.  Perhaps most significant is that the choices of death over life for this age group are at an all-time high.  The audacity of Jairus’ daughter, who has died, is that she returns to life, she gets back up.  And she gets back up in spite of the people who tell her father that she’s dead and he shouldn’t bother Jesus anymore, in spite of the people in her home who are not just grieving with her parents but are making a commotion of themselves, in spite of the people who laugh at Jesus as if he’s only a teacher who has gotten his facts ridiculously wrong, in spite of the people who seem just fine with her being dead and almost seem to want her to stay that way, the way they tell Jairus not to bother Jesus anymore and the way they ridicule what Jesus tells them is going on. Instead, the young woman listens and responds to Jesus’ invitation to come back to life.  She comes back for her own reasons, not her parents’ reasons, and not for the reasons of the people around her.  For her own reasons, that we will never know, she immediately gets up from death and walks around into new possibilities and new hope.

Two women.  Two revelatory events.  But even before the events, the two women already know who Jesus is and what his work reveals.  They respond to Jesus as even his disciples do not, as even the religious people around Jairus do not.  They are bold, they take risks, because they recognize that Jesus himself is the Good News of the Kingdom of God and he is that for them.  The secret that Jesus insists on is already out of the bag, and increasingly so as Mark’s gospel moves on.  The stories of these two women are not just healing stories, they are resurrection stories.  They prefigure Jesus’ own story, in which suffering serves as the catalyst for the audacity of the revelation of God’s presence and power at work in the world toward resurrection and hope. The conflicts in Mark are because his family, his disciples, and the religious authorities do not recognize Jesus for who he is or understand his work for what it does.  In Mark’s gospel, only the demons and the desperate recognize Jesus for who he is and what his work reveals:  the demons because they actively oppose his work and are terrified of what it will mean for them; the desperate because their suffering has become so great that it acts as a catalyst for  them to go outside of their circumstances, outside of propriety, even outside of themselves, a catalyst to take the intrepid, bold risk that what they recognize in Jesus is the way to a different circumstance of life and new possibilities.  The stories of these two women invite us this morning to learn from our own suffering – and Jesus knows we have had enough of it over the last year.  Because when we learn from our suffering and allow it to act as a catalyst for us to take intrepid, bold risks in faith, we can heal from our wounds and dis-eases, we can get up and meet our challenges, we can go for the life that we really want.  And we can receive God’s acceptance of our desperation, and we can receive God’s desire and power to help.

Now, in addition to the two women, there is another person is these stories.  This person is named – his name is Jairus.  He is an important man in his community, a leader both religiously and socially.  He is also a father, and it is in his love for his daughter that he discovers the audacity of the desperate.  His daughter – his “little daughter”, even though she is moving into adulthood – she is dying.  As far as we know, Jairus himself is healthy and content with his life for the most part.  Here his suffering lies in the fact that with all his importance, with all his leadership, he cannot stop his daughter’s death.  So for his daughter’s sake, he goes outside of his circumstances, outside of propriety, outside of himself.  He  takes the audacious, utterly improper risk for a man in his position.   He begs in public for his daughter’s life at the feet of an itinerant preacher who is already in trouble with the religious authorities.  His daughter is unable to come to Jesus herself, well, he will bring Jesus to her.  Because Jairus also recognizes Jesus for who he is and understands his work for what it does as the revelation of the power of God at work in the world toward the Kingdom of God.

And in Mark’s gospel, Jairus is not alone in his audacity of the desperate on behalf of someone else.  The others are part of the crowds who bring their sick and their children, and those possessed by demons both real and metaphorical, and a deaf person and a blind person, they bring them out to Jesus, from their homes and cities.  They chop a hole in someone’s roof to let their paralyzed friend down to Jesus inside when the crowd at the door would not let them through.  As a woman of another faith and nationality they argue with Jesus when he refuses to heal their daughter, and help him to change his mind and heal her anyway.  They love another person enough, are desperate about another person enough, that they will take the audacious risks to use their resources on behalf of these for whom they are desperate, to bring them to Jesus, and to ask, even to beg, for Jesus’ help on their behalf.  They too recognize Jesus for who he is and what his work does, and they help their loved ones to make their own decisions and take their own audacious risks at Jesus’ invitation.  In love and faith they find the audacity of the desperate to become allies, points of connection, and resources for those who at the moment do not have them or do not have enough of them.  Jairus’ story and the stories of these others invite us to consider:  what or who suffers enough, what or who we might love enough or come to learn to love enough, what or who for the sake of justice we might will ourselves to love enough in their suffering, that we might find the audacity of the desperate on their behalf.   That we might take the risks of becoming allies, points of connection, and resources for those who at the moment do not have them or enough of them, so that the power of God at work in the world for them might further be revealed, and they might expand their own decisions and their own audacious risk-taking at Jesus’ invitation.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this scripture comes to us in June.  June is a very full month.  It is Pride month for LGBTQIA+ folks.  Juneteenth is this year a national holiday.  And June contains Father’s Day, a complex commemoration of a complex and still-evolving identity.  But before the Month and the Holiday and the Commemoration, there were people, many of whom were people of faith, who found the audacity of the desperate.  They learned from their suffering, so that it became a catalyst for them to go outside their circumstances to take risks with intrepid boldness toward a new way of life in wholeness and freedom.  Those who saw their suffering, and became desperate on their behalf in love and justice, became allies, points of connections, and resources to support them and help expand the possibilities in their risk-taking and decision-making.  While there is still a long way to go, many people, like the two women in their time, have been healed into new life and hope through these movements toward wholeness and freedom, and their stories continue to this day to inspire audacious risks and to support hope that change is possible.

The audacity of the desperate is both a challenge and a gift.  A challenge, because we have to be desperate to find it, and then be desperate enough to allow our suffering to work as a catalyst for us to take audacious, risky action toward changing our situation with God’s help.  And the audacity of the desperate is a gift, because when we find it, for ourselves or on behalf of others, the audacious risks we take in faith will reveal God’s power at work in the world for us and for all those we love, toward our healing and the new life of possibility and connection that we most desire.  Thanks be to God for the audacity of the desperate.

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

Sunday
February 21

In and Out of the Wilderness

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:1-10

I Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

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“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  Now there’s a thought for the first Sunday in Lent!  “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  In the Greek, the verb for “drove him out” is the same verb that Mark uses near the end of the Gospel to describe Jesus driving out those who were selling and buying in the Jerusalem temple.  This is not the only juxtaposition of unexpected contrasts and disquieting imagery in Mark’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

The first line of Mark describes his Gospel as “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  The text goes on to describe John the Baptizer’s ministry, a ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sins and of predictions of one who will come after him who is more powerful and worthy, one who will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus makes his first appearance in the Gospel as himself just emerging from John’s water baptism. But unlike the description of this scene in Matthew and Luke, where the heavens merely open, in Mark the heavens are torn apart.   The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven validates him as Son, as Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.  Then, immediately after this awe-inspiring scene, the Spirit is not a gentle dove, a Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness as in Matthew and Luke.  It becomes the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness.  And this is not the wilderness of the hiker’s guides.  It is not a place of beauty and peace, where one can re-connect and rejuvenate with nature.  In Jesus’ time the wilderness was a place of desolation, isolation, and danger. It was full of wild animals and predators who were human.  Jesus spends 40 days in such a place, with only the wild animals and Satan for company.  Although, there were angels too who waited on him.  Finally, the next thing we know is that Jesus is somehow out of the wilderness and beginning his public ministry in Galilee.  He proclaims the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  And yet, this proclamation of good news comes with the background of the arrest of John the Baptizer, that would lead to John’s beheading by Rome’s puppet king Herod.  Mark has been called “The Gospel of Conflict”, conflicts between Jesus and political and religious authorities, and with his hometown, his family, and his disciples.  The mixed energies that surround Jesus throughout his ministry begin with him as he is driven out into the wilderness, driven out into confrontation with that which opposes God, driven out to decide who he will be as a beloved child in a place of hardship and peril for both body and soul.

We can relate.  We too have been driven out of our normal lives into a wilderness for the last year, a place of danger and isolation, even desolation.  We too have faced deadly peril to both body and soul, caught up in a pandemic which for a terrifying while we did not understand and could not control, and which even now challenges our best science and public health structures at every turn.  The indications of climate change in the wildfires burning and the storms battering throughout the country have been mirrored in the fires of anger and frustration about our lack of leadership and preparation and in the battering of seemingly endless revelations of violent injustice against marginalized populations and against our national life.  Our rising rates of clinical depression and anxiety reflect the loss of loved ones, from the greater loss of actual death, to the lesser but still deeply painful loss of physical presence and touch which we can observe but not feel.  These rates of distress also reflect the loss of beloved and nourishing activities, rituals, and routines:  eating together, baptisms, funerals, singing in harmony, hugs.  Predators – who wild animals put to shame – have been our company, as has that which opposes God.  We have all in our own ways faced many temptations toward despair, cynicism, numbing out, and giving up.  And yet angels have waited on us also, certainly for us to see them and recognize them for who they are, and who have kept us fed and connected, have worked to find protection and vaccines, have cared for us in birth, sickness, and death, and have created beauty, humor, and new ways to be together and to encourage one another.  Now we have come through almost a full year, after last year’s Lent in which we began our sojourn in our wilderness.  Now we have come to Lent 2021, not sure that we are out of the wilderness yet, or what time has been fulfilled, or how we are to repent/turn around/change, or what the good news of God is for us now.

Traditionally, Lent has been a time of preparation for new followers of Jesus to receive baptism. Baptism is a sign of right relationship with God and of membership in God’s kingdom through the Church.  For all followers of Jesus, it is a season in the church year of particular reflection.  After the joy of the Incarnation through the birth of Jesus at Christmas, after the revelations of who God is and who God is not in the revelations of Epiphany, Lent focuses on the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus in preparation for the holy week of his passion and death, and his resurrection at Easter.  In Lent, we join with our companions in Christ to reflect on Jesus as our example for the life of faith, in all its aspects of ministry, challenges, and suffering.  In this 2021 season of Lent, we have a particular opportunity, as individuals and as a community, to reflect on our experiences as people of faith over the last year; we have an opportunity to reflect on our experience through the lens of Jesus’ life and ministry as they led to the Church’s first and most radical proclamation and preaching:  that resurrection is possible with God through Jesus Christ, resurrection even after extremities of conflict, betrayal, suffering, death, and burial.

After the complexities and complicities of the last year, we ought not to expect our reflection to be quick or to yield quick solutions in the aftermath of such upheaval.  Lent in its forty days does give us a good amount of time to get started, and in this year it may be particularly fitting that we begin, as Mark does, with Jesus as he begins his public ministry.

There are four points to consider in the swirl of energies and images that surround Jesus in our scripture this morning.

The first is the depiction of the Holy Spirit.  The heavens are torn apart to make way for it.  It lands on Jesus in acknowledgement, in the form of a dove, a symbol of freedom,  And it is the Spirit who drives him out into the wilderness to encounter its physical and spiritual perils.  In other words, to get Jesus started on his ministry, the Spirit encourages him in his identity and his worthiness for his ministry.  And, the Spirit also gives Jesus unmistakable impetus to face the temptations inherent in his identity as beloved child and in his mission, unmistakable impetus to decide who he will be and how he will act.  The Holy Spirit is actively engaged with Jesus from the beginning, as both empowering witness to who he is, and intentional and even fierce coach who challenges him to decide who he will be and what he will do in the face of adversity and temptation.

A second point is that in Mark’s account, there is no description of the temptations presented to Jesus by Satan.  Matthew and Luke are very specific, and oddly large and general, as to Satan’s blandishments:  personal power to be used for personal convenience or relief at the expense of the dignity of the rest of creation; the trading on one’s power and identity for self-promotion; the choosing allegiance to that which opposes God in exchange for earthly power and wealth.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ temptations, physical and spiritual, inner and outer, remain private:  they are unique to him.

The third point is that, whatever the temptations and perils were, Jesus comes out of the wilderness with the call and confidence to begin a public ministry of proclamation, and with a clear articulation of that proclamation.  God’s good news is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent/turn around/change and believe in the good news.”  His confidence and call are such that he persists in his proclamation even in the face of John’s arrest, the arrest of the person who baptized him into a gospel of change and forgiveness.

The fourth and final point is that in all this “in and out of the wilderness”, Jesus is never truly isolated, never really alone.  Whether it is the Spirit with its encouragements and challenges, through the angels who wait on him in the wilderness, or his vision of the good news of the Kindom as near, God is always present with him.  God’s presence and power continue to work in and through Jesus, through the wilderness and through all his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

As we begin this season of Lent 2021, these points can help us begin our reflections on our experiences of last year, and as we consider where God may be leading us in terms of what comes next.  As we reflect and consider, it is important to be honest with ourselves, and, also to be gentle with ourselves.  Lent is not a time for self-flagellation or suffering for suffering’s sake or the manufacture of guilt over the trivial.  Lent is a time of grace, for our reflections and considerations with God and each other to become information, that both God and we can use to consider and then act:  toward our further growth in the life of faith, toward an increase in our love for God, self, and neighbor, toward change to support the kingdom of God and God’s work of love and justice in the world.

So how has and how does the Holy Spirit confirm and challenge us in who we are, what we do, and who we are becoming?  Who or what else has encouraged us, confirmed our identity as beloved and worthy, even as we were driven out into entirely new circumstances and the need for new priorities?  Who or what has sustained us in the many losses and outrages of this time?  What have been our particular challenges to who we are and what we will do in the face of the many adversities and frustrations of the last year?  Who or what have we encouraged, confirmed and sustained?  Who are we now, what have we done in the face of adversity and frustration, and what might we be and do in the future?

What have been our personal temptations during the last year?  Inner and outer, unique to us?  Not just the big ones, whatever those have been. The little everyday ones too, that are so easy to yield to, especially when we are tired, discouraged, grieving, or frightened, that so often are the ones that can wear away our bodies and spirits down to the nub without our realizing it.  In what circumstances do we feel most tempted to go against what we know to be true or right for us?  How might we or our behavior have enabled yielding to inner or outer temptation for others?  When have we helped to make temptation easier to withstand for ourselves and others?

As we gain information and learn from our reflections as individuals and in community, do we notice patterns of thought or behavior?  Is there anything in what we have learned that calls us. with God’s encouragement, to do, to say, to change, or to begin?  How might we encourage ourselves and each other to answer these callings?

On this first, beginning Sunday of Lent, as we consider the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry and Mark’s depiction of it, let us also rest in God’s presence and power with us as they were with Jesus, that we may begin to move with what we have learned out of our personal and collective wildernesses, begin to realize how we are to repent/change, begin to see and hear what the good news of God is for us now, and begin to recognize the time that has been fulfilled, toward a turnaround of good news, new hope, and resurrection.

Amen.

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

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