Posts Tagged ‘Victoria Gaskell’

A Building Block for a Common Hope

Sunday, August 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foundation for a Common Hope

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

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Acts 5:1-11

Luke 4:1-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not So Long Ago and Not So Far Away

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

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Jonah 1:1-5, 10

I Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

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         Last weekend I went to the movies.  I saw the eighth and latest episode of the “Star Wars” saga, entitled “The Last Jedi”.  I am a fan of the story, so I was predisposed to like it, and I did.  There were some familiar faces, and some new ones.  Of course there will be a sequel.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t give away any spoilers when I say that the plot continues.  The scrappy ragtag remnants of the republic are up against the relentless and seemingly overwhelming forces of what is now known as the First Order and its Supreme Leader. After incredible challenges and great losses, at least some members of the republic escape to continue the story.  While the plot does thicken, it essentially remains the same.

This time, though, I was struck by two things.  They may not be new to the story, but at least they stood out for me in a new way.  One was that the remnants of the republic were mostly referred to as “the resistance”, by themselves and even by the First Order.  Now those who resist are those who refuse to accept or comply with something, or who attempt to prevent something by action or argument.  Resistance can be violent, but it does not have to be.  In “The Last Jedi”, this time, even in the midst of all the whiz-bang, characters were told that blowing things up was not always the best way to accomplish the goal.  Indeed, retreat could be the best and most viable option in order to resist another day.  The second thing I noticed was that while of course the First Order was out to “crush the resistance”, this time the reason they gave to do that was so that any hope, any hope, for continued resistance against the First Order would be crushed as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope in the last year or so.  For many of us, if our hope is not crushed, it is a little tattered around the edges.  Many of us have faced or are facing personal challenges in terms of health or finances, loss of a loved one or personal calamity.  Added to that is the fact that the world is a much more uncertain place than it was a year ago.  There are many decisions being made in government that seem to make no sense to many of us, no matter what our personal politics:  decisions that will poison the air, earth, and water for generations to come; the escalation of the rhetoric of racism, misogyny, and division; the increased pandering to the very wealthy and to corporate interests;  the dismantling of social safety nets and government agencies that promote the public wellbeing; and the flirtation with increasing militarization in national and international policy and with a cavalier attitude toward nuclear war.  It is hard to know even where to begin to resist these decisions, when it seems that every week there is some statement, action, or scandal that derails any forward movement.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus begins his ministry in a challenging time.  There is resistance to the Roman occupation of the country and to the puppet king.  Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist has been arrested for his preaching of repentance, and his preaching of the coming of the one who is powerful and will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus calls his first disciples to his ministry with the good news that the time is now, the realm of God has come near. They can believe in the hope of a new life and turn to God.  In this case he calls fishermen in the midst of their daily life to follow him, to use their fishing skills to bring others the good news of the realm of God.  And immediately they believe the hope of the good news and follow him.

Now we, as followers of Jesus in our time, are in a little different situation.  Jesus preached the realm of God as near, so near that people could believe in its reality in their own lives, and invite others to join them to live that reality.  The early church, especially after the resurrection, believed as Paul did in his letter to the church at Corinth.   The realm of God was so near that people should live as though the dominant social, economic, and cultural forms no longer operated in this new life. With us, we are more than two thousand years down the road.  While we realize that the realm of God is both present and coming in our lives, we live in the midst of a changing, wonderful, and sometimes scary culture. It often promotes a reality that is in direct opposition to the ministry of Jesus and to the reality of life with God in Christ.  So how do we as contemporary followers of Jesus keep our hope, keep our belief alive in this challenging time?  And just as important, how do we share our hope and our belief with others who may still feel like the least, the last, and the lost, and could use a little hope?

The Psalmist suggests we remember that the basis for our hope is our trust in God.  God alone is our rock, our salvation, and our stronghold, so that we will not be shaken from our hope.  We can pour out our hearts to God about our concerns and fears, and God will be our refuge.  Other forms of seeming power are delusion, vain hopes.  They will let us down.  God alone has the power we need and God alone is worthy of our love and devotion.

With this as a starting point, with God’s presence and realm not just coming but present in our lives, we might expect that God might do some things we do not see coming, especially where there is opposition to the reality of our life with God.  Our reading from Jonah describes one of these unexpected actions.

This is the second time that Jonah is sent to Ninevah.  The first time he refused to go, and ended up in the belly of a whale.  Apparently this experience at sea changed his thinking, because this second time he does go to Ninevah and he does preach the message that God gives him:  Ninevah will be overthrown in forty days.  Now the interesting thing is that the word translated here as “overthrown” can also be translated to indicate a turnover or a change of heart.  Sure enough, Ninevah, notorious for its wickedness, repents.  They really repent, with fasting and sackcloth, and they turn from their evil ways.  And in the face of their sincerity, God changes God’s mind, and does not bring calamity to them.

Jonah went to Ninevah, finally, because he was a prophet and that is what prophets do when they accept the call.  It was Jonah’s everyday life that God worked with to change a whole city for the better.  Sometimes it is just doing what we do normally that can foster hope.

I saw another movie last weekend, “The Post”.  This is the story of the discovery and publication of the Pentagon Papers.  This publication was instrumental in ending the Viet Nam police action.  I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that this publication was brought about by a small group of people.  And they did not wake up and intend to start a process of change on a national level.  They were living their everyday lives and doing their everyday jobs.  Then something showed up that they just could not ignore in terms of the damage that was being done to individuals and the nation by the  government process around Viet Nam revealed by the Papers.  So at great risk to themselves and their everyday lives they decided to make known what they had discovered, even though that knowledge was forbidden to the general public.  When that knowledge was made public, the things that had seemed so hopeless for so long around what was going on in Viet Nam began to change.  The police action ended, and there was some measure of hope that now the truth was out, things would be different.

For us, we may not be in everyday positions to bring an evil city to repentance, or to reveal a nation-changing truth.  But there may be for us some things we may think need changing, or may even need resistance.  How do we find our hope, sustain our hope, in the midst of our personal and communal challenges?  How do we respond to Jesus’ ongoing call to believe the good news of the reality of God’s realm, and to share that good news with others?  We already know that it will not be easy, after this last year.  It was not easy for Jesus and the first disciples, either.  Mark is called the “Gospel of Conflict” for a reason, and Jesus and the disciples did not just have conflicts with the religious and political authorities – they had conflicts with each other.  Jonah was a reluctant prophet at best, and after he had served to help bring about God’s work of conversion and mercy, he was angry.  He thought Ninevah deserved to be overthrown in that sense of true overthrow.  He berated God for being too merciful to this foreign city that deserved to be punished.  Those who brought to light and those who published the Pentagon Papers risked the loss of long friendships and the threat of jail.  And while the Viet Nam police action was ended, the revelations and the process of ending the action almost tore the country apart. and still have repercussions today.  The facing of our personal challenges is often fraught with difficulty and pain, as well as resolution and reconciliation.

But we cannot let conflict, or the possibility of conflict, stop us from finding and sustaining hope.  In conflict also we can trust that God is at work to do a new thing, as God did at Ninevah, and with Jesus and the disciples and the early church, and as God is still doing, every day, in this world now.  We cannot stop because without hope, we die.  The First Order and the Supreme Leader are right.  Crush the resistance, crush hope, and then we do nothing.  We do not look for hope.  We do not take the steps we need to take to sustain our hope.  Without hope, we do not resist those things that oppress us in our minds, bodies, and relationships, and so our hope is crushed once again, in a vicious cycle.  The good news is that we can get better at finding our hope. We can get better in what we hope for. We can get better in what we put our trust to sustain our hope.  One of the new characters in “The Last Jedi” puts it this way:  It’s not about destroying what we hate; it’s about saving what we love.”

So what do we love enough to save?  And when we decide that, who else loves the same thing and wants to save it, and where do we find these folks?  And when we’ve found them, what can we do together to save what we love?  Because not being alone, because shared purpose and action, give us hope, and help us sustain our hope.

And the great thing is, we often don’t have to look very far, or in unusual places, to find our companions in hope.  They, like us, live their everyday lives and try to use their skills to save the things they love.  They may be right here at Marsh Chapel.  Look around, at a worship service or a book discussion or a dinner or a service event.  Or they could be in our neighborhoods.  They grow or buy organic vegetables to preserve earth, air, and water that is not poisoned.  They may serve those who could use a little hope and help through their work that is the same as ours, or they volunteer in places in which we too can volunteer.  They may advocate or organize publicly, to expand the voices and presence of those too often ignored or unjustly maligned.  They may produce a movie, documentary, website, or blog, that inspires us to hope and action.  They go where the life is, and we can go there too, or even lead the way.

What do we love and want to save?  What gives us hope, that hope we want to sustain?  It’s not just about what we do.  It’s also about who we are and who we want to become.  There are people we can join for that too.

Mark Miller is a worship leader, a composer and performer of sacred music, and a musical theologian.  He is on the faculty of two universities, is married, and is a father.  And in the wider culture, it is also clear that at least some of his ancestors were not from Norway.  As an aside, for any Norwegians with us, don’t worry, we know it’s not your fault.

Anyway, Mark Miller in his everyday life and in his music recognizes the challenges to hope that we face both personally and communally.  And he presents the perspective that who we are is just as important to the finding and sustaining of hope as what we do – in fact, they are so intertwined as to be inseparable.  His latest composition has become something of a touchstone for many of us:  we sing it to ourselves, we sing it to and with each other, we sing it with and for those who can relate and who also want to find and sustain their hope.  It reminds us that in our faith and trust in God, we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do as our own best selves.  We can save what we love. We can find our hope and sustain it.  The song  is called, “Prayer Chant (We Resist)”, and it goes like this.  (sings):

“We resist.  We refuse to let hatred in.  We rise up.  We won’t back down.

We’re in this ‘til the end.

Pray for your enemies.  Welcome the stranger.  Show love to your neighbor.

We’re in this ‘til the end.”[1]

         Where do we find our hope?  Not so long ago and not so far away.  But right here.  Right now.  “ … ‘til the end.”  Amen.

– The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell


[1] © Mark A. Miller 2017. http://www.markamillermusic.com/product/prayer-chant-we-resist/    Accessed January 29, 2018

Free Food

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

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Isaiah 55:1-11

Psalm 145: 8-9

Matthew 14:13-21

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The disciples think it’s time to be done. It’s late. They are out in the middle of nowhere. It’s getting dark, and they are away from the safety of the city. There are 5000 men with them. And let’s not forget those women. And let’s certainly not forget those children. Arsenic hour is coming if it’s not already there. Jesus has been curing their sick for a while. But none of them show any signs of moving. Time for Jesus to stop being with them. Time for them to go get some food. Time to send them away. It’s just the crowd, after all.

Instead, the disciples hear, “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” The disciples state the obvious: five loaves and two fish are not going to do it. Then Jesus invites his disciples to bring the food, their food, all the food they have, to him. And then Jesus feeds them all: the crowd, the men, the women, the children. Who knows who they are, who knows whether or not they are serious in their coming to Jesus, there are probably even some Gentiles. And let’s not forget those disciples. The food that was not enough is somehow more than enough for them too. Everyone is fed, full, and there are twelve baskets of food that remain for the encore meals.

This feeding of the 5,000 men, with women and children, comes at a challenging time for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus’ family member John the Baptist has just been beheaded in the puppet king Herod’s prison. This day was meant to be a time for Jesus to go off in a boat to be alone. But the crowds follow him from all around, and wait for him on the shore. They want to hear his message of a loving life with God and neighbor. They want to see the signs Jesus brings of God’s presence among them. Their life is hard under Roman occupation, and Jesus brings them hope. Or at least a change, something new and different, a good show. So Jesus has compassion for them, and cures their sick, and gives them something to eat.

People being fed by God and by God’s prophets in a time of trouble is a theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Our lesson this morning is from II Isaiah. He presents God as a market woman. She hawks her free food and drink to anyone who will listen and will come, even Gentiles. She challenges her listeners to recognize true value. If they listen to her, she says, not only will their bodies be nourished, but their souls will live as well. She invites everyone to join in the return to God’s love and the fulfillment of God’s promises.

II Isaiah writes in a challenging time. The Israelites are in exile in Babylon. Like the disciples, they are tired and discouraged. They assume that they cannot nourish themselves or anyone else in a strange land. II Isaiah writes to give them hope, to remind them of God’s provision. He invites them to seek God and to look for the evidence of God’s presence with them. God promises them that they will return home. They will become a light to the nations once again.

We too are in a challenging time. Sometimes it seems as though our life of faith is one demand after another, especially when we find ourselves in trouble, or we are tired, lonely, and hungry. Certainly many of us feel that we are strangers in a very strange land, and we do not know when our land will return to “normal”, or whether normal will even be possible again, or what the new “normal” might be. And while we might want to be compassionate as Jesus was, this is the age of the internet. Now we see those crowds for whom Jesus has compassion not just in the places where we live, but all over the planet. Not all of the crowds – bees, frogs, forests, sea creatures – not all of the crowds are human. Even if we bring our resources to God, it is hard to believe they will be enough, or that they will be in time.

And yet, through the very unlikely decision of Cyrus the Persian, who conquered Babylon some time after II Isaiah and whose motives may not have been compassion, the Israelites are sent home. They become a people once again. They proclaim the provision of their God, so that Jesus grows up to see the evidence of the presence of God with him and with everyone, even in their strange land. And later, the disciples see for themselves the evidence of God’s presence amongst them. They knew themselves changed from often recalcitrant followers of Jesus in the middle of nowhere in the Roman Empire, to Christians.   They shared their experience of God’s compassion and provision, and they changed the world.

And here we are, in our own time and our own strange land. We are surrounded by our own crowds. We deal with our own hunger, loneliness, fatigue, illness, even anger. And yet, every Sunday we hear the stories of God’s compassion, the testimonies to God’s provision. And at least the first Sunday of every month, God feeds us and restores us to God’s own self, to our own selves, and to each other. Thanks to David Ames, our sacristan, and Jim Olsen, a former staff member, and some folks amongst us who wanted things to be beautiful for our Lord’s supper, we have a fine table set before us. Thanks to Brother Larry and his team, the bread is delicious, the gluten-free wafers are tasty, and the wine and grape juice are sweet. We are well nourished in our bodies. And, God offers us different kinds of nourishment as well. While the elements of grape and grain nourish our bodies, our prayers and proclamations of our Communion nourish our souls also. There is a lot going on here. Take a look at the bulletin with me now, and if you are in our radio or online congregation, the bulletin is online and you can look at it now or later.

We are now on page five of the bulletin. We have already intentionally invited God into our midst, and we have asked God to help us be prepared by the Holy Spirit so that we may be focused and increased in our love and relationship with God. We have already been invited to the table. We have confessed our sin and been forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. We have passed the peace with one another. We have asked the Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the scriptures read and the word proclaimed, so that we can receive them as good news. We have sung and heard the music of devotion and given glory to God in song. The vibrations and sounds have soothed our bodies and minds.

Now we will offer our resources to God. We will give thanks to God, and hear the acts of God in history. We will remember Jesus’ love for all his friends and followers as he created this meal for them and for us. We will offer ourselves to God’s purposes in union with Jesus’ offering for us. We will proclaim the mystery of faith. We will ask that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, here and now, so that in the mystery of this sacrament – this outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – in this mystery we, we, may somehow become the heart and head and voice and hands and feet of Jesus Christ in the world, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit who is our energy and freedom. And we ask that Spirit to make us one, to unite us with Christ, unite us with each other, to unite us in ministry to the whole world, so that we show the power of God at work in us through our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – through all these signs of compassion – and this until the end of time. Then we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, and we are fed. Grape and grain, served in nursery schools all over the country. As the Iona Community describes them, the simple things of the world through which God will bless us. Then, if we discover that an area of our life wants attention, we can pray about it and be anointed with oil as another sign of God’s presence with us.

Then we will give thanks again. We will ask to go into the world with the strength of the Holy Spirit, whose images are fire, water, wind, and the freedom of flight, so that we can offer our compassion and companionship to others as Jesus did. Then we will go out in peace, because we know that God loves us, forgives us, nourishes, and empowers us to love, forgive, nourish, and empower others.

All this is free. The food, the love, the forgiveness, the power. It’s for free, and it’s for everyone who accepts the invitation. It doesn’t matter who we are, what we’ve done, or whether we are completely sure about all this. John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of United Methodism, referred to communion as a “converting ordinance”. He welcomed everyone to the Communion table, because so many of the early Methodists testified that they had come to belief through their experience of the presence of God in the communion, and in being fed.

“They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” This morning we all are invited to the free food of God. Let us come to this meal with expectation, with trust, to enjoy God’s presence and each other’s presence, to be fed and nourished, and in the old saying “take this sacrament to our comfort”. And then, when we keep ourselves full with the love and provisions of God, even in the difficult times, we can indeed give others something to eat.

Amen.

The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

Stirring the Pot

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

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Exodus 19:2-8a

Romans 5:1-8

Psalm 116:1-4, 8-10, 12-19

Matthew 9:35-10:1, 10:5-8, 14-22

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Pretty nifty, huh?  The disciples get to cast out unclean spirits.  They get to cure every disease and every sickness.  They get to go out on their own to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near.  They can raise the dead! Cleanse the lepers! Cast out demons!  They are going to be so cool!

And then Jesus spoils it.   Apparently, even with all this amazing power, some folks are not going to welcome the disciples, or pay attention to them.  What’s this sheep among wolves stuff?  Wise as serpents – why do they need to be careful and prudent?  And then there’s the being handed over, and the flogging, and the dragging before the authorities, to say nothing of the public speaking.  Really?  Family betrayals and hatred?  This is some pep talk.  What in the world is Jesus doing?

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a Christian community very like that of the disciples.  They were just starting to engage in mission, and while Matthew is a Gospel, it has  features that remind us of a handbook or manual for teaching.  Scholars also note that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, and that the community did not see their Christian faith as a new religion.  They saw it as a new constituency of Israel.  This brought particular challenges to their mission,

The Gospel was written after the year 70, in a highly politicized time.  In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple, which was the center of worship for Israel  So there was then the external challenge of Roman oppression with its calling to account of the Jesus movement within Judaism.  There were also the internal concerns within Judaism for Jewish identity and who were to be the true heirs of the covenant.  The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community constantly aware of and  in discussion with their Jewish roots and identity.  And sometimes the community was over against them.  The warnings of floggings within the synagogue were for apparent violations of the Torah and for consorting with Gentiles.  The warnings of family betrayals came out of the griefs and challenges of a family fight within the Judaism of the time.  Jesus as portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel is the Jesus who sees the urgency of the need for mission and empowers his disciples to go out in compassion. He also wants his disciples to know what they will be up against and how to take care of themselves.

Our own situation is not so dissimilar from that of the disciples and the Matthean community.  We too are called to share in Jesus’ ministry of compassion, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near.  And we too live in a politicized and polarized time.  No matter what our political preferences are, the uncertain situation in Washington is the 800-pound elephant in many a room.  With this come increasing concerns for the right to protest  and communicate our concerns to government.  The return of the church sanctuary movement, the concern for eco-justice and creation care, the incivility of our debates, and the violence of our racism and sexism – these all speak to our questions of identity and of who has right to belong.  Who has the right to power   Who has the right to resources.  Our family fights as to national and religious identity and inclusion are still a source of grief as well as frustration.  How do we put ourselves out there in compassion?  And given the challenges, why would we?
Well, there are certain themes in our scriptures this morning that invite us to take these risks.  One is gratitude.  Because we are thankful for what we have received, we do not hoard it, but we share what we have received with others.  In Matthew, Jesus reminds his disciples that they have received the good news of God’s love and community for free.  So they can give their witness to God’s love and power freely to others.  Paul writes to the church in Rome, and reminds them that through Christ they have the grace and peace of right relationship with God. So they can boast of their hope in sharing God’s glory.  God’s love came to them even when they were estranged from God in sin, to the extent that Christ died for them even before they believed in him.  So they can extend God’s invitation to others who do not yet believe.  The Psalmist testifies to God’s help and provision in trouble.  In return he will become God’s servant and pay vows to God in the midst of the people.  And the Israelites, delivered from Egypt and cared for in the desert, agree to covenant with God in love and obedience.  They will become a priestly and holy nation to bring other nations to God.

Our compassion comes from our gratitude.  It does not come from a place of patronage or superiority.  It does not put on a show.  Our compassion comes from our own having been loved and cared for in our own challenges and pain.  It comes from our gratitude for our release from sin and death and  for our freedom in God to choose the good.  So gratitude is something that encourages our compassion.

Another theme is that we are not alone.  The Spirit companions us.  It empowers us to act in compassion.   It gives us the words we need to witness in the face of challenge.   It pours God’s love into our hearts so that we can even boast in our sufferings.  They produce endurance. Endurance produces in us that character that trusts and expects great things from God.   Trust and expectation produce the hope that does not disappoint because we know that God loves us and will help us in our lives and in our work, because God has done this  for us before.  Even if we say with the Psalmist, “I am greatly afflicted.”, we can keep our faith.

And we are not alone because we have each other.  The disciples went out together, the Matthean and Roman churches endured together, the Psalmist sang first to his congregation.  So we bring our own selves, our talents and resources, our knowledge and our diversity of experience.  We do not have to do everything ourselves.  We can do our part and know that others are doing theirs for the good of the whole.

It is our past deliverance and present guidance that gives us confidence in being able to carry out our ministry of compassion.   And that mission is no small thing.  In all these scriptures, we are invited to join in Jesus’ ministry of compassion on a large scale.  In capital cities like Jerusalem and Rome, and maybe Washington.   In the cities and villages of a whole country, maybe in Boston.  In the midst of all the people, as a priestly nation that serves to bring the world to God.  It will take a big vision to accomplish a ministry of power and compassion.  There are a great many persons and groups who have no compassion.  They have vested interests in keeping people sick, dead, isolated, and enmeshed in evil.  Of course, we as individuals and as a community cannot do everything.  But the old phrase “think globally, act locally” does come to mind.  In a globalized world, our sin has far-reaching consequences as it separates us from God, ourselves and our neighbors.  But our acts of compassion have far-reaching consequences as well, that bring us together in trust and hope, to act in compassion toward love and justice.

Cure the sick.  Raise the dead.  Cleanse the lepers.  Cast out demons.  In our ministry of compassion, some of us will take these instructions literally.  And, even if we don’t: there are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, sick in spirit or body or mind or relationships.  As we may have, they need healing even more than cure, if cure is only for the symptoms.  There are plenty of folks who are where we may have been, dead in despair or numb or hopeless.  As we may have, they could use a witness in word or deed to the hope of grace, love, and power.  As we may have been, there are plenty of folks that are considered “unclean” by some standards of birth and religion, who in compassion, justice, and common humanity are to be included in the same love and acceptance that we have received, as beloved of God.  And there are plenty of demons, forces of systemic and even personal evil, that are to be named and confronted in the name of Jesus and the creativity of the Spirit.

Jesus wants us to be aware of the challenges.   The work of compassion stirs the pot.  It brings to the surface what is down below.  It mixes up what has been separated.  It distributes the heat.  Just because we are doing something right and good does not mean that everybody will like our work, or even like us.  But as we act out of gratitude, and know that we are not alone, we increase our own faith, hope, and confidence in God, as well as increase faith, hope, and confidence in God in others.

The other night I had dinner with a friend.  She is a practicing Christian, and often speaks of how God’s love and provision are at work in her life.  She said that she had joined a local group to voice some concerns and include some folks in discussion.   The group felt that these folks and concerns were either invisible or were being ignored in the community.  She also said that after feeling quite overwhelmed and depressed about these issues, joining the group had given her new energy and hope.  The group brought a lot of different experience and talents together, and there was a high degree of commitment to the naming of the issues, to the inclusion of those previously excluded, and to practical solutions for the challenges.  She was no longer alone in her concerns and her compassion, and was grateful to have been introduced to the group.

For what do we ourselves have concerns?  For whom do we ourselves have compassion?  The harvest is still plentiful, the laborers are still few.  The lord of the harvest invites us to join him in the work.  With gratitude, and companionship with God and each other, we can be confident in our calling and our work.  Amen.

– The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell

The Bach Experience

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

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Luke 23:33-43

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Rev. Gaskell

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you

The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you

The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you

The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.

Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.

We celebrate the endowment we already have.  It is a rich and treasure.  It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material.  Listen for its echoes…listen…

All the good you can…

The two so long disjoined…

Heart of the city, service of the city…

Learning, virtue, piety…

Good friends all…

Hope of the world…

Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…

Common ground…

Content of character…

Congregation and community, you come too.

Earthly assembly and heavenly chorus, you come too.

Beauty opens the world to grace.  Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel.  Beauty is a ‘praeparatio evangelica’, a preparation of the gospel.  Bach is a prelude to faith.

Faith, the leap of faith, requires preparation.  Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

Beauty prepares us for faith.  Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that.  When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a time of need, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that.  It takes a leap.  Faith takes a leap.

Something beautiful may have prepared our gospel writer.  Bach may prepare you today.  Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge.  Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding.  Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth.  It would not be the first time.  Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86).  I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you?

Dr. Jarrett

Today we present Cantata 10: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, Bach’s German setting of the Canticle of Mary as found in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us both of the joyful prevalence of this text in most all Christian liturgies, but also the familiarity of the Leipzig congregation with this most joyful and famous canticle.

Let’s first consider the libretto for our cantata. Typically, we’d expect to find a biblical exhortation – perhaps a verse or two from a Psalm – followed by a series of recitatives and arias, each of which advances a different rhetorical argument or perspective of the scriptural subject of the day. The recits tend to pack in the most theology with their syllabic declamation, leaving the arias to convey a more personal response to the scriptural subject. Cantata 10 draws its libretto entirely from the Canticle of Mary, the first two verses quoted exactly, with the interior movements paraphrasing the remainder of the text. Only once does our anonymous librettist depart from the Lukan text when, in the final recitative, the tenor expounds on the broader theological implications of the word made flesh with themes that remind us of the first chapter of John. Bach adds the string orchestra at this moment, as if to underscore the importance of this final teaching opportunity.

There are three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata. The first proceeds directly out of the opening movement without recitative, and immediately and successfully captures both the spirit of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb but also Mary’s joyful exuberance. The central aria provides the bass soloist and continuo cellist a flashy and virtuosic depiction of God casting down the mighty from their seat, exalting the humble, leaving the rich empty, and filling the hungry with gifts of grace. The third aria is perhaps the most inward looking moment in the entire cantata. Scored as a duet for alto and tenor, listen for the Magnificat chant played in long tones by the trumpet.

There are two recitatives for the tenor soloist, both of which offer rich examples of Bach’s extraordinary text setting. Note the chromatic flourish on the word ‘scatter’ in the first recitative, for example.

It is the cantata’s opening movement that best captures the urgency and ardor of Mary’s Song. The ages old Magnificat psalm tone is heard in long notes in the Soprano part, taken up by the altos for the second verse. All around, Bach scores music of brilliant vivacity, depicting both the exuberance of Mary’s joy, but also the promise and urgency of Christ’s advent.

Rev. Gaskell

Let us prepare ourselves, upon this Christ the King Sunday, and take on for ourselves, a spirit of wonder, of vulnerability

Erazim Kohak, of Boston University said of wonder:  ‘The ageless boulders of the long abandoned dam, the maple and the great birch by twilight, the chipmunk in the busyness of his days and of his dying, even I, making my dwelling place among them, are not only right in our season.  We also have our value in eternity, as witnesses to the audacious miracle of being rather than nothing.  Ultimately, that is the moral sense of nature, infinitely to be cherished:  that there is something.  That is the eternal wonder articulated in the rightness and rhythm of time which humans honor in their commandments, the wonder of being…There are humans…who become blind to goodness, to truth and beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them.  But that is not the point.  What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment not simply as a transition between a before and an after but as the miracle of eternity ingressing intot time.  That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of blessed memory, said of vulnerability:  ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute:  we must simply hold out and see it through.  That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation; for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us.  It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap:  He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.’

Gaston Bachelard, that Parisian philosopher poet, wrote, in full self-awareness:  ‘Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret.  Common sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in ‘foreign commerce’, on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.  To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.  To mount and descend in the words themselves—this is the poet’s life…Yet listen well.  Not to my words, but to the tumult that rages in your body when you listen to yourself…And why should the actions of the imagination not be as real as those of the perception?’

Bach is filling us with grace and beauty! In particular, the final recit (No. 6) strays a bit from Luke, to amplify a little more theology, and seems to borrow heavily from John: “Thus it ever is, that God’s Word is full of grace and truth.”   Because the Gospel of John is centrally about the divine presence, this note fits our music today very well.  John is about presence, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about Spirit, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about mystery, as is this magnificent cantata.  John is about grace, as is this magnificent cantata.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

-The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist students & Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music

Reverend Gaskell’s portion of this week’s sermon is written by the Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Good Advice from the Most Unlikely

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 17:11-19

Click here to listen to the meditations only

The word “leprosy” in the Bible refers to more than one type of skin disease, not just Hansen’s disease, which is what is commonly thought of as leprosy when the work is mentined.  All the biblical diseases of that name are similar in that they are fearful diseases:  they are thought to be highly contagious, they cause physical disfigurement to greater or lesser degree, and they cause afflicted persons to be banned from society until they can prove themselves healed.  The two leprosy stories in our scriptures this morning seem fairly straightforward and turn out well:  Naaman and the ten lepers are healed.  However, as theologian and disability activist Sharon V. Betcher has pointed out for us before, the healing stories in the Bible are not only or not even about healing.  They are also social commentary and teaching stories as well.

As we are invited to explore the story of Naaman further, for instance, we note that he is a powerful and rich man.  He has access to captured Israelite children and is able to give a young girl to his wife as her servant.  He has other servants himself.  When he wants to give a gift, he is able to give away ten sets of garments, 756 pounds of silver, and 151 pounds of gold.  His success in life has come from the favor of his king:  as commander of the Aramean army he has won a great victory over the army of Israel in the series of border wars and raids that Aram and Israel conduct against one another.  The King of Aram is pleased, of course, but see how the writer of II Kings phrases the victory:  it is by Naaman that THE LORD had given victory to Aram.  This is the first sign that this is not just a healing story;  it is also a story about the reach of God’s power through all lands and all kinds of people, even an Aramean general.

And through a captive servant girl.  She is the one who tells Naaman’s wife about the prophet Elisha, who at this time is in Samaria, the northern part of Israel, and who can cure Naaman of his leprosy.  And Naaman’s wife tells Naaman.  It is a measure of Naaman’s desire to be rid of the disease that he listens.  Female captive foreign children and wives of the time, especially those who suggest to their master and husband that he go to the prophet of another people’s God who after all did not give that people the victory,  did not usually sway the decisions of rich, powerful, commanders of men,  But Naaman not only listens, he goes to his king.  The king of Aram, who after all wants Naaman at his best, not only gives him permission to go to the foreign prophet, but smooths his way with a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.

So Naaman takes his gold and silver and garments and horses and chariots and servants and letter and makes the trip to Elisha’s house.  He expects to deal with a professional prophet like those in Aram, who control their prophecy, able to say and do as they wish, and who have a responsibility to please their betters.  Instead, Naaman gets Elisha, who does not even come out to greet him or put on a show, but sends a messenger to tell him to wash seven times in the Jordan.  Naaman is so insulted that he misinterprets what the messenger says, and thinks that Elisha only offers him a ritual cleansing.  But his servants, who were not in a rage and who were able to listen to the messenger properly, convince Naaman to do what Elisha instructed.  Again, it is a measure of Naaman’s desire to be rid of his leprosy that he listens, and changes his rage and his mind in front of his servants and military personnel.  He washes, “according to the word of the man of God”, and is healed.  So he is no longer disfigured and no longer isolated.  But this is not just a healing story.  It is a story of conversion as well.  Because of his need, Naaman throughout has converted his power, wealth, and position to a position of acceptance of help and advice, help and advice that comesfrom the most unlikely people:  a female captive child, his wife, his servants, a disrespectful foreign prophet, all of whom had to manage him up to get him into the water.  And at the last, he makes a final conversion, to belief in the God of Israel as the God of all the earth.  For the writer of II Kings, Namaan is not just healed, he is truly whole.  And it doesn’t end there.  Later in II Kings there is the story of how the Aramean king, who now knows about Elisha, realizes that Elisha is working to advise the king of Israel.  Because of what Elisha does in a certain situation that there is no loss of life for the Arameans, the King of Aram stop the border wars and raids against Israel.  There are many kinds of healing.  And of conversion.

As we are invited to explore our second story, we notice that all ten of the lepers address Jesus as “Master”. They do in fact obey him when he tell them to go to the priest, and they are healed in the going, before they even reach the priest.  But nine of them, who we assume from the story were Jews, did not turn back.  Only one of them did, and he was a Samaritan, not only a foreigner but someone considered by Jews to worship wrong.  Yet he praises God loudly, falls on his face before Jesus, and thanks Jesus for his healing of body and his restoration to society.  The other nine may have b3een cured of their leprosy.  But the Samaritan is not only healed, he as a foreigner who worships wrong exemplifies true faith, faith in Jesus and in the power of the God of Jesus.  A better translation would have Jesus say to him that his faith does not just make him well, his faith saves him.  In his obedience, but even more in his conversion to praise and gratitude for God’s free gift, he is an example of the true disciple, of one who is truly whole.

Our theme for the Fall here at Marsh is conversation.  Conversation involves both speaking and listening from all parties involved.  Who is invited to take part in the conversation is also an important point.  In conversations about conflict transformation, for instance, one of the best practices is to notice who has not been invited.  This is because, if some of the people involved in the conflict are not in the conversation, their insights will not be available.  Or, and perhaps even more importantly, the uninvited will be angry about their exclusion and so the conflict will continue even if the invited people come to an agreement.  This is especially true in conversations about the dis-eases of our time, fearful that can disfigure our minds and souls if not our bodies.  We all know the categories:   race, sex, class, economic status, gender preference, climate change, body type, war, normality, religion.  Dis-eases that can have us isolate ourselves in barricaded ideological and social compounds,  lest we be contaminated by the change and inclusion.  Some of us now, in our country and in some of our faith traditions including my own, some of us actually find it is easy and acceptable to make others figurative lepers, to consider them the cause of our dis-eases.  to castigate them as not normal, wall them out, persecute their faith as wrong, take away or try to take away their agency and freedom,  love them only to a certain point in the name of God, deny our shared humanity with them.  No conversation at all with these outcasts.  No talking.  No listening.

Naaman and the people Jesus was talking to were instead invited by God to expand their conversation, to listen as well as talk.  They were invited to listen enough to take good advice and good example from those who were the most unlikely people to have it to offer.  But when they did listen, and acted on what they had heard, they were not just healed of their dis-ease.  They were converted, to a new relationship with God, with themselves, and with their neighbors.

The stories of Naaman and the thankful Samaritan invite us to expand our conversations too.  Not just with the rich and powerful or with each other.  But with those who we might consider most unlikely:  marginalized people, foreigners – whoever that is for us, people whose allegiances or worship we might think are wrong, those we might consider “the help”, people who don’t take us as seriously as we think they should.  Conversation sounds simple, but it might not be easy.  It probably depends on the measure of our desire to be rid of our dis-ease.

On the other hand, in conversation with those who are different from us we might just find some good advice or a good example.  We might find some healing, some wholeness, some praise and some gratitude, some truer discipleship.  We might find ourselves converted, to a new way of being with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors.  Before our dis-eases  disfigure our minds souls bodies and completely cut us off.  Before our dis-eases kill us and the rest of creation.  Conversation, even with the most unlikely people, is possible.  Thanks be to God, who gives us this chance to be whole.  May we choose to accept it and act on it, to talk and to listen with one another with praise and thanksgiving.  Amen.

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