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

Sunday
October 13

Spring Tonic

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Kings 5:1-15c

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday
August 4

Faith in Community, Part II

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 28:16-20

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Faith in Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Saturday
July 27

Faith in Community

By Marsh Chapel

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 John 13:12–17, 33–35

Faith in Community

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-Rev. Dr. Victoria Hart Gaskell

Sunday
January 6

The Hospitality of Strangers

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to fear the full service

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12.

Click here to listen to the sermon only

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation

Sunday
August 5

A Building Block for a Common Hope

By Marsh Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday
July 15

The Foundation for a Common Hope

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

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

Sunday
January 21

Not So Long Ago and Not So Far Away

By Marsh Chapel

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Jonah 1:1-5, 10

I Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

Click here to listen to the meditations only

         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

Sunday
August 6

Free Food

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Isaiah 55:1-11

Psalm 145: 8-9

Matthew 14:13-21

Click here to listen to the meditations only

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

Sunday
June 18

Stirring the Pot

By Marsh Chapel

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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

Sunday
November 20

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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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